Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Cradle and a Cross

Dear Friends,

It’s early Saturday morning and I just got off the phone with my sister. I stare out the window of my study. The sun is just starting to turn the blackness of night into shades of gray. But now there are too many tears to be able to see anything clearly. My mom has just died. She lived in Missouri and just two weeks ago we had a long conversation about what we were doing for Christmas. We reminisced about the wonderful Christmas times our family had when we were all young. The last thing we said to each other was, “I love you...” Then just last week something happened. Hospice was called. We prayed she would live through Christmas Day. It was her favorite time of year...

My sister and I have said our tearful good-byes and I look out my window to a dark, bleak, cold winter morning. There is no comfort out there. No peace. No solace. I rub the tears from my eyes and look down to see the baby Jesus bathed in a golden light and lying in the manger. I’ve had this Nativity Set since I was nine years old. My maternal grandmother had given it to me and it’s now sitting on the bookshelf under the window.


While my thoughts began to process the reality of my mom’s death, I find myself fixated on the image of the Baby. And suddenly I hear that quiet, still Voice in my spirit: “This is why I was born...”

It was Jesus Himself who told us the reason for His coming to us as a human – His incarnation: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” John 3:16

My mom believed in Jesus. She and my dad met at church when they were teenagers. They were married in that same church and that was where they baptized their three children. We grew up in a godly home and it was no surprise to my mother that her first-born son eventually became a pastor.

I didn’t talk about my mom at church the next day. Some people find comfort and healing by talking out their thoughts and feelings with others. Some people withdraw into the presence of God and best process their grief when it’s one-on-One with Him. Count me among the latter.

We don’t know what heaven will be like until we get there, but according to God’s Word, there are some things that we can count on and look forward to. At the moment of death, the veil parts for the Christian believer and we step over the threshold and into heaven. We take our last breath on earth and our next breath in heaven. And we know that we will be reunited with our loved ones. 2 Cor 5:8 (NLT)   2 Sam12:22-23

Between having my sister and brother, there was a miscarried baby. A stillborn child that my mom never stopped thinking about. But that baby simply bypassed life on earth and was shortcutted directly to heaven by a loving and merciful Creator. On Saturday afternoon, I felt joy at the thought of my mom now holding that lost baby that she had never forgotten.

Maybe Christmas was the perfect time for her to go home to Jesus. She celebrated Christmas with her loved ones and then went to celebrate Christmas with the One who she had always celebrated.

Into the darkness of my grief, God had whispered, “This is why I was born...” He is God with us. Born so that we could be redeemed and restored to our Creator. Life can hurt. We can celebrate one day and be in anguish the next. We lose loved ones and loved ones will lose us. But helplessness and despair are transformed into hope by the cradle and the cross. By death, He has trampled down death. The Apostle Paul tells us, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? ...But thank God! He gives us victory over..death through our Lord Jesus Christ." 1 Cor 15:55-57 (NLT) 

This is why we celebrate Christmas. Because the cradle lies in the shadow of the cross. The Son of God came from heaven to earth to make a way for my mom. And for your mom. For your loved ones and for mine. For you.. And for me...

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Prayer


Dear Lord God, Giver of all that is good.
We thank You today for the gift of Your Son, 
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time.
Who gave Himself for us on the cross,
and lives and reigns with You in glory.

We thank You for our family, our pastors, 
our friends who have gone before us,
and taught us the meaning of Your 
incarnation that we celebrate today.
With gladdened hearts, we celebrate Your Nativity 
with beloved scripture and Christmas carols 
and loud rejoicing.

Help us to teach those who come after us that 
Christmas is a holy time. 
It’s about the greatest gift that we could ever receive.
The gift of a Baby in a manger.

Bless us O Lord as we continue to seek Your Son 
and to love Him more each day.
Bless us Lord that through Your Grace 
we are looking more like Him and less like us.

Bless us as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation
and as we remember that You made us in Your divine image.

Help us to welcome You into the messiness 
of our humanity with 
Your wisdom, power and peace today 
and throughout our days to come.
Emmanuel.  God with us.  Thank You, Lord.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Journey of Joe and Mary


You’re a young, teenage girl living right here in this part of the San Fernando Valley and you come from a loving but poor family. Your father works and has a decent job so he is able to keep the family fed, but that's about it.

You recently got engaged to this guy, named Joe, who works for a framing contractor building houses. He doesn't make a lot of money either, but he’s just a few years older than you are and he’s just starting out. Both you and Joe come from good church-going families and always try to do the right things. You’re a good girl and you’ve never slept with any boys, and you and Joe agree that you won’t sleep together until you are married. Then the most astounding thing happens...

God sends the angel Gabriel to the San Fernando Valley to visit you. It sounds so normal when we say it like that but it actually scares you half to death. Instantly Gabriel appears before you and says: “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” You’re frightened and confused and you try to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid!” the angel tells you, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David. And He will reign over Israel forever; His Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:26-33)

Wait! This is impossible! You’ve been a good girl! There must be some mistake here!  You ask the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin!” The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God... For nothing is impossible with God.” No Way! You're just a teenager! And you're going to have the Son of God? (Luke 1:34-37)

Is this really happening? What are the kids from the neighborhood going to think?  What’s your dad going to say? And will this be a deal-breaker with Joe? How is he going to handle the news? But you think about this and tell the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord's servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” You then take a selfie with the angel so that you can prove to Joe and your family what really happened and when you look up, the angel is gone. You look at the photo on your phone and just see you and a very intense spot of brilliant white light. (Luke 1:38)

You are suddenly alone and now instantly and miraculously pregnant. What do you do now? You go see Aunt Liz who is very wise and a strong woman of God. Liz is a pastor’s wife and she’s also pregnant with a boy who will be called John. Liz lives with her husband Zacharias in the hill country they call Sylmar because that’s where the olive trees are. You pack your bag for a three month stay and go racing over there. (Luke 1:39-40) (Luke 1:56)

As soon as you get there and you greet Liz, her baby John jumps in her womb and Liz is instantly filled with the Holy Spirit. And Liz says to you in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Now Liz always talks a little oddly like that, but you cut her some slack because she’s a pastor’s wife and she spends a lot of time in church. (Luke 1:41-45)

But what Liz has done is to bring you to a full realization that you are soon to be the mother of the Lord. After receiving Liz’s blessing, you just do what comes naturally in the Presence of God. You burst out into praise and worship!

You sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.” And as you finish your song to the Lord, you’re realizing that you are starting to sound a little like your Aunt Liz. (Luke 1:46-55)

You return home, now three months pregnant and just starting to show a baby bump.  You realize that you need to tell Joe and, as you expected, he is very, very, upset about this. Because he had never slept with you, the only thing he could be absolutely certain about was that your baby was not his. It was obvious to him that you had been unfaithful and the law was very clear on the penalty for that. California Penal Code 22:23,24 clearly states: “If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones.” There is no mercy and no appeal process – not even Governor Brown can pardon this crime. In California, if you cheat, you die. Joe doesn’t know what to do. He’s grown to love you and made a commitment to make you his wife, but there’s no way he can marry you now. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, you’ve insulted his intelligence by telling him that God had gotten you pregnant. Wait.. You say a “Spirit” got you pregnant? Yeah.. Sure, Mary... (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

But fortunately for you, God always seems to have everything under control in your life and God’s got this one handled too. When Joe is fretting about what to do, “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Hey Joe, son of David, do not be afraid to take your betrothed for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20-23)

Wow! Okay.. that’s a gamechanger! So you and Joe are good now. And it’s getting time for you to deliver. You can’t wait. You’re still helping your mom around the house, but it’s getting harder and harder and you’re getting tired quickly and needing to rest a lot during the day.

And now, you and Joe get just about the worst news possible. The entire country is reeling from some governmental decrees. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus had rolled out a new health plan called CaesarCare that was not being at all well received. And as CaesarCare was tanking, the Emperor decided that it needed to be bailed out by the government and the only way he could do that would be to raise taxes. So the Emperor decreed that every man needed to go back to the city of their family of origin to be registered so that he could make sure that everyone was paying their full share of taxes. (Luke 2:1-3)

This is bad news. Joe came from David’s family and they had come from Santa Barbara. That means Joe’s got to go to Santa Barbara and you’ve got to go with him.  And Joe doesn’t make enough to afford an SUV or even a donkey so you don’t know how you’re going to get there. You wonder if maybe you can go down to Rakem’s Rent-A-Camel but the bouncing up and down on a donkey or camel when you’re nine months pregnant isn’t good. So you guys are just going to have to do what everyone else does and walk. You don’t know how far it is from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Barbara but you google it and find that it’s about 70 miles. (That happens to be about the same distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.) (Luke 2:4-6)

A strong, healthy man or woman can walk 20 miles in one day but you wonder how far and how fast you can walk when you’re nine months pregnant. You can only take a few things to carry. Water and a little food. No extra clothing. You leave the laptop at home. You’ve got to travel light.  

After 2½ long hard days of walking you reach Ventura but here’s your dilemma. You can’t go any further because you’ll soon be in Summerland which is also called Samaria. Now everyone knows that the people who live in Summerland-Samaria and the people of the San Fernando Valley have been bitter enemies for centuries. That’s why everyone from the San Fernando Valley always avoids going through Summerland-Samaria if they can. You and Joe talk about taking your chances on passing through their little beach town, but no one will give you food or shelter and they will very likely try to harm you both.

Joe is very protective of both you and the baby so you do what everyone else does when they travel north and south. Once you and Joe get to Ventura, you cross the Ventura river and go inland to Ojai. From there you go around Summerland-Samaria by taking the back roads to Santa Barbara. Normally, this is an enjoyable diversion in beautiful hills and mountain passes but your feet are so sore that there are times when you just don’t think you can take another step.  

You wake up in the mornings feeling sick to your stomach and dread another full day of walking. You thank God that Joe is very loving and gives you plenty of time to rest. Your back hurts so much right now and you get short of breath even climbing small hills. But Joe is helping you walk and he’s even patient when you need to stop at every fourth bush to go to the bathroom. It’s taking forever to get to Santa Barbara. Having to avoid the dangerous Summerland-Samaria added another two days to your painfully long trip.

The one thing that’s helped you since you started out from the San Fernando Valley a week ago is the thought of staying in that cute bed and breakfast right there on the beach that overlooks the ocean. Your Aunt Liz recommended it and it’s a quaint little inn with free wi-fi and Victorian furnishings in all the rooms. 

And now you’ve finally arrived in Santa Barbara and you wonder if maybe you should see a doctor. This pregnancy thing is all new for you but from what your mom and Aunt Liz told you, you’re thinking this could be time. The pains are getting sharp and intense. But you’ve been on the road walking for a week now, it’s getting dark, starting to rain and all you can think about is a hot bath at the inn.  

And of course we all know what happens next. Because we’ve read your story and we know that you forgot to make reservations. The innkeeper and his wife are very kind and apologetic as they explain to you that they are completely filled up and there is no more room at their inn. And because of so many people who have come to Santa Barbara to register for the Emperor’s new tax assessment, all the inns, hotels and motels are also filled. But the innkeeper tells you that there’s an old storage shed in the back where he lets his dogs and cats go in to get out of the rain. He says that you and Joe are welcome to spend the night there.

As you walk hand in hand in the drizzling rain with Joe to the back of the property and to a cold, unheated shed you can’t imagine that this is what God had planned for you. Something must have gone terribly wrong. You are cold, wet and exhausted. The excruciating pains are lasting longer and coming just a few minutes apart. Can anything good come out of this miserable night...? (Luke 2:7)


Have you ever thought about why Mary did go to Bethlehem with Joseph? A physically exhausting trip just right before she is about to have her first child? And, we don’t know how she got there. You might remember Sunday School pictures of her riding a donkey but that’s a church legend and not biblical. She most likely did what everyone else did. She walked. But why did she go? The census was only to count men. Women literally didn’t “count” in those days. Mary could have stayed home and family members would have cared for her and helped through the birthing process. Jesus could have been born in Nazareth in a warm, comfortable home.  

But God’s autobiography, the Bible, tells us that His plan was for the Son of God to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah had prophesied that 700 years before. And yet, it would be nearly impossible for Mary to know that. Mary may have sensed that she was simply following the will of God to go to Bethlehem with Joseph. Mary didn’t know how things would turn out. But we know her faith and trust in God was strong.

We don’t know how things will turn out in our own lives either. But like Mary, it is only when we follow God in trust, faith and obedience that we live our lives according to His plans and purposes for us. And on our own journey, when we can’t see clearly what tomorrow will bring, we know that when we’re following God, somehow, everything will turn out okay...

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Are You a Santa or a Saint?


Dear Friends,

Please don’t get me wrong here. I love Santa Claus. I’ll never forget the year he brought me a genuine Red Ryder BB Gun and I still have one of my old steel toy trucks he left for me under the tree. I even have the Erector Set that Santa gave me, but the Gilbert Chemistry Set disappeared shortly after the incident involving the stink bomb in my sister’s bedroom. As I grew into my teens, Santa apparently became very concerned over my personal hygiene habits because my stocking would be filled with deodorant, toothpaste and dental floss. Instead of finding an exciting new toy under the tree, I’d find a shirt and a package of underwear from Sears. Today, as I’ve transitioned into my senior years, Santa leaves me industrial-sized packages of toilet paper and paper towels from Costco. No. I’m not kidding about that.
But the Santa I knew and loved as a boy never overshadowed the Baby in the manger. We’ve enhanced and expanded the Santa legend today until he has morphed into God. He sees you when you're sleeping. He knows if you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good. So be good for goodness sake. Santa Claus is omniscient – all knowing. He knows when you've been good or bad. Santa is omnipresent – he’s everywhere on Christmas eve. Santa fulfills the wishes of good little boys and girls because he is all powerful – he’s omnipotent. Santa brings miracles! All you have to do is to believe!

Those three underlined characteristics are the attributes of God and God alone. But when we’ve imprinted God’s characteristics onto Santa Claus and elevated Santa to be our Christmas deity, we can’t blame our children or grandchildren for praying to their Santagod for toys and other cool stuff. Take a moment and look up Exodus 20:3.

But when I was a kid, the legendary Santa Claus was more like the real Saint Nicholas. In the 4th century, Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra which was located in the territory of Lycia. In New Testament days, Lycia was a province of the Roman Empire and was visited by Paul on one of his evangelistic journeys. (Acts 27:5-6)

Saint Nicholas has been remembered both as a man of great faith and for his compassion of others. His parents died when he was young, leaving him with a large amount of money. Many bishops in those days used their position in the church to gain great wealth and property. Nicholas used his position as bishop to give away his personal wealth to those in need. He used his money to redeem those sentenced to death for their failure to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor and Nicholas was known for giving gifts of food, clothes and shoes to children.

During the reformation, because of the unbiblical Church practices regarding the worship of saints, the Protestants jettisoned nearly all the saints but kept Saint Nicholas. In remembrance of Saint Nicholas on Dec 6th, children received gifts. “Sinter Klass” is Dutch for Saint Nicholas, and Dutch settlers brought Sinter Klass to America where he became “Santa Claus.”

But when the “Santagod” becomes our Christmas deity, we Christians join non-Christians on Black Friday to trample over each other at Walmart and fight over a big screen TV. When we’ve lost the true reason for the season, our hearts go out to disadvantaged children who don’t have the latest video games or a “Supernovia Battle Rover,”and we fill buses with Christmas toys while every 15 seconds, a child in the world under five years old dies from lack of clean fresh water. That’s why for the past three years we’ve been doing something differently in our church at Christmas time.  

Our little church has donated a disproportionately huge amount of money – $3,000 per year to Living Water International. This is the Christian organization that provides sustainable drinking water and the Gospel message around the world. Our church has provided working wells at an orphanage in India and another one in Mexico. This year we provided a village of 1,000 people in Nigeria with fresh, clean drinking water. All in the name of Jesus. Santa Claus would use that $3,000 to buy one hundred toys. Saint Nicholas would dig a well to save hundreds of lives. And at Christmas we get to make a choice. Will you be a Santa or a Saint?


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How to Transition from Santa to Saint
New Hope Family Church has joined a radical movement called the Advent Conspiracy which celebrates the birth of Jesus not as consumers but as Christians. It's not about the rejection of giving gifts to loved ones, but about giving fewer, more meaningful gifts and then giving the money we saved to Living Water International. $25 will buy a cheap plastic toy or it can provide clean drinking water to a family of five for a year. New Hope Family Church will give our entire Christmas offering on December 21st to Living Water and we invite you to join us. If you do not attend our church, you can donate directly to Living Water here. Why give fresh, clean drinking water as a Christmas gift to needy families? Because that's what Jesus would do.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

It's Not About the Turkey!

This AMEN Corner originally published November 27, 2013

Dear Friends,

I had read about a Washington D.C. politician who was vilifying the church and Christians because we don’t like the secular direction our Nation is going in. He said, “If Christians don’t like it here, they can just go start their own country..”  Well.. actually.. we already did that.. It’s called America.

John Adams was the 2nd U.S. President and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams described the principles upon which our Country was founded and the Declaration of Independence was written: "The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United.. Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System."

And by the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, Thanksgiving had been celebrated in America for over 150 years!

Thanksgiving began as a holy day, created by the first colonies of Christian Puritans (English Protestants) who were sincere in their desire to set aside one day each year especially to thank the Lord for His many blessings. These first settlers celebrated days of thanksgiving by acknowledging God as their Sovereign Provider thus providing a spiritual principle which has undergirded the foundation of our Nation.  

One of the earliest recorded celebrations occurred in 1564, after a small colony of French explorers established a settlement in, what today is, Florida. They journaled: “We sang a song of thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.”

In 1621, the Christian Pilgrims landed at Plymouth and immediately struck up a friendship with the Indians who taught them how to plant and harvest corn. The grateful Pilgrims declared a three day feast in December of 1621 to thank God and celebrate their blessings with their Indian friends. Ninety Wampanoag Indians joined the fifty Pilgrims for this Nation’s first Thanksgiving feast which became an annual celebration in the colonies.

From these first days in our Nation's history, days of thanksgiving were also periodically called by government leaders. On September 25, 1789, one day after the First House of Representatives voted to recommend the First Amendment to the states for ratification, a proposal was made by the House to President Washington to “proclaim a day of thanksgiving for the many favors of Almighty God.”

A yearly holy day (holiday) was established by a Presidential Proclamation in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November, “..as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Congress later changed this day of celebration to the fourth Thursday in November.  

Thanksgiving has always been, a uniquely American Christian holiday! We join in this wonderful tradition set forth by our Nation's Christian forefathers as we celebrate the majesty and goodness of God, giving Him praise and thanksgiving! 

"Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever... Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works...”  [Psalm 107:1,8]

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thin Places

Dear Friends,

The 200 year old church sanctuary at Mission La Purisima...  In the high desert, it’s the holy grounds at the Benedictine Monastery, Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo...  It’s the sacred gardens at Santa Ynez Mission where we always take Holy Communion...  These are my “thin places.”

In Celtic Christianity, thin places are those physical locations where God’s presence is more accessible than elsewhere. The Celts were keenly aware of the Cross over all of God’s Creation and were very much aware of their physical surroundings. The Celtic Saint Patrick prayed as he walked, “Christ beside me, before me, behind me, around me, within me.. everywhere.” The sacred and holy places spoken of by the Celtic Christians were where the line between Heaven and Earth was “tissue-paper thin.” Where the Holy Spirit of God seemed as near as one’s own breath. These are the thin places. Places that take us effortlessly into God’s presence and invite transformation in us. Places where we sense the nearness of Him and the life-changing reality of His mercy and grace. These sanctified thin places are the places that we step into and come “face-to-face” with God. 

I love walking along the shoreline next to the ocean. The cyclical tides remind me of the rhythm of our days – the rhythm of our lives. As with our life, there are times of sunny calmness with warm, gentle waves to sooth the soul, and then there are times when fierce storms pound the shores with unrelenting waves of fury and life-threatening danger. At the ocean’s edge, I am reminded of God’s sovereignty and providence. It’s a place where I always come away refreshed and restored. But it’s not one of my “thinnest” places.

Like the beach for me, there are many places we enjoy going to that make us happy, thoughtful, relaxed and filled with a sense of peace and well-being. But then there are those inimitable places where we feel a mysteriously deep connection with God that just about takes our breath away at the intensity of the experience. Places where He is just one step away and we are overwhelmed by His presence. Those are the thin places.

While the term “thin places” does not occur in scripture, we find Jesus frequently withdrawing to a place where He can come “face-to-face” with God. Leaving behind the distraction of places crowded with people, the Son withdrew to those places nearest to God. Jesus, like you and I, could stop what He was doing at any time to speak to the Heavenly Father, but to more fully come into His presence, Jesus went to the thin places.

He started His earthly ministry by going to the wilderness – the desert. (Luke 4:1-2) Jesus went to the mountain-top to choose His disciples. (Luke 6:12) When John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus went to a thin place for reflection and prayer, (Matthew 14:13) and later that day went back to the mountain-top to pray. (Matthew 14:23) Jesus started His days in silence and solitude at a thin place where He could come fully into God’s presence. (Mark 1:35)

As did Jesus, we also need to spend quality time in the presence of God. We need to step away from the chaos and clamor of life and into the quiet. We need to turn down the volume of our cluttered thoughts and come into His peace. Jesus had to do that and He withdrew into those places of silence and solitude to meet God. We too need to find those sacred spaces where the noise in our head quiets and we come into His presence.

Those are the “ordinary” sacred spaces that you can easily get to. Maybe your backyard or a quiet room in the house is your sanctuary. Maybe it’s the early morning walk where you rejoice in God’s Creation. God is always present in our lives but it’s in the sacred spaces that the din of life recedes and you can hear the small, quiet voice of God. 

And then there are the thin places. Places sacred and holy because they have been sanctified and saturated in prayer for centuries. Places where the intake of our breath inhales the Holy Spirit. Places so close to God that we tremble with fear to reach out and touch Him but where He will always reach out and touch us. Your thin places will not be mine. They will be yours. Find them and go there often.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Time to Connect Charger?


Dear Friends,

Something in my house was calling to me. Something was trying to tell me that it was in trouble but I couldn’t find it. It was crying out for help but I didn’t know where it was. It was in the quiet times in my house that I could hear it. It was a high-pitched “beep” but it was so infrequent I couldn’t place its location. And sadly it was losing strength. The low battery alert beep was getting weaker. Its power ebbing away. Pretty soon it would be too late for this little electronic device. The batteries would die and soon become corroded. If the leaking acid corrupted the inside of the device, it would be too late to install new batteries and bring it back to life.

Sometimes, when I’m home alone.. When I'm far from the din and chaos of life.. When everything is quiet.. I’ll sense a quiet warning beep in my spirit. And just like the electronic device sending out the low battery alert, the “warning beep” in my spirit, tells me that something’s wrong. The power that God has graced me with through the Holy Spirit is ebbing away. My spirit is losing strength. There's a shallowness to my soul. I find myself spiritually dry and thirsty and feeling as if something life-sustaining is missing. That’s when I need to go on a hunt for the cause of my spiritual warning beep.

Can one slip so far away from God that their spiritual power completely dies and their soul becomes so corroded with the world that a line has been crossed and there's no going back? Different church traditions disagree about that, but here's what I know. That's nothing I want to experiment with. God is a patient God and He has been far more merciful to me than I deserve, but I don't want to stray so far that I can’t find my way back.

A father and his son were walking far from home. On each side of the path was a dark and dense forest. The little boy asked his father if he could go off the path to explore in the woods. The father said he could but told him that once he stepped off the path he would be unable to see his father and could easily become lost. The little boy became worried and told his father that he wouldn't want to leave the path if he could get lost. The father said, “That's okay, son.  It'll be safe for you to leave the path. I'll just keep calling out to you and as long as you can hear the sound of my voice, you'll be able to make your way back to me.” The little boy thought about that and said, “How will I know if I've gone too far?” And his father replied, “You'll know you've gone too far when you can no longer hear the sound of my voice.”

When my soul becomes dry and thirsty and I begin to feel distanced from God, I respond immediately. I don't want to go too far. One of the convicting passages of scripture is Hebrews 6:4-6. It is unlikely any one of us will ever fall away to the extent that we lose our relationship with God, but we can easily fall away to become spiritually sluggish. And that spiritual sloth creates a distance between us and God. That’s why, when we sense those “warning beeps” in our spirit, we need to respond immediately to examine our spiritual lives and begin our relentless search for the cause.

If you feel your spiritual energies draining away, you need to act quickly. Reach around to the point on your back, right between the shoulder blades, and open up the little plastic door. You’ll see three batteries in a small compartment. One battery is marked “GOD'S WORD.” The second battery is labeled “WORSHIP” and the third one is marked, “PRAYER.” And those three batteries need to be kept charged up at all times. If you’re feeling spiritually sluggish, which one of those needs recharging the most right now?

God’s promise is that He will be with us until the end of time so if we are feeling distanced from Him, we need to look within. A husband and his wife were driving home from their 25th wedding anniversary celebration. He was driving the car and she was sitting in the passenger seat, leaning against the door and looking out the window. As they drove on home, she started to weep. The husband asked her what was wrong. She said, “Do you remember when we were first married that we used to sit close together and cuddle whenever we went driving somewhere?” The husband looked at her from behind the stirring wheel and said, “Honey... I never moved.”

Do you remember that time early in your Christian walk when you were so close to God that you could just feel the intimacy of His presence in your life? Well, God never moved. And He's waiting for you to recharge your spiritual batteries and move back to Him.  Amen?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Be a Blessor


Dear Friends,

It’s called the Chinese Blessing Scam and it has recently targeted elderly Chinese victims in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Alhambra. A “spiritual healer” encounters a well-dressed older victim in a public place and “sees” that a curse of illness and impending death has been placed on the person or the person’s loved ones. The only way to “break the curse” is to have something of enormous value blessed by the “healer.” The person goes to the bank to withdraw large amounts of cash along with valuables from their safe deposit box to be “blessed” and you can guess the ultimate outcome of this scam.

Police say the elderly Chinese are easy targets because their cultural religion is composed of pagan superstitions and folk beliefs involving the worship of numerous gods and goddesses who bless or curse people. Spiritual healers are paid to “heal” people of major illnesses including diabetes and cancer by using herbs and magical talismans to break the deity’s curse. In Asian neighborhoods, scam artists have taken advantage of these folk beliefs to victimize the elderly and vulnerable.

But God’s blessings are not for sale! They are free of charge, and in fact, He loads a heap of free blessings upon us daily (Psalm 68:19 NKJ) His blessings and mercies are so vast and endless that they are renewed every morning! (Lamentations 3:22-23) And He then appoints people like you and me to be His “Blessors.” You could even say that, as Christians, that’s our job – to bless others.

It’s asking for God's favor on another person that changes us from just being blessed to being a Blessor. Invoking God's favor on another brings a renewed awareness of God into their thoughts and the reality of His presence into their lives.
  
Our spoken blessing over another, commends that person to God through our petition. We bless in the name of God because we acknowledge Him as the source of the blessing. When we say, “Bless you in the name of Jesus” we are invoking the fullness of His love and grace. When we say, “May God bless you today,” we connect that person to their Creator and open him or her up to receive all that God has for them that day. And, when we impart God’s blessings to another, we often see an immediate transformation of their countenance. They have sensed God’s presence and feel His peace.

Sometimes the simple act of blessing another brings the healing power of the Holy Spirit. We were at a woman’s boutique clothing store in Ventura when God gave me the opportunity to minister to someone working there. As I simply laid hands on and blessed the woman, her knees buckled and I caught her to keep her from falling as she stumbled backwards. She told me that she was into New Age healing but had never felt a “force” like that. I told her that she had just experienced the power of the Holy Spirit and the one true God was getting her attention.

Pronouncing a blessing over another is not just a feel good phrase. We can nonchalantly toss out our “blessings to you” as if we were saying “have a nice day.” But when our blessings are shallow and perfunctory, we miss the opportunity of truly conveying the life-changing power of God. When you thoughtfully bless others, always be specific about it if you can and if it's appropriate. Invoke God's blessings of peace, grace, comfort or strength in the name of Jesus. Blessing another, in the power of the Holy Spirit, can become a transformative, life-changing moment for them.

You are all blessed indeed. But I believe that God wants more for you. He wants you to be His partner in the blessing business. He wants you to be an authorized distributor of His blessings to others. He wants you to bless your family and your friends. God wants you to bless the strangers that He sends to you. God wants you to be the one who intersects the life of the checker at the grocery store when he’s stressed and depressed.  God wants you in the clothing store when the worker gets the call that her grandmother had a stroke and He wants you to be at the hairdressers when the stylist's son has a high fever. God wants you to speak life-transforming blessings into the lives of others. God wants you to be a Blessor!  Amen?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Alone No More


Dear Friends,

My heart breaks for those struggling through the quicksand of life and just trying to make it on their own from one day to the next. I’ve been there - done that. Most of you know my story. Born into a Episcopalian family. Acolyte at age nine. God’s call on my life as a teenager to be a priest. Walked away from church. Jesus had always been my Savior, and still was, but now He was no longer the Lord of my life. I was in charge now. I was still a “believer,” but I was living my life without God. I was living it my way.

I don’t know when the nightmares started. I never had them when I was young. They were terrifying dreams. They were regular. I dreaded them. In the nightmare, I’d be grieving over a loss, an emptiness. I don’t have the words to adequately describe the gut-wrenching emotional trauma I was experiencing in these dreams. This over-whelming feeling of loneliness was so intensely deep and pervasive that I  would wake up sobbing. My whole day would be ruined by the residual of the dream which just seemed to permeate my soul. I couldn't shake it off. The nightmares of this vividly intense loneliness were so horrendous that there were times I didn’t want to fall asleep at night because I was afraid I’d dream it again. I had them for two decades.

Then in 1994 I walked into a church and the Holy Spirit seized my soul and has never let go of me. Years later, I remembered those nightmares of that loneliness and realized I had not had one since fully giving my life over to God. In the very next moment, I heard the small, still voice of God. He said, “That was your life without Me.”

In my sleep, my soul had been crying out to connect with God. It has been said that we have a God-shaped vacuum in our heart that only God can fill. When that space where God should be is empty, we experience loneliness. And like in my own situation, many feel that emptiness but are unaware that the only One who can fill that void is waiting for them to ask Him into their life. That’s why my heart breaks for those struggling through life without God and trying to make it on their own from one day to the next. They’re doing everything they know how to do and it’s just not working. They’re discouraged, dejected and depressed. They struggle along. Alone and afraid.

Many of them grew up in a Christian family and so they check the “Christian” box under the “religion” question on the survey. But there’s a pervasive loneliness that lingers just under the surface of their days. They are experiencing life without the One who makes it complete. Some try to relieve the pain of that loneliness with alcohol, drugs and television. But the loneliness remains because only God can fill that God-shaped void.

This feeling of loneliness can become even more acute as we age. Children grow and move or are too busy. Illness, death and divorce change our family dynamics. America’s churches enthusiastically create programs and events to reach young families and too often ignore those who are older. 

In the last decade, there has been a huge population increase in Sylmar. Now, 75% of the residents are Hispanic families. In Sylmar schools, 11,544 students are Hispanic and 337 are White. 

The older population in Sylmar is mostly White. Approximately 17,000 of the residents are over the age of 55 years and the large majority of those  are the non-Hispanic Whites. Those who moved families to this rural community many decades ago and never left. This is the people group that the community leaders are concerned about. Making certain this generation has access to health care and activities appropriate for seniors is a priority.

But only the church can take care of their pervasive and unrelenting feelings of loneliness. That’s because we have the One they need. There are few churches in Sylmar which hold services in English. For example, of the six churches in the category of “Spirit-filled,” only one other small church besides ours has their service in English. We will always be a diverse church reflective of our future in Heaven (Rev 7:9) and always reach out to the marginalized and under-served. In Sylmar, that means the older English-speaking generation!

Many of the older generation, face uncertainties and fears as they feel their days coming to an end. The most commonly reported feeling they experience is loneliness. More than ever they need the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And, that’s why God brought New Hope Family Church to Sylmar.  Amen?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Transitions


Dear Friends,

Transitions. Breathtaking at times. Life changing. Or sometimes invisible and barely there. On September 22nd, my least favorite season of summer transitioned into my favorite season of autumn. At first glance, you couldn't tell the difference. For the last few days of summer it was in the mid-eighties. The sun rose at 6:16 and set at 7:15. And for those first few days of autumn, it was in the mid-eighties. The sun rose at 6:16 and set at 7:15. By all outward appearances, there was no change. But on that first day of autumn, during my morning walk at 6:30, the air smelled different. There was a freshness to it. A new fragrance from something blooming in the hills.  I pass by a small tree growing in the wild on the slope and see baby pomegranates. I silently thank the birds for carrying the seeds of this Old Testament fruit and dropping them on the hill. This morning, pumpkin spice came to mind. Has it been a year since I've made pumpkin scones? And as the temperature drops, it's time for our annual visit to Oak Glen and the apple orchards. There was no outward change from one day to the next in this transition of seasons last week. What changed was my perspective. I was no longer looking at the present unrelenting heat but looking forward in anticipation to the cool days ahead in this autumn season.

The day before the transition of summer to autumn, we heard about the transition of our church from the south part of the valley to the north. A new location. New neighborhood. New community. New worship sanctuary. For some a much shorter drive. For others, longer. We can feel as if every aspect of our beloved church has been disrupted and changed. Old habits, routines, Sunday morning schedules and comfort zones have disintegrated. Our favorite parking spot is gone. Our favorite place to sit in our favorite pew is no more. Change can bring a heightened level of anxiety and a fear of the unknown.

That’s why it’s time to ask ourselves, “In the center of this chaotic change, what is the essential core of who we are as a church-as the “body of Christ”? Because the answer to that is You. Me. Us. And that means that we will be the “starter” for this new season of growth in our church and in the ministry to this new community.

If I were a condemned prisoner choosing his “last meal” it would be a loaf of fresh-baked sourdough bread and a big ‘ol chunk of butter. San Francisco gets the credit for “inventing” sourdough bread and there is something in the air around the bay area that gives their sourdough starter a flavor like no other. But sourdough bread was the first yeast type of bread recorded by historians and was used around 1500 BC in Egypt. That was the time of the Exodus, so when God's chosen people were told to bake “unleavened bread,” it was because they needed to hurry up, get out of town and not waste any time by adding the sourdough starter! (Exodus 12:39)

How it works is by taking a clump of the old dough and adding it to the new, freshly made dough. That remnant of the old sourdough becomes the beginning of a whole new batch of bread. And here's the best part. The unique taste of the starter makes each batch of bread taste the same. 

We are a unique church. We’ve added elements of the ancient/future church movement and incorporated the liturgy of the early church in the context of our Spirit-filled worship. And today, the way we worship is as unique as our Eucharistic liturgy. Our prayers. Our fellowship. Our hospitality. We are the core of New Hope Family Church. 

It is only through change that we can experience growth and transformation. And now, as we transition together to a new community, we the  faithful remnant are the “starter” that will infuse and fill this new church with our own unique “flavor.” It will be different. It will be the same.

What excited me about the approaching season of autumn was what I knew that was destined to take place. With that same heightened expectation of what God is doing in our church, I invite you to join me in looking forward to this transition and what He has destined to take place in us, with us and through us.  Amen?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Our Christianese? Arrgghh!


Avast me Hearties! (Dear Friends),

Shiver me timbers! ‘Tis a foul storm approaching that be sending ye to Davy Jones Locker! Arrgghh! Last Friday was International Talk Like a Pirate Day which I’m certain you all celebrated and just so happens to be one of my favorite holidays. When I was a young lad my career goal was to become a pirate and while things didn't work out like I'd planned, it's probably for the best since it would be difficult for me to type this with a troublesome hook in place of my right hand. But I still love watching the old Errol Flynn pirate movies, I live my boyhood dreams on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland and every September 19th I can thoroughly annoy my loved ones by talking like a pirate. Aye, me Beauty, whars me grog? (Singing) Yo Ho, Yo Ho, a pirate's life for me..

What does all this have to do with our Christian faith? Pirate jargon uses antiquated and obscure words with unclear meanings that make people laugh. Christian jargon uses antiquated and obscure words with unclear meanings that make people confused.

While us believers don't yet have a secret handshake, the secret language that we use to communicate with each other can be just as exclusive and alienating to those who may be outside the clubhouse doors and trying to get in. If you've been with other people who unintentionally excluded you from their conversation by speaking in a language you didn't understand, you know what that feels like. 

Our “Christianese” can exclude the very people we are trying to reach. If I invite someone to “ask Jesus into your heart,” she may have no idea what I'm talking about. If I tell her that “Jesus was the propitiation for her sins,” she'll need a dictionary to understand me. If I tell her that “Jesus made atonement for her so that she'll be justified, redeemed and sanctified,” her eyes will glaze over.

But what if I tell her that “Humans have been separated from God by our rebellious nature and that’s what we call sin. And, Jesus, through His sacrificial death upon the cross, paid the penalty for our sins. When we accept and believe in Jesus, then our relationship is restored with God and we will have eternal life.”


There is absolutely nothing wrong with our using the beloved words and phrases that describe our beliefs and how we live out our faith. It's all biblical and it's the language that we use to effectively communicate with each other. But when we're speaking to a non-Christian, or a new believer unfamiliar with Christian jargon, we should remember to speak their language, not ours. 

Whether giving someone driving directions, talking politics or matters of faith, communication has not taken place unless the person we’re speaking with has understood what it is that we’re attempting to say.

When communicating the “Good News,” always try to think about what you are saying from the perspective of the person to whom you are speaking. 

Pirate Version: Aye! When ye parley with yer Matey, speak smartly that they savvy! Arrr..? 

English Translation: Let your conversation be gracious and attractive so that you will have the right response for everyone! Amen..?  Colossians 4:6 (NLT)


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This is an edited and updated version of the September 19, 2012 Amen Corner.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Let's Be The "Nordstrom" Church


Dear Friends,

Melissa was in her favorite Nordstrom store in the upscale part of the San Fernando Valley. She was browsing on the floor where the most expensive dresses cost thousands of dollars. The elevator door opened and out stepped a woman obviously homeless. Dirty, cast-off clothing that had been slept in.. Matted hair.. The odor of life lived in back alleys.. The picture of despair and hopelessness. Melissa cringed when she saw the woman and fully expected store security to converge on the bag lady and quickly hustle her out and back to the street where she belonged. 

Instead, a tall, sophisticated saleswoman approached the bag lady, smiled at her and said, “How can I help you, Ma'am?” The bag lady said, “I'd like to buy a dress for a party.” The saleswoman said, “You've come to the right place. We have some of the finest dresses. Let me show you some.” Melissa couldn't believe what she was seeing and hearing. After the bag lady selected two that she liked, Melissa was shocked to see the saleswoman take the expensive dresses into the dressing room so that the bag lady could try them on. The beautiful dresses would be ruined once they touched her open sores and unwashed body.

In a few minutes the two women came out and the bag lady said, “I've decided not to buy a dress today.” The saleswoman replied, “That's quite all right but here take my card and when you come back to Nordstrom, I'd consider it a pleasure to wait on you again.”
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The man and woman walked hand in hand toward the gleaming, white Protestant church in the San Fernando Valley. This was their first visit and they were immediately confused about where to go. The front doors at the top of the trash-covered steps were closed and seemed to be unused. Everyone was going in the propped-open side door so the new couple followed some people into the church. An usher with an annoyed expression came hurrying down the aisle toward them, handed them a bulletin and went back to sit in the darkened lobby by the front door. It was clear that the new couple had upset the usher by coming in the “member's” door when they should have entered through the front “visitor’s” door. They were surrounded with about thirty people talking, greeting and hugging each other and carefully ignoring the visiting couple. Had they suddenly become invisible? After standing awkwardly in the aisle for a few minutes and hoping to find someone to talk with, they began to feel like they were uninvited intruders who had stumbled into a private family function. The couple sat down quietly in a pew and waited for the service to start. After the service, light refreshments were served on the outside patio and a few people welcomed the couple, shook their hands and then immediately walked away to join their friends. The couple stayed there a year and remained the “outsiders,” welcomed to worship alongside that church family on a Sunday but never invited to join the family. When the couple finally gave up and left, no one called to find out why. Did anyone even notice?

And the question is this. Who was more Christlike in welcoming the stranger? That church family or the Nordstrom saleswoman? Which one was demonstrating God’s unconditional love? My understanding is that the Nordstrom story is true. Both Rhianna and I can attest to the truth of the church story because we were that couple. 

The church pastor and leadership were puzzled why they were not growing. But they had become an ingrown church family, and while they would have never posted a sign that said, “GO BACK – YOU ARE NOT WELCOME,” that was how they treated their visitors. Their church vision proclaimed that they were a lighthouse beaming the love of Jesus out to the “sinners.” The reality was that they had become a private social club for the “saints.”

I'm not picking on this church but using them as an example of how the majority of small to medium-sized churches “greet” their visitors. At New Hope Family Church, let's be the “Nordstrom” church welcoming everyone unconditionally. Because if our visitors don’t feel the love of Jesus radiating out from this body of Christ, then I’d be the first one to recommend they go find a church where they do. Thank God our church is small enough that each one of us has the opportunity to warmly greet our visitors. Find out their name and introduce them to others. After the service, don’t just tell them about our hospitality time but walk with them and sit with them. Treat them like a member of your family. In God’s eyes, they already are. Amen?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Sin Stickers



Dear Friends,

I've got these little stickers in my back yard. I hate them. My dog hates them even more. They’ve got a long spike as sharp as a hypodermic needle. Step on them and it hurts. It hurts even more when you pull them out. When my dog and I are outside and I see her freeze in place and not take another step, I know that she's just picked up a sticker.  

For years, when she got a sticker, I'd immediately go to help her, but she'd limp away from me as fast as she could. A sticker in your paw is painful, but she knew how much it would hurt when the sticker was pulled out. And she associated me with the pain of its removal and not with the absence of pain that would occur as soon as the sticker was gone. She'd be terrified and tremble as I lifted her paw. 

But over the years she's learned that when she has a sticker, I can make that pain go away. Now when she gets a sticker, she just lifts her paw and stands there on three legs and waits for me. I grab the sticker and it's gone. One second she can hardly move because of the pain and in the next, she's running and dancing around the yard again, instantly healed. In her mind, it's a miracle.

Kind of like the process of sanctification. So many times we are limping around with sin stickers stuck in our soul. We can't avoid them. We are imperfect humans falling well short of the glory in this life that will be ours in the next. So one moment we're running joyfully through life and the next moment we've succumbed to a temptation, picked up a sin sticker and we're skidding to a stop. If we fear the painful removal of that sin sticker, we will find ourselves settling for a flawed and compromised relationship with God. The process of sanctification can be uncomfortable. It can be confrontational. In fact if we're being honest about it, many of our real encounters with God are somewhat painful. And knowing that the Holy Spirit will confront us and convict us of our sins, we too often limp away as fast as we can to avoid Him.

Many of us just pretend the sin stickers aren’t there and we’ve learned to limp so artistically that none of our friends have noticed. And some of the best “church-going” Christians have become experts in “sin management.” We walk painfully through life and know that we’ve fooled others. And, we can only hope that we’ve fooled God as well. So in our whispered nighttime prayers, we hide the sins that our lips tremble to name because we cannot bear to bring them before Him.

We find ourselves running from God instead of running toward Him. We tremble at the approach of the Lord and fear the pain of removal when He reaches down and pulls those sharp little sin stickers out of our soul. But when we submit to God and allow Him to do so, as soon as we have been cleansed of our sin, we are now running and dancing and joyfully thanking God for pulling out our sin stickers.

The word "Sanctify" means to be set apart and made holy. Sanctification is the process of growing in Christ through divine grace following salvation. Once we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, we begin to spiritually grow as we learn how to live and love like Jesus. And in our humanness we stumble, fall and pick up a sin sticker and once they’re there, they don't fall out on their own. They have to be pulled out. Sanctification is the process where both you and the Holy Spirit are working to remove the sin stickers. God will reach down and pull them out for you. But you can't be pretending the sin stickers don't exist or try to run away from God. You're going to have to stand still and lift your paw so that He can get to it.

Be honest with God. Remember, you’re not telling Him anything about you He doesn’t already know!  Don't ever be afraid of deep and abiding intimacy with God. When your Heavenly Father looks at you, He sees right through your mask. (Psalm 139:1-7) He knows who you are. And He loves you unconditionally. At the end of each day, ask Him to show you where you’ve missed the mark. (Psalm 139:23-24) Name the sin. Take responsibility for it. Own it. Confess it. Then ask Him to show you what you need to do to change that habit or avoid that temptation. (John 14:13-14) And finally, receive His forgiveness (Isaiah 43:25) and thank Him for His mercy and grace. Amen?

The AMEN Corner is a weekly devotional for the family and friends of New Hope Family Church. It is intended for this devotional to be strengthening, encouraging or comforting and your comments too should be for the glory of God and reflect the intended purpose of these posts.

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