Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Keeping Church "Real"

Dear Friends,

I don’t mean this to be a disparagement of the wonderful  denomination that ordained me; they listened to the church growth experts and tried their best. I’m going to call it the “3circle” denomination and many years ago, they sent me to a two week training program on church planting. We learned about niche marketing, branding, how to grow into a megachurch and what was stressed throughout was our  “authenticity.” The (then young) GenX demographic was the golden generation we needed to attract in order to save the church. GenX’ers detested church formality and  rituals and they demanded relevance. If any part of church did not meet their felt-needs, they discarded it as meaningless. Raised on cutting-edge technology and entertainment, they demanded theater-quality visual images, special effects and professional sounding praise bands. They demanded authenticity – meaning you needed to look, act, speak and smell “real” or you were deemed phony and fake. One session for us pastors was on how to dress and we heard that wearing Hawaiian shirts and Polo shirts said that you were “real and relevant.” A smart aleck asked the session leader how those could be considered “authentic” if you were not Hawaiian or a polo player and he told me that we needed to “create an impression of authenticity.” Oh. I see..

Back then, jeans that were “stonewashed” to fake a worn look were the rage among pastors in order to “keep it real.” Today, in order to relate and be “real” to the Millennial Generation, pastors have gone from casual to scruffy and some urban pastors now wear store-bought torn jeans in order to fake an authentic appearance. In a local 3circle church, a 50+ year old pastor learned from the church growth experts and stalks around a stark, dark, stage-setting in old jeans and a scruffy tee shirt with his face eerily lit up from an iPad that has his Bible app. That’s because we 3circle pastors were encouraged to leave that old-fashioned book we call the “Bible” on the bookshelf and project the sermon verses on a screen. 

I was in a service once when the 3circle guest pastor, an older woman who had thoughtfully reinvented herself to be “cutting-edge,” came on the platform in her spandex jeans and set up a laptop on the podium to read her sermon. Because of her height, we just barely saw the top of her head over the laptop screen and only heard her disembodied voice. I was distracted throughout her sermon and trying hard not to laugh because I kept thinking of the wizard in the movie the “Wizard of Oz.” I was waiting for the little dog “Toto” to pull over the podium and hear her say, “Pay no attention to the woman behind that screen!” 

Okay.. Maybe I’m just an old Curmudgeon Clergyman, but we don’t need elaborate stage sets and performance hype to sell the Son of God. Jesus Christ was “cutting edge” 2,000 years ago and He still is today. He is all we need.

And I am thankful that God has taken NHFC into the most authentic and relevant ministry than I ever thought was possible. This is a ministry that initially was exceptionally challenging for me. Bordering on terrifying. I’m not kidding. Nothing in my ministry experience prepared me for this. During those denominational training programs, I can’t remember a single seminar session on what to do when a member of your congregation has an involuntary bowel movement in the middle of the worship songs. Nothing prepared me for the woman, locked into her dementia, fighting her demons and uttering the foulest of filthy obscenities during Holy Communion. The 3circle Ministry Manual gives no advice on what to do when the blind and deaf woman walks up to you during your sermon and tries to use her walker to push you out of her way. When another woman told me she was Jesus Christ and sent by President Obama to help me conduct the Wednesday service, I can’t remember that being covered in my Bible College class on “Building Your Ministry Team.” But thanks to God, I’ve now finally learned what authentic and relevant ministry is. 

To be “authentic,” some large churches create realistic, urban street scenes on their stage and project scripture “graffiti” on the back walls in order to be “gritty and real.” But nothing created by a megachurch set designer quite says “gritty and real” like a fresh pool of urine on the church floor.  I have now come to love “real.” I recently told someone that if God were to give me a choice between being a megachurch pastor or a pastor in assisted living facilities, I’d choose the latter in a heartbeat.

The residents no longer drive and some leave the facility only in an ambulance to go to the hospital. 60% of all people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities have no one who visits them. Ever. After 1½ years of ministry to them, many still thank us with tears in their eyes at the end of each service for bringing church to them. Family, friends and even their old church assured them that they would visit regularly and they didn’t. But they know they can count on us to be there for them. They are all at the point in their lives when death is approaching and they need the comfort, strength and assurance of their salvation from the Lord. They are not interested in a polished church performance. To them, “relevance” is the Nicene Creed. They need the plain and simple Gospel message. They need to raise their voices and sing the hymns “Blessed Assurance,” “It Is Well With My Soul,” “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” They need words of encouragement from scripture...the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist...the touch of a hand holding their’s when we pray for them. We bring “New Hope” every Wednesday and I now know what an authentic, genuine church really does look like. It’s truly the most beautiful thing you will ever see. Amen?

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Are You a Type "C" Personality?

Dear Friends,

God told me I needed to change my personality. I knew He was right and that it would be welcome news to everyone who knew me, but just how do you do that? Was God asking me to do the impossible? How do you change something that is so intrinsic to your very existence? Something that’s so ingrained, it defines who you are? I can change my outside appearance. That’s easy. I can change my hairstyle, shave off the beard, lose weight, get a tan and a whole new wardrobe and I would look different. People would mistake me for George Clooney and yet being a celebrity look-a-like would undoubtedly add a whole ‘nother layer of stress onto my life. But God didn’t want to change what I looked like, He wanted to change what I am. He wanted to roll up His sleeves and do some invasive spiritual surgery.

Back in the days before my retirement when I was a productive member of society, I would too often blast into work in the morning with an explosion of my type “A” personality. In the 1950's, two cardiologists developed a theory that there are two personality types which impact cardiovascular health. Type “A” are hard-driving, competitive, “short-fused,” impatient and intense. Type “B” are relaxed, easy-going, kick-back with low motivation and a focus not on achievements but on enjoying life. I soon realized that whenever people complained about me it was always about one of the classic characteristics of the type “A” personality. And when God me that I needed to change my personality, He told me I needed to have a type “C” personality and I knew in an instant what “C” meant. God wanted me to have a Christ-like personality.
Okay. But can I really change my personality? The obvious answer is yes I can do that because God would never tell me to do something that can’t be done. But I can’t do that on my own. Some of us try hard to change on our own in order to do “better,” and we find ourselves fighting helplessly against the power that binds us to sin. Romans 7:23-24 NLT Struggling with thoughts, behaviors, the things we say, the things we do. Struggling to change. Or we’ve become tired of the struggle and just gave up. Maybe we even created good excuses for our self. Too tired. Too old. Too set in our ways. Too stuck. But here’s a Kingdom Principle: if you ain’t dead, you ain’t done. If you ain’t dead that means only one thing. It means that God is not finished with you on Earth. When God’s finished with you here, He’s going to take you to heaven. But if you’re still on “this side of the dirt,” you’re not done! You are still His work in progress and you can change. But if that’s indeed true, why does changing ourselves just seem so difficult? Let’s take a closer look at this...

Sometimes a desire to change something about ourselves comes from our own self-examination. We look into our lives to see where we have fallen short and what we need to do better. Psychologists help us to determine what is working and tell us to do more of that. They also help us to understand what is not working well so that we can stop doing that. If we could exert the willpower to follow that advice, we would find that this therapeutic principle is the secret to sound mental health. But while therapists and self-help programs can help us to manage our behavior, they can’t bring about an intrinsic change at the spiritual level. For example, AA acknowledges that an alcoholic can change their behavior and stop drinking but they will always be an “alcoholic.” No therapist or program can effect true change at the intrinsic level of our being. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.

True, permanent and lasting change can only happen through the power of God and in the presence of God. He is not a long-distance God. God is not like the technical support person on the other side of the world in India helping you with that virus infecting your computer. God will be right beside you, helping you with that spiritual virus infecting your soul. But you need to come into His presence and what I mean by that is that you need to open yourself and invite Him in. That’s because God will not go where He is not wanted. 

So if you need God to do some spiritual surgery in your life, Step One is to invite God to rule and reign over your life. Some of you haven’t done that yet because you like to be the one in control. That’s fine and the choice is your’s. You can control your life or submit to God and let Him control it, but it’s “either/or.” Either you or God  will control your life and He always lets you make that choice. Step Two is to prayerfully invite the Holy Spirit to fill you with the presence of God because it is only in His presence that He forms us, transforms us and conforms us into the image and likeness of His Son Jesus.

During this season of Lent there may be some things that God wants to do in your life. Perhaps He wants you to have a Type “C” personality. If so, that could require some changes He wants to make. Some refinements He wants to do. In fact, it may be that God’s been wanting to get His hands on you for sometime now and you’ve been moving through life doing it your way and just staying out of His reach. But when you come into His presence, that’s right where He wants you. During this time of Lent, come close and spend some time with God. He’s not done with you. He’s still got great plans for you! Amen?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Thin Places

Dear Friends,

It’s the 200 year old church sanctuary at Mission La Purisima.. In the high desert, it’s the holy grounds at the Benedictine Monastery, Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo.. It’s the sacred gardens at Santa Ynez Mission where we always take Holy Communion..These are my “thin places.”
In Celtic Christianity, thin places are those physical locations where God’s presence is more accessible than elsewhere. The Celts were keenly aware of the Cross over all of God’s Creation and were very much aware of their physical surroundings. The Celtic Saint Patrick prayed as he walked, “Christ beside me, before me, behind me, around me, within me.. everywhere.” The sacred and holy places spoken of by the Celtic Christians were where the line between Heaven and Earth was “tissue-paper thin.” Where the Holy Spirit of God seemed as near as one’s own breath. These are the thin places. Places that take us effortlessly into God’s presence and invite transformation in us. Places where we sense the nearness of Him and the life-changing reality of His mercy and grace. These sanctified thin places are the places that we step into and come “face-to-face” with God. 

I love walking along the shoreline next to the ocean. The cyclical tides remind me of the rhythm of our days – the rhythm of our lives. As with our life, there are times of sunny calmness with warm, gentle waves and times when fierce storms pound the shores with unrelenting waves of fury and life-threatening danger. At the ocean’s edge, I am reminded of God’s sovereignty and providence. It’s a place where I always come away refreshed and restored. But it’s not one of my “thin” places.

Like the beach for me, there are many places we enjoy going to that make us happy, thoughtful, relaxed and filled with a sense of peace and well-being. But then there are those inimitable places where we feel a mysteriously deep connection with God that just about takes our breath away at the intensity of the experience. Places where He is just one step away and we are overwhelmed by His presence. Those are the thin places. 

While the term “thin places” does not occur in scripture, we find Jesus frequently withdrawing to a place where He can come “face-to-face” with God. Leaving behind the distraction of places crowded with people, Jesus Christ withdrew to those places nearest to God. Like you and I can, Jesus could stop what He was doing at anytime to speak to the Heavenly Father, but to more fully come into His presence, Jesus went to the thin places.

He started His earthly ministry by going to the wilderness–the desert. Luke 4:1-2 Jesus went to the mountaintop to choose His disciples. Luke 6:12 When John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus went to a thin place for reflection and prayer, Matthew 14:13 and later that day went back to the mountaintop to pray. Matthew 14:23 Jesus started His days in silence and solitude at a thin place where He could come fully into God’s presence. Mark 1:35

This Lenten season comes at the perfect time for us. Many have become engrossed in what they feel to be either a terrific or a terrifying transition of political power in our country today. But when we respond with joy or outrage to every story of protest in the streets, or news from the White House, we may find that the emotional intensity is taking a toll on our mental health. Lent is the perfect time to cast aside these things of the world and give ourself a spiritual timeout. One of the things many people are giving up this year for Lent is reading/watching media news. Maybe we all should. Lent is when we step away from the chaos and clamor of life and into the quiet. Lord, let us turn down the volume of our cluttered thoughts and come into Your peace.

During Lent, we need to find those sacred spaces where the noise in our head quiets and we come into His presence. These are the “ordinary” sacred spaces that you can easily get to. Maybe your backyard or a quiet room in the house is your sanctuary. Maybe it’s the early morning walk where you rejoice in God’s Creation. God is always present in our lives but it’s in the sacred spaces that the din of life recedes and you may hear the small, quiet voice of God. Yet, there is a distinction between the sacred spaces and the thin places.

Thin places are those holy places which have been sanctified and saturated in prayer for centuries. Places where the intake of our breath inhales the Holy Spirit. Places so close to God that we tremble with fear to reach out and touch Him but where He will always reach out and touch us. Whether it’s a mountain top, a monastery garden or an ancient mission church, let’s each one of us find our own thin place. Then go there often. Amen?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Where Are Your Red Dots?

Dear Friends,

We are hunters and gatherers. Ever since Adam and Eve foraged in the Garden, we have been on the hunt. It’s in our DNA – what we’re wired to do. Friday is the day my favorite girl and I go hunting.

We pause outside and look at each other one last time. She will go her way and I mine – we are after different prey. We anticipate the next moments and adrenaline courses through our bloodstream. There is a surge of synaptic brain activity. Senses are sharpened. As we enter, a tinkling bell over the door signals our arrival and the hunt is on. She moves quickly to the left. She’s incredible. A glance at an article of clothing and within a second she can determine and evaluate the brand name, size, color, style, cost and how it will look on her. I move to the right. I’m hunting for hardcover books and within minutes I’ve captured two for me and three for her. Nearly new. Read maybe once. Original cost is $26.95 apiece but now they’re only a dollar. 

She catches my eye and holds up a red jacket with western embroidery. It’s a Scully – a high-end brand of western clothing. Not a brand you wear when you grab the reins and step into the saddle. Scully outfits are worn when you grab your guitar and step up on stage. Original cost was well over $200. It looks brand new. Never worn. Price tag says $15 and she tries it on. Perfect fit. Too good a deal to pass up! We take our plunder to the cash register. The lady looks at the tag on the Scully and tells us that green tagged items are the daily special. The jacket is only 99 cents. YES!!

She and I are far too mature and cool to be doing a happy dance on the way to the car, but we are both very excited. This has been one awesome hunting trip. We’ve just bought approximately $285 of almost brand-new merchandise for six bucks. I guess that’s why they call them “thrift” stores.

The thrift stores we like to go to are the ones run by churches, parachurch organizations and those with a mission to help disadvantaged children. Our favorite thrift store, the “Bargain Box” in Ventura generates about $200,000 a year for at-risk children and those with special needs. That’s why every year we love to take boxes of clothing, books, household items, even collectibles, crystal and furniture to this thrift store. Some “thrift stores” are actually just second-hand stores but when you donate to and purchase from thrift stores operated by non-profit organizations, you are actively participating in their ministry and mission to help others.  

Many of us are familiar with the St Vincent de Paul Thrift Stores. These are run by a world-wide Christian organization dedicated to providing assistance for the needy. Income from their thrift stores provides the funding for food programs, job training, disaster relief, shelter for the abused, youth programs, prison ministries and indigent burials.

Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 into a peasant family in a small village in France. As a young priest, he was sent to Paris to minister to the wealthy and instead came face to face with French peasants living in squalor and misery. From this point, God changed the direction of his life. He enlisted others in helping orphans, the sick, and the hungry and a religious order was formed that became the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

On a wall in a mission chapel founded by Vincent is a map of the city of Paris. Small red dots cover the entire map. Each dot marks a place that was touched by the humble priest during his life. An orphanage founded. Starving people fed. The sick healed. People helped. A sermon preached to those hungry for the Word of God. Each dot representing the fruit of his ministry. Vincent believed in the priority of action – in spreading the Kingdom of God into where God had placed him. Not just preaching about God’s love. Showing people what God’s love looks like.

The Gospel calls us to a life of love. Love for God. Love for others. The season of Lent is a time of self-reflection as we await in semidarkness for the glory of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Take a moment and reflect upon your life. What does your map look like? Do you have a bunch of red dots scattered all over and filling the map of your own lifetime? Do you have dots showing where you have made a difference in the lives of others? Where God’s love has been manifested through you? Where you have helped others? Where you have reached out and touched someone with the Kingdom of God? Do you have red dots spread all over your map showing your kind deeds, gentle words and loving actions? What does the map of your life look like...?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Is It Okay To Eat Alligator For Lent?

Dear Friends,

The headline said: U.S. CATHOLICS FREE TO EAT ALLIGATOR THIS LENT and I immediately thought of Sandi. My brother had been dating her for a little while and we invited them both to dinner. We wanted to get to know her, but perhaps more importantly, we wanted Sandi to see what an awesome family her new boyfriend had.

And I was excited. I had gone to a butcher’s shop to buy some steaks to barbecue and was pleased to find they had some fresh alligator meat. I'd never seen that in a store, and wanting to make a good impression on our dinner guests, I bought four pounds. We thought how much fun it would be if we didn’t tell them what it was until after dinner!

It was delicious grilled. It had the firmness of grilled swordfish and a delicate taste. I made a light cream sauce with a Cognac reduction and a hint of capers that added nicely to the gourmet ‘gator. Sandi loved it and so I proudly told her what it was.

She said nothing. Actually, I don't seem to remember her speaking at all the rest of the evening. In fact, for many years after that gourmet dinner at our house, she avoided my brother’s awesome family and refused to speak with us. We later found out that soon after the dinner with us, she decided to become a vegan.

This article about Lent appeared in the Catholic Herald and stated that a debate had raged on about the appropriateness of eating alligator on a Friday when Catholic doctrine requires a fast from meat on all Fridays during the season of Lent. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops released the statement that "Abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from birds, chickens, cows, goats, sheep or pigs.” But, “salt and freshwater species of fish, amphibians, reptiles (cold-blooded animals) and shellfish are permitted.” So it's okay for Catholics to consume alligators, crocodiles, frogs, turtles, snakes, and lizards on the Fridays during Lent. The good news of course for those of us who are Protestants is that we are not bound by Catholic Abstinence Laws and we can eat both meat and alligators on these Lenten Fridays...

I share this appetizing story to show how we can all so easily confuse our faith with our religious practices. We can so easily make our spirituality  about the right way to perform a ritual when our righteousness is found in Christ Jesus alone. Today (Wednesday, March 1st) is the first day of Lent and during this Lenten season, our sole focus needs to be on our Heavenly Father. Nitpicking details of what and how to appropriately participate in Lent are no more helpful to our spirituality than the rabbinic laws of the Orthodox Jews would be. In fact, you might remember there was One born 2000 years ago who, among other accomplishments with His birth, life and resurrection, has freed us from religious and dietary laws. Acts 10:9-16   Romans 10:4   Galatians 3:23-25

If we give up something for Lent and that fast doesn’t bring us closer to God then we’ve simply engaged in a legalistic exercise of spiritual futility. We take great pride in giving up chocolate and ice cream while we continue in our constant, unrepentant sins of gossip, negativity, judgmental condemnation of others, anger, unforgiveness and (insert your sin here: ______________) that creates distance between us and God.

Giving up meat for Lent may help your cholesterol by reducing saturated fats in your diet, but merely fasting on foods won’t help an impoverished soul. If you long for more God in your life, take some prayer time and ask Him to show you the sin that most interferes with your spiritual life. Then test it. Make that your Lenten “fast” this year. Temporarily give up that sin to see if doing so brings you closer to God. Then when Lent is over, on Easter Sunday, you can make the choice to take back the sin and please the devil. Or permanently delete it from your life and please your Heavenly Father. Amen?


If I whetted your appetite with this week's AMEN Corner,
here's my recipe for Crocodile Stroganoff you can try...

1. In large pot, bring salted water to boil for Pasta
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
12 ounces Mushrooms – stems removed and sliced
¾ pound Crocodile or Chicken Breasts* – cut into 1½ x ½ x ½ inch strips
½ cup Beef Broth
1 tablespoon unsalted Butter
1 small Onion – minced
1 tablespoon BBQ Sauce**
1 ½ teaspoons Brown Sugar
3 tablespoons Flour
½ cup Chicken Broth
½ cup Dry White Wine
⅓ cup Sour Cream
1½ teaspoon Cajun Seasoning 
Kosher Salt to taste
8 ounces Egg Noodles – add Pasta to water in Step 5 below.

1. Heat 1 tablespoon EVOO in straight sided skillet.
2. Saute Mushrooms about 4 minutes and transfer to bowl.
3. Add more EVOO and saute meat 3-4 minutes. Transfer to bowl.
4. Deglaze pan with Beef Broth, reduce to ¼ cup. Transfer to bowl.
5. Place Pasta in uncovered boiling water. Cook for 10-12 min.
6. While Pasta is cooking, melt Butter in now empty skillet.
7. Add Onions, BBQ Sauce and Brown Sugar. Cook about 6 min.
8. Stir in Flour, cook 1 min then whisk in Chicken Broth and White Wine.
9. Simmer until thickened about 2-3 minutes.
10. Stir in Cajun Seasoning.  
11. Add Kosher Salt to taste.
12. Temper Sour Cream with ⅓ cup of hot liquid from skillet.
13. Whisk Sour Cream into skillet.  
14. Add mushroom/meat mixture to skillet and simmer for 1 minute.
15. Spoon over drained and buttered Pasta in bowels.

Ingredient Notes
* Both Crocodile and Chicken work equally well in this Stroganoff. Use whichever is more readily available at your local grocery store.
** BBQ Sauce gives it a unique smokey flavor but Tomato Paste or Ketchup can be substituted.