Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Fear Not !

Dear Friends,

Thanks to psychopathic cult-leader and mass murder Charles Manson, I became a prosperous college student at a time in my life when I was too lazy to join my friends who worked in fast-food restaurants. As I read about Manson’s recent death two Sundays ago, I recalled the chilling fear that had gripped our neighborhood following the horrific torture and savage murders of seven people in their homes over a two night killing spree.

Terrorized by the thought that it could happen to them, there was a high level of fear and panic being experienced by people in the entertainment industry who lived with their families in the Hollywood Hills. That’s where I lived with my family when I was a collage student. The man across the street from us was a popular Black singer with a wall filled with gold records. Up the street, an actor who starred in a James Bond movie. Further up and around the bend, a record producer with dozens of gold records from the most popular singing groups. I babysat for our celebrity neighbors. In 1969, the minimum wage was $1.30 per hour. High school girls could make a decent $1.00-$2.00 per hour babysitting. Thanks to Charles Mansion, I made $10.00 per hour for those who I babysat for weekly and $15.00 per hour for my non-regular customers. Feelings of panic had seized this neighborhood of entertainment industry people and they trusted in the 6'3"- 220 lb college student to keep their children safe when they left their house. Thanks to the terror unleashed by Manson, I sat in someone’s dining room doing my homework, and in one hour, I earned more than those who really worked hard for a living would see in one day. There was an unreasonable fear that no one was safe in their home. They were terrified that a violent hippie-cult was going to break into their house to kill all their children and that fear made me a wealthy college student.

Two Sunday nights ago, I was at a church function where someone told me that after the recent church shooting in Texas, they were afraid of going to their Sunday service. I’m reading more and more about pastors arming themselves with guns canceled under their vestments. An Anglican Bishop with a 357 magnum under his robes. A megachurch pastor with a semiautomatic tucked into a holster fastened to the inside of the pulpit. In a national magazine for Christian pastors, a police chief in California wrote an article about how to put together an active shooter plan for your church and a New Jersey city is holding active shooter training for all the city’s clergy. Rev. Robert Jeffrees, pastor of a Dallas megachurch recently said that he feels safe because anywhere from one-quarter to one-half of his 12,000 member congregation is carrying a concealed weapon on any given Sunday. 

All over America, church ushers are now carrying concealed weapons, and in one Florida megachurch, newcomers are greeted with a sign that reads: “Welcome to The River at Tampa Bay Church – Please know this is not a gun-free zone – We are heavily armed – Any attempt will be dealt with deadly force.” Signed.. “The Pastors.”  Do these pastors have to avoid raising their hands while worshiping the Prince of Peace so that their jacket doesn’t ride up and expose the Glock? Is a friendly hug during the “passing of the peace” the excuse for a surreptitious pat-down so that we can identify who is “carrying” that day? Is our motto becoming “Trust Not in God but in Smith & Wesson?”

But should we really be fearful about attending our local church service? Let’s put it into perspective. People are killed and dozens more receive major injuries every day in Los Angeles area traffic accidents. We still get into the car and drive. There are only 2.7 shootings per year in churches (nearly all involve the death of one person in a domestic violence incident) but 350-400 people are shot and killed per year in the workplace and we still go to work. Just one year ago in Sylmar, a mentally disturbed homeless person was chasing people in our local Von’s grocery store and threatening to stab them with a large piece of broken glass. He was shot and killed by a security guard. The next day, in full confidence that we were in no danger, we went grocery shopping at that Von’s. Why would church be any different? Are we overreacting? After the back to back Manson cult killings, there was an unreasonable fear that no one was safe in their home. After the Sutherland Springs, Texas church shooting, there is an unreasonable fear that no one is safe in their church. Human terrorists know that killing people creates widespread fear and intimidation. But our worst enemy is Satan. He’s the terrorist who is using the Sutherland Springs church shooting to create panic and cause people to fear going to church.

We need to cast off these fears and get a grip on reality. According to statistics published two weeks ago, you have a 1 in 6,552,000 chance of your congregation being involved in a church shooting. But you are over twice as likely (1 in 3,000,000) to die from food poisoning at the church potluck. And the most dangerous thing you can do is to stay home from church! That’s where you have a 1 in 4,238 chance of dying while falling out of bed or falling out of the chair in front of the TV! Your church is one of the safest places you can be on a Sunday morning, but if you are not convinced and if you’re still afraid, give me a call and I’ll come and sit by you and hold your hand at church for my normal rate of $100 an hour. (NOTE: Current hourly fee of $100 has been adjusted for 567.0% inflation from my $15 rate in 1969)  Amen?

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The First American Christian Holiday

Dear Friends,

I had read about a Washington D.C. politician who was vilifying the church and Christians because we don’t like the secular direction in which our Nation is going. He said, “If Christians don’t like it here, they can just go start their own country..”  Well..  Actually.. we already did that.. It’s called America.

It was November in 1620 when the Christian Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. 102 people had set sail for the New World from England on the Mayflower. Four died during the rough journey, and after landing, another 45 died during an unexpected bitterly harsh winter.

One year later in November 1621, the fifty-three survivors (including 14 teenagers and 13 small children) declared a Day of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims (Puritans) were the English Protestant Reformers who had always set aside special days of worship and prayer and those Christian practices had not changed in the move to America. When the Pilgrims landed in this strange wilderness, they immediately struck up a friendship with the Indians who taught them how to plant and harvest corn. These Native Americans showed the Pilgrim men how to fish and how to hunt the wild turkeys. In return, the Pilgrims gave them tools and showed them how to use them. So when the Pilgrims declared a three day feast of worship, prayer and giving thanks to God, they celebrated their blessings with their new Indian friends. Ninety Wampanoag Indians brought five freshly-killed deer to the “church potluck” and joined the fifty-three Pilgrims for this Nation’s first Thanksgiving feast. 

These first settlers celebrated many more feast days of thanksgiving by acknowledging the Lord God as their Sovereign Provider thus providing a spiritual principle which has undergirded the foundation of our Nation. John Adams was the 2nd U.S. President and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams described the principles upon which our Country was founded and the Declaration of Independence was written: "The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the.. general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United. Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System."

And by the time the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, Thanksgiving had been celebrated in America for over 150 years! From these first days in our Nation's history, days of thanksgiving were also periodically called by government leaders. And a yearly holy day (holiday) was established by a Presidential Proclamation in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday of November, “ a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.” Congress later changed this day of celebration to the fourth Thursday in November.  

Thanksgiving is more than just food and football! It has always been, a uniquely American Christian holiday! We join in this wonderful tradition set forth by our Nation's Christian forefathers as we celebrate the majesty of God, giving Him praise and thanksgiving! 

"Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever... Oh, that men would give thanks to the LORD for His goodness, and for His wonderful works...”  Psalm 107:1,8

(note: some of the above content has appeared in earlier AMEN Corners.)

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Thanks God!

Dear Friends,

Those of you who know me may have noticed the scar. About an inch long, it runs vertically through my eyebrow and down to the very top of my right eye. It’s where I was hit in the face with the sharp edge of a shovel when I was six years old. If the point of the shovel had been ½ inch lower it would have been embedded in my eye. If you hadn’t noticed the scar, I don’t either. In fact, for the longest time, I’d forgotten it was there. Then one Thanksgiving morning, a couple of years ago, I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that old scar as if for the first time. At that moment, I realized that I had never thanked God for saving my sight and began wondering what else I’d never thanked Him for. I thought of when I was young man and engaged to the hot-blooded Sicilian girl who broke our engagement by trying to kill me with a butcher knife. I realized that I had never thanked God for saving me from a marriage to her.

And then like a slide show, face after face from my past appeared in my mind and I realized that I’d never thanked God for Father Barnes, the rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, who believed that I needed to start serving God as an acolyte when I was only nine and who started me on the path to God that I am still on today. Many other faces came to mind and I thanked God for them. I still do. And perhaps you are now remembering your own scars. The times God bailed you of a bad circumstance. Perhaps like the country song “Thank God For Unanswered Prayers,” God didn’t give you what you’d prayed for and gave you something better. Do you see the faces of people you’ve never thanked God for?

Every Thanksgiving, I think of an Episcopal priest named Father Tim. He was a fictional character in a series of books written by Christian author Jan Karon about life in a small town called Mitford. And in one story, Father Tim wondered: What if God took away from him everything that he had not thanked God for?

That’s something to just stop and think about. What if God did take away from us everything we had not been thankful for. Would I have my right eye? For sixty years I had never thanked God for saving it from the blade of that shovel! What if everything God gave you, that you never thanked Him for, disappeared in a flash? What would you have left in your house? Would you even have a house? What would you have left in your life? Would you still have your health? Your hearing? Would you still have your Bible? How about your clothes? Would you still have the unique personality that God has gifted you with? If God deleted what you never thanked Him for, would you instantly become as dumb as a rock as your intelligence vanished into thin air? Would you still have your sense of humor? 

Would you still have the ability to discern right from wrong? Would you still have your salvation? Would you still have your love for God? Have you ever thanked God for those things? Maybe even more importantly than what you would have left in your life is who you would have left. If God took away every one you had never thanked Him for, would you still have all your family? Your friends? The people at your church? Would you still have your dog? Your cat?

When I realized that if I thanked God for everything He has ever given me.. Everything He has done for me.. For every meal I have ever eaten.. For everyone He has sent to bless my life.. Every time He healed me.. Every time He protected me from illness..injury..death.. Every time He protected me from my foolish decisions and actions.. I realized that if I thanked Him for everything He had ever done for me, I’d be thanking Him unceasingly from now until the end of time. And in that “ah-hah” moment, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 immediately came to mind: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

But how about those circumstances when it just seems like it’s impossible to be thankful. Because let’s face it. We don’t just cruise through this life on easy street. The truth is that Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation..” and I think that all of us can say “yes and amen” to that. But then we rejoice as Jesus goes on to say, “..but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 All of us have experienced immense pain and grief in our past. And, here we are today with thankful hearts praising the Lord. How did we get through the trials and tribulations we’ve experienced so far? Because God is always right there in the midst of the worst thing that can ever happen to you.

We can only be truly thankful when our thankfulness is no longer a condition of our circumstances. We are not thanking Him for all things. The scripture says we thank Him in all things because no matter what our circumstances, there is always something for which we can be thankful. And then when we are thankful in all things we find ourselves rejoicing always. And, when we rejoice always, we find ourselves being thankful in all things. 

So let’s start this Thanksgiving season by asking God to show us all the things that we never thanked him for. Give thanks to God for all that He has given you and done for you. Give thanks even in the tribulations. And in the coming week, let your loved ones know how grateful you are to God and show them that Thanksgiving is not about a turkey dinner. It’s about our thankfulness to God. Amen?

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Why Lord?

Dear Friends,

In a church? During the service? Why Lord? Surging emotions of sadness. Overwhelming grief. Immediate prayers for those injured. Prayers for the souls of those killed. May Jesus open His arms to each one as His angels carry them to Heaven this morning. Eight members of one family, from grandparents to grandchildren, went to church on a Sunday morning and in the instant their hearts stopped beating, God reached down and snatched up their souls to Heaven where they will be spending eternity with the One who they came to worship that day.Thank you Lord that you love and care for each one of your children. Reports that everyone who went to the First Baptist Church in that small Texas town on Sunday was shot. So far twenty seven dead. Half of those killed were young children–one an unborn infant. Another twenty four injured. Difficult to hold back tears. Difficult to process the emotionally-jumbled thoughts of anger, sadness and fear. The fourth deadliest mass killing in America occurred in a church? During the service? Why Lord?

One of the most difficult questions asked by both believers and non-believers is this: “If God is so good, then why is there so much evil and suffering in the world and in our lives.” We know that people suffer in unspeakable ways and die every moment of every day. But how does a good God allow a massacre on a Sunday morning in church? Our Bible tells us that God does love us. He does protect us. He does heal in response to our prayers. He does have a plan for our life. But sometimes life is wonderful and sometimes it’s not. Some of us have listened to preachers who have promised prosperity and an abundance of God’s blessings on our life. We have formed something called “Entitlement Christianity” and expect God’s favor on our life. Then the divorce happens. The bank calls. The doctor gives us the diagnosis. The drunk driver crosses over the center divider. The earthquake happens. The gunman walks into a church. We are stunned. Angry at God. How could He let us down! Doesn’t He know we are Christians!

God is good and yet we live in a fallen world thanks to our ancestors. Genesis 3 tells us that, as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, the entire relationship between God and His creation changed. But as soon as that apple touched the lips of Eve, a cross appeared on the horizon. Sin has infected our life in this our temporary home on earth, and we live in a world filled with suffering and evil, but in the cross we have the hope for our future. that apple touched the lips of Eve, 
a cross appeared on the horizon.

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Romans 8:18 And as we remember the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, we are reminded that we don’t suffer alone. There is nothing you or I will ever endure that God has not already experienced.

But in a church? During the service? Why Lord? Because we do live in a fallen world. And at the same time, God can turn our worst circumstances into something for His good. Our very familiar Romans 8:28 tells us: “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” That doesn’t say that everything that happens to us is good. But it says that when we love God, He will use the worst circumstances for good even when it seems impossible for Him to do that. Lord during those times when we cannot imagine how good could come out of evil, increase our trust in You when we must walk by faith, not by sight.

How can God bring something good out of the worst church massacre in America’s history so soon after our Nation’s deadliest mass shooting in Las Vegas? Maybe by bringing evil to our doorstep, we have been awakened out of our spiritual slumber. We have ignored the evil throughout the world. Paid no attention to the Muslim-led genocide of 90,000 Christians per year in the Middle East and Africa. Paid no attention to the Palm Sunday church bombings and mass killings in Egypt. Too far away. Can’t relate. But suddenly it’s different. We are now experiencing waves of evil in our own Nation. But can God really turn this into good? Yes because evil drives us to God. Evil compels us to examine our own complacency. Evil forces us to our knees in prayer. Evil can even change the hearts of the most hardened non-believers. At the end of his life, the atheist Jean-Paul Sartre admitted, “I needed God...I reached out for religion; I longed for it, it was the remedy. Had it been denied me, I would have invented it for myself.”

In a church. During the service. An unspeakably evil act. The remedy for evil is faith and that’s why our response is heart-felt prayers. In John 11 we read that when Lazarus died and Mary fell down at the feet of Jesus and wept, Jesus groaned in His spirit and was troubled. And then Jesus wept. And today, our spirit is troubled. And we weep. Let’s continue to keep the people in Sutherland Springs, Texas in our prayers.  Amen?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

LORD, Clamp Your Hand Over My Mouth!

Dear Friends,

I love history, so when I was younger, antique stores would fascinate me. I loved looking at all the strange, old, sometimes unrecognizable things that I could imagine my grandparents using. Today, antique stores are a little discomforting. I see the toys and games I played with as a child. I see ancient kitchen implements that people point to and wonder about and I remember that I’ve got one in a drawer and I’m still using it. Old records from the sixties are on display. I have a closet full of them. That vintage fedora hat from the 50's? I’m wearing one. Walking into an antique store today is like walking into my own personal museum and it makes me feel.. well.. like an antique.

But last week I ventured into an antique store and immediately saw this sign (pictured above) that made me both smile and cringe. Because it reminded me of someone that I know. Me.

Lord, forgive me for the times I have spoken when I should have been silent. When my words of frustration, anger, impatience, unkindness were hurtful to others. When my words were not a blessing but a curse. When careless words closed down the spirit of a loved one. Lord, forgive me.

Scripture is edifying, encouraging and comforting. And sometimes the comfort it offers comes from knowing that we’re not alone in our struggles to seek the righteousness of God. Matt 6:33 David struggled with his words and knew the importance of praying that God would help him control his mouth. “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Psalm 141:3

A few days ago a friend of mine said that while she had been praying for me, Deuteronomy 3:19 came to her mind. “..I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life..” This literally refers to the Israelite's life or death choice to either worship God or worship other gods. But it metaphorically refers to every one of the choices that you and I make every day – the things we do.. the words we say. Our words of blessing bring life. And our words of cursing – hurtful words of condemnation and negativity – bring death.

Proverbs 18:21 reminds us that “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The brother of Jesus tells us: “But no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right!” James 3:8-10 NLT

With our mouth we can speak blessings or curses. It’s God's desire that we bestow blessings on others, it’s our human nature to bestow curses. Think about a typical day and count how many times you spoke sincere words of God's blessing to another. Now count the times you spoke complaints, negativity, gossip or criticisms to others.

James said that no one can tame the tongue. That means that you can’t. But God can. Jesus said “for with God all things are possible." Mark 10:27

We need to submit our unruly tongue to the Holy Spirit daily. Every morning our prayer should be: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

And if, like David, we have prayed for the Lord to set a guard over our mouth, we then need to listen for His direction during our day. You’ve heard people say, “think before you speak” but it may be even more important to “listen before you speak.” Everything I have ever said that I later regretted was because I spoke without first listening to the Holy Spirit. If, in the heat of the moment, we can shut our mouth and give our self a verbal timeout, God will always show us how to say something in a Christ-like manner or tell us not to say it at all.

Lord, clamp Your hand over my mouth when I’m tempted to speak words of anger, unkindness or negativity. Let me choose words that speak life and not death. Let no unwholesome word proceed forth from my lips, O Lord, and may all the words of my mouth be pleasing to Your ears. Amen.

From the AMEN Corner archives. Originally published 2014.