Even if you don’t like surprises you’ll like this one

Snow in the Spring is a surprise.  But here was a bigger and better surprise from this week.

I came across this statement from Jesus:

I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.  Luke 16:9 NIV

The statement caught me by surprise.  The cynic in me first thought of the way people spend money to “buy” social media followers/friends.  Then the slightly less cynical side of me thought of the way some have used money to buy votes, or buy influence.  Then the even slightly less cynical side of me thought of those who use their wealth to impress others in order to gain approval, status, or self-worth.

I was surprised because I know that none of these ideas fit with the person and character of Jesus.  So what WAS he talking about?

I believe he’s talking about the same kind of thing we talked about last Sunday: Using our resources to make a difference in someone else’s life, and in their eternity.

Here’s an example.  If I say I care about you, but never demonstrate that beyond words, what would you think?  Maybe you’d believe me, but probably not.  On the other hand, if I say I care about you and pay your repair bill then next time your car is in the shop, what would you think?  See the difference?  If I say I love my neighbor but don’t bother to find out his name or even how I can pray for him, what would he think?

What’s more, this statement by Jesus comes at the end of a parable he told about someone who was about to lose their job.  So in order to gain friends, this guy became wildly generous with his Master’s money!  Jesus was saying the same thing he’d said in various other ways: We’re just managers of God’s resources, and how we handle those resources has the potential to impact what other people think of the Master.

So if you have an opportunity to be generous with God’s resources, you’re not only imitating our generous God, you’re demonstrating his character to those around you.  You’re making it easier for them to hear the message that their Heavenly Father really does know, and care, and provide.  And if I understand Jesus’ teaching correctly, you’ll be very pleasantly surprised one day when those opportunities are all gone.

-Pastor Mark

One simple step to becoming a F.I.T. person

We’re inundated with fitness paraphernalia.  Smart phones, tracking devices, wearables, apps, fad diets, and more.  But what about becoming a F.I.T. person? How does that work?

It’s simple step.  Maybe not easy, but simple.  F.I.T. stands for Follower In Training.  And it’s taken from the words of Jesus himself in Luke 6:40:

The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.

Jesus invites everyone to follow him.  And then the training begins.  It’s training to be “like our teacher.”  The simple way to do that is to study his life.  The more you and I know about Jesus habits, his teaching, and his mission, the more we’re able to resemble him.  If you think following Jesus (a.k.a. being a Christian) is about anything else, I would ask you to re-read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).

So we’re all invited to be a Follower In Training.  That’s a F.I.T. person.  But it’s a choice we make every day.  Will we look toward Jesus to better understand his habits, his teachings, and his mission?  It’s simple, but it’s hard.  Because that step will reveal the gap between the teacher and the student.  And closing that gap is what F.I.T.-ness is all about.

If you want a place to start, I recommend any of the four gospels.  Actually, I recommend ALL of them.  If you don’t read anything else this year, read those.  And as you read, listen to what God is saying about the gap.  If you’re like me, you’ll quickly discover you’re not yet “fully trained.”  It might be attitudes.  It might be behaviors.  It might be relationships.  It might be conversations.  It might be appetites.  It might be dreams and goals.  It might be any of a thousand areas of life where we’re not “like our teacher.”  Once you’ve listened, then take the next step to close the gap.  When you do that you’re on your way to becoming a F.I.T. person.

And that’s better than any wearable device, fad diet, or BMI number.

-Pastor Mark

If you have an example of how you’re striving to be a F.I.T. person, feel free to share it in the comment section below.  Or not.

When you KNOW you can’t do it by yourself

I listened as the gentleman from Africa described his dream of building something that didn’t exist anywhere on the continent. Though we’d only met once before, I was captivated by his vision.

As he continued, I thought, “This is way bigger than what any one person can accomplish.” He was quick to acknowledge that. And together we talked about how God often gives us a vision for something that can only be accomplished with God’s help. As it turned out, God was already working, and this vision of bringing a vaccine production facility to the African continent may finally become a reality. Through Seneca Creek, God had provided one of the missing pieces for this to happen. Only time will tell, but what’s clear is that God had to show up MANY times for this vision to become reality.

That meeting reminded me of how often God gives us a vision of what he longs for us to accomplish…but the vision seems far to big to handle. That’s part of God’s remarkable plan. Because only when we come to the end of our own abilities do we turn to God. And only then do we begin to realize just how wise and powerful and good God truly is.

Have you ever had that kind of vision? Have you ever thought, “What this world really needs is ______, but I have NO idea how that could ever happen.” If so, let me encourage you to lean into that vision. Recognize that, yes, it IS too much for one person to accomplish. But it’s NEVER too much for God to accomplish!  This is Paul’s message in Ephesians 3:20-21

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

At Seneca Creek we have a vision to become a church where all people, regardless of race, culture, language, or gender can come together as the unified Body of Christ and serve and worship as one church. At times it seems like an impossible task. But with the help of God, we continue to lean into this vision.

  • We continue to encourage men and women to follow God’s calling into every area, including leadership.
  • We continue to encourage people of diverse backgrounds and races and languages to sit down and learn and listen and love one another.
  • We continue to break down the barriers of color, class and culture that separate brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • And we continue to believe and proclaim that the good news about Jesus Christ is the H.O.P.E. of the world, and the light that will penetrate and drive out the darkness that is all around us.

It seems impossible. But then, so does coming back from the grave. But God is the God of the impossible. What vision has he planted in your life?

-Pastor Mark

P.S. Don’t forget to set your clocks ahead one hour this Saturday night. We’ll lose an hour of sleep, but we’ll gain an hour of wonderful daylight in the evenings.

My history with Black History month

February is Black History month. There was a time in my life when I truly didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why a special month was necessary.

But through the patient conversations of many friends (too many to name, but you know who you are), through the compelling writings of gifted authors, and through the convicting words of powerful preachers, I’m at a very different place than I used to be.

This month I’ve been delighted (and somewhat embarrassed) to learn about key African-Americans in our nation’s history who were innovators, inventors, leaders and more. Mostly they are names I’ve never heard before. My life is enriched because of them. And now I am beginning to get to know them. And Facebook DOES have some redeeming value after all. (E.g. did you know that today, Feb. 23rd, is the birthday of W.E.B. DuBois, b. 1868, author and historian, and the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard.)

This month I’ve also been reminded of the history of the African American church, including it’s painful origins and prophetic voice. (I even learned recently about a “Black Reformation” in the 18th century, led by former slave Rebecca Protten and others.)

And this month I’ve been encouraged by the 25 or 30 people of Seneca Creek who gather every Sunday night around tables to learn and grow together in our Multiethnic Conversations groups. Many of the conversations are centered on the issues related to the black-white history of this nation. The candor, the humility, and the courage shown by these people is inspiring.

One of the questions that came up recently at a table group was, “How do we help other churches grow in this area?” It’s one of the most important questions of the group so far. While I don’t have all the answers, I know two things are essential for us, and for every other church that is on this journey:

  • Relationships. It starts with people like those of us at Seneca Creek who are willing to have honest, courageous conversations, and are willing to suspend our beliefs and opinions long enough to listen to those who don’t look like us.
  • Prayer. This is truly the work of God to bring about reconciliation. And this topic is the devil’s playground in our country. We need the power of prayer to overcome our fear, our prejudice, and our pride. We need the power of God to tear down the strongholds of injustice. We need the power of prayer to soften our own hearts and unstop our own ears.

February is just a month. But it’s so much more. It’s a month to remind us of the challenge of becoming the kind of church that Jesus had in mind. And it’s a month to remind us that our country and our world desperately need the church to light the way in this increasingly fractured and divided world. Maybe by focusing on black history for a month we’ll learn how to rewrite our own history for generations to come. Which would make this a very important month indeed. That’s my prayer.

-Pastor Mark

When Valentine’s Day and Lent collide

I’m writing this blog on February 14th the traditional observance of Valentine’s Day.  It’s also Ash Wednesday, the traditional beginning of Lent.  Here’s why this collision of holidays is a good thing.

On Valentine’s Day we’re inundated with candy, roses, and hearts.  Hearts, hearts, and more hearts.  You remember those “conversation hearts” candies, right?  Little cute sayings like, “Be Mine, Sweetheart, Love You,” and so on.  Heart-shaped cards, heart-shaped food, heart-shaped dishes, and heart-shaped everything.

But Lent is also about the heart.  Not that pretend one with cupid’s arrow in it, but the heart that is the center of you.  Some might say that Lent is just about remembering Jesus’ suffering.  But dig deeper.  WHY did he suffer?  Why did he go to the cross?  It was so you could have a new heart.  He even said that our hearts are the fountain of evil that consumes us.  (Matthew 15:19)  Only with a new heart can we love well.  That includes loving God, loving others, and even loving our selves appropriately.

So as we embark on the journey of Lent I would encourage you to think about your heart.  Where is it bent out of shape?  Where does it need to be renewed?  Then consider abstaining from something, or adopting a habit or practice for the next six weeks until Easter.  If you’d like some suggestions, I’ve written about this here, here, and here.

Feel free to share your Lent decisions in the comment section below.  Or not.  But know that the condition of your heart matters deeply to your heavenly father.  On Valentine’s Day, and every day.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. One of my Lent practices this year is to select one person each day and have focused prayer for them throughout that day. That includes listening to what God has to say about that person.  I’m open to suggestions.

P.P.S. If you’d like to engage in a Lent-focused Bible reading plan, this one is really good.

What the Super Bowl (ad) taught us about the Bible 

You probably saw it, too. Some clever person searched the Bible and discovered that “eagles” show up in the Bible 30 times, and “patriot” doesn’t appear at all, therefore, God was an Eagles fan, and thus he would ensure they won. SMH… But that’s not the real problem.

Setting aside that silly logic, there was something far more disconcerting that occurred during the big game that sheds some important light on God’s written word. I’m referring to one particular ad that used a quote from Jesus. Which sounds great. Sort of. It was from Matthew 23, where Jesus says that the greatest among you will be your servant. (Matthew 23:11-12)

The quote from Jesus was actually part of a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, titled, “The Drum Major Instinct.” In that speech he was calling to task those who want you to believe that greatness consists of buying their product and using their brands. He was questioning the legitimacy of companies that use marketing tactics to entice people to borrow money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need in order to impress people so they can feel a sense of greatness. (You can check out the full speech here.)

The problem is that this speech by Dr. King was used in the Super Bowl commercial to convince viewers to buy a certain brand of truck. The problem is not with using marketing to promote your product. The problem is not that trucks are a bad thing. (Hey, I drive one myself.) The problem is that the producers of this ad intentionally borrowed PART of Dr. King’s speech while avoiding the part that actually condemned the very thing they were attempting to do! In other words, they used his words (and Jesus’ words for that matter) to say something that he never intended to say!

This is referred to as “taking words out of context.” The context of Dr. King’s words was an indictment against some of the more crass forms of marketing. This is why the internet blew up at this attempt to play off of Dr. King’s legacy by using his voice to sell trucks.

The same thing happens with the Bible. We’re tempted to take the words of the writers of the Bible out of context in order to make them say what we want them to say. Preachers are sometimes the biggest perpetrators of this offense. Then their congregations learn to do the same.

Here’s an example. In the 6th century BC the nation of Israel had been defeated in battle, their nation was under military occupation, and many of the survivors had been forcibly relocated to another country. The prophet Jeremiah wrote to those exiles to provide instruction from God. His message went something like this:

  • You’re gonna be there for a long time, so get used to it.
  • Settle in for the long haul by establishing this as your new reality. If you do, everyone wins.
  • Don’t listen to the people who tell you that I’m gonna fix it right away. They’re lying.
  • When I’m good and ready (like in 70 years) I’ll take action.
  • Woe to those who don’t listen to my words.

This is the CONTEXT of a verse that gets thrown around like a good-luck charm. The verse goes like this:

I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Sounds good, right? Except the context is they were facing 70 YEARS of captivity and slavery! God had plans alright, but not what they wanted. He wanted to give them a future filled with hope but most of them wouldn’t live long enough to see it. And to those who were opposing God’s current plan he said this:

I will send the sword, famine and plague against them and I will make them like figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten. I will pursue them with the sword, famine and plague and will make them abhorrent to all the kingdoms of the earth, a curse and an object of horror, of scorn and reproach, among all the nations where I drive them. For they have not listened to my words,” declares the Lord, “words that I sent to them again and again by my servants the prophets. And you exiles have not listened either. (Jeremiah 29:17-19)

Does this mean God doesn’t have a good plan for your life? No, that’s not what it means. But the context of Jeremiah 29:11 doesn’t permit us to use it as an encouragement that God will only permit good things into our lives. Because those words were spoken to people who were living in decades of bad things that God permitted in their lives.

“But Pastor Mark, how are we supposed to know how to understand a given verse from the Bible?” Great question. The short answer: understand the context. Take a few minutes to read the verses and paragraphs surrounding the verse. It will help you understand and live out God’s instructions for a flourishing life.

And you may discover along that way that you’ve been lied to. By marketers, preachers, and more.

Now I’ve got to go clean my truck. 🙂

-Pastor Mark

58 days and an ugly stereotype

Last week I spent a day with a group of rabbi’s, imams, and evangelical pastors. And one rabbi who’d spent time visiting a church very similar to Seneca Creek, made the following pronouncement to the other rabbis and imams:

“What you think you know about evangelicals is wrong.”

He went on to share about the diversity, the gracious inclusion, the artistry and creativity, the energy and the excellence. In short, he shared how pleasantly surprised he was, and how his previous beliefs were fundamentally upended by actually visiting this evangelical church in our area.

I share this story because the experience of that rabbi is similar to the experience of many of your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Their opinions and attitudes toward evangelical Christians have been shaped by many voices, but rarely by actually getting to know and see what a church like Seneca Creek is actually like. All too often they carry in their minds an ugly stereotype of people like you and like me. And that situation needs to change.

One simple way to start the change is by inviting someone to visit with you and experience what you have experienced many times on a Sunday morning. And one of the easiest times to invite someone is for Easter Sunday. I know that seems like a long way off, but in reality it’s only 58 days away (on April 1st). That’s right, Easter Sunday is in 58 days.

So why not take a minute today and begin to pray for an opportunity to extend an invitation to one person this Easter. Take one minute each day starting today, and see how long it takes before that opportunity shows up in your lap. Then extend the invitation, and watch how perceptions can change in the life of your friend.

We’ll provide some print and digital resources in the coming weeks, but for now, it can start with a simple prayer:

Lord make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy (St. Francis of Assisi)

-Pastor Mark

The little politician in all of us

The recent government shut-down has everyone talking and fretting.  Even the “solution” that Congress reached is profoundly unsatisfying.  A three week solution?  Are you kidding me?  But wait, isn’t that what we all tend to do?

I read recently about some long-term (as in 50 year) development goals that the Chinese government implemented decades ago.  I thought, “Wow, here in America we’re lucky to have four year goals, and even then they get turned upside down when the next administration takes over!”  What could we do if we could implement a long-range national plan for developing infrastructure, healthcare, education, technology, manufacturing, and more?  It’s staggering to consider the power of focus over a long period of time.  Instead, our politicians are more likely to look for a quick fix, something that will boost the poll numbers or help with re-election, or satisfy part of their constituency for the time being.

There’s a little politician in all of us.  There’s a tendency to look for the short term solution.  Quick fixes and instant solutions are great, but they usually don’t work.  However, the impact of a sustained effort in the same direction for a long period of time, well, that’s another matter.  The example that’s often used is that of saving for retirement.  If you start early and work at it for decades, you’ll be in pretty good shape.  If you try to cram it in the last five years of your employment, well…

But more important than even your financial future is your development as a follower of Christ.  Or, you could say, as a person.  After all, if Jesus represents fully humanity then the more we resemble him, the more truly human we become.  Anything less is, well, sub-human.  Wouldn’t you rather be on course to become a more complete, mature, healthy, authentic version of your current self?

So how do we tend to approach this challenge?  Often it’s with quick fixes.  A workshop, a weekend retreat, a 30 day program, or a best-selling book or conference.  I’d like to suggest a long-term solution.  A 50 year goal, if you will.  Something like this:

  • Commit to spending ten minutes a day in conversation with God. If that’s too ambitious, start with five.
  • Begin to let God speak into your life thru his written word, the Bible. Don’t try to read it all in one month.  Or even one year.  Take two or three years.  Or more.  Just start with a few minutes a day.
  • Find a place to serve someone else this month. It doesn’t have to be splashy or scary.  Just begin somewhere.  Then repeat that in February.  And March.  And so on.
  • Commit to becoming a generous person. You don’t have to be rich.  You just have to be intentional.  A child can be generous by giving one dollar.  Don’t think about what you can’t do, focus on what you CAN.  Year after year.
  • Start meeting regularly with a small group of people who can challenge and encourage you to pursue God’s best for you. And you for them.

These are just a few examples of implementing “spiritual practices” in your life.  And the amazing thing is that when you begin to do these over and over, year after year, they change you.  They shape you.  And you begin to look more and more like Jesus.  More fully human.

It’s not a quick fix.  It’s a real change.  Wouldn’t that be a great way to spend this next year and beyond?

-Pastor Mark

P.S. Dads, if you have a daughter (or daughters) don’t miss this year’s Father Daughter Dance.  It’s this weekend, Friday, January 26th, 7 to 9 pm.  And the venue has changed.  We’re hosting it at 13 Firstfield this year.

Why a house of mirrors is a good thing

Earlier this week at Seneca Creek we partnered with the city of Gaithersburg to provide serving opportunities for several hundred people in our community.  It was a crazy, chaotic, wonderful experience.  And it was in many respects a house of mirrors.

The reason we host this event on MLK Day is to honor Dr. King’s own commitment to serving.  But why did HE serve?

The reason Dr. King served was that he was mirroring the example of Jesus.  It was because of his faith in the Servant of the Lord (See Isaiah 42:1 for more details.)  He understood that followers of Christ are called to imitate the one they follow.  Jesus served (see Mark 10:43-45), and so Dr. King served.  By doing that, he reflected the character and kingdom of God into our world.

So on MLK Day, we follow the example set by Dr. King, who himself was following the example set by Jesus.  We mirror his life…he mirrors Jesus’ life.  It’s all a “house of mirrors.”  And that’s a good thing!

Well, it’s a good thing IF we can remember the fact that Jesus didn’t just serve one day a year.  Neither did Dr. King.  So while we’re stoked about the number of people who came to serve last Monday, it would be even better if we began to find ways to incorporate serving as a lifestyle, not just an annual event.  Our goal is to help people embrace a lifestyle of mirroring Jesus’ example (and that of Dr. King).

If you’d like some assistance in adopting that lifestyle, you can:

  • Check out our online tool designed exactly for that purpose. discovergreatness.org.
  • Jump into our Winter 2018 Rooted Experience, where we spend time discovering (among other things) how to “connect with your purpose.” (Yes, we launched this past Tuesday, but you can still join in.)
  • Take your own ideas of how to serve, and begin to figure out how to make it work in your schedule.

Whatever your situation, I encourage you to become part of the “house of mirrors” that is mirroring the serving lifestyle of Dr. King, and ultimately of Jesus himself.  And sometime today or tomorrow, try out this question on someone in your life:

“How may I serve you?”

It’s a question that will reflect God’s kingdom into every dark corner of our world.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If Dr. King were still alive I’m sure he would be at the forefront of efforts to address and resolve the racial tensions that continue to embroil our country and our conversations.  For our part, we’re launching an 8-week “Multi-Ethnic Conversations” group starting this Sunday evening. If you’re interested in participating, click here for registration info.

Resolutions: love ‘em or hate ‘em!

If you hate resolutions and New Year’s promises, then read no further.  Otherwise, here are a couple thoughts as we start off 2018.

You may be the kind of person who sincerely wants to make some changes in your overall well-being this year, including your spiritual life.  The biggest challenges we often run into are:

  1. Trying to change everything all at once. (E.g. trying to read the entire Bible in a month, praying for one hour a day, etc.)  We get overwhelmed, get discouraged, and give up.  Which then leads to…
  2. Believing that it’s futile to try to change at all.

Here are some practical ways to take manageable steps toward a better year:

  • Participate in our MLK Day of Service next Monday (assuming you have the day off work).
  • Take your daughter to the Father-Daughter dance and create that memory you know you want to have.
  • Improve your leadership skills at the two day “Lead Like Jesus” conference in February.
  • Experience Rooted, just like hundreds of others at Seneca Creek. Find out what the buzz it about, and connect with God, with the church, and with your purpose.
  • Try out a 10 week Converge group during the dead of winter.

Each of these are doable, time-limited, and sure to improve your spiritual health as you plunge into 2018.

If you try something not on this list, I’d love to hear what it is and how it’s working.  Use the comment section below.

I’m praying for you to have a God-filled 2018!

-Pastor Mark

P.S. Here’s a crazy list of New Year’s resolutions from philosophers throughout history, if you want to be stretched in other areas.

P.P.S. If you want to try a Bible reading program, there are hundreds of options at YouVersion.com. (Or check out the Bible app on your smartphone.)