Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Journey of Advent

Dear Friends,

When I was a teenager, my grandmother took me on a vacation across America. We were going to Chicago to visit family and then to New York to see the 1965 World’s Fair. I wanted to fly. Get in. Take off. Land. Get to where you want to go, to see the things you came to see! But my grandmother, the school teacher, had other ideas – we’d take the train. 

Crawling across the country for three days, I was bored. I was fascinated. It seemed to take forever and it was over too quickly. I still remember the images from the observation car. Towns in New Mexico that looked like western movie sets, the never-ending plains of Texas, then traveling through Websters Grove, Missouri – the birthplace of my grandfather, and the thrill of crossing the Mississippi River while thinking about the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim. I had wanted to get to New York as fast as we could. My grandmother wanted to teach me how to slow down and enjoy the journey. What a wonderful gift of memories she gave me that summer.

It seems that as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are dried and put away, a bell sounds and the Christmas race is on. Recent surveys show that Christmas is the sixth most stressful life event up there with divorce, death, moving and changing jobs. December is the most stressful month for families. High expectations for the perfect gifts, baking, cooking, decorations, parties and will Aunt Eunice drink too much of the “enhanced” eggnog again? 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 we never notice that in our perfectly hand-crafted, decorated Christmas, the manger is still empty. We’ve left someOne behind.
When we’re flying through December and hurtling toward the destination we call “Christmas,” life around us becomes a blur. Maybe grandma was right and we just need to slow down so that we can enjoy the journey. 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 December 25th and allows us to savor the Christmas season. 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 will meet the Son of 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. 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. 

During this journey of Advent, read  Luke 1:5-2:20 and Matthew 1:18-24. The ancient practice of lectio divina (sacred reading) is reading a passage of scripture until a word or phrase stands out and repeating it in a slow and reflective manner. Meditate on the word or words by thinking about what they mean to you. What is God saying to you? Pray about this and then just rest in His presence. Sit quietly with Him in a time of contemplation. You may hear Him speak to your heart, you may be filled with His peace or you may find yourself just sitting there with God and enjoying His Presence. Set aside some daily time with Him. Rest with Him.

Resting in His peace will bring a joyful attitude. Then when others are stressed, anxious and angry in the weeks ahead, you be the one who brings 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. Be compassionate. Be considerate. Be Christ-like. Show them the love of Jesus this Christmas and do what you can to relieve their distress, suffering and loneliness. 

Let Advent slow us down from the craziness of Christmas and take us into that contemplative “Maranatha” place as our souls are nourished with the anticipation of His coming. The Aramaic phrase Maranatha is used just once in the New Testament 1 Cor 16:22 and is translated, “O Lord, come!” Let that be our prayer this Advent...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Sharing The Gift Of Food

Dear Friends,

As a bachelor living only with my two cats, I’m used to eating dinner alone. And that night as I looked across the table at my dinner partner, I was becoming convinced that perhaps a meal really is best when eaten alone. Looking at the unattractive old man eating with me, I realized this was not the time of enjoyable companionship that I had anticipated. The old guy was an appetite depressant. He was obviously not married. A wife would have improved his personal hygiene by demanding that he occasionally hack off the unsightly growth of nose and ear hairs. He had a beard like me but red strands of cheesy tomato sauce were now coagulating in the straggly growth and threatening to drip on the food-splattered tablecloth. His eating habits were thoroughly disgusting. His mother had apparently never taught him to chew with his mouth closed and my enjoyment of the pasta  was rapidly diminishing. What was really freaking me out though, was that every time I glanced up at him, I caught him staring at me with those two beady eyes and a weird expression on his face. The old guy never looked away and I was always the one to break off eye contact and look back down at my plate. This was just too creepy for me and I vowed to never do this again. I reached across the table to the mirror propped up against the stack of books and turned it face down so that I could finish my dinner in peace.

I had just finished reading a study published last month in the journal Physiology & Behavior which concluded that eating around others makes your meals more satisfying. The study focused on adults of all ages and found that their quality of life was greatly improved when eating with others and also found that eating alone was associated with depression and loss of appetite. What was interesting was that the study found that eating in front of a mirror or a photographic image of yourself had the same effect as when another person was actually present. Participants rated the food as tasting better when they ate it in front of a mirror! Okay..that’s more than a little weird, but the valuable takeaway from this study was that our quality of life significantly improves when we eat our meals with others.

My fondest and most vivid memory from my time at the Foursquare Bible College was when in “Foundations for Ministry,” professor and pastor Chuck Shoemake set up tables and converted our class room into a dining room. He wanted us to see that the table is a place of connection and blessing. In an academic setting, you only see the back of another student’s head. But this evening, instead of another lecture on how to do ministry, we set the textbooks and laptops aside and did ministry. Sitting at the table face to face and eating together connected us and created relationships. Grape juice was poured, loaves of bread were broken and we had Communion together. The potluck feast spread on the table in front of us required interaction with one another as food and serving utensils were passed. Faceless classmates now became friends as we talked, laughed, told stories and ministered to one another. In the book, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, the author writes that “A shared meal is the activity most closely related to the reality of God’s kingdom, just as it is the most basic expression of hospitality.” That’s what Pastor Chuck was showing us.

At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to His disciples, and in church, the communion table is the sacred place where this pattern is repeated every Sunday. Blessing, Breaking, Giving. The model taught by Jesus extends to our homes, where we sit down at our own dinner table, bless the food, break the bread and give it to each other. Now our own table becomes our sacred place as we gather with others to share a meal and journey together in God’s kingdom.

God created us to be in relationship. He created the Earth and then He created food. Seeds that grew into green plants and trees bearing fruit. Genesis 1:29-30 He then created the Garden of food and put Adam in the Garden. Genesis 2:8 And we note that God did not give Adam a mirror or a self-portrait for social interaction while eating. The Creator gave Adam a human dining companion called Eve. Not at all surprising, the recent secular study found that one’s quality of life increases when eating with others and scientifically demonstrates that God’s plan for his children is a good one! 

Sharing food at a table reminds us that eating is more than a necessary function of the body – it’s incarnational as we emulate Jesus who shared meals with both His followers and with those who did not yet believe. We don’t read that Jesus ever approached an unbeliever, gave him a parchment Gospel tract and invited them to the Temple for the 9:30 service. Jesus sat down with those far from God and struggling with their faith and He ate with them. Maybe we should be doing that too...

Who is it that should be sharing your meals at your sacred table during this Christmas season? Who would you invite for the Blessing..Breaking..Giving? An ancient prayer from the Book of Common Prayer reads: Blessed are You, O Lord God, King of the Universe, for You give us food to sustain our lives and make our hearts glad; through Jesus Christ our Lord. As God’s gift of food physically sustains us, we are emotionally and spiritually nourished by His gift of family and friends. Thanks be to God!  Amen?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fear Not !

Dear Friends,

Thanks to psychopathic cult-leader and mass murder Charles Manson, I became a prosperous college student at a time in my life when I was too lazy to join my friends who worked in fast-food restaurants. As I read about Manson’s recent death two Sundays ago, I recalled the chilling fear that had gripped our neighborhood following the horrific torture and savage murders of seven people in their homes over a two night killing spree.

Terrorized by the thought that it could happen to them, there was a high level of fear and panic being experienced by people in the entertainment industry who lived with their families in the Hollywood Hills. That’s where I lived with my family when I was a collage student. The man across the street from us was a popular Black singer with a wall filled with gold records. Up the street, an actor who starred in a James Bond movie. Further up and around the bend, a record producer with dozens of gold records from the most popular singing groups. I babysat for our celebrity neighbors. In 1969, the minimum wage was $1.30 per hour. High school girls could make a decent $1.00-$2.00 per hour babysitting. Thanks to Charles Mansion, I made $10.00 per hour for those who I babysat for weekly and $15.00 per hour for my non-regular customers. Feelings of panic had seized this neighborhood of entertainment industry people and they trusted in the 6'3"- 220 lb college student to keep their children safe when they left their house. Thanks to the terror unleashed by Manson, I sat in someone’s dining room doing my homework, and in one hour, I earned more than those who really worked hard for a living would see in one day. There was an unreasonable fear that no one was safe in their home. They were terrified that a violent hippie-cult was going to break into their house to kill all their children and that fear made me a wealthy college student.

Two Sunday nights ago, I was at a church function where someone told me that after the recent church shooting in Texas, they were afraid of going to their Sunday service. I’m reading more and more about pastors arming themselves with guns canceled under their vestments. An Anglican Bishop with a 357 magnum under his robes. A megachurch pastor with a semiautomatic tucked into a holster fastened to the inside of the pulpit. In a national magazine for Christian pastors, a police chief in California wrote an article about how to put together an active shooter plan for your church and a New Jersey city is holding active shooter training for all the city’s clergy. Rev. Robert Jeffrees, pastor of a Dallas megachurch recently said that he feels safe because anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of his 12,000 member congregation is carrying a concealed weapon on any given Sunday. 

All over America, church ushers are now carrying concealed weapons, and in one Florida megachurch, newcomers are greeted with a sign that reads: “Welcome to The River at Tampa Bay Church – Please know this is not a gun-free zone – We are heavily armed – Any attempt will be dealt with deadly force.” Signed.. “The Pastors.”  Do these pastors have to avoid raising their hands while worshiping the Prince of Peace so that their jacket doesn’t ride up and expose the Glock? Is a friendly hug during the “passing of the peace” the excuse for a surreptitious pat-down so that we can identify who is “carrying” that day? Is our motto becoming “Trust Not in God but in Smith & Wesson?”

But should we really be fearful about attending our local church service? Let’s put it into perspective. People are killed and dozens more receive major injuries every day in Los Angeles area traffic accidents. We still get into the car and drive. There are only 2.7 shootings per year in churches (nearly all involve the death of one person in a domestic violence incident) but 350-400 people are shot and killed per year in the workplace and we still go to work. Just one year ago in Sylmar, a mentally disturbed homeless person was chasing people in our local Von’s grocery store and threatening to stab them with a large piece of broken glass. He was shot and killed by a security guard. The next day, in full confidence that we were in no danger, we went grocery shopping at that Von’s. Why would church be any different? Are we overreacting? After the back to back Manson cult killings, there was an unreasonable fear that no one was safe in their home. After the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting, there is an unreasonable fear that no one is safe in their church. Human terrorists know that killing people creates widespread fear and intimidation. But our worst enemy is Satan. He’s the terrorist who is using the Sutherland Springs church shooting to create panic and cause people to fear going to church.

We need to cast off these fears and get a grip on reality. According to statistics published two weeks ago, you have a 1 in 6,552,000 chance of your congregation being involved in a church shooting. But you are over twice as likely (1 in 3,000,000) to die from food poisoning at the church potluck. And the most dangerous thing you can do is to stay home from church! That’s where you have a 1 in 4,238 chance of dying while falling out of bed or falling out of the chair in front of the TV! Your church is one of the safest places you can be on a Sunday morning, but if you are not convinced and if you’re still afraid, give me a call and I’ll come and sit by you and hold your hand at church for my normal rate of $100 an hour. (NOTE: Current hourly fee of $100 has been adjusted for 567.0% inflation from my $15 rate in 1969)  Amen?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The First American Christian Holiday

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 in which our Nation is going. 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.

It was November in 1620 when the Christian Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. 102 people had set sail for the New World from England on the Mayflower. Four died during the rough journey, and after landing, another 45 died during an unexpected bitterly harsh winter.

One year later in November 1621, the fifty-three survivors (including 14 teenagers and 13 small children) declared a Day of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims (Puritans) were the English Protestant Reformers who had always set aside special days of worship and prayer and those Christian practices had not changed in the move to America. When the Pilgrims landed in this strange wilderness, they immediately struck up a friendship with the Indians who taught them how to plant and harvest corn. These Native Americans showed the Pilgrim men how to fish and how to hunt the wild turkeys. In return, the Pilgrims gave them tools and showed them how to use them. So when the Pilgrims declared a three day feast of worship, prayer and giving thanks to God, they celebrated their blessings with their new Indian friends. Ninety Wampanoag Indians brought five freshly-killed deer to the “church potluck” and joined the fifty-three Pilgrims for this Nation’s first Thanksgiving feast. 

These first settlers celebrated many more feast days of thanksgiving by acknowledging the Lord God as their Sovereign Provider thus providing a spiritual principle which has undergirded the foundation of our Nation. 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.. 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! From these first days in our Nation's history, days of thanksgiving were also periodically called by government leaders. And 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 is more than just food and football! It 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 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

(note: some of the above content has appeared in earlier AMEN Corners.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thanks God!

Dear Friends,

Those of you who know me may have noticed the scar. About an inch long, it runs vertically through my eyebrow and down to the very top of my right eye. It’s where I was hit in the face with the sharp edge of a shovel when I was six years old. If the point of the shovel had been ½ inch lower it would have been embedded in my eye. If you hadn’t noticed the scar, I don’t either. In fact, for the longest time, I’d forgotten it was there. Then one Thanksgiving morning, a couple of years ago, I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that old scar as if for the first time. At that moment, I realized that I had never thanked God for saving my sight and began wondering what else I’d never thanked Him for. I thought of when I was young man and engaged to the hot-blooded Sicilian girl who broke our engagement by trying to kill me with a butcher knife. I realized that I had never thanked God for saving me from a marriage to her.

And then like a slide show, face after face from my past appeared in my mind and I realized that I’d never thanked God for Father Barnes, the rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, who believed that I needed to start serving God as an acolyte when I was only nine and who started me on the path to God that I am still on today. Many other faces came to mind and I thanked God for them. I still do. And perhaps you are now remembering your own scars. The times God bailed you of a bad circumstance. Perhaps like the country song “Thank God For Unanswered Prayers,” God didn’t give you what you’d prayed for and gave you something better. Do you see the faces of people you’ve never thanked God for?

Every Thanksgiving, I think of an Episcopal priest named Father Tim. He was a fictional character in a series of books written by Christian author Jan Karon about life in a small town called Mitford. And in one story, Father Tim wondered: What if God took away from him everything that he had not thanked God for?

That’s something to just stop and think about. What if God did take away from us everything we had not been thankful for. Would I have my right eye? For sixty years I had never thanked God for saving it from the blade of that shovel! What if everything God gave you, that you never thanked Him for, disappeared in a flash? What would you have left in your house? Would you even have a house? What would you have left in your life? Would you still have your health? Your hearing? Would you still have your Bible? How about your clothes? Would you still have the unique personality that God has gifted you with? If God deleted what you never thanked Him for, would you instantly become as dumb as a rock as your intelligence vanished into thin air? Would you still have your sense of humor? 

Would you still have the ability to discern right from wrong? Would you still have your salvation? Would you still have your love for God? Have you ever thanked God for those things? Maybe even more importantly than what you would have left in your life is who you would have left. If God took away every one you had never thanked Him for, would you still have all your family? Your friends? The people at your church? Would you still have your dog? Your cat?

When I realized that if I thanked God for everything He has ever given me.. Everything He has done for me.. For every meal I have ever eaten.. For everyone He has sent to bless my life.. Every time He healed me.. Every time He protected me from illness..injury..death.. Every time He protected me from my foolish decisions and actions.. I realized that if I thanked Him for everything He had ever done for me, I’d be thanking Him unceasingly from now until the end of time. And in that “ah-hah” moment, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 immediately came to mind: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

But how about those circumstances when it just seems like it’s impossible to be thankful. Because let’s face it. We don’t just cruise through this life on easy street. The truth is that Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation..” and I think that all of us can say “yes and amen” to that. But then we rejoice as Jesus goes on to say, “..but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 All of us have experienced immense pain and grief in our past. And, here we are today with thankful hearts praising the Lord. How did we get through the trials and tribulations we’ve experienced so far? Because God is always right there in the midst of the worst thing that can ever happen to you.

We can only be truly thankful when our thankfulness is no longer a condition of our circumstances. We are not thanking Him for all things. The scripture says we thank Him in all things because no matter what our circumstances, there is always something for which we can be thankful. And then when we are thankful in all things we find ourselves rejoicing always. And, when we rejoice always, we find ourselves being thankful in all things. 

So let’s start this Thanksgiving season by asking God to show us all the things that we never thanked him for. Give thanks to God for all that He has given you and done for you. Give thanks even in the tribulations. And in the coming week, let your loved ones know how grateful you are to God and show them that Thanksgiving is not about a turkey dinner. It’s about our thankfulness to God. Amen?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why Lord?

Dear Friends,

In a church? During the service? Why Lord? Surging emotions of sadness. Overwhelming grief. Immediate prayers for those injured. Prayers for the souls of those killed. May Jesus open His arms to each one as His angels carry them to Heaven this morning. Eight members of one family, from grandparents to grandchildren, went to church on a Sunday morning and in the instant their hearts stopped beating, God reached down and snatched up their souls to Heaven where they will be spending eternity with the One who they came to worship that day.Thank you Lord that you love and care for each one of your children. Reports that everyone who went to the First Baptist Church in that small Texas town on Sunday was shot. So far twenty seven dead. Half of those killed were young children–one an unborn infant. Another twenty four injured. Difficult to hold back tears. Difficult to process the emotionally-jumbled thoughts of anger, sadness and fear. The fourth deadliest mass killing in America occurred in a church? During the service? Why Lord?

One of the most difficult questions asked by both believers and non-believers is this: “If God is so good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world and in our lives.” We know that people suffer in unspeakable ways and die every moment of every day. But how does a good God allow a massacre on a Sunday morning in church? Our Bible tells us that God does love us. He does protect us. He does heal in response to our prayers. He does have a plan for our life. But sometimes life is wonderful and sometimes it’s not. Some of us have listened to preachers who have promised prosperity and an abundance of God’s blessings on our life. We have formed something called “Entitlement Christianity” and expect God’s favor on our life. Then the divorce happens. The bank calls. The doctor gives us the diagnosis. The drunk driver crosses over the center divider. The earthquake happens. The gunman walks into a church. We are stunned. Angry at God. How could He let us down! Doesn’t He know we are Christians!

God is good and yet we live in a fallen world thanks to our ancestors. Genesis 3 tells us that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, the entire relationship between God and His creation changed. But as soon as that apple touched the lips of Eve, a cross appeared on the horizon. Sin has infected our life in this our temporary home on earth, and we live in a world filled with suffering and evil, but in the cross we have the hope for our future. that apple touched the lips of Eve, 
a cross appeared on the horizon.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18 And as we remember the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that we don’t suffer alone. There is nothing you or I will ever endure that God has not already experienced.

But in a church? During the service? Why Lord? Because we do live in a fallen world. And at the same time, God can turn our worst circumstances into something for His good. Our very familiar Romans 8:28 tells us: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” That doesn’t say that everything that happens to us is good. But it says that when we love God, He will use the worst circumstances for good even when it seems impossible for Him to do that. Lord during those times when we cannot imagine how good could come out of evil, increase our trust in You when we must walk by faith, not by sight.

How can God bring something good out of the worst church massacre in America’s history so soon after our Nation’s deadliest mass shooting in Las Vegas? Maybe by bringing evil to our doorstep, we have been awakened out of our spiritual slumber. We have ignored the evil throughout the world. Paid no attention to the Muslim-led genocide of 90,000 Christians per year in the Middle East and Africa. Paid no attention to the Palm Sunday church bombings and mass killings in Egypt. Too far away. Can’t relate. But suddenly it’s different. We are now experiencing waves of evil in our own Nation. But can God really turn this into good? Yes because evil drives us to God. Evil compels us to examine our own complacency. Evil forces us to our knees in prayer. Evil can even change the hearts of the most hardened non-believers. At the end of his life, the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre admitted, “I needed God...I reached out for religion; I longed for it, it was the remedy. Had it been denied me, I would have invented it for myself.”

In a church. During the service. An unspeakably evil act. The remedy for evil is faith and that’s why our response is heart-felt prayers. In John 11 we read that when Lazarus died and Mary fell down at the feet of Jesus and wept, Jesus groaned in His spirit and was troubled. And then Jesus wept. And today, our spirit is troubled. And we weep. Let’s continue to keep the people in Sutherland Springs, Texas in our prayers.  Amen?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

LORD, Clamp Your Hand Over My Mouth!

Dear Friends,

I love history, so when I was younger, antique stores would fascinate me. I loved looking at all the strange, old, sometimes unrecognizable things that I could imagine my grandparents using. Today, antique stores are a little discomforting. I see the toys and games I played with as a child. I see ancient kitchen implements that people point to and wonder about and I remember that I’ve got one in a drawer and I’m still using it. Old records from the sixties are on display. I have a closet full of them. That vintage fedora hat from the 50's? I’m wearing one. Walking into an antique store today is like walking into my own personal museum and it makes me feel.. well.. like an antique.

But last week I ventured into an antique store and immediately saw this sign (pictured above) that made me both smile and cringe. Because it reminded me of someone that I know. Me.

Lord, forgive me for the times I have spoken when I should have been silent. When my words of frustration, anger, impatience, unkindness were hurtful to others. When my words were not a blessing but a curse. When careless words closed down the spirit of a loved one. Lord, forgive me.

Scripture is edifying, encouraging and comforting. And sometimes the comfort it offers comes from knowing that we’re not alone in our struggles to seek the righteousness of God. Matt 6:33 David struggled with his words and knew the importance of praying that God would help him control his mouth. “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Psalm 141:3

A few days ago a friend of mine said that while she had been praying for me, Deuteronomy 3:19 came to her mind. “..I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life..” This literally refers to the Israelite's life or death choice to either worship God or worship other gods. But it metaphorically refers to every one of the choices that you and I make every day – the things we do.. the words we say. Our words of blessing bring life. And our words of cursing – hurtful words of condemnation and negativity – bring death.

Proverbs 18:21 reminds us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The brother of Jesus tells us: “But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” James 3:8-10 NLT

With our mouth we can speak blessings or curses. It’s God's desire that we bestow blessings on others, it’s our human nature to bestow curses. Think about a typical day and count how many times you spoke sincere words of God's blessing to another. Now count the times you spoke complaints, negativity, gossip or criticisms to others.

James said that no one can tame the tongue. That means that you can’t. But God can. Jesus said “for with God all things are possible." Mark 10:27

We need to submit our unruly tongue to the Holy Spirit daily. Every morning our prayer should be: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

And if, like David, we have prayed for the Lord to set a guard over our mouth, we then need to listen for His direction during our day. You’ve heard people say, “think before you speak” but it may be even more important to “listen before you speak.” Everything I have ever said that I later regretted was because I spoke without first listening to the Holy Spirit. If, in the heat of the moment, we can shut our mouth and give our self a verbal timeout, God will always show us how to say something in a Christ-like manner or tell us not to say it at all.

Lord, clamp Your hand over my mouth when I’m tempted to speak words of anger, unkindness or negativity. Let me choose words that speak life and not death. Let no unwholesome word proceed forth from my lips, O Lord, and may all the words of my mouth be pleasing to Your ears. Amen.

From the AMEN Corner archives. Originally published 2014.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Just Imitation Evil

Dear Friends,

Maybe you saw this on the news last Sunday. A few weeks ago, a 26 year old man crossing the street just a few hundred feet from my house was hit by a black BMW racing around the corner. It was a hit and run. He was found lying on his back after being flung into the air. Covered with blood. Unable to shout, he moaned, “Please help me” to some passing horseback riders who at first did not see him by the side of the road. They called the paramedics who took him to the hospital where he died last Thursday. What was illegal was that the driver didn’t stop. What was immoral was that the driver didn’t help the person he hit. What was evil was that neighbors heard a “celebratory yell” from the driver after the impact as he burned rubber to speed away. A celebration of your own evil when you think you’ve just killed someone? Is it just me or are you also becoming tired of the pervasive wickedness that is suffocating our Nation today? And now it’s once again time for our October “fun-filled” celebration of evil. Is this right?

Some of the images of the Las Vegas shooting have been burned into my mind. Bodies scattered throughout cluttered debris. Two young women lying together in death. Blood running down their legs. Descriptions from the survivors tell of puddles of blood everywhere. We don’t know the shooter’s motive. We just know this was truly a most evil act no matter what his rationalization was. And, it’s now time to celebrate evil on Oct 31st when front yards will be decorated with “dead bodies” laid out among the clutter of props. Covered with blood. And yes I do know what some of you are thinking. “Oh but that’s not one and the same, Pastor! You’re comparing real, harmful evil with something fun that’s just pretend and harmless evil..!” You’re right. It is imitation evil but we’re told “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

As our Nation has been struggling with a revival of racism, we’ve been recently and appropriately reminded of the lynchings of over 4,000 Black Americans. A permanent stain on our Country’s history. Pure evil. Next week, people will decorate their yards by hanging mannequins by the neck from their front yard trees. Just fun and harmless evil? “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

Throughout the Mid-East, Muslim extremists behead Christians in accordance with the Qur’an command in 47:4. “So, when you meet (in fight Jihad in Allah's Cause), those who disbelieve smite at their necks.” Mohammad’s teaching that it is God’s will for Christian believers to be beheaded is absolute evil. On Halloween night, the “fun” evil of graphic beheadings will be featured in front yards throughout our Nation. “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

It was just this last Palm Sunday. As Christians throughout the world gathered for the beginning of the holiest week of the Christian year, Muslim extremists planted bombs in two Coptic churches in Egypt. As a choir started to sing the hymns celebrating Jesus on this holy day, the bomb, hidden under the pews, was detonated. Body parts were flung throughout the sanctuary. Red gore ran down the front of the white altar cloths and pooled on the floor. 45 killed. 126 injured. Unspeakable evil. 

A Catholic Church's House of Horrors. To the glory of God?
Next weekend, many American churches will be holding “haunted houses” in their church as they attempt to reach out to the unchurched community. Arranging lifeless bloody "bodies" on pews for a terrifying fright fest to show how culturally cool we are. Walking dead “zombies.” The gorier the better! Just pretend and harmless evil... After the slaughter at the Pulse Nightclub in Florida, one of the first responders said it looked like a house of horrors. Should churches really be imitating evil with our own bloody house of horrors in church multipurpose rooms?  “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11  

The dictionary refers to the Devil and his demons as it defines evil as “profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.” The Bible uses the Greek word “poneros” that is translated as being spiritually “evil.” It means being wicked (ungodly) and doing wicked deeds. Evil is vicious, sinful, corrupt malevolence. Evil is an exuberant shout of celebration as the body of the pedestrian you just hit is flung through the air and you leave him to die in the dark. 

There is no “fun” evil. There is no “good” evil. I wonder if the families of the Las Vegas victims think that pretend murder is “fun.” I wonder if the Coptic Christians in the Mid-East would think the graphic horror houses in some of our churches are “good.” Evil is directly or indirectly caused by supernatural demonic forces and God is grieved by our casual participation in the one special day that evil is celebrated as safe and fun. Because when we fellowship with demons, we provoke the Lord to jealous anger. 1 Cor 10:19-22  You can dance with God or hold hands with the devil but you can’t do both. Paul asks, “How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil?” 2 Cor 6:12-15 

Do we honor those who have faced the horrific reality of evil in their lives when we have fun with our pretend evil on the 31st? Do we honor God by imitating the evil of this world in our homes and churches as we celebrate this time of Halloween? Just something to think about...

UPDATE: 10/25/17 8:45 am. An editing error left off a sentence in paragraph three. This is the corrected version.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Worship: The Wonder Drug

Dear Friends,

William came running up and introduced himself to me right after the service at the assisted living facility. A trim and fit-looking African-American man in his seventies, William told me that he had been one of the James Cleveland Singers and he asked if I knew who that was. I told him that I knew James Cleveland was one of the greatest Gospel singers of all time and I asked William what it was like to be in his Gospel choir. He told me that they traveled all over the country and even had performed Gospel concerts in other nations but he couldn’t remember which ones. William walked away and then a few minutes later, came back again. He greeted me with the same up-beat enthusiasm as before and said, “Say, did you know that I was one of the James Cleveland singers?” For many months, William would approach me both before and after the service to let me know that he was a James Cleveland Gospel singer. He would tell me that at least five or six times every time we were there. His dementia had progressed to the point that, within a minute after he and I spoke, he would have no memory of the conversation. He was no longer able to remember much about his past other than that he had once been a Gospel singer. I listened patiently every time he told me that because it was the one precious memory that he had. It was the most important thing in his life.

He couldn’t remember any of the songs he used to sing, but sometimes after I had sung a Gospel song, he’d tell me that he remembered singing that one. I asked him if he’d like to sing a hymn or a Gospel song with me sometime and he told me he could no longer sing. In a moment of mental clarity, he told me that what he missed most was being able to sing to God. I told him that I loved to watch him worship along with me. He couldn’t remember how to sing the songs but his face would light up and his whole body would move in time to the music as if he were back on the stage. Then one Wednesday, I was singing “I SURRENDER ALL” and suddenly from the back of the room I heard the most beautiful baritone voice singing right along with me, I surrender all, I surrender all, All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all. William sang the whole song with me. His deep resonant voice filling the room. Every word remembered. Every note perfectly hit. The song ended and I looked up from my music stand to see William’s face. Tears streaming down it. William was doing what he had most cherished. He was singing and worshiping the Lord again! After the service, as I was packing up to leave, William started singing to the Abbey Road Villa residents. The haze obscuring his memory had lifted and he was singing one Gospel song after another – the James Cleveland Gospel songs that had won the Grammy Awards and the songs they had sung on the road. As I loaded up my car, I could still hear William singing a worship concert of Gospel songs to the glory of God!

Sally Morgenthaler leads seminars and writes books on worship. She wrote, “aside from the Spirit of God, music is the most potent element in a worship service. It has an incredible, matchless capacity to open the human heart to God, accessing the soul more quickly and deeply and permanently then any other element in the service including human speech.” Every Wednesday for the past two years Noem sits in her wheelchair off to my right. When I preach the sermon, she frequently takes that opportunity to settle into a nice, restful sleep. That doesn’t bother me at all. She’s Armenian and doesn’t speak or understand a word of English. But when I sing and worship, she worships right along with me. I’ll look over and see her sitting up straight with both hands raised to shoulder height. An angelic smile lights up her face and her glistening eyes are looking up into the heavens. Worshiping the God she loves. The music has opened her heart and she is in the presence of God.

Last week, a few were rewarded with a blissful slumber during my sermon, but all were engaged during worship and tears ran down faces when we were singing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” My sermons tell them about Jesus. The worship songs take them into His arms. After that service, a Russian woman who speaks practically no English, smiled at me and said, “Like music.” She hugged herself and said,“God.” She was telling me that she knew that God loved her.  

You and I have been madly and passionately in love with someone. (Maybe we still are!) Hugging, kissing them and even just thinking of them brings a release of the hormone “oxytocin” that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and we feel exhilaration, euphoria and increased energy. That’s why oxytocin is often called “the love hormone,” and now recent studies have shown that expressing worship to God through singing also brings a divine injection of oxytocin in the brain. Worship songs declare our love for Him and while the “love hormone” fades for the humans we fall in love with, it never fades for the one true God we will love for ever! We worship Him because of who He is and what He has done for us and He then blesses us with our body’s own feel-good drug! 

There is growing scientific evidence showing that singing worship to God affects the entire body and mind and we see that every Wednesday at the assisted living facility. Do you ever feel depressed, distressed, anxious or angry? Get a mood boosting shot of oxytocin by singing your favorite praise songs or hymns and receive His peace that  surpasses all understanding. Worship brings healing to our mind and health to our body! Worship is the wonder drug that modern medical science has proven effective for the reduction of blood pressure, reduction of pain and anxiety and restoration of the mind. No prescription necessary!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Jesus: More Than a Facebook Friend

Dear Friends,

Years ago, a teenage girl named Marianne lived with her family in Sylmar and went to First Lutheran High School. Marianne was a very pretty girl, one of the most popular girls at First Lutheran and in her senior year was the head cheerleader. Her girlfriends were the most beautiful and popular girls in the school and were also on the cheerleader team. Marianne and her friends were the ones the popular boys wanted to date and these cheerleaders were the ones the not-so-popular boys could only dream about. The boys that were shy, nerdy and tongue-tied around girls, all knew the cheerleaders were way out of their league.

Damian* was one of those boys. He was a shy Mexican boy in a school that was still mostly white. The other kids teased him and called him a nerd. And then Damian became very sick and started missing school. Damian had leukemia – a very fast acting cancer of the blood cells. He started receiving chemo-therapy and First Lutheran sent one of the teachers to his home to help him study. His mother was a young single working parent and so Damian spent his days alone, sick in their apartment. That's when Marianne and her friends decided to visit him. One Saturday, they all showed up. Imagine Damian's surprise when the most beautiful and popular girls in his school came to see him. And as his cancer progressed, they visited him, played games with him and watched TV with him. They brought pizza and had pizza parties with him. A couple of times they spread their sleeping bags down in his living room and even had a sleep-over at his house. Damian had gone from the nerdy guy all the other guys had teased and made fun of, to having the most popular girls in school as his best friends. 

When Damian died, the entire school was shut down so that the faculty and students could go to his funeral at St Didacus Catholic Church here in Sylmar. I was there too. The first pew was filled with the teenage girls grieving over the loss of their best friend. Into Damian’s life at the end, these girls had brought great joy. Marianne and her friends lifted up his spirits and encouraged him. They gave him gifts and hugs and love. And at the same time, God was giving each girl the most precious gift of all. Their priority had been clothes and cute boys, but God was showing them what a sacrificial, other-centered friendship looked like. The girls now set their own lives aside and focused on making life better for Damian. They could have been spending time with any boy in school and they chose Damian. They had a choice of parties on a Saturday and they went to Damian's to watch movies and eat popcorn. At the end of Damian’s life, God him the best friends he could ever hope to have. And to these young teenage girls, God gave each one of them a best friend who would change their life forever. To God be the glory!

There are three kinds of friendships. There are friendships based on what the other person can do for us. We see that in business and politics where you are not my friend unless you can do something for me. The second kind of friendship is one that brings us pleasure. Those are not deep friendships. We just like being with that other person. We enjoy their company. The third kind of friendship is based on an unconditional love and a commitment to care for one another. We may have only one or two of these “best” friends and are blessed when we do. But the one true best friend we could ever have is Jesus. 

Jesus calls those who believe in Him and who follow His commandments His friends John 15:10-15 and we love to sing the hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The song  brings us consolation, comfort and encouragement. We sing that He’s a friend we can cast our sins and grief upon, and sing that it’s a privilege to carry everything to him in prayer. We love that Jesus calls us His friend. But can we honestly call Jesus our friend? For too many of us, if we treated any of our other friends like we treat Jesus, we'd have no friends at all. We spend time with Jesus for about an hour or so on a Sunday morning and ignore Him the rest of our week. Jesus wants us to come before Him and talk to Him through our prayers, but there are so many more important things for us to do. Jesus told us to love others like He does, and instead, we justify our reasons for hating others. Jesus treats us like He is our one true best friend forever, but are we treating Jesus more like a casual Facebook friend? Someone we know slightly, if at all?

A friend of Jesus will weep and pray with Him over a hungry child anywhere. A friend of Jesus will weep and pray with Him over those in Las Vegas. A friend of Jesus will weep and pray over those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico City and the surrounding towns. A friend of Jesus will weep over those in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico. A friend of Jesus will pray for the poor, the outcast, the addict, the homeless and the lost. Because what is important to our good Friend is important to us. And when we are truly following Jesus, we will be called to feed the hungry who will never know of our sacrifice to do so. We will be called to pray for those who will not thank us for our prayers. We will be called to care for the sick who will die anyway. And we will be called to forgive our enemies who will continue to hate us. That’s what the unconditional love of Jesus looks like. And as those young teenage girls learned two decades ago, following Jesus means setting yourself aside and loving and caring for others just as He does. And when we do that, that’s when Jesus tells us, “I’ll be your best friend forever!” John 15:12-14 Amen?

* Some names and details are changed to protect privacy

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Doc Luke ~ Physician to the Apostles

Dear Friends,

Dr. Luke is a mystery to us. He wrote the majority of the New Testament, but we know little about him other than that he was a physician, a ministry partner of Paul’s and was a diligent and detail-oriented researcher of the life of Jesus. He is the only Gentile author in our Bible and he writes in a very sophisticated style of Greek that would be expected of someone with great intelligence and education. We might think that a physician back in those days practiced a simple and rustic form of folk medicine but nothing could be further from the truth. Egyptian medical texts go back to 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. Broken bones were set. Wounds were cleaned and stitched. In 1700 B.C., surgeries were being performed on the eye, cancerous tumors were being removed and there is evidence of brain surgery where archaeologists determined that the patient recovered because of the growth of bone over the saw cuts! 

We marvel today at the advances of medical science in our lifetime, but the greatest increase in medical knowledge came about four hundred years before the birth of Christ when Hippocrates wrote the medical texts that Dr. Luke would have studied. Our Bible tells us that Luke accompanied Paul on his second and third missionary journeys with both of those together totaling 5,500 miles! During those long, hard journeys, Paul supported himself as a tentmaker and it would be reasonable to assume that Luke supported himself as a physician. If so, what medications would he have used in the treatment of his patients?

Plants were the main source of healing remedies and herbal medicines were used in Egypt as far back as 10,000 B.C. A papyrus from 1500 B.C. has been found that lists 900 medications for injuries and illnesses. By the time Dr. Luke studied medicine, there had been over 10,000 years of research! What are some of those healing medications? 

GARLIC was one of the wonder drugs and was prescribed for headaches and throat infections. A natural antibiotic, garlic was used for the treatment of infections, internal parasites and was used as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and joint pain. Today we know that “allicin” is a compound that naturally occurs in garlic and is what gives this pungent bulb its healing properties. Garlic tablets are taken today for the treatment of conditions related to the heart and blood system and lower blood pressure and cholesterol. 

CASSIA (Cinnamon) Psalms 45:8 was used in biblical days as a digestive aid and for toothaches. 5,000 years later, the U.S. National Library of Medicine tells us cinnamon can be used as a digestive aid to treat vomiting and diarrhea and also can be used to treat toothache! According to modern medical science, cinnamon may lower blood sugar in people with type one and type two diabetes and lab studies have found that cinnamon also reduces inflammation, has antioxidant effects, and fights bacteria. Dr. Luke didn’t have the studies we have today. He just knew that it worked!

ANISE and DILL are two of the earliest-known herbs of the ancient world and were included as ingredients in a mixture to relax muscles and relieve pain according to the papyrus from 1500 B.C. The beloved physician, Dr. Luke, might have used dill seeds steeped in hot milk to quiet the nerves and act as a muscle-relaxant. Dill seed is still used today as a muscle-relaxant and to relieve pain. Lab studies have found chemicals in anise that have estrogen-like effects and women today use it to relieve menstrual discomfort.

Now we get to my favorite spice. My Cowboy Pinto Beans are okay, but then when I add a teaspoon of CUMIN and a dash of Wright’s Liquid Smoke, people start to yodel like Gene Autry and dance the cowboy polka. Many of us use cumin in cooking but none of us have ever used it like the Old Testament Hebrews did. Following the ritual of male circumcision, cumin was used to stop the bleeding. Today, cumin is known as an anti-coagulant that could have actually increased the bleeding, and perhaps by the time Dr. Luke studied medicine, they were no longer using cumin for that purpose. We do know that Egyptian medical texts reveal considerable uses of cumin for stomach ailments, intestinal parasites, skin ailments and insect stings. Cumin has many anti-inflammatory properties and Dr. Luke would have most likely given it to patients for the same conditions and symptoms that you and I might relieve with an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Cumin is so effective at lowering your blood sugar that doctors today warn that taking cumin along with diabetes medications might cause your blood sugar to go too low.

I have a MINT plant by my front door and it’s hard for me to pass it by without taking a small leaf to chew on. Mint was cultivated in 1550 B.C. by the Egyptians for various ailments including the treatment of fever and for skin conditions. People are rediscovering today that mint has one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any food and is now known as a super-food. It’s used today for everything from relieving the symptoms of the common cold to pain relief for gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. And when Dr. Luke wanted to relax after a long hard day of evangelizing with that “Type A” guy, St. Paul the apostle, the Doc might have made up a nice relaxing, calming cup of mint tea. 

And now it’s nearing the day’s end on a Monday as I finish writing this week's AMEN Corner and the skies are becoming darkened. I think I’ll go now and gather a few mint leaves, put on the kettle and do the same...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How To Make Major Decisions

Dear Friends,

Jesse pointed out the wide scar on his throat. Still slightly red from the recent surgery, it was hidden in a natural skin fold and would soon completely disappear. He showed us how he could move his left arm and hand without any pain and we praised God and thanked Him that the surgery had been a complete success. It could have gone either way. Jesse is a Christian friend of ours who was strong and healthy except for a severely compressed nerve in the upper cervical area of his spine that caused pain to radiate into his shoulder and caused muscle weakness and numbness in his arm and hand. His doctor advised surgery but Jesse wasn’t sure it was the right thing for him to do. Surgeries involving the spine can cure and they can cripple, but the upper cervical area is even more critical – mistreatment or botched surgeries can even be fatal. These are never easy decisions and that’s why for several months we had been praying for God to give Jesse the discernment to make the right decision and He did. Now in the healing process, Jesse’s face was lit up in a huge smile as he waved his arm around. He owns an antique store in Ventura and last Friday, we stood with him in the middle of his store praising God and giving Him all the glory!

We make hundreds of decisions every day of our life. Go to the grocery store first or to the gas station. Once at the grocery store, everything we put in our cart is the result of a decision we just made. Every action we take results from a decision and we make these insignificant decisions easily and unconsciously. But in our lifetime, we have also made dozens of extremely difficult and critical decisions that affect our well-being, finances, health and future. Some are literally life and death decisions. Whether to carry that baby to full-term. Whether to have the surgery or the chemo. Some decisions affect our finances and quality of life: the jobs we take, the cities we move to, the houses we buy. And we have all made decisions about relationships. Dating. Marriage. Divorce. With every major decision, we look back and are grateful for the decision we made, or with regret, we wish we had done something differently.

How do you make major decisions? I’ve known those who flip a coin and let fate decide. But we “left-brained” logical types will intellectually examine the choices and make lists of pros and cons while we analyze the risk factors in the options before us. We more “right-brained” folks may just go with what feels like the right thing to do at the moment. But when faced with major decisions, we can’t trust our thoughts and feelings alone. One moment we want to say yes and in the next moment we say no. We may even become overwhelmed with indecision and stuck, unable to move in one direction or the other. Is there a better way?

Our Bible speaks of spiritual discernment in the context of knowing right from wrong and we use that discernment to determine God’s will for us and make the right choice. We start our process of discernment in prayer, and in some cases, prayer and fasting. We seek His help. “O LORD, come to my assistance, make haste to help me,” Psalm 70:1 D-R We ask God to give us the wisdom to make the right choice and the grace to carry it out. We know that God has already determined His will for us, and our prayers are that God would show us the pathway to take, but how do we “hear” His voice telling us which direction to go?

I have found it very beneficial to pray that God would lead me by giving me a peace about the direction He wants me to go in and a clear sense of discomfort about the direction He does not want for me. Here’s a recent example of what that looks like. We have our Wednesday services at Abbey Road Villa but there was another assisted living home in our area that expressed an interest in our holding church services at their facility on a Sunday. So I prayed about it. There are two options. We do it or we don’t. My petition to God was that He would give me a strong, discernable sense of peace about doing this service or a strong sense of discomfort and unease about doing this service. I prayed for many months about this and every time I thought about doing a new service there was a continuous sense of discomfort and unease. That had to be from God because a Sunday service was really what I thought I should do. I mean gosh, I’m a pastor! Church services on Sunday are what we do! But when I made the decision to not have a Sunday service at this new location, God immediately gave me the strong, discernable sense of peace that I had made the right decision. That’s how spiritual discernment works. 

After a period of prayerful discernment, we can make a tentative decision and then look for a confirming sign from God. It can come from/through another person, or in my example, the confirming sign was this overwhelming sense of peace that I had made the right decision. Your confirmation may be that your tentative decision brings great joy and the way forward is supernaturally easy. But if you are still feeling distress or if there is a struggle to implement the decision, you may need to rescind the decision and go back into the discernment process. Then when you know...

Make the decision!! Commit to it and don’t look back. If it was a good decision, praise God for that. If, in your human fallibility, you made a bad decision, rest in the knowledge that you made it in prayer and in good faith. Give yourself grace, move on to do something differently and may God be praised for being a God of second chances!  Amen?