Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Branded For God

Dear Friends,

Christians make me laugh. The liturgical traditions - Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran - think that our Charismatic way of worshiping with our hands raised in worship is emotionally excessive and looks absolutely ridiculous. The fact that Jesus, all Jews and the early church worshiped and prayed with upraised hands does not sway them in their belief that this is a very inappropriate physical gesture for today. They don't care if the early church worshiped that way. It just ain't right.

And Pentecostals, Charismatics, Baptists, Reformed think that making the sign of the cross on our bodies is emotionally excessive and looks absolutely ridiculous. The fact that following the resurrection of Jesus, His followers made the sign of the cross on their body does not sway us in our belief that this is a very inappropriate physical gesture for today. We don't care if the early Christians did it. It just ain't right. 

So let's talk about this one gesture that evokes so much contemptuous disdain from our Evangelical and Pentecostal brothers and sisters. Touching the forehead, the center of the chest and from the right shoulder to the left shoulder. The sign of the cross †. 

(In the 16th century, the Catholic Church changed the ancient practice and begin to touch the left shoulder first and then the right. No one knows why. The Orthodox Church still follows the ancient pattern of right to left and so do I.)

Shortly after the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection, His followers drew crosses as the symbol of their faith. Archaeologists have found drawings of crosses with stick figures of Jesus on them. But most drawings from that period of time in Christian history are of "empty" crosses declaring to fellow Christians and others that Christ's life did not end on the cross and He lives forever. In that early persecuted church, the sign of the cross was often used as a secret gesture from one Christian to another (that gesture is the same one I use when I make the sign of the cross over you at the end of our service). And, throughout time, Christians have been making this silent gesture to other Christians as a way of saying “God bless you.”

The most common objection I've heard to making the sign of the cross on one's self is that it's “too Catholic.” But the earliest Christians used the sign of the cross two centuries before the establishment of the Church at Rome so the only possible objection we could have is that it’s “too Christian.”

Later on, Christians used the name of the triune God to sign one's self in the name of the “Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When we do so, we are not simply naming the One who we worship. When we say His name, we invoke the nature and substance of the triune God and we come into His presence. (Exodus 20:24b NAS)

The mark of the cross is God's brand. Old Testament shepherds branded or marked their sheep with a vegetable and mineral dye that would stain the wool and not wash off. Cowboys in the old west, and still today, brand horses and cattle with hot irons to mark the livestock as theirs.  A mark or brand is a claim of ownership.  

When you were baptized, the mark of the cross was made upon your forehead. Like the branding of sheep to claim ownership, the mark of the cross branded you for God during your baptism. That mark claimed your spirit, soul and body for Jesus. The mark of the cross is the seal of the Holy Spirit.

When we make the sign of the cross we invoke God’s blessings by acknowledging that we belong to Him. Marking ourselves with the cross of Jesus should never be done casually or carelessly. It should be done slowly and reverently and with faith. Many times you will feel an inrush of His peace as you do so. Times when I'm stressed or just getting too intense about something, I'll do nothing more than slowly make the sign of the cross and immediately feel the pressure of my life being replaced with the peace of God.

The sign of the cross should not be used ritualistically or superstitiously. It's not a spiritual magical charm that will protect you from all evil and make you rich, happy and thin. But we are stamped, sealed, branded and claimed for Jesus with the mark of the cross, and when we trace the cross on our body, we are saying to the One who paid the price and now owns us, “Here I am Lord. I'm all yours. Make me according to the desire of your heart.” 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


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?

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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