Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Symbols of Life and Death

Dear Friends,

Last week I walked into one of those large discount stores on Tuesday morning and was greeted by dozens of evil demons. Hideous. Black faces with red, glowing eyes. They seemed to be looking straight at me. Some with devilish grins and some with faces frozen in silent screams. As I walked past a large group of witches, their eyes flashed at me and I could hear their cackles as my presence activated their battery operated motion sensors. It’s nearing that time once again when all of America celebrates evil on Halloween night. 

Why do we cry out in outrage over the evil we see manifesting in the Middle-East today where journalists and Christians are tortured and beheaded, and then we celebrate evil by staging gory displays of beheaded mannequins in our front yards? Why do we decry the genocide of Christians taking place in the homeland of Christianity, pray against the demonic powers and principalities that are driving the demonic acts committed by Muslims (Eph 6:10-12) and then dress our grandchildren in “adorable” demon costumes? Why do Christians join pagan witches and Satan worshipers in a night of celebration on October 31st and display the symbols and images of the Evil Ones in our homes?

Okay. I hear your horrified reaction. “But that’s not one and the same Pastor! You’re comparing real, ugly, harmful evil with pretend, fun and harmless evil..!” Symbols can be powerful images that evoke the reality of what they represent. Symbols are more than a representation of an object, they can connect you viscerally with that object. Let me show you what I mean.

Look at the picture of the Jack O Lantern. Do you see a popular winter squash that evokes images of a delicious pumpkin pie? 

Think for a moment about the cross... What images, feelings and thoughts come to mind? 

Look at this photo of a plastic Halloween decoration... What thoughts and feelings are evoked with this image?

And now look at this Christmas decoration. Think about the baby Jesus in a manger... What comes to mind? What are the thoughts and feelings you have about this decoration in comparison to the Halloween decoration? 

There is nothing intrinsically “evil” about a plastic and painted demon. There is nothing intrinsically “good” about a painted plastic baby in a plastic animal feed trough. But those plastic symbols evoke in our minds the reality of what they represent. Those two symbols call to mind completely different and opposite thoughts and create very different feelings and emotions. 

You just looked at two Christian symbols and two symbols of evil. Which of those two pairs seem to stick in your mind the longest? If the evil images are disturbing and seem to linger in your mind, that’s why God’s Word tells us to avoid “fellowship with demons” (1 Cor 10:20-21) and “avoid all forms of evil.” (1 Thess 5:22) This scripture says that we are to abstain from even the symbols of evil.  

Religions have always used symbols to powerfully connect people with who they worship. Throughout the Old Testament, God continually tells His people through the prophets to cast down and smash the pagan idols. That’s because the idols were far more than a carved piece of wood or a likeness chipped into a rock. They were powerful spiritual symbols that became the “avatar” – the embodiment of the deities to those worshipers. 

The Bible very clearly instructs Christians to have nothing to do with the practices of demonic darkness. Halloween is a rite with pagan, demonic roots. (For more information on the origin of Halloween, click here) At this time of year, we need to use wisdom in what we bring into our homes because symbols also represent what/who we worship. If I walk into a home and see a cross on the wall, I know who you worship. If I see a large Buddha, I know who you worship. I knew someone who collected African Voodoo masks and saw photos of her living room walls. I knew who she worshiped. 

Back to Tuesday morning. I walked past the Halloween decorations, looked at the shelving that ran the length of the store and stopped. Stunned. WHAT? It’s August!! The “dog days of summer!” Stifling hot in the valley! And already I’m seeing Christmas decorations? But I couldn’t help to notice the contrast. If the demonic and pagan witchcraft decorations raised my anxiety level by evoking the reality of Satan. Now a few steps further in the store and the decorations symbolizing the birth of our Savior were evoking the reality of Jesus and I felt the peace of the Holy Spirit. 

Our homes are our “sacred spaces,” and the symbols within should communicate who we are... our priorities... what’s important to us... who or what we worship. Do the symbols in your home authentically represent who you are? If not, what would you need to add or take out to faithfully communicate who you are to others? If you invited a new neighbor into your home for a cup of coffee would she know that you’re a Christian by what is symbolically represented? Do the symbols in your home glorify God? What do they say about you? What would you like them to say?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Suicide. Out of the Silence.

Dear Friends,

Recently I saw a friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor who lives in my neighborhood, taking his regular walk by my house late one evening. As we were chatting over the fence, a young black man walking in the street stopped nearby and stood in the darkening shadows. My friend Sam said goodbye to continue his walk and the man in the shadows came over to me. He asked if I knew where the pedestrian bridge was that went over the freeway. There are several so I asked him where he was trying to get to. An odd, fragmented conversation ensued and he seemed evasive and reluctant to say. After awhile, he told me that he wanted to go to the railroad tracks. Trying to be helpful, I was giving him detailed directions on how to get there when I finally heard the loud clanging warning bell that had been going off in my head. I said, “What are you thinking of doing when you get to the tracks?” He looked down and away and his silence answered my question. I told him I was a pastor and asked him if he thought it was possible that God had brought him past my house at this very moment in time so that he could have someone to talk to. And the feelings of discouragement, fear and hopelessness just began to pour out of him.  

Because suicides involving trains always make the news, I anxiously checked the next morning and was relieved that this young man had apparently changed his mind after our conversation. But this story could have so easily had a different ending. My grandmother's second husband, who was like another father to me, picked up his gun and walked into his barn. A once close friend picked up his gun and walked into the woods. My brother-in-law picked up his gun and walked into his garage. There were others too and many if not most of you have also known someone who took that final walk. Along with the grief and anger, we struggle with the “why” as we try to make sense of something elusive, complex and frightening. That's what America is doing right now as it obsessively sifts through memories, facts, rumors, assumptions and conclusions about the life and death of Robin Williams. 

Whether a family member, friend or celebrity, we focus on the “why” perhaps in an effort to convince ourselves that we could never think like, act like, struggle like he or she did. Perhaps we all need to reassure ourselves that we will never be pulled down into that dark place where all hope is gone and death becomes our best option.

When someone we know ends their life, we can be critical and judgmental. If we were close to the person, we can feel guilt and then blame ourselves. We can even be embarrassed or ashamed if it was a family member. But unless we have truly been in that dark place of the mind ourselves, we cannot even begin to grasp the powerful hold of another's personal demons. Those who do choose to take that final walk are experiencing a level of psychological or physical pain that has just become absolutely unbearable.

Perhaps the good coming out of our Nation's fixation on the death of Robin Williams is a renewed focus on mental health issues. We are talking about the one thing that no one ever likes to talk about. But suicide is the leading cause of death for those age 20-45 and is one of the top leading causes of death for those older. And, the number one risk factor for suicide in all age groups is untreated chronic depression.

Chronic depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration are felt every day and last for many months and years. Chronic depression is an illness that the best and most spiritual of Christians can struggle with. We Christians can have great difficulty seeking treatment of our mental health issues if we've been taught a flawed theology and believe that a psychological problem is an embarrassing admission of our lack of faith/prayer/belief etc. We would not hesitate to see a doctor if we had a long-lasting illness or disease and we need to understand that chronic depression is also a physical, organic disease of the body. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's an organically-caused physical illness. And like with any other illness, we need to see our doctor if we are struggling with feelings of depression.

Robin Williams' widow said, “It is our hope in the wake of Robin's tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing..” Our only response to that can be an “Amen.”

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

God's Tattoo

Dear Friends,

Jesus never called God “mommy.” The Son of God gave His Father a male identity and so have His followers for the last 2,000 years. The Old Testament refers to God by name (Yahweh) but Jesus referred to God as “Father” 165 times. In Mark 14:36, Jesus used the Aramaic word “Abba” that was an even more intimate and familiar term of endearment closer to our word “daddy.” 

There is a strong feminist movement taking place in the progressive denominations to remake God into a “new and improved” genderless deity. This recent and increasingly militant crusade has been removing the male pronouns of both God the Father and God the Son from their liturgy and prayers. One denomination suggests that pastors edit out any hymn lyrics that refer to God as a male. They’ve used the name “mother” to refer to God and have even stopped referring to Jesus as a man. This movement to theologically castrate God makes the point that God as Spirit has no gender, but then quickly reveals their true agenda by calling Him “mother.” Their explanation behind the feminization of God and their distaste that Jesus was born a male is because they believe that those with “father issues” who were subjected to harsh, judgmental, abusive fathers will transfer that experience onto a Heavenly Father. They correctly identify our tendency to see our Heavenly Father through the experiences we had with our earthly father but the answer is not to neuter God but to know Him. Childhood issues with rejection, family dysfunctions, pain and abuse are healed in the presence of our Heavenly Father. And in His presence we experience His total, committed, genuine, unconditional, never-ending, astounding love for us.

The Father God takes the messiness of your life and molds you into a masterpiece of beauty. He created you in His image and when you accept His Son you will have eternal life with your Father forever. And thanks be to God that His love for you is not based on what you do or don't do. His love for you is based on who He is. 

And He loves you so much that as soon as he created you in the womb, (Psalm 139:13-16) He placed a crown of glory and honor on your head. (Psalm 8:5) You look in the mirror and see flaws. You see the physical and psychological scars. The fat and the zits. The sin and the failures. Your Heavenly Father looks at you and sees only glory and honor. That’s your Abba. Daddy. 

You are covered with His fingerprints and you have intrinsic value in His eyes. God has crowned you with beauty and love. You may look in the mirror, and through the lies of the Enemy, you see ugly. But beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and your Beholder sees only your beauty. Abba. Daddy. 

Let me show you how much your Father loves you. Did you know about God’s tattoo? In the ancient times, nearly everyone had tattoos. They were used to mark family ties or slave ownership. Women tattooed their stomach and breasts with magical symbols during pregnancy to guarantee a safe birth. Tattoos were most commonly used to show devotion to a god or gods. It’s no different today when we tattoo on our bodies that which has captured our own devotion. Whether it's mom, a butterfly, pagan symbols, a cartoon character or Harley-Davidson wings, we display our devotion for the world to see. But because the ancients used tattoos in pagan rituals and to declare allegiance to other gods, tattoos were prohibited by God. (Lev 19:28) Then God turns right around and gets one of His own. Go figure.

And God’s tattoo is not a temporary one that can be washed off. No heavenly laser can eradicate it. It's permanent. And now prepare to be astonished. Because God’s tattoo is you. It's your name. God has written your name on the palms of His hands! That’s how much He loves you! That’s how much He’s devoted to you! He tells the Israelites then and tells us today that He has inscribed us – meaning to cut in or carve onto something. God has engraved your name on His hands. (Isaiah 49:16a) It can’t be erased. It’s eternal. It shows God’s devotion and His head-over-heels love for you! His love is not based on the good things you’ve done or the bad things that you didn’t do. It’s based on what God has done for you. And that, dear friends, is God’s grace. 

You look in the mirror and see “messed up.” He looks at you and sees His priceless jewel. Then He looks down at his hand, sees your name and rejoices over you. (Zephaniah 3:17) Your Father loves you not because of what you’ve done but because of who you are. You’re His son. You’re His daughter. He’s your Abba.  Amen?