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


Isn’t it interesting how focusing on what you’re grateful for can improve your outlook? I’ve noticed that it can even make for more peaceful relationships.

But how quickly that “thanks-magic” can fade, right?

(I know, I know, sometimes as soon as Uncle Bob arrives, but that’s a different story.)

Is there anything we can do to hang onto that moment? Can we make it last past the turkey dinner and leftovers? Actually, yes.

It just so happens there are always reasons to be grateful. And the writers of the Bible are excellent teachers, pointing us toward reasons for gratitude. Here are just a handful of examples:

  • Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. (Psalm 100:4)
  • I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3, Colossians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:2, and others)
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6)
  • Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

But closer to home, we invited the church family to jot down what they were grateful to God for at our gatherings last weekend. Here’s some of your responses:

You may have some of your own. By sharing them, you will not only perpetuate that life-giving spirit of gratitude for yourself, but you may well infect someone else with it. So go ahead. Add you comments below of something you’re grateful for. And then do it again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next…

-Pastor Mark

The election is over, but it ain’t over


Don’t you just love election day?  No more campaign mailers falling out of your mailbox, or littering your neighborhood.  No more radio ads of candidates bashing one another. Ahh…. But election day isn’t really over. 

Oh, the national, state, and local elections are over, but the day to day election is not.  What am I talking about?

On election day we cast a ballot for the person(s) we want to take the reins of leadership in our community, state, or nation.  We elect those who will make the important decisions that affect our lives. But every day that you wake up you do the same thing.  Every day that you wake up you cast a ballot for the one you want to take the reins of leadership for your life for that day. Every day you get to choose who will make the important decisions that affect your life that day…and in the future.

This is the core idea behind Jesus comments about the “kingdom of heaven.”  A kingdom is the place where the king is making the decisions. This is also what Jesus was talking about when he said, “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.”  He was saying that we have a choice about who will be our leader. It could be our heavenly Father. Or it could be ourselves.

We regularly face decisions about relationships, priorities, finances, careers, ethics, family, and more.  We can cast a ballot for ourselves, in which case, it’s all about me, my agenda, my appetites, my priorities, and my self-actualization.  OR, we can cast a ballot for Jesus. In this case, it’s all about Jesus, his agenda, his desires, his priorities, and his mission.

Remember the movie, “Ground Hog Day”?  Every day started the same. When you wake up tomorrow, imagine that election day is like that.  Every day is another election day. Every day is a chance to decide who will have the reins of leadership in your life.  Who will make the important decisions that affect your life? Whose agenda will set the tone?

You can consider this blog post the “campaign ad in your mailbox.”  Jesus is campaigning for your vote. How will you cast your ballot?

-Pastor Mark

The 60 Minutes episode starring YOU

*drum roll* Ta-da! You’re the star of a 60 Minutes episode. You have 60 minutes to let the world hear your story. What will you do?

I’m talking about the 60 minutes that you’re going to receive as a gift this weekend. This is the weekend we change our clocks back, and get an extra 60 minutes on Sunday morning.

I know what you’re thinking. “The pastor is going to tell me to show up at church for 60 minutes.” Nope. I mean, that’s not a bad idea, but I’ve got a better idea. How about using some or all of those 60 minutes to live out your faith IRL (in real life, for my generation).

In particular, as we’ve been journeying thru this pesky little book of James in the New Testament, one of the phrases that jumped out is this:

Religion that God our Father accepts is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress… James 1:27

BTW, did you know that scholars now believe that in the ancient world, if you lost one parent, you were considered to be an “orphan”?

So what if you took those extra 60 minutes and used them to help out a single mom, a widow, or someone who was clearly in need. You won’t have to look far. And then if you want to come celebrate the God who has called you to this amazing revolution, by all means join us at 8:30, 10:00, or 11:30. But if the most you do this weekend is to actually live out your faith for 60 minutes in your community, that’s a win. And it’s a great way to embrace another phrase from James’ letter:

Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. James 1:22

I can’t think of a better way to invest those 60 minutes. And even though I said it was about 60 minutes starring YOU, it’s really about 60 minutes starring your Heavenly Father, who, as James says, “gives generously to all without finding fault.”

Oh, and if you’re willing to share your story here, that would be awesome. We’d love to “binge watch” the 60 Minutes episodes God is writing in our community.

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If you want to hear some of the stories of how God has been recently working, join us at 4:00 pm this Sunday, November 4th, for our next Baptism Celebration. Light refreshments provided afterwards.

Is the click-bait culture clouding your vision?

Chicken Little was sure the sky was falling. Increasingly, the conversations we are having in our country and communities sound a lot like Chicken Little. The sky is falling because _________. (insert your favorite problem here) But is that true?

That’s the question posed by a well-known Harvard psychologist named Steven Pinker. In his recent book, Enlightenment Now, he argues that despite the tsunami of headlines that have us convinced the sky is truly falling, the numbers and data tell a different story. For example, he notes the following:

  • Humans are living longer lives than in previous generations
  • Millions fewer people are living in extreme poverty
  • War-related deaths are down significantly
  • Totalitarian regimes are in decline
  • Literacy and equal rights are far more wide-spread
  • Economic prosperity is growing for many populations
  • Terrorist deaths are reduced
  • Overpopulation threats are diminishing

Is he right? Well, some agree, and some accuse him of cherry-picking the data. I’m not doing either one of those. Whether you agree with Pinker or not, his point is powerful: Our opinions of our current and future well-being have almost EVERYTHING to do with what we choose to focus on. In 2018 it’s super easy to focus on the click-bait headlines and get thoroughly disgusted and demoralized. Pinker’s suggestion is to look at something else, namely the hard data.

Here’s where Jesus comes in. Jesus calls us to focus on something other than only what’s going on under our noses. The temptation is to become fearful and anxious because of the events happening in our family, our city, our nation, or our world. But there’s another place to focus: the kingdom of God. That glorious, unstoppable revolution that Jesus started, and which he will one day finish when he returns. If the book of Revelation has left you scratching your head, then know this about it: Jesus wins! That’s the message of the whole book. For that matter, it’s the message of the WHOLE book, from Genesis thru Revelation.

But we easily forget that. The click-bait culture is conspiring to cloud our vision of true reality. We get so tightly focused on here, that we forget there’s another reality. Here will one day be caught up in the “hereafter.” Oh, don’t be confused. It’s not that we’re getting whisked off this planet. No, it’s actually scheduled for a radical restoration project, much like the radical restoration project that God has already begun in the followers of Jesus. (For details on this, I highly recommend N.T. Wright’s, Surprised By Hope, a book that is sure to rock your understanding of life in the here AND the hereafter.) The hard question is, “what are we focused on?” Is it the immediate…the headlines…the click-bait?

What if, while working faithfully on the real challenges we DO face (because we’re called to be the light of the world), you could focus on the reality that Jesus wins. What if, when tempted to wring your hands and fling your accusations at the mess around us now, you could lift your head up and see down the road. What if, in those moments, you could see the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace. What if you took him at his word when he said,

Don’t worry…but seek first his kingdom. (Matthew 6:31-33)

What if we left Chicken Little behind and became men and women whose vision was transformed by the power of the Spirit of God, and fueled by the HOPE of the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ? Then whatever happens around us, we can be those who ignite the HOPE of the gospel in our city, county, and world.

-Pastor Mark

Our failure to T.H.I.N.K. first

Have you noticed the escalating level of harsh and hurtful comments in the public discourse? Does it seem to you that people with differing opinions and ideas are more interested in degrading and dehumanizing the “other” than in listening and learning and creating a better community? I have an idea that might help.

You might think I’m going to throw some Bible verses at you, which I could. But I’m not. It occurred to me the other day that when I take couples thru pre-marital counseling, I recommend a strategy for dealing with important (and often emotional) conversations. It’s an idea I learned many years ago, and I don’t even know who thought it up originally. But it’s this:

THINK before you speak.

And I would extend that to say, “THINK before you post, too.”

THINK is an acronym representing five check-points. If what I’m about to say doesn’t check off ALL FIVE of these boxes, then it would be wise to go back to the drawing board and figure out a better way to say what I want to say. Is what I’m about to say…

  • True
  • Helpful
  • Inspiring
  • Necessary
  • Kind

If you wanted to you could probably summarize all these questions in the idea of “loving one another.”

To clarify, inspiring doesn’t mean all I say is “rah, rah, you’re a great person.” But it does mean I want my comments to inspire the other person to become the best version of themself; to stir up a desire for something better within them. If you prefer a Bible passage, you could check out some comments in Ephesians 4:25 – 5:4, or Jesus very challenging words in Luke 6:27-36.

None of these ideas are intended to say we shouldn’t discuss important, or even difficult matters. But the manner in which we carry on these conversations is vitally important. And the culture around us beckons us to stoop to the lowest denominator, to make assumptions about those with whom we disagree, and to participate in dehumanizing the “other.” Jesus’ plan is for a very different kind of community, one in which people from diverse backgrounds, opinions, beliefs, and traditions become formed into a family of brothers and sisters who are learning to think and act like Jesus himself, IOW to love one another.

This is a challenge. This may be the defining challenge of this age. Jesus himself said that the way in which we love one another would let the world know if we truly are his disciples. (John 13:35)

-Pastor Mark

Coffee with Jesus

Have you ever thought about why you are where you are? I’m referring to your physical location, in particular, your residence. Is there any connection between your faith and your home address?

When Jesus was asked to identify the most important thing in life, what did he say? Love God, and love your neighbor.

Which should cause us to pause and consider exactly what that would look like.

If love is an action (vs. an emotion) that is undertaken for the best interest of the one loved, then what would it look like to love your neighbor? More unsettling is this question: do you live your life as though that’s the most important thing? I know I don’t.

Lately I’ve been contemplating this, and trying to figure out how to make “the main thing the main thing.” I’m not there yet. Maybe you’re not, either. But one thing I know for sure, it HAS to include praying for the people who live closest to me. Including those who rub me the wrong way, those who don’t act like “good neighbors,” those who don’t seem to care about anyone else, and those who have different political views, etc.

It has to go well beyond prayer. But it has to include that, too.

What would it look like for you to keep this as the main thing?

Here’s Jesus’ comment about this:

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Imagine sitting down at your home with Jesus, sharing a cup of coffee (or tea). Then Jesus turns to you and says, “Hey, would you do me a favor? Just one thing? Here’s what I’d like you to do: love your neighbors.”

Your neighbors are different than mine. And you’re different than me. So loving them is going to look different. But keeping this the main thing looks pretty much the same.

I’d love to hear your ideas on how you are learning to love your neighbor. Feel free to add your comments below.

-Pastor Mark

Are you habit forming?

Oops! If you landed on this page and were looking for the blog about “Coffee with Jesus,” it can be found here.

What’s your worst habit? What’s your BEST habit? As the old saying goes, “First you make your choices, then your choices make you.” Put another way, we are the accumulation of our habits.

I must be a sucker for habits, because I’m inundated with click-bait titles like, “3 habits to improve your gut health,” “2 habits to become a more effective leader,” “The 1 habit that will overcome procrastination,” and “4 habits to a more productive day.” (here’s an example from this morning)

Sometimes I succumb and click. I suppose you do as well. Because who DOESN’T want to improve their health, or become more effective, or productive, or minimize their undesirable qualities?

There’s a certain familiarity and comfort about habits, isn’t there? And sometimes there’s a hatred or loathing of habits we dislike. There’s even a kind of anxiety or trepidation about activities that may become “habit forming.” (Just read the fine-print on the prescription your doctor wrote for you.) But habits DO have their place. In fact, they have a very significant place. You see, habits are one of the fundamental means by which we access the grace of God, that grace that transforms us.

Here’s the question for all of us: What would make us look, think, or act more like Jesus? IOW, what is the one change that would produce desirable results in your life, from God’s perspective. I’m assuming that you’re like me, knowing that God isn’t finished with me yet.

Do you have an answer? Here’s where the habit comes in. Because the change we long for (and hopefully God longs for) is likely going to happen because of a habit. Habits have a way of changing us…or “forming” us.

  • It might be setting 10 minutes at the start or end of your day to put down the smart phone and have a conversation with God.
  • It might be writing down your thoughts and reflections on a passage of Scripture that you read.
  • It might be a time of silent listening to what God is saying about your current life.
  • It might be a time of praying for someone who is in need, or someone who is intruding into your life in unwanted ways.
  • It might be a time of fasting (from food, treats, social media, etc.) in order to teach your appetites that they are not in control of you.
  • It might be an intentional act of serving or generosity that you engage in.

The list is almost endless. And the change/benefit from these habits is quite remarkable. But the time to choose is now. Because your tomorrow is going to be determined by the choice you make today. Your habit selection is going to form you. What habit-forming decision will you make today?

-Pastor Mark

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about habits that will help you become more like Jesus, I highly recommend Richard Foster’s, A Celebration of Discipline.