Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Afraid of the Holy Spirit?

Dear Friends,

Our three most holy days are Easter, Christmas and the Day of Pentecost which was last Sunday. It was on the Feast of Pentecost in A.D. 33 that the Christian church was born. God ushered in His presence and His glory fell on his disciples with a mighty rushing wind. Now some of us have been taught that the Spirit of God fell upon only that exclusive and select group of Jesus’ twelve disciples. We believe that because that’s church tradition and because most of the religious art from the medieval period shows the flames descending on twelve men. But that’s not what the Word of God says in our Bible. Jesus promises His disciples that God will send to them the Holy Spirit who will live with them and within them forever. John 14:15-17 

Then in the first Chapter of Acts, we find that after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the disciples came down from Mt Olivet and returned to the upper room in Jerusalem where they stayed united in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women and the brothers of Jesus. There is no description of the house with the upper room, but we must assume that it was very large because we are told that about 120 people were staying there. Acts 1:12-15 They were awaiting the Jewish holy day, the Feast of Pentecost that was to come ten days after Jesus ascended into Heaven. 

So picture in your mind the twelve disciples and Mary and about 107 more women and men who had been the close followers of Jesus. And now, Luke tells us that all were gathered together on this Day of Pentecost. That’s when there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm that filled the house where they were sitting. And the tongues of fire settled on each of them. On each man. On each woman. On Mary the Mother of Jesus. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gave them this ability. Acts 2:1-4 We need to jettison from our mind the picture of the Holy Spirit falling solely on that exclusive group of the twelve disciples and replace it with our Biblical description of this monumental world-changing event.

And then all throughout the book of Acts, as it records the experiences of the early church, we read that Christian believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. But why then do so many Christian believers today become so uncomfortable with the reality of the Holy Spirit? I received an email from a pastor’s sermon resource website that acknowledged Pentecost Sunday and asked, “Was the Holy Spirit ever meant to be an easy subject to address? How do you preach such a controversial and volatile topic?” A Southern Baptist theologian wrote that in most churches, “The Holy Spirit is talked about, if at all, in hushed tones and with some anxiety.”

I honestly think that we are we are afraid of the power of the Holy Spirit! The New King James refers to the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a “rushing mighty wind” but another translation calls it a “violent wind.” And we are afraid of that violent wind blowing through our lives because we are fearful that God really will change us into the man or woman He wants us to be. We are afraid of being truly committed to Jesus. We are afraid of becoming passionate about God. We are afraid we may become that zealous believer we’ve always made fun of. We’re afraid of the Holy Spirit because we have become far too comfortable with our complacent spiritual calmness. If we are at the point in our apathetic Christian walk where the most disturbing thing at church was when Edna forgot the potato salad for the potluck barbecue, then we most certainly would not tolerate any life-changing violent winds blowing through our congregation! We will have nothing to disturb us, thank you very much! No surprises. No upsetting changes. There is something safe and reassuring about the grace of God and the love of our Lord Jesus, but that meddlesome Holy Spirit just cannot be trusted to leave well enough alone!

But who is this Person that we’re afraid of? The Holy Spirit is God. He is a Person. He is not an impersonal force or power. We refer to the Holy Spirit as an impersonal “it” but Jesus says, “You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” John 14:16-17 The New Testament tells us that the Holy Spirit speaks, comforts, convicts and can be grieved. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity 1 John 5:7 who was sent to us from God and through the Son but the Holy Spirit has existed from all time. John 14:26

The Spirit of God that fell upon Mary, and the twelve disciples and on all the men and women that were there on that Pentecost day is available to you as well. Peter tells us that when we repent and are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit Acts 2:38-39 but we need to activate that gift by accepting His presence in our life. If you’re feeling spiritually empty, you need to be as Paul said, “filled with the Spirit.” Ephesians 5:18 Jesus promises us an abundant life John 10:10 and Paul tells us that God is able to give us that abundance according to the amount of Holy Spirit power that we have in our life. Ephesians 3:20 But if we are afraid of the Holy Spirit and reject or limit His power, we’ve limited the abundance from God that He wants for us to have.

Don’t be satisfied with a comfortable non-threatening two-thirds of the Trinity in your life! We were created to live in the fullness of God and with a joyful abundance of life. For some of us, the first step towards a more abundant life is simply the desire to have the Holy Spirit fully operate in our lives. Raise your hands and your voice to Heaven and ask God to give you the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Allow His refreshing wind to blow through your spirit and be filled with Him. It’s what God has always wanted for you.  Amen?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sign of the Cross

Orthodox Christian and #1 ranked Tennis Player, Novak Djokovic
Dear Friends,

Christians make me laugh. Most Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans think that the Charismatic way of worshiping with hands raised high in worship is emotionally excessive and looks absolutely ridiculous. The fact that Jesus, all His disciples 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.

Pentecostals, Charismatics, Baptists and Reformed think that making the “sign of the cross” is emotionally excessive and looks absolutely ridiculous. The fact that after the resurrection of Jesus, His followers made the sign of the cross on their body does not sway them in their belief that this is a very inappropriate physical gesture for today. They 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 those who sit on the Evangelical and Pentecostal side of our ecumenical church pew. The ancient practice of making the sign of the cross † is made by touching the forehead, the center of the chest and from the right shoulder to the left shoulder. (One thousand years later, the Catholic Church changed it and began 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. Archeologists 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 used by priests and pastors when they make the sign of the cross over you at the end of the 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 Protestant objection I’ve heard to making the sign of the cross on one’s self is that it’s “too Catholic.” Is it really? Five hundred years before the sign of the cross was incorporated in the (Roman Catholic) church service, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest.” 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 cross 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. We receive His power and blessing when we invoke the Name of God over ourselves and others. “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.” Exodus 20:24 ESV

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 baptismal mark of the cross branded you for God. That mark sealed the deal and claimed your spirit, soul and body for Jesus. When you were baptized, you were signed, sealed and delivered to God! 

When we make the sign of the cross on ourselves we trace our baptismal “brand” and acknowledge that we belong to Him. Marking ourselves with the cross of Jesus Christ 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. Even if making the sign of the cross on yourself has not been your church’s tradition, you may wish to return to this ancient Christian practice during your prayer times, when you lie down and when you awaken.

The sign of the cross should not be used ritualistically. 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 am all Yours. Make me according to the desires of Thy heart.”

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Jesus Prayer

Dear Friends,

“Are you doing okay?” asked my dentist with some concern in his voice. “You’re very still.” We were in the middle of a very uncomfortable and lengthy root canal, but I was completely relaxed. My breathing had slowed as I sunk deeper in contemplative prayer and I was reciting the Jesus Prayer: LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. I hate having work done on my teeth and my dentist is always kind enough to offer tranquilizers and sedation. But so far, all I’ve ever needed was Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer can take you into contemplative prayer and it can also fill the secular spaces in our life. When we’re out shopping. Doing laundry. Taking out the trash. Stopped at the light. In the doctor’s waiting room. That’s when our minds wander toward the trivial and these are the empty spaces in our day that we can fill with prayer. The Jesus Prayer redeems those moments and turns the secular into the sacred. 

The Jesus Prayer starts out in our mind with intentionality, and as it becomes the repetitive prayer of our heart, it comes to our thoughts spontaneously and without effort on our part. When the Jesus Prayer becomes embedded in our soul, we will find our thoughts praying it constantly and unconsciously as it becomes the background music of our life. I wake up in the night and in that hazy mental state, when my mind is not yet fully awake and I’m floating in a free-flowing stream of unconscious thoughts, I’ll find myself praying the Jesus Prayer. While we’re sleeping, the Holy Spirit is praying in us to Jesus and through Him to the Father. Even in sleep, our spirit connects with His Spirit. Prayer is our intrinsic desire. Our souls cannot develop without prayer. As our lungs must fill with air, our souls must fill with prayer.

The Jesus Prayer is avoided by some because of Jesus’ warning to not engage in repetitious prayers but a careful reading of Matthew 6:7 shows that we are to avoid “vain repetitions” – those that are meaningless and worthless. There is nothing more worthy than the name of Jesus and  from the 4th century, monastics have used a form of the Jesus Prayer throughout their day as a way to “pray without ceasing..” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Over 1,000 years later, the Roman Catholic Church would develop the “Hail Mary” prayer and the use of the rosary, but the Jesus Prayer has remained the practice of the Orthodox church for over 2,000 years. And now today, Protestants seeking a deeper connection with God have discovered this ancient tradition.

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra or magic talisman. It is recited with fear (reverence) of God and with faith and love. Speaking the name of Jesus invites and instills His presence. Speaking forth the Holy Name, places the reality of God into our circumstances. Life happens. We get stressed. Thoughts can become unhealthy and can even be incapacitating. We worry. Obsess. Get angry or depressed. Praying the Jesus Prayer at those times will break the bondage of those thoughts and bring the peace of God.

Because I’m a geek for gadgets, I recently bought an inexpensive Pulse Oximeter that clips on your finger to give you a digital readout of your pulse and the amount of oxygen in your blood. One afternoon, I was stressed and very upset at something and could feel my heart beat harder and faster and my blood pressure rise. I clipped on the little device to see what my heart rate was and then, as I normally do when I get stressed, I started to pray the Jesus Prayer using it as a breath prayer. I watched my pulse rate slow down to lower than normal and I was soon relaxed and stress-free. When life happens and we become stressed, we can use alcohol or prescription drugs to self-sooth our soul. Or we can use the Jesus Prayer.

There are also times when I don’t know what to pray. When I need to pray but can’t and I don’t even know how to begin. I always start with the Jesus Prayer and soon the flow of spontaneous prayer comes pouring from my heart.

The Jesus Prayer is LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. Matthew 16:16 and Luke 18:13 Some people eliminate the last two words. For awhile I did too until I realized I was avoiding this penitential phrase out of a prideful spirit. The Orthodox practice combines the Jesus Prayer with deep breathing. (while inhaling) Lord Jesus Christ, (exhaling) Son of God (inhaling) have mercy on me, (exhaling) a sinner. Even if you don’t normally use the Jesus Prayer as a breath prayer, I highly recommend it during a root canal.

In contemplative prayer, we find a place of silence, solitude and stillness. We can pray the Jesus Prayer continuously without ceasing “until God’s love has been poured into our heart.” Romans 5:5 Greek Orthodox monks use a woolen prayer cord called a “komvoschinion” that has 50 or 100 knots tied in it and they use it to pray the Jesus Prayer hundreds or thousands of times per day. You and I don’t live in a monastery or convent. We live in a very secular, stress-filled world. 

But we can use the Jesus Prayer throughout our day to stay connected with God in both the daily mundane and in the most stressful circumstances. It's difficult to describe, but the Jesus Prayer will allow you to stay focused, relaxed and energized at the same time. This prayer can bring a sense of meditative calmness even in the midst of chaos. We do not disassociate from conscious and discerning thoughts, but we invite the Presence of God into the center of those thoughts and into the ebb and flow of our life by invoking His name in all that we do.

“You have made us for Yourself,O God, 
and our heart is restless 
until it finds its rest in You.” 
Augustine of Hippo ~ 354 A.D.

[The above is a revised and expanded version from an earlier AMEN Corner]

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Is Contemplative Prayer Okay For Protestants?

Dear Friends,

Many churches today are teaching an ancient prayer practice that  fundamental and reformed churches call a new-age “DOCTRINE OF DEVILS.” Is it really? Contemplative Prayer grew out of the spiritual practices of the 2nd century Christian mystics who were seeking an experiential relationship with God. It became deeply embedded in monastic life and is still being practiced in the Orthodox and Catholic churches today much as it was in the first centuries by those seeking the presence of God in their lives. But the reformation ended the practice of Contemplative Prayer for all those who would become known as “Protestants.” Martin Luther was a disgruntled Catholic priest and monk whose (justifiable) anger at the church caused him to reject all spiritual practices he had learned during his 12 years in the monastery. Luther developed a religious life-style that excluded any experience of God beyond reading our Bibles. He taught that contemplative prayer must be “banished from your heart”. Luther’s Works: AE Vol 24:257 For Luther, the academic and lawyer, the study of scripture was far more important than prayer as a direct communication with God. “Meditation,” as Luther described it, was simply the continual study of scripture. This is not to pick apart the sincerely-held beliefs of Martin Luther but to simply explain why some of us reject what all Christians believed in and practiced for the first 1,600 years.

Even those of us non-Lutheran Protestants have been “Lutherized” and we banish spiritual disciplines practiced by the early church. And while much of church tradition (selling of indulgences) that got Luther so riled up is gone from our Protestant practices, we’ve replaced the experience of God in our lives with church attendance, Bible studies, Men’s and Women’s groups, social activism, “Christian politics” and if we pray at all, we simply recite the requests we have on God’s “to-do” list that we created for Him. I have known those who were the most diligent, Bible-quoting, church-going Christians you could ever hope to meet. But their spirit was shriveled and starving. Their mind overflowed with God’s Word but their soul was empty. They were filled with our Protestant way of doing church but they had never known the presence of God. 

For us Protestants who are still uncomfortable with contemplation because it sounds a little too “Catholic,” please remember Jesus. When the Son needed to communicate with His Father, Jesus never ran to the Temple or the nearest Synagogue to read and study the scriptures. Jesus went off by Himself. To the mountain top. To the silence. The solitude. Jesus met His Father in the stillness. “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” Luke 5:15 (see also: Luke 6:12; Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35) So is meditative prayer really an appropriate way for us Protestants to pray? It is if you want to pray like Jesus...

Fundamental and Reformed churches still denounce Contemplative Prayer as demonic, but the spiritual tide is changing and most Protestant churches have turned to Orthodox/Catholic spirituality and mysticism in an effort to recover the spiritual disciplines practiced in the ancient church. Even today’s nationally-known Evangelical Protest-ant pastors have endorsed it. (Rick Warren, Tim Keller Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll, John Piper, and Max Lucado) One of our Nation’s most respected, conservative theologians, the late Dallas Willard, wrote a book titled, HEARING GOD: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God. If you are interested Contemplative Prayer, this is one book that will take you much deeper.

Contemplative or Meditative Prayer has been described as the opening of mind and heart – our whole being – to God. It is stilling your thoughts and emotions and focusing on God Himself. It is accepting God’s invitation to come into His presence, so that you are better able to hear His voice loving, encouraging, correcting, guiding and directing you. Focused attention on God alone is a meditative practice. Scripture is designed for meditation and our Bible is filled with exhortations to meditate. See Philippians 4:8 as an example. At the heart of meditative prayer is silence, solitude and stillness. We start by finding a quiet sacred space in our home (silence) where we can be by ourselves (solitude) so that we can just sit-a-spell (stillness). 

No one can possibly accuse Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren of teaching heresy or “new age” biblically unsound practices. Warren has said that “God wants us to connect with Him on a moment-to-moment basis.” He said we should “use ‘breath prayers’ throughout our day as many Christians have done for centuries.”

Contemplative Prayer starts with deep breaths to relax. Breathing in on the count of five. Exhaling on the count of five. Breathe through your nose and relax. You should feel your stomach move as your breath fully inflates your lungs and presses down on your diaphragm. In THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, Rick Warren says to “choose a brief scripture or simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath.”  Repeat the word or phrase. After several minutes of focused breathing and repeating the phrase, we find that any anxiety or stress is gone. We have almost effortlessly transcended into a contemplative state beyond words, emotions, images or forms. Thoughts slow down and the sense of our separateness from God disappears. We come into a unitive experience with Him. We’ve not abandoned our discerning thoughts nor taken leave of our senses. But our mind is clear of the clutter. In the silence, the solitude, the stillness, we come into the presence of our Heavenly Father.    To Be Continued...

Revised and expanded from an earlier AMEN Corner

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Is There Really Free Will?

The Maze of Theology
Dear Friends,

After last week’s AMEN Corner on the sovereignty and providence of God, a reader told me that it left her more confused then ever. That’s understandable. Even the church is confused. There has been a dispute about the sovereignty of God versus the will of man ever since the Reformation five hundred years ago. God's sovereignty refers to the power that God has over His creation. Providence refers to God using the power of His sovereignty to control all things in the world. “We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they will fall.” Proverbs 16:33 NLT One of the things that we like to say in Evangelical Christianity is that God is in control. But is He really? How about our own will? Can we override God? And if we can exert our will to override God then who really is in control? This doctrine of free will is not an insignificant matter in the church, and Christians have gone to battle and killed each other over this doctrine.

Let’s go into this theological maze to see what we can find. Martin Luther began the Reformation with a denial of free will that was fundamental to his doctrine of justification by faith alone. In his book “On the Bondage of the Will,” Luther adamantly argued against the concept of free will. Luther said, “I condemn and reject as nothing but error all doctrine which exalts our free will.” John Calvin agreed with Luther and taught the monergistic concept of providence meaning that God is the single active cause of all activity in the world. Many churches believe that today, but the difficulty with an absolute concept of divine providence is that if everything that occurs is a direct action from God then that makes God responsible for both good and evil. Meaning that God causes cancer, earthquakes in California, tsunamis in Japan and planes to fly into New York buildings. God recently caused the mother to torture, kill and dismember her three year old daughter and He was behind the bombs that killed 258 people and injured over 500 in Sri Lanka during Easter morning services. According to Calvin’s reformed theology, the evil that God wills is the necessary dark side of a greater good and all things are worked out according to Romans 8:28. But if I was a Christian who had just lost my spouse and children to a drunk driver and I was told by someone in the Presbyterian, Reformed or United Church of Christ (Calvinistic) churches that it was the will of God, I’d become an instant atheist. 

While those first Protestants were wrestling with Luther’s and Calvin's denial of free will, here comes a reformed Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius who ascribed to the historic, classic and Apostolic doctrine of free will that had been taught by the church for the 1,500 years leading up to the reformation. Arminius said about Luther’s and Calvin’s teachings that “It is not in the character of God to plan and carry out evil.” Arminius said that evil arises out of the corrupt intentions of fallen human hearts and not from God's perfectly loving and benevolent will. Arminius believed in the providence of God and believed that He does not cause sin, evil, and tragedy but does permit them for the sake of our freedom of will. This is an action of self-control on God's part. He is sovereign and has full power but chooses to allow us to have free will and make choices. You and I can choose to do evil, and when we do, those sinful choices incur God's powerful wrath and His judgement.

When I was growing up in the Episcopal church, the trend was to speak only about moral topics from the pulpit – typically on the social justice issues of the time. So I began to study Calvinist theologians because they were the only ones writing theological books. But I couldn't accept that God creates both good and evil and tried to talk about this with the pastor at a large Calvinist Baptist church when I was in my mid-20's. He told it wasn't my place to understand God and to not think about it any longer. All righty then..Thanks Rev! But my problem was that I couldn't stop thinking about it and while it was not a barrier between me and God, it did keep me out of church for a long time. 

Many years later, the Holy Spirit seized me and I recommitted my full life to Him despite the free will issue remaining unresolved in my mind. It was not until I went to Bible College and learned about Arminianism that it all fell into place. I remember when I first heard that explanation of God's sovereignty operating synergistically with man's freewill and feeling a rush of peace and understanding. Finally I was hearing a doctrine that perfectly dovetailed with a loving God and coincided with everything that I had read in the New Testament. Today, I say it like this:“We walk through our Journey in life in partnership with God. In all things, we can’t do it without Him, and He won’t do it without us.” 

A few years ago two Muslim brothers detonated bombs during the Boston Marathon and Joel Osteen was asked on a news program what he would say to the victims. I don’t always agree with Osteen but I appreciated his thoughtful response from the Arminian perspective. He said, “I would tell them that God has us all in the palm of His hand.” He said, “There are many things we don't understand, but God has given us our own free will and people choose to do evil things. When people put their faith in God, however, He’ll give you a peace and grace for every season.”

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Note: If you would like a more detailed and scholarly treatise on Calvinism and Arminianism, I invite you to read theologian and professor Roger E. Olson who has made it his life's work to explain these doctrines, You can read him HERE

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Coincidence? Or is it God?

Creation Of Life Hands - Leonardo Da Vinci

Dear Friends,

Last Monday, I drove into the Office Depot parking lot and saw the shiny black Hummer with the personalized “JESUS” license plate. I smiled because whenever I see that car, I know that my friend Cornelius is nearby. The first time I saw the Hummer, it was parked at Smart & Final and I want to meet any person who would have a JESUS license plate. I had no idea who owned it but I figured that anyone bold enough to have that license plate, I’m going to be able to recognize as a man of God. (Yes.. I suppose that does sound sexist and it could have been a woman, but the military-style, black H2 Hummer oozed testosterone and I knew it was a guy.) 

I recognized him instantly in the bread aisle as he walked toward me pushing his overloaded shopping cart. An African-American man about my height, weight and age, I knew he was the man I was looking for when I saw the large, chromed, bishop-sized cross that he was wearing. I was wearing my cross and so these two brothers in Christ took one look at each other and instantly connected. He’s ex-military, loves the Lord  and still grieves over the loss of his wife from cancer seven years ago. We’ve met up several times now at Smart and Final – he’s frequently there and loading up his cart – he serves twenty-one meals a day at his home. Cornelius lives at and manages a home for six developmentally-disabled adults. He is their caretaker, mother/father and friend. I call him their “pastor.” He doesn’t think of himself that way but he is their spiritual shepherd. The only difference between him and a megachurch pastor is the size of their church. His commitment to those God has called him to shepherd is unconditional and unwavering. He’s doing what Jesus would do. I see his heart and see a true man of God.

I hadn’t seen Cornelius in several months and was happy to see him at Office Depot on Monday where we talked for a few minutes. As I drove away, I was thinking that the next time I saw him there was something that I needed to tell him and I had something to ask him. Knowing it could be awhile before our paths crossed again, I prayed that I would see him soon. Three days later, I drove into the Smart and Final parking lot and saw a black Hummer with a personalized license plate that said, “JESUS.” Many people would call that a “happy coincidence.”

Not too long ago it was during my morning prayers that I heard my phone ping that a text had arrived. I pray so early in the morning that the only other ones awake and praying with me are professional monks and insomniacs. But my sister lives three time zones away so she’s finished her breakfast before I hear the roosters crow in my neighborhood’s pre-dawn darkness. She was texting me with the latest good news from her doctor. It was the answer to what I had just prayed about for her. Many people would call that a “happy coincidence.” 
A theologian once said that "Those who believe in “coincidences” are blind to the possibility that there is far more going on the spiritual realm than we know about or perhaps even care to know about."
Frederick Buechner is a Bible scholar, theologian, Pulitzer Prize finalist and author of over thirty books. He writes that, “ a rule people see only what they expect to see. Angels are powerful spirits whom God sends into the world to wish us well. Since we don’t expect to see them, we don’t. An angel spreads his glittering wings over us, and we say things like, ‘It was one of those days that made you feel good just to be alive,’ or ‘I had a hunch everything was going to turn out all right,’ or ‘I don’t know where I found the courage.’” Or perhaps your prayer time is interrupted by your sister texting you with good news that’s the answer to what you just prayed moments ago. Who was responsible for the timing? The Holy Spirit? An angel messenger? I don’t know. But I do know it was no coincidence. 

Coincidence is defined as a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. Scientist and physicist Albert Einstein had a more intellectual definition. He said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous!” 

Last week, Rhianna was talking to the owner of an automotive repair shop about his faith. He told her that he became a Christian six years ago and said that he used to believe in coincidences but he no longer does. When we see, hear and study the Word of God, our worldview and perspective about life changes and what was once seen as coincidence we now understand as His providence. The sovereignty of God refers to His Kingship. His rule and reign over Nations and the Heavens – over you and me. The providence of God refers to when He uses the power of His sovereignty to bring about the miracles that astound and delight us and to leave His fingerprints all over the pages of our day-to-day life. That word providence is not mentioned in the Bible but the biblical concept of providence is interlaced throughout the entire old and new testaments. Psalm 103:19; Proverbs 16:33; Daniel 4:35; Romans 8:28

God's providence is one area in which Christians and the rest of the world part company. Providence means that God has not abandoned the world that He created but works within His creation to manage all things. The world at large, even if they acknowledge God to have been the world’s Creator, thinks that God does not now intervene in human affairs. They think that miracles do not happen, prayers are not answered and things just happen as a result of circumstance and coincidence. But when you know God’s sovereignty and providence, you know there's no such thing as good fortune or a serendipitous twist of fate. That’s why, when the “happy coincidence” happens in our lives, we look up toward the heavens and say, “Thank You God! To You be all glory and honor and praise!”

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is This New Theology Killing Churches?

Dear Friends,

“He is Risen!” is acclaimed on Easter morning and the traditional response is “He is Risen indeed!” But if you told nearly one quarter of our Nation’s Christians, that “He is Risen!” their response would be,No Way! A Catholic Jesuit priest wrote last week that “Progressive liberal Christianity is turning Christians in mainline churches into atheists.” Before you react to that, let’s learn from a self-described progressive Christian minister and find out what this offshoot of historic Christianity really believes. This is an ordained United Methodist minister who heads a campus ministry in Colorado and who published a paper on the theology of Progressive Liberal Christianity: “Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. There isn’t a hell other than ones that we create here on this earth. God didn’t write the Bible. We believe that Jesus was divine in the way that you and I are, and he is not literally God. The trinity is a beloved Christian poem of who God is to us, but like all art and theology, poems don’t literally define things. Progressive Christianity is the post-modern influenced evolution of historic mainline liberal Protestant Christianity and it is an heir to the Social Gospel movement. It took its name in 2000 and draws from process theology, liberation theology, feminist, womanist and eco-theologies.” 

Progressive liberal theology draws from process theology which denies the biblical view of an immutable God and believes that God is always changing to conform to our human understanding of Him. In process theology, God does not control the future, we do. In progressive liberal theology, humanistic philosophy and a post-modern worldview become the foundation for the “Christian” religion. The Bible has been reduced to a collection of fictional stories which can be rewritten or paraphrased so that scripture conforms to modern liberal beliefs.

In the 1980's, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong became the voice of Protestant liberalism after he wrote books that elevated science and rational thinking while denying the supernatural. He wrote about the doctrine of the liberal church: Jesus was not God, was not born of a virgin, did not physically rise from the dead and didn’t go to heaven. There was no afterlife – you just ceased to exist – and hell was not biblical but an invention of the church. Spong taught today’s prevailing progressive theology that “the sole purpose for Christians on earth is to fight for social justice.” These were not new ideas invented by Sprong but during that time, he was (and still is) the main influencer of the liberal protestant church movement. A poll in the 1960's found that more than half of mainline Protestant clergy disbelieved the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of Jesus and other classic and historic church doctrine, but for fear that they would be defrocked and lose their jobs, they kept this non-Orthodox theology to themselves. 

The dean of the Wesley Theological Seminary, J. Philip Wogaman urged that Methodist, Episcopalian and Lutheran ministers be candid with their congregations and teach the liberal theology they personally believed but most of them instead preached vague messages with unclear meanings that only hinted at their liberal theology. What happened was that their congregations became confused about what they were hearing or became convicted that they were hearing heresy and left the church completely or drifted away into the more Evangelical churches. 

Many of you know that I was a cradle Episcopalian. Baptized, Confirmed, an acolyte for seven years and on a vocational path to be an Episcopal priest. It was the late 1960s and under the growing influence of Father John Shelby Spong, the denomination began a strong push for the social gospel. One Sunday, I’m vested as an acolyte to assist the priest and I’m sitting beside the altar during the sermon. I suddenly realize that for many months the only sermon topic has been about migrant farm workers and the impassioned call from the pulpit was not to follow Jesus but to boycott lettuce. Jesus had in fact been kicked to the curb in our church and United Farm Worker activist César Chávez was who we worshiped – I mean that literally. The Gospel for the day was read but there was no longer any mention of the Gospel from the pulpit. I couldn’t remember when the last time was that God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit had been mentioned in a sermon. I loved my Episcopal church but I loved God even more. That was when I left.

Bishop Spong led the Episcopal church and other mainline churches into rejecting nearly all historic Christian doctrine. Today’s belief that the progressive church must conform to prevailing liberal thought resulted in the recent rejection of scripture and 2,000 years of historic Christian teachings about homosexuality, marriage, gender and the human body. Today’s progressive Christians embrace the Western leftist identity politics which has lately been attacking the Evangelical church because it believes in the Bible. What is disturbing to me personally is that I see the truth in what the Jesuit priest wrote. “Progressive liberal Christianity is turning Christians in mainline churches into atheists.” I’m saddened when I read that both the ELCA Lutheran and Episcopal churches have acknowledged that they will most likely cease to exit in the next 20-25 years but I’m happy that conservative Evangelical churches who believe and teach historic Christian doctrine are thriving and growing. 

I have progressive liberal friends – one who is a pastor – who believe and preach what I do not. I love them like the good friends they are. I can wholeheartedly disagree with them and love them like Jesus. I laugh when they question how is it that I can consider myself to be a “Christian” since I’m not a liberal. And I know they love me like Jesus...

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Has Progressive Liberal Theology helped or hurt those churches who have adopted all or part of this new theology? One denomination lost over one million members in seven years after changing their doctrine on human sexuality. Read it HERE

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

What If Jesus Came To Beverly Hills Today?

Dear Friends,

Two thousand years ago a major celebrity came to town. Riding on a donkey. The multitudes cut down palm branches to spread on the road and cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! Hosanna in the highest!” Matthew 21:1-9 In the time of Jesus, the population of Jerusalem was about 30,000 people and the City of Beverly Hills is about that same size today. What if after doing miracle healing services all throughout California for three years, Jesus rode into Beverly Hills as a modern-day celebrity on Palm Sunday?

The first thing is that massive crowds would trigger an L.A. County Unified Emergency Response and law enforcement agencies from all over Southern California would be responding to Beverly Hills. People cutting down the palm tree fronds along Sunset Blvd and laying the branches in the road would be arrested for vandalism of City trees, littering, and obstructing traffic. 

If Jesus rode in on a donkey, P.E.T.A – People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals would be protesting against the cruel and inhumane use of a domestic animal for transportation purposes. Protesters would splash red paint on Jesus as punishment for violating the donkey’s rights and humiliating the animal by riding it. Jesus and the disciples would finally make their way to the Beverly Hilton where they would spend the week and on Thursday, celebrate Passover in the Upper Celebrity Suite. 

Trouble begins when a bishop from one of our largest mainline denominations, rebukes Jesus for using problematic patriarchal language when referring to God as “Father” and “He.” She calls Jesus a misogynist and demands He use their denomination's politically-correct, gender-neutral terms for God such as: "Holy Life Force," "Higher Power," or "Divine Being."

After Jesus appears on Sunday’s “Face the Nation” and announces that He is the only way to God, John 14:6 House Democrats pass an emergency resolution condemning the Islamophobic remarks of Jesus and former president Obama breaks his customary silence to once again remind us that America is not a Christian nation. The following Tuesday, in a segment on CBS Good Morning, Gayle King, invites Mary Magdalene, a Muslim Imam, a New Age Guru and a Wiccian Princess to explore all of the various pathways to Heaven and to find the greater enlightenment.

Dr Phil McGraw rushes to book the woman at the well on his show and surprises her by bringing on her five husbands. He confronts her with her past, and shows how she constructed Jesus as an imaginary, metaphoric father figure while she continues to seek reconciliation with her own father through destructive relationships with men.

In the news, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow reports that Jesus’ healing miracles are fictitious stories invented by Republican politicians as an attack on the progressive “Medicare for All” plan, and on KNBC, weatherman Fritz Coleman presents a special report showing how a weather anomaly could have made it appear that Jesus walked on water. 

But the real trouble starts on Thursday morning when Jesus appears on “The View.” Jesus is asked about transgenders, gender non-conforming people and same sex marriages. Repeating His own words as recorded in the Gospels, He reminds them that God created “male and female” and describes marriage as being between a man and a woman. Mark 10:6-8 Joy Behar shouts, “That’s transphobic and homophob..” “Wait..!” Whoopi Goldberg interrupts. “Ten years ago we all believed that nonsense about marriage and gender but don’t you believe, Sir, that the Bible must be rewritten and changed to conform to what we believe today?” Jesus gently says, “Heaven and earth will disappear but my words by no means will pass away.” Matthew 24:35 There’s outrage and pandemonium as Joy Behar screams an obscenity at Jesus and Whoopi Goldberg storms off the set. They cut to a commercial.

That night on ABC Nightly News, a progressive presidential candidate denounces the words of Jesus as an example of the “Christian hate speech” that will no longer be tolerated in America. The clip from “The View” goes viral on social media, and on Friday morning, thousands of people with political signs stage a mass protest in front of the Beverly Hills Courthouse and yell, “Crucify Him..! Crucify Him..!”

Would Jesus be treated any better today than He was 2000 years ago? What do you think? And, if the events of Holy Week took place today, perhaps even more importantly for us to consider is what would we do? Would we stand with Jesus to face the violent mobs or shrink back into the shadows to deny Him like Peter did? Matthew 26:69-75 

It’s comfortable for us to grab the hands of the person sitting next to us in church and pray for them, but are we comfortable grabbing the hand of a neighbor and praying for them on their front lawn? We sing praises to His Holy Name at church on Sunday, but are we ashamed to even mention His Name at work on Monday? Do we wear that cross around our neck on Sunday for our church friends to see but hide it in the jewelry drawer when we go shopping on Wednesday? It can be so easy to shout out “Hosanna in the highest” on Palm Sunday and so hard to even acknowledge our Christian faith when the hostile world is shouting “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” on Good Friday.. or a good Tuesday..or a good Wednesday..or a good Saturday..

When you read the above story, you may have laughed and cringed at the truth of it or you now may be angry at the way that our Nation’s media and culture have been depicted. But the fictitious story portrays the unprecedented attacks on the Christian faith in our Nation today by many in the media and in the political, educational and entertainment worlds. In response, we need to stand with the Son of God and not be ashamed of our faith. Jesus was the one true “celebrity” in the first century. He still is! And our broken world today needs Him more than ever...

NOTE: This AMEN Corner was originally published in 2013 and one of our most controversial. Readers either seemed to enjoy it immensely or were highly offended. It is expected that this revised version will elicit the same response. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to
    your loving-kindness; *
    in your great compassion blot out
    my offenses.

Wash me through and through
    from my wickedness *
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, *
    and my sin is ever before me.

Against you only have I sinned *
    and done what is evil in your sight.

And so you are justified when you speak *
    and upright in your judgment.
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth*
    a sinner from my mother's womb.
For behold, you look for truth
    deep within me, *
    and will make me understand
    wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure *
    wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.

Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
    that the body you have broken
    may rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins *
    and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
    and renew a right spirit within me.

Cast me not away from your presence *
    and take not your holy Spirit from me.

Give me the joy of your saving help again *
    and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *
    and sinners shall return to you.

Deliver me from death, O God, *
    and my tongue shall
    sing of your righteousness,
    O God of my salvation.

Open my lips, O Lord, *
    and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Had you desired it, I would
    have offered sacrifice, *
    but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.

The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
    a broken and contrite heart,
    O God, you will not despise.
PSALM 51 [Book of Common Prayer]

Psalm 51 is a Penitential Psalm and King David’s prayer of confession after the prophet Nathan confronted him with his sin. 2 Samuel 11-12 When we are weighed down by our own sins, this is a prayer of renewal, for it is with our broken and contrite heart that God comes to us in His mercy. For over two thousand years, the church has said this Penitential Psalm every morning during the 40 days of Lent. 

In public and personal prayer time, priests, pastors and monastics from the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox traditions (even from many Protestant traditions) pray this Lenten prayer every morning. 

David’s cry for mercy is our own cry for release from the power of our sins that we so deeply feel and for which we humbly repent during this season of Lent. 

We reach out to God for His forgiveness, mercy and love.. 
He hears our prayers.. and He gives us Good Friday...

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Declutter Your Life!

Dear Friends,

Okay. I know that many of you will be shocked to hear that I am not a man who is madly in love with his socks. They bring no joy to my life. But I was recently reading about the wildly popular, organizing guru Marie Kondo and found that I should repent for the shameful way I treat my socks. I buy Costco’s industrial-sized packages of black socks for church and white socks for everything else. On one side of a dresser drawer, both black and white socks are jammed in and intermingled together because integrating both the sacred and secular socks is what I think Jesus would do. Marie Kondo highly disapproves. I learned that I am disrespecting my socks and when they are carelessly dumped in a pile, I cannot expect them to bring me the joy that I deserve to have when I gaze into my underwear drawer. I learned that I should match each sock with a partner and then lovingly fold them together into thirds. Carefully nestling them upright in a small box and then putting my special “sock box” in my drawer would allow my socks to breathe and rest and be happy once again after they have been worn on my feet. Of course, if Marie Kondo was as personally acquainted with my “size 13's” as I am, she would not recommend “rest” to my socks but a night at the neighborhood bar to knock back a few and try to drown out the horrors of being wrapped around my feet for over 24 hours. 

I learn that I must show my respect and appreciation for my socks and all my clothes, and when it comes time for them to be thrown out, I must first bow to and thank the apparel for the service they have given me. Kondo had been an assistant at a Shinto shrine so, once the item is thanked, she highly recommends a Japanese parting ceremony for the clothes and things I’m discarding that involves the burning of incense and a purification ritual that uses a sprinkling of salt. I prefer to toss the discarded item in the black bin and roll it out to the curb on Mondays.

The decluttering evangelist preaches going through every item in your home and holding it in your hand to experience your feelings towards it. Marie Kondo says, “If you ‘love’ it, keep it.” If the item does not inspire great feelings of joy in your heart then you must discard it or give it to a thrift store. In doing so, you will find yourself soon surrounded by only those material things that you love and cherish.

I don’t have strong feelings of love for material items but I love it when I’m sitting in my chair and my cat Cody climbs on me and curls up on my chest. He stretches his head up and presses the back of his neck against my nose so that he can feel my warm breath on his fur. Soon he is purring in time to my breathing and my cat is bonding with his human. I love it when I’m walking on the beach at Carpinteria and hand-in-hand with the blonde woman I’ll be spending the rest of my life with. I love brilliantly colored sunrises that display the majesty of God’s handiwork. I love my Bible with its leather cover now softened through many years of use. I love serving Holy Communion to those hungry and thirsty for the Presence of God in their life. According to Marie Kondo, those things that I love to have and love to do are all the things I should keep, and of course, I will. 

But there are some things I love that I need to limit or completely discard. I love cheese, chips, chili dogs and chocolate mint ice cream but when I step on the scale, I can see that  those are not good for me. I love spending afternoons reading mystery stories that are not helping me grow spiritually into the man God wants me to be. I love reading news and devour both the conservative and liberal news sites that leave me upset, sad, angry and raise my blood pressure. Paul tells us that there are things that are not sinful and are okay for us to do but they’re just not good for us to do. “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” 1 Corinthians 6:12 

That scripture always comes to mind in the winter when I’m pruning my rosebushes. A carelessly maintained rosebush will become congested and unattractive. There are misplaced stems that are rubbing together or just growing in the wrong direction. They are healthy and growing but the plant is being shaped into something I don’t want it to look like and I need to determine which branches I want to thin out. I can choose the direction in which the rosebush will grow by what I prune out of it.

This season of Lent is a good time to take a close look at our own lifestyle and habits and thin out what is taking your life in the wrong direction. Marie Kondo has an excellent method for decluttering the closets in your home to make space for the material things you love but the Holy Spirit will help you declutter your life and make space for more of the presence of God. Pray that He will reveal to you what those things are that are okay for you to do but are just not helpful for you. If we’ve carelessly maintained our life, priorities and leisure time, there may be things we do that are not spiritually helpful for us. Things that are not sinful but just not good for you. Use this time of Lent to declutter your life and discard all that which keeps you from growing in spiritual maturity and living in the presence of God. Amen?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Are Miracles For Today?

Dear Friends,

When I was a little boy, Superman was my hero. I loved that TV show! Superman could fly through the air and catch Lois Lane as she was falling off the top of the building. He could use his super strength to lift a locomotive off of a pinned car. He could burrow through the ground using his body like a drill to rescue a little boy in a cave-in. He could use his X-ray vision to see what the bad guys were doing and use his super hearing to hear what they were saying. Superman stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way. He always used his powers not for his own benefit, but for others. But of course Superman was a fictional character. A fantasy. A fairy tale hero. And now today, in some countries, belief systems and even in some Christian denominations and churches, the miracles of Jesus Christ are no more real than Superman’s X-ray vision. To a growing number of those in our younger generations, the Son of God is just another fictitious super-hero.

The State Hermitage is the most famous of all Russian museums and is one of the world’s oldest. Located in Saint Petersburg Russia, it has one of the largest collections in the world of religious paintings by the old masters. The religious works of Michelangelo, El Greco, Rembrandt and many others just as well known are displayed in this museum. There is one famous painting by Rembrandt that is of Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus. The plaque on the painting reads, “The Fairy Tale of Jesus Christ Raising Lazarus From the Dead.” In fact, all the paintings that depict the miracles of Jesus in this government-run museum are labeled as “fairy tales.”

And sadly, there are many people in our own Nation who would agree with the Russian museum. Many in America’s progressive liberal church movement read their Bible and love the Lord. But their desire to conform to secularized  cultural beliefs about the Bible requires that they put the miracles of Jesus Christ into the category of “biblical fairy tales.” Some conservative Reformed churches do believe that Jesus and His disciples did perform miracles but conclude that all of God’s miracles ceased after the New Testament was written. They teach that a so-called “miracle” today is nothing more than our wishful thinking. 

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever Hebrews 13:8 and the miracles of God are also unchanging. The early Church Fathers wrote extensively about the spiritual gifts and the miracles that were continuing in the ancient church. It wasn’t until 1500 years later that Protestant churches denied their existence. Miracles are defined as God’s intervention in the natural. It is not the hand of man that brings about a miracle. It is the sovereign super-natural power of God. And, despite what some churches teach, miracles happen every second of every day!

I was talking with a City attorney I know. We were talking about medical records and he told me about his mother. She is alive today, but she should have died when her son was six years old. That was when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had rapidly grown and there was a very large tumor in her breast. Her doctor told her it had to be operated on immediately or she would soon die as the cancer spread. That night before the surgery was to take place, she couldn’t sleep. She was going back and forth in her mind whether she should have the surgery or not. Her doctor had told her the cancer had advanced to the point where there was a good chance of her dying even if the surgery was performed. She tossed and turned not knowing what to do. Sobbing and crying out to God, she begged Him to tell her what to do about the surgery. Suddenly, she heard a knock at the front door. She looked at the clock and her heart began to pound. It was 2:30 AM.

She opened the door and found the pastor of her new church standing there. He told her that God had woken him up and told him to go and pray for her and she would be healed. The pastor anointed her with oil and prayed for her healing and she went back to bed. The next morning she called her doctor and told him she was not going to have the surgery. She didn’t tell him about the pastor. Just that she was canceling her surgery. The doctor was angry with her and told her to come into his office the next day. She kept the appointment and the doctor was astounded. This very large tumor was gone. It had completely disappeared. That was when she told the doctor that the pastor had prayed for her healing. 

This took place about fifty years ago and this attorney’s mother is still alive and healthy today. She is in her nineties and never had a single tumor again. Her cancer didn’t go into remission. It disappeared as if it were never there! Not only did her doctor become a Christian believer after witnessing this healing miracle, but his entire staff also became Christians. The attorney’s mother has a Bible that the doctor gave her and tucked inside is a letter he wrote giving the details of the miraculous healing. 

During this season of Lent, we prepare to celebrate on Easter Sunday the most astounding, life-changing miracle the world has ever known. The Son of God risen from the dead is immutable and He is still our super miracle worker.
When I was young I used to marvel at Superman who could fly. Now that I’m older, I marvel at SuperJesus who can make a large cancerous tumor disappear from a woman’s breast overnight. Governments, atheists and some Christians call the miracles of Jesus “fairy tales” but the Word of God is not a fictitious fantasy, it’s real life. And in your real life and mine, that’s where we find our own Super-Hero. His name is Jesus Christ.  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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