Wednesday, August 30, 2017

3 Things to Pray Every Day

Dear Friends,

I arrived at the assisted living facility that Wednesday morning and started to unload all the equipment that we use in the service. Next to the walkway leading to the front door is a large patio area with shaded tables and comfortable chairs where the residents can sit and read, or just enjoy the sunshine. That’s where Bartolo was when I heard him start to sing. He’s only been at Abbey Road Villa for about six months and I’ve not really been able to talk with him because his English is limited and my Spanish is non-existent. He’s a middle-age man confined to a wheelchair by his disability but always has a huge, radiant smile on his face. I didn’t see him sitting in a far away corner of the patio that morning, but I heard his clear voice sing out in perfect English, “Day by Day.. Day by Day.. Oh Dear Lord Three Things I Pray...”

Last Wednesday, one of the staff members told me that throughout the week, she will sometimes hear the residents singing the song Day by Day when they’re alone in their rooms. Nothing she could have told me at that moment would have brought greater joy to my heart! When we started the weekly Wednesday service two years ago at this assisted living facility, we decided that every service would end with the congregation singing “Day by Day” and the lyrics are printed in every service bulletin. We wanted this wonderful prayer song to be embedded in their memory, and we encourage them to start their day with it because it’s the perfect prayer. It’s short, simple and expresses the heart-felt desire of every Christian believer! The song lyrics are: 

Day by Day..  Day by Day..
Oh Dear Lord, three things I pray..
To see Thee more clearly..
Love Thee more dearly..
Follow Thee more nearly..  Day by Day..

In 1969, a Christian college student named John- Michael Tebelak wrote a play called GODSPELL that was based on the book of Matthew. GODSPELL  retold the parables of Jesus in the context of a modern urban setting. The play was performed by college students in little theaters, but it soon caught the attention of producers who hired Broadway song writer Stephen Schwartz to put it to music. In one of the scenes, the cast acts out the Matthew 18 parable about the unforgiving servant, and as soon as Jesus explains that you need to forgive others in your heart, the disciples start singing the song Day by Day. 

In 1972, a year after this little off-Broadway production began, Day by Day was released as a single and  spent fourteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 list. This was absolutely extraordinary. A contemporary Christian song was the thirteenth most popular song in America! Now that Day by Day was a smash hit on America’s radio stations, the little struggling off-Broadway musical called GODSPELL became a hugely successful Broadway hit. There was a film version in 1973 and it had a successful two year revival on Broadway in 2011. Forty-eight years ago, a college student wrote a play for his master’s assignment and GODSPELL – the Gospel of Matthew – is still a popular musical today. The word of God, whether solemnly read in a church service or joyously sung on Broadway, is relevant and timeless!

Here’s some interesting trivia. Broadway song writer Stephen Schwartz is credited as writing Day by Day in 1971, but did he really? In the 13th century, the text was a prayer written by a Bishop of England, Saint Richard of Chichester 1197-1253. This prayer was later set to tunes and published in a 1940 Episcopal Church hymnal. Look at the photo of the page in this hymnal that I’ve had since my childhood, and compare the words of this 800 year old prayer with the lyrics of this “Broadway” hit song.

We never hear the GODSPELL version of Day by Day sung in church because this song is associated with the secular world of entertainment. Church denominations would never allow music from a Broadway production to be sung in a church service and that’s why this beautiful prayer song is not approved for denomination hymnals or even our contemporary praise and worship songbooks. But at New Hope Family Church, we end every Wednesday Service with Day by Day because these “three things I pray” really are what we most desire!  Amen?  
(You can listen to the original Broadway hit version HERE)

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Eclipse: A Warning or a Wonder?

Dear Friends,

The skies are clear blue and yet the sunlight dims as if unable to penetrate a dark cloud cover. Inside my house it’s becoming dark. I go outside and notice that it’s cooler than it was. Shadows sharpened by the low morning sun now become defused and distorted. I sit in a chair by my rose garden. I’d planned to go into the garage and get my welding helmet to look at the partial eclipse but I’m inexplicably resistant to do so. I’m captivated by the sudden quiet – a silence that is not at all normal for this time of the morning. Some Indian tribes believe that an eclipse is a sacred sign from God and is too holy to be viewed. That is how I’m feeling right now and decide to leave the welding helmet in the garage. I feel the need to pray. I just sit outside and pray and see and feel and sense and listen. I rest in God’s presence and see in my mind not the moon blocking the sun but see the hand of God stretched out over our Nation and casting a shadow on our land.

Those who are religious seem to fall into two camps when it comes to a spiritual interpretation of this eclipse. Some see it as a warning sign of God’s judgement on America and an apocalyptic warning of fire and brimstone raining down on our Nation. The daughter of Billy Graham, Anne Graham Lotz, warns that the eclipse viewing parties are likened to the Old Testament account of the drunken feast hosted by King Belshazzar as the fall of Babylon neared. She believes that God’s judgement should be expected in our Nation because of its “grievous national sins.” Others share that belief. But there are also those who saw the eclipse not as a harbinger of doom but as a powerful manifestation of God’s greatness and of His sovereignty over the heavens and the earth. So, what was it that we did see Monday morning? A divine sign of God’s warning to America? A surreal and sacred moment that allowed us a glimpse of the glory of God in all Creation? Or perhaps both?

“Teshuvah” is a forty day Jewish season of repentance and return to God that leads up to the Day of Atonement. This week’s solar eclipse in America occurred on the first day of Teshuvah (Monday, August 21st) and that is a sign from God. “Then God said, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years’” Genesis 1:14 Our Nation today needs healing that can only take place if we are willing to enter into this journey of repentance and revival. That’s why our Jewish friends are reaching across the theological divide  and inviting Christians to join them in this forty day season of prayer for our Nation. As God promised the people of Israel, “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 

Scripture tells of eclipses connected to revivals. When the Holy Spirit fell upon the followers of Jesus in the upper room, Peter quoted the prophet Joel as saying, “The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” Acts 2:20-21 And in America, we would be hard-pressed to chalk it up to mere “coincidence” that our Nation’s greatest Christian revivals have occurred during the years when a full eclipse has coincided with Teshuvah: the First and Second Great Awakenings in America, the Azusa Street Pentecostal Revival and the Charismatic Revival.

Up until Monday morning, the eclipse was only of passing interest to me until I read the significance of Teshuvah! I then looked on-line and saw the map. I saw the path of the eclipse cutting the Nation in half from the West Coast to the East Coast. Like a divine finger tracing out a line being etched in the soul of our Nation. A line in America between the North and the South. Symbolically separating Northern states from Southern states. I saw that as the alignment of the planets was causing a shadow to be cast across America, our politics and ideologies are causing a shadow of division to be cast across our Nation. We’ve been feeling physically sickened by reading the recent news reports and seeing photos of this demonic revival of racist hate in our Nation. With extreme ideologies threatening to divide our Nation and engage in a new Civil War, Monday’s eclipse brings to mind a passage from Luke: “And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides.” Luke 21:25 NLT We cannot deny that our Nation is in great turmoil. 

The eclipse on Monday may have been nothing more than an interesting astronomical event or it may be indeed a sign from Heaven that American people need to stop dividing our Nation with hate. The eclipse may well have been a warning from God that, unless we want to see a line of hate permanently etched in the soul of our Nation, we need to fall upon our knees in repentance. It may have been an invitation for all of God’s people to unite in prayer for these next forty days. This is an opportunity for the church to come together united in prayer because a divided Nation can only be healed by a united church. Let’s pray that this eclipse will be a harbinger of the church’s coming finest hour. Let’s pray for revival. Amen?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hope in a Heartbeat

Dear Friends,

It was 6 am on a still-dark winter morning. I’m in my backyard, cup of coffee in hand, praying as I start my day. I pay no attention to the bus at the stop across the street, but suddenly the driver activates the emergency alarm that flashes the bus lights and dispatches the police to its location. The driver is  standing at the front of the bus and staring at the back. At first it looks like the bus is empty. Then I see him. Sitting in the back. All I can see is the back of his head from the shoulders up and he’s wearing a black hoodie. The bus driver is staring at this guy and I’m thinking maybe the driver pushed the alarm because it’s the last stop and the guy is refusing to get off the bus or something. A couple of minutes later, a Sheriff’s patrol car comes rushing up. 

The bus driver and the young deputy walk back to the passenger. The deputy leans down to look at the guy. He gently shakes the guy by the shoulder. The deputy now has a funny look on his face as he turns and speaks to the bus driver. They both scurry to the front of the bus. Then I realize that as long as I’ve been watching the guy sitting with his back to me that his head is at a funny angle. It hasn’t moved at all. 

The deputy is talking into his radio and the driver has run outside the bus and I suddenly realize that the guy must be dead. The young deputy is agitated and glancing nervously in the direction of the corpse and it looks like the bus driver is having a panic attack. About fifteen minutes later, the paramedics and a fire engine arrive at a leisurely speed with no siren. The fire station is just over a mile from here but apparently there’s no hurry to get out of bed in the morning when the police report a dead body. 

Five firefighters get on the bus. Some are in their regulation turnout gear but the Captain is wearing the blue tee shirt that he was sleeping in. His hair is sticking up and he looks like he wishes he were back in bed. The Captain glances at the corpse, yawns and leans back against one of the seats. There’s no sense of urgency as a paramedic takes out a stethoscope and bends down over the body. A minute goes by. He’s taking a long time to find a heartbeat, and I’m thinking that they are being thorough before officially declaring that this poor guy is deceased. I pray for his soul. The lights in the bus are on at full brightness and from my backyard, less than 100 feet away, I’m watching this real-life drama through the bus windows as if it were a tragic reality show.

The paramedic says something to the sleepy Captain and I watch the expression on his face change to one of disgust. Suddenly, the Captain yanks the hoodie off the dead guy’s head! He grabs the shoulders and starts violently shaking the body! I’m watching the head of the corpse just whip back and forth! The startled bus driver jumps up in the air, clamps a hand over his mouth as if to stifle a scream and holds on to one of the seats as he starts to sway. It looks like the driver is going to faint as the “corpse” now struggles to his feet. Then with a firefighter on each side, the “dead” guy is walked off the bus.

Later that morning, I realized how what I had just witnessed was so applicable to our Christian relationships with others. How many people have you and I given up on? How many have we determined are spiritually dead and there’s just no hope for them? Even our Christian friends agree and rush to join us in the administration of the “last rites!” Yeah. He’s dead. He gave up on God after his wife left him and he was hurt by the church... Yeah. She’s dead. After her daughter was in that accident, she’s been mad at God ever since... Yep. No hope for him. He’s an atheist and he’s been spiritually dead all of his life. Nothing to do here. It’s too late. He’s gone. No need to resuscitate. He’s beyond salvation...

Who have you given up on? Who is beyond all help? Who is beyond all hope? Maybe your heart still breaks over this person and maybe you’ve given up because it’s just too painful to think about them. But if you’ve given up on them, you’ve given up too quickly. Yes I know that for some of you, it’s been a long time. It’s been many, many years with your witnessing to them, your prayers, your tears, your own frustration at their hard heart and closed ears. 

From all outward appearances, even to the professional first-responders, the guy was dead. Everyone who looked at the guy on the bus had come to the same conclusion and they were all wrong. And we need to remember that no matter how spiritually dead our friends and loved ones look to us, there is hope because a heart still beats and God has not given up on him or her. As long as they’re alive, there is hope for them through the resurrection of Jesus Christ! Believe with me that God is not done with your friends and loved ones. Let’s persevere in prayer for them because as long as there’s a heartbeat, there is hope!  Amen?

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Sacred Reading

Dear Friends,

For years I wasted my time reading the Bible. Honestly. I’d start my day ramped up on home-ground Starbucks and speed-read through the day’s obligatory scriptures and then end my day in bed with the open Bible before me - the sacred words of scripture competing with stressful thoughts of the day replaying in my exhausted mind. I read my Bible like I read everything else. It was my Protestant emphasis on Bible study. What I’d been told was that I should just read the Bible. Absorb it. Understand it. Know it. I was told that I would be sanctified and made holy by reading the Word. So I read the Word. I even at one point in my life read the Bible cover to cover. Every page. Every word. Did that make me any holier? I wish. Did reading the Word make me a better Christian? Well, it made me a more knowledgeable Christian. It definitely made me into a better pastor/teacher. So maybe reading my Bible wasn’t a complete waste of time, but it wasn’t making me into a better Christian. That’s because “reading and understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean you are “becoming and doing.” Jesus didn’t say read about Me. He said follow Me.

Then in my study of Christian history, I became drawn to the devotional life of the ancient Christians and early monastics and began to incorporate some of their practices including the way of reading scriptures called Lectio Divina (lex-SEE-oh dah-VEE-nah) that was beginning to be practiced in the 2nd century. For those of us who are not Catholic, and even for those AMEN Corner readers who are, incorporating monastic practices in our day-to-day lives may seem eccentric but in ancient Christianity, a “monastic” was any man or woman who was seriously living out their faith. If you are also serious about living out your faith and using the Word of God to transform your life, you might want to consider the practice of Lectio Divina. That’s a Latin phrase meaning “sacred reading” and it’s a way to read God’s Word that takes you into His presence and changes your life. These are the four steps of Lectio Divina:

I Lectio – reading
We find a portion of scripture and begin to slowly read it out loud. Reading out loud brings it from our head to our mouth and from our mouth to our heart. We read it once. And we read it again. We read it until we are stopped by a word or phrase that speaks to us. A word that calls to us. A word that comforts us. A word that unnerves and challenges us. A word that convicts us. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has taken an invisible yellow highlighter and has emphasized a word that is ours to ponder. We may not know why this word or phrase has stopped us, but we trust in the Holy Spirit and we pay attention to what He is showing us.

II Meditatio – meditation
For those of us Protestants who get ecclesiastical heart-burn at the mere mention of meditation, we can instead “ponder” the scripture–meaning that we can just sit-a-spell and think about it. Someone said, “We long to be filled with God but we cannot because we are already too full of ourselves.” Meditation on God’s Word empties us of ourselves and makes room for the Holy Spirit. Meditation is taking that word or phase that the Holy Spirit highlighted for you and gently repeating it. Thinking about it. Allowing it to trigger thoughts and memories. Maybe victories and maybe long-forgotten hurts. Maybe successes and maybe failures. The Holy Spirit is at work. He is the Great Counselor. He is the one taking you down this path of memories. It’s through this second step of meditation that God’s Word in the Bible becomes His Word for us. For this moment in time. His Word for that specific memory. For that hurt. For that specific sin. His Word for you. Right now.

III Oratio – prayer
We’ve been meditating on the word or phrase that the Holy Spirit gave us. We’ve begun to go down the path lead by the Holy Spirit and we’ve encountered memories and thoughts. And now we talk to God about it. The Holy Spirit has been leading us to this place and we find ourselves praying with a different heart. Our conversation with God is different now. We allow God to take this word, this phrase and now use it to change us. And as we pray, our ears are open and now we may hear that small, still Voice.

IV Contemplatio – contemplation
We have come into the presence of God and we simply rest there. When we come into the holy of holies, it’s not a place to do something. It’s a place to be. Entering that contemplative place with God is the highest expression of our spiritual life. It is here that spiritually we are fully awake and alive. Our spirit has been intertwined with the Holy Spirit. We are in the presence of the One who is the source of all love. We are in the presence of the Creator of the Universe. We are in His embrace. And time slows down...

Sacred reading is an ancient spiritual practice that is meant to be a life-changing conversation with God. It is where the Holy Spirit takes God’s Word and intersects our life with His truth. We meditate on His Word and then when we pray, we leave behind our normal list of requests and our prayers now reflect our innermost desire to be changed according to His will. And now we enter that contemplative place – the holy of holies – where we linger in His presence and simply rest awhile with Him. Just God and us.  Amen?

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(If you would like to print out the following to keep in your Bible, click here. Then use your browser to print and then cut out the guide.)

A Guide to Sacred Reading

Go to your sacred space.  Relax – Be still.  Take a couple of deep breaths.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will lead you into God’s presence.  Find a scripture.

Slowly and quietly read the scripture out loud several times. Listen to what the Lord is saying with the ear of your heart.  Pay attention to a word or phrase that the Holy Spirit highlights for you. Romans 10:8: “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart"

Ponder the word or phrase.  Repeat it.  Let it dwell within you.  Allow the Holy Spirit to stir up images, feelings and memories.  Be open to the way the Holy Spirit is intersecting those images, feelings and memories with His Word. Psalm 4:4: “Meditate within your heart.. and be still.”

Ask God to reveal His will for you.  Is He bringing direction?  Healing?  Correction?  Forgiveness?   Listen for His Voice and respond accordingly from your heart.  1 Kings 19:12: “..a still small voice.” 

Be with Him.  Relax in silence.  Continue to listen for His Voice.  Be aware of His presence.  There is no right way to respond.  You are in the holy of holies. You may weep and you may find words of worship and praise springing forth from your lips.  Linger in His presence.  This is where He wants you to be... Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God”