“Come and Get It!”

After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (some call it Tiberias). A huge crowd followed Him, attracted by the miracles they had seen Him do among the sick. When He got to the other side, He climbed a hill and sat down, surrounded by His disciples. It was nearly time for the Feast of Passover, kept annually by the Jews.

When Jesus looked out and saw that a large crowd had arrived, He said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread to feed these people?” He said this to stretch Philip’s faith. He already knew what He was going to do.

Philip answered, “Two hundred silver pieces wouldn’t be enough to buy bread for each person to get a piece.”

One of the disciples — it was Andrew, brother to Simon Peter — said, “There’s a little boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But that’s a drop in the bucket for a crowd like this.”

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” There was a nice carpet of green grass in this place. They sat down, about five thousand of them. Then Jesus took the bread and, having given thanks, gave it to those who were seated. He did the same with the fish. All ate as much as they wanted.

When the people had eaten their fill, He said to His disciples, “Gather the leftovers so nothing is wasted.” They went to work and filled twelve large baskets with leftovers from the five barley loaves.

The people realized that God was at work among them in what Jesus had just done. They said, “This is the Prophet for sure, God’s Prophet right here in Galilee!” (John 6:1-15 MSG)

The feeding of the 5,000 is a story of Jesus familiar even to those beyond the church. There’s one character in there, though, who is often overlooked: the little boy who had brought the loaves and fish. He’s not even named in the story, and probably for good reason. He didn’t do anything miraculous. He just provided what had been given to him, probably from his parents for his own provision at the festival. Giving his own food wasn’t miraculous, but it was generous.

It was Jesus who turned the boy’s simple action into the miraculous multiplication.

Remember when Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding at Cana? The servants brought the water; Jesus did the miracle.

When we at Gather Church offer our selves, our belongings, our time to serve others, we need to remember it is Jesus who converts those offerings into the gifts only He can give. We are just the little boy — we need to always point to the Miracle Worker as the real source of life.

Later in the same chapter, Jesus admonishes those who were drawn to Him by the free meal: “Don’t waste your energy striving for perishable food like that. Work for the food that sticks with you, food that nourishes your lasting life, food the Son of Man provides. He and what He does are guaranteed by God the Father to last.” (verse 27)

And later He says: “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in Me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread — living Bread! — Who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live — and forever!”

When people come into our presence hungry, we do right by filling their stomachs. But if that’s all they get, they are being short-changed. Full stomachs don’t last. They’ll be back for more free food.

But when we give glory to Jesus instead of to Gather Church, we are pointing them to the only one Who sticks to their spiritual ribs. “Your ancestors ate bread and later died,” He says in verse 58. “Whoever eats this Bread will live always.”

— Steve and Marcia Brown

God's Flow

“It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer …”

During middle-of-the-night prayer a few days ago, I was confessing how many things so easily distract me from focused prayer. Especially memories, good and bad both. So I started thanking God for the pleasant memories.

The Spirit urged me to thank God for painful memories, too, so I gave it a whirl, and boy there were a lot of them. Some required more wrestling than others, and I started to identify with Jacob. Among those memories were missed opportunities, lost abilities, poor decisions.

Then something started to happen. As I thanked Him, I felt my heart softening toward the people involved in those painful memories, including myself. I mean, actual softening. His presence started to flow through my thoughts and emotions like a fresh stream or a cool breeze. And I started to sense that this is how God moves.

How we react to things determines how they affect us. “Shall we accept only good from God, and not trouble?” Wasn’t it Job who asked that? (Job 2:10) We all have bad things happen to us. If we build up resentment and anger, that becomes a stone inside us. Stones weigh us down. The old power-to-weight ratio works against our thoughts, our movements, even our dreams.

I started to see the good-to-evil ratio in a new light:

God flows. Love flows. Forgiveness flows.

Anger stops up. Bitterness clogs.

The more I stay in God’s flow, seek it out and move with it, the more I understand how He works. And that flow is irresistible. It overcomes whatever doesn’t move with it, like a river cutting through ancient stone. It flows through the generations, through eternity.

The apostle Paul put it this way: that good shall overcome evil (Romans 12:21). That’s hard to believe if all I see are the things I am stuck with, the things that don’t move. But once I glimpse God’s movement and seek to move with Him, I understand how He cannot fail.

Knowing this doesn’t fix everything I face every day, of course, and there’s still wrestling involved, but it comforts me to know God is moving. And when I make the time to seek Him, I move with Him. That is what prayer is becoming to me.

Redeeming the Time

“See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.” (Eph. 5:15-17)

I recently told the story of how God redeemed me from a drugged life into a meaningful one.

Just two days after that I gave that testimony at Gather Church [May 30 podcast] , I was at a Memorial Day celebration that honored the military men and women who have died in our country’s service. During the keynote speech, I was remembering Jesus’ words: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). I wonder: Was He equating those men and women’s sacrifice to His own?

I consider it an honor to have served in the uniform of my country. However, I did not honor that uniform very well while I wore it.

For most of my three-year Army career — during the Cold War — I was positioned with thousands of other NATO troops against East German and Russian forces just across the border. As supply sergeant for a maintenance unit, I played a somewhat important role in the readiness of front-line forces.

A noble place to be, yes, but instead of devoting myself to my service, I devoted myself half the time to getting high.

As I listened to that Memorial Day speaker, I was humbled. I realized that my unit deserved better. My Army deserved better. You deserved better. I am ashamed of my behavior.

But I’ll not wallow in my guilt. God is abundant in mercy to all who call upon Him (Psalm 86:5). He does not hold grudges. It is safe to come to Him in repentance.

I thank God He did forgive me and heal me, and He restored my brain! On drugs, I had become unable to complete a sentence without forgetting where I had started. But after His touch, I went back to college on the GI Bill and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism, of all things. My work in newspaper journalism is one way I felt I could somehow redeem both God’s touch and my country’s investment in me.

Perspective on pot

In a brief Q&A session after my message to Gather, I tried to explain my thoughts about marijuana nowadays. Didn’t do very well.

Back in that previous life, I often wrote down all sorts of profound thoughts that occurred to me when I was high. Now when I read them, I realize how foolish I was.

To my embarrassment, here’s an example:

I am a universe, unique unto myself.

But if I am a universe, my volume is infinite.

But everything in my universe is me, so everything which enters my universe must be made to be me — or part of me.

Me — a universe — infinite.

I — an empty volume — lonely?

Really. And that actually made perfect sense to me.

Pot didn’t make me wise, it made me stupid.

Several states, including Washington, where I now live, have given their residents the right to purchase and use marijuana for recreational use. But God has given us the right — and the responsibility — to make wise choices.

Legally, under man’s law, we have all sorts of rights that conflict with God’s will: We can squirrel away our wealth and avoid paying taxes. We can ridicule others’ beliefs. We can gossip for profit. We can arm ourselves to the teeth. We can marry someone of our own gender. We can kill our unborn children.

I am not equating abortion with smoking a joint. I’m just saying that having the right doesn’t make it right. Man’s laws are not God’s laws. Man’s wisdom is not God’s wisdom.

For some people, pot is fun. For others, it’s a nightmare. Do not look there for wisdom.

Getting high or getting drunk, even when it doesn’t hurt anybody other than ourselves, is a waste of time. Instead we are called to redeem the time.

Marching orders

Once my life was converted from Hell-bound to God-bound, I faced the big question: What should I do with my life? What is my big calling?

After several false starts, it began to dawn on me: God didn’t make His will hard to understand. Matter of fact, He has made it rather simple:

Don’t sweat the big stuff.

Once we place our lives in His trust, He is in charge of our destiny. We are in charge of being obedient to what He has already told us — one step at a time, one day at a time.

We are not called to change the world. Instead, in our communities, we are called to:

Feed the hungry,

Preach the Good News (with words and actions both),

Love our neighbors,

Love our enemies,

Seek wise counsel,

Learn His voice.

“Small” things like these are plenty enough to challenge and occupy us. “Small” things done in Jesus’ name are not small things in the Kingdom.

He directs our steps as we walk following Him. That’s what disciples are — followers.

We are called to live by His standards and “bring forth our fruit in our season.”

“Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.

“But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in His law doth he meditate day and night.

“And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, who bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” (Psalm 1:1-3)

Divided by Zero

How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down on the collar of his robe.

It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.

For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1-3)

I am amazed and honored to be part of Gather Church. This is a pretty amazing bunch of people. We sing together, we pray together, we mourn together, we serve together, and God knows we laugh together.

But my goodness aren’t we a diverse group? What a slice of humanity we are! We all bring what we can to the mix — some of us bring time, some bring money, some bring transportation, some bring strong backs, some bring great good humor. Some of us are trying to figure out where we fit in, if at all. But if this isn’t a family, I don’t know what is. For some, it’s the only real family we’ve ever known. And we truly need each other.

We’ve each been affected by good choices and by bad choices. We’ve been affected by the economy, by drugs, by crime, by jail time, by rejection, by disease.

I suspect that each of us in this room was affected by other churches before we got here, and by the church we’re part of now. Some of those influences were negative; some were positive.

And the fact that we are right here right now reflects choices we have made about where we want to worship, where we want to learn.

Gather Church is unique, isn’t it? Unique because of where and when we meet. Unique because of who we are with. Unique because of what we do.

But you know what? Our way of loving Jesus is not the only way.

Some churches focus on sending missionaries across the world. Some focus on building new churches. Some focus on avoiding worldly influences. Some focus on political and social change.

Every other church in Centralia and across the world is just as unique as Gather. There are millions of things that distinguish each congregation from the other.

Yet, with all these differences, God calls us to be united.

Ephesians 4:3-5 — “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (NIV)

That’s what I want to talk about — unity.

Paul encourages us to do whatever it takes to hold onto the unity that binds people together in peace. He does not ask us to create that unity; that has already been accomplished through the work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Rather, he calls believers to guard that unity, because that unity is founded on God’s oneness and His work in the world.

But we look around us and see obvious divisions, so many different denominations among those who call Jesus Lord. We look different, we sound different, we act different. Where is there any kind of unity?

Let me offer you this perspective:

In mathematics, dividing by zero makes no sense at all. If you try it on a calculator, say you divide 2 by zero, or 45 by zero, you get an error message. Mathematicians refer to numbers divided by zero as undefined — there is no answer.

But in logic, you can look at it differently. If you take two objects with nothing dividing them — fused together, if you will — you have one object. If you take 45 objects with nothing dividing them, you have one object.

I started giving this some thought early in my marriage to Miss Marcia. Having survived two earlier marriages, I had seen some of the things that can separate two people: lack of maturity, differing world views, opposing passions, conflicting interests.

So I determined to make this relationship work — we both did — and I am delighted to report that Marcia and I are closer now than ever before. I married my best friend ever, and never looked back.

We are still very different people, but as we live and work together, our differences become less and less important than our togetherness. We work toward that state of being divided by nothing.

Now when we look at the Christian church — the universal body of believers in Christ — you could say there are millions of differences separating us. In this room, even, there are no two people who believe everything exactly the same. With that in mind, we can say there is no unity.

Some people might look at Gather Church and say we’re so diverse, so splintered, how could we ever accomplish anything? But we do figure out how to make it work. Amid all this diversity, it’s something greater that brings us together.

The same way, we can look at how the global church is splintered. We worship in different languages and cultures, in different styles. We do share many rituals, but look at the different ways we baptize and take communion, for example. How many different kinds of music do we listen to and sing?

You’ve got to admit that what goes on inside church buildings is different all over town. What looks to us like Christian fellowship here at Gather looks to many other Christians like irreverent bedlam. And conversely, the way that some other church bodies worship might look to us like still life.

What kind of unity is that?

A young fellow was walking across a bridge and saw a young lady standing at the rail admiring the view.

“Lovely day,” he said.

“Yes, a glorious day,” she replied.

“God does good work.”

“Oh, He sure does.”

“You a believer?”

“Yes, I’m a Christian.”

“Me, too! Small world! Protestant or Catholic?”


“Me, too! What denomination?”


“Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?”

“Northern Baptist.”

“Well, ME TOO! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

“Northern Conservative Baptist.”

“Well, that’s amazing! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist or Northern Conservative Reformed Baptist?”

“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist.”

“Remarkable! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Eastern Region?”

“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region.”

“Well, Hallelujah! Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?”

“Northern Conservative Fundamentalist Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

He then said, “Die, you heretic!” and pushed her over the rail.

That’s what it can look like when you go setting conditions for unity. It may not be what we think it is, and trying to find it may just point out our differences.

There are certain religions where the goal is to have everyone believe and worship exactly the same. Even some churches that call themselves Christian have that goal.

But is that the unity Christ calls us to? Does he mean for us to think exactly the same? What is meant by being “one in the Spirit”?

Is it calling Jesus Lord?

On the one hand, “Those who call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (in Acts 2 and Romans 10)

But on the other hand, Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

Is Spanish, that phrase “I never knew you” — “Yo nunca les conoci” — means “I never met you.”

How does Jesus distinguish among us who call him Lord?

Matthew 25: 31-46 — “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

Thinking about livestock, we know what sheep look like, and we know what goats tend to look like, but there are breed of each that are difficult to distinguish.

Same with people who call themselves by Christ’s name. The shepherd is the one who knows. We can only guess. We see only the outward actions and appearances. Those are what divide us.

Even our actions can look the same.

I Corinthians 13:1-3 — “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender by body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Love is what distinguishes us. Our hearts, our common direction, those are what unite us.

In Hebrew, Psalm 133 — “How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” — is “Hine ma tov u’ma-nayim shevet ach-im gam ya-chad.” It is traditionally sung at Shabbat feasts, or Sabbath celebrations, when we lay down all the things of the world and wait on Him, listening for Him to communicate with us.

Here’s the best part: “Ya-chad” means absolute unity, more than just peace and harmony. It’s our attachment to God, our unity with Him, not just with other people. That is the ultimate “divided by nothing.” That is being “one in the Spirit.” As we become more united with Him, we become less divided from each other.

— Steve Brown

(This was delivered as the message during the Nov. 7 service at Gather Church.)

When Death Becomes a Welcome Embrace (part 2)

“Why should it always be the bad people who make the revolutions?” — Dietrich Bonhoeffer

How could a man who sought the heart of God and lived to serve Jesus involve himself in a plot to kill another human being?

Eric Metaxas, in his biography of Bonhoeffer, traces that evolution. A godly man who chooses to intentionally break one of God’s commandments cannot make such a choice lightly.

Surely a lesser man could rationalize such actions and “sin all the more that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), but not a person after God’s own heart.

Bonhoeffer was a theologian (seeker after God) and a pastor (shepherd), both a follower and a leader. He took seriously how he would serve his Master and how others would learn from him.

So he had to count the cost of such a radical choice. He went beyond the idea of being guided by principles to being guided by God Himself.

This conviction likely came from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which had influenced Bonhoeffer’s faith from an early age. In that sermon, Jesus presented a series of antitheses: “You have heard it said (principle) … but I tell you (revelation).” To be found faithful, Bonhoeffer would not settle for mere obedience to the written law.

He did not want to be seen as righteous, but to earnestly love and serve in Jesus’ name.

He had long ago settled that it was the role of the church to speak for those who could not speak, and the world around him was growing ever more grim.

Persecution by the Nazis was growing more and more atrocious — including state-sponsored euthanasia of “unworthy lives,” those people with mental or physical disabilities, and abortions forced on women deemed “genetically inferior” or “racially deficient.” Hitler had declared himself “the supreme judge of the German people.” When Germany’s President Paul von Hindenburg died, Hitler appointed himself president.

With the stabilizing influence of Hindenburg gone, Metaxas writes, “The German people found themselves far from shore, alone in a boat with a madman.”

The German state and church were being “welded together,” and other nations were reluctant to get involved.

Some international church leaders spoke against the German government’s actions against Christianity, but Bonhoeffer was dismayed when “the slowness of ecumenical process [was] beginning to look to me like irresponsibility.”

He came to the conclusion that he must become even more personally involved.

When he was asked why he helped form the Confessing Church instead of opposing from the inside the German Christian Church, he said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”

He would have to take his faith to new dimensions, to live what he believed to the hilt.

When he encouraged fellow believers standing against persecution, he was speaking as much to himself: “This is where we find out whether we have begun in faith or in a burst of enthusiasm.”

His role in the conspiracy to oust Hitler revolved around friendships he had established with influential people in Britain, Norway and the United States. German generals opposed to Hitler wanted to assure the Allies that they weren’t the bad guys, that they were seeking to establish a more responsible government in Germany. Bonhoeffer carried that message, covertly, to those who would listen. All of the conspirators knew that discovery of the plot would likely mean their executions.

A fellow conspirator, Henning von Tresckow, wrote: “A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.”

As the war dragged on, and Nazi atrocities intensified, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill loudly branded every German a Nazi. There would no recognition of any opposition within Germany.

How Bonhoeffer faced death is at least as important as how he faced life.

Perhaps you have seen the 2008 movie “Valkyrie.” It tells the story of how the plot to assassinate Hitler with a bomb developed and came to fruition, but failed when a massive table leg protected him from the blast.

The Gestapo started uncovering the names of all those involved in the conspiracy and began arresting them, interrogating them, trying them and condemning them to death.

Bonhoeffer had already been imprisoned for his work with the Confessing Church, and now he knew his only hope of survival was the arrival of the Allied troops now closing in on Germany. But he had long ago accepted the possible consequences of his resistance, and had found comfort in what he had learned from Scripture and prayer.

His words on death teach us about the commitment disciples make when they choose God over life. Early in the war, he wrote this to his seminary students after learning that some of their brethren had been killed in action:

“To be sure, God shall call you, and us, only at the hour that God has chosen. Until that hour, which lies in God’s hand alone, we shall all be protected even in greatest danger, and from our gratitude for such protection ever new readiness surely arises for the final call. …

“The Lord makes no mistakes. … Whomever God calls home is someone God has loved. ‘For their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness.’ (Wisdom of Solomon 4)

“We know, of course, that God and the devil are engaged in battle in the world and that the devil also has a say in death. In the face of death we cannot simply speak in some fatalistic way, ‘God wills it,’ but we must juxtapose it with the other reality, ‘God does not will it.’ Death reveals that the world is not as it should be, but that it stands in need of redemption. Christ alone is the conquering of death. Here the sharp antithesis between ‘God wills it’ and ‘God does not will it’ comes to a head and also finds its resolution. God accedes to that which God does not will, and from now on death itself must therefore serve God [my emphasis]. From now on the ‘God wills it’ encompasses even the ‘God does not will it.’ God wills the conquering of death through the death of Jesus Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ has death been drawn into God’s power, and it must now serve God’s own aims.”

While a pastor in London, he had preached: “Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.”

Before long, Bonhoeffer was drawn into the Gestapo’s net and was sentenced to death. In his last days, he continued to work as a pastor with his fellow prisoners, comforting them amid their depression and anxiety. He even shared the foundations of Christianity with a Russian atheist.

On his last day, he led a worship service. As he finished his closing prayer, two men in civilian clothes came to take him away. His parting words were: “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”

After the final verdict was read, camp doctor H. Fischer-Hullstrung observed Bonhoeffer kneeling in his cell and later wrote: “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Two weeks after Bonhoeffer’s execution on April 8, 1945, in Flossenburg, Germany, the Allies marched in and liberated the prison camp. One week later, Hitler committed suicide and war was over.

Among the many words that could be said as an epitaph, Bonhoeffer’s vision of discipleship shines brightly:

“Only the believer is obedient, and only he who obeys believes.”