Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Sin Busters

Dear Friends,

It was early one Monday morning. I was writing an Amen Corner when I heard a muffled explosion come from somewhere within my house. Odd. Not like anything I'd heard before. This was back in the days when I didn’t have a cat and so that ruled out feline terrorist activity. A cursory security check of the interior of my house revealed nothing. But later on when I went into my pantry, it looked like a scene from the old Ghostbusters movie. Sticky black and brown tendrils of slime dripped from the ceiling. The gross and gooey ectoplasm-like substance had splattered on canned goods and was running off shelves. But before I could call an exorcist, I discovered what happened.

I found this can on a back shelf with its pull-tab lid blown open. (See Evidence Photo) The label said Dole Pineapple Chunks and what remained inside were gooey black globs of what had once been pineapple. During the forensic investigation with a magnifying glass, pinholes were found in the bottom of the can. Apparently, the highly acidic fruit dissolved the lining of the can and created tiny holes that allowed airborne bacteria to enter. This caused the fruit to decompose which increased the internal pressure and Bam! The date on the bottom of the can was October 2006. Looked like it was time to clean out my pantry.

As I cleaned up the black gooey ooze, I remembered a book I'd read years ago. Author Frank Peretti, who has been described as a Christian “Stephen King” wrote an award-winning novel called THE OATH. The story focuses on a small mining town where many of the townspeople are suffering gruesome deaths. Their bodies are found partially decomposed and covered with a black oozing slime. 

The reader discovers the black ooze is their sin. It starts with a minor blemish – a darkened area of skin over the heart. If ignored, it becomes a black oozing sore. If the sins remain unconfessed, the black slime begins to grow and takes over their soul. Their once happy lives turn dark and evil and eventually their body decomposes from the inside out. The pressure of the unconfessed sin continues to build up and Bam! The person explodes and there’s gross sticky black ooze all over the place. THE OATH is not a book for the faint-hearted or one that you’d want to read during dinner.

That morning as I was scrubbing black ooze and cleaning out my pantry while thinking about the Peretti book, I had the impression that God was telling me I need to clean out my own life. Did I still have unconfessed sins that were well beyond their “freshness dates”? I didn’t want what happened in the Frank Peretti book to happen to me. I didn’t want to be shopping at Costco someday and...Bam! “Attention Costco maintenance. Clean up black ooze on aisle twenty three.”
Scripture tells us that God’s grace covers all of a believer’s sin through the atonement of Jesus on the cross. So why do we need to continue to confess? Because we continue to sin! And when we confess and repent of those sins, we are taking the steps to leave behind the daily sinful thoughts, words and deeds, and we are becoming “sanctified” (meaning that we are spiritually maturing in Christ.) 

Here’s how it works. Once saved, we begin the process of sanctification where we are growing spiritually and are learning how to live and love like Jesus. But any continued sin clogs that process. In fact, we find that God even turns away from us when we continue in our unrepentant sins. “If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Psalm 66:18 NLT The literal translation for the word “sin” in this verse is “futile sinful pursuits.” If we look favorably or indifferently upon the sins we commit, God stops listening to our prayers. And Isaiah tells us that God hides Himself from those who are in sin and He will not hear you. Isaiah 59:2 And then we cry, “God doesn’t answer my prayers!” But whenever we have unconfessed and unrepentant sin in our lives, we have clogged up our lines of communication with Him. We unclog those lines when we say, “Lord, I messed up again, here’s what I did...” And God’s immediate response is, “You are forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

Are there things you do that you know are sinful and you do anyway because they are so satisfying? But are they really worth doing if God turns a deaf ear to your prayers? Like I realized, when I saw the black ooze, do you also have some unconfessed sins that are beyond their freshness dates? If so, consider taking some time this week to do some spiritual housecleaning!  Amen?

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

An Undesirable Child Loved By God

Dear Friends,

I had only been going to my neighborhood Foursquare church for just a few weeks when I was attacked during the service. Like in many services, there was a time between the worship and the sermon for people to greet and hug each other. This church did not take kindly to strangers in their service so I was being largely ignored and left alone. And then it happened. I was standing awkwardly in the aisle filled with people hugging and greeting each other when suddenly a small child hurled herself at me, grabbed my leg in a bear hug and wouldn’t let go.

She was about seven or eight years old and all I could see looking down was an unruly mop of dark hair and her small brown arms tightly holding on to me. I looked frantically around for possible parents, but no one was coming to my rescue. I asked her what her name was and she wouldn’t answer. She ran off to join the other children on their way to Sunday School and the grownups sat down to hear the sermon. I was guessing that all adult knees looked pretty much the same to a little kid so she must have confused me with someone else that she knew.

She did the same thing the next week and the next. Held on tightly, buried her face in my leg and didn’t let go until she had to. She wouldn’t talk to me. She just wanted to hold on to me. People were glaring at both her and me with disapproving expressions and I needed to talk with the Senior Pastor to find out what was going on with this child and with his congregation.

She lived in a house next door to the church and her mother sent her every Sunday. I found out that mom was a crack addict who sold her body for drug money and often brought the men to the house. The girl’s father had been killed during a drug deal. The pastor said, “We don’t know what to do with that child.” The pastor’s wife was angry that the little girl was there and told me she wished the mother would keep the child at home. Parents had complained that, because of the girl’s dysfunctional home life, they were afraid she would “contaminate” the good Christian children in the church. 

The pastor also explained about the murmuring of his “all-white” congregation. He told me that because of the girl’s affection towards me, people were assuming I was connected with her mother. I was told by the pastor’s wife to push the little girl off so she couldn’t hug me. They wanted her to go away. That’s what churches do with the “undesirables.” We reject, push away, ignore them and just hope they go away. So I upset the pastor’s wife by rebelliously doing what Jesus would do. Matthew 19:13-15 NLT 

The next time this child ran up the aisle to wrap herself around me, tears filled my eyes and I laid my hand on her head and prayed for her. In this little girl’s dysfunctional, tragic, abusive and pain-filled life, she had literally latched on to someone who felt safe and comfortable to her. She had been rejected, pushed off and ignored by her family and intrinsically she needed to reach out and hold on to Jesus. God gave her a large, tall stranger as His “stand-in.” She heard in my prayers how much God loved her and that He was with her now and would be forever. She heard that Jesus was the One she could hold on to when things got tough at home.

My only contract with the child was when I was surrounded by the congregation and was praying out-loud for her during the greeting time, but the murmurings of disapproval continued and the pastor’s wife now blamed me for the child wanting to continue to come to church. (The pastor did see that I was doing the right thing and I eventually became the counseling pastor at this church) That child came to church alone, troubled and pensive. She held on to me as I prayed for her and pronounced God’s blessings on her and she then ran off smiling and happy to Sunday school.

Suddenly she was gone and a For Rent sign was in front of her house. She would be in her mid to late 20's today and what she will never know is that the large, tall stranger who she had latched on to eighteen years ago still prays for her whenever he thinks of her.

When my step-daughter was at about that same age, she was very sensitive, easily hurt and would come home from school feeling flattened by what someone had said or done to her. After dinner, she would climb up to sit on my lap and want me to put my arm around her. I’d try to “fix” things for her and ask questions that never brought anything more than a nod for a “yes” or a shake of the head for a “no.” She didn’t want to talk. She just wanted a safe place to sit and be held.

In our own troubling moments, the “child” in each of us has an intrinsic need to reach out and hold on to Jesus for dear life. We need someOne safe to cling to. There are times in our life when we want to climb up into our Father’s lap and just sit there. Not talk. Just sit there. Sometimes we just need to be in the presence of our Heavenly Father. In the silence.. the solitude.. the stillness.. and just hold on to Him.  Amen?

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Spend Time With Your Family

Dear Friends,

I was at a restaurant in Alhambra and noticed a young family who had just sat down at a booth in front of me and across the aisle. Mom looked to be in her early thirties and dad maybe a few years older. Their son was about eleven or twelve. I thought back to when I was that age and our family went out for dinner. It was always a special occasion whether we were celebrating a birthday or it was just a night out with the family. The place we went out to most often was my favorite restaurant, El Cholo on Western Ave in Los Angeles. That was when it was still the original converted California bungalow in the 1950's. According to my mom, the ladies’ restroom still had the bathtub in it. This was back in the days when none of my friends had even heard of this “Mexican food” and it would be another decade before Taco Bell came to town and converted authentic Mexican cuisine into the Americanized fast food that it is today. El Cholo in the 50's was the perfect family restaurant. For only $1.50 you could get a drink, soup, two entrees, refried beans, rice and all the handmade corn tortillas you could eat. We were there so often, we knew many of the family members who owned and worked at El Cholo. But what I remember most was our own family time. At home we always ate our dinner at the table together, but at the restaurant, it was extended family time – my dad, mom, ten year old sister and two year old brother. Our family talked and laughed. We loved being with each other. We were what made it a special occasion.

When I saw the young boy with his parents in the Alhambra restaurant, all the happy memories of spending time with my own family came flooding back. Then the boy pulled out a “Game Boy” and started playing with it. He partially turned away from his mom to face the window so that he could ignore his parents and be completely by himself. His father began texting or emailing on his smart phone. The mom swept her place setting aside and set up a laptop on the table in front of her. They were interrupted by the waitress to take their order and again interrupted once their food arrived. All three ate with one hand, while texting, swiping, tapping, typing and playing video games with the other hand. When they finished eating, they put away their electronic devices and left. During the time they were there, they never looked at each other. Not a word was spoken. They had cocooned themselves off into a world unto their own. The three preferred to be by themselves than with each other and you didn’t need to be a family systems therapist to see the dysfunction in this family caused by the deprivation of closeness, connection and communication.

In this century, as people have turned from “face” relationships to Facebook, reliance on social media for their relationships has created a poverty of social isolation and desolation. Polls show that from children to seniors, there is an epidemic of loneliness in our country. Our Nation’s suicide rate has increased sharply in the 21st century and one of the three factors causing this tragic increase is the person’s perception they are alone in the world with no or few close personal relationships and that no one really cares about them. Suicide rates for both adolescent girls and women aged 45-55 have tripled in the past thirteen years and the leading cause is depression that is being fed by social isolation and loneliness. As mental health experts turn toward sociological explanations and psychological preventions to fix unhappy people, the answer to our feelings of isolation and loneliness may be better found in what we chose to do on Sunday morning.

According to Gallup polls, the happiest people in America are those who are actively religious and regularly go to church. Jesus said to “Love God” and “Love One Another.” Matthew 22:37-39 Our love for God is not dependent on our church attendance. I’ve had people say to me that they don’t have to go to church to find God and they find Him on their daily walk, in the sunset and in the quiet of their own back yard. I tell them, “Of course you do! God is not confined to a building on a Sunday morning between 9:30 and 11:00!” But the New Testament is filled with scripture showing that the early Christians became a family of believers by attending church together. Hebrews 10:24-25 God created us to be in relationship with one another. You can be with people at Costco, at Dodger Stadium, in a movie theater, at a neighborhood biker bar or at church. But if you want relationships that will drive away those feelings of isolation and loneliness, I’m going to recommend church. 

My family experience when I was young seems remarkable in comparison with many families today, but there was nothing special about us. That was when most families attended church together and our family dynamic was simply the “norm” during that time in our Nation’s history. Your own family dynamic may or may not have looked like mine but that is in our past. And today, for many of us, our biological family is scattered or deceased and we now find our family relationships at church. Your church family is your tribe. Your social connection. Your support group. Your friends with hearts of compassion. It is where you love one another and another will love you. Where you are  genuinely cared about and missed when you’re not there. In your church family, you are connected to those God has given to you and to whom you have been given. And at a church where people love God and love one another, you will never feel lonely or isolated. It’s your family. Amen?