Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Just Imitation Evil

Dear Friends,

Maybe you saw this on the news last Sunday. A few weeks ago, a 26 year old man crossing the street just a few hundred feet from my house was hit by a black BMW racing around the corner. It was a hit and run. He was found lying on his back after being flung into the air. Covered with blood. Unable to shout, he moaned, “Please help me” to some passing horseback riders who at first did not see him by the side of the road. They called the paramedics who took him to the hospital where he died last Thursday. What was illegal was that the driver didn’t stop. What was immoral was that the driver didn’t help the person he hit. What was evil was that neighbors heard a “celebratory yell” from the driver after the impact as he burned rubber to speed away. A celebration of your own evil when you think you’ve just killed someone? Is it just me or are you also becoming tired of the pervasive wickedness that is suffocating our Nation today? And now it’s once again time for our October “fun-filled” celebration of evil. Is this right?

Some of the images of the Las Vegas shooting have been burned into my mind. Bodies scattered throughout cluttered debris. Two young women lying together in death. Blood running down their legs. Descriptions from the survivors tell of puddles of blood everywhere. We don’t know the shooter’s motive. We just know this was truly a most evil act no matter what his rationalization was. And, it’s now time to celebrate evil on Oct 31st when front yards will be decorated with “dead bodies” laid out among the clutter of props. Covered with blood. And yes I do know what some of you are thinking. “Oh but that’s not one and the same, Pastor! You’re comparing real, harmful evil with something fun that’s just pretend and harmless evil..!” You’re right. It is imitation evil but we’re told “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

As our Nation has been struggling with a revival of racism, we’ve been recently and appropriately reminded of the lynchings of over 4,000 Black Americans. A permanent stain on our Country’s history. Pure evil. Next week, people will decorate their yards by hanging mannequins by the neck from their front yard trees. Just fun and harmless evil? “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

Throughout the Mid-East, Muslim extremists behead Christians in accordance with the Qur’an command in 47:4. “So, when you meet (in fight Jihad in Allah's Cause), those who disbelieve smite at their necks.” Mohammad’s teaching that it is God’s will for Christian believers to be beheaded is absolute evil. On Halloween night, the “fun” evil of graphic beheadings will be featured in front yards throughout our Nation. “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

It was just this last Palm Sunday. As Christians throughout the world gathered for the beginning of the holiest week of the Christian year, Muslim extremists planted bombs in two Coptic churches in Egypt. As a choir started to sing the hymns celebrating Jesus on this holy day, the bomb, hidden under the pews, was detonated. Body parts were flung throughout the sanctuary. Red gore ran down the front of the white altar cloths and pooled on the floor. 45 killed. 126 injured. Unspeakable evil. 

A Catholic Church's House of Horrors. To the glory of God?
Next weekend, many American churches will be holding “haunted houses” in their church as they attempt to reach out to the unchurched community. Arranging lifeless bloody "bodies" on pews for a terrifying fright fest to show how culturally cool we are. Walking dead “zombies.” The gorier the better! Just pretend and harmless evil... After the slaughter at the Pulse Nightclub in Florida, one of the first responders said it looked like a house of horrors. Should churches really be imitating evil with our own bloody house of horrors in church multipurpose rooms?  “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11  

The dictionary refers to the Devil and his demons as it defines evil as “profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.” The Bible uses the Greek word “poneros” that is translated as being spiritually “evil.” It means being wicked (ungodly) and doing wicked deeds. Evil is vicious, sinful, corrupt malevolence. Evil is an exuberant shout of celebration as the body of the pedestrian you just hit is flung through the air and you leave him to die in the dark. 

There is no “fun” evil. There is no “good” evil. I wonder if the families of the Las Vegas victims think that pretend murder is “fun.” I wonder if the Coptic Christians in the Mid-East would think the graphic horror houses in some of our churches are “good.” Evil is directly or indirectly caused by supernatural demonic forces and God is grieved by our casual participation in the one special day that evil is celebrated as safe and fun. Because when we fellowship with demons, we provoke the Lord to jealous anger. 1 Cor 10:19-22  You can dance with God or hold hands with the devil but you can’t do both. Paul asks, “How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil?” 2 Cor 6:12-15 

Do we honor those who have faced the horrific reality of evil in their lives when we have fun with our pretend evil on the 31st? Do we honor God by imitating the evil of this world in our homes and churches as we celebrate this time of Halloween? Just something to think about...

UPDATE: 10/25/17 8:45 am. An editing error left off a sentence in paragraph three. This is the corrected version.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Worship: The Wonder Drug

Dear Friends,

William came running up and introduced himself to me right after the service at the assisted living facility. A trim and fit-looking African-American man in his seventies, William told me that he had been one of the James Cleveland Singers and he asked if I knew who that was. I told him that I knew James Cleveland was one of the greatest Gospel singers of all time and I asked William what it was like to be in his Gospel choir. He told me that they traveled all over the country and even had performed Gospel concerts in other nations but he couldn’t remember which ones. William walked away and then a few minutes later, came back again. He greeted me with the same up-beat enthusiasm as before and said, “Say, did you know that I was one of the James Cleveland singers?” For many months, William would approach me both before and after the service to let me know that he was a James Cleveland Gospel singer. He would tell me that at least five or six times every time we were there. His dementia had progressed to the point that, within a minute after he and I spoke, he would have no memory of the conversation. He was no longer able to remember much about his past other than that he had once been a Gospel singer. I listened patiently every time he told me that because it was the one precious memory that he had. It was the most important thing in his life.

He couldn’t remember any of the songs he used to sing, but sometimes after I had sung a Gospel song, he’d tell me that he remembered singing that one. I asked him if he’d like to sing a hymn or a Gospel song with me sometime and he told me he could no longer sing. In a moment of mental clarity, he told me that what he missed most was being able to sing to God. I told him that I loved to watch him worship along with me. He couldn’t remember how to sing the songs but his face would light up and his whole body would move in time to the music as if he were back on the stage. Then one Wednesday, I was singing “I SURRENDER ALL” and suddenly from the back of the room I heard the most beautiful baritone voice singing right along with me, I surrender all, I surrender all, All to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all. William sang the whole song with me. His deep resonant voice filling the room. Every word remembered. Every note perfectly hit. The song ended and I looked up from my music stand to see William’s face. Tears streaming down it. William was doing what he had most cherished. He was singing and worshiping the Lord again! After the service, as I was packing up to leave, William started singing to the Abbey Road Villa residents. The haze obscuring his memory had lifted and he was singing one Gospel song after another – the James Cleveland Gospel songs that had won the Grammy Awards and the songs they had sung on the road. As I loaded up my car, I could still hear William singing a worship concert of Gospel songs to the glory of God!

Sally Morgenthaler leads seminars and writes books on worship. She wrote, “aside from the Spirit of God, music is the most potent element in a worship service. It has an incredible, matchless capacity to open the human heart to God, accessing the soul more quickly and deeply and permanently then any other element in the service including human speech.” Every Wednesday for the past two years Noem sits in her wheelchair off to my right. When I preach the sermon, she frequently takes that opportunity to settle into a nice, restful sleep. That doesn’t bother me at all. She’s Armenian and doesn’t speak or understand a word of English. But when I sing and worship, she worships right along with me. I’ll look over and see her sitting up straight with both hands raised to shoulder height. An angelic smile lights up her face and her glistening eyes are looking up into the heavens. Worshiping the God she loves. The music has opened her heart and she is in the presence of God.

Last week, a few were rewarded with a blissful slumber during my sermon, but all were engaged during worship and tears ran down faces when we were singing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” My sermons tell them about Jesus. The worship songs take them into His arms. After that service, a Russian woman who speaks practically no English, smiled at me and said, “Like music.” She hugged herself and said,“God.” She was telling me that she knew that God loved her.  

You and I have been madly and passionately in love with someone. (Maybe we still are!) Hugging, kissing them and even just thinking of them brings a release of the hormone “oxytocin” that acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and we feel exhilaration, euphoria and increased energy. That’s why oxytocin is often called “the love hormone,” and now recent studies have shown that expressing worship to God through singing also brings a divine injection of oxytocin in the brain. Worship songs declare our love for Him and while the “love hormone” fades for the humans we fall in love with, it never fades for the one true God we will love for ever! We worship Him because of who He is and what He has done for us and He then blesses us with our body’s own feel-good drug! 

There is growing scientific evidence showing that singing worship to God affects the entire body and mind and we see that every Wednesday at the assisted living facility. Do you ever feel depressed, distressed, anxious or angry? Get a mood boosting shot of oxytocin by singing your favorite praise songs or hymns and receive His peace that  surpasses all understanding. Worship brings healing to our mind and health to our body! Worship is the wonder drug that modern medical science has proven effective for the reduction of blood pressure, reduction of pain and anxiety and restoration of the mind. No prescription necessary!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Jesus: More Than a Facebook Friend

Dear Friends,

Years ago, a teenage girl named Marianne lived with her family in Sylmar and went to First Lutheran High School. Marianne was a very pretty girl, one of the most popular girls at First Lutheran and in her senior year was the head cheerleader. Her girlfriends were the most beautiful and popular girls in the school and were also on the cheerleader team. Marianne and her friends were the ones the popular boys wanted to date and these cheerleaders were the ones the not-so-popular boys could only dream about. The boys that were shy, nerdy and tongue-tied around girls, all knew the cheerleaders were way out of their league.

Damian* was one of those boys. He was a shy Mexican boy in a school that was still mostly white. The other kids teased him and called him a nerd. And then Damian became very sick and started missing school. Damian had leukemia – a very fast acting cancer of the blood cells. He started receiving chemo-therapy and First Lutheran sent one of the teachers to his home to help him study. His mother was a young single working parent and so Damian spent his days alone, sick in their apartment. That's when Marianne and her friends decided to visit him. One Saturday, they all showed up. Imagine Damian's surprise when the most beautiful and popular girls in his school came to see him. And as his cancer progressed, they visited him, played games with him and watched TV with him. They brought pizza and had pizza parties with him. A couple of times they spread their sleeping bags down in his living room and even had a sleep-over at his house. Damian had gone from the nerdy guy all the other guys had teased and made fun of, to having the most popular girls in school as his best friends. 

When Damian died, the entire school was shut down so that the faculty and students could go to his funeral at St Didacus Catholic Church here in Sylmar. I was there too. The first pew was filled with the teenage girls grieving over the loss of their best friend. Into Damian’s life at the end, these girls had brought great joy. Marianne and her friends lifted up his spirits and encouraged him. They gave him gifts and hugs and love. And at the same time, God was giving each girl the most precious gift of all. Their priority had been clothes and cute boys, but God was showing them what a sacrificial, other-centered friendship looked like. The girls now set their own lives aside and focused on making life better for Damian. They could have been spending time with any boy in school and they chose Damian. They had a choice of parties on a Saturday and they went to Damian's to watch movies and eat popcorn. At the end of Damian’s life, God him the best friends he could ever hope to have. And to these young teenage girls, God gave each one of them a best friend who would change their life forever. To God be the glory!

There are three kinds of friendships. There are friendships based on what the other person can do for us. We see that in business and politics where you are not my friend unless you can do something for me. The second kind of friendship is one that brings us pleasure. Those are not deep friendships. We just like being with that other person. We enjoy their company. The third kind of friendship is based on an unconditional love and a commitment to care for one another. We may have only one or two of these “best” friends and are blessed when we do. But the one true best friend we could ever have is Jesus. 

Jesus calls those who believe in Him and who follow His commandments His friends John 15:10-15 and we love to sing the hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus. The song  brings us consolation, comfort and encouragement. We sing that He’s a friend we can cast our sins and grief upon, and sing that it’s a privilege to carry everything to him in prayer. We love that Jesus calls us His friend. But can we honestly call Jesus our friend? For too many of us, if we treated any of our other friends like we treat Jesus, we'd have no friends at all. We spend time with Jesus for about an hour or so on a Sunday morning and ignore Him the rest of our week. Jesus wants us to come before Him and talk to Him through our prayers, but there are so many more important things for us to do. Jesus told us to love others like He does, and instead, we justify our reasons for hating others. Jesus treats us like He is our one true best friend forever, but are we treating Jesus more like a casual Facebook friend? Someone we know slightly, if at all?

A friend of Jesus will weep and pray with Him over a hungry child anywhere. A friend of Jesus will weep and pray with Him over those in Las Vegas. A friend of Jesus will weep and pray over those suffering from the earthquake in Mexico City and the surrounding towns. A friend of Jesus will weep over those in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico. A friend of Jesus will pray for the poor, the outcast, the addict, the homeless and the lost. Because what is important to our good Friend is important to us. And when we are truly following Jesus, we will be called to feed the hungry who will never know of our sacrifice to do so. We will be called to pray for those who will not thank us for our prayers. We will be called to care for the sick who will die anyway. And we will be called to forgive our enemies who will continue to hate us. That’s what the unconditional love of Jesus looks like. And as those young teenage girls learned two decades ago, following Jesus means setting yourself aside and loving and caring for others just as He does. And when we do that, that’s when Jesus tells us, “I’ll be your best friend forever!” John 15:12-14 Amen?

* Some names and details are changed to protect privacy

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Doc Luke ~ Physician to the Apostles

Dear Friends,

Dr. Luke is a mystery to us. He wrote the majority of the New Testament, but we know little about him other than that he was a physician, a ministry partner of Paul’s and was a diligent and detail-oriented researcher of the life of Jesus. He is the only Gentile author in our Bible and he writes in a very sophisticated style of Greek that would be expected of someone with great intelligence and education. We might think that a physician back in those days practiced a simple and rustic form of folk medicine but nothing could be further from the truth. Egyptian medical texts go back to 3,000 years before the birth of Christ. Broken bones were set. Wounds were cleaned and stitched. In 1700 B.C., surgeries were being performed on the eye, cancerous tumors were being removed and there is evidence of brain surgery where archaeologists determined that the patient recovered because of the growth of bone over the saw cuts! 

We marvel today at the advances of medical science in our lifetime, but the greatest increase in medical knowledge came about four hundred years before the birth of Christ when Hippocrates wrote the medical texts that Dr. Luke would have studied. Our Bible tells us that Luke accompanied Paul on his second and third missionary journeys with both of those together totaling 5,500 miles! During those long, hard journeys, Paul supported himself as a tentmaker and it would be reasonable to assume that Luke supported himself as a physician. If so, what medications would he have used in the treatment of his patients?

Plants were the main source of healing remedies and herbal medicines were used in Egypt as far back as 10,000 B.C. A papyrus from 1500 B.C. has been found that lists 900 medications for injuries and illnesses. By the time Dr. Luke studied medicine, there had been over 10,000 years of research! What are some of those healing medications? 

GARLIC was one of the wonder drugs and was prescribed for headaches and throat infections. A natural antibiotic, garlic was used for the treatment of infections, internal parasites and was used as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis and joint pain. Today we know that “allicin” is a compound that naturally occurs in garlic and is what gives this pungent bulb its healing properties. Garlic tablets are taken today for the treatment of conditions related to the heart and blood system and lower blood pressure and cholesterol. 

CASSIA (Cinnamon) Psalms 45:8 was used in biblical days as a digestive aid and for toothaches. 5,000 years later, the U.S. National Library of Medicine tells us cinnamon can be used as a digestive aid to treat vomiting and diarrhea and also can be used to treat toothache! According to modern medical science, cinnamon may lower blood sugar in people with type one and type two diabetes and lab studies have found that cinnamon also reduces inflammation, has antioxidant effects, and fights bacteria. Dr. Luke didn’t have the studies we have today. He just knew that it worked!

ANISE and DILL are two of the earliest-known herbs of the ancient world and were included as ingredients in a mixture to relax muscles and relieve pain according to the papyrus from 1500 B.C. The beloved physician, Dr. Luke, might have used dill seeds steeped in hot milk to quiet the nerves and act as a muscle-relaxant. Dill seed is still used today as a muscle-relaxant and to relieve pain. Lab studies have found chemicals in anise that have estrogen-like effects and women today use it to relieve menstrual discomfort.

Now we get to my favorite spice. My Cowboy Pinto Beans are okay, but then when I add a teaspoon of CUMIN and a dash of Wright’s Liquid Smoke, people start to yodel like Gene Autry and dance the cowboy polka. Many of us use cumin in cooking but none of us have ever used it like the Old Testament Hebrews did. Following the ritual of male circumcision, cumin was used to stop the bleeding. Today, cumin is known as an anti-coagulant that could have actually increased the bleeding, and perhaps by the time Dr. Luke studied medicine, they were no longer using cumin for that purpose. We do know that Egyptian medical texts reveal considerable uses of cumin for stomach ailments, intestinal parasites, skin ailments and insect stings. Cumin has many anti-inflammatory properties and Dr. Luke would have most likely given it to patients for the same conditions and symptoms that you and I might relieve with an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Cumin is so effective at lowering your blood sugar that doctors today warn that taking cumin along with diabetes medications might cause your blood sugar to go too low.

I have a MINT plant by my front door and it’s hard for me to pass it by without taking a small leaf to chew on. Mint was cultivated in 1550 B.C. by the Egyptians for various ailments including the treatment of fever and for skin conditions. People are rediscovering today that mint has one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any food and is now known as a super-food. It’s used today for everything from relieving the symptoms of the common cold to pain relief for gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. And when Dr. Luke wanted to relax after a long hard day of evangelizing with that “Type A” guy, St. Paul the apostle, the Doc might have made up a nice relaxing, calming cup of mint tea. 

And now it’s nearing the day’s end on a Monday as I finish writing this week's AMEN Corner and the skies are becoming darkened. I think I’ll go now and gather a few mint leaves, put on the kettle and do the same...