Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Living Off Your Hump?

Dear Friends,

Camels were the “18-wheelers” in Biblical times. They were called the “Ships Of The Desert” and were used for both transportation Genesis 24:61 and carrying freight for long distances. Genesis 37:25 They could carry up to a half ton of goods and travel up to 30 miles a day.  They drank 25 gallons of water at one time and could go on long journeys without food by living off the fat stored in their hump. On a long journey, the hump would shrink in size and the nutrients absorbed would then need to be replenished. The health of a camel always depended on how much nourishment was stored in the hump. 

And when it comes to our spiritual journey, you and I may need to ask ourself: “Are we living off our hump?” Like the camel, we can live off our hump for only so long before it needs to be replenished. And perhaps, for some of us, we’ve been living off the spiritual nourishment we stored in our hump a long time ago.

I read the Bible cover to cover many years ago and  there are some obscure and maybe not so obscure parts in the Old Testament that I’ve not read since. Some of you may be like me. We remember Jacob (or was it Joseph?) and something about an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or was that just a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber? We remember the misfortunes suffered by Job but can’t remember what he did to deserve them. We remember Joseph – was Jacob who wrestled with an angel after Jacob refused to sacrifice his son..or was that Abraham? And who was that guy Melchizedek? Gosh! I used to be able to remember all that! Am I living off my hump?

We Christians replenish our spiritual nourishment by the daily reading of scripture. One of my professors in bible college was asked why people need to read the Bible continuously and why they need to go to church and hear the same Gospel message again and again. He smiled and replied, “Because us Christians leak.” Megachurch pastor and nationally-known preacher John MacArthur put it a little more cynically. He said “Preaching is like taking a bucket of water and pouring into the thimbles of those who hear. Only for them to spill it out as they walk out the door of the church.” A terrifying thought if you’re a pastor who spends many hours laboring over a sermon, but it’s undeniably true! If we are an “average” churchgoer, we will have forgotten the sermon within four hours after hearing it. That’s why if we are not constantly refreshing and replenishing our souls through the daily reading of scripture, our spiritual gauge will be pinning on empty.

It would be inconceivable to eat one meal on Sunday afternoon and starve ourselves with an absolute fast until next Sunday’s dinner. We would not permit our stomachs to go without life-nourishing food for six days in a row year after year! Yet, if we are “Sunday Christians” only, isn’t that what we are doing with our souls? 

One in five churchgoers never have read the Bible. The majority of churchgoers (57%) read their Bible less than four times a year. So when a non-believer asks us  about Noah, we struggle to remember what was on that flannel board when we first heard that story in Sunday School... They ask us about why we hold onto a certain Christian belief and we don’t know how to answer them... We quote something spiritual we liked that the pastor said last Sunday or no..wait..maybe we heard that on Game of Thrones... The most commonly quoted “scripture” by Christians is “God helps those who help themselves.” A well-known saying but it denies God’s grace and it’s not scriptural. It’s not in your Bible. We too easily fall into error and can even lead others astray when we’re living off our hump.

God knows we need daily spiritual food for our soul as well as food for our bodies. Whether it’s our stomach or our souls, we cannot thrive if we are being fed only 52 times a year. We eat food because we enjoy it and it sustains life. We need to feed our souls for the same reason every day! “..the Holy Spirit says, ‘Today when you hear His voice, don't harden your hearts’” Heb 3:7-8 Hearing the voice of God today through His Word keeps our hearts soft and open to Him. And like the manna given by God in the desert, there is only enough nourishment for one day. But the next day, God will give us enough for that day too. And the daily manna points to what is truly nourishing for us. “So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.” Deuteronomy 8:3

We live by the Word of God! Reading His Word daily maintains a healthy level of spiritual nourishment in our soul. When renewed daily, His Word gives up-to-the-moment life-changing instruction and encouragement for the things that we’re dealing with right now. If you’ve been feeling lost or spiritually empty, you may be living off your hump and your soul needs to be replenished. If so, could this be a good time to return to a daily practice of reading God’s Word?    to be continued

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

His Holiness the most Reverend Mark Zuckerberg?

Dear Friends,

Last month the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg revealed the future of his social media company with its two billion adherents. Zuckerberg is casting himself as a religious reformer and is creating a new concept for today’s generation: “Facebook Church.” It will have “pastors” (secular leaders) and, of course, on-line giving. In this new and changing world, Zuckerberg said that his company can fill the role played by churches. His plan is to use the personal data already mined from Facebook users to connect them with a virtual church that will be like-minded in every way. Zuckerberg believes that in our world today, the only thing that people seek in church is the concept of community, and in his utopian dream of the Facebook church, that desire for community will be fully realized. By using social media to mimic the role of religion in our world, he can replace historical Christian doctrine and the truth of the Bible with his own doctrine and vision for society and in his words, “bring the world closer together.” In Zuckerberg’s reality, he can become the “pope” for the new world order. A frightening thought but it’s not going to happen.

Here’s why I believe that. In May 2017, a new study from UC San Diego and Yale University was released in the American Journal of Epidemiology (a branch of medicine that studies the cause of disease). The study found that Facebook usage was “tightly linked to compromised social, physical and psychological health.” The study showed that clicking on a link or updating ones own status increased the decline of their mental health. The Wall Street Journal summarized the study by saying: “the more times you click ‘like’, the worse you feel.” Other studies have confirmed the negative impact of social media on our mental health. Bottom line: the more interaction with Facebook you have, the more unhealthy you will become.

Also, in May of 2017 a study was published from Vanderbilt University using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This study “found a correlation between religious service attendance, lower stress and longevity.” It found that going to church actually promotes better physical, mental and emotional health and reduces ones chances of dying prematurely. Another study of over 74,000 women published last year showed that women who attended church had a 33 percent lower mortality rate compared with women who never attended church. There is actual scientific evidence that people live longer and have a happier and healthier life if they go to church! We see the benefits of church attendance at Abbey Road Villa, the assisted living home where we hold our Wednesday services. Both residents and staff tell us that New Hope Family Church has improved the quality of life for the residents. Bottom line: the more church services you attend, the more healthy you will become.

Facebook recently changed its mission statement and is now “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Facebook hopes that their new concept of “church” will fulfill that mission. But to meld people into one united mind-set, we’ll need to leave behind our “divisive” religious beliefs as we join our cyberhands and come into the cosmic consciousness of the new world. 

On the other hand, the mission statement of the 2000 year old Christian church has never changed. The mission of the church is to help heal and restore a broken, hurt and lost world to the loving relationship of the self-giving Trinity, to direct the praise of Creation back to the Creator and to fulfill the Great Commission. This is God’s church as it was, is now, and will be for ever.

Jesus drills down into the Jewish law and gives us a twofold commandment: Love God and Love Others. Mark 12:30-31 Notice the two dimensional components to that commandment. There is a vertical dimension between us down here and God up there. And there is a horizontal dimension between us and those next to us. We need both dimensions. When the focus is exclusively on building community, we can find a strong cord of that horizontal dimension running through a social media “church,” our volunteer work, our quilting club, or our golf buddies, but someOne important is missing. Only in church do we come into the fullness of the vertical dimension of us and God along with the horizontal dimension of us and others.

No matter which Christian church you attend, church is first and foremost about worship of God. We gather to speak and sing praises to Him for all that He has done for us and we worship Him for who He is. Our hungry souls are fed with the Word of God. We seek God through our liturgy and traditions. Our soul becomes satiated by His Body and Blood during the Eucharist. In church we become spiritually alive and are lifted up into His presence. Prayers and sermons encourage us to move further along on our faith journey as we grow spiritually and become a little less like us and a little more like Him. And while we worship in the presence of sinners just like us, every so often we can find a “saint” in our church who helps us in our Christian walk. Jesus said to, “love God and love others” and it’s in the genuine, authentic church that you will find these two relationship dimensions. And so, if you want to be happier, healthier and live longer, go to church this Sunday!  Amen?

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Lighten Up Dudes!

Dear Friends,

I grew up in a church where the services were so solemn and serious that it was a sin to smile. On Easter Sunday, you were permitted a discrete reserved smile when you whispered, “Christ is Risen.” We had an expression of constipation on our countenance when we somberly greeted one another. We were the frozen chosen. And the Lord thy God doth mightily saith, “Lighten up, dudes!”

There are times when it's appropriate to be serious. Lent is a meditative season of reflection as we assess our walk with the Lord and hold it up to His light for careful examination. And, then there are times in our life when we are so filled with the joy of the Lord, that we just want to sing and dance. The Bible tells us that King David was so filled with joy that he worshiped the Lord by playfully dancing in the streets in his underwear. We also love our times of passionate worship, but to avoid scaring the neighbors, we might want to keep our pants on in public.

God-given pleasure, playfulness and a sense of humor will keep us young and alive. Did Jesus have a playful sense of humor? I can find no biblical evidence that He ever brought a confetti-filled pinata into the synagogue for the noon prayer service, but we can see the twinkle in His eye when He tells the rich young ruler that “it's easier for a camel to go through a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

Evangelical Christians have of late become very intense about our beliefs and doctrine. We wring our hands and lament over the state of our nation today while, “..the One whose throne is in Heaven sits laughing.” Psalm 2:1-4 And the One who sits on the throne would say, “Lighten up, dudes!” 

I'm not saying that we need to change our doctrine or compromise the word of God. But non-believers often perceive us as being judgmental, mean, harsh, intolerant and unloving. They read about church scandals, the moral failures of religious leaders and the horrific pattern of child abuse in the Catholic church. Can we blame them for not wanting to come join our church and be like us? 

We have the life-giving message of the Gospel and we've used that as a weapon to pound down what we are against. We have experienced the radical grace of God and then extended shame and judgement to others. We have received unmerited forgiveness from God for the worst of our sins and then we’ve not forgiven others for the crime of committing an offence against us. And Jesus would say, “Lighten up, dudes!”

We shout scripture and point accusing fingers at sinners. Jesus was accused of hanging out with them. Our Lord was constantly criticized for enjoying life a little too much. He was attacked by the Pharisees for going to feasts and banquets where He ate heartedly, drank wine and partied with sinners and loose women. Luke 7:34-39 I can't party like Jesus. I'm becoming more aware of what I eat. I don't drink and a certain loved one frowns on my hanging out with loose women. But I wonder if I should look at how Jesus treated others to see what I can learn from Him. 

I wonder if perhaps we should take off the “pro-life” or “pro-choice” buttons and just label ourselves as “pro-women.” I wonder how we would be perceived as Christians if we let God deal with the sins of others and we were to just embrace gays and people struggling with their sexuality with the same dignity and love as we would with any of God's children. I wonder what we would say about immigration reform if we studied scripture and saw people through God's eyes instead of our politics. I wonder if we should banish condemnation back to the netherworld from where it came. I wonder what would happen in our Nation if people saw Christians as joy-filled and not joyless. Peter said to “rejoice with joy” and I wonder what we would look like to the world if we actually did that. In fact, I wonder if maybe we should just start looking a little less like us and a little more like Jesus... Amen?

(Reprinted from an earlier post. April 2014)

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Eye of the Tornado ~ Part Three

Eye of the Tornado: Part One   Part Two   Part Three
Dear Friends,

Ever since we elected a new President, the L.A. Times has been running stories on the front page about immigration. It’s typically a human interest story about a person or family who was deported or who is fearful that they soon will be. The stories are written to create empathy and support for undocumented aliens with the goal of making California a “sanctuary state.” The media’s heart-breaking stories are achieving the desired result but they are also creating an enormous amount of fear. At Abbey Road Villa, the assisted living facility where we have our Wednesday church service, there are undocumented immigrants who are in their 80's and 90's and television “news” stories had panicked them into thinking that ICE agents were going to raid Abbey Road and deport them back to Mexico. Thank God, I’ve been able to convince them that federal agents won’t be packing them with their wheelchairs, medications and oxygen tanks onto southbound buses. These wonderful, Godly people have been living in a tornado of fear.  

At church and outside of church I meet very few people now who are not angry and/or fearful at this black cloud of cultural/political fighting and dysfunction that is enveloping our country. I talk with those who are consumed with hatred for everyone who does not ascribe to their progressive liberal or right wing brand of politics. But their doctor would tell them that continued rage raises their blood pressure and puts a strain on the heart that can lead to an early death. I know of those who are having trouble sleeping, becoming physically ill and asking their doctor for prescription medications to alleviate their tension and stress. But there’s a better way. You can choose life.

God says in Deuteronomy 30:19 “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life..” No matter which side of the political fence we live on, if we find ourselves participating in the cultural tornado of hate and destruction that’s swirling around our Country, we have chosen death. “I command you today to love the LORD your God to walk in His ways and to do what He tells you to do and in so doing, God will bless you and you will have life. But if you turn away to follow other gods and (the things of this world), you are choosing death.” Deut 30:16-18 If you are a Christian who hates those who don’t share your political beliefs, please know that to hate another is sin. There’s no “righteous” hatred for another person. Jesus tells us to love one another and said, “It’s because of your love for one another that people will know you are My disciples.” John 13:34-35 Following the world and choosing to hate brings God’s judgement and death. Following Jesus and choosing to love brings God’s blessings and life. 

We find ourselves choosing between “life and death” in all that we do. We must use discernment in order to disengage in any interaction with the world that brings death to our soul and then choose to engage in all of that which brings life. That means prioritizing and practicing the life-giving things that feed your soul. That’s what will bring us into the center of the storm. The eye of the tornado is our spiritually safe place. It’s not a different world but the same world now bathed in the light of Christ. The storms around us cannot be ignored. That would be a denial of reality. But we are not to dwell in them. Throughout our day, we need to step out of the tornado and into the eye of the storm. I like to think of it as taking a “timeout” with Jesus.

I consider myself to be somewhat of an expert in living in the eye of the tornado, because it’s too often I find myself tumbling around in this swirling mess of the world, and I’ve discovered that the only antidote to the fear and frustration is my frequent timeouts with Jesus. The chaos of the world envelops me with its darkness and destruction but in the eye of the storm there is peace. There’s a stillness in the eye of the storm and that’s why God says quit your fussing and “be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10 And when we give all our anxiety, anger and fear to God, we will come into His peace. “Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all he has done. Then you will experience God's peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 NLT

Last week we saw that in the Kingdom of God this cultural and political hate is unsustainable and the dysfunction will end. In the meantime, let’s step out of the cultural tornado and practice the habits that bring us into the presence of God. Here’s what my timeouts with Jesus during the day look like. If I find myself getting worried and discouraged or when my soul simply needs a spiritual boost, I’ll pause what I’m doing, take a deep breath and say, “Lord, I lift my heart to You, take me into Your presence.” Sometimes I'll say the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Son of God, have mercy upon me.” Sometimes I'll say the Lord's Prayer. Sometimes I’ll say out loud, or to myself, a scripture that comes to mind. I’ll often I lift my voice in praise to Him throughout my day. I write and preach about living in the presence of God because it’s a joyful way to live and it will also get you through the worst of days. That’s because whenever you find yourself in the middle of the storm of life and you turn your thoughts toward God, He reaches down and lifts you up into His presence. And when He does, you’re out of the mess and the stress and resting in the eye of the storm! Amen?