Wisdom for Tough Times, from an Ancient Book

At our church, we’ve been preaching through the book of James.  I’ve mentioned here how amazing it would be if the news media announced (not fake news…real news), that an archaeological discovery had been made.  That a document written by a relative of Jesus of Nazareth had been found, dated just 10 years or so after Jesus’ death.   Well, that is what we have contained in all our Bibles–whether they be on our bedside tables or on our phones.


We are nearly halfway through our study. And, my prayer is that this series does not remain on a shelf, along with other books of the Bible we have studied.  Rather, that Jesus will move us to reflect on these words deeply, and listen to where the Lord is calling us to be changed.


There are three main themes that James returns to throughout this letter.  Trials, wisdom, and riches and poverty.  These were things that James’ audience was facing, and these are the same things we face.  It is difficult to keep our eyes focused on God when we face trials.  We need wisdom and discernment, as we are faced with hundreds of decisions each day, some of which will chart our course for our lives. We see poverty all around us, and abundant wealth.  How do we use what God has given us, and how are we called to help those in need?  The three themes of James are timeless.

We entitled our series “Unshaken” because it is clear that James is pointing us to a life that is unshaken by things like difficulty, doubt, anger, or appearances.  In addition, James “shakes” us with his bold calls to action.  “Faith without works is dead,” he says.  Words like these force us to examine our individual lives of walking with Jesus, and our corporate lives as a church.  What are we doing to reflect the fact that Christ is alive in us? In Jesus’ words, how are we letting our light so shine before others, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:16).

It is timely that we are studying these words.  We’ve been given an opportunity here in the city of Sacramento to partner with a number of other churches, and the E49 Corporation to help build a “tiny village” of homes for the homeless.  We will be setting aside Sunday, April 30th as a church to help construct these homes, prepare the site with landscaping, and enlist our children and seniors to help make those houses homes.  We are excited about putting our faith into action.  Here is more about the Compassion Village.compassion-village

In the final chapters of the letter, we will find James returning to these themes again.  He will tell us about two different kinds of wisdom, and where wisdom begins.  He will challenge those who seek to use wealth for personal gain.  James will give us a picture of how to endure suffering and trials.  Finally, he calls us all to believe in the power of prayer.

Written a long time ago, with words that still ring true.  May we be shaken by these bold words of James, to live lives unshaken.

Question for reflection: How has the Lord been speaking to you through these words of James?

Sign Me Up for Greatness

“I don’t want to go…”

I’ve heard these words a thousand times. Recently from my kids, expressing their displeasure at this thing called school. I’ve heard it from college students, days away from going on a short-term mission trip. I’ve said it too…a lot. I can especially remember having dinner with my family on some Tuesday nights, and I was scheduled to preach at our college ministry worship service in the next hour or so. Still, despite how I felt, I went…and I’d say 95 times out of a 100, I was glad I did.

I think God does something to us, and in us, when we serve something greater than ourselves. Overcoming our feelings, overcoming our busyness, and doing something for others has almost always done something for me. Sure, there might be times when my heart is in a place when I do something purely out of obligation or duty, and I walk away thinking I wasted my time. But that was, and is, rare. Most of the time I walk away and say, “Wow, I almost missed that.”

Now, I know that the motive should be that I want to bless others simply to bless them…not for what it does for me. But I think that Jesus knew that by encouraging us to serve, and building something into serving others that blesses us, that he would get us to get up and do it. I think of the story of Jesus talking with his disciples. The mother of James and John takes Jesus aside and asks that Jesus give them places of honor (sitting on his right and left), when he comes into his kingdom. She didn’t quite know what that kingdom would look like. Anyway, the other ten disciples get angry at James and John for their mom asking for those places of honor, maybe because they wanted those places themselves, and they didn’t think to ask first! Jesus puts all of the grumbling to rest when he says, “You know the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28)

Did you notice what Jesus did there…he started with “Whoever would be great,” to which most of us say, “That’s me! Sign me up!” Then he throws us off by saying, “be a servant.” Makes us take a step back. But I wonder if there is a greatness that we know and feel when we live a life of serving well.  (Because Jesus said so, I’m thinking the answer is “Yes.”)

At our church we’re going through this season of looking at what it means to be a steward. That is, what does it mean to be a caretaker of the important things that God has given, and that includes our talents and time. If you’re a part of our church, we put together a flyer called “100 Ways You Can Make a Difference as a Family,” which can be found here: (in all honesty, you don’t have to do these things with a family…but it is a neat picture to think about taking kids along for the ride of serving with you). And even if you’re not a part of things here in Sacramento, you can probably adapt them to your community.

In short, serving others, with our time and talents, is a vital part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And we just might discover something great when we do.

Giving is Weird

My family and I eat, sleep, and live because people have made a decision to be generous. Now, I know that the “right”  answer is that God provides through people’s gifts to our church.  But I often wonder for people outside the church, or outside knowing God, how weird all of that probably looks. I could picture this conversation, perhaps at the soccer field watching my kids practice.

“So you’re a pastor?”


“And you get paid because people decide to give out of their income each week, each month, or whenever they feel like it?”




“What happens if they decide not to do that anymore?”


“I don’t know…in other places I served, there were times I had to wait to get a paycheck, because our ministry didn’t have the money. But it eventually always showed up. There are a lot of generous people out there. And most churches and ministries I know of usually put their staff first, and cut other expenses, to make sure people can feed their families. There’s this verse in the Bible that says, “A worker is worth his or her wages.”


“I know it still sounds weird. But it kind of makes you believe in God. How else can you explain trying to herd a bunch of people’s hearts into giving–when times are tight, bills are due, the kids need braces, retirement account isn’t what it used to be, and people are moving into the area and out of it, trying the church for a bit, and then leaving for another one–and somehow, we all get paid?”

“Still sounds weird… So that’s why it seems whenever I go to church, they always seem to be asking for money?”

“Yep. But beyond paying the staff, keeping the building maintained, and running programs, most churches are giving money away to other ministries: to the poor, to the homeless, to be a part of social justice issues like trafficking, and a lot more. One church I used to be a part of had a goal of giving away 33 percent of its budget each year. And they did it.”


“I know. And beyond all that…we talk about giving because it’s a part of what we think God is teaching us. To see what we have as gifts from Him, and not let those things be a master over us. And, to learn how to live on less, and bless others when we give our money away.”

“I get that…but it is still weird that you depend on others getting all of that, and actually doing it.”


So, that just might be how a conversation like that could go. And when you stop and think about it, giving is weird. And amazing. And profoundly freeing.

For all of those that have blessed me through their giving: in part-time jobs in two churches in Seattle, an internship and my first full-time job at a church in Boulder, Colorado; in receiving a scholarship and a job in seminary in New Jersey; an internship at a church in Charlottesville, Virginia; in years of college ministry and being an assistant pastor in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and now as a pastor in Sacramento, California:

Thank you for being weird.

I’m not really a “giver…”

I’m not really what you would call a “giver.” Let me explain.

At the age of 11, I had my first job, delivering newspapers for the Seattle Times in the afternoon. (remember the video game Paperboy? I played it…and lived it). Paperboy_Apple2_BoxMy older brother delivered the morning paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. When he went off to college, I inherited his morning route, and I got up at 4:45 each morning through my high school years, walked the route for 45 minutes, went back to bed for an hour, then went to school (insert your story of how hard you had it during childhood here). The point was this: I worked hard for that money (so I thought at the time), and it was mine. I had to go door to door to collect the monthly dues. If I remember right, I made about $100 a month. It was mine. I did what I wanted with the money. It made me feel like I had some control.

I didn’t grow up poor by any means. But I do remember conversations in my family about not being able to afford things: certain Christmas presents, going out to eat, what college I would go to would all be about the financial aid package I got. Both of my parents worked, and worked hard. But all of that led to a certain attitude about money. Mine was this: it is hard to get, be careful with it, and woe be the day when you find you don’t have enough. It actually developed a fear in me that sounded (and still does) like this: What happens when we find we can’t make it? What will people think? Will they think we wasted it? We should have worked harder?

Along comes Jesus into my life, and yet this is one of the areas where he doesn’t have full control. By the way, I recently heard a good definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus: being led to submit more and more of our lives to Jesus (@JeffVanderstelt). I see the Bible talk about working hard, but that Jesus says be careful because money actually can become like an idol, and you can start serving it. I learn from his followers of the principle of manna: that we can learn to be content with what God has provided, because it is sufficient for today, in the same way God rained down bread from heaven when His people walked in the wilderness (plug for Caesar Kalinowski, who challenged a group of us to live by manna instead of chasing after money) (bigger plug for God, who actually did the manna thing here).Small is Big Slow is Fast

I read recently that Jesus’ most repeated command in the New Testament was this: “Don’t be afraid.” (N.T. Wright, Following Jesus)  I guess that should probably apply to my fear of not having enough.

Beyond the Bible and books and such, perhaps the biggest influence on my life in regards to giving is my wife Kelsey. She has always been generous. With her time and talents, with our home, with her heart for her fellow women and children, and much more. And she doesn’t have the same fear I have about money. Together, we make a pretty good team.

I still plan, budget, pay off debt, and worry from time to time about having enough. She does an incredible job of finding deals on everything (our whole house is basically furnished from reclaimed dumpster finds and Craigslist), and insisting that we bless others. I’ve come to love that…a lot.

So while I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “giver,” I’m learning how to be one.

Next week I plan on talking about what it means that my family and I thrive and survive, solely because of others’ generosity. It’s amazing to stop and think about…

The Other Side

I performed a memorial service today. In over sixteen years of doing college ministry, I officiated only three services like this. Since becoming a local church pastor twelve months ago, I’ve already sat with three families, trying to walk with them in this dark valley of grief.  My fellow pastors here have walked with even more.

Today at the service, I read passages that spoke of grieving with hope (1 Thessalonians), believing in life even when someone dies (John 11), and that one day God will prepare a feast (Jerrad, the man who died, performed art with his cooking. He made meals at our church for years.). That same passage that talked about a feast of fine food also said that death will be no more, and He will wipe away every tear (Isaiah 25:6-8). There is a sense in times like this that we feel deep sadness and despair, but have another feeling, seemingly just out of reach, but still there. We might call that hope, trust, or faith. It’s just on the other side. And we should be careful not to think that the goal is to get to that other side, but rather acknowledge that despair and hope are like two sides of a coin.

Over the next few months, we’re going to look at the Psalms. We’re going to look at these deep emotions we find there: despair, loneliness, anger at injustice, doubt. Ironically, the Psalms are where I first met God. Someone handed me a Bible outside of my middle school, when I was 12. I never opened it until a dark and depressing season when I was 16. When I began to look at this Bible’s table of contents, it said “Where to Find Help.” And it directed me to the Psalms. A strange place, you might think, to first encounter God. Psalms that cried out, “Where are you?” (Psalm 10, The Message). Psalms that cried out, “Have you forgotten to be merciful?” (Psalm 77) Those passages intrigued me, because they sounded like real life. And God was speaking into those painful questions. I was interested in the people who would ask God questions like this, and still write, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord.” (Psalm 77:11)

I hope that over these weeks of studying the Psalms, that a few things will happen. First, that we can quit pretending that as followers of Jesus that we’re not supposed to feel things like despair, loneliness, doubt, or anger. And, that we stop telling our friends when they are going through it that they’re not supposed to feel those things either.  Finally, that even though we walk through dark valleys, we see exactly how close things like hope, faith, trust, mercy, and healing are.

What I said…only better

Yesterday, I preached a sermon from the gospel of Luke, chapter 15. The “holy people” of Jesus’ day were grumbling about him spending time with “sinners.” Elsewhere in the same book (Luke 7…especially verses 31-35), Jesus knew that people were calling him a glutton and a drunk, because he was spending time with such people. Jesus goes on to tell two stories: one about a man who loses a sheep, and one about a woman who loses a coin. You can read it here.

If you’ve been around church for a while, you have probably heard sermons on this before. I tried to do something different with this, at least different for me.  I asked us to imagine being in the audience and hearing these parables for the first time. I wanted us to imagine being the “holy people,” the people who spent most of their lives trying to do the right thing, maintain a relationship with God, and set up boundaries in our lives in order to maintain that relationship. How might we have heard those stories?

When I put myself in the sandals of the Pharisees, the sect of Judaism that was trying to live out the law of God as best they could, I found that these stories, probably would make us begin to ask questions like these:

Do I think that God celebrates like that over people I see as “outside” the church? Do I know this God of celebration?

When did I lose that sense of celebration, and when did I lose that urgency to share the hope that I have?

I said some other thingsyesterday as well. But I think this does it better. Today, I came across a video from Michael Stewart, who is the Founding Director of Verge Network and Conferences( http://www.vergenetwork.org/)

The video features three segments that say what I was trying to say yesterday, in more compelling and clear ways. These short videos get to the heart of our resistance to share, but also how simple it might be to introduce people to follow Jesus. Here is the video link: http://www.vergenetwork.org/lp/barriers/

Who is my neighbor?

And the million dollar question is…”How?” Question Mark

(perhaps the half-million dollar question is, “How exactly?”)

If someone tells that we should be doing something, whether it be exercising more, eating better, reading more, spending more time with our families, etc…isn’t the question “How?” or “How exactly?” close behind?

I’ve been studying the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37 this week. An expert in God’s law comes to Jesus, asking him how we might inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by asking him a question. (side note: Jesus does this a lot…answering a question with a question. I heard author and speaker Ravi Zacharias say that by doing this, Jesus unearths the assumptions of the ones asking the questions. Why is it they are really asking?)

Jesus asks him how he reads the law. The man answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says he has answered well.

But then really wants to know how to do this, when he asks for some clarification. “Who is my neighbor?”

To this, Jesus tells a story. You can read it here.

Along with studying this passage, I’ve been reading a book by Steve Moore, entitled, appropriately, Who is My Neighbor? I don’t mean for this to be a book review, because, in all honesty, I haven’t even finished the whole book. But I found the chapter entitled “From Information to Action” especially good. Moore says that there are four “exit ramps” that prevent us from actually feeling compassion for someone, and then acting on that feeling. Exit RampsFirst is intention: that we might actually have lots of great thoughts about serving, encouraging, having compassion…but the hurriedness of our lives prevents us from actually doing anything. The second is deflection. We think that showing mercy or helping someone in need is really someone else’s job. Third is rationalization. We think that what we do isn’t really going to make a difference, that what we can offer isn’t nearly enough to solve the problem. Fourth is justification, which Moore describes as deflection and rationalization on “steroids.” (p. 55) These are beliefs we form that attempt to explain why someone might be poor or in need, and that they “might have brought it on themselves.”

But the teaching of Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t seem to allow for any of these exit ramps. When the man asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life, and how exactly he might act on this, Jesus told him a story. A story of a man who actually DID something for someone in need. While others walked by, this man (and Jesus chooses the hero very carefully, and to his hearers, this Samaritan was an unlikely hero) took the initiative and showed mercy.

I found myself asking, “Which exit ramp do I use most often?”

How about you?

Just like a good neighbor…the church is there?

Many of us have probably seen the ads for State Farm Insurance. If you haven’t, they go like this. A group of three young men are watching television, when a baseball comes crashing through the living room window. One of the men picks up the baseball, while another quickly says, “Don’t worry, we’ve got this taken care of.” He then says, “Watch…Just like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.” Instantly, a woman in a business suit, clipboard in hand, is there in the living room. It’s the State Farm agent, there at the call of the insurance holder. The commercial then goes to the ridiculous, as the friends take turns saying the “magic” phrase, “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there…with a sandwich!” The sandwich appears, and then, as the men chime in with their wishes, the sandwich is followed by an attractive woman neighbor, who happens to live in Apartment 4E, and finally, a hot tub. State Farm makes its point: when you have a need, and you have State Farm, their agents will be there like a magic genie.

State Farm

The ads are clever…but I began to wonder about the phrase that State Farm has used for years in its ad campaigns. “Like a good neighbor.” Do we really know what that phrase means anymore? What is a good neighbor? I remember growing up on our street in Seattle, just a few miles from the University of Washington. We knew our neighbors, as they had kids who lived across the street, and down the street. Our street was a mix of families with children, retired couples, widows and widowers. I knew the names of actually over 40 families in the surrounding five block radius, mostly because my older brother and I shared a paper route for six years (for my younger friends, Google “paper route.” It’s in the historical archives. You’ll have to go to Page 2 of Google search results, because I’m not talking about the band named Paper Route). But since my time living on my childhood street, in the multiple neighborhoods I have lived in as a young adult and now 40-something adult, I can’t tell you all the names of my neighbors.


Turns out I’m not alone. In preparation for teaching at our church, I’m reading a book entitled, “The Art of Neighboring.” Authors Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon write about the loss of neighboring in our culture. They cite the fact that, in recent years, city planners, neighborhood developers, architects, and others have helped to construct neighborhoods and homes so that it minimizes contact between neighbors. Plus, our culture values privacy so much that we treat our homes merely as launching points for work (which often happens miles away) and play (which again, happens miles away). When Jay and Dave speak nationally, they claim that only about 10% of their audiences can even name their immediate neighbors on all sides of their home. Jay and Dave began this journey of studying the art of neighboring when a group of pastors and ministry leaders asked the mayor of their Denver suburban area how their churches could best serve the city. The mayor said, “The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.” (The Art of Neighboring, p.18) Jay and his fellow pastors were embarrassed when they realized that Jesus had indeed said the greatest commandment included “loving your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

For nine weeks, we’re going to talk about how we as individuals, and we as a church, could be good neighbors. We’re going to see that the roots of this invitation come from the Old Testament, continue through the gospels, and find their way into the letters of Paul and James. I don’t pretend to think that a nine-week series will solve our neighboring problem. But our church is committed to making followers of Jesus, and in loving our community well, in the name of Jesus. This is a starting point, when we realize that God has always intended that His people be a blessing to those around them. And one day, by His grace, by the change the only He can bring, may our neighbors say, “like good neighbors, the people of the church are there.”