Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Do You Need Advent?

Dear Friends,

I loved Advent. My grandmother always gave me and my sister an Advent Calendar right after Thanksgiving day. I loved those cardboard calendars with the cutout for each day of December that lead up to the illustration of the Nativity on the 24th. I would look forward every day to the ritual of slowly and carefully opening another cardboard door to reveal what was printed inside. I savored every day’s illustration. The Advent Calendar heightened my anticipation for Christmas and drew me closer each day to the celebration of the birth of Christ. I resisted, of course, the temptation to “peek” at the hidden illustrations under the closed doors that would be opened in the days ahead. But as soon as my sacrilegious seven-year-old sister got her Advent Calendar, she would run into her room and tear open every door. This was back when I was a young, God-fearing lad who was practicing to be a pastor by baptizing my sister’s Barbie dolls in the “creek” that ran through our backyard. So when I discovered her Advent Calendar desecration, I loudly proclaimed to our parents that it was an act of blasphemous rebellion against the church and everything most sacred.

Last week, I used pretty much those same words while ranting to the blonde lady with whom I spend my Fridays. We had just come from visiting our favorite mission in San Juan Capistrano and were walking from the Mission Gift Store to the car. You don’t find “christian-cute” merchandise in a Catholic Book and Gift Store. They are filled with seriously religious items such as prayer cards, statues, jewelry, holy water bottles, crucifixes, icons, rosaries and essential books. We were looking for crosses to hang on my Christmas tree when we both noticed what was on the store’s overhead music system. Michael Jackson was singing, “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry.. You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.. Santa Claus is coming to town.” And the next “Christmas” song was “Last Christmas” by WHAM! I won’t bother giving you the lyrics, but trust me – it’s most definitely not a “Christian” Christmas song. As I’m wrestling with the dichotomy of listening to the Jackson 5 and WHAM! in this very religious environment, the smiling salesclerk rang up my purchase and then cheerfully wished me, “Happy Holidays!” You’re kidding me!! A Catholic employee is wishing me a politically-correct “Happy Holidays!” in a Catholic-owned store on the sacred grounds of this 240 year old Catholic church? I may as well have been at Target. Thus the reason for the rant.

But it reminded me of why even we good church-goin’ Christians so desperately need Advent these days. Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent and comes at the perfect time to interrupt the political hostility that has seized our Nation. We need a timeout from the hysteria, but instead of a time of peace and joy, our Christmas ritual starts with an appropriately named Black Friday.. Credit card debt.. Jingle Bells and jangled nerves.. Dashing toward Christmas day in a one horse open sleigh.. Then finally, it’s Christmas! It’s show-time!! We did it! And yet in the Christmas rush, the manger is still empty. We got it all done, but we’ve left someOne behind.

That’s why we need Advent. Advent means “coming” and these are the days that we anticipate the coming of Christ. Advent is the spiritual speed-bump that slows us down in our race toward Christmas and allows us to savor the journey. When we are tempted to speed up into the Holly Jolly Christmas pace, Advent takes us into a contemplative place. During this happy holiday season, we can meet Santa at Wal-Mart, but Advent reminds us that we’ll meet God in the quiet sacred places.

On the Advent journey, we find our peace and joy not in what we buy, plan, decorate or cook, but in the expectancy of His coming. That’s why you may want to spend even more time in quiet prayer and contemplation. You may want to turn down the noise of your fast-paced life and spend time in silence with Him – just you and God – alone together. Read an Advent devotional or read Luke 1:5-2:20 and Matthew 1:18-24. Meditate on these scriptures by thinking about what they mean to you. Pray about them and then just rest in His presence. You may hear Him speak to your heart, you may be filled with His peace or you may just find yourself sitting there with God and enjoying His Presence. 

Resting in His peace will bring a joyful attitude. Then when others are stressed, anxious and angry in the weeks ahead, bring the joy of God into their lives. Practice graciousness, patience, and kindness with family members and frazzled store clerks alike. Be especially aware of friends and neighbors who struggle this time of year and be compassionate. Be Christ-like. Show them the love of Jesus this Christmas and do what you can to relieve their distress, suffering and loneliness. Let them see, through your love for them, the Child in the manger. Amen?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving. An American Christian Holy Day

Dear Friends,

I had read about a Washington D.C. politician who was vilifying the church and Christians because we don’t like the secular direction our Nation is going in. He said, “If Christians don’t like it here, they can just go start their own country..” Well.. actually.. we already did that.. It’s called America.

John Adams was the 2nd U.S. President and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams described the principles upon which our Country was founded and the Declaration of Independence was written: "The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite, and these Principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United.. Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System."

And by the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, Thanksgiving had been celebrated in America for over 150 years!

Thanksgiving began as a holy day, created by the first colonies of Christian Puritans (English Protestants) who were sincere in their desire to set aside one day each year especially to thank the Lord for His many blessings. These first settlers celebrated days of thanksgiving by acknowledging God as their Sovereign Provider thus providing a spiritual principle which has undergirded the foundation of our Nation.  

One of the earliest recorded celebrations occurred in 1564, after a small colony of French explorers established a settlement in, what today is, Florida. They journaled: “We sang a song of thanksgiving unto God, beseeching Him that it would please Him to continue His accustomed goodness towards us.”

In 1621, the Christian Pilgrims landed at Plymouth and immediately struck up a friendship with the Indians who taught them how to plant and harvest corn. The grateful Pilgrims declared a three day feast in December of 1621 to thank God and celebrate their blessings with their Indian friends. Ninety Wampanoag Indians joined the fifty Pilgrims for this Nation’s first Thanksgiving feast which became an annual celebration in the colonies.

From these first days in our Nation's history, days of thanksgiving were also periodically called by government leaders. On September 25, 1789, one day after the First House of Representatives voted to recommend the First Amendment to the states for ratification, a proposal was made by the House to President Washington to “proclaim a day of thanksgiving for the many favors of Almighty God.”

A yearly holy day (holiday) was established by a Presidential Proclamation in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November, “ a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Congress later changed this day of celebration to the fourth Thursday in November.  

Thanksgiving has always been, a uniquely American Christian holiday! We join in this wonderful tradition set forth by our Nation's Christian forefathers as we celebrate the majesty and goodness of God, giving Him praise and thanksgiving! 

"Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever... Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works...” Psalm 107:1,8

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Love Thy Neighbor.. No, Really!

Dear Friends,

A good friend of mine recently wrote on her blog a post entitled, “If Trump Was My Neighbor.” She lives with her family on a very multicultural and multiracial street and, while “hatred” may be too strong a word, she and her neighbors shared a pervasive and intense dislike for Donald Trump and thought very highly of Hillary. My friend is an African-American pastor and she told her readers that she was using the “Neighbor Trump” scenario to teach her young son how to behave as a Christian toward someone that they so thoroughly despise. Her heart of angst was clearly heard and it was thought-provoking.

Because really.. What if Donald Trump did move into your neighborhood? Or what if it was Bill and Hillary? Or the three gay guys next door who invite other men over for loud and boisterous hot tub parties? Or the old White curmudgeon guy across the street who flies the Confederate flag on all national holidays? Or the run-down house with the El Salvadorian men and their MS-13 gang tattoos? Or the aging Black rock ‘n roller bass player reliving his hippie days with his garage band on those late Saturday nights? Or that overzealous Bible-thumper at the end of the block who annoys you by giving you Bibles, tracts and religious material and inviting you to his church – oh... wait... I think that last guy is me...

You may be blessed like I am with perfect next door neighbors who love the Lord, go to church and whose values and political beliefs mirror my own. Or you may feel as if you’ve been cursed with a neighbor from hell (see above paragraph). And honestly, if it were a “Donald” or a “Hillary” that moved into our neighborhood, or the garage band or the Confederate curmudgeon, that’s when even us good church-goin’ Christians can resent, resist and reject the words of Jesus. My dilemma is that Jesus didn’t tell me to tolerate my neighbors and be polite. That I can do. It would be so easy if the Son of God had just commanded me to put-up-with, ignore or avoid contact with my undesirable neighbors. My property is fenced with gates that lock so I can easily avoid contact with any difficult neighbors. But the problem we have with Jesus is that He told you and me in the strongest possible terms to love your neighbor.” Matthew 22:37-39 And then He said that “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are My disciples.” John 13:35 NLT And then Jesus shockingly took it one step further and made the preposterous statement that we should even love our “enemies!”

“You have heard the law that says, ‘Love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy. But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. For He gives His sunlight to both the evil and the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:43-48 NLT

And Paul also tells us how to treat our neighbors. “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other.. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.” Romans 12:14-18 NLT If a Donald or a Hillary moved into our neighborhood, our prayer is not that God would give them a holy smack-down but that God would actually bless them.

I can, of course, be pretty judgmental when it comes to my neighbors and so sometimes it’s to me that God gives a holy smack-down and it’s my attitude that changes. Last week I was out in my front yard and most of you know I live across the street from Olive View Hospital. A Hispanic man in his twenties walking down the street saw me and called over the fence. Wearing only gym shorts and a shredded tee shirt, shaved head and covered with gang tattoos he looked like a muscular and powerful street hood. This was one scary dude. From outward appearance, this guy did not look like he’d “persecute” you. He looked like he’d kill you. Most definitely not the guy I’d want to move into my neighborhood. He had just been released after three years in prison, celebrated his release with drugs and fighting and wound up at Olive View under a “5150pc" involuntary psychiatric hold for being a danger to himself or others. He told me that he saw I was wearing a cross and just wanted to talk to a Christian. After we said goodbye and he walked down the street, I thanked God for the opportunity to talk with him and prayed for him the rest of the day. When he first called out to me, I took one look at him and warily approached thinking he was going to ask me for money. I was wrong. He wanted to ask me about Jesus. I found myself wishing that he was one of my neighbors so that we could have talked again. To be continued in 2 weeks..

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Make America Nice Again!

Dear Friends,

Is it finally over? Has the smoke finally cleared from the ugliest, sleaziest and most vicious presidential campaign in America’s history? We used to disagree. Sometimes even argue. Now we hate, shame, threaten violence, ruin businesses and burn churches. We have watched the end of friendships, marriages, romances and relationships among family members. On the night before the election, Hillary Clinton is claiming to be the “candidate of love, healing and reconciliation” as she incongruously continues to savagely attack all those who do not support her. She is a Christian but has said that if you are an Evangelical Christian or a Catholic, then your “religious beliefs” must be changed to conform to her liberal Christianity and her key political advisors have called you “irredeemable.” Hillary’s campaign slogan was “Stronger Together,” but how do you unite our country when you’ve been vilifying half of its population? If Hillary is our president, before she can make our country “Stronger Together,” she needs to work to make it “Nicer Together.”

Donald Trump has vilified women and immigrants as he has led the conservatives in our country in a brutal attack against Hillary and her supporters. Ruth Malhotra works for a Christian ministry and is a conservative Republican who has filed federal law suits against schools who trample on religious freedom. She worked on Mitt Romney’s campaign for President, but she found herself unable to mark the circle next to Trump’s name on her ballot. And as the only one in her Baptist church who refuses to do so, her beloved church has turned hostile towards her. She’s been screamed at during Bible study, interrogated by church elders and shunned by her spiritual mentor who told her she needs to “get right with God” by voting for Trump. Ruth said that one woman in her church told her that by criticizing and opposing Trump she was “siding with Satan.” The good Christian folks at her church have manifested their “inner Donald” and filled up her Facebook with hateful rhetoric. If Donald is our president, before he can “Make America Great Again,” he needs to “Make America Nice Again.”

What has saddened me the most is how we Christian believers have spewed the most vile and violent hatred toward each other. We have allowed the nastiness pouring out of the two presidential candidates to influence how we ourselves have treated our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have allowed today’s secular culture of hate to invade our churches and we have demonized other believers simply because they disagreed with us politically.

Now that the election is over, some of us Christians may have some spiritual fence-mending to do. We may need to self-examine and take the words of Jesus to heart: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35 Another translation says it like this: “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35 NLT Does that mean that our hate for one another will prove to the world that we are not His disciples? According to the Word of God it does...
“..He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.” 1 John 2:11 “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters.” 1 John 4:20-21 NLT
For all of us who have expressed or manifested to others any of Hillary’s or Donald’s nastiness, we have stumbled in our spiritual walk and the Holy Spirit is grieved. As I wrote in a recent AMEN Corner, a poll just showed that 88% of Americans don’t believe Trump is a Christian believer based on his words and behavior. That same poll showed that 82% of Americans don’t believe that Clinton is an authentic Christian based on her words and behavior. But, based on your words and behavior toward others who do not vote like you do, what would people say about your authenticity as a follower of Jesus? 

If you allowed the darkness of our political culture to blind your eyes and have spewed hatred toward a Christian brother or sister, let the Holy Spirit give you an attitude adjustment. Then go to those who you have offended and seek forgiveness. “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:31-32 The people of God need to stop ranting and start loving each other again so that we can show the world that we really truly are His disciples. Amen?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Only The One True God Fits!

Dear Friends,

A few years ago when I was doing a sermon series on the original twelve disciples, I discovered that in 1964, the head of the Apostle Andrew had been a thoughtful gift from Pope Paul VI to a Greek Orthodox church in Patras, Greece. The body of Saint Andrew had been cut up and distributed as relics to other churches who claim Andrew as their patron saint. Relics are typically a body-part of a saint and it is believed that their presence consecrates (makes holy) a Catholic or Orthodox church. The faithful are to venerate the relics meaning they bow down before them, kiss them and revere them with ritual actions. Catholic Church teaching is that when you venerate a relic, “..many benefits are bestowed by God on men.” 

In actual practice, there is no difference between “venerating” and “worshiping” and the veneration of human relics is practiced by Catholics, Orthodox, Buddhists, Shamanism Hindus, SanterĂ­a, and Wiccians. It doesn’t seem to matter what religion we are. We all have this intrinsic need to worship something or someone.

In the early days of Hollywood, movie stars and singers were described as “goddesses” and “gods” with spellbinding power over their audiences. If you’re of my generation, you might remember hysterical, screaming girls watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. If you’re younger than me and can’t relate to the worship of John, Paul, George and Ringo, then think of the young girls (and their mothers) screaming at Justin Bieber concerts. The only thing that has changed from one generation to another are the faces of the celebrities we worship.

We even collect their relics with the same fervor as the early Christians sought the relics of saints. In 2002, a former barber of Elvis Presley sold a clump of the singer’s hair for $115,000. A lock of Justin Bieber’s hair was a comparative bargain at only $40,668. And a tissue used by actress Scarlett Johansson went for $5,300. Lady Gaga’s autographed toilet seat was auctioned for $460,000. And a kidney stone passed by Star Trek actor William Shatner sold for $25,000 which was probably a good deal considering the price of celebrity kidney stones these days! 

We are wired for worship. It’s in our DNA. That’s why we have that intrinsic desire to worship something or someone. Yet, only someOne can truly satisfy that desire. Blaise Pascal, a famous French mathematician and philosopher, put it like this: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” If we try to stuff anything but God into that God-shaped hole in our lives, we'll end up dissatisfied, restless, and  discontented. But when we fill that God-shaped hole with God, we will always find the peace and contentment that we had been seeking all along.

Listen now to the Apostle Paul debating in Athens with the philosophers and polytheists about God: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I'm telling you about. 24 He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since He is Lord of heaven and earth, He doesn't live in man-made temples,27 His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him –though He is not far from any one of us.” 
Acts 17:22-27 NLT

Paul told them that God does not live in temples, He lives in our hearts. In the 4th century, a bishop named Augustine wrote, “Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find You.” We have an emptiness inside us. An aching loneliness without God. A restless search for something to fill that void. We try to fill that void with pagan religions, material things, shopping, drugs, alcohol, parties, pets and other people. And we remain empty and find ourselves restlessly seeking... 

God said, “You must not have any other god but Me,” Exodus 20:3 NLT and then our Heavenly Father designed and created us so that only the one true God clicks into that God-shaped void. And when we say “Yes God, fill my heart with You!” our search is over and our worship is for Him and Him alone!  Amen?