Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Baptism of Richard Trussell

Dear Friends,

Today’s AMEN Corner is co-written with a friend of mine, Pastor Sam Platts. In 1975, Pastor Sam came to Lutheran Church of the Master in Sylmar. This small church of 30 became Church of the Foothills and blossomed into a spiritually healthy church of 250 through the ministry of Pastor Sam and the grace of God. Pastor Sam has many wonderful stories of how God moved in that Lutheran congregation and this is one of them...

WOMAN GIVES BIRTH TO CHILD WITH TWO HEADS! Or so the headline of the National Enquirer screamed, and reading the so-called news article proved the whole story implausible. But fictional stories are what sell that rag and so I bought the paper. I wanted to see what they wrote about, how they attracted attention. How could I publicize our little church, Lutheran Church of the Master? So we decided to follow their example. We wrote up an Enquirer-style newspaper with pictures and cartoons and a bold headline saying, THE INFANT JESUS WAS A GIRL!, which happened to be true at the Christmas Eve pageant in our church. Ten thousand copies of the paper were printed, and using a reverse phone directory, our members hand-addressed all of them to every house in Sylmar. We had a bulk mailing permit and sent them out. Nothing much happened at first.

Richard Trussell had been raised in a Southern Baptist church in Colorado. He was in High School when his parents were divorced. He felt that the way the congregation treated his mother was absolutely shameful. He said that if this was Christianity, he wanted none of it. Richard became a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He still had religious feelings and curiosity, but had no respect for Christianity. He met a wonderful woman with whom he fell in love. Her only bad quality was that she was a Christian! He studied the great eastern religions under the guidance of an Indian who was a Jesuit priest, Dr. Raimundo Panikkar. One day when Richard was sounding off on the stupidity of Christianity, Dr. Panikkar said, “Richard you know a lot about eastern religions, but you really don't know anything about Christianity besides what you learned as a teenager in a little Baptist church in Colorado.”

Richard took him up on his challenge and decided to study Christianity. Eventually he came to the conclusion that there may be something to it in theory, but in practice? Then came the day that he reached into his mailbox and out came our Enquirer-style newspaper. Richard and Nancy showed up on Palm Sunday. The congregation was outdoors waving palm fronds. A donkey was carrying children down the path from the field. Richard and Nancy were dumbfounded. “Ohh! What kind of strange religion is this?” They liked it immediately. They became regular in attendance, became close to many people in the congregation and decided that they should become members.

Although Nancy was a Christian, she had never been Baptized and Richard assumed that he had also never been Baptized. A Sunday was set aside for their Baptisms. On that morning, Richard came into my office with a strange look on his face. “I can't be Baptized,” he said as he showed me a letter from his mother. He had been baptized at age of eleven in the Baptist church, but along with his mother's letter were two Baptismal Certificates! One from the Baptist church and another from a Lutheran church. In Richard’s own words, “To my great surprise I received two certificates. I discovered that I had been Baptized as an infant in a Lutheran Church. I realized that all my spiritual searching brought me to where it first began. Home at last!” Richard had been a Baptized Lutheran all along! Our Lord had chosen him long ago. Richard was called to ministry and he studied at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley. Richard was ordained and called to a pastorate in Dublin, California. Today he is a beloved professor at Pike’s Peak Community College in Colorado.
So many of us have been there. Lost. Searching. Doubting. Uncertain about our future. Maybe even angry and unsure about the reality of God in the dysfunction we see around us. But He’s there. He’s there with us in our searching, doubting and uncertainties. With us in our anger and sorrows. He’s always been there. Always will be. He created us. Handcrafted us in fact, right there in our mother’s womb. He knew each and everyone of the days of our life before they ever came to pass. Psalm 139:13-16 NLT What took place yesterday didn’t surprise Him and, as we have often said, He is waiting for you in your tomorrows. And so we smile at Richard’s story because we so clearly see the providence of God as He guided this young man’s spiritual journey. And yet, sometimes in our own struggles, we are unable to see as clearly the guiding hand of God on our life! But God has plans and purposes for each one of us. Jeremiah 29:11 No matter where we find ourselves today.. No matter what our age, situation or circumstance.. No matter which season of our life we are in.. God is with you on your life journey and we must trust in Him to take us into our future filled with hope. “I will say of the LORD, ‘He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust.’” Psalm 91:2  Amen?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

More Than a Memory

Dear Friends,

She came into the Wednesday service and sat by herself in the corner. I’d not seen her before and went over to talk with her after the service. Janelle told me that she had come to the Abbey Road Villa assisted-living home just a few days before and said how happy she was that she found a church here. Then she lowed her voice and confessed to this Protestant pastor, “But I’m Catholic.” I assured her that she was in good company because about three-quarters of those who attend our church service are Catholic. I also told her that our Holy Communion service was on the first Wednesday of every month and her eyes brimmed with tears. She said what she missed most about her church was no longer being able to receive Communion. I told her that I was born and raised Episcopalian and could understand how she felt about the Eucharist. 

At Abbey Road Villa, I was challenged with the concept of a Eucharistic service in an ecumenical setting. Scattered among the Roman Catholics and Armenian Orthodox are the Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists and a Pentecostal or two. Because of our diversity, I don’t teach a Communion doctrine other than to acknowledge that we believe the actual presence of Jesus. We impart this belief, not with didactic teachings, but with the reverence of our liturgy. How we take Communion often says more about our theology than the teachings of our doctrine. 

I used to occasionally receive Communion at a Lutheran church that believes in the actual presence of Jesus Christ in the elements of the bread and wine. The people reverently knelt at the altar rail as the organist quietly played Bach melodies in the background. Many crossed themselves as they received the Body and Blood of Jesus. It was a deeply personal, Spirit-filled sacred moment that would evoke strong feelings of Communion with Jesus. At another church across the Valley, in the same denomination with the same doctrine of the actual presence of Jesus Christ, the congregation stands in a circle with people talking and joking with their neighbor. They’ve just finished greeting each other during the “passing of the peace” and murmured conversations continue as they line up to receive Communion. Elvis gospel songs blare from the speakers; some people sing and some even dance to the music of the “King of Rock ‘n Roll.” The priest sometimes has to interrupt a conversation to hand them the bread – the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ. While the words spoken in the Eucharistic liturgy were the same in both churches, one conveyed to me a liturgical atmosphere rich with reverence and awe while the other conveyed a nice time of fellowship with good friends. 

In another church I attended, Communion was a monthly perfunctory ritual at the end of the service that was over and done with so quickly that one moment you were chewing through a stale piece of matzo cracker, and in the next moment, you were standing outside chatting with friends and eating a sugar-glazed donut. Oh wait.. That was the church where I was the pastor. 

In the early days of NHFC, we believed and taught the traditional Memorialism doctrine that Communion is a reeenactment which reminds us of the event that we call the “last supper.” Like a champagne toast at an anniversary party, we raised our plastic cup of grape juice and drank to the memory of Jesus. The problem was when the Word of God got in the way of our Baptist/Calvinistic/Pentecostal understanding of the Eucharist. What a doctrinal bummer it is when the Bible conflicts with what you’ve been taught, believed and practiced! But really... Could Jesus have made it any clearer when He said, “..I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you cannot have eternal life within you. But anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise that person at the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him.” John 6:53-57 NLT We then read that many of the followers of Jesus left in disgust and we note that Jesus didn’t say, “Hey wait a minute guys! I was only speaking symbolically!” Instead, we read the words of Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed as he broke the bread and gave it to His disciples saying, This is my Body” and then He lifted up the cup of wine and said, This is My Blood.”

At New Hope Family Church we believe that the consecrated bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ because Jesus taught it, the apostles taught it and the early disciples believed it. The Apostle Paul said, “So anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the Body and Blood of the Lord. For if you eat the bread or drink the cup without honoring the body of Christ, you are eating and drinking God's judgment upon yourself.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 NLT If the early disciples were eating only bread and drinking wine as a thoughtful ritualistic gesture to remember Jesus, this instruction from Paul would make no sense. But Paul teaches that this was the Body and Blood of the Lord and therefore if you take the Communion elements casually or as a perfunctorily ritual, you dishonor God and you will receive His judgement for doing so. That’s why we need to make sure that our familiarity with the ritual doesn’t foster an informality that erodes our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus. That’s why we must have the utmost respect and reverence for the precious gift of His Body and Blood. We must never take for granted those things that should be sacred. 

Like my new Abbey Road friend, Janelle, I too hunger and thirst for the Eucharist and miss it when I go too long without it. For it is when we come to the Lord’s Table, we offer ourselves anew to the Savior and receive His sacramental nourishment for our journey through life. Amen?

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Finding Perfect Love

Dear Friends,

Whenever I think of the most romantic day of the year –Valentine’s Day– I often think of Wanda. No. Not like that. But many decades ago, I dated a woman named Lynn who came into my life along with two preteen daughters, a bad-tempered cat and Lynn’s high-maintenance, best friend, Wanda. 

Wanda could have been her own reality show. Her life was filled with drama, pathos and all-too-frequent crises. She had found the man of her dreams at the firm where she worked as a legal secretary. Todd was a very handsome, wealthy attorney who drove a Ferrari and took Wanda to the best Beverly Hills restaurants. And now for months, all she could talk about was Valentine’s Day. That was their one year dating anniversary and Wanda just knew deep within her heart that Todd was going to propose that Valentine night. 

She begin to obsessively read bridal magazines and sent away for travel brochures to plan their honeymoon. Every time they passed a jewelry store, she dropped coy hints by pointing out the rings she liked best. Two weeks before the big day, she and Lynn went shopping to buy Wanda a new dress for her special night with Todd. On Valentine’s Day, Wanda called in sick to work so that she could get her hair done. She was so nervous she hadn’t eaten or slept well for days. From when she was a little girl, she had fantasied about marrying a handsome, powerful, wealthy man and living happily ever-after. That dream was about to come true! 

Todd took her to an exquisite, romantic restaurant. They came back to her place. Todd shyly reached behind the front seat to retrieve a package. Once inside, Wanda begin to tremble with anticipation. At first she was a little confused because it was an awfully large box for an engagement ring but it was wrapped in red paper with embossed gold hearts. Her heart pounding, the words “Yes of course I’ll marry you!! were ready to burst from her lips! She eagerly tore off the paper... and burst into tears. 

Todd had given her a Waterpik ® (recommended for the removal of bacteria deep between teeth and below the gumline for improved oral hygiene).

That funny, sad, true story illustrates the problem with romantic love – it always involves two imperfect people who excite each other one moment and exasperate each other the next. We’ve loved and been loved. We’ve watched our love soar to romantic heights and crash back down after colliding with the realities of life. We flawed humans have a great capacity for the humiliation, hurt, insensitivity, anger and betrayal that we have done unto others, as they have done unto us.

While our natural human love for each other is blemished and imperfect, God’s love is righteous, holy and perfect. That’s why Jesus told us that we are to love others as He loves us. Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you... You have been taught by God to love one another... And now abide faith, hope, love, these three but the greatest of these is love... Be affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another... Be an example in word, conduct, love, spirit, truth, in purity... My little children, let us not (just) love in our words, but in our deeds and in truth... Above all things have fervent love for one another, for love will cover a multitude of sins.” 
John 15:12   1 Thess 4:9   1 Cor 13:13; 
Rom 12:10;   1 Tim 4:12;   1John 3:18;   1 Pet 4:8.

God and His perfect love are with you and in you this Valentine’s Day and every day. Allow yourself to be filled with His love and then let God’s love flow through you to those that He has brought into your life – those who have been given to you and to whom you have been given. “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God..” 1 John 4:7 Begin with those who are the most difficult to love and forgive them their human imperfections as you pray they will forgive yours. And, then on Valentine’s Day and every day, just love ‘em like Jesus.  Amen?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Immigration? What Would Jesus Do...

Dear Friends,

A family member once asked me one of those truly great questions so complex and confounding that it forces you to wrestle with it for a spell until you are comfortable articulating your thoughts.

On the issue of illegal immigrants, she wrote, I “..would like your opinion as a Christian and as a law abiding citizen (which comes first??)” She then wrote, “Some Christians say, "what would Jesus do"? How far are we supposed to extend our freedoms to those less fortunate??”

In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a law-abiding, red-blooded American Conservative Republican who went door-to-door with my father to campaign for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Our house in West Hollywood was the only one in the neighborhood with the American Flag on a 20' flagpole. And today, I’m also a born-again, Bible-thumping, washed-in-the-blood, Spirit-filled, unabashed and unashamed follower of Jesus Christ. 

So what I loved most about her email was her asking me, “..which comes first??” Because that answer determines my thoughts, not just on immigration, but on everything that America struggles with today. What does come first? Do we look at politics through our faith based on God’s word in the Bible? Or do we read and interpret our Bible through the filter of our ingrained political beliefs?

Exegesis is the rendering of scripture to determine the original meaning of what the writer intended to say. When looking at Old Testament scriptures regarding “foreigners,” “strangers” and “sojourners” we need to do our exegesis to understand the practices in Biblical times before we can even attempt to extrapolate those Godly principles that we can apply to America today.

We flag-waving Conservatives enthusiastically point to passages of scripture that refer to foreigners. Anyone from outside the nation of Israel was inferior and possessed restricted rights. There was legislation concerning their limited rights in both civil and financial matters. Deut 15:3 Deut 23:20 They could not eat the Passover Exodus 12:43 intermarry Exodus 34:12-16 become king Deut 17:15 or even enter the Temple. Ezekiel 44:9 In the New Testament, we read that the very presence of foreign Greeks (meaning the Gentile, non-Jews) in the Temple defiled the holy place. Acts 21:27-28 

It’s easy for some to cry “Yes and Amen” and use those verses to show that we need strong regulations to limit the rights of immigrants today. But then we remember that we too are “Gentiles,” and according to these scriptures, that would have placed us in the category of the inferior foreigner. And, of course that puts a little different spin on things here...

We love to quote Jesus summing up Old Testament law in what we call the two great commandments: “Love God with all your heart... and love your neighbor as yourself.” But Jesus quoted the “loving your neighbor” part from Leviticus 19:18 and in verses 33-34 we read: “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34 And in the New Testament we read that we are to welcome strangers as if they were Jesus. Matthew 25:31-46 

Those are the verses that tell us how to welcome and treat the foreigners in our country. But it would be a mistake to also use those verses to justify that all immigrants should receive the full benefits of the American citizen.The foreigners needed to assimilate into the Hebrew religion and culture before they could receive all the blessings and benefits of an Israelite citizen. Only by obeying and accepting the law and becoming “Israelites,” could the foreigners be included in the nation. Only when they were willing to give up all ties to their mother country and learn the traditions, the language, laws and customs of Israel, could the male immigrant be circumcised into the nation of Israel and bring the rest of his family with him.

And while we may not want to require the ritual act of circumcision as a prerequisite for citizenship in America, it is required that everyone living here obey our Nation’s laws and, if they want the benefits of citizenship, they must take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Immigration has always been a controversial issue. God rebuked the Hebrews for their hostility towards foreigners and He may not be happy with the way some of us Christians are responding to the issue of immigration today. That’s why, as our government decides what to do with immigrants, I’m just going to love them like Jesus. Yes, I am a flag-waving American. But above the flag, there’s a cross.  Amen?