Categorical Doubt

Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a coffee drinker.

Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a computer nerd.

Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a stay-at-home dad.

Hi, my name is Greg and I’m lactose intolerant.

Hi, my name is Greg and I love cheese.

Hi, my name is Greg and I voted democrat for our previous president.

Hi, my name is Greg and I voted republican for the president before him.

Hi, my name is Greg and I’m a Christian.

Just listing those few things about me, you are probably creating an image of me in your head. Heck, me coming out and just standing here…many of you have already made assumptions and categories about me. And, as I listed those things…some of them may not have matched up very well for you. This is, honestly, part of our nature as humans. Our brains work really hard to filter, categorize and size up any situation to determine if something is going to be a threat or not. Our brain filters out distractions or other things it deems non-threatening. Looking for that “sabertooth tiger in the weeds” that might jump out and kill us. Our brains know that the swaying grass isn’t dangerous…but the glint of an eye in the weeds just might. Or, is that weed edible or deadly. Or…is that person part of my tribe or not? If not…are they friendly or not? Will they share with me, or will they try to kill me and take my stuff? Our brain makes millions of judgements and categorizes things for us, practically automatically, so that we can live our lives as efficiently as possible. These categories and judgments are inherently reductive as they never tell the whole story about someone or something. But it helps with making decisions quickly. Sometimes that works great, sometimes…not so well.

It’s tempting for us to reduce our understanding of things, and even people, to these simple categories and judgements. It makes life easy and reasonably predictable. As long as things continue to fit into those specific categories we’ve created, we feel safe. Trouble comes when things start to not fit into any categories. Or, when something we’ve categorized one way suddenly seems to not be fitting into our categories or judgements anymore. This can lead to questions and confusion on one end…and doubt and fear on the other.

There were two followers of Jesus who wrestled with some doubt about Jesus when their categories about who Jesus was didn’t seem to be working. One of these followers was named Judas. Judas was a revolutionary. He followed Jesus because he felt that Jesus was going to militarily and/or politically lead a revolution against the Roman government who was occupying the country of Judaea that Jesus and his disciples were living in. One of the other followers was Peter. Peter probably had similar assumptions about Jesus. Peter was the only disciple to proudly admit he had a sword ready, just in case.

As Jesus ministry progressed, it started to become clear to Judas and Peter that Jesus wasn’t going to lead a revolution in the way they were expecting. Jesus wasn’t fitting into their categories, and they both experienced significant doubt. Judas initially responded to this doubt by betraying Jesus, handing him over to the authorities, possibly hoping to push Jesus into some kind of revolutionary action. As Jesus was being handed over, Peter pulled out that sword he had and injured one of the guards attempting to arrest Jesus. Peter was then surprised to hear Jesus chastise him for using his sword, and then Jesus healed the man who was trying to arrest him. Jesus’ actions here did not fit for Peter and Judas. They both began to doubt their categories of who Jesus was and what he was expecting Jesus to do. This doubt would lead Judas and Peter to walk away from Jesus. Peter even denying, through swearing and cursing, that he ever knew Jesus.

Often, in the stories of doubt we seem to regularly hear today in the Church, the story ends here. People walk away, doubting their understanding of Jesus. For them, the category of “Christian” has broken…and they often walk away confused. For Judas, this was the end of his story. After betraying Jesus, he walked away completely. Believing that he had gone so far into doubt and fear that he could never come back. The Bible tells us he committed suicide. Nothing made sense to him anymore, and rather than try to reframe and redeem his perspective on Jesus…he gave up completely. He was so committed to his categories about Jesus that he wasn’t willing to reframe his category…or to allow Jesus to reframe it for him.

Peter’s story could have ended here as well, but it didn’t. Peter, like Judas, had given up everything to follow Jesus. But, Peter returned to his old life as a fisherman. With his categories about Jesus broken, he thought that it was better to return to the safety of what he knew. It was while he was fishing, that he saw Jesus, resurrected, cooking fish on the shore. Peter didn’t avoid Jesus, Peter didn’t try to awkwardly hide like you would when you see someone walking on the street you don’t want to talk to. Peter, probably still wrestling with his doubt and fear, did not allow that to define him. Peter immediately jumped out of the boat and swam to Jesus. The, over a shared meal of grilled fish, Jesus spoke to Peter lovingly and helped him reframe his categories about Jesus.

When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.”

He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

John 21:15-17 (CEB)

Jesus didn’t condemn Peter for mis-categorizing Jesus and his purpose, but re-directed him and gave him new purpose.

Peter’s initial category and doubts about Jesus were reframed and redeemed by Jesus. Peter’s doubt when his categories failed led him to a deeper understanding of who Jesus was and how Peter fit into those new categories. Instead of seeing his doubt and denial of Jesus as an unrecoverable failure (like Judas), Peter kept the relationship open. He kept the opportunity for conversation open. Jesus then takes that doubt in Peter and transforms it into a new, and deeper, understand of who Jesus really was.

Some of us, may have begun to doubt the category of “Christian”. Or, maybe for others, the categories and understandings we had about our life, our jobs, our friends, our culture or our country is starting to crumble. The categories we’ve had before are no longer fitting. Doubt is creeping in. Fear may even be settling in as the certainty we felt like we had before, is crumbling under the weight of our doubts.

But, we have a choice. We can act like Judas and keep running and walking away when our categories fail, and let our doubts rule us. Or, we can act like Peter. When those categories crumble, when we begin to doubt, when we are tempted to lash out, when we hide and run away…

…we can still be on the lookout for Jesus in the midst of all of that. We can jump out of our boat and have a meal with him. Will we then allow Jesus, like Peter, to redeem and reframe our broken categories and our doubts.

“Do you love me, more than these?…Feed my lambs.”

“Do you love me?…Take care of my sheep.”

“Do you love me?…Feed my sheep.”

This is the text of a message I shared for the Renew worship service at Fremont Presbyterian Church on 10-13-2019.


Thoughts on Temple and Priesthood Imagery in 1 Peter Chapter 2

Many of you may know that I had the opportunity to contribute to a commentary on 1 Peter. It’s entitled 1 Peter: A Collaborative Commentary and you can purchase it from Amazon and most other online bookstores or directly from Wipf and Stock. You’ll find my contribution towards the back as an excursus. I was asked by our editor to share some thoughts on 1 Peter chapter 2 at a recent conference to promote the commentary. I thought I would post what I shared here for those who would be interested.

The transcript is presented below. Let me know what you think in the comments and please share if you enjoyed something that I said.


Chapter 2 of 1 Peter features many allusions and references to the Old Testament. In verses 4-9 which I will focus on today, contains at least five references to the Old Testament and could have more echoes and allusions within.

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals (Psalm 118:22)  yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Isaiah 28:16) To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” (Psalm 118:22) and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” (Isaiah 8:14) They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people (Exodus 19:5-6), in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (Isaiah 43:20-21)”

1 Peter 2:4-9

With the passage’s talk of corner stones, a “spiritual house”, and the priesthood, images of the Temple in Jerusalem and the priests who serve within should be at the forefront of our minds. To most readers of this epistle at the time it was written, most of these images and allusions would have been easy to grasp. However, the function of a priest and the centrality of worship at a temple is something that is completely foreign in a western cultural context. In fact, in our Enlightenment and post-modern inspired culture, spirituality and spiritual leaders are often siloed into very specific elements of life. The work of pastors and ministers are often only understood within the context of worship and church services. Even a regular church attendee might have a hard time explaining how their pastor or Sunday worship experience has an effect in their daily lives. How a worship song they might sing connects to their 9-5 work experience, how passing the offering plate connects to their home experience or how hearing the Scriptures read connected to the bread they ate or the rain they annoyingly wiped from their windshield on the way into church one Sunday.

Any ancient Jew (and most ancient people for that fact) would easily be able to make those connections. For our ancient ancestors, their day to day experiences were wrapped up and informed by worship in the temple and the functions that priests performed there. A song (or Psalm) would have been connected to their spiritual or national history, and helped remind them of their place in God’s grand story. The offerings (tithe, first fruits, sacrifices, etc.) would have been given as a reminder of the many blessings (agricultural, forgiveness of sins, restoration of friendships, etc.) in hopes for more in the future. Reading the scriptures they might be reminded of the God who provided bread from heaven during the exodus of the Hebrew nation freshly freed from Egyptian slavery. Or they might remember the rain that fell in Noah’s day and recall the rainbow as a continued sign of God’s providence and protection.

In short, worship in the temple and the actions of a priest bled into and informed practically every facet of an ancient Jew’s life. It gave meaning to their experiences, helped refocus their understanding and drove their communal identity and connection to one another.

What, then, can we learn from these passages in 1 Peter where we are called to be “living stones” built in a “spiritual house” and offering “spiritual sacrifices” as a holy and royal priesthood? What is it about the actions of a priest and the centrality of the Temple that modern Christians can implement in their lives to more fully embody that which the author of 1 Peter was attempting to get the readers of this epistle to understand?

Few, if any, things in our life stand as dominant in our cultural and religious understanding as the temple was for the ancient Jewish people. Festivals and holidays at the Temple marked the seasons of the year and many other, regular, temple cultic practices defined their lives. In the life of Jesus, he was brought to the Temple, “to do for him what was customary under the law,” (Luke 2:27) and then later, “every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival,” (Luke 2:41-42). So, even in the life of Jesus we can see how important the Temple was in the life of a devout follower.

But, for followers of Jesus, we have no earthly Temple setting those same rhythms and milestones. Very practically, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD and both Christians and Jews had to grapple with what it means to live a devout life without a Temple in Jerusalem. For Christians, this new meaning is found in a life lived devoted to following Jesus who, as we also read in 1 Peter 2, is the “cornerstone” of this new spiritual house, or a new Temple. By following Christ, 1 Peter tells us that we become “living stones” placed into this great spiritual Temple. Thus, instead of a physical Temple in a limited physical and temporal space, the body of believers serves as the sacred-making and meaning-bestowing center of our life and worship. Even the end of this passage where it says, “that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” could be an allusion to the Temple and the image of a worshipper moving from the space outside the Temple in the world (also known as, “the darkness”) and towards the inner courts and ultimately the priest who approaches the holy of holies at the center where one is said to be in the presence of God, in his “marvelous light.” This, also in a way, acts out a continual exodus in the lives of the faithful as they move from darkness and captivity towards a more intimate relationship with God. So, as believers gathered in Christ’s name, being built into this great spiritual Temple, we are not only creating a sacred space where God can be experienced, but we are to proclaim his mighty acts, both in worship and testimony, so that those in the “darkness” might be welcomed into God’s glorious light. Not a light that is experienced in any specific place like the Temple, but a pure light that is experienced in the grace, mercy and love filled community of believers. Like the Tabernacle that went with the Hebrews as they wandered in their wilderness exodus, so too is our community supposed to be. A wandering beacon of hope amidst the dark wilderness proclaiming the acts of God who called them out of the darkness.

Let’s move from a discussion of the Temple and focus on those who work and served within its walls. For the ancient Jews, the priests were the mediators between the people and God. It was the priests who underwent extreme cleansing rituals and preparation to serve in the Temple and perform the duties necessary for religious practice for the ancient Jews. It was the cleansed, purified and spiritually un-blemished priest who stood for the people before God, in the Holy of Holies, and performed the necessary rituals. It was only the priest, properly cleansed and prepared, who could move through all the areas, barriers and boundaries of the Temple to offer prayers and sacrifices for the people. The priest, and the Levites who served with them, were the people’s leaders and guides in their spiritual journeys. Directing them in worship and helping them understand the requirements of God so that all who came into the Temple could participate in the community, forgiveness and restoration that was offered there.

The Christian community is now invited to participate in this priestly duty. Following in the example of Christ, our great High Priest, who through his life, death, resurrection and ascension has paved the way for believers to be forgiven, washed and cleansed in order that all might take part in the calling to be a holy and royal priesthood. In this we become mediators between God and all people. Our actions should help direct people towards God and remind them how their lives fit into the great story of God. Our actions should remind others of the mercy, grace and forgiveness offered, and guide them ever closer in a relationship with God ultimately towards his “marvelous light.” One of the ways that this is accomplished is through the “spiritual sacrifices” mentioned here in chapter 2 of 1 Peter. The ancient priests would offer physical sacrifices dependant on the situation. Now, because Christ has gone ahead as the ultimate sacrifice and, as the author of Hebrews points out, offers a continual sacrifice before God and the true altar, physical sacrifices are unnecessary. Spiritual sacrifices however, are the means in which we continue to serve others and work out our relationships with God. Through prayers, offerings, service and even participating in baptism and the Eucharist, we offer spiritual sacrifices in response to what we have been blessed with. Our spiritual sacrifices are not requirements for holiness and cleanliness to serve, but a response towards the immense blessings that have already been lavished on us.

Through all this we are all formed into the holy and royal priesthood who serves as the rebuilt spiritual Temple of God. Or, as other translations would say, we are invited to become a Kingdom of Priests. This kingdom, and its victory is revealed to us in the book of Revelation Chapter 14 with the vision of a victorious lamb on Mt. Zion (the location of the Temple and Jerusalem) with his victorious cohort of 144,000. They, having been redeemed from the world, or the “darkness”, sing songs before the throne having been cleansed by the Lamb and follow him wherever he goes.

So then, inspired by the words of St. Ignatius from his Epistle to the Ephesians, “May you be God-bearers, spirit-bearers, temple-bearers of holiness, may you always be ‘a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people who proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”




Photo by Jose Fontano

Some thoughts this morning popped in my head while driving to work. Feel free to discuss this mini blog post.
God may be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But, I (and humanity in general) am not. If God is going to communicate with us and have a relationship with us, why are we surprised when God may use different methods than were used in the past? My relationship with my daughters will change. How we communicate and interact in our relationships with one another will grow and morph as we all grow and mature together. Similarly, God in an eternally loving and creative manner, is constantly trying to reach out and communicate to us in ways that are able to be heard and understood in the context they are presented in.
This does not mean that we won’t have to grow and stretch in our relationship with God and in our ability to understand what God is trying to guide us towards. Growth always involves some tension and stress. Like Paul says to the Corinthian church, “this is how I run—not without a clear goal in sight. I fight like a boxer in the ring, not like someone who is shadowboxing. Rather, I’m landing punches on my own body and subduing it like a slave. I do this to be sure that I myself won’t be disqualified after preaching to others,” (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
This also does not mean that we turn our back on the past as irrelevant and unnecessary. We would not be where we are without those who have gone before us and sought to follow God in the manner God was calling them and in the best way they knew how. Good or bad, we do ourselves a disservice by not integrating the positive examples and hard lessons of our ancestors in the faith into our own experience. We do not trot around with an Ark of the Covenant in our services, but we sure can talk about what it means for God to be present among the people. We *should not* share in our ancestors misguided anti-Semitic beliefs. Or, any beliefs along those lines that, cloaked in misappropriated religious language, sought to divide, colonize, demonize, take advantage of or otherwise harm a people group. We can talk about the harm that they did and find ways to repair and redeem broken relationships and communities in an attempt to avoid further brokenness.
God does not change, but we are created to grow and develop. May we be willing to see with new eyes and hear with new ears as God reaches out to us where we are at. Not where we were and in a similar manner to our ancient ancestors. But, as they grew in their relationship with God, so to should we.



Photo by Toa Heftiba

Maybe you haven’t noticed, but we live in a consumer culture. Anywhere our eyes may wander or our ears tune to is often filled with advertisements demanding our attention. Once they have our attention, they are quick to point out something we lack, something we need, something we are afraid of and a solution to solve all those problems. Typically that solution involves purchasing something to alleviate the fears and stress induced by the advertisement.

I mean, seriously, who would want to look like these people?





(That Snuggie family actually looks like they’re having fun, but I digress…)

The basic story told in our culture is that there is something you lack that can be fulfilled by purchasing products. But, ultimately, we are never fulfilled as we are constantly told this story in order to get us to buy more products, stimulate economic growth,grow GDP and create jobs.

Oh I see you just bought a new smartphone? Guess what? Here’s the next model that does so many more things you think you need! Oh, you bought that toothpaste? Well, here’s one that actually whitens your teeth. You know what happens when you’re teeth are not white right?

How do you feel now?

I don’t really remember when or where this recently happened, but I heard someone reference the words of Jesus at the Last Supper which led me to think about this idea of our consumer culture in a different way. At the Last Supper Jesus passed around the bread and wine to his disciples saying,

“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, ‘Take and eat. This is my body.’ He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from this, all of you.’ This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven.”
Matthew 26:26-28, CEB

Churches everywhere celebrate this meal on a regular basis as a symbol of their faith and in remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Yet, when I recently heard these words, I was awoken to how the image of this simple meal (bread & wine) confronts the consumerist nature of our culture. The meal itself serves as a microcosm of the ministry of Jesus and what should resonate out among the community of his disciples.

First, like I said, the meal is simple. Bread and wine sets the barriers for entry rather low. Anyone can acquire those elements and the simpleness of them means it should be accessible. There are no instruction manuals or secret plans for how the meal is served, the bread is baked or the wine is poured. Our culture tends to glorify things that are newer, faster and innovative but that can often lead to over-complexity and inaccessibility. I love computers and our world has changed drastically because of them. But, my father never learned to use one and met a fair amount of pressure when his workplace transitioned to using them more and more. This simple meal of bread and wine bids us to resist the consumerist idol of the next big thing, leaves the doors open and seats available for anyone willing to sit down. The bread and wine are sufficient in their simplicity.

Second, the meal is shared. Full disclosure, I feel most of the methods used by churches to celebrate communion lead us to overlook this essential element. One church I visited even had prepackaged crackers and grape juice in buckets that people just picked up on their way out like some kind of consolation prize for coming to church that day. There is an essential element to sharing a meal, sitting around a table and being gathered together with people that we miss when we take a wafer off a tray or walk down an aisle and never have to look more than two people in the face. The bread is broken and passed. The cup is shared. This meal is about both receiving and serving. Our consumer culture loves to take and consume but it abhors giving and sharing. If I share what I have, that means my neighbor may not have to buy what has been shared. When we receive the bread and wine we are reminded that we are forgiven by the grace of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is then our responsibility to pass along the bread and wine, sharing that grace and forgiveness with our neighbors. Even those who might betray us, deny us or abandon us in a time of need.

Finally, the meal is sacrificial. Jesus encourages the disciples to, “Take and eat”. He does not ask for payment or anything in return. The meal is a reminder of the sacrifice Jesus made and the inability of the powers in Jesus day (and ours) to understand what it really looks like to, “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Consumer culture expects payment for services, quid pro quo and retribution if terms are not met. The culture sees mercy and humility as signs of weakness that lead to being taken advantage of and pushed aside. In this meal, however, Jesus is showing us a better way. Similarly to the point of the meal being shared, it is because of a sacrifice we are encouraged to “Take and eat”. One person can take a loaf of bread and eat off it for a week. Or, one loaf of bread can be shared and feed a table full of people. Some who could afford to buy many loaves of bread and some who could barely spare the time to make it to the table that day. Out of Jesus’ example, we are invited into sacrificial living so that others are able to “Take and eat” and live a life worthy of being his disciple. Living sacrificially means we do not need to consume and are able to resist the culture’s siren song.

How do you need to resist the temptation to consume? What ways can the simplicity, sharing and sacrifice of the Last Supper be integrated into your day to day life?

Is it Okay to be Mad at God?


During the recent Good Friday service at my church the pastors and a few others, including myself, reflected on the seven final sayings (or words) of Jesus. I had the opportunity to share on, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” I was, honestly, a little excited as Good Friday is always one of my favorite services and this is one of my favorite verses. There’s so much think about in these few words. Having only five minutes, I had to keep it pretty succinct. Here’s the manuscript of what I shared. I hope you are blessed by it.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
Mark 15:33-34

“Is it okay to be mad at God?”

This was a question asked by my wife Kourtney on our way to San Francisco shortly after discovering we had lost our second child to a miscarriage during the second trimester. Being the seminary trained husband that I am, I felt some pressure in answering the question.

On one hand you have God who is sovereign and in our relationship with Him we are often told that we should accept whatever challenges are thrown our way because God is ultimately in control and working for our good. Like in the hymn It Is Well when we sing, “whatever my lot, thou has taught me to say, it is well with my soul.”

But, on the other hand, the scriptures are full of people wrestling (literally and figuratively) with God. Adam blames God for creating Eve, Jonah gets upset when God kills a plant giving him shade, Job and his friends debate the ultimate goodness and justice of God. Here on Good Friday we have Jesus, who only hours before was wrestling with God in prayer, pleading, “if it is possible, let this cup pass over me.” And now he cries out in anguish quoting Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Psalm 22 goes on to say, “Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried, and were saved; in you they trusted, and were not put to shame. But I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.  All who see me mock at me…” The Psalm continues bouncing between cries of anguish and remembering God’s promises.

“Is it okay to be mad at God?”

It can be tempting to look at people who stoically trust in God regardless of what happens in their life and see them as the epitome of faithfulness. Anytime we get upset with God, doubt or question his goodness or cry out can be seen as a weakness in our faith. Yet, over and over in the Bible, we hear from people who cry out and demand God show up and live up to his promises. Job demands that God give an answer for his troubles. The Psalmists are constantly pleading with God to remember his loving-kindness, mercy and promises to previous generations. The prophet Habakkuk is bewildered by the evil in the world and wants God to answer for it. And few would doubt Jesus’ faith as he cries out to God on the cross.

“Is it okay to be mad at God?”

Yes, I told Kourtney. It is. It is in those moments, in our anger, anguish and sadness, when we cry out to God, I feel, we are expressing the deepest faith in God. We go before the throne demanding an answer for our pain. Demanding to know what God is up to. Like the blind and the lepers crying out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” we don’t give up until we have an answer. The important part is that we are not turning away from God, denying that he exists or has any involvement in this life.

We are running towards him, vulnerable, bearing our soul and emotions, hoping he hears us.

Towards the end of Psalm 22 it says, “For He did not scorn, He did not spurn the plea of the lowly; He did not hide His face from him; when he cried out to Him, He listened.” God has not turned his back, God listens. God will hear us. Through whatever emotional, physical or otherwise upsetting excruciating pain you are going through right now…through the excruciating pain of Good Friday, Jesus demonstrates God can take whatever we throw at him.

Scream at God, demand he answer your questions, nail God to the cross, he will still hear you.

What happens when you give?


Illustration from If You Plant a Seed by Kadir Nelson.

My church, Fremont Presbyterian Church, is currently in their Stewardship season where people are encouraged to commit to giving for the next year. When churches and pastors start to talk about giving, things can often get a little weird. Many pastors hate talking about money and asking people to give. Those attending church often are uncomfortable when they are asked to give. Words like “stewardship” or “tithing” can cause even the most devoted member to check out. Everyone has to balance their own checkbook which brings it’s own amount of stress. Most people don’t respond well when it feels like the pastor or the church is asking them to squeeze a little bit more out of an already tight budget.

I think most people understand that giving is good and that we should try to give often and with as much as we can. So, I am not here to talk about why you should give or even how much you should give to your church. Both of those questions are often personal questions that you have to answer on your own. What I would like to explore a bit is what happens when we give to your church. What should we expect to happen with our money and our time that we offer to support the church?

I think one of the parables Jesus told will be helpful to open up what we should expect to happen with what we offer. In the midst of teaching about the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells this parable in chapter 4 of the Gospel of Mark:

“What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”
Mark 4:30-32 (CEB)

Jesus was a fan of agricultural illustrations and parables. They can sometimes be lost on those of us who do not really have an agricultural background. But, there are a few reasons why I like the Parable of the Mustard Seed to help us understand what happens when we give.

First, the mustard seed is small.

People will often struggle and strain over how much to give. Should we give 10% of what we make? Gross or our net income? What about investments? What about gifts? What if I win the lottery? The people in the Old Testament offered the first fruits of their crops, should we give what we grow in our gardens? While these are interesting questions, I think they miss the point when it comes to giving. The size of the mustard seed does not equate to the outcome of the parable. It’s human nature to expect big things to cause big results and little things to cause little results. The power of this parable in illustrating the Kingdom of God is that the littlest of things can become something great. Regardless of what amount you give, God can use that amount to do great things. If you give a little, great things can happen. If you give a lot, great things can happen. The important thing is that you give.

Second, the seed is planted.

Something very strange happens when you give. Suddenly you are connected to what you have given. There is a relationship. To continue with the agricultural metaphors, one might say roots have been put down. The illustration above is from a beautiful children’s book called, If You Plant a Seed. It opens with the lines, “If you plant a tomato seed, a carrot seed, and a cabbage seed…in time…with love and care…tomato, carrot and cabbage plants will grow.” The growth only happens after the “love and care.” When we give, we demonstrate that we love and care about what we are giving to. Giving our time and our money means we are putting roots down, we are planting ourselves in the community and we want to see that our church is taken care of.

Finally, the birds of the sky are able to nest in its shade.

As I read this verse again, this part really stuck out to me. Often when something is given, we expect something in return. A payback, recognition or some kind of reward can sometimes be expected. But the unique thing about the conclusion of this parable is that the one who planted the seed and tended the plant is not the one receiving the benefit. The plant ends up being used by birds who are able to nest in its shade. When we give to our church, it is important to realize that the giver is often not the beneficiary. The real benefit may come months, years or even decades later. And, the beneficiaries may not even be people who sit in the pews on Sunday. The birds did not plant the mustard seed, they did not tend it, they aren’t even human and the farmer does not “shoo” them away. They are the recipients of the blessing of the mustard seed.

I pray that this has helped you think in a new way about what happens when you give to your church. If you attend Fremont Presbyterian Church, you can commit to giving through their website. I would encourage you to consider committing to give to Fremont, or your own church, in the upcoming year.

Standing in the Gap


It seems a bit cliché to say, but this election is one that will go down in history. While many pundits and commentators are wringing their hands with what the historical importance will be, you can feel it in the air that this election feels different than many others. Coming after our first African American president this election featured two significant firsts as well. Hillary Clinton was the first, major party, woman candidate for president and Donald Trump is the first president-elect to have never held a government office or even a military position.

So many firsts mean that our country is culturally, economically, demographically and in many other ways shifting in front of our eyes. In a sense, to use another cliché, everyone’s cheese is being moved. Some will benefit from these changes and others will feel pressure from them. Some want these changes while others will feel pushed aside.

Change is hard.

The church has felt this change and pressure as well. Many churches are probably just as split as the popular vote was in this election. On Sunday, Christians who supported Trump will sit in pews and sing worship songs with Christians who supported Clinton. Pastors who supported Trump will preach to parishioners who supported Clinton. And parishioners who supported Trump will listen to messages from pastors who supported Clinton.

No doubt this will continue to deepen the divide many churches are feeling. Trump supporters celebrate as Clinton supporters mourn what could have been. There will be calls for unity but this will mostly be calls for people to unite around Trump since the democratic process and voice of the majority has spoken. Or, Clinton supporters will demand compromise in order to be willing to unite. Both sides will essentially be asking the others to move towards their side but, often, neither will be willing to cross over on their own.

You know, like Congress has been acting the past few years.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of the image of Christ and the cross bridging the gap of sin in many tracts and evangelism materials. The concept is that Christ bridged a gap we could not bridge on our own so that we could be reunited with God and in right relationship with him. It seems to me that this provides a good example for how to “bridge the gap” after this election. Philippians 2 gives us some help:

Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.

But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.

When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:1-8 (CEB)

Jesus had all the power and rights as God. If he was chosen in our process, one might say he had won the popular vote, the electoral college and had a “mandate” as the pundits like to say. Yet, Jesus chose to not exploit that status, and instead took the opposite route of that power. He chose life as a human, ultimately ending in death on a humiliating cross. About the last thing you would ever expect God, or any god for that matter, to do.

To bridge the gap, Jesus didn’t demand people to come to his side. He instead moved towards sinful humanity and stood in the gap so that we might be reunited with God.

If you’d like a current political example of someone doing exactly this, take some time and listen to the story of Beth Fukamoto over at Rob Bell’s podcast (the Robcast). Beth was a democrat who lived in Hawaii which is a pretty solid “blue” state and regularly votes democrat. Beth saw a bit of an issue with this as the republicans in Hawaii essentially did not have any representation in the House and Senate. So, she chose to run as a republican in order to give those people a voice.

Yes, a democrat ran as a republican in order to give a voice to those who didn’t seem to have one. And she won.

Beth stood in the gap. Rather than demand that republicans move towards her and her party, she instead moved towards them and worked so that their voices could be heard. She doesn’t agree with everything, but she works hard for who she represents.

The example Jesus gives us is not ascending some ladder so that we might exert our political and ideological might on others. The example of Jesus is descending the ladder of power so that we might serve those who have no voice and now power in the systems of our world. As Paul states in his intro, this is the path towards true unity. Not through power exerted, but in humility, selflessness, and looking out for the benefit of others.

So, for Christians who supported Trump, pray for, listen to and look out for those who feel ostracized, afraid and swept aside by the election of Trump. For Christians who supported Clinton, pray for, listen to and look out for those who felt ostracized, afraid and swept aside and believed Trump was the man to turn that around.

The only way to end this deep polarization and begin to heal these bitter wounds is to move towards the other side, not draw back and entrench deeper. Having the mind of Jesus is not mainly about voting the right way and checking the right box, but about not exploiting our power, position and authority for our own sake. But in grace and humility, listening to, looking out for and learning from others for their benefit.

Grace and humility. Now wouldn’t that be a nice change?


Sunday Prayer

Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

We praise your abiding guidance, O God,
for you sent us Jesus, our Teacher and Messiah,
to model for us the way of love for the whole universe.
We offer these prayers of love
on behalf of ourselves and our neighbors,
on behalf of your creation and our fellow creatures.

Loving God,
open our ears to hear your word
and draw us closer to you,
that the whole world may be one with you
as you are one with us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

Taking our Post


Circle of Juan de la Corte, 1580-1663. Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

With the impending election in our future, the bombast and proclamations coming from both sides has seemed to increase exponentially. Talks of election fraud to landslide victories scroll across our screens. But, often even louder and crasser are the supporters of the various candidates. Both sides claim to hold the moral and political high ground. Then, when you throw Christians supporters into the mix, the religious ferver that gets mixed in seems to amp the issues up even more. Things move from not only moral issues, but transform into religious, and even possibly salvation, issues for some.

From a Christian perspective, the noise at this point is deafening to me. I’m not exactly sure this is the witness we want to have in the world.

I have been spending a lot of time wondering lately what the Christian response should be in situations like this, and politics in general. I stumbled across the reading for this Sunday which features a selection from Habakkuk, one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. After Habakkuk’s initial complaint in first few verses, the reading movies into this description of the Chaldeans (aka the Babylonians).

For I am rousing the Chaldeans, that fierce and impetuous nation, who march through the breadth of the earth to seize dwellings not their own. Dread and fearsome are they; their justice and dignity proceed from themselves. Their horses are swifter than leopards, more menacing than wolves at dusk; their horses charge. Their horsemen come from far away; they fly like an eagle swift to devour. They all come for violence, with faces pressing forward; they gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, and heap up earth to take it. Then they sweep by like the wind; they transgress and become guilty; their own might is their god!
Habakkuk 1:6-11 (NRSV)

If I took this reading out of context (eliminated the mention of Chaldeans and didn’t mention it was from the Bible) and passed it around, I’m sure there would be a few people who would fully support and desire this description for America. Replace horses with tanks/helicopters and horsemen with drones and I think we’re not too far off. It’s tempting, power of this sort is exciting and can be very fulfilling. I get sense of excitement watching things blow up just as much as the next guy. But, as great as that all is, the last line of the reading should bring those thoughts back down a bit.

“Their own might is their god!”

What I hear a lot in the political discourse today is talk of this kind. We need to be bigger, faster, stronger and richer. If only we had the right leader, then things will be alright. Other nations are doing so well and we seem to be struggling. It feels a little bit to me like when the Israelites demanded a King in the book of Samuel (see 1 Samuel 8). The Israelites were not thrilled with the way things were going in Israel, and were tempted by what they saw with other nations and their kings. Even though the prophet Samuel encourages them otherwise and God realizes they’re ultimately rejecting God as king, they get what they want.

And things go south very, very quickly.

Except for a few outliers, (David, Josiah, Hezekiah to name a few) who were not totally blameless, the rest of the kings were pretty much horrible. The Israelites got what they wanted, but it was definitely not what they needed.

The temptation to be bigger, better, faster, stronger is very strong. But, I think returning to Habakkuk can give us some insight into where Christians should fit into all of this.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.

Then the Lord answered me and said: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.

Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.”
Habakkuk 2:1-4 (NRSV)

First and foremost, Habakkuk waits for words from God. He is not distracted by the blustering of the Chaldeans or the chatter of the king and politicians within Israel. Habakkuk takes up his post and stations himself to hear from God in a rampart. Habakkuk places himself above the fray. From the watchpost he can see everything, he has a better perspective.

I’m hearing echoes of Psalm 18:2 here, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” Habakkuk seems to be realizing that the real place of safety and security is with God, waiting on God, waiting on his words. From this position he is safe and is also able to listen for words from God rather than be distracted and tempted by the words and yelling from others around us.

Finally, God’s word comes and it knocks the blustering and show of the Chaldeans right off their high horse. The spirit of the proud is “not right in them.” They are all show, all bluster and their faith in themselves and their power is misplaced. Instead, “the righteous live by their faith.” Those whose faith is in God, who take refuge in him, live and are sustained by their faith in God.

During this tumultuous and divisive political season, I think Christians should be placing themselves above the fray. Like Habakkuk, we should not be tempted by the words and displays of the proud, but should find solace in the quiet security of God. By being above the fray, we are in a unique position to evaluate and critique prophetically. When our support and security is in God alone, we can resist the temptations of temporal power and stand secure on the watchtower making the message of God plain so that our message might not get wrapped up with the shouting and the noise.

Sunday Prayer


Shishkin, Ivan Ivanovich, 1832-1898. Rain in an Oak Forest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

Shishkin, Ivan Ivanovich, 1832-1898. Rain in an Oak Forest, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

God of faithful surprises,
throughout the ages
you have made known your love and power
in unexpected ways and places.
May we daily perceive
the joy and wonder of your abiding presence
and offer our lives in gratitude
for our redemption. Amen.

Prayer is from the Revised Common Lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.