Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sin Busters


Dear Friends,

It was early one Monday morning. I was writing an Amen Corner when I heard a muffled explosion come from somewhere within my house. Odd. Not like anything I'd heard before. This was back in the days when I didn’t have a cat and so that ruled out feline terrorist activity. A cursory security check of the interior of my house revealed nothing. But later on when I went into my pantry, it looked like a scene from the old Ghostbusters movie. Sticky black and brown tendrils of slime dripped from the ceiling. The gross and gooey ectoplasm-like substance had splattered on canned goods and was running off shelves. But before I could call an exorcist, I discovered what happened.

I found this can on a back shelf with its pull-tab lid blown open. (See Evidence Photo) The label said Dole Pineapple Chunks and what remained inside were gooey black globs of what had once been pineapple. During the forensic investigation with a magnifying glass, pinholes were found in the bottom of the can. Apparently, the highly acidic fruit dissolved the lining of the can and created tiny holes that allowed airborne bacteria to enter. This caused the fruit to decompose which increased the internal pressure and Bam! The date on the bottom of the can was October 2006. Looked like it was time to clean out my pantry.

As I cleaned up the black gooey ooze, I remembered a book I'd read years ago. Author Frank Peretti, who has been described as a Christian “Stephen King” wrote an award-winning novel called THE OATH. The story focuses on a small mining town where many of the townspeople are suffering gruesome deaths. Their bodies are found partially decomposed and covered with a black oozing slime. 

The reader discovers the black ooze is their sin. It starts with a minor blemish – a darkened area of skin over the heart. If ignored, it becomes a black oozing sore. If the sins remain unconfessed, the black slime begins to grow and takes over their soul. Their once happy lives turn dark and evil and eventually their body decomposes from the inside out. The pressure of the unconfessed sin continues to build up and Bam! The person explodes and there’s gross sticky black ooze all over the place. THE OATH is not a book for the faint-hearted or one that you’d want to read during dinner.

That morning as I was scrubbing black ooze and cleaning out my pantry while thinking about the Peretti book, I had the impression that God was telling me I need to clean out my own life. Did I still have unconfessed sins that were well beyond their “freshness dates”? I didn’t want what happened in the Frank Peretti book to happen to me. I didn’t want to be shopping at Costco someday and...Bam! “Attention Costco maintenance. Clean up black ooze on aisle twenty three.”
Scripture tells us that God’s grace covers all of a believer’s sin through the atonement of Jesus on the cross. So why do we need to continue to confess? Because we continue to sin! And when we confess and repent of those sins, we are taking the steps to leave behind the daily sinful thoughts, words and deeds, and we are becoming “sanctified” (meaning that we are spiritually maturing in Christ.) 

Here’s how it works. Once saved, we begin the process of sanctification where we are growing spiritually and are learning how to live and love like Jesus. But any continued sin clogs that process. In fact, we find that God even turns away from us when we continue in our unrepentant sins. “If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Psalm 66:18 NLT The literal translation for the word “sin” in this verse is “futile sinful pursuits.” If we look favorably or indifferently upon the sins we commit, God stops listening to our prayers. And Isaiah tells us that God hides Himself from those who are in sin and He will not hear you. Isaiah 59:2 And then we cry, “God doesn’t answer my prayers!” But whenever we have unconfessed and unrepentant sin in our lives, we have clogged up our lines of communication with Him. We unclog those lines when we say, “Lord, I messed up again, here’s what I did...” And God’s immediate response is, “You are forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

Are there things you do that you know are sinful and you do anyway because they are so satisfying? But are they really worth doing if God turns a deaf ear to your prayers? Like I realized, when I saw the black ooze, do you also have some unconfessed sins that are beyond their freshness dates? If so, consider taking some time this week to do some spiritual housecleaning!  Amen?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Haters of the Cross

Dear Friends,

Last Friday, the blonde woman I hang out with and I took her mom to Solvang for her mom’s birthday. There are a handful of stores we always visit in that quaint little Danish town and one of our favorites is the one with all the cuckoo clocks and jewelry. We’ve made a few purchases from this store over the years and knew that the original owners had recently sold it. This time we stopped in front of the store, looked at the window display, looked back at each other, and were stunned. (see photo above) It was a statue of a cross with a demonic-looking, dragon-like creature clinging to it. Talons digging into the cross. Tail wrapped around it. Black wings enfolding it as if territorially proclaiming possession over it. Eyes flashing. The artist’s depiction of evil triumphing and claiming victory over the cross of Christ. The blonde woman is an introvert who will often walk a mile out of her way to avoid a confrontation. But she walked into the store and politely told the salesperson she would like to see the owner. She was extraordinarily nice, polite, firm, confident and articulate. She told the new owner how much we loved his store but that the statue in the window would be offensive and upsetting to Christians who love the cross and what it represents. The owner told her that he was sorry if it did but that he didn’t see anything wrong with the statue. In fact, it soon became clear that the atheist owner and his partner liked the symbolism of evil prevailing over the cross of Christ. 

Those of you who know me, know I don’t hide my faith. I wear a cross that my father gave me many decades ago. It’s made from iron horseshoe nails and large enough that people can’t miss it. It’s inspired many wonderful conversations about faith but lately it’s triggered hatred. We entered a Tuesday Morning store and were cheerfully greeted by the 20-something transgender clerk. She had a woman’s voice but her outward appearance was a male. When we were ready to check out, I found the clerk stocking shelves and let her know we were ready. She politely apologized for keeping us waiting but as she turned and looked at me, her face hardened when she saw my cross and she glared at me. We were polite to her and she was rude, insulting and sarcastic to us during the checkout process. The people of the cross are the people she hates. 

I used to shop at Trader Joe’s in Granada Hills. But there were times that the Millennial Generation clerks were warm, friendly and helpful and times that they were openly hostile. I puzzled about this until I noticed that sometimes it was the same clerk that treated me nicely one time and rudely the next, and I realized that my treatment at Trader Joe’s depended on if my cross was visible or if a jacket was covering it up. A millennial friend of mine, and former NHFC member, told me that nearly all people in his generation “hate Christians.” I definitely saw that at Trader Joe’s. The cross that symbolized my Christian faith was offensive.

But before I get too upset about this, I need to  remember that nothing’s changed from 2,000 years ago. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18 That word translated as foolish is the Greek word “moria”- a strong word meaning that something is “worthy of scorn.” The Gospel message then and now is scorned and hated by those unbelievers who are “headed for destruction” as the NLT translates it. But to you and me, the message of the cross is the good news of the saving power of God. 

I wear my iron cross not to flaunt my faith to others but to remind me that there is nothing more important to me personally than the message of the cross. Someone at church told me that they would never have a Christian bumper sticker because, the way they drove, they didn’t want anyone to know that they were a Christian! But that’s why I wear a cross. It bangs into my chest when I walk reminding me that I need to not just believe like a Christian but to behave like a Christian. And then, when my words or attitude to others are unchristlike, the cross convicts me and brings me into instant repentance.

Franklin Graham recently said that Christians in the United States are not far from seeing a high level of violent persecution because of their faith. I pray that’s not true, but it is becoming more and more frequent that Christians have lost jobs, experienced harassment and even death threats on social media for no other reason than being a follower of Jesus Christ. 

The culture and politics of progressive liberalism teach that it is socially acceptable to hate and marginalize Christians and as the media-fed progressive hysteria begins to build, Christians have fearfully pried the ICHTHYS (fish symbol) off the SUV and put their cross back in the jewelry box. We are kowtowing to progressive liberalism by hiding our Christian symbols and denying our faith. Jesus said, “Everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:33

I won’t receive heavenly “brownie points” for wearing a cross, but if the reason for not wearing one is that I’m ashamed to do so, then I am in trouble. “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.Mark 8:38  And so...that’s why I wear a cross.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ministry of Now


Dear Friends,

In Spanish, “Mañana” literally means “tomorrow” but its common usage is to indicate procrastination. Something indefinite in the future. I’ll get to it mañana. I excelled in the art of mañana until Jackie, Burt and Alan all happened. And then it was as if God was shaking me by the shoulders and telling me to wake up. I worked at the City with Jackie. She was in another department and I didn’t know her well but we’d talked a few times. She knew I was a pastor and I knew she didn’t go to church. She was off work for an long-term illness and I found out she had Hepatitis C that had damaged her liver. She was hospitalized and then finally came back to work. I prayed for her a few times and then forgot about her. Many months later, I had a dream one night where I saw her face floating in front of mine and she said, “Please help me.” I woke up convinced that God was telling me through that dream that I needed to talk with her about her faith. But it was budget time. I was very busy at work; so I put off calling her until it was more convenient. There was no rush. I had plenty of time. I was stunned when I read the email telling us that she had suddenly died...

Burt loved Famous Dave’s BBQ and we were taking him there for his 77th birthday. We’d spent the last seven birthdays with him and looked forward to this night of celebration. Burt was full of life and we anticipated many more birthdays together. I knew he was lonely out in Palmdale and there were many times that I’d thought about going out to have lunch with him or to just spend time with him and then I’d get busy. But there was no rush. I had plenty of time. There was mañana. If only I’d known that Burt was going to die in his sleep just nine days before his birthday...

Alan attended the Lutheran church we were renting from. His pastor told me that Alan was a loner, withdrawn and had difficulty opening up to others. But at a Lenten church supper, Alan and I talked and he opened up to reveal some very personal things. He gave me his phone number and I sensed an urgent need to follow up and spend some time with him. But I ignored that sense of urgency. I was pretty busy. I told myself there was no rush. I had plenty of time. If only I’d known that Alan would die during an emergency surgery for a brain tumor just thirty six days after he reached out to me for help...

Jackie, Burt and then Alan all died within three months of each other. Alan’s death hit me hard. He reached out to me and I was too busy. That’s when God told me that my “Ministry of Mañana” needed to be a “Ministry of Now.” Because the problem with mañana is that sometimes tomorrow never comes. Sometimes we only have today.

We celebrated Burt’s birthdays because we loved him and enjoyed being with him. But it bothered me that his family would usually ignore him on his birthday and the only celebration he had was with us - his two friends. After he was dead, his whole family showed up to celebrate his life at the memorial service. If only Burt could have been there to see how much he was loved...

Alan was lonely, struggled with self-worth issues and felt unappreciated. Alan was not married, had no real friends and he felt that he had no one in his life who loved and cared for him. But after he died, over eighty people came to church to celebrate his life and to tell each other how much they loved and appreciated him. If only Alan could have been there to see how much he was loved...

Many of us have also had the Jackies, Burts and Alans in our own life and when it’s too late – when they can no longer hear our voice – that’s when we wish we had said the things they had so needed to hear from us. 

The thought of losing a loved one to death is just too terrifying to think about, but what would we do differently if we faced the reality of just how fragile our lives really are? James 4:14 What if you knew that a friend or loved one had only thirty-six days to live? Or two weeks? Or only one day? Would you tell and show them how much you love them? Would you ask for their forgiveness for something you had done or would you forgive them for something they had done to you? Would you be kinder to them? Nicer to them? Would you tell them those things they have needed to hear that you’ve never said? But of course, there’s no reason to rush things. We’re too busy today. There’s always mañana. We have plenty of time... 

The New Testament is filled with a sense of urgency for no one knows what tomorrow will bring. And while we trust in God and know that He is in our future, we need to be prepared for the uncertainty of tomorrow. To live in “mañana” is to mistakenly take tomorrow for granted. We need to prepare for tomorrow filled with faith in God and love for God and love for one another and living each day as if it’s our last. Proverbs 27:1 And when we are living our lives and responding to people as if there is no earthly tomorrow, we are engaging in the “Ministry of Now.”

The Apostle Paul tells us to meet the urgent needs of others. Titus 3:14 Who do you need to reach out to today? Who do you need to love and hug and affirm and edify and forgive and encourage today? What if tomorrow never came? What would you do if you only had today..?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Undesirable Child Loved By God


Dear Friends,

I had only been going to my neighborhood Foursquare church for just a few weeks when I was attacked during the service. Like in many services, there was a time between the worship and the sermon for people to greet and hug each other. This church did not take kindly to strangers in their service so I was being largely ignored and left alone. And then it happened. I was standing awkwardly in the aisle filled with people hugging and greeting each other when suddenly a small child hurled herself at me, grabbed my leg in a bear hug and wouldn’t let go.

She was about seven or eight years old and all I could see looking down was an unruly mop of dark hair and her small brown arms tightly holding on to me. I looked frantically around for possible parents, but no one was coming to my rescue. I asked her what her name was and she wouldn’t answer. She ran off to join the other children on their way to Sunday School and the grownups sat down to hear the sermon. I was guessing that all adult knees looked pretty much the same to a little kid so she must have confused me with someone else that she knew.

She did the same thing the next week and the next. Held on tightly, buried her face in my leg and didn’t let go until she had to. She wouldn’t talk to me. She just wanted to hold on to me. People were glaring at both her and me with disapproving expressions and I needed to talk with the Senior Pastor to find out what was going on with this child and with his congregation.

She lived in a house next door to the church and her mother sent her every Sunday. I found out that mom was a crack addict who sold her body for drug money and often brought the men to the house. The girl’s father had been killed during a drug deal. The pastor said, “We don’t know what to do with that child.” The pastor’s wife was angry that the little girl was there and told me she wished the mother would keep the child at home. Parents had complained that, because of the girl’s dysfunctional home life, they were afraid she would “contaminate” the good Christian children in the church. 

The pastor also explained about the murmuring of his “all-white” congregation. He told me that because of the girl’s affection towards me, people were assuming I was connected with her mother. I was told by the pastor’s wife to push the little girl off so she couldn’t hug me. They wanted her to go away. That’s what churches do with the “undesirables.” We reject, push away, ignore them and just hope they go away. So I upset the pastor’s wife by rebelliously doing what Jesus would do. Matthew 19:13-15 NLT 

The next time this child ran up the aisle to wrap herself around me, tears filled my eyes and I laid my hand on her head and prayed for her. In this little girl’s dysfunctional, tragic, abusive and pain-filled life, she had literally latched on to someone who felt safe and comfortable to her. She had been rejected, pushed off and ignored by her family and intrinsically she needed to reach out and hold on to Jesus. God gave her a large, tall stranger as His “stand-in.” She heard in my prayers how much God loved her and that He was with her now and would be forever. She heard that Jesus was the One she could hold on to when things got tough at home.

My only contract with the child was when I was surrounded by the congregation and was praying out-loud for her during the greeting time, but the murmurings of disapproval continued and the pastor’s wife now blamed me for the child wanting to continue to come to church. (The pastor did see that I was doing the right thing and I eventually became the counseling pastor at this church) That child came to church alone, troubled and pensive. She held on to me as I prayed for her and pronounced God’s blessings on her and she then ran off smiling and happy to Sunday school.

Suddenly she was gone and a For Rent sign was in front of her house. She would be in her mid to late 20's today and what she will never know is that the large, tall stranger who she had latched on to eighteen years ago still prays for her whenever he thinks of her.

When my step-daughter was at about that same age, she was very sensitive, easily hurt and would come home from school feeling flattened by what someone had said or done to her. After dinner, she would climb up to sit on my lap and want me to put my arm around her. I’d try to “fix” things for her and ask questions that never brought anything more than a nod for a “yes” or a shake of the head for a “no.” She didn’t want to talk. She just wanted a safe place to sit and be held.

In our own troubling moments, the “child” in each of us has an intrinsic need to reach out and hold on to Jesus for dear life. We need someOne safe to cling to. There are times in our life when we want to climb up into our Father’s lap and just sit there. Not talk. Just sit there. Sometimes we just need to be in the presence of our Heavenly Father. In the silence.. the solitude.. the stillness.. and just hold on to Him.  Amen?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Spend Time With Your Family


Dear Friends,

I was at a restaurant in Alhambra and noticed a young family who had just sat down at a booth in front of me and across the aisle. Mom looked to be in her early thirties and dad maybe a few years older. Their son was about eleven or twelve. I thought back to when I was that age and our family went out for dinner. It was always a special occasion whether we were celebrating a birthday or it was just a night out with the family. The place we went out to most often was my favorite restaurant, El Cholo on Western Ave in Los Angeles. That was when it was still the original converted California bungalow in the 1950's. According to my mom, the ladies’ restroom still had the bathtub in it. This was back in the days when none of my friends had even heard of this “Mexican food” and it would be another decade before Taco Bell came to town and converted authentic Mexican cuisine into the Americanized fast food that it is today. El Cholo in the 50's was the perfect family restaurant. For only $1.50 you could get a drink, soup, two entrees, refried beans, rice and all the handmade corn tortillas you could eat. We were there so often, we knew many of the family members who owned and worked at El Cholo. But what I remember most was our own family time. At home we always ate our dinner at the table together, but at the restaurant, it was extended family time – my dad, mom, ten year old sister and two year old brother. Our family talked and laughed. We loved being with each other. We were what made it a special occasion.

When I saw the young boy with his parents in the Alhambra restaurant, all the happy memories of spending time with my own family came flooding back. Then the boy pulled out a “Game Boy” and started playing with it. He partially turned away from his mom to face the window so that he could ignore his parents and be completely by himself. His father began texting or emailing on his smart phone. The mom swept her place setting aside and set up a laptop on the table in front of her. They were interrupted by the waitress to take their order and again interrupted once their food arrived. All three ate with one hand, while texting, swiping, tapping, typing and playing video games with the other hand. When they finished eating, they put away their electronic devices and left. During the time they were there, they never looked at each other. Not a word was spoken. They had cocooned themselves off into a world unto their own. The three preferred to be by themselves than with each other and you didn’t need to be a family systems therapist to see the dysfunction in this family caused by the deprivation of closeness, connection and communication.

In this century, as people have turned from “face” relationships to Facebook, reliance on social media for their relationships has created a poverty of social isolation and desolation. Polls show that from children to seniors, there is an epidemic of loneliness in our country. Our Nation’s suicide rate has increased sharply in the 21st century and one of the three factors causing this tragic increase is the person’s perception they are alone in the world with no or few close personal relationships and that no one really cares about them. Suicide rates for both adolescent girls and women aged 45-55 have tripled in the past thirteen years and the leading cause is depression that is being fed by social isolation and loneliness. As mental health experts turn toward sociological explanations and psychological preventions to fix unhappy people, the answer to our feelings of isolation and loneliness may be better found in what we chose to do on Sunday morning.

According to Gallup polls, the happiest people in America are those who are actively religious and regularly go to church. Jesus said to “Love God” and “Love One Another.” Matthew 22:37-39 Our love for God is not dependent on our church attendance. I’ve had people say to me that they don’t have to go to church to find God and they find Him on their daily walk, in the sunset and in the quiet of their own back yard. I tell them, “Of course you do! God is not confined to a building on a Sunday morning between 9:30 and 11:00!” But the New Testament is filled with scripture showing that the early Christians became a family of believers by attending church together. Hebrews 10:24-25 God created us to be in relationship with one another. You can be with people at Costco, at Dodger Stadium, in a movie theater, at a neighborhood biker bar or at church. But if you want relationships that will drive away those feelings of isolation and loneliness, I’m going to recommend church. 

My family experience when I was young seems remarkable in comparison with many families today, but there was nothing special about us. That was when most families attended church together and our family dynamic was simply the “norm” during that time in our Nation’s history. Your own family dynamic may or may not have looked like mine but that is in our past. And today, for many of us, our biological family is scattered or deceased and we now find our family relationships at church. Your church family is your tribe. Your social connection. Your support group. Your friends with hearts of compassion. It is where you love one another and another will love you. Where you are  genuinely cared about and missed when you’re not there. In your church family, you are connected to those God has given to you and to whom you have been given. And at a church where people love God and love one another, you will never feel lonely or isolated. It’s your family. 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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