Saturday, December 24, 2016

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 14, 2016

Journey of Las Posadas


Dear Friends,

When I was young, one of my favorite things at Christmas time was when my mom and dad took us kids to Olvera Street for Las Posadas. Olvera Street is considered to be “the birthplace of Los Angeles” and is where you’ll find the oldest house in the City. The Olvera Street adobe and brick buildings were restored in 1930 and today you’ll find a block-long, tree-shaded, brick-lined market place that ends at the historic plaza. “Las Posadas” is a Catholic-Mexican tradition that commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the search for a place where Jesus would be born. You could feel the excitement all along the narrow, colorful street as we waited for Las Posadas (The Inns) to begin. You first heard the singing and then saw a teenage Mary riding a small donkey lead by a teenage Joseph. There was a bunch of kids, about my age, dressed as either shepherds or angels and all were singing and carrying candles. As the crowd passed us, we joined the procession as it made its way down the street. “Mary and Joseph” stopped at every shop entrance asking for shelter and were turned away until they reached their final destination. The “inn-keeper” invited them in and everyone was served a Mexican hot drink and cookies. Things were far less inclusive in the early sixties, but it never seemed odd to me that we were one of the very few non-Catholic, non-Mexican families who took part in this Christmas tradition on Olvera Street!

We can think of Las Posadas as a metaphor for the Advent season. Jesus knocks on the doors of hearts and He’s either rejected and turned away or He’s invited in. Jesus invites us to come and live within Him and He will live within us. John 15:4 You can ignore Jesus the rest of the year, but He’s in your face from Thanksgiving day until Christmas. That’s why this is a very tough time of year for atheists. Immanuel means “God with us” and while Jesus is with us year-round, you definitely can’t escape from Him at Christmas time! Even atheists cannot hide from the “God with us” for He is with them too. From the music at the mall to the nativity scenes, the songs and images of Jesus Christ are everywhere we go and that means that the atheist must be constantly and continuously rejecting the Son of God.

Last Friday we were at our favorite beach restaurant on a very cool, overcast day so we were happy to find that the outdoor patio heaters were working. The only other one braving the outdoor patio was “Peggy” and her small dog. She’s a regular at the restaurant as we are. We’ve talked with her before and so we asked what she was doing for Christmas. She told us about a trip that she and some of her children were taking to South America. After sixty-four years of a happy marriage, her husband had died a year and a half ago and she began to talk to us about the loneliness and emptiness of her life without him. I heard her sadness and saw her eyes fill with tears.

God prompted me to turn this conversation toward Him and I asked her about her faith. She said, “I’m going to disappoint you both because I always see you pray before you eat, but I’m an atheist.” She had been uncertain about God throughout her life and at the age of seventy-two decided that she just didn’t believe. She told us that one of the hardest things about being an atheist, and not believing in God or in an afterlife in Heaven, was the realization that she would never see her husband again. I asked her if she ever prayed. She shook her head “no” and I told her that we would start praying for her. I told her that we were both strong Christian believers who believe in the efficacy of prayer and I told her that I was also a pastor. She said she hoped that we would still like her and we assured her that we still did. We all finished our lunch at the same time and the three of us stood to leave and we said goodbye. Peggy turned away to walk down the steps toward the street but then stopped and turned back. “Don’t forget to pray for me,” she said. “I’m leaving Wednesday and pray for my plane trip. I’m not afraid of terrorists but bad airplane mechanics. Please pray that I have a safe flight.” We assured her that we would. 

The Advent journey is the journey of Las Posadas. No longer is it Mary and Joseph but Jesus Christ who is knocking on the doors of hearts all across the world and inviting us to come and abide in Him and He in us. It started with us asking Peggy how she was going to spend her Christmas this year. She apologetically but firmly explained that she did not believe in God or prayer. But then as she was leaving, she not only asked for our prayers to the God she “didn’t believe in,” but she asked specifically for God’s protection of her and a safe flight. At some point during our conversation, the Holy Spirit intervened and Peggy opened that door to her heart just a little crack. Just enough to wonder again. To maybe hope again. This is why I love Advent! I know that our conversations with her will continue...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Grandma's Greatest Gift

Grandma ~ Christmas Morning 1979
Dear Friends,

Quirky is one word that you could have used to describe my grandmother. Twice divorced back in the days when women just didn’t do that, she never paid too much attention to socially-accepted convention. Grandma was strong, out-spoken, independent and adventurous. She was a school teacher on a military base in Okinawa, Japan after the war and then a school teacher in Compton. I loved my Grandma. I didn't love her Christmas gifts. She lived on a multi-acre property in Downey with “Demi” her Great Dane. She had a commercial tropical fish hatchery on her property and the adjacent storage building was the secret place where she stored the Christmas gifts. When schools closed for summer vacation, Grandma traveled to distant lands and brought back gifts for her now-grown children and grandchildren. Among the pallets of fish food and old tanks in the storage building, she had shelves with our names neatly printed on them. Throughout the year, whenever she found something that could be a Christmas gift, she put it on our shelf. I spent many enjoyable summer weeks with her when she wasn’t traveling so I soon discovered the not-so-secret Christmas shelves. 

One year, I found a pair of boy’s German “leaderhosen” on my shelf. These are leather knee-length shorts with colorful embroidery and suspenders – think Oktoberfest costume. I was a painfully shy kid who wore only Levis and long-sleeve flannel shirts to school and a suit to church. So I did what any good church-goin’ lad would do. I moved the leaderhosen over to Howie’s shelf and prayed that my grandmother would think that she had bought these for her other grandson. But it was impossible to deceive Grandma – did I mention that she was a schoolteacher

The only time I ever wore the leaderhosen was on Christmas morning when my parents insisted that I try them on so that Grandma could see me in them. I spent that Christmas day dressed like a character in the Nutcracker ballet with grownups telling me how cute I looked and my grandmother thrilled at giving me the perfect gift. Many years later, when I had matured into a painfully shy teenager, my Christmas gift was a wine-stained African Caftan that Grandma had worn at a ceremonial dinner with a tribal chief on her last trip to Africa. I could tell you about other gifts but you get the idea. When I was a little kid, I didn’t want a wooden statue hand-carved by Aborigines, I wanted a Tonka Truck.

But if Grandma missed it when it came to those wrapped gifts under the tree, she gave her grandchildren the greatest gift of them all. She gave us the gift of her love and time. I have so many happy memories of going places with her. Everything she did with her grandchildren was an adventure. And she gave her love and time not just to her family. When I was at her house in Downey, she would often bring home a student from her class to spend the day with me. These were all African-American kids my age who loved all the animals on the property, particularly the Great Dane. They lived in poverty conditions in broken homes and she treated these students as if they were her grandchildren. A lifelong Episcopalian, she lived out her faith by giving her love and her time to others and I am certain that after she took her last breath on earth and her next breath in Heaven, she heard Jesus say, “Well done good and faithful servant.” 

You and I have received the greatest gift of them all. It’s nothing wrapped and under the tree. The very best gift that we have ever received is laying in the manger. “For the grace of God that brings salvation appeared to all men.” Titus 2:11 And I love the way the NLT translates verse 14: “He gave his life to free us from every kind of sin, to cleanse us, and to make us His very own people, totally committed to doing good deeds.” Titus 2:14 NLT Christmas is the time of year that we are reminded of our need to focus less on ourselves and more on others. But many of us try hard to make it easy on ourselves to do the “good deeds.” We give money to our favorite charity at Christmas. We drop off that $5 toy at Toys for Tots. We toss our loose change in the Salvation Army kettle and pat ourselves on the back for our giving spirit. We write out that Christmas check for our grandchild. But when Jesus spoke about giving to others, He never mentioned an Amazon gift card or something on sale at Macy’s. [Read Matthew 25:31-40] The greatest gift we can give to others comes from our heart – the gift of time and love. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate receiving appropriate gifts (review the opening paragraphs for what not to give me) and I love giving gifts to others. But what I learned from Grandma was how to give that greatest gift of all.

To whom in your church can you take some freshly-baked Christmas cookies and then just sit with them awhile and visit? Which elderly neighbor on your street can you help today with their outdoor decorations? Who are the people you can call this Advent season, just to talk with them? For anyone who has experienced a major life transition this past year – loss of a loved one, loss of a job, difficult family situation, Christmas is a tough time for them. Is there someone you know who will spend Christmas alone unless you invite them to your house? God created us to be in relationship with others and many older people are alone and feel a deep and pervasive loneliness this time of year. Did you know that 60% of all people who live in assisted living facilities and nursing homes never receive a visitor? Just to have someone to talk to brings great joy to them. Who can you give the greatest gift to this Christmas season? You know the gift I mean. The one that Jesus talks about. The gift of your time and your love. Amen?

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Do You Need Advent?


Dear Friends,

I loved Advent. My grandmother always gave me and my sister an Advent Calendar right after Thanksgiving day. I loved those cardboard calendars with the cutout for each day of December that lead up to the illustration of the Nativity on the 24th. I would look forward every day to the ritual of slowly and carefully opening another cardboard door to reveal what was printed inside. I savored every day’s illustration. The Advent Calendar heightened my anticipation for Christmas and drew me closer each day to the celebration of the birth of Christ. I resisted, of course, the temptation to “peek” at the hidden illustrations under the closed doors that would be opened in the days ahead. But as soon as my sacrilegious seven-year-old sister got her Advent Calendar, she would run into her room and tear open every door. This was back when I was a young, God-fearing lad who was practicing to be a pastor by baptizing my sister’s Barbie dolls in the “creek” that ran through our backyard. So when I discovered her Advent Calendar desecration, I loudly proclaimed to our parents that it was an act of blasphemous rebellion against the church and everything most sacred.

Last week, I used pretty much those same words while ranting to the blonde lady with whom I spend my Fridays. We had just come from visiting our favorite mission in San Juan Capistrano and were walking from the Mission Gift Store to the car. You don’t find “christian-cute” merchandise in a Catholic Book and Gift Store. They are filled with seriously religious items such as prayer cards, statues, jewelry, holy water bottles, crucifixes, icons, rosaries and essential books. We were looking for crosses to hang on my Christmas tree when we both noticed what was on the store’s overhead music system. Michael Jackson was singing, “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry.. You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.. Santa Claus is coming to town.” And the next “Christmas” song was “Last Christmas” by WHAM! I won’t bother giving you the lyrics, but trust me – it’s most definitely not a “Christian” Christmas song. As I’m wrestling with the dichotomy of listening to the Jackson 5 and WHAM! in this very religious environment, the smiling salesclerk rang up my purchase and then cheerfully wished me, “Happy Holidays!” You’re kidding me!! A Catholic employee is wishing me a politically-correct “Happy Holidays!” in a Catholic-owned store on the sacred grounds of this 240 year old Catholic church? I may as well have been at Target. Thus the reason for the rant.

But it reminded me of why even we good church-goin’ Christians so desperately need Advent these days. Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent and comes at the perfect time to interrupt the political hostility that has seized our Nation. We need a timeout from the hysteria, but instead of a time of peace and joy, our Christmas ritual starts with an appropriately named Black Friday.. Credit card debt.. Jingle Bells and jangled nerves.. Dashing toward Christmas day in a one horse open sleigh.. Then finally, it’s Christmas! It’s show-time!! We did it! And yet in the Christmas rush, the manger is still empty. We got it all done, but we’ve left someOne behind.

That’s why we need Advent. Advent means “coming” and these are the days that we anticipate the coming of Christ. Advent is the spiritual speed-bump that slows us down in our race toward Christmas and allows us to savor the journey. When we are tempted to speed up into the Holly Jolly Christmas pace, Advent takes us into a contemplative place. During this happy holiday season, we can meet Santa at Wal-Mart, but Advent reminds us that we’ll meet God in the quiet sacred places.

On the Advent journey, we find our peace and joy not in what we buy, plan, decorate or cook, but in the expectancy of His coming. That’s why you may want to spend even more time in quiet prayer and contemplation. You may want to turn down the noise of your fast-paced life and spend time in silence with Him – just you and God – alone together. Read an Advent devotional or read Luke 1:5-2:20 and Matthew 1:18-24. Meditate on these scriptures by thinking about what they mean to you. Pray about them and then just rest in His presence. You may hear Him speak to your heart, you may be filled with His peace or you may just find yourself sitting there with God and enjoying His Presence. 

Resting in His peace will bring a joyful attitude. Then when others are stressed, anxious and angry in the weeks ahead, bring the joy of God into their lives. Practice graciousness, patience, and kindness with family members and frazzled store clerks alike. Be especially aware of friends and neighbors who struggle this time of year and be compassionate. Be Christ-like. Show them the love of Jesus this Christmas and do what you can to relieve their distress, suffering and loneliness. Let them see, through your love for them, the Child in the manger. Amen?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving. An American Christian Holy Day


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 16, 2016

Love Thy Neighbor.. No, Really!


Dear Friends,

A good friend of mine recently wrote on her blog a post entitled, “If Trump Was My Neighbor.” She lives with her family on a very multicultural and multiracial street and, while “hatred” may be too strong a word, she and her neighbors shared a pervasive and intense dislike for Donald Trump and thought very highly of Hillary. My friend is an African-American pastor and she told her readers that she was using the “Neighbor Trump” scenario to teach her young son how to behave as a Christian toward someone that they so thoroughly despise. Her heart of angst was clearly heard and it was thought-provoking.

Because really.. What if Donald Trump did move into your neighborhood? Or what if it was Bill and Hillary? Or the three gay guys next door who invite other men over for loud and boisterous hot tub parties? Or the old White curmudgeon guy across the street who flies the Confederate flag on all national holidays? Or the run-down house with the El Salvadorian men and their MS-13 gang tattoos? Or the aging Black rock ‘n roller bass player reliving his hippie days with his garage band on those late Saturday nights? Or that overzealous Bible-thumper at the end of the block who annoys you by giving you Bibles, tracts and religious material and inviting you to his church – oh... wait... I think that last guy is me...

You may be blessed like I am with perfect next door neighbors who love the Lord, go to church and whose values and political beliefs mirror my own. Or you may feel as if you’ve been cursed with a neighbor from hell (see above paragraph). And honestly, if it were a “Donald” or a “Hillary” that moved into our neighborhood, or the garage band or the Confederate curmudgeon, that’s when even us good church-goin’ Christians can resent, resist and reject the words of Jesus. My dilemma is that Jesus didn’t tell me to tolerate my neighbors and be polite. That I can do. It would be so easy if the Son of God had just commanded me to put-up-with, ignore or avoid contact with my undesirable neighbors. My property is fenced with gates that lock so I can easily avoid contact with any difficult neighbors. But the problem we have with Jesus is that He told you and me in the strongest possible terms to love your neighbor.” Matthew 22:37-39 And then He said that “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are My disciples.” John 13:35 NLT And then Jesus shockingly took it one step further and made the preposterous statement that we should even love our “enemies!”

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48 NLT

And Paul also tells us how to treat our neighbors. “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other.. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” Romans 12:14-18 NLT If a Donald or a Hillary moved into our neighborhood, our prayer is not that God would give them a holy smack-down but that God would actually bless them.

I can, of course, be pretty judgmental when it comes to my neighbors and so sometimes it’s to me that God gives a holy smack-down and it’s my attitude that changes. Last week I was out in my front yard and most of you know I live across the street from Olive View Hospital. A Hispanic man in his twenties walking down the street saw me and called over the fence. Wearing only gym shorts and a shredded tee shirt, shaved head and covered with gang tattoos he looked like a muscular and powerful street hood. This was one scary dude. From outward appearance, this guy did not look like he’d “persecute” you. He looked like he’d kill you. Most definitely not the guy I’d want to move into my neighborhood. He had just been released after three years in prison, celebrated his release with drugs and fighting and wound up at Olive View under a “5150pc" involuntary psychiatric hold for being a danger to himself or others. He told me that he saw I was wearing a cross and just wanted to talk to a Christian. After we said goodbye and he walked down the street, I thanked God for the opportunity to talk with him and prayed for him the rest of the day. When he first called out to me, I took one look at him and warily approached thinking he was going to ask me for money. I was wrong. He wanted to ask me about Jesus. I found myself wishing that he was one of my neighbors so that we could have talked again. To be continued in 2 weeks..

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Make America Nice Again!


Dear Friends,

Is it finally over? Has the smoke finally cleared from the ugliest, sleaziest and most vicious presidential campaign in America’s history? We used to disagree. Sometimes even argue. Now we hate, shame, threaten violence, ruin businesses and burn churches. We have watched the end of friendships, marriages, romances and relationships among family members. On the night before the election, Hillary Clinton is claiming to be the “candidate of love, healing and reconciliation” as she incongruously continues to savagely attack all those who do not support her. She is a Christian but has said that if you are an Evangelical Christian or a Catholic, then your “religious beliefs” must be changed to conform to her liberal Christianity and her key political advisors have called you “irredeemable.” Hillary’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together,” but how do you unite our country when you’ve been vilifying half of its population? If Hillary is our president, before she can make our country “Stronger Together,” she needs to work to make it “Nicer Together.”

Donald Trump has vilified women and immigrants as he has led the conservatives in our country in a brutal attack against Hillary and her supporters. Ruth Malhotra works for a Christian ministry and is a conservative Republican who has filed federal law suits against schools who trample on religious freedom. She worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign for President, but she found herself unable to mark the circle next to Trump’s name on her ballot. And as the only one in her Baptist church who refuses to do so, her beloved church has turned hostile towards her. She’s been screamed at during Bible study, interrogated by church elders and shunned by her spiritual mentor who told her she needs to “get right with God” by voting for Trump. Ruth said that one woman in her church told her that by criticizing and opposing Trump she was “siding with Satan.” The good Christian folks at her church have manifested their “inner Donald” and filled up her Facebook with hateful rhetoric. If Donald is our president, before he can “Make America Great Again,” he needs to “Make America Nice Again.”

What has saddened me the most is how we Christian believers have spewed the most vile and violent hatred toward each other. We have allowed the nastiness pouring out of the two presidential candidates to influence how we ourselves have treated our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have allowed today’s secular culture of hate to invade our churches and we have demonized other believers simply because they disagreed with us politically.

Now that the election is over, some of us Christians may have some spiritual fence-mending to do. We may need to self-examine and take the words of Jesus to heart: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 Another translation says it like this: “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35 NLT Does that mean that our hate for one another will prove to the world that we are not His disciples? According to the Word of God it does...
“..He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” 1 John 2:11 “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters.” 1 John 4:20-21 NLT
For all of us who have expressed or manifested to others any of Hillary’s or Donald’s nastiness, we have stumbled in our spiritual walk and the Holy Spirit is grieved. As I wrote in a recent AMEN Corner, a poll just showed that 88% of Americans don’t believe Trump is a Christian believer based on his words and behavior. That same poll showed that 82% of Americans don’t believe that Clinton is an authentic Christian based on her words and behavior. But, based on your words and behavior toward others who do not vote like you do, what would people say about your authenticity as a follower of Jesus? 

If you allowed the darkness of our political culture to blind your eyes and have spewed hatred toward a Christian brother or sister, let the Holy Spirit give you an attitude adjustment. Then go to those who you have offended and seek forgiveness. “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32 The people of God need to stop ranting and start loving each other again so that we can show the world that we really truly are His disciples. Amen?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Only The One True God Fits!


Dear Friends,

A few years ago when I was doing a sermon series on the original twelve disciples, I discovered that in 1964, the head of the Apostle Andrew had been a thoughtful gift from Pope Paul VI to a Greek Orthodox church in Patras, Greece. The body of Saint Andrew had been cut up and distributed as relics to other churches who claim Andrew as their patron saint. Relics are typically a body-part of a saint and it is believed that their presence consecrates (makes holy) a Catholic or Orthodox church. The faithful are to venerate the relics meaning they bow down before them, kiss them and revere them with ritual actions. Catholic Church teaching is that when you venerate a relic, “..many benefits are bestowed by God on men.” 

In actual practice, there is no difference between “venerating” and “worshiping” and the veneration of human relics is practiced by Catholics, Orthodox, Buddhists, Shamanism Hindus, SanterĂ­a, and Wiccians. It doesn’t seem to matter what religion we are. We all have this intrinsic need to worship something or someone.

In the early days of Hollywood, movie stars and singers were described as “goddesses” and “gods” with spellbinding power over their audiences. If you’re of my generation, you might remember hysterical, screaming girls watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. If you’re younger than me and can’t relate to the worship of John, Paul, George and Ringo, then think of the young girls (and their mothers) screaming at Justin Bieber concerts. The only thing that has changed from one generation to another are the faces of the celebrities we worship.

We even collect their relics with the same fervor as the early Christians sought the relics of saints. In 2002, a former barber of Elvis Presley sold a clump of the singer’s hair for $115,000. A lock of Justin Bieber’s hair was a comparative bargain at only $40,668. And a tissue used by actress Scarlett Johansson went for $5,300. Lady Gaga’s autographed toilet seat was auctioned for $460,000. And a kidney stone passed by Star Trek actor William Shatner sold for $25,000 which was probably a good deal considering the price of celebrity kidney stones these days! 

We are wired for worship. It’s in our DNA. That’s why we have that intrinsic desire to worship something or someone. Yet, only someOne can truly satisfy that desire. Blaise Pascal, a famous French mathematician and philosopher, put it like this: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” If we try to stuff anything but God into that God-shaped hole in our lives, we'll end up dissatisfied, restless, and  discontented. But when we fill that God-shaped hole with God, we will always find the peace and contentment that we had been seeking all along.

Listen now to the Apostle Paul debating in Athens with the philosophers and polytheists about God: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I'm telling you about. 24 He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since He is Lord of heaven and earth, He doesn't live in man-made temples,27 His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him –though He is not far from any one of us.” 
Acts 17:22-27 NLT

Paul told them that God does not live in temples, He lives in our hearts. In the 4th century, a bishop named Augustine wrote, “Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find You.” We have an emptiness inside us. An aching loneliness without God. A restless search for something to fill that void. We try to fill that void with pagan religions, material things, shopping, drugs, alcohol, parties, pets and other people. And we remain empty and find ourselves restlessly seeking... 

God said, “You must not have any other god but Me,” Exodus 20:3 NLT and then our Heavenly Father designed and created us so that only the one true God clicks into that God-shaped void. And when we say “Yes God, fill my heart with You!” our search is over and our worship is for Him and Him alone!  Amen?

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fear Not, America!


Dear Friends,

In America, approximately 83% are Christian believers and many of us are passionately concerned about the state of our Nation today and are fearful about our future. So we find that half of us good, church-going Christian believers, are fervently praying that our next president will be one who has said that Christians must change their religious belief that abortion is wrong and who has promised unlimited, free, tax-payer paid abortions for all women in America. 70% of all the people in America believe that Hillary is dishonest and untrustworthy and does not have the integrity needed to be our president. 

The other half of us good, church-going Christians is fervently praying that our next president will be a person who has been married three times, has cheated on all of his wives, boasts that he has had sex with some of the world's top female celebrities, brags about groping women, and whose income comes from owning casinos and strip clubs. 64% of all the people in America believe that Trump doesn’t have the right temperament and morals to be president. 

In an opinion poll last week, 25% of Millennials (age 18-35) said they’d prefer to see a giant meteor destroy the world than to have Hillary or Donald as our next president. We are seeing an unprecedented level of disgust with two of the most unpopular major-party candidates in our lifetime. That’s why I think my cat, Sean McDougal, has a good chance as a write-in candidate.

Political historians have called this the nastiest campaign in U.S. history. It’s tearing apart families, friendships and even churches. Those of us devout Christians who sit in the blue-colored pews or the red-colored pews, are now yelling back and forth across the aisles, cursing each other on their facebook pages and calling each other out for supporting the “un-christlike” candidate. That’s why we need to settle down, take a deep breath and consider this paraphrase of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, there is neither Democrat nor Republican; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Can you say “Amen”?

My biggest concern was what this election was doing to our Christian witness in America. So the best news is what came out of a recent (October) poll where only 12% of those surveyed thought that Trump was “authentically Christian” and only 18% thought that Clinton was an authentic Christian. It would not be good if people thought that Clinton’s abortion advocacy, her lack of integrity and Trump’s sexist and racist behaviors were “Christian.”

We American Christians need to get a grip on reality. Our attention this election year should be on budget and policy matters and the eroding of our religious freedom, but we’ve become a hostage of the media’s penchant for high drama and our focus has been on  distractions like which candidate has the most sinful spouse. Is it the former president who had sex with an intern in the Oval Office or the former model who posed for lesbian porn photos? Click here to vote! Truth is that it will be either Trump or Clinton who will be bringing a ton of personal “baggage” when one of them moves into the White House. That’s why we need to remember we are casting a vote for a president and not voting to canonize a saint. (If you do want to vote for a saint, please be sure to spell my cat’s name correctly on your ballot...) 

As a church pastor, I cannot endorse political candidates. But when my advice is asked, I tell people to ignore everything you’ve read or heard about the character of the two candidates. Both campaigns have done a wonderful job at manipulating our emotions and feelings about the other candidate and creating a passionate anger that’s dividing our Nation. But Oprah said.. “You don’t have to like Clinton to vote for her” and I absolutely agree. It is also true that, “You don’t have to like Trump to vote for him.”

So, let’s set our emotions aside and get right to the bottom-line. President Barack Obama promised eight years ago that he would bring change to America. Through his executive actions, he has been very successful in making the greatest changes to our Nation and culture that we have seen in our lifetime. If you like the direction our current president has taken America, then you must vote for Clinton who has pledged to take us even further and deeper in that same direction. If you don’t like the changes you’ve seen take place in the past eight years, then you must vote for Trump who has pledged to reverse that direction and restore a pre-Obama America. It’s really that simple. Ignore the hysteria. Think objectively. Pray. Vote.

And then in a few months a new president will be seated in the White House but God will still be seated on the Throne. Fear not. The Creator of the Universe will still be in control.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

4 Things That Destroy Your Apology


Dear Friends,

“Never apologize - it’s a sign of weakness” is one of John Wayne’s most quoted movie lines. Our two current candidates for President seem to have made this their mantra because I’ve not heard a sincere apology from either one of them. On the issue of Clinton’s mishandling confidential emails containing classified information, her campaign chairman stated in an email that “She can say she’s sorry without apologizing to the American people.” Clinton said she was sorry it happened but then said it was, former Secretary of State, Colin Powell’s fault. She told an interviewer that she was “sorry this has raised all these questions” and justified her actions by saying “what I did was allowed.” The CEO of Clinton’s campaign think-tank lamented that “apologies are like her Achilles heel” meaning that admitting wrongdoing and taking responsibility is a weak and vulnerable area in her character. Hillary blamed the Republicans for stressing out her husband and causing him to have his White House affairs. After the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Secretary of State Clinton falsely blamed a Muslim video. We learn from Hillary that “blame-shifting” means never having to say you’re sorry.

Mr Trump is no better and he teaches us about the other “non-apology” techniques. After the release of video tapes documenting Trump’s vulgar and disgusting remarks about women, he responded by saying, “I said it. I was wrong and I apologize.” That was a textbook-perfect apology. Then he ruined it by justifying and minimizing his revolting taped remarks when he said, “It was just locker room talk.” And then to further demonstrate how not to apologize, Trump said that President Clinton’s sexual affairs in the White House were even worse than what he has done. That “non-apology” technique uses comparison to show that our wrongdoing was really not so bad because the sins of others are worse than our own. Let’s review what these two presidential candidates are teaching us...

Blame Shifting: “I’m sorry that I yelled and called you names but you just make me so angry.” (It’s your fault that I yelled and called you names)

Justifying: “I’m sorry that I yelled and called you names but I had a hard day at work today and I’m getting a headache.” (You shouldn’t be mad at me because I have an excellent reason for my verbally abusive behavior)

Minimizing: “I’m sorry that I yelled and called you names but that’s just the way I get sometimes – everyone loses it once in a while.” (You’re making too big a deal over my being a jerk. Just get over it)

Comparison: “I’m sorry that I yelled and called you names but you’ve yelled at me and even thrown things at me.” (Okay, maybe I’m a jerk but you’re even worse then I am)

Apologies include the words, “I’m sorry..” but those two words are worthless by themselves. The politician will always be sincerely sorry that his/her words/behaviors will cost them votes. The husband/wife may be sincerely sorry that they got caught in their wrongdoing or that their words/behaviors will upset the status quo in the home. And so to get out of trouble, we can fake an apology,“I’m sorry that you’re upset..” “I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said..” These phony “apologies” take no ownership for the offense. There is no admission of fault or wrongdoing. When I tell you that I apologize if you were offended by what I just said, here’s what I’m really saying: “If you think I did something wrong and got your feelings hurt, I hope you get over it soon.” When there is no regret, remorse or repentance on our part, we will always sound like a slick politician as we skillfully craft a sincere-sounding statement to sound like an apology when it is not.
Why do we good, church-going Christian adults mess up, do wrong things, hurt others and then, when it comes time to apologize, we find ourselves behaving more like John Wayne than Jesus Christ? The reason is the sin of pride. I know that I sin daily – okay maybe hourly – in thought, word and deed but my pride is what keeps me from acknowledging to you any wrongdoing on my part. And that’s when, out of our weakness, apologies become our Achilles heel. Watch how the John Wayne quote about apology becomes 100% accurate by adding just two words: When you never apologize - it’s a sign of weakness”. That’s the truth. It takes strength of character to offer a true apology and the five most powerful words in the English language are, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” 

You are human. You will mess up. When you do, apologize like a Christian. Not like a politician. Understand you have done something wrong. Call it by name. Take ownership of the wrongdoing. Read about sinful King Saul who blame-shifted and passed the responsibility for his wrongdoing onto others. 1 Samuel 15:10-26 Now read King David’s apology 2 Samuel 12:13 and see why sinful David was forgiven and thereafter described as a “man after God’s own heart.” Acts 13:22  An insincere apology is given to get oneself out of trouble. A sincere and authentic apology comes from remorse which is a “moral anguish arising from repentance for past misdeeds.” It is the Holy Spirit who convicts us and brings the worst of us to our knees in remorse. Even Judas was remorseful. Matthew 27:3-4 NLT The Greek word translated as “remorse” in our Bible, means not just feeling badly for what we have done but it also involves the heart-felt desire to change one’s behavior. First, confess to God and receive His forgiveness. Then, make it right with anyone you have wronged. Go to them. Say, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” Period.  Amen?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Sin? Just Say No!


Dear Friends,

We’re approaching one of my favorite seasons of the year. There’s a cool crispness in the morning air. Trees in my neighbor’s yard are starting to turn orange and red. It’s nearing the time for our annual Fall journey to Oak Glen – apple country! I love apples and one of my best memories from elementary school are the “Red Delicious” apples. Every afternoon someone brought to each classroom a box of deep-red, chilled apples. My friends craved Hostess Twinkies and I craved apples.  From the sweetness of the Fuji and the Gala to the tartness of the Pink Lady and the Granny Smith, I’ve never bit into an apple I didn’t like. If you offer me the choice of a candy bar or an apple, I’ll take the apple every time. My point is this... I know why Eve did it.

But put yourself in Eve’s place. Would you have yielded to the temptation in the Garden? “Of course not!” we emphatically state. “No way!” “Not me!” Really? How can we be so sure, when we so readily yield to the temptation of that second bowl of tortilla chips at the restaurant, or the super-sized piece of chocolate cake on the hospitality table at church? How can we passionately state “No way would I yield to Eve’s temptation” as we too quickly finish that bottle of wine or double the dosage of the little pill that relaxes us and brings freedom from the day’s worries? How can we so easily say “Not me!” when we quickly yield to the temptation to repeat that delicious bit of gossip or fire off that angry email?

Now of course we know something that Adam and Eve didn’t. We’ve read the Book and we know that the consequence of yielding to that tempting apple was the fall of mankind. They didn’t know that, but they both knew what God had said about the forbidden fruit. Eve knew she was disobeying God. But let’s give Eve a break here! This was not a major sin! It was just a little snack! It was only an apple...

We can proudly deny that we give in so easily and quickly to harmful temptations, but if that had been a chilled Red Delicious apple, I’ll admit I might have pushed Eve out of the way so that I could snatch it off the tree for myself. After all.. it was only an apple..

What are your “apples”– your temptations? Worrying or being anxious? Procrastinating or putting things off? Eating too much or eating foods that are not healthy for you? Spending too much time on the internet or watching television? Spending more money than you can afford or obsessively shopping for things you don’t need? Being lazy or not working as hard as you should? Gossiping or saying unkind things about others? Being jealous or envious of others? Lying or cheating? Letting grudges escalate into bitterness and unforgiveness? Expressing anger or going “off” on someone? Drinking too much or misusing prescription medication?

Why worry about those seemingly insignificant  temptations in our life? Because, as it was with the first family, there will always be consequences when we yield to even the most minor sin. We worry about the dangers from our environment and from other people and yet it’s our own destructive behaviors and habits that are the most dangerous to us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

We too easily blame God for our temptations but He tempts no one. The source of all our temptation lies within. James 1:13-15 The place in which all temptation originates is our own thoughts and desires. We make the decision to yield to the enticement and when the Holy Spirit convicts us of our indiscretion, that’s when the Enemy whispers to us and says: “Hey don’t worry about it – it’s only an apple.”

God has given you an awesome destiny for your life and then we allow the temptations of our flesh to distract from that destiny. We know we shouldn’t yield to those temptations but we snivel, “I just can’t help myself..” Yes you can! God said, “I have set before you life and death.. therefore choose life..” Deut 30:19 When we are faced with temptations to engage in even the smallest sin, God always gives us a choice. And in the CLOUD OF UNKNOWING a 14th century monk wrote: “On the path of purity and spiritual growth, you can't afford a reckless attitude toward even the smallest sin.” Whenever we’re faced with temptation, we have a decision to make. Let’s be obedient to God and “choose life..”  Amen?

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

A Cat in the Stable?

Felis silvestris ~ European wildcat
 Dear Friends,

Jesus and His disciples had covered a good amount of ground that day on their way to Capernaum. Tired and hungry, they were now resting at a home in a small village and waiting as the farmer’s wife and the other women were preparing a meal. As Jesus sat by Himself in the shade of the garden’s Sycamore tree and thanked God for the day, a cat jumped up on His lap. After gently padding the coarse texture of Jesus’ cloak, the cat lay down and curled up on His lap. As Jesus began to stroke her soft fur, the cat stretched out both front paws and began to purr. This is fiction of course but is it possible? A cat? With Jesus? You might be surprised to hear that my fictitious story would be not only possible but perhaps even likely to have occurred at some point in the three years of Jesus’ itinerant ministry. 

Based on archaeological evidence, we know that the Egyptians tamed cats approximately 4,000 years before the birth of Christ. The ancient Egyptians were so attached to their cats that they mummified them and entombed them with their owners so that both would enter the next life together. In 2014, at the excavation site of an elite cemetery in the ancient Egyptian city of Hierakonpolis, two adult cats and four kittens were found in a tomb. The measurements of their bones, dated 3640 BC, suggest the cats belonged to the species Felis silvestris, (see photo above) the European wildcats that were the likely ancestors of the cats who live in our homes today. 
A study published two weeks ago, sequenced DNA from 209 cats that lived from about 15,000 years ago to the 1700's in order to determine the history and migration of the ancient cats. The Middle Eastern wild cats expanded into the agricultural communities along the Mediterranean in the Old Testament days. The study suggested, “that grain stockpiles associated with these early farming communities attracted rodents, which in turn drew wild cats.” After seeing the benefit of having cats around, the humans began to tame and domesticate the feral cats.

Paul’s first missionary journey was to the Greek island of Cyprus. That was where, in 7500 BC, a human had been buried in a tomb with their cat. We can safely assume there were plenty of domesticated cats on this island by the time Paul arrived!

Yes, I know that most of us Christians believe that God created the earth in 4000 BC, but the Bible does not tell us the date that the earth was created. It was the Irish archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century who fixed the date of creation at 4000 BC. That science has established a much earlier date of creation does not at all conflict with the Creation Narrative in Genesis given to Moses by God. But that’s another topic. The important thing for Christian cat lovers to know is this. That cats were domesticated and common in the cities, farmlands and in the villages all along the Mediterranean during the New Testament days. That’s why I can say that it would be entirely possible for my fictitious story in the first paragraph to have actually happened.

Now please allow me to shake up our traditional Church story of the birth of Jesus. Was there a family of cats in the stable when Mary gave birth? The Bible doesn’t tell us what animals were there. We’ve all seen Nativity sets with oxen, sheep and goats even though those animals were typically not stabled but held in pens and pastures. I’ve even seen figurines of camels in the Nativity stable but never a cat. We don’t actually even know if Jesus was born in a stable, but we assume so because scripture tells us that after His birth, He was laid in a “manger” Luke 2:7 which is a feed trough for cows. And, anyplace where there is hay and animal feed, there are rodents and therefore the most likely animal that would have been there in the stable during the birth of Jesus Christ was a cat. 

God has given us animals to eat, animals for transportation and animals for companionship and comfort. In our ministry at the Abbey Road Villa assisted-living facility, I’ve heard from several of the women and a few men that the one they miss the most is their cat and showing them the photos of my cat brings a smile to their face. We love our pets and studies show that they are good for our mental health and emotional well-being. If God has given you one of His animals for comfort and companionship, will you take a moment to thank Him for that? 

And now... as we end this AMEN Corner you can see that my own Nativity scene will be looking a little different this year...

click to enlarge

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Is Mother Teresa a Saint for Protestants Too?


Dear Friends,

She was born in 1910 in the Balkan country of Albania and her baptized name was Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu. You and I know her as Mother Teresa. Her mother used to care for and wash an old alcoholic woman living near by who was sick and covered with sores. Inspired by the compassion of her religious mother, Agnes left home and joined a convent in Ireland and chose the name Sister Mary Teresa. But three months later, this eighteen year old nun set sail for India where she would live out her entire life.

On Sunday, September 4th, the Pope canonized Mother Teresa as a saint in the Catholic Church. Some of us Protestants, perhaps rightfully so, get our theological hackles raised when we hear about the saints but as I write about Mother Teresa today I’m using the Biblical definition of “saint.” The words “saint” or “saints” in the New Testament are used sixty times to describe all those who believe in Jesus and are purified and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Only once do we see the word “Christians” used in the Bible Acts 11:26 and “saints” is the word that both Paul and John use to describe the followers of Jesus. You and I are the saints of the church today. But some of us are admittedly more saintly than others and, in our lifetime, perhaps Mother Teresa was one who most exemplified sainthood. 

A teenage Agnes was inspired by the words of Jesus (read Matt 25: 34-40) and dedicated her life to caring for the poorest of the poor. As Mother Teresa, she treated them like Jesus and believed that when she was touching and washing the wounds of those sick and dying she was touching the body of Jesus. She created a religious order of over 5,000 priests, nuns and lay people called the Missionaries of Charity and when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 she said, “Let us keep that joy of loving Jesus in our hearts and share that joy with all we come in touch with. That radiating joy is real, for we have no reason not to be happy because we have Christ with us. Christ in our hearts. Christ in the poor we meet. Christ in the smile we give. Christ in the smile we receive.”

We learn from Mother Teresa how the poor, sick and marginalized in our society should be cared for, but what maybe the most important lesson she has for us is how to maintain our faith in the times of our darkest doubts. Our image of Mother Teresa is of a godly woman who never wavered in her faith. But she wrote, “In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” She wrote letters to her friends and spiritual mentors expressing her faith struggles and these letters surfaced when the church was evaluating her for sainthood. For over fifty years, she struggled intensely with her own spiritual life and yet never once left the path that God had chosen for her to take. That’s what makes her a “saint” to me. 

What are the three lessons we can learn from Mother Teresa? 

1) God is with us even when we do not feel or see Him working in our life. God is right by our side even when things are not going well. Even when we suffer.. Even in the most tragic circumstances.. Even when we doubt.. When God said “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” Hebrews 13:5-6 He really meant that. 

2) No matter how we feel at the time, we will always help others. When others are discouraged and down, we will build them up and edify them with our words. We will always lift up others to Jesus. 

3) We ourselves are encouraged when we know that even the most saintly of us saints can struggle with their spiritual lives but still radiate the joy of Jesus to others. We are given great hope and a blessed assurance about our future when we see that this saintly woman suffered and had doubts about her faith just like we do at times about ours. She shows by her example that no matter how we “feel” in this moment or in this season, we must never waver on our own journey to do God’s will.

Mother Teresa finally understood that her suffering had brought her closer to the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross and to the suffering of the poor and dying people that she ministered to. She realized that her own feelings of abandonment heightened her sensitivity to the desperation and abandonment felt by others. And paradoxically, in her despair of feeling that she had been completely abandoned by God, it was during that time that the light and love of Jesus Himself was radiating from her and blessing others. It was through the darkest moments of her life that she was a beacon of immense light to those God had given to her. Mother Teresa had made a vow to God that she would always serve Him. When we make that same commitment to our Father, He will always use us for His purposes even when we too are filled with doubts. Mother Teresa is not just a Catholic Saint, she is also our Protestant spiritual hero for showing us that we too need to keep smiling and radiating the joy of Jesus in all that we do!  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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