Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Don't Bubble-Wrap The Lord

Dear Friends,

I miss Christmas already. I loved going into the most secular retail stores and hearing the words to Hark The Harold Angels Sing on their music system: “Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord. Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the God-head see, hail the Incarnate Deity...”

We all join hands and celebrate that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and then we end the season and put Him back in the box. We take the lights off the dried-out tree and carefully remove the fragile porcelain nativity figurines from the stable. We bubble-wrap the baby Jesus and pack him away.

A family was driving by their church the week after Christmas. Their son had noticed that the Nativity Scene in front of the church had been already taken down. The little boy said, “Look they've put Jesus away for another year.”

That's what the world does with Jesus. If Jesus was even a part of their Christmas celebration, He's now packed away with the lights, ornaments and tree stand. But does your celebration of Jesus really end when there’s nothing left under the tree but dried pine needles scattered on the tree skirt? Is your joy and happiness gone after gifts are opened and the trash cans are overflowing with empty cardboard boxes and crumpled wrapping paper?

By the end of the 19th Century, the start of the Christmas season was no longer being determined by the church. The major department stores had hijacked the holy days and reinvented Christmas to be a time of giving gifts. Today the Christmas season is driven by the National Retail Federation and officially begins when the plastic Santas are on the shelf next to the Halloween skeletons. And the season is officially over as soon as the Christmas clearance items have been sold and the January “White Sales” have begun. The baby Jesus is gone but there’s an astounding 30-60% off on all sheets and bedding at Macy’s! 

Let's do something revolutionary and take back the Christmas season. Let’s continue to make it Christ-centered and have it start on the first Advent Sunday. But then let's do something even more radical. Let's have this “Christ Season” never end! What if our celebration and worship of Jesus started every year on the first Sunday of Advent and didn’t end on December 26th? What if the “Season that Jesus is the Reason of” never ended but the season of joy just continued all year long? And then what if, on every first Advent Sunday, the never-ending season of celebrating Jesus just started all over again?

And what if every day of that season, we longed to live our life in the presence of the One who was the Child in the manger? What if every day of that season, we dropped to our knees to confess our sins of the day and prayed that God would make us into the image – the very likeness – of His Son Jesus Christ? What if we took every opportunity we had during our new extended Christ Season to speak with others about Jesus. What if instead of just inviting our family and friends to church with us on Christmas Eve and Easter day, what if we invited them to come to church on February 7th or how about May 15th? Or even August 21th? Or even next Sunday?

Christmas Day is over. Vacuum up the dried pine needles. Pack up the Nativity set. But don’t bubble-wrap the real Son of God and pack Him away. Let's keep the real Jesus right here in our day-to-day life. Yes, Jesus is the Reason for the Season, but let’s be subversive and make His season a season that never ends.  Amen?

From the AMEN Corner archives.

This edited and revised devotional 
was originally published January 2, 2013.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Prayer

Dear Lord God, 
Giver of all that is good.

We thank You today for the gift of Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who was born into poverty in a hard and cruel time.
Who gave Himself for us on the cross,
and lives and reigns with You in glory.

We thank You for our family, our pastors, 
our friends who have gone before us,
and taught us the meaning of Your incarnation 
that we celebrate today.

With gladdened hearts, we celebrate Your Nativity 
with beloved scripture and Christmas carols and loud rejoicing.

Help us to teach those who come after us 
that Christmas is a holy time. 
It’s about the greatest gift that we could ever receive.
The gift of a Baby in a manger.

Bless us O Lord as we continue to seek Your Son 
and to love Him more each day.

Bless us Lord that through Your Grace 
we can look more like Him and less like us.

Bless us as we seek to honor the mystery of the Incarnation
and as we remember that You made us in Your divine image.

Help us to welcome You 
into the messiness of our humanity with 
Your wisdom, power and peace today 
and throughout our days to come.

Emmanuel.  God with us.  Thank You, Lord.


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

It's OK to Say Merry Christmas!

Dear Friends,

“Happy Holidays” said the sales clerk as I walked away. I turned back to her and looked in her eyes for a moment. “Merry Christmas,” I responded. Her face lit up and she said, “Oh yes! Merry Christmas! Thank you for saying that to me!” No other customers were in line so I asked if (I named the store) told her that she should say happy holidays and she looked a little confused. She said that they hadn’t told the employees what to say but everyone said happy holidays and she assumed that was just what she supposed to say. We had a nice conversation about our Christian faith for a few minutes...

I have no qualms about saying  “Merry Christmas” to people after they have just wished me a happy holiday. It always frees people to then tell me, “Merry Christmas.” I do not hesitate to say “Merry Christmas” because I understand the math. The most recent surveys show that 96% of people in America celebrate Christmas! That number may surprise you but even 81% of non-Christians in our Nation celebrate Christmas. That means that eight out of every ten atheists, agnostics and people of other religions celebrate Christmas. One third of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home. 76% of Buddhists and 73% of Hindus celebrate Christmas. On Al Abrbiya News, a commentator complained about the increasing number of American Muslims who are now celebrating Christmas. Of course most non-Christians view Christmas more as a cultural holiday than a celebration of the birth of Christ, but they are certainly not offended when we wish them a “Merry Christmas.”

When you do the math, you realize that if you say “Merry Christmas” to one hundred people, you may say that to four people who don’t celebrate Christmas. Who are those four? Atheists who prefer to sit out the holiday. Wiccans and other Pagans who prefer to celebrate the winter solstice. And the one million Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Christ denomination who don’t acknowledge Christmas. But of those four percent, only a very small percentage admits to being actually “offended” if someone says “Merry Christmas” to them. According to some atheist websites, most atheists who do not celebrate Christmas, are not at all offended if someone wishes them a “Merry Christmas.” They just say “Merry Christmas” right back.

I was unable to find actual statistics on how many people are genuinely offended by someone saying “Merry Christmas” but a conservative guess would be that 1-2% of Americans might possibly be offended. And that would mostly be those who are obsessed with being politically correct. Those who would be just as offended if they sneezed and a stranger said, “God bless you.” 

If I say “Merry Christmas” to one hundred people and one or two are possibly offended, I’m okay with those odds. That’s because you and I offend people all the time. That’s life. To offend means to cause another person to feel upset, annoyed, or displeased. Let’s just take me as an example. I offend some people solely because I am a white, Christian male. 32-34% of non-White Americans will not like me because of my race. Some women will be irritated with me and instantly dislike me because they simply don’t like assertive males. I offend progressive liberals because I believe in a Bible that they say contains “hate speech.” I’ve offended conservative Christians because I wear a beard. When I order a medium-rare hamburger in a restaurant, I no doubt upset and offend the animal-lover vegan (5% of all Americans) who is picking away at his/her fruit salad at the next table.
And you my friend offend (upset, displease) people simply because of your skin-color, race, religion, economic status, and you really upset them when you remind them of that dreadful ex-wife or ex-husband! Are you okay with eating a hamburger or having a package of boneless, skinless Chicken Breasts in the shopping cart and potentially offending 5% of all Americans? Are you also okay with wishing someone a Merry Christmas and potentially offending 1-2% of all Americans? You offend a greater percentage of people just by being you!

We are letting a very small but powerful political movement in our Nation strangle the Jesus right out of our Christmas season. We need to deflate Santa and the Grinch and put the Nativity back on our front lawns. We need to stop being ashamed of our faith. We need to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus. We need to boldly tell people “Merry Christmas,” and when we do, they are then empowered with the same boldness to tell others “Merry Christmas.” It’s time to let people know, “Hey, it’s okay to say Merry Christmas!” Amen?

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

3 Ways To Celebrate Christmas

Dear Friends,

Have you ever been curious about how Christians around the world celebrate Christmas? In Belgium, Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread “Cougnou” that’s shaped like the baby Jesus. In Brazil, the poor families who can’t afford a tree use a dry tree branch and put cotton on it to simulate snow. In Finland, at midnight, the Mayor of Turku broadcasts a Christmas peace declaration.The Christmas festivities start with a sauna. Dinner is traditionally boiled codfish or pickled salmon and herrings. In Germany, the lighting of a candle each week on the Advent Wreath is very traditional. After the Christmas dinner of salted, dried fish, German children wait in the dining room until they hear the ringing of a bell and that’s when they rush into the living room to open their gifts. In Hungary, children go to a relatives house and while they are gone, Jesus brings a tree and gifts to their house. 

In Portugal, the traditional dinner is salted, dry codfish with boiled potatoes. (I found many cultures that celebrate Christmas with salted, dried or pickled fish.) In Africa, the most important part of the Christmas church service is the love offering. It’s the birthday gift given to Jesus and each person comes up to the altar and lays down their love offering. On Christmas eve, children in Africa march up and down streets singing Christmas carols and shouting, “Christ is coming, Christ is coming, He is near!” In Bethlehem, the Christian homes are marked with a cross painted over the door and each house has a nativity scene that is handmade by a family member. 

In Russia, Christmas eve is a twelve course meal with each course in honor of one of the twelve apostles and it’s not Santa that brings gifts to Russian children it’s “Babushka.” Babushka means grandmother and the legend is that she declined to go with the Wise Men to visit Jesus because the weather was too cold. However once the Wise Men left, she immediately regretted her decision and filled a basket of gifts for Jesus and hurried to try to catch up to the Wise Men. The ancient Babushka never found the Wise Men or Jesus and that’s why she visits each house leaving gifts for the children.

In America, we have a number of wonderful Christmas traditions as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. And, I love the two Finnish ladies who attend our church, but I’m personally grateful that none of our traditions have anything to do with salted, dried or pickled fish! So how can a Christian believer celebrate the birth of Jesus that would truly honor our Lord and Savior? By telling others about Him just as the shepherds did 2,000 years ago. Luke 2:15-17 We have so many opportunities to talk with others about Jesus at this time of year when people are immersed in the Christmas season. Many people struggle with issues of faith, and more than at any other time of year, their ears are open to hearing the Gospel message.

And what was Mary doing this whole time while the shepherds were exclaiming the good news that the Messiah had come? In the middle of the busyness and fussing going on around her, Mary took a break to relax and think. The Christmas story tells us that “..Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:18-19 There was the Angel Gabriel’s shocking message, the difficult journey and finally the birth of God’s Son in a manger. It must have been overwhelming for this little teen-age girl. In the midst of the most intense drama in human history being played out in the stable, we might imagine Mary lying down on some clean straw, closing her eyes and giving herself a spiritual timeout while pondering the meaning of it all. 

Mary shows us that the second way a believer can celebrate Christmas is to spend quiet time with God. Get away from the busyness of the holiday, make yourself a cup of tea and open your Bible to the first two chapters in Luke. We can take a break from the gift buying, home decorations, baking cookies and, like Mary, give ourselves a spiritual timeout. Perhaps we also need to take a deep breath and just ponder the wonder of it all.

How can we celebrate Christmas? We can tell others about the true reason for our celebration. We can take frequent times during the season to just stop and contemplate it all. And the third thing we can do to celebrate Christmas is to praise and worship God for the redeeming gift of His only Begotten Son. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” Luke 2:20 The shepherds praised God for the birth of Jesus. At Christmas time, there is no other response more appropriate than raising your hands to heaven and crying out in praise to our Almighty Father for the gift of Jesus. Amen?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Gospel According To Linus

Dear Friends,

There was a time in my adult life when layers of Christmas traditions had obscured the meaning. As a young boy, I knew it was about the miraculous birth of Jesus, but it was also about the miraculous coming of Santa Claus. Christmas was a time of mystery and wonder until someone punctured my belief about Santa with the truth and all the mystery and wonder leaked out. As I grew into adulthood, my Christmas became a sloppy mixture of sentimentality and materialism. It was a time of year when things in the world became nice again. Nice decorations, nice songs, nice movies, nice dinners, nice gifts and the miracle of Jesus’ birth was overshadowed with the miracle of people actually being nice to one another. 

We long for the hope, peace, joy and love that we often find in our sentimentalization of Christmas. We express our love for each other by giving gifts and the more the better. That’s all good. But Christmas is more than nice, warm thoughts and what we got at Walmart on Black Friday. 

Christmas is about a Creator entering into His Creation to redeem us and bring us true hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is about the incarnation, literally meaning “God in the flesh.” And when we return to the spiritual riches of Christmas, the sentimentality and materialism of the season is now eclipsed with the majesty and mystery of the incarnation. Our childlike wonder has returned. Thank You God!

Advent is the season of expectation. The word Advent is from a Latin word meaning “coming” and we celebrate the first time Jesus came to earth in that Bethlehem manger as we look with full expectation to His second coming. ‘Tis the season  to decorate, shop, cook, bake, give, receive and spend time with family and friends. That’s what we love about Christmas but none of those wonderful holiday traditions have anything to do with Christ. Advent reminds us to take a timeout from the holiday busyness to spend time with Jesus.

I love the Christmas movies. I laugh at the irreverent humor in THE CHRISTMAS STORY and cry at the same sappy places you do while watching MIRACLE ON 34th STREET and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But of course those classic Christmas movies are about an eccentric family, the “real” Santa Claus and guardian angels. Nothing about Jesus.

My favorite holiday movie is a cartoon that was introduced to the world on December 9, 1965. Its overt religious theme was out of place on TV then, and no major studio or televison network would even think about producing this today. The miracle is that, not only was it made, but that networks must show this politically-incorrect cartoon every Christmas because it’s so immensely popular! I’m talking about the cartoon called, CHARLIE BROWN'S CHRISTMAS. Here’s an excerpt:

Charlie Brown: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.  [moves toward the center of the stage]

Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please. [a spotlight shines on Linus]

Linus Van Pelt: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]

Linus Van Pelt: That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Lifestyle of Prayer

Dear Friends,

I grew up in our family’s Episcopal Church. That was back when it looked far more like the Anglican Church of England than what the Episcopal Church looks like today. Halfway between Luther’s and Calvin’s reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, our “high church” liturgical service was in English but otherwise almost indistinguishable from a Roman Catholic service. All prayer was read by the priest from the prayer book with appropriate responses by the congregation. Prayer was a ritual and any prayer outside of the church walls was usually the recitation of a written prayer that had been memorized. I faithfully recited the Lord’s Prayer every night before falling asleep. Sixty-plus years later, I still do. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a non-liturgical, Pentecostal service and we gathered in prayer groups like we do in our church. I was terrified. It wasn’t just the heart-pounding thought of praying out loud in front of others. How in heaven’s name can a person pray without a prayer book to read from?

But in the ancient church, prayer was a natural as breathing. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church to Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 And Paul wasn’t asking the impossible! He was encouraging them to keep on doing what they’d always done! Prayer is no longer a ritual for me but a lifestyle  and now my own constant prayers throughout the day have become the background music of my life. Oswald Chambers was an early twentieth-century Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement teacher and evangelist, best known for the devotional MY UTMOST FOR HIS HIGHEST. He wrote, “Think of prayer as the breath in our lungs and the blood from our hearts. Our blood flows and our breathing continues ‘without ceasing’; we are not even conscious of it, but it never stops...Prayer is not an exercise; it is the life of the saint. It is coming into perfect fellowship and oneness with God.”

German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that true prayer originates in the heart of God and is revealed in His Word. We breathe the language of prayer because the Holy Spirit Himself teaches it to us. True prayer isn’t just about me and God is not a cosmic vending machine that automatically gives us everything we want when we deposit our prayer quarter and pull the lever. That’s why we seek God’s will and pray: Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. Prayer is prompted by God. Modeled by Jesus Christ. Inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. 

British novelist and theologian, C.S. Lewis was a devoted member of the Anglican Church of England and he treasured the Church’s BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. So do I. I've found the CELTIC DAILY PRAYER from the Northumbria Community in Ireland to be a wealth of prayers. The GLENSTAL BOOK OF PRAYER from an Irish Benedictine monastery is written in the earthy Celtic tradition. I deeply appreciate and use the prayer books of the Eastern Orthodox Church which so beautifully reflect the majesty and mystery of the earliest liturgies in the ancient church. As we are inspired by hearing well-articulated prayers spoken by a person, we are inspired by reading well-written prayers. If your tastes run to the contemporary and charismatic, many have been encouraged and inspired by Sarah Young’s: JESUS CALLING – Enjoying Peace In His Presence.

Some of us have been in churches that harshly denounced the use of written prayers as being ritualistic and shallow but we must remember that Jesus prayed extemporaneous prayers and He also prayed the prayers written by King David and others. Jesus and the earliest Christians read and sang from their “worship book,” that contains 150 prayers which cover every conceivable emotion and circumstance. When our own prayers fail. When the darkness closes in and we find it difficult to even find the words to pray, Jesus’ prayer book will always be our best resource. You already have one of those ancient prayer books of course. It’s located in the center of your Bible to make it easy to find and it’s called the BOOK OF PSALMS.

Let your prayers become the ambient background of your life as you walk through your day. Many of us say grace before a meal but let your “grace” – your thanksgiving for your food and your blessing of it, extend to everything that God has given you. Say grace over your family. Thank God for them and ask Him to bless them. Say grace over your day, your house, your health, and even the books you read and the chores you do. For as Paul said, “pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks.” Amen?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Joy In Sharing

Dear Friends,

My mom didn’t just teach me how to cook, she showed me that there is joy in feeding others. Some people prepare food out of a necessity to eat. My mom prepared food for others as a way of showing her love. Nothing made her happier than having the whole family over for dinner or preparing a gourmet meal for friends. My mom loved that I shared her enthusiasm for cooking and she and my dad would give me cookbooks for birthdays and Christmas. A certain loved one in my life today is not showered with diamonds, perfumes and untold riches but she does get homemade pizza, pink lemonade cookies and fresh-baked chocolate chip scones! One of the ways, I can show my love for my church family on Christmas is when they come over to my house and I cook up a giant pot of Jambalaya – my mom’s recipe of course. The scent of baking bread fills the house and before the meal, we take communion together with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. I think that’s what Jesus would do...

We read throughout the New Testament how Jesus used food to serve others and show His love for them. On one occasion, He fed many thousands of His followers. Scripture tells us there were 5,000 men but there may have been just as many women and children who were also present. On another occasion, He fed a mega-church sized crowd of 4,000 followers. Mark 8:19-20 (NLT) The Jewish leaders complained bitterly about Jesus dining with tax collectors and other assorted sinners. “Why do You eat and drink with such scum?” they asked. Luke 5:29-30 (NLT) Jesus replied that it was in the context of fellowship with those who were lost and struggling that He could offer them a changed life. Luke 5:31-32 Jesus didn’t come to save the self-righteous; He came to save those who were lost. Those who had messed up their lives. Those who were among the marginalized in society. He ate with them. He talked with them. 

Jesus knew that food feeds hungry stomachs and that it also feeds hungry souls. “On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, He took bread and after giving thanks, He broke it..” 1 Cor 11:23-25 Jesus’ last supper was shared with His disciples and then after His crucifixion and resurrection, one of the things He did was to light a campfire and cook breakfast for some of His disciples before ascending into Heaven! John 21:9-14 (NLT)

Last Thursday was Homeless Connect Day in Sylmar and about two hundred were fed a delicious lunch. Not the typical slice of processed luncheon meat and a wilted lettuce leaf between two slices of stale white bread. These were sandwiches made from Croissants piled high with deli-sliced turkey, roast beef and cheese. A choice of fresh fruit. Pastries. Faces lit up with joy as they enjoyed a meal prepared and served with love. They were given haircuts by professional hair stylists and received backpacks stuffed with life’s necessities. They were also connected with those who could provide them with long-term assistance and opportunities to turn their life around. Those who live a life of struggle and despair on the streets were loved and cared for that day. I think that’s what Jesus would do...

Food connects us with others. It builds a bridge on which a relationship can be formed. Whether feeding the homeless, baking brownies for a church potluck or taking a meal to a shut-in, giving food provides a tangible way of imparting the love of Christ to others. And the best thing about it is that you don’t have to be a gourmet cook or a five star chef to prepare a meal for another person. If you are sufficiently able to feed yourself, you are qualified to prepare a meal for others! When Jesus cooked breakfast for His disciples, the Son of God tossed some fish on a campfire and baked some flat bread on a hot rock! That sounds more like a fast-food fish taco than it does a gourmet meal!

Do you know someone who is going through some tough times? Going to the grocery store and filling a couple of bags with pantry basics and frozen food for those who may be struggling with illness or difficult circumstances can be a huge blessing. Sharing food is a perfect opportunity for you to put your faith into action. It’s what we can do to show our love for others. It’s what Jesus would do... Amen?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Seasons of Life

Dear Friends,

A New England mail order company will send you three genuine hand-selected autumn leaves for only $19.95! If you are not a purist, you can buy 120 artificial (paper) autumn leaves on Amazon for a mere $3.59 with free shipping! Or, you can find your own genuine, authentic leaves by walking outside. 

In Sylmar, I’m already seeing a change of color in the trees during my morning walk. There’s a freshness in the air that portends the passage of a season and prepares us for the next. Autumn is a time of beauty and peace for contemplatives, photographers, writers and artists. The brilliant tapestry of autumn colors feeds one’s soul and heart with such a dazzling display of God’s handiwork that we just need to go outside and play in it.

One of my favorite places to go this time of year is the picturesque town of Oak Glen nestled in what is called the “Little San Bernardino Mountains.” Oak Glen is known for its abundant apple orchards and  rolling hills covered with vivid autumn reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s as close as you can get to a spectacular New England autumn without getting on a plane.

Seasonal transitions of “nature” in God’s Creation remind us of seasons in our church and in our life. Autumn also signals the arrival of ADVENT – that season of anticipation as we prepare for the birth of the Christ child. ADVENT leads us to the CHRISTMAS celebration which includes Epiphany– the manifestation of the Savior Jesus to the Gentiles. Soon the chill of winter gives way to the warmth of spring and a season of spiritual growth. LENT is a time of reflection and recommitment to a renewed relationship with God. We approach Good Friday with our unspeakable gratitude for the ultimate gift of God’s grace and salvation mixed along with a sense of sorrow for the suffering that Jesus endured. Easter– RESURRECTION SUNDAY – is truly a glorious day and the most important of all Christian Holy Days (“holidays”). Fifty days later comes PENTECOST, marking the day that God’s presence became actively working in believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become a witness of His glory and grace to the world. After PENTECOST we enter a season of what the church calls ORDINARY TIME. But the time quickly passes and before long, we sense a freshness in the air and soon the autumn colors are bringing us once again to the season of ADVENT. The journey through our church seasons reveals the mystery of God’s plan as it unfolds for us in the life of the church, and we are reminded that with each transition, there is something new again. 

In God’s Creation, there is a rhythmic cycle with the organic flow of our four seasons. Every three months, a transition to the next. Depressed by the gray, gloominess of winter? The warmth of spring is right around the corner. Tired of spring showers and eye-burning allergies? The long, hot days of summer are ahead. Worn down by the relentless heat and smog? The cooler glorious world of autumn awaits you. Bored and weary with autumn and those Santa Ana winds? Grab the winter coat, gather the firewood and prepare for those long, frosty winter nights. We are reminded that with each transition, there is something new again.

So it is with the seasons of life. You may be in a springtime season of new birth and growth. You may be feeling as if caught in the dry, tiring days of what seems like an endless summer. This may be for you a contemplative, peaceful autumn time of thanksgiving. Or you may find yourself in the cold, dark, loneliness of a long winter season.

Seasons of life. Each with its own set of experiences and the passing of each season leaving behind memories of what was. Some seasons of life are filled with pain, sorrow and anger and those seasons can embed bitterness, uncertainties, fears and doubts into our soul. We will stay mired in our pain-filled past if we dwell on those memories and relive those circumstances of that season in our mind. And God says: “But forget all that-- it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?” Isaiah 43:18-19 (NLT) Praise God! For He reminds us that with each life transition, there is something new again.

Remember that no matter what season of life we’re in, there are three guarantees we can count on:  1) This present season will come to an end.  2) God has already begun to do something new for you in the next season. And, 3) The one unchanging constant that we can trust in and count on is this: God is standing with us in this season and He is waiting for us in the next.  Amen?
This week's AMEN Corner is a revised, updated version of one published in October 2013. For information about Oak Glen, CA click HERE

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What's Your Story?

Victor Garber as Jesus in the film version of the Broadway musical, GODSPELL.
Dear Friends,

One of the highlights of our recent Groovin’ To The Sixties event was when we all sang "Day By Day" at the end of the music program. "Day By Day" was the hit song from GODSPELL, the Broadway musical and movie. GODSPELL (think Gospel) was based on the book of Matthew and told the parables of Jesus set in the era and culture of the Sixties. “Jesus” wore a “Superman” shirt and had a red heart painted on his forehead. Really? Jesus with an “Afro” and dressed in a Superman shirt? Would the Son of God approve?

It’s interesting when we compare how Christians talk to unbelievers today with how Jesus spoke to unbelievers 2000 years ago. We tend to preach about God and Jesus. We quote scripture and explain theologically sound spiritual principles. But what Jesus often did was to simply tell some stories called parables that were set in a secular context. Jesus spoke to the city dwellers, farmers, shepherds, and craftsman in a manner that they could relate to. A parable is a simple story set in the context of the current culture that teaches a spiritual truth in terms that can be easily understood. These word-pictures from Jesus are memorable, filled with clear imagery and teach deep biblical truths. He talked about sheep, seeds, coins, weddings and banquets. While only a few parables mention God by name, God is found throughout the analogies, similes and metaphors in all of Jesus’ stories. The parable of the Prodigal Son is a good example. Luke 15:11-32

Jesus was a pretty smart guy when He was talking to non-believers. He could have quoted the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah and Hosea, and shouted: “God will remember your iniquity and punish your sins!!” But we read over and over in the Old Testament that no one listened to the prophets. That’s why the people kept getting into trouble with God! So Jesus used a different technique. He was subtle. He was clever. He spoke into their lives using simple stories that had Kingdom concepts cleverly hidden within the narrative. So when people heard Jesus talk about “wheat and tares” or their farm animals, it didn’t sound like preaching to them. It didn’t look like He was going to go all religious on them so they let their guard down. Their ears were open and they listened. Sometimes at the end of the story, they realized Jesus was talking about God and His Kingdom and sometimes the truth wouldn’t hit them until later. A parable was even sometimes deliberately vague in order to encourage people to figure it out for themselves. Jesus knew the best way to get His point across was by telling the people a simple story that they could relate to. He knew that a parable would cause men and women to think, self-examine their relationship with God and respond to Him. That’s why Jesus told parables...

What we typically do is to tell those same Biblical stories from 2000 years ago to those seeking Christ. But can the fork lift operator who works in the warehouse relate to a story about lost sheep? Does the single mom struggling to feed her young children relate to a parable about a rich young ruler? What is that college student thinking when we’re using the example of the ten virgins and their oil lamps to make our point that he needs to be ready for Christ’s second coming? Can people who have never read the Bible relate to biblical stories from 2000 years ago? Sometimes they can. The Holy Spirit can do miracles. But what would Jesus tell them today?

If we follow the leading of the Master Communicator, Jesus Christ, we might want to use contemporary, real-life stories from today which illustrate God’s love, sovereignty and forgiveness. Sometimes in our zeal to share the love of Jesus Christ, we wind up whacking people upside the head with scripture when it would be more effective if we gently drew them in with the stories from our own life and from the lives of others. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you those incidents from your life which best illustrate God’s love, forgiveness, grace and mercy. Tell stories that contain spiritual principles and values. Stories that engage people and connect them with the reality of God. Stories that will make them think and turn their heart toward Jesus. And then introduce them to the Bible. Oh..and by the way, if God had sent His Son into the world in the late Sixties, Jesus probably would have worn a Superman shirt and painted a red heart on His forehead!  Amen?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Are You Being Watched?

Dear Friends,

I cringed when I read that churches are starting to use facial recognition technology to keep track of their congregation members. Surveillance cameras in the church lobby scan all faces to automatically identify them in order to monitor attendance. This new technology has been installed in churches as large as 3,000 and as small as 100 members. Call me old-fashioned but I can’t imagine why a pastor of a church of 100 people would need facial recognition technology to let him/her know if a member has stopped coming to church.

This is the same technology that was developed and is being used to identify criminals and terrorists. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have installed facial recognition software in airports and in most state DMV’s (but not yet in California). Facial recognition technology is used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and many other large law enforcement agencies to identify suspects. Their officers can take a photo of a stranger on the street, identify them and gain access to information about them. Privacy advocates are warning that there will be a time when you may be able to do the same with your own smartphone. 

Facebook has a massive database filled with incredibly personal details on the lives of 1.49 billion people and they have never been good about keeping private details private. When you “tag” a photo with a person’s name, Facebook will automatically match it up with all the previously unidentified photos of that person that are floating around on the internet. The social media site has been accused of violating people’s privacy and now a recent Facebook service called “Moments” is just one more creepy innovation that looks at all the photos on your mobile device and identifies people by name using their facial recognition software. Facebook is now using the photos you take of family and friends to create a database of who you associate with, and the FBI and NSA has already added your photos, personal details and your contact list of friends into their database. 

Thankful you’re not on Facebook? A recent hack of Federal government computers stole detailed personal information on 22 million Americans. If you have health insurance through Anthem or were ever treated at Olive View Hospital your social security number and confidential medical records are now in the hands of computer hackers along with 80 million other people. If you’ve shopped at Home Depot or Target, your credit card information is now for sale on the internet’s black market. 

In today’s technological society we can no longer have an expectation that our personal information will be private, but in the Kingdom of God, our lives have never been “private.” As Jesus said “..there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not be known.” Matthew 10:26 When it comes to God, you can run, but you cannot hide. That’s because you are so important to God, He doesn’t want to let you out of His sight. 

And God has been using His own “recognition technology” since His creation of mankind. Jesus tells us that God knows us so well that He recognizes every hair on our head. Matthew 10:30 Did you know that a blonde woman has an average of 140,000 hairs and a woman with black hair has an average of 110,000 hairs? And God’s “recognition technology” is so sophisticated that He knows every hair and your every thought! The psalmist said, “O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” Psalm 139:1-6 (NLT)

Our Heavenly Father has us under His constant surveillance. Today’s mothers use wireless baby monitors and even surveillance cameras in the baby’s room to keep an eye on them. Mothers love their babies and want to keep close watch on them so that if something happens, a mom can be at her baby’s side in an instant. God has us under His surveillance for the same reason.

God sees us. He knows us. He immediately recognizes your face out of the billions of people on this planet. We are not doomed to be faceless souls with endless struggles. We are privileged to be the adopted precious children of a loving Father. We are His created. We are His redeemed and we will be sustained in every difficult moment we will ever have in our lifetime. We joke that someone’s got a face that only his mother could love but God never saw a face that he didn’t love. You are His. Created in His image. And God will never leave or forsake you. God loves your face. He’d recognize it anywhere. He will never forget it. Amen?

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Soul Friends

Dear Friends,

The ancient Christian Celts sought out the “thin places” where the spiritual realm of heaven was so close it seemed as if it were a footstep away. The Celts were profoundly aware of the presence of God and sought to live their life in the manner that we today call “walking with Jesus.” For the Christian Celts in Ireland and Scotland, (my own family roots) they suffered through famine and disease in an incredibly harsh climate and yet, in their struggles, they managed to live in peace and harmony with each other. In communities of faith, what enabled them to find joy in the gray winters of their life was their anamchara.
The Gaelic word “anamchara” [ah-num-KAH-ra] is translated as “soul friend” and originally referred to those in monastic life. Men who entered the Celtic monastery were assigned an older brother in the community who would shepherd them through their early days in religious life and would often become a lifelong friend. Celtic scholar Edward Sellner says that to be a soul friend is to provide a place of sanctuary to another where, through acceptance, love and hospitality, both individuals can grow in wisdom and in depth. In the sixties, when we found a person of the opposite sex whose soul seemed to be intertwined with ours, we called them our “soul mate.” But the concept of "anamchara" is closely associated with Christianity and flows out of our relationship with God. It’s been said that, “Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. Jesus is the secret Anamchara of every believer.”

A soul friend is the person with whom you can talk about anything. The relationship is safe and trustworthy. You can reveal the secret sins that your lips tremble to name because you know that your anamchara can be trusted. You can remove the masks of pretense, of egotism, of pride and unshutter the window to your soul. Jim was my accountability partner many years ago and we were each other’s anamchara. A couple of years ago, Jim left this temporary home on earth and is now spending eternity with Jesus. I still miss him.

In Celtic Christianity, your anamchara was someone of the same gender. In our Bible, the close friendship between Jonathan and David exemplifies the anamchara between two men. “..the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.” 1 Samuel 18:1 The Hebrew word translated as loved is the same word used to refer to the love that people had for God and the love that God had for His people. In an anamchara friendship, both people grow into a greater love for God and a fuller and more rewarding sense of His presence in their lives.

Too many of us live our lives mired in our secret struggles and we wrestle alone with our finances, job issues, marital problems and with questions and doubts about our faith. But a soul friend provides a sanctuary (a holy place) where the worst parts of us can be acknowledged. And then, through repentance and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, our lives can be transformed and genuine change can occur.

In a loving relationship between two friends, where there is no physical attraction or co-dependencies, what remains is a godly love for one another – an unconditional commitment to the care of another’s soul and to the person’s spiritual growth. To be in an anamchara relationship means being a good listener. Being non-critical, compassionate, trustworthy and safe. It’s being spiritually mature and maintaining a humble spirit – knowing it is the Holy Spirit who is guiding and directing the relationship.

Is God calling you to be the soul friend of someone that He has brought into your life? Is He calling you into relationship with someone with whom you can walk on a mutual journey of faith and share the innermost secrets of your heart? Someone who will speak the truth in love and love you unconditionally as you will love them? Someone who will help you in your pursuit of God? 

A 12th century Celtic monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, in writing about the soul friendship said, “Here we are, you and I, and a third is also present–Christ Himself. Since no one else is here to disturb us, open your heart and let me hear what you have to say.” 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cheaters Never Prosper

Dear Friends,

If you’d asked me two weeks ago if I knew what “Ashley Madison” was, I would have guessed a high-end line of women’s clothing or a perfume. I’m certain that most or all of you were (or still are) as clueless as I was. But I know now that Ashley Madison is the number one secret dating site for men and women cheating on their spouses and seeking to have an affair. Ashley Madison’s motto is, “Life is short. Have an affair.” The site guaranteed that it was completely anonymous but something happened last week. For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all. Luke 8:17 (NLT) 

This adultery site was hacked by moral crusaders who told the owner of the site to shut it down or they would release the personal information of every user. The owner of Ashley Madison refused and the resulting “data dump” on the internet by the hackers amounted to the largest release of personal information to date. It included email messages the users sent to each other, sexual fantasies, credit card financial transactions, home telephone numbers and addresses and the naked photos people sent to each other. It’s on the internet. It’s public. For the rest of the person’s life it’s out there for all to see. They’ve been digitally branded with the “scarlet letter A.”

Here’s the mind-boggling part. There were over 37 million accounts on Ashley Madison and about 18 million of those seeking an adulterous relationship live in America. To put that number into perspective, there are about 60 million married couples living in the United States. 

The Associated Press found that 15,000 people used their government computers to access the site and pay for their membership fees. The released names included those working in the Executive Office of the President, the U.S. Attorney Office, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and many worked in House and Senate offices. The highest rate of membership was in Washington DC and a security advisor warned that this data, now in the hands of foreign intelligence, will have an impact on national security and law enforcement. In the military, adultery is a crime punishable by court-martial, and 9,425 people used a military computer to access the site. These numbers are staggering and the devastation this will bring to millions of families in America is tragic.
My grandmother used to say, “Cheaters never prosper” but God said it first: “The crooked heart will not prosper; the lying tongue tumbles into trouble.” Proverbs 17:20 (NLT) Last week, 37 million people discovered the truth of this proverb. But God, in His grace and mercy, always provides an escape route out of the bondage of sin and Proverbs 28:13 (NLT) says: “People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy.” 

Those who repent will receive mercy and forgiveness from God, but for millions, the consequences they now must face will be life-changing. Economists have predicted that, based on 18 million marriages affected, there will be an estimated 2-3 million additional divorces and that may be a very low estimate. They forecast that the enormous impact of jobs lost, careers ruined, households divided and homes sold in divorce proceedings will have a significant effect on our Nation’s economy. But the biggest impact will be the emotional destruction. Families broken. Children devastated. Dreams shattered. Police are already reporting suicides related to the Ashley Madison leak. It is difficult to comprehend the full impact this will have on families, workplaces and the church.

A website for pastors published an article titled, “Pastors: Don’t Gloat Over Ashley Madison - the adulterer you condemn may be in your pews.” The church rule is that if you want to grow your church, you need to maintain a softened approach to sin so that you don’t offend anyone. But the consequences for not preaching against sin will be destructive for some churches. The names of church pastors, leaders, Sunday school teachers and elders will be among the millions of names released. Their churches will be devastated and some may be destroyed.
Our lesson to be learned from this is that there is no “secret sin.” God already knows. There is nothing you can ever do that’s hidden from His sight. Heb 4:13 (NIV) We all stand in judgement before Jesus some day and we’ll have to account for our sinful behavior. 2 Cor 5:10 God’s Word says that we will reap what we sow and last week, 37 million people found out about this Kingdom Principle the hard way. Galatians 6:7 

What are the seeds that you’re sowing today? You and I may not be on adultery web-sites but we know that we sin daily in thought, word and deed. And we need to be quick to repent. When we confess and repent of our sins, we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness. Proverbs 28:13; 1 John 1:9 And he will remember our sins no more. Hebrews 10:17

The church must become emboldened through God’s word to preach against sin. When the woman caught in the sin of adultery was brought before Jesus, John 8:1-11, He responded to her with love, grace, mercy and forgiveness. Then in no uncertain terms, He told her to “Go and sin no more.” People sin. Pastors now need to stand before their church and do what Jesus did. Amen?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Slaying the Nitpicker

Dear Friends,

It was one of those humbling and embarrassing experiences. It was many decades ago that my step-daughter’s Christian elementary school called us at work. They had done a routine head check and found that she had lice. Being a do-it-yourself kind of guy, I just wanted to shave my step-daughter’s head and spray her all over with a can of Raid but her mother had a better idea. And that was when I found out that among the most unique jobs, there are actually professional nitpickers. Ours was a kindly older woman who was very compassionate and quickly eased our embarrassment. Special shampoos kill the lice but the nits are the tiny eggs of the lice that stick to the hair follicles. The nits have to be painstakingly picked off of each strand of hair with a special comb or they will hatch into lice and reinfect the person.
The word “nitpicker” originally meant someone who focused their attention on these tiny lice eggs, but in the late sixties, it became a slang term for someone who was overly concerned about inconsequential details. So a nitpicker is someone who criticizes other people by focusing on their tiny insignificant flaws. It’s someone who constantly carps about petty things in life and about other people. They just fuss over things to find fault with. (If it bothered you that I ended that last sentence with a preposition, you may be a grammarian nitpicker!) Nitpickers are the people whose sole pleasure seems to be in studying someone or something in the hope of finding a flaw. Nitpickers love to quarrel and argue just to prove they are right and the other person is wrong. Their goal is not to help or improve the other person but to make them wrong.

Nitpickers can be difficult people to have in your life. You may have a wife, husband, daughter or son who is a nitpicker. Maybe the nitpicker in your life is your parent or boss. Or maybe the unpleasant nitpicker is the one who stares back at you in the bathroom mirror. If we are the nitpicker, we may try to spin our nitpicking into something positive. We pridefully call it our “attention to detail” and describe ourselves as a “perfectionist.” But that is just simply our self-righteous way of spinning the sin of nitpicking into something that sounds respectable and praiseworthy. The word “nitpicking” is not in our Bible but grumbling, complaining and murmuring are listed as sins and nitpicking is the obsession to grumble, complain and murmur about the petty little things that others do.

What are some of the root causes of nitpicking? Our constant carping on another person can come from our unforgiveness that leads to bitterness, complaining and a hardness of heart toward another. We fall short of the grace of God when we let bitterness come between us and another person. Hebrews 12:14-15. Nitpicking comes from prideful thinking. You can only criticize another as long as you think you’re better than they are. Nitpicking can also come from a lack of spiritual maturity. When we bicker and quarrel and let loose the bitter nitpicky condemnations of others, we are behaving like those do not belong to the Lord. 1 Corinthians 3:3

The sin of nitpicking, is destructive to our walk with the Lord and destructive to our witness as a Christian. You can’t be operating in the will of God and manifesting His grace to others while you’re digging down in their lives to do petty faultfinding. Nitpickers obsessively seek to discover what is wrong with another person. In contrast, Christians have a passion to discover what is right with another person. Christians who manifest the grace of God, will pick through the brokenness and dysfunction in the life of another person in order to seek out the good. People of grace will always seek to buildup, edify and encourage one another.

We can’t change others, but with God we can change ourselves. If the nitpicker in your life is the one you see in your bathroom mirror, you can slay the nitpicker. We can overcome our critical spirit by firmly rebuking in the name of Jesus every time we feel that tendency coming on to engage in petty fault finding. We need to be the light in our families and in our relationships with others. Jesus said: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matt 5:16 And in order for us to be the light, we need to guard our heart and words and become the messengers of God’s grace. Amen?

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Free Hugs

Dear Friends,

It happened just last Thursday during one of the recent thunderstorms in Southern California. High school sweethearts Dylan Corliss and Lexie Varga were walking hand-in-hand on a tree-lined street in Claremont. They were on their way to get a burger when they were struck by a bolt of lightning. Dylan said, “Suddenly out of nowhere, we just felt like we were getting hit over the head and shoved to the ground with a big flash and explosion sound.” Dylan woke up curled in a ball three feet from  where Lexie had fallen. The lightning hit Dylan in the back of the head and the electricity transferred  through his arm into Lexie before exiting through her foot. They felt a “tingling” all over their bodies but were otherwise unhurt and they continued on to get the hamburgers. When they got home, their families insisted they go to the hospital. The ER doctor said that because they were holding hands, the force of the electrical energy was able to dissipate between the two bodies and prevented  a serious injury. The doctor said that the only reason the teenage couple was still alive may have been because they were holding hands.

The next day, Friday, I was walking along Carpinteria Beach holding hands with my own sweetheart. It was a gorgeous day at the beach. A nice, low tide with calm, shallow waves made for easy walking on the hard-packed sand at the water’s edge. A marine layer of clouds had courteously kept the temperature to a comfortable 65 degrees. The overcast skies had discouraged the usual crowd of beach-goers and there were fewer people and more shorebirds on the sand. I saw a young couple with a small child walking along. Both were walking with heads down and focused on their phones. Both appeared to be texting. They were oblivious to each other, to their son and to the beautiful surroundings as they walked on the beach. I felt sad for them. They were not together on the beach that day, and I wondered how long they would be together as a couple. A few miles later, we came across another couple who looked to be in their seventies. They were holding hands, walking closely together and thoroughly enjoying their day. They stopped to watch two large brown birds who were poking their long curved beaks into the wet sand to look for lunch. They laughed at the bird’s antics. It was apparent that they had been walking hand-in-hand through life for many years and that was why they were still together.

Holding hands may not save your life in a lightning storm but it may save relationships. We are wired by God to connect with one another through touch and yet even the very thought of that is scary to some. A psychologist said recently that, “We have become a touch-phobic (American) society. We don’t touch strangers or even friends.” In Southern European, Mid-Eastern and Latin America cultures, affectionate touching between friends is normal. Women friends walk hand-in-hand and even men walk with their arm over a friend’s shoulder. Hugging and kissing are the norm when greeting one another. 

But in America, we get nervous when someone stands closer than five feet and a one second handshake is an adequate greeting. One outcome of our rapidly changing culture in America is the demise of the friendly hug between two acquaintances. Today, men don’t hug other men for fear of appearing gay. And a man doesn’t greet a woman with a hug out of fear that she’ll snap open her purse to grab the pepper spray.

A Christian Psychologist once said that, “The persistent cry of the human heart is to hug me and hold me close.” Many people today are over-whelmed with feelings of loneliness. A survey showed that 60% of married people experience loneliness. Many struggle with depression, despair and discouragement. Young and old can feel abandoned and rejected by family and friends and they walk through their days alone and forgotten.

Touch plays a critical part in healing those psychological and emotional wounds. We communicate and bond through touch. Our comfort level with touch is determined early on. If mom and dad didn’t hug and hold us in the first three years of our life, we will become anxious and stiffen up if someone hugs or touches us today. If hugs were lacking in our family culture, we are fearful of the hugs that cement warm, caring relationships. If we were not lovingly touched as a child, we can recoil at the healing touch of another person. And sadly, what we need the most, is what we have been taught to not accept. It’s no different when we come to church. A recent survey even showed that atheists/agnostics touch more than “religious types.” But if Jesus came to our church, He would be embracing people. 

Maybe during our hospitality time after church we all need to be holding a "FREE HUGS" sign, because the church today is filled with people who need one. If you need a hug, then give someone a hug this Sunday. Because, every time you give a hug, you get one back. Amen?