Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How To Make Major Decisions

Dear Friends,

Jesse pointed out the wide scar on his throat. Still slightly red from the recent surgery, it was hidden in a natural skin fold and would soon completely disappear. He showed us how he could move his left arm and hand without any pain and we praised God and thanked Him that the surgery had been a complete success. It could have gone either way. Jesse is a Christian friend of ours who was strong and healthy except for a severely compressed nerve in the upper cervical area of his spine that caused pain to radiate into his shoulder and caused muscle weakness and numbness in his arm and hand. His doctor advised surgery but Jesse wasn’t sure it was the right thing for him to do. Surgeries involving the spine can cure and they can cripple, but the upper cervical area is even more critical – mistreatment or botched surgeries can even be fatal. These are never easy decisions and that’s why for several months we had been praying for God to give Jesse the discernment to make the right decision and He did. Now in the healing process, Jesse’s face was lit up in a huge smile as he waved his arm around. He owns an antique store in Ventura and last Friday, we stood with him in the middle of his store praising God and giving Him all the glory!

We make hundreds of decisions every day of our life. Go to the grocery store first or to the gas station. Once at the grocery store, everything we put in our cart is the result of a decision we just made. Every action we take results from a decision and we make these insignificant decisions easily and unconsciously. But in our lifetime, we have also made dozens of extremely difficult and critical decisions that affect our well-being, finances, health and future. Some are literally life and death decisions. Whether to carry that baby to full-term. Whether to have the surgery or the chemo. Some decisions affect our finances and quality of life: the jobs we take, the cities we move to, the houses we buy. And we have all made decisions about relationships. Dating. Marriage. Divorce. With every major decision, we look back and are grateful for the decision we made, or with regret, we wish we had done something differently.

How do you make major decisions? I’ve known those who flip a coin and let fate decide. But we “left-brained” logical types will intellectually examine the choices and make lists of pros and cons while we analyze the risk factors in the options before us. We more “right-brained” folks may just go with what feels like the right thing to do at the moment. But when faced with major decisions, we can’t trust our thoughts and feelings alone. One moment we want to say yes and in the next moment we say no. We may even become overwhelmed with indecision and stuck, unable to move in one direction or the other. Is there a better way?

Our Bible speaks of spiritual discernment in the context of knowing right from wrong and we use that discernment to determine God’s will for us and make the right choice. We start our process of discernment in prayer, and in some cases, prayer and fasting. We seek His help. “O LORD, come to my assistance, make haste to help me,” Psalm 70:1 D-R We ask God to give us the wisdom to make the right choice and the grace to carry it out. We know that God has already determined His will for us, and our prayers are that God would show us the pathway to take, but how do we “hear” His voice telling us which direction to go?

I have found it very beneficial to pray that God would lead me by giving me a peace about the direction He wants me to go in and a clear sense of discomfort about the direction He does not want for me. Here’s a recent example of what that looks like. We have our Wednesday services at Abbey Road Villa but there was another assisted living home in our area that expressed an interest in our holding church services at their facility on a Sunday. So I prayed about it. There are two options. We do it or we don’t. My petition to God was that He would give me a strong, discernable sense of peace about doing this service or a strong sense of discomfort and unease about doing this service. I prayed for many months about this and every time I thought about doing a new service there was a continuous sense of discomfort and unease. That had to be from God because a Sunday service was really what I thought I should do. I mean gosh, I’m a pastor! Church services on Sunday are what we do! But when I made the decision to not have a Sunday service at this new location, God immediately gave me the strong, discernable sense of peace that I had made the right decision. That’s how spiritual discernment works. 

After a period of prayerful discernment, we can make a tentative decision and then look for a confirming sign from God. It can come from/through another person, or in my example, the confirming sign was this overwhelming sense of peace that I had made the right decision. Your confirmation may be that your tentative decision brings great joy and the way forward is supernaturally easy. But if you are still feeling distress or if there is a struggle to implement the decision, you may need to rescind the decision and go back into the discernment process. Then when you know...

Make the decision!! Commit to it and don’t look back. If it was a good decision, praise God for that. If, in your human fallibility, you made a bad decision, rest in the knowledge that you made it in prayer and in good faith. Give yourself grace, move on to do something differently and may God be praised for being a God of second chances!  Amen?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Confessions of a Pharisee

Dear Friends,

Outrageous! murmured the church leader as he nudged the man standing beside him and pointed to the renegade Jesus Christ. There He goes again! Who does He think He is? Healing on the Sabbath! Totally against church rules! Not only a clear violation of God’s law, but a detestable offense to all those who love God! And our Bible goes on to tell us that to make things worse, this maverick Messiah even did the healing in church! Right there in the synagogue! Before God and everybody! Luke 6:6-11 Oy vey!

The Pharisees in the synagogue were filled with rage and can you blame them? If we didn’t have church rules we’d have anarchy and lawlessness in our churches. It would be a total disaster! Thank God for the Pharisees who keep God’s house proper and orderly! (Hmm...Do you agree or disagree?) The Pharisees were the religious leaders who controlled and appointed priests, set temple laws, wrote the liturgy and the rituals. They followed a combination of God’s written law in the scriptures along with the “oral tradition” that they had added. These church leaders gave the oral laws the same authority as God’s written laws. Jesus had a problem with that. Because that’s the sin of legalism. 

I was told many decades ago that “Every Christian has a little bit of Pharisee in them” and while you may object to that generalization, it’s been true of every Christian I have ever known and it is most definitely true of the man I see in my bathroom mirror. It’s also true of all churches and denominations who make up their own laws based on their distinctive church traditions and give them the same weight as the word of God. We Protestants shake our heads at all the unbiblical oral laws, rituals and traditions in the Catholic Church and then we make up our own unbiblical Protestant laws, rituals and traditions. 

I’ve been associated with a conservative church in which there was a great deal of discussion about renting the property for weddings because during the receptions, unmarried Christians were dancing on the property! (we all knew what dancing can lead to!) I’ve been associated with a liberal mainline church who did not permit a person who had accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior to be baptized in their church unless the person was approved by a vote of their membership committee. (John the Baptist did defer to the membership committee before those Jordan river baptisms, didn’t he?) A simple definition of legalism is when things that are okay with God, aren’t okay with us. That’s not to say that we can’t create our own rules, rituals and traditions, but when we enforce them as if they were a commandment from God, that’s when it becomes the sin of legalism. And yes. Jesus does have a problem with that.

A 2013 survey by the Barna Group revealed that 51% of Christians in American exhibited attitudes and actions that are more like the Pharisees than they are like Christ. Their attitudes were self-righteous and hypocritical. Sadly, only 14% of all Christians surveyed reflected attitudes and actions that better resembled the attitudes and actions of Christ. The most Christ-like Christians in attitude and behavior were Evangelicals (23%) while only 13%-14% of Catholics, mainline denomination Christians and “notional” (meaning in name only) Christians were Christ-like in their attitude and behavior. Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the attitudes and behaviors of that person in our mirror... 

How do we know if we are more like a Pharisee than we are like Jesus? The more religious you become, the more critical you are of other people. We spend much time talking about what we are against and believe that it is our personal responsibility to take a stand against those who do not follow our own Christian beliefs and values. We focus on pointing out why others are wrong in their church doctrine or traditions. We prefer to be only with like-minded Christians. We make our salvation based on our following “rules and traditions” and not on our faith that comes solely from the grace of God. We believe that outsiders must conform to our distinctive Christian lifestyle before we can accept them in our church. A middle-age single woman tells me that she’s been an “outlier” in every church she’s attended because our unspoken rule is that marriage and family is the highly-valued Christian norm and singles just don’t conform to the idyllic church lifestyle. Our “membership committees” admit or deny entrance to our church clubhouse based on whether or not they look, sound, act and smell like us. But thank God that, “The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” Samuel 16:7

To be more in attitude and action like Jesus we would need to listen to others before we tell them about our faith. We’d need to hang out with unbelievers and those struggling with their faith. We’d need to see that God loves every person no matter what their past looked like and He invites all to accept Jesus as their Savior. We would need to let others know that God loves them. Instead of telling them how they must change to conform to our church expectations, we would need to just love them like Jesus and let God do the hands-on work of changing them. We’d need to help and serve others outside the church. Matthew 25:31-46 needs to be how we live out our faith. Jesus never handed out a legalistic “to-do” list of what must be accomplished in order to achieve righteousness. He just showed them the grace, mercy and love of God. Lord, may we simply do the same. Amen?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Secret To Greater Happiness

Dear Friends,

Cleo’s birthday was last Friday and that morning I went to visit her at the assisted living home and pray with her. If you met this wonderful woman of God who is so vital, lively and full of life, you would be shocked to find out how old she really is. Cleo just turned 105 years old. For two years now, we have held a church service at this assisted living home and she has not missed a single service. She parks her wheelchair in the front row directly in front of me and everyone knows that’s Cleo’s “reserved” space! Church is what she looks forward to all week long. On Wednesday mornings she makes sure she is dressed in her “finest clothes” and her hair is fixed just right. She’s going to church! The residents know that Cleo is the person to go to if they need to talk to someone, have a question about God or need prayer. She is the oldest person I have ever known and she’s the happiest person I have ever known. That’s no coincidence. When people ask her what the secret is to her long life or when people ask her how she can be so filled with joy all the time, she will give them the same answer to either question. She will tell you the answer is that she is grateful to God, for everything, all of the time.

One of the most troubling scriptures is, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Troubling because it seems as if God is telling us to do the impossible. Rejoice always? Pray constantly? Give thanks in every thing? Impossible we say! But God never asks us to do the impossible and Jesus reminded His followers that in the Kingdom of God: “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.” Matthew 19:26 And for us pessimistic naysayers who pin the word “impossible” on God’s commandments for us like a badge of defeat, we would only have to look at the radiant smile on Cleo’s face to see that with God, it really is possible to rejoice always!

Much of our unhappiness comes from stress and anxiety that is created by circumstances outside our control. Our emotions are engaged. We are angry, sad, fearful. Just in these last few weeks: huge raging wildfires in the western states, devastating floods in Houston, massive destruction in Florida, hate and political violence rocking America, an earthquake in Mexico and the expert’s rush to assure us in Los Angeles that our own big 9 point earthquake is surely on its way. All this and fears of a nuclear attack from North Korea and God says to rejoice always? Yes! Because in the middle of the worst and most fearsome circumstances, when we know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, all is well with our soul. 

But we still may have no internal peace if we live with one foot in the sacred and one foot in the secular. Of course we’ll be unhappy, fearful and stressed during our week if our only time in the presence of God is for an hour and a half on a Sunday morning. That’s why God says we are not to rejoice just on Sunday morning, we are to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” Philippians 4:4 And here’s how to do that: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7 Do you want to “rejoice always”? Then we need to pray “without ceasing” and give our cares and worries to God.

Do you want to “rejoice always”? Then like Cleo, “in everything give thanks.” We don’t give thanks for everything. We don’t thank God for that devastating diagnosis we just received from our doctor. We don’t give thanks for earthquakes, fires and floods, but the word of God tells us that in everything give thanks.” In the worst circumstances, there is always something for which we can be thankful to God. The morning after hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey in 2012, a woman was interviewed on camera by a news reporter. As she looked at her flooded house and ruined possessions she said, “We were blessed. It could have been worse.” 

Did you know that the word of God and medical science agree on how we can have greater health and more happiness in our life? According to the Harvard School of Medicine, being thankful is one of the simplest ways to feel better. According to the Harvard Medical newsletter: “The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means gratefulness. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.”

Cleo shows us that when we are constantly grateful to God and are thankful in all things, we will find ourselves rejoicing always. Do you want to feel better than you do? Do you want to be happier and healthier? Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  Amen?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Radical Hospitality

Dear Friends,

Where are you on the hospitality scale? Some of you love having lots of people in your life and in your home. People energize you. Nothing could be more exciting than having old and new friends over on a weekend. Being by yourself feels lonely and you’re constantly on the phone or on social media. You have over 300 friends on Facebook and would be truly saddened if any one of those “defriended” you. If you are introduced to a stranger, you will greet them with a smile and a hug and feel blessed that God has brought a new friend into your life. If this is you, you’re a natural “host” or “hostess.” Thank God for you. 

You could be at the other end of the scale. Maybe you're the hermit. You like people but eventually they tire you out. Nothing could be more fulfilling than quietly reading a book with a cat on your lap. For you, a raucous party in your house is when you have one other person over for tea and you both smile when something humorous is mentioned. If you really want to liven-up the party, a little squeeze of lemon in the Earl Grey should do the trick. If you're on the hermit side of the scale, “stranger” sounds like “danger,” and if you've been able to let your guard down long enough to be introduced to a stranger, you’ll become comfortable and finally able to relax around them after you've known them for ten years. Thank God for you.

Depending on whether you’re a host/hostess or a hermit, I have good news or bad news for you: Jesus does not call us to a lifestyle of normal hospitality. Jesus calls us to a lifestyle of radical hospitality. That's a bummer for us more introverted souls because if normal hospitality threatens our introverted lifestyle, a radical Christ-like hospitality absolutely terrifies us. That’s why we have such good excuses. 

I'm tired and really don't have the time for other people right now. My house is a mess. I’m getting older and just don’t have the energy I once had. What if someone opens up the door to the spare bedroom? The carpets are dirty. My dog gets nervous. The living room ceiling needs paint. I'm not really a very good cook. I just don't know what to say to people. All good excuses but none better than mine! I was fortunate to have a clogged drain in my guest bathroom and for a couple of years was able to use that wonderful excuse for not having anyone over. 

Now you may not have the really excellent clogged drain excuse like I had so you might have to rely on one of the old standards like “I don’t have enough time.” That’s one of the most popular made-up excuses, but of course the truth is that we do have the time. What we do with the time we have is simply a matter of priorities. If we have time to throw a couple of burgers on the BBQ and sit down on a Sunday to watch television, we have time to grill up four or six burgers and sit down with our friends on a Sunday evening.

Hospitality is a mark of good Christian character. In 1Timothy 5:9-10, Paul is talking about widows but he defines good Christian character that applies to us all. Paul is saying that the mark of a good Christian is to take good care of your family and be hospitable toward others. One of the best ways of taking good care of others is when we give them our time. A Benedictine monk said, “In a fast-food culture, you have to remind yourself that some things cannot be done quickly. Hospitality takes time.” When we care for others, we need to turn our eyes from the clock and look at the one Jesus has sent to us in that moment of time.

Radical hospitality is what we are called to do and our own community is where we're called to do it. The community I'm talking about is all those who Jesus has brought into our lives for us to love. The easy ones to love may be our family and those who share with us the Christian journey that we have undertaken. The tougher ones may be those we know who have the difficult personalities or offensive lifestyles that make us the most uncomfortable. But radical hospitality always calls us into relationships with the ones hardest to love because those are often the ones who need Jesus the most. 

Jesus showed us what radical hospitality looks like when He ate with “disreputable sinners” who were social and religious outcasts. Matt 9:10-13 NLT Does that mean we should rethink our Christmas party guest list? Maybe so. When we are practicing radical hospitality, we are loving others like Jesus does. John 13:34-35 And for us hermits, even if we don’t have the “gift” of hospitality, the word of God tells us “..above all things have fervent love for one hospitable to one another.” 1 Peter 4:8-9 And if we ever feel as if we are being uncomfortably pushed to reach out to other people, we can thank God for the loving shove. Our Father will ask us to do the difficult, but He will never ask us to do the impossible! Amen?

Revised and expanded from an earlier AMEN Corner