Wednesday, May 20, 2020

A 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, was a former Christian believer and now considered herself to be “New Age.” 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. I put off calling her until it was more convenient. There was no rush. I had plenty of time. I put on my calendar to meet with her the next month. Then I got the email telling us that she had suddenly died...

Burt loved 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 that 77th 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 His pastor told me that Alan was a loner, withdrawn and had difficulty opening up to others. She told me that he didn't seem to want to talk with her. 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 wasn’t his pastor, someone else was and I didn't want to upset the one who was. Besides, I was busy enough with my own church. I knew that at some point I would call him but there was certainly no rush. 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 my 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... 

For many of us, the most shocking thing about COVID-19 is that it demolished our arrogant assurance that we know what our tomorrow will look like. We have been jolted out of our belief that we are in sole control of our destiny and are now nervously preparing ourselves for the uncertainty of tomorrow. That’s why the New Testament is filled with a sense of urgency, for no one knows what our future will bring. 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 urgently 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 13, 2020

For Whom The Bell Tolls


Dear Friends,

There are two designated COVID-19 hospitals in Los Angeles one in the south and the other in the North that’s right across the street from me. Their once overflowing parking lot has been empty since the start of the virus in our City. No “normal” patients, surgeries or visitors. Olive View Medical Center now only handles the coronavirus cases and all day long there’s a never-ending procession of county and private ambulances making the “deliveries” of COVID-19 patients who are being transferred from other hospitals. Then there are also the vehicles I see driving from the hospital that are doing the patient “pickups.” The black Lincoln Navigators that look like normal SUV’s except that they have the windows completely blacked out and are driven by mortuary attendants.

My weekly grocery shopping is at our local Smart and Final. I take advantage of the “old folks” hours at 6 am and the parking lot just has a few cars in it. I get out of my car. Stop. Look to the south and pray. Just on the other side of an adobe-colored block wall that’s a few hundred feet away is a post-acute nursing home called The Grove. Currently forty-three residents in this sixty-eight bed home are suffering with COVID-19 and seventeen of their staff members test positive. In our community of Sylmar, fifteen people have died of the virus – twelve here at The Grove and the other three deaths at different nursing homes. My heart grieves for these residents. We had been asked to do Sunday church services at The Grove but we didn’t have the resources to do so and we were already committed to holding services at Abbey Road, the residential care facility that’s the next door neighbor to The Grove. I check every day and I’m thankful that no one at Abbey Road has the virus. We are overwhelmed with the reality of death. Since the pandemic started, it seems like the L.A. Times has published a daily story about someone’s loved one dying from the virus. The media has smothered us with COVID stories. Those of us who turned daily to the latest sports stats now turn to the daily death stats in our community.

For too many months I’ve been reminded daily about the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. Some of us went to an Ash Wednesday service where the pastor smudged a cross of ashes on our forehead and reminded us of our coming death by saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We go home, wash our forehead, and turn on the television. Death is not something any of us want to dwell on. But now it seems as though this Biblical-like plague has imposed a cross of ashes on our forehead that can’t be washed off and we are reminded daily of suffering and death.

We read of both the young and old dying within a few days of receiving a positive diagnosis and wonder if that could happen to us. On a personal note, I was compelled to finally acknowledge that if I were to die, while thanks be to God all would be well with my soul, perhaps not so much with my property and finances. I’ve always felt that a Last Will and Testament was for older people to worry about but, even though I’m only seventy, I decided I should have one anyway despite my youth and good health. We hear and read about many, like myself, who have used this time when our normal world is on pause to acknowledge our mortality, reevaluate our lives and then to discover what is important for us as we continue to dwell in this our temporary earthly home. I know those whose careers and jobs were the most important thing in their life – now their children are. And what we pastors have been seeing is that as people have become fearful and vulnerable, they are now more open and receptive to God. A poll last week showed that 24% of all Americans said that their faith has grown stronger and is helping them get through the pandemic, and among church-goers, 68% reported that their faith has grown and is greatly helping them at this time.

A church has been starting out its online service with a close up of their bell ringing and a man’s voice intoning, “Ask not for whom the (death) bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” In the middle of our fears, it might seem inappropriately grim to start a church service by implying that we are next to die, but when we listen to the context of what is being read, we realize that’s not what it means. The phrase refers to funeral bells and comes from a Christian devotional written by John Donne who lived in England in the 1600's. Donne wrote “No man is an island.. any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind” saying in essence that we are all part of the same family of God and what affects one affects us all. When the death bell tolls for the young man dying in the ICU or the woman in the nursing home, it tolls for the little part of us that has also died. 

Some live in a world where we narcissistically demand it be our way and we see that reflected in the recent protests against sheltering at home. We are outraged to find that we do not have a constitutional right to a haircut. We have no need for a mask – our green kale smoothies, daily supplements and our yoga keep us healthy. And yet it’s the social distancing and our annoying mask that keep others safe from us. If we’ve contracted the virus, we can infect others with it up to two days before we manifest the symptoms. John Doone’s devotional reminds us that in the Kingdom of God, those strangers are our family. It’s not just about us.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

What's Scaring Your Pastor?


Dear Friends,

According to pastors throughout our Country, what disturbs their sleep and keeps them awake are the night terrors of the “new normal” in their church. What we pastors and priests love about our church are the practices, the rituals, the traditions – the unchanging sameness – and the fear is that church will never be the same again. We trust in God that the church will survive but we are being told to be prepared for a new normal that may change nearly everything that a pastor loves about his/her church. Some government and denominational guidelines are even eliminating singing in church because it’s been proven that’s a particularly effective and deadly way to spread the virus. I know my description last week of the church service of the future is hard to believe, but a few days ago the state of Texas issued an executive order with church guidelines so stringent that some pastors believe that it may be easier to just keep their church closed until COVID-19 goes away. Here are some of the challenges your church is facing...

To achieve the required social distancing, new guidelines are specifying a seating area of 500 square feet (about the size of a two car garage) to accommodate ten people and most of our denominational churches in our area have a seating area of about 1,000 square feet. That limits each service to twenty people. A very small church of twenty will be just fine. But the church of thirty will now need to have two services. The church of 100 will need to have five services instead of just the one and that creates impossible logistics if they rent space for their services. And any church that must split up into multiple services on Sunday will find that most people just don't want to go to church at three in the afternoon. But the worst news for pastors is that Texas guidelines, expected to be adopted by other states, also specify that no one over the age of 65 or who has underlying medical conditions (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or lung conditions) should attend an in-person service. The CDC guidelines for churches also state that age 65+ and those medically vulnerable not attend services even in Phase 3, when the churches are opened to the public with social distancing in place. Ironically that directive makes it easier for churches to achieve social distancing because it just eliminated over half of nearly every church congregation in our Nation. Once you see these challenges through the eyes of the pastors, it’s easy to understand why they are losing sleep at night.

What is being encouraged by government and denominational guidelines is continuing online services but that’s not working out well for many churches. The main reasons we attend the church that we do are the location, the friends we enjoying seeing on Sunday, and because it’s the denomination or the tradition with which we are most familiar and comfortable. We put up with Sally’s screechy solos and our pastor’s rambling sermons because Sally is a friend and we’re fond of Pastor Dave. But online services have changed the dynamic. Location doesn’t matter and we don’t see our friends on Sundays anymore. We’ve been interested in that church across town and their services are now a mouse click away. People who would have never considered checking out another church are now doing so online. Our warm feelings for Pastor Dave have not changed, it’s just that we now prefer to hear Pastor Megan or Joel Osteen on Sunday morning. Megachurches are reporting huge increases in viewership while our smaller churches are losing viewers every week. When pastors wake up in the middle of the night and try “counting sheep” to fall back asleep, they are finding fewer sheep to count.

Some states, including California, have said that churches will not be allowed to reopen until Stage 3 which may be many months from now or may not even be until next year. Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA (Lutheran) church said that her denomination is not ready to reopen. She said, “Many churchgoers are elderly, which puts them at risk and nearly 42% of ELCA clergy, too, are at least 60 years old.” She said “The body of Christ is right now COVID-19 positive. So inviting more of the body of Christ to put itself in harm's way – with the possibility of becoming infected or taking the infection home to someone else, spreading it further – that is just not faithful.” She said that her churches will follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing and wearing masks when they do open and said that, “We'll certainly not be having potlucks any time soon!” For many people, church has simply become what we do on a Sunday and it’s been more of a lifestyle habit than a religious commitment. As the closures continue, church leaders fear that for those without a strong spiritual connection to their church, habits will change and people will find other things fulfilling to do on a Sunday morning. This is what’s causing your pastor to have those stress-filled and sleepless nights.

If you believe that God is leading you to change churches for the right reasons -- read Should I Leave My Church -- then perhaps this really is your opportunity to do your online church shopping. 

But if you believe that God is calling you to a renewed commitment to your church and your pastor, this is an opportunity to support and encourage him or her and I’m not talking about ten seconds to send a text with a thumbs-up emoji. Please consider spending some time to hand-write a note or a card and mail it to them – or at the very least, perhaps send an email. Let them know of your commitment to the church and that they can count on you to be there when it reopens. Let them know what it is that you appreciate about them. A friend of mine just wrote to the pastor of his church and told him he had a wonderful smile and how it makes everyone feel good to see it! Let your pastor know what you appreciate about your church. Be specific about what is meaningful to you during the church service and what it is that brings you closer to God. When you’re at the grocery store, consider buying a gift card to enclose with your note or card and bless your pastor with your thoughtfulness. In the best of times, most pastors rarely or never hear anything complimentary and pastors today report they have never been more discouraged than they are right now. This is the time for you to step up and be an encourager! Help him or her to sleep well at night! Amen?

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Note: The last paragraph might be viewed as "self-serving" if I was the current pastor of those who read this AMEN Corner. I'm not. Our church service is held in a retirement home. The pastor I would like to see you lift up and encourage during this unsettling time in the church is your pastor!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Church of the Future Pt 2


Dear Friends,

If you were a virus terrorist, what would be the most ideal way to spread COVID-19? The most effective way to spread any virus is in the place that we call “church.” Members and visitors of all ages crowd inside a building that is often filled to its capacity. We love to sit next to friends, shake hands and hug. It’s different for other cultures, but for White Americans, the comfortable distance when speaking to one another is about five to eight feet; however, in church the comfortable distance is less than three feet. We love to sing out and shower our friends, who are sitting several rows ahead of us, with droplets from our mouth and lungs. We hold hands when we pray. We pass the offering plate and share all of the organic matter on our hands with our friends. A pastor or priest tears off a piece of bread with unwashed hands and places it in our own unclean hand. We crowd our way out the door to have after-service “snacks” and in some cases a lunch prepared and served by people who may be sick but who are not yet showing symptoms. At a Washington church, 60 people showed up for choir practice. It was a large multipurpose room and chairs were spaced six feet apart. They used hand-sanitizer. Didn’t shake hands. No one had symptoms or felt ill. Three weeks later, 45 had been diagnosed with COVID-19, three were still hospitalized and two were dead. That was when health officials realized how much farther the virus droplets can travel when you’re singing.

There are some churches in our Country insistent on opening their doors, but our public health officials are saying that we are not ready and when we are, the services should look nothing like they did before. That’s because, outside of residential care facilities, the largest gathering of those most vulnerable to this virus, are in our churches. The Episcopal church has nearly 70% of its membership over age 55. In the ELCA (Lutheran) church, 61% of their members are older than age 55 and one-third are older than age 65. The Presbyterian church is even grayer with a whopping 40% who are older than age 65.

It’s not just age that makes us vulnerable. As of today (4/27) in LA County, 942 have died from COVID-19 and 92% of those have had underlying medical conditions. A younger church congregation does not make it a safer one. In fact, a recent LA Times analysis has shown that Latinos aged 18 to 49 have a higher coronavirus fatality rate than older Latinos. Of those in LA County who have tested positive for the virus, 84% are younger than 65 and nearly half are younger than 40. What makes COVID-19 difficult to control is that, according to the latest testing, about 50% of those testing positive, and who can infect others, have had no symptoms. That’s why for the foreseeable future, our church can no longer look like the church I’ve described at the beginning of this AMEN Corner.

Health officials tell us it’s not safe for us to gather in church or in any crowded places until we can be vaccinated against this virus and that a vaccine is 12-18 months away. But could we open churches earlier if strict guidelines were enforced? Perhaps. But according to health officials and denominational leaders, strict rules would need to be in place and those who refuse to follow them would no longer be admitted to the services. Only one person at a time in a restroom which would have to be disinfected after each person used it. No lingering or social interaction before or after the service would be allowed. Offering plates are on a table at the door. You drop in your check or envelope without touching the plate. Singing out loud is no longer permitted since it has now been proven that singing can force droplets through homemade cloth masks. During communion, the person holds their hand flat. The pastor wearing a medical glove removes a machine-made communion wafer from its plastic wrapper and drops the wafer into the person’s hand. If his fingers accidentally touch the person’s hand, the service stops while he changes gloves. Another communion server, also wearing gloves, steps forward and places a filled plastic cup on a table. The server steps back and the congregant steps forward to pick up the cup, drinks it and drops it into a plastic-lined trash can. (I cannot tell you how much I hate the thought of having to distribute communion this way but the only other option is to hand out the sterile prepackaged communion “kits” as shown in the photo above) Church leaders say these are some of the logistical nightmares that each church will have to work through before they can once again have in-person services. And yet even when it is permitted by the government to allow public gatherings, we may not want to be the first ones to do so in order to protect those – both young and old – who are the vulnerable ones in our congregation. 

The first and primary job of the shepherd is to look after and protect his or her sheep and our English word “pastor” is derived from the Latin word meaning “shepherd.” And if we are a mainline pastor, about 50% or more of our flock is older and/or medically vulnerable. Older churchgoers are the most anxious to return to church since their generation often suffers from social isolation and loneliness and they are also the ones less likely to watch an online service. Many churches are finding that the older ones are demanding churches be reopened while the younger generations urge caution and believe that closures need to remain in place. 

When your church does open, how do you know that  the necessary precautions are in place and it’s safe for you to return? A parachurch church organization has released guidelines that churches are using in preparing their own. Consider these guidelines and use them as a checklist to evaluate your own church’s procedures. It is difficult to think of our church this way, but during these challenging times, you need to make sure that you are kept safe from others and others safe from you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Church of the Future


Dear Friends,

You arrived at church an hour before the service starts. The average Sunday attendance used to be 125 adults but now only thirty people can be in the building in order to maintain the required six foot distance. Only two people, unless in the same family, can be in a row of chairs so that you don’t have to move close to each other to get in and out. The center aisle between the chairs is required by the Health and Safety Order to be eighteen feet wide and many of the chairs are now in storage. After the worship team, pastor, ushers and sound system people are counted, only twenty members are allowed in at each service. Visitors are not allowed in at all and are given a brochure with the instructions to watch the online service. For the past two weeks you were turned away at the door after the church had reached the legal amount of worshipers. They now have six services every Sunday, but thank God you made it in time for the 9:30 service today. 

The usher guarding the door takes your temperature using an infrared scan of your forehead and stamps your hand letting everyone know that you’ve been scanned and you’re not running a fever. One of the inside ushers hands you a service bulletin and escorts you to an approved area to sit. The church feels empty and what you miss most right now is sitting next to your friends. You also think about how much you miss the hospitality time and the lunch after the service but there is no way to maintain the required distance when sitting at the tables. When the service ends, it seems wrong to walk out the door, not shake hands with the pastor, and then just get into your car to leave. You put those distressing thoughts aside now as the service starts. 

The pastor reads the greeting and you strain to hear him. Because of his mask, his words are muffled and it’s difficult to understand what he’s saying. You stand to sing but you know you can’t actually do so. You love the hymn they are playing but it’s impossible for you to sing in a mask or face covering. You wind up breathing too much of your own breath and the extra CO2 makes you dizzy. During the traditional passing of the peace, when the congregation once moved around the room to greet and hug each other, all of you now just stand and wave at each other, turning the sanctuary into a undulating wave of ocean-blue medical gloves that brings a smile to your face. 

The most meaningful part of the service for you is Holy Communion, and the ushers now escort each person one at a time up to receive. In order to maintain the six foot distance, the pastor holds in his gloved hand a 16" BBQ tong that he uses to grab onto a communion kit in a plastic bag. He stretches out the tongs to hand the elements to you and says, “The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus safely prepackaged for you. Tear off the protective plastic safety seal and eat in remembrance of Him.” 

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From the Vatican to the Evangelical megachurches to the denominational mainstream churches, we are being told that we need to be prepared for what they are calling the “new normal” in our church services. Is this really what it could actually look like?

With the exception of my “tongue-in-cheek” words in italics, that service most likely will be what the church looks like for awhile – perhaps a long while. The manufacturer of the “Fellowship Cups,” the prepackaged grape juice and wafer, has described an explosion of orders as the traditional liturgical churches stock up for when they are allowed to resume services. Churches are writing procedures for how to now handle and dispose of the plastic communion cups that will become a medical biohazard after touching hands and lips. Our new normal will eliminate all but the presiding priest/pastor from drinking out of the common cup and the bread or crackers will no longer be torn or broken in pieces by the pastor and placed in the hands of the people. Only machine-processed wafers will be used. Our new normal will most likely include the elimination of hospitality times after church where people gather and church potlucks where food is prepared and shared by different people.

But will we really still be wearing masks during the service? The governor of California has stated that even when some restrictions are lifted, under the “new normal,” masks, gloves and social distancing will be required for an indefinite period of time. Restaurants might have half the tables; schools half the desks. Churches might have half the chairs and be allowed to reopen only with “strict physical distancing protocols.” Under the governor’s “new normal,” large gatherings, (50+) including those in churches will be prohibited. The governor said that there will be no large gatherings of people until “..we get to a herd immunity and get to a vaccine.” Harvard researchers, using a peer-reviewed study, conclude that periods of social distancing – staying six feet from each other, avoiding hugs and handshakes – may be necessary into 2022. In our own city of Los Angeles, the mayor has informed his department managers that large gatherings, including those in churches, may not be permitted until 2021. The mayor told his staff that “small businesses” (small churches) will be “phased in over a period of six to ten months.”

Of course the official government declarations of guidelines and requirements change weekly, if not daily, and so nobody knows exactly what the church of the future will look like. All we know is that there will still be Sunday gatherings of the community of believers that we call the “church.” Jesus said about His church that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. Neither will the coronavirus. 
To Be Continued...

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

A Safe Place in the Pandemic Storm


Dear Friends,

Heavy rain pounds the roof. Lightning strikes are hitting the ridge on the hills just a half mile away and my wood-frame house shakes and shudders with each resounding percussive blast of thunder. Now the lightning and thunder occur at the same moment. It’s directly overhead and so violent I wonder if my windows will shatter. This is Sean McDougal’s first thunderstorm and he’s terrified. Sean is my “rescue cat” and he was approaching his first birthday. There’s a direct lightning strike a half block away and the sound of an explosion. It feels like a giant fist is pounding the house with each thunderclap. But Sean has found a safe place under the bed. A place where the fiercest, scariest storms cannot reach him – where he has found both shelter and a heretofore misplaced catnip-filled toy. A few minutes before, the explosive thunder had sent him frantically tearing around the house in a panic, but now in the sanctuary beneath the bed, he is calm and he stretches out to relax and wait out the storm.

Where do you go when the storms of life hit? When a worldwide pandemic has just changed life as you know it. When you may be experiencing anxiety, uncertainty and fear that just seems overwhelming at times. When it seems like all hell is breaking loose in your personal world and evil is raining down on you, where do you find your sanctuary? Where is your safe place?

Several years ago, during a church service, everyone was given a blank 3x5 card and asked to write down their favorite praise and worship songs that we sing on Sunday. We had a list of nearly two hundred songs so I thought everyone’s list would be completely different. I was surprised to see that the majority of those in our congregation had named “Here In The Shadow” as their top favorite. If you never went to our church, you’ve probably never heard this song. It was written by a  songwriter-worship leader, Shannon Wexelberg, and released on one of her albums about fifteen years ago. Here In The Shadow is based on Psalm 17:6-8 and some of the lyrics are: Here in the shadow.. Here in the shadow of Your wings.. Here in the shadow.. I will rest here Father.. I won’t fear tomorrow.. I will rest here Father.. You are my peace. I shouldn’t have been surprised that this had become one of the most beloved songs in our church because it so well describes our own sanctuary during the storms of life.

In the Old Testament, we read that Saul had loved David like a son, but when God rejected Saul and chose David to be the king, Saul flew into a jealous rage and vowed to kill David. Fleeing in fear of losing his life, David hid in a cave and wrote these words: “Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy! I look to You for protection. I will hide beneath the shadow of Your wings until the danger passes by. I cry out to God Most High, to God who will fulfill His purpose for me. He will send help from heaven to rescue me, disgracing those who hound me. My God will send forth His unfailing love and faithfulness.” Psalm 57:1-3 NLT One translation says, “in the shadow of Your wings I will make my refuge until the ruinous storm passes by."

That’s where we need to be living today. In the shadow of His wings where we will make our refuge until the ruinous storm of this plague passes by. “Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust Him. For He will rescue you from every trap and protect you from deadly disease. He will cover you with His feathers. He will shelter you with His wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection. Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies in the day. Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness..” Psalm 91:1-6 NLT 

We must be wise and do everything possible to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy while, at the same time, we do not dread this disease that can attack our bodies but not our souls. This is not the first intense and frightening storm of life that we’ve lived through. The loss of a loved one – a child, spouse or parent. A child or grandchild walking on a path to self-destruction. A doctor’s diagnosis of a devastating illness. Financial and legal difficulties. Depression. Loneliness. The storms of life will always be with us because we live in a fallen world, and yet no matter what  circumstances befall us, Jesus promises that our peace is in Him, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

In the storms of life, we run to God and find sanctuary in the shelter of His wings. Psalm 61:4 NLT He invites us to rest there trusting in Him and we know that no matter how bad the storm gets, it will pass. Three hours after my house was battered by that morning thunderstorm, the skies were calm. The sun was shining through patches of white clouds and rain drops on the olive tree leaves sparkled in the sunlight. Sean McDougal was running through the house, leaping joyfully in the air and playing with a catnip mouse. The thunderstorm was over. All was well again. This storm – this plague – will soon be over too. God is good. Amen?

Listen to Shannon Wexelberg sing Here In The Shadow

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

EASTER in your house church!


Holy Week ~ Monday ~ 4:00 am

It is a gloomy, dark and stormy morning. The rain is pounding down and flooding our little part of this world. It feels like even the heavens have opened up and are crying out in grief. Our Nation’s Surgeon General has just said that, “..at the beginning of Holy Week..this is going to be the hardest and saddest week of most American’s lives.” Our season of Lent started out just fine. We’d been feeling pretty pious for fasting on ice cream and candy and then we suddenly found that we’d also given up toilet paper for Lent. In a panic, we went to the grocery store and saw aisles of shelving stripped bare of food. Like a third world country, we’ve stood in lines of hundreds of people waiting to get in to Costco to buy bread, eggs and milk. Our participation in Lent is supposed to be pretend suffering as we congratulate our self for giving up chocolate. Lent is not supposed to be about the suffering of tens of thousands of people sick and dying. Lent’s not supposed to be about a plague of Biblical proportions sweeping over the entire Earth from one end to the other. And in the middle of what could be the worst time in our life we’ll ever experience, we’re supposed to celebrate the joy of Easter Sunday?

Some churches have postponed their Easter services to what they hope to soon be healthier and happier times when the crowds return and they can host their community Easter egg hunts with the Easter bunny. But Resurrection Sunday is not a church party day, it’s a church holy day established two thousand years ago. It was established by God and it’s not ours to cancel, ignore or postpone. And our Sovereign God knew what He was doing when He set this year’s holy day in the worst of a pandemic. For it is in the middle of this most terrifying time in our lives, we need the hope that Jesus gave us through His resurrection. Thank God for His perfect timing! Like a rainbow appearing in the middle of the storm as a promise it will soon be over, Easter Sunday shows us that in the middle of this plague, there is hope on the horizon. Easter Sunday gives us something sacred and solid to hold on to in the middle of what may be the hardest and saddest time in our lives.

But how do we celebrate Resurrection Sunday when all our churches are closed? For those of us who live in Los Angeles County, even the gathering of a small handful of people to do an online service is unlawful. But many of our local churches do live-stream services of the priest or pastor alone performing the service. I know those who hope their church continues to live-stream the services when the pandemic is over because they prefer the convenience of a virtual service they can watch from the comfort of their own home. Some of us can watch online services and be as engaged as if we were sitting in church while others of us find our attention disrupted by a trip to the refrigerator, our phone, our children and the oven timer. Most of those with children have found it impossible to engage them in an online church, and without their Sunday School, their Easter will be only about a bunny and chocolate eggs. For us adults, while there may be instructional value in an online service as we listen to the pastor’s sermon, for many of us it just doesn’t feel like church. Like watching a video of our family’s thanksgiving dinner instead of sitting down at the table and joining in the feast, a video can bring sadness as we are reminded of what we are missing and long for. That’s why I’m suggesting that you consider something “radical” this Resurrection Sunday. Or maybe the better word would be “reformational.”

As the reformer, Martin Luther, urged a return to the practices of the ancient church, perhaps this is good advice for us today. The early church met in houses, maybe just one large family, maybe with other families. But for the first 300 years of Christianity, it looked nothing like our church looks like today. What the ancient apostolic church looked like is what a gathering of your family in your own “house church” would look like. But what if we are a single adult with no family to gather? We don’t hear Jesus directing people to pray in the temple, He tells us to go into our prayer room, shut the door and pray. For those who live by themselves, His recommendation is to pray and worship alone with God. Matthew 6:6 

The Resurrection Sunday house church service I’ve prepared is for you worshiping on Easter alone or with others who live with you. If you are worshiping alone, read the service out-loud and slowly. It’s okay to pause in silence and reflect on what you’ve just read. Actually sing the hymns and worship songs – God loves the sound of your voice! If your house church is with others, you can appoint a leader and make sure that others, including the children, take turns reading scriptures and prayers. 

For weeks now we’ve allowed ourselves to become centered on the coronavirus and it has been mentally and emotionally exhausting for some of us. This Sunday, we need to change our focus and become centered on the risen Christ. The risen Son of God is our only hope! You are in my prayers as I ask that I would be in yours. And now may the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and for ever.





Resurrection Sunday
                             in your House Church



HOUSE CHURCH SERVICE:
Opening Prayer
Hymns & Worship Songs
Psalm Reading
Old Testament Scripture
Prayers
New Testament Scripture
Gloria (Doxology)
Gospel Reading
Nicene Creed or Apostles’ Creed
Hymns & Worship Songs
Lord’s Prayer
Closing Prayer

View or Download a PDF 
of this House Church Service HERE


Opening Prayer

God of life and hope,
we praise You for the miracle of Easter. We pray for great joy for ourselves and for all who come together in their churches and homes to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray especially today for those whose lives are filled with pain, loss, or deep sadness. May they sense how the resurrection is a source of great hope and be drawn closer to You by the power of Your Spirit. Amen.


(Select and sing one or more Hymns and Praise Songs on the last page of 
this House Church Service or choose any favorite that is appropriate for Easter)


Psalm
(The Psalm may be read by all family members in unison.)

“Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever. The LORD is my strength and song, And He has become my salvation. I shall not die, but live, And declare the works of the LORD. Open to me the gates of righteousness; I will go through them, And I will praise the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD, Through which the righteous shall enter. I will praise You, For You have answered me, And have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected, Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing; It is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; We will rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:1; 14;17;19-24 BCP


Old Testament Scripture
(Old and New Testament scriptures should be read by different family members – especially by children old enough to read. Note that while the following may or may not apply to today’s plague, the entire theme of the Old Testament was God bringing hardship, plagues, earthquakes etc. to turn the hearts of His rebellious and unrepentant people back to Him. You may eliminate the bracketed words if they discomfort you.)

“[When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among My people,] if My people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now My eyes will be open and My ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” 2 Chronicles 7:13-15 NIV


(Choose one of the prayers that have been written by different 
Christian denominations for use during this pandemic)


A Prayer for Evangelical Christians 
(or use as an outline to inspire Extemporaneous Prayers):

For the sick and infected: God, heal and help those suffering from the coronavirus, keep them from experiencing any complications and restore them to full health. Sustain, Lord God, their bodies and spirits and fill them with trust in You and the assurance that You will never leave nor forsake them.

For those vulnerable: God, protect those who are older and all those suffering from immune deficiencies and from chronic disease. Protect those in crowded nursing homes and assisted living centers and protect their caretakers.

For the young and the strong: God, give them the wisdom and desire to keep from unknowingly or inadvertently spreading this disease. Inspire them to help.

For doctors, nurses, paramedics and all medical workers: God, keep them safe and healthy as they care for others while exposing themselves to this highly contiguous disease. Help them to stay clear-minded in the midst of the surrounding panic and deliver them from anxiety for their own loved ones. Give them compassion for every patient in their care and for those health care workers who are Christians, help them to exhibit extraordinary peace, so that many would ask about the reason for their hope and would give them opportunities to proclaim the Gospel of Your love, peace and salvation through Jesus Christ.

For local, state, and federal government leaders: God, help our elected officials as they make decisions and recommendations that will combat this pandemic.

For the medical scientists: God, help them as they work to understand this disease and give them knowledge, wisdom, and a persuasive voice as they communicate to us through the media.

For the media: God, help them to communicate the facts without causing panic through sensualization or causing divisiveness through politicalization of the stories and commentaries.

For the homeless: God, protect them from disease, provide for their needs, and help them to be responsive to those outreach workers attempting to assist them. 

For all those who have lost jobs temporarily or permanently: God, keep them from panic, provide for them financially, give them courage during these dark and anxious times and inspire your church to generously support them.

For owners of restaurants, small retail stores and businesses: God, give these men and women the wisdom to make the difficult decisions during times of forced closures. Protect their business and investments and their employees.

For families with young children at home: God, help family members to partner together creatively for the care and flourishing and continued education of their children. For single mothers and fathers, grow their networks of support. For parents who must work, present them with creative solutions for their childcare needs.

For pastors and church leaders of closed churches: God, help them to creatively imagine how to pastor their congregants in this time of spiritual need and provide a “safe” church. Keep Your pastors and priests strong and encouraged that they may give strength and encouragement to others. 

Lord God, we trust that You are in the very center of this plague tending to the needs of those ill, suffering and dying. We give you all the praise and glory for You are good and do good. When we are frightened, build our faith in You during this time of crisis assuring us that no matter what the future brings, all is well with our soul. We lift up all Christians in every neighborhood, community, and city for Your protection and may Your Holy Spirit inspire us to pray, to give, to love, to serve, and to proclaim the Gospel, that the name of Jesus Christ might be glorified around the world.  Amen.


A Catholic Prayer

Most Heavenly Father,
send the protection of your holy angels,
to our family and loved ones
that we may be spared the worst of this illness.

For those already afflicted,
we ask you to obtain the grace of healing and deliverance.
Hear the cries of those who are vulnerable and fearful,
wipe away their tears and help them to trust.

In this time of trial and testing,
teach all of us in the Church to love one another and to be patient and kind.
Help us to bring the peace of Jesus to our land and to our hearts.

We come to you with confidence,
knowing that you truly are our compassionate Father,
health of the sick and cause of our joy.

Shelter us under the mantle of your protection,
keep us in the embrace of your arms,
help us always to know the love of your Son, Jesus. Amen.



A Litany Prayer for the Mainline Church:
 (may be said by a leader and family)

Most merciful God, Holy Trinity, our healer, our rock, our refuge; We come to you with open hearts and hands, lifting up those whose lives are most at stake, knowing that we are only as strong as the weakest among us.

For those who are sick: help them recover in good health and restore them in body, mind and spirit.  Lord, hear our prayer.

For the elderly, those with underlying illnesses, those without health insurance and sick leave: keep them healthy and free from all sickness.  Lord, hear our prayer.

For those who are forcibly contained in unsanitary jails and detention centers: protect them from all sickness and provide for their needs.  Lord, hear our prayer.

For all hospitals, doctors, nurses, and first responders: protect them from all sickness, relieve all stress, and provide them the resources to meet everyone’s needs.  Lord, hear our prayer.

For those experiencing financial loss and uncertainty of resources: alleviate any fears and provide for them daily bread and wage.  Lord, hear our prayer.

For those for whom “home” is not a safe place, and for those without a home: protect them from harm and provide for them a safe home.  Lord, hear our prayer.

For all parents: build in them strength and fortitude, and give them the words and witness to be wise counselors and compassionate caregivers.  Lord, hear our prayer.

Stir up in us a spirit of compassion and tenacity; move us to check in with loved ones. Ease our fear and anxiety, that we may share our resources rather than hoard them. Inspire us and all who gather to worship around the world to be beacons of your love and hope.  Amen.


New Testament Scripture for Resurrection Sunday

“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4 


Gloria in Excelsis (all say together)

Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.
Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father,
we worship You, we give You thanks,
we praise You for Your glory.
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father, Lord God, Lamb of God,
You take away the sin of the world:  have mercy on us;
You are seated at the right hand of the Father: receive our prayer.
For You alone are the Holy One, You alone are the Lord,
You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen


The Gospel of the Lord According to Matthew

Now after the Sabbath, as the first day of the week began to dawn, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb. And behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly and tell His disciples that He is risen from the dead, and indeed He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him. Behold, I have told you.” So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word. And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, “Rejoice!” So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.” Matthew 28:1-9 

(Here may be said, by all, the Nicene Creed, 
which is the traditional creed for Easter Sunday, 
or the Apostles’ Creed)


Nicene Creed

I believe in one God the Father Almighty, 
Maker of heaven and earth, 
And of all things visible and invisible: 

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, 
Begotten of his Father before all worlds, 
God of God, Light of Light, 
Very God of very God, 
Begotten, not made, 
Being of one substance with the Father, 
By whom all things were made; 

Who for us men, and for our salvation 
came down from heaven, 
And was incarnate by the Holy Ghost 
of the Virgin Mary, 
And was made man, 
And was crucified also for us 
under Pontius Pilate. 
He suffered and was buried, 
And the third day he rose again 
according to the Scriptures, 
And ascended into heaven, 
And sitteth on the right hand 
of God the Father. 

And he shall come again with glory to judge
both the quick and the dead: 
Whose kingdom shall have no end. 

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, 
The Lord and giver of life, 
Who proceedeth from the Father and the Son, 
Who with the Father and the Son together 
is worshiped and glorified, 
Who spake by the Prophets.

And I believe one catholic 
and apostolic Church. 
I acknowledge one Baptism 
for the remission of sins. 
And I look for the Resurrection of the dead, 
And the life of the world to come.   Amen.

(original 4th Century version)


Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
On the third day He rose again 
from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand 
of God the Father Almighty.
From thence He shall come to judge 
the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.  Amen.


(Select and sing a final Hymn or Praise Song from the 
song sheet or choose any favorite that is appropriate for Easter)


Lord’s Prayer (to be prayed in unison)

Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. 
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our trespasses, 
As we forgive those who trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Closing Prayer

God of our salvation,
You have restored us to life,
You have brought us back again into Your love
by the triumphant death and resurrection of Christ:
continue to heal us 
as we go to live and work
in the power of Your Spirit.
As people of the resurrection, we will serve You with joy.
Your glory has filled our hearts.
Help us to glorify You in all things.  Amen.



Hymns and Praise & Worship Songs


CHRIST THE LORD IS RISEN TODAY!

Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia 
Sons of men and angels say, Alleluia
Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia
Sing, ye heav’ns, and earth reply, Alleluia

Lives again our glorious King, Alleluia
Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia
Dying once He all doth save, Alleluia
Where thy victory, boasting grave? Alleluia

Love’s redeeming work is done, Alleluia
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia
Death in vain forbids him rise, Alleluia
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia



BECAUSE HE LIVES

God sent His son, they called Him, Jesus;
He came to love, heal and forgive;
He lived and died to buy my pardon,
An empty grave is there to prove 
my Savior lives!

Because He lives, I can face tomorrow,
Because He lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living,
Just because He lives!

And then one day, I’ll cross the river,
I’ll fight life’s final war with pain;
And then, as death gives way to vict’ry,
I’ll see the lights of glory... 
and I’ll know He lives!



JESUS IS ALIVE!

Hallelujah, Jesus is alive
Death has lost its victory
And the grave has been denied
Jesus lives forever, 
He’s alive, He’s alive

He’s the Alpha and Omega
The first and last is He
The curse of sin is broken
And we have perfect liberty
The Lamb  of  God has risen         
He’s alive, He’s alive

Hallelujah, Jesus is alive! 
Hallelujah, Jesus is alive!



ALL HAIL THE POWER OF JESUS NAME!

All hail the pow’r of Jesus’ name! 
Let angels prostrate fall.
Bring forth the royal diadem, 
and crown Him Lord of all,
Bring forth the royal diadem, 
and crown Him Lord of all.

Ye chosen seed of Israel’s race, 
ye ransomed from the fall,
Hail Him who saves you by His grace, 
and crown Him Lord of all, 
Hail Him who saves you by His grace, 
and crown Him Lord of all.
Let every kindred, every tribe,
on this terrestrial ball,
To Him all majesty ascribe, 
and crown Him Lord of all,
To Him all majesty ascribe, 
and crown Him Lord of all. 

O that with yonder sacred ones, 
we at His feet may fall!
We’ll join the everlasting song, 
and crown Him Lord of all,
We’ll join the everlasting song, 
and crown Him Lord of all.


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Resurrection Sunday Liturgy 
compiled and prepared by Rev. John B. Hickman

New Hope Ministries
P.O. Box 33841
Granada Hills, CA 91394
www.nhfc.la
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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