Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Our Family Traditions

Dear Friends,

Unless I was stirring up trouble and tormenting my sister, we were a nice quiet family. Christmas morning was the most exciting day of the year for us three kids, but our family ritual was so reverent it looked like something that Norman Rockwell would want to paint. We sat in a circle around the tree and one by one we took turns opening up one gift at a time. All attention was focused on the one whose turn it was and once the ooohs and aaahs were said and the commemorative photo was taken, we moved onto the next person. On one Christmas, we spent four hours opening gifts! We savored every moment and every gift. The family ritual, the filled stockings on the mantle, having breakfast with the grandparents, the ceremonial opening of the gifts. This was the right way to celebrate Christmas!

When I was a young man and engaged to an Italian girl, I was shocked at how her family did Christmas. First, they opened their gifts up on Christmas Eve which was just plain wrong to start with. Then it got downright violent. Their tradition was that the kids gathered in the hall at the edge of the living room. There was shouting and screaming and when the mother yelled “NOW!” they all rushed the tree. The brother pushed the little sister out of the way and she fell down. She got up and started slugging him as hard as she could. They were all grabbing gifts and as fast as they could they were ripping off the paper. As soon as a gift was unwrapped it got thrown into different pile. Sometimes in the chaos, you'd pick up a gift that wasn't yours but that didn't matter. You'd rip off the paper, and if it was a doll for little sister, you'd just toss it into her pile and grab another gift. There was laughing and shouting and gifts were getting kicked and stepped on. Any cards or sentiments on gift tags were not read and were immediately thrown in the trash pile. Tree ornaments were stepped on and the broken glass ground into the carpet. The year I witnessed this travesty and mayhem they called “Christmas,” there was so much struggling to get the gifts under the tree, the whole tree fell on them. It was irreverent, rude and chaotic to this Episcopal Church boy who had missed the Christmas Eve service to attend this family’s holiday havoc. The next morning, my now hung-over fiancee was so bored by my family Christmas tradition that she kept falling asleep. For weeks after, she and I argued over the “right way” to celebrate Christmas. For her family, it was the most fun they’d have all year! But before the next Christmas season, I broke off the engagement after she tried to kill me with a butcher knife, and I vowed to never again date a Sicilian girl from a New York mafia family.

One of the most wonderful things about family Christmas celebrations is that our family rituals are our’s alone. Your family traditions most likely have not looked like mine or hers. They looked like yours

But have you ever been curious about how others around the world celebrate Christmas? In Belgium, Christmas breakfast is a special sweet bread “Cougnou” that’s shaped like the baby Jesus. In Brazil, the poor families who can’t afford a tree use a dry tree branch and put cotton on it to simulate snow. At midnight In Finland, Christmas starts with a sauna. Dinner is traditionally boiled codfish or pickled salmon and herrings. In Germany, the children wait in the dining room until they hear the ringing of a bell and that’s when they rush into the living room to open their gifts. In Hungary, children go to a relative’s house and while they are gone, Jesus brings a tree and gifts to their house. 

In Portugal, the traditional dinner is salted, dry codfish with boiled potatoes. (I found many cultures that celebrate with salted, dried fish.) In Africa, the most important part of the Christmas church service is the love offering. It’s the birthday gift given to Jesus and each person comes up to the altar and lays down their love offering. On Christmas eve, children in Africa march up and down streets singing Christmas carols and shouting, “Christ is coming, Christ is coming, He is near!” In Bethlehem, the Christian homes are marked with a cross painted over the door and each house has a nativity scene that is handmade by a family member. 

In Russia, Christmas eve is a twelve course meal with each course in honor of one of the twelve apostles and it’s not Santa that brings gifts to Russian children it’s “Babushka.” Babushka means grandmother and the legend is that she declined to go with the Wise Men to visit Jesus because the weather was too cold. But when the Wise Men left, she regretted her decision and filled a basket of gifts for Jesus and hurried to try to catch up to the Wise Men. Ancient Babushka never found the Wise Men or Jesus and that’s why she visits each house leaving gifts for the children.

The passage of time in our lives has changed the traditions of our own childhood. We may think back to long-ago Christmases with fond, loving memories or we may be glad that our family circumstances are different today. Family members, rituals and traditions change with the seasons of life and yet, what has remained the same over our lifetime and over the past 2000 years is the unchanging, immutable Jesus Christ. That’s why, no matter what our Christmas day tradition looks like, perhaps we should stop to take a deep breath and just ponder the wonder of it all. “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.” Luke 2:20 The shepherds praised God for the birth of Jesus and we too give thanks and praise to our Almighty Father for the redeeming gift of His only Begotten Son. Amen?

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Empty Manger

Dear Friends,

So when the blonde love of my life told me her birthday would be on a Tuesday, she asked if I would be available to spend the previous week with her to celebrate. I said, “Hey Babe! Of course! It's your birthday! It's all about you!” 

And honestly, I really did have good intentions of spending that time with her. But that was before I found out that my favorite outlet stores in Camarillo were having huge annual sales that week. It really was incredible! Everything at every store was deeply discounted up to 70% off! And Best Buy was having some unbelievable sales on laptops that I couldn’t pass up. So, I had to tell her that due to the unfortunate timing of these fantastic sales, I was going to be pretty busy in the weeks before her birthday. I was sure she'd understand...

She asked if we could at least spend the day before her birthday together – the day we call “Birthday Eve.” I told her I couldn't because I was going to be throwing a big birthday celebration party on Tuesday and that meant on Monday I needed to just focus on decorating the house and baking cookies. We were having a ton of relatives and friends over for the big day and I had so much to do to get ready! I was sure she’d understand...

When I told her that, she got really excited that I was having a big party for her birthday! That made me feel a little guilty because I had been putting off telling her the bad news. I had to tell her that with all of our family and friends that I had invited, there would be no room for her. She was shocked. Angry. She was crying. She said, “I’m the birthday girl! How can you have a party and not invite me !!” 

Perhaps I was just a little insensitive when I said, “Get real, woman!! The birthday is just the reason to throw the party! They just come for the food and the fun! They love the birthday gift exchange! No one cares if you’re there!” Once she calmed down, I was sure she’d understand...

She then asked if she could just maybe hang out  with me the day after her birthday so that she could spend some time with me. But I had to tell her that on Wednesday morning I was probably going to be burned out and exhausted. I told her that I needed to clean up after her birthday party and put things away. I also explained to her that Macy’s and Target were having their huge clearance sale events on Wednesday and I really wanted to be there when the stores opened. I was sure she’d understand...

Okay. By now of course, you’ve all figured out that none of that really happened and it was a completely fictitious story. If I ever did treat her like that on her birthday, I can only imagine what her response would be and hope that you’d all be nice enough to visit me in the hospital during my recovery period. But in reality, that story illustrates how some of us celebrate the birthday of Jesus Christ.

It seems that as soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are dried and put away, a bell sounds and the Christmas race is on. Recent surveys show that Christmas is the sixth most stressful life event up there with divorce, death, moving and changing jobs. December is the most stressful month for families. High expectations for the perfect gifts, baking, cooking, decorations, parties and will Aunt Eunice drink too much of the "enhanced" eggnog again? Jingle Bells and jangled nerves. Dashing toward Christmas day in a one horse open sleigh. Then finally, it's Christmas! It's show-time!! We did it! And we never notice that in our perfectly hand-crafted, decorated Christmas, the guest of honor is missing. We've left someOne behind.

2000 years ago there was no room for Jesus at the inn. Today many of us have become so caught up in the excessiveness of the Christmas holiday that there’s no room for Jesus in our own Christmas celebration. Wrapped presents are packed under the tree and our “manger” is empty. But Jesus knows we’re really just too busy during Christmas time to spend some time with Him. I’m sure He’d understand... Doesn’t He?

..and that's why we need Advent. The word Advent means “One who comes” and it's a season of hope and anticipation. As Advent heralds the coming King, the focus of the entire season is on Jesus. We celebrate His first Advent and the expectation of His second Advent when He will come again in power and glory. The season of Advent keeps Christ at the center of our Christmas festivities as we bake, decorate and shop. Advent reminds us that at the heart of Christmas is God incarnate – the Child in the manger.  Will you be spending any time with Him this year?

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Advent Abundance

Dear Friends,

It's beginning to feel like Advent. A cold December chill permeates the house. The ground outside still wet from recent rains. Trees and plants washed of the urban soot and dust are once again bright and colorful. I step outside and the cold air penetrates the nostrils with a sharp crispness. The rising sun paints the clouds with a brilliant orange. I pray the Advent prayer prayed by the ancient church, “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come!”

The change of seasons means something different to each one of us. When the Winter chill signals the start of this new season, I think of soup. Sam’s Club has a three pound bag of Broccoli, Carrots and Cauliflower. Perfect. On a Saturday afternoon, a cube and a half of unsalted butter is melted in a ten quart soup pot. Sweet Onions are diced and sauteed. Garlic Cloves are squeezed directly into the buttery Onions and immediately release their flavors. The Flour is whisked in and cooked for just a minute. Then three quarts of Organic Chicken Broth  are slowly whisked into the Flour until there are no more lumps. A cup and a half of White Wine is stirred in and now full heat is applied to bring the liquid to a boil. I stir it occasionally while I inspect the bag of veggies. Everything is fresh so nothing needs to be trimmed or discarded. The whole bag is dumped in. A tablespoon of Celery Salt, or instead, a tablespoon of Old Bay Seasoning is added and the soup is brought back up to a slow boil. The flame is now reduced to its lowest setting and the soup gently simmers until the veggies are soft but not mushy. Now it’s time to get out my industrial-sized immersion blender and the five quarts of soup are blended until it becomes thick and creamy. This will now feed your hungry family of fifteen people at dinner or feed two people for a week.

Many of us today know bread only as the device that’s used to convey the bacon cheese burger from the plate to the mouth, but for much of human history, bread was the staple in our diets. In the beginning there was bread. Genesis 3:19 In ancient biblical times, meat was reserved for feasts, bread was the primary food in their day-to-day lives and all other foods were the “side dishes.” Bread was considered a gift from God, by whose blessing the grain grows and it was used as an offering at Pentecost. Leviticus 23:16-17 Bread was baked on an iron or ceramic plate in a “tannur”-an earthenware oven. I use a ceramic plate in a Frigidaire oven but many thousands of years later it’s the same recipe: flour, yeast, salt and water.

That Sunday morning, I prepare bread dough seasoned with Italian herbs. After the first rise, it's folded and put in the refrigerator to develop the flavors. That afternoon, the  dough is taken out and patted down to about an inch thick. Sitting on the counter in the warmth of the afternoon sun, the yeast does its magic and it rises again. The dough is dimpled, coated with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and slid onto a pizza stone in a 550̊ oven. The soup has also been developing more flavor overnight in the refrigerator and it's now being reheated. The scent of the baking bread is overwhelming and when the golden brown loaf comes out of the oven, the soup is now steaming hot. There is no finer gourmet meal on a chilly Advent Sunday afternoon.

Then I come across this painting by Henry Tanner called THE THANKFUL POOR and I’m captivated by it. An older white-haired man with strong work-hardened forearms and hands. His teenaged grandson. A table set for two. Only one chair in the house; the boy sits on a stool.  What happened to his parents? His grandmother? A clean but well-worn tablecloth. Empty plates. A small loaf of bread between them and little else. Both heads bowed. Eyes closed. In my mind I can hear them thanking God for His blessings and an abundant life in Christ Jesus. 

I research the artist and find that Henry Tanner is considered the greatest African-American artist of all time. His mother had grown up as a child-slave and his father was a minister. I discover that Tanner is known for his biblical paintings and religious art. THE THANKFUL POOR was painted in 1894 and poignantly captures the deep faith that allowed families to experience an abundant life in Jesus in the midst of their poverty.

This painting discomforts me. I look around my house and see too many things. Cupboards of dishes never used. A walk-in pantry with shelves to the ceiling filled with food ingredients. When I sit down to eat, my plate is filled with food. This Advent my thoughts are drawn to others so much more needful than I have ever been. I look again at the grandfather and the young boy and see that, despite their impoverishment, their faith has filled them with the wealth of God’s abundance and wonder if perhaps they are richer than I will ever be. I think about this as I eat my simple but abundant meal of bread and soup...Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus Come!

(My Advent Soup and Bread Recipes are HERE)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

Dear Friends,

Riots. Violence. Fighting. Stabbings. Shootings. Killing. No I’m not talking about Nigeria or Syria. I’m talking about Walmart. That’s the most dangerous place to be on Black Friday and where 60% of the violent incidents occur as we usher in this season of Christmas cheer. Since the marketing concept of Black Friday was created, there have been 12 deaths and 117 major injuries that occurred at retail stores on Black Friday, and the majority of them occurred at a Walmart. Has this become the true meaning of Christmas in our Nation? A Walmart worker is trampled to death after an “out-of-control” mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the locked front doors. On a Thanksgiving evening at a Walmart in Norwalk, two women get into a fist fight over a Barbie Doll. At another Walmart, two women scuffle over the last big screen tv and one of them is seriously injured when it falls on her. At a Kohl’s in Orange County, five women get into a brawl in the baby section –three are arrested and two go to the hospital. When a Victoria’s Secret store opened on Black Friday, a stampede of over a hundred people pushing and shoving in the doors injured dozens. It’s a riot! For underwear! This year’s Black Friday violence included three mall shootings and two people stabbed in the men’s department at a Macy’s. Please join me in singing: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.. Each and every day...”

I don’t know about you but I’m so old that I remember when Christmas was a church holiday. Times have changed. The official start of the Christmas season is no longer determined by the church but by the National Retailers Association and Christmas officially starts on Black Friday. There’s an old fashioned accounting term “in the black” meaning there was a profit. So Black Friday means that the stores have now taken so much of your money that they are operating in the black – at a profit. For our Nation’s retail corporations this is the miracle of Christmas! It’s the magical moment when we max out our credit cards and the retailers rejoice because your money truly is the “reason for the season.”

The birth of Jesus Christ has been transformed by secular America into a “holiday” season of spending money and acquiring more things. And now it’s time for the church to redeem America. About seventeen hundred years ago, the church redeemed a pagan holiday called the winter solstice by changing it into a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas is becoming a pagan holiday again and we need to be the “modern reformers” that will change it back into a celebration of the Baby in the manger. And maybe the best way to do that is to stop celebrating the secular holiday season and start celebrating Advent. Next Sunday (Dec 2nd) is the first Sunday in Advent and the four weeks leading up to Christmas day is the season of Advent that celebrates the coming of Jesus Christ.

For the ancient church, Advent was at the end of the Christian year and it was a quiet season of reflection that looked toward the second coming of Jesus. The word Advent comes from the Latin “adventus” which is the translation of the Greek word “parousia.” Parousia is used seventeen times in the New Testament and always refers to the Second Coming of Christ. 1 Thess 2:19 The season of Advent reminds us that the coming of Jesus is triune. Jesus came to earth 2,000 years ago and He comes into our lives today when we repent and put our trust and faith in Him. And we are then reminded of Christ’s “parousia” – His second coming. So.. what if we were to abandon the secular celebration of the Christmas season? What if we started celebrating Advent and just kept Christmas Day? What would that look like?

If Christmas in our American culture is about spending more money, Advent is about spending less. Christmas is about acquiring material things. Advent is about spiritual things. Christmas is about Santa Claus, who is called the “father” of Christmas. Advent is about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We teach our children that Santa makes magic happen for all those who believe. According to the Bible, Jesus makes genuine miracles happen for all those who believe. Christmas is about the inflatable Grinch in the front yard. Advent is when we set up the manger scene. Christmas is about giving gifts. Advent is about giving more of yourself. Christmas is about two adult women fighting over a Barbie doll in Walmart. Advent is about giving a Barbie doll to a homeless child. Christmas is about sleigh bells ringing and snowmen singing. Advent is about “Silent Night. Holy Night. Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face. With the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus Lord at Thy birth...”

Celebrating Advent means a time of reflection that leads to a gladdened heart that our Savior was born. God incarnate. God in the flesh. Jesus is here and He is coming again! Paul ends his letter to the church at Corinth with the Aramaic phrase, “Maranatha” which is translated as “O Lord come.” 1 Corinthians 16:22 Jesus has come to earth and He’s coming again. The whole meaning of Advent can be summed up in that one word: “Maranatha.” It’s our creed and our prayer. We redeem Christmas with His Maranatha. We are redeemed – the world is redeemed – through His Maranatha. And as we journey through Advent toward Christmas day, we need to take frequent, holy timeouts to take a deep breath and come into His presence. Every so often let’s stop in the middle of our preparation for Christmas to remember God’s “reason for the season” and pray:

“Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus come!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Grace! It's What's Before Dinner.

Dear Friends,

When I was a kid, we said grace at every meal and our family tradition was for us to take turns. My mom and dad said the traditional prayers of the Episcopal Church that were found in the back of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and my dad would solemnly intone: “Bless O Lord, thy gifts to our use; And us to thy loving service; And make us ever mindful of the needs of others; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”  

While I would like you to think that I was a deeply spiritual lad, the truth is that in my haste to eat, my prayer was a fast, three second one-word ritual: 

My sister’s grace was “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub! Yay! God!” which was definitely not found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Saying grace before the meal was so important to my family that on Thanksgiving and Christmas they even called in a professional. Well, sort of.. My mom's cousin was a Congregational Church minister so when their family came to dinner, he always became the designated “pray-er.” His church was the oldest (founded in 1867), largest Protestant church in Los Angeles and I looked up to and admired this man of God. He didn’t just say grace. He would incorporate a three-point sermon into a Thanksgiving prayer with words of thanks for everything and a word of blessing for everyone. By the time he was finished, the turkey had grown cold, a fatty layer had congealed on the now-chilled gravy and his own children would be looking at each other and sneaking glances at the dining room clock. But when you said “amen,” the meal had been sanctified and so had the family time. Our dining room had become a church and God had been invited to join us at the table. 

Giving a blessing after a meal comes from Jewish Law: “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.” Deuteronomy 8:10 But in the New Testament, we find Jesus giving thanks to God before the meal. “And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples...” Mark 6:41 And then when Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Luke 24:30 Jesus’ prayer of thanks to the Father before meals became a Christian liturgy taught by His disciples and we read, “And when he (Paul) had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat.” Acts 27:35

Saying grace is the spiritual time-out between the flurry of activity before the meal and the meal itself. It's the quiet moment at home when the food has been brought to the table. It's the moment at the restaurant when the waiter has hustled off to fetch ketchup for the fries. We pause and bow our heads in prayer. We ask God to bless and sanctify our meal in remembrance that all that we have, including all that we eat, is from God, and we are thankful to Him for His good and perfect gifts to us. James 1:17 

It's also the pause to remember that our meals are not magically transported to our plate after being created in the "StarTrek Replicator." Someone grew, raised or caught your food. If you are eating vegetables, someone spent all day bent over at the waist in the hot sun to handpick them for you. In the grocery store, a minimum-wage produce clerk carefully arranged those veggies on the chilled shelves and perhaps someone other than yourself prepared and cooked your meal. We are thankful for them. And as we sit down to an abundant meal, we are also mindful that according to Christian agencies, 925 million people in the world will go to bed tonight still hungry. We pray for them. Perhaps we even pray for God to show us how we can help someone in need.

If you don't normally say grace, start a new tradition in your life and express your gratitude to a gracious God before your meals. Extemporaneous prayers from the heart are wonderful and so are the timeless traditional prayers. You just read the Episcopal prayer in the first paragraph and a traditional Catholic prayer is “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord.” Methodists pray, “Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we may feast in fellowship with Thee.” A beautiful Eastern Orthodox prayer is “O Christ God, bless the food and drink of Thy servants, for holy art Thou, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” A traditional Lutheran prayer is “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” (Unless you’re a youth pastor at a Baptist Bible Camp you may not want to pray my sister’s prayer and I know you can do better than my childhood grace!) But no matter how and what you pray, this Thanksgiving make sure someone says grace before you tuck into that plate of turkey because “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Those Little Respectable Sins

Dear Friends,

The Book of Joel says that God speaks to young men through visions and to old men through their dreams. As if to confirm my advancing years, God seems to speak to me these days through my dreams! Our dreams can rise up out of our subconscious mind, or have demonic sources or be given to us by God. I have no doubt in my mind that the life-changing dream I’ll tell you about was from God. 
I had a communion chalice filled with wine that I was trying to drink through a straw. I wasn't getting anything but air. I was craving the Communion. The presence of Jesus. I was parched, dry and thirsty. But nothing. I took out the straw and put it back in again to make sure the end was in the wine. I pulled hard on the straw but not a drop could I bring up. I took out the straw and put it in another full chalice and still got nothing but air. I was beginning to feel panic. I needed the Holy Communion. It was more than quenching a thirst. I knew that my very survival depended now on receiving the Presence of Jesus, but all I was drawing through the straw was just ordinary air. I looked at the straw more closely and found why I couldn't take in the wine that had become the Blood of Jesus. My straw had a hole in the side of it. I put my thumb over the hole to seal it off and began to drink deeply of His Presence.
I immediately awoke and lay there while every detail of the dream replayed in my mind. I began to think of all the times I have so craved the Presence of Jesus in my life and found myself spiritually parched, dry and thirsty. During those times, I am profoundly conscious of my spiritual need for Him and try to draw Him in through the things I know how to do: Worship.. Reading Scripture.. Prayer. And while I thirst to drink deeply of His Presence through those straws of the spiritual disciplines, I wind up just sucking air.
During those times when I’m spiritually dry and discouraged and maybe even lacking in fath, I roll up my sleeves and get to work. I’ve read the books, heard and given the sermons. I know what to do! I pull hard against the “straws” of the spiritual disciplines but I’m unable to draw up even a single drop of what I seek. And God had showed me in the dream that I need to check my spiritual life for holes! 

Now fully awake, I asked God to show me the meaning of the hole and the Holy Spirit revealed to me that the hole in the straw had been made by my sins. Our minor sins are like the steady drip of water that can erode and create a hole in the hardest rock. It’s those little, seemingly unimportant sins – the ones I can too easily ignore – that can erode my spiritual life and become the barrier to receiving the fullness of God’s presence that I so desire in my life. 

God was showing me that whenever my relationship with Him doesn’t feel quite right – during those spiritual dry times when His presence seems far away – I need to do a “Sin Check” to see if there is something(s) that I need to confess and repent. A wise, old monk once said, “..on the pathway to purity and spiritual growth you can't afford a reckless attitude toward even the smallest sin.” Even the tiniest of holes made in our straws by the tiniest of sins can prevent us from drawing up the Presence of the Lord Jesus from His well of Living Water. 

Many of us today have become so fixated on the sins of our Nation and that other political party that we hate so much, that we have (conveniently) forgotten about our own sins. We rant about those “big” sins that others do and minimize the “little” sins that infect our own life. But it is those little “unimportant” sins that God is concerned about in your life. Because it’s those tiny, little “respectable” sins-the ones we so easily tolerate-that can keep us from God’s presence. 

You know those little “minor” sins I’m talking about. Being discontent with the life that God has given you. Being fearful of your future by not trusting that God has everything in control. Hating those who believe today what you believed yesterday before you became politically correct. Being unthankful to God and forgetting that all you have is a gift from Him. Grumbling. Giving into anger. Nursing a grudge. The debilitating sin of unforgiveness. Pride. Being impatient and unkind to others. Engaging in new age or pagan practices that are specifically forbidden by God. Having time for TV and being online but no time for the Bible. Being self-centered and not other-centered. The sins of the tongue: gossip, slander, critical speech, harsh words, insults, sarcasm, ridicule, quarreling etc. And then there’s the little sin of when we fail to love others like Jesus does. 

The little “respectable” sins. They’re really no big deal. Right? Everyone does them! Problem is that those tiny, little sins are eating those tiny, little holes in our straws..

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Change Is Coming!

Dear Friends,

Some people believe that Syracuse, New York is one of the most beautiful places on earth when the thousands of trees display the brilliant colors of Autumn. Aunt Helen certainly did. At age 92, she still went bowling every Wednesday and in the Fall, she raked up the red, yellow and orange leaves from her Syracuse front yard. I was reading that a New England mail order company will send you three genuine hand-selected autumn leaves for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling!  If Helen was still alive today, she would have laughed her head off at the thought of selling the leaves on her front lawn to someone living in a “condo” in California!

In Sylmar, I’m seeing a change of color in the deciduous trees and as I breathe in the morning air, there’s a freshness in the breeze that portends the passage of a season and prepares us for the next. Autumn is a time of beauty and peace for contemplatives, photographers, writers and artists. The brilliant tapestry of autumn colors feeds one’s soul and heart with such a dazzling display of God’s handiwork that we just need to go outside and play in it.

One of my favorite places to go this time of year is the picturesque town of Oak Glen nestled in what is called the “Little San Bernardino Mountains.”  Oak Glen is known for its abundant apple orchards and rolling hills covered with vivid autumn reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s as close as you can get to a spectacular New England autumn without getting on a plane.

Seasonal transitions of “nature” in God’s Creation remind us of seasons in our church and in our life. Autumn also signals the arrival of ADVENT – that season of anticipation as we prepare for the birth of the Christ child. ADVENT leads us to the CHRISTMAS celebration which includes Epiphany– the manifestation of the Savior Jesus to the Gentiles. Soon the chill of winter gives way to the warmth of spring and a season of spiritual growth. LENT is a time of reflection and recommitment to a renewed relationship with God. We approach Good Friday with our ineffable gratitude for the ultimate gift of God’s grace and salvation mixed along with a sense of sorrow for the suffering that Jesus endured. Easter– RESURRECTION SUNDAY– is truly a glorious day and the most important of all Christian Holy Days (“holidays”). Fifty days later comes PENTECOST, marking the day that God’s presence became actively working in believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become a witness of His glory and grace to the world. After PENTECOST we enter a season of what the church calls ORDINARY TIME. But the time quickly passes and before long, we sense a freshness in the air and soon the autumn colors are bringing us once again to the season of ADVENT. The journey through our church seasons reveals the mystery of God’s plan as it unfolds for us in the life of the church, and we are reminded that in the Kingdom of God, with each transition, there is something new again. 

In God’s Creation, there is a rhythmic cycle with the organic flow of our four seasons. Every three months, a transition to the next. Depressed by the gray, gloominess of winter? The warmth of spring is right around the corner. Tired of spring showers and eye-burning allergies? The long, hot days of summer are ahead. Worn down by the relentless heat and smog? The cooler glorious world of autumn awaits you. Bored and weary with autumn and those Santa Ana winds? Grab the winter coat, gather the firewood and prepare for those long, frosty winter nights. We are reminded that with each transition from one season to the next, there is something new again.

So it is with the seasons of life. You may be in an exciting springtime season of new birth and growth. You may be feeling as if you are caught in the dry, oppressive days of what seems to be an endless summer. This may be for you a contemplative, peaceful autumn time of thanksgiving. Or you may find yourself in the cold, dark, discouraging loneliness of a long winter season. I've got news for you. Get ready for it. A change is coming!

Seasons of life. Each with its own set of experiences and the passing of each season leaving behind memories of what was. For many of us, our photo albums are the pictorial autobiography of our life. We look back and remember the seasons of life that were filled with great joy and our happy memories bring gladness to our heart. 

But some seasons of life are filled with pain, sorrow and anger and those seasons can embed bitterness, uncertainties, fears and doubts into our soul. We will stay mired in our pain-filled past if we dwell on those memories and relive those circumstances of that season in our mind. And God says: “But forget all that-- it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?” Isaiah 43:18-19 NLT Praise God! For He reminds us that with each life transition, God will give us something new again!

Remember that no matter what season of life we’re in, there are three guarantees we can count on:1) This present season will come to an end. 2) God has already begun to do something new for you in the next season. And, 3) The one unchanging constant that we can trust in and count on is this: God is standing with us in this season and He is waiting for us in the next.  Amen?

Monday, October 29, 2018

Happy Samhain?

Dear Friends,

According to a Wiccan website: Samhain, known most popularly as Halloween, marks the end of the third and final harvest, is a day to commune with the dead, and is a celebration of the eternal cycle of reincarnation. Samhain is the most coveted sabbat by the Wiccan religion and plain and simple is our favorite time of year. A true time for witches, Witchcraft itself, and Wiccans alike who feel that on this night the separation between the physical and spiritual realities is its least guarded and its veil the thinnest. It is a time for dimensional openings and workings, it is a somber holiday, one of dark clothes and thoughts for the dead, it is said to be the time when those of necromantic talents can speak with the dead...”

From another Wiccan website: “The wall between earth and the underworld is thin at this time of year. On Halloween night, the wall opens and the Lord of Darkness (Satan) rises up from the underworld. It is an evil and wicked night..”

From “Samhain, is one of the two spirit-nights each year. It is a magical interval when the mundane laws of time and space are temporarily suspended, and the Thin Veil between the worlds is lifted. Communicating with ancestors and departed loved ones is easy at this time, for they journey through this world on their way to the Summerlands. It is a time to study the Dark Mysteries and honor the Dark Mother and the Dark Father, symbolized by the Crone and her aged Consort.”

Anton LaVey is the founder of the Satanic Church and author of the Satanic Bible. According to their bible, “the two major satanic holidays are Walpurgisnacht and Halloween.” Okay, you may be thinking that the celebration of the dark side is just something fun to do and has no spiritual meaning for you. But if you’re a Christian, your participation in this major Wiccan and Satanic holiday means something to God. Setting aside a special day to celebrate evil, darkness, witchcraft, death and the demonic brings a mocking contempt for God because it is all so highly detestable to Him.

The Old Testament contains different categories of laws some being “legal” (civil/criminal) or “religious” or “moral.” The only Old Testament laws that apply to us today are the moral laws for righteous living with one example being the Ten Commandments. Another moral law is found in Deuteronomy 18:10-13: There must not be found among you anyone who...who uses divination (fortune teller), or uses witchcraft (black magic), or an interpreter of omens (astrology), or a sorcerer (calls forth supernatural powers), or one who casts spells (Wicca), or a spiritualist (psychic) or an occultist, or a necromancer (those who communicate with the dead through rituals or spells). For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God will drive them out from before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.

To better understand the significance of Samhain (Halloween) to Wiccans and Satan worshipers, we need to compare this most important holiday in their “religion” to the most important one in ours. In our Christian faith, the most holy day of the year is the one on which we celebrate the resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ. To a true, practicing Wiccan or Satan worshiper it is unthinkable and perhaps even repugnant for them to celebrate the risen Christ on Easter Sunday! It would be the most profound and grievous violation of their “religious” beliefs for them to do so! On the other hand, I read a Wiccan blog written by a warlock [male witch] who found it both “amusing and delightful” that so many Christians celebrated Samhain along with the Wiccans. Think about that for a moment...

Those of us in the church love to add non-biblical rules and regulations to the practice of our faith. We all have a little bit of Pharisee in each one of us! For some, it’s a sin to dance, wear sleeveless dresses or go to the movies. For others, it’s a mortal (serious) sin to not attend Mass on a Sunday. But my job as a pastor is not to tell you how to run your life. That’s Jesus’ job. My job is to just remind you what it is that God tells you to do through His Word. Then it’s up to you. You can follow Jesus or not. God always gives us a choice! Paul talks about that choice...

A very similar situation was occurring in the church at Corinth. The question had come up about eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul says that the idols are really demons and goes on to say that the “food” is not the issue but their  participation in the ritual was the problem. Satan and his demons were being lifted up and worshiped. The Christians were not worshiping demons but even their casual participation in the event was wrong for them to do. Paul says “I don’t want you to be participants with demons.” 1 Cor 10:20 NLT The NKJ says “I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.” 

On Halloween, the issue is not the “food,” i.e. the candy, pumpkins or the princess costumes. What grieves God is our casual participation in the one special day that the devil and his demons are lifted up and worshiped. 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 6:14-15 It is a rhetorical question because to all first century Christians, the answer was obvious. Amen?

Dear AMEN Corner Reader.. 
Please don’t become angry with me when I quote the Bible!  I never receive “hate emails” in response to the AMEN Corners except for when I write about the importance of Halloween to Wiccans and Satanists! That’s when I’ve always received some surprisingly nasty on-line comments from my fellow Christians.
If you are drawn to the occult, you must determine for yourself, based on the Word of God, if wicca or witchcraft is compatible with your Christianity and if casting spells honors the God of the Bible. 
And I am not telling you that you should not fellowship with the demons on Halloween night! I’m just letting you know that something dark, evil and unholy takes place in the spiritual realm on Halloween night and your participation in the spiritual darkness is a choice you must make. 
If today’s AMEN Corner is disturbing to you, please direct your anger toward God and tell Him how upset you are that He doesn’t want you to participate with demons on their one special night. Please don’t write hostile emails when God’s Word discomforts you. If you don’t like what the Bible says, please complain directly to the Author. That way, you and I can still be friends!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The #NeedHug Movement?

Dear Friends,

Times have changed. The #MeToo movement has become a wake up call for us men to seriously evaluate our behavior and change any of that which can be perceived as sexually demeaning or predatory. That’s a good thing and I strongly support it. Those of you who know me as I’m on the cusp of 70 years will understandably have a hard time imagining that I was a muscular, good-looking man in my late thirties when I was employed at the Cal State Northridge University. That was where the four women in the front office would sexually harass me on a regular basis. It was looks, overt sexual comments, speculation about how “big” I was and even grabbing my butt if I was standing at the copier and not paying attention. They teased me for years. A woman food service manager came up behind me one time in the walk-in refrigerator and rubbed herself against me. I didn’t think of myself as a “victim” and it was even somewhat flattering that women found me attractive but the overt sexuality embarrassed me and made me very uncomfortable. It’s embarrassing for me to now have you know this about me, but I tell you this to say that I have an idea of what some women have experienced throughout their life. 

But for the good being accomplished by this #MeToo movement, there is also a downside. When a man lightly touched a co-worker’s back with his fingertips to signal she could step ahead of him through the doorway it was reported as a “sexual assault.” A man is accused of sexual harassment for inviting a co-worker to lunch. A woman reports to her employer that a co-worker had leered at her. He was suspended from his employment without pay during the investigation that eventually showed he was gay, not attracted to women, nearsighted, and he didn’t have his glasses when he was looking at the woman to see who she was. A woman model and organizer of beauty pageants became angry at her agent and posted to her facebook fans that for many years when she was dating him, after a dinner at an expensive restaurant, she stayed the night with him. In her desire to be part of the #MeToo movement, she claimed that every time she had spent the night in his bed with him during those many years, he had “raped” her. I knew someone who was also dating her and my advice was to run from the relationship as quickly as possible. 

The #MeToo movement was necessary, but the accusations, recriminations and accompanying high level of rage have led to tense and uncertain relationship situations in the office, socially and even at church. The LA Times reported that men no longer feel safe inviting women co-workers to business lunches and women complain about not being included in these business discussions. Police-style video cameras are being marketed to young men to wear on dates in order to provide evidence of innocence in the event of a harassment complaint and some young men are beginning to avoid dating relationships entirely. One outcome of our rapidly changing culture in America is the demise of the friendly hug between two acquaintances and I read that a woman pastor in a mainline liberal church now prohibits “hugging” during the “passing of the peace” in order to prevent the men from touching a woman.

A few Sundays ago, I was at a church in that same denomination. We used to rent this church property for our services and so I knew most of the people there but had not visited for many months. After the service, many of the women rushed up to give me a hug. At one point a line had formed. One woman hugged me three different times that day. They were showing me how much they loved and cared for me. That’s what hugs are for. And as I hugged them back I can only hope that they felt just as cared for and as loved by me because they were. 

A Christian Psychologist once said that, “The persistent cry of the human heart is to hug me and hold me close.” Many people today are over-whelmed with feelings of loneliness. A survey showed that 60% of married people experience loneliness. Many struggle with depression, despair and discouragement and they walk through their days feeling alone and forgotten. Sometimes those hugs at church are the only loving contact they will have during their week.

We communicate and bond through touch. Our comfort level with touch is determined early on. If mom and dad didn’t hug and hold us in the first three years of our life, we may become anxious and stiffen up if someone hugs or touches us today. If hugs were lacking in our family culture, we can be fearful of the hugs that cement warm, caring relationships. If we were abusively touched as a child, we can recoil at the healing touch of another person. But safe, non-sexual touch can play a critical part in healing those childhood wounds and that’s why it would be sad to see our churches become hug-free zones out of a desire to be politically correct. If Jesus came to our church, He would be embracing people. The church today is filled with people who need a hug. But, unless you know the person well, it’s always best to ask, “Can I give you a hug?” A hug is the physical expression of our Christian love for one another. Romans 16:16 tells us that the early church greeted each other with a holy kiss and today we greet each other with a holy hug. 

Yes, the #MeToo movement is essential and needful in our culture today. But maybe the church should start the #NeedHug movement because, well... that’s what Jesus would do.  Amen?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The #1 Thing You Can Do For Your Pastor

Dear Friends,

It’s the only job in the world where you need to have the wisdom of Jesus, the compassion of Mother Teresa and the political acuity of Winston Churchill. You’re expected to have the fiery, life-changing preaching skill of Billy Graham along with the occasional comedic genus of Bob Hope. After the service, you then must have the patience of a saint along with the thick, hard skin of a rhinoceros as you hear the comments and criticisms from those you have been called to serve. I was told last week that a pastor was given an envelope by a church member. Thinking he was receiving a thoughtful gift, the pastor opened it to find it contained dust and lint. The member told him that this was found beneath a pew and that he needed to do a better job.

This November will be our third year anniversary of holding church services at a residential care facility in our community. There are those in the congregation who have attended every service and have thanked me for coming every time we’ve been there. In the three years, I did receive one complaint though. A person once told me that they liked the service so much that she wished I would sing more songs and also make the sermon longer. The administration and staff have expressed gratitude that we are there and tell us specifically about the positive changes they have seen in the residents. I am blessed beyond words to be their pastor and I’m among the 94% of us clergy who would say today that we are honored to be called to serve God and His people. 

But the majority of pastors also say that Bible college or seminary did not prepare them for the challenges of church ministry and a whopping 90% say that ministry was completely different than what they had expected. After the third year of ordination, 80% now expect frequent conflict in their church that will have a negative impact on their personal life and family life. 54% find the role of a pastor overwhelming and, after receiving constant complaints, 70% say that they have a lower self-image than when they first started. At one time, a church pastor was one of the most respected professions in his community. Today, the pastor is near the bottom of “most-respected professions” surveys and is just right above “used car salesmen.” Is it any wonder that 75% of all pastors consider leaving the ministry on a regular basis?

The story goes that after 20 years of marriage, a woman finally talked her husband into going to couple’s therapy. When asked by the therapist to tell her husband what was the one thing she was most unhappy about, she said, “Not once in our entire marriage have you ever told me that you love me.” The husband frowned and said, “On our wedding day, I told you I loved you and if anything changes I’ll let you know.” For the husband, simply staying in the marriage should have been sufficient proof that he loved his wife.

As far as many of us good churchgoin’ folks are concerned, showing up on Sundays should be sufficient proof that we’re happy with our pastor. But like the woman in what felt like a loveless marriage, sometimes your pastor also needs to hear that you appreciate him. (To avoid awkward pronouns, when I refer to a pastor as “him,” I mean “him or her.”)

One thing you can do for your pastor is to tell him that you are grateful for his messages. Our sermon can take a full day or multiple days to prepare and many pastors have no idea if their preaching makes any difference in the lives of those in the church. “Great sermon, Rev!” as we hurry through the door on our way to coffee and donuts is the equivalent of “Have a nice day.” If something said was helpful, tell him what that was. Be specific. Don’t worry about us becoming prideful – pastors typically receive a dozen complaints for every compliment! If something was life-changing, write a note, card or email that week and let your pastor know. A wise elder once told me to save every card and every note that encouraged me. When someone would flatten me with an unwarranted criticism or the murmuring would discourage me, I’d pull out that file and read. Some of you have contributed to my “encouragement file” and words cannot express how much I appreciated you.

The number one cause of discouragement among pastors is conflicts, complaining and murmuring. They report it leaves them physically exhausted at the end of their week, and it can be devastating when members use social media to blast the church. Ratcheting up our anger to attack and destroy a pastor and his family and to cause division in the church is not an option for those of the Christian faith. 'Nuff said.

But most of the complaints received by pastors are as shallow and as silly as the piece of lint clinging to the bottom of the pew. The person is not being mean or cruel, but the pettiness can just wear us out. Do you remember the complaints to pastors in last week’s AMEN Corner? We easily laugh at their shallow triviality, but petty complaints can be just as harmful to us humans as the ones that are intentionally cruel. A dear woman who was a regular at our Sunday service for many years never once said anything complimentary to me and that was okay. But she would complain before or after nearly every service that the sanctuary was too cold. Yes, nearly every service for years. I suggested she bring a sweater. I suggested she not sit under the air conditioning vent. She preferred to complain. I still have very fond memories of this woman, but it would sometimes be difficult to keep a smile on my face when she would approach me after the service. 

Here's another thing you can do for your pastor. If you have a genuine concern that you really believe is important, pray about it. If God is leading you to address it, approach your pastor in love and gently express it. If the concern can’t be resolved to your satisfaction, you have two Christian choices. Let it go or leave and find another church. Angry resistance may be politically popular these days but it has no place in the house of God. 

Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your pastor is to pray for him. I guarantee that you will absolutely shock your pastor if you approach him after the service next Sunday and ask, “How can I pray for you? What do you most need prayer for at this time in your ministry?” And then make that commitment to pray – every day. October is Pastor Appreciation Month and there is no greater gift you can give to your pastor than your prayers. That’s what will give your pastor hope, a sense of being cared for and encouragement for his ministry. AMEN?

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Secret That Pastors Don't Want You To Know

Dear Friends,

The young woman had left her megachurch to become a regular attender at ours. One Sunday, she told me that she didn’t like the way I sang our worship songs. She said that our songs didn’t sound like the way the worship team did them at her last church. I said, “You mean to tell me that this one old guy with a guitar doesn’t sound exactly like a professional mega-church praise and worship band?” She also informed me that I was doing Holy Communion all wrong.

Many years ago, a member approached me to tell me that she and another woman didn’t approve of the “fact” that one of our church members was my “concubine.” I told her that, in the Bible, a concubine was a woman who had voluntarily become a man’s sexual slave and I asked her if that was the word she intended to use. She believed that she was a prophet sent by God and firmly stated that God had spoken to her and told her that the church member was my concubine. I said that the woman she was referring to was someone I dearly loved and told her that the “spirit voice” she was listening to was not God. Both the two “concubine” accusers and the young “mega-church” woman were constantly critical of me. I felt a huge sense of relief when these women left our church!

Back when I worked full time, and was also a “full-time” but unpaid pastor, I had only two days off a month – alternating Fridays – when I was not working at my secular job or for the church. I told the church how much I liked going to the beach on those two days off and how those days would relax and rejuvenate me. The wife of a church councilperson told me during a yearly congregation meeting that I should be devoting those two days off to church business! Did I mention that I was their unpaid pastor?

Few people are truly aware of the constant requests, complaints and criticisms that pastors receive, but a church consultant recently asked pastors to share what some of those were:

“We need a small group for cat lovers.”

“You need to change your voice.”

“Our expensive coffee is attracting too many young people.”

“You should know that the Bible says that preachers who don’t wear suits and ties aren’t saved.”

“Your socks are distracting.”

“You shouldn’t make people leave the youth group just because they’ve graduated from high school.”

(To a pastor’s wife) “Would you ask Pastor Jeff to buy me some panties and bring them by on his way to church?”

“I don’t like the color of the paper towels in the women’s restroom.”

“We need to start attracting more normal people at church.”

“I developed cancer because you don’t preach from the King James Version.”

“Your wife never compliments me about my hair or dress.”

“Not enough people signed up for the church golf tournament because you have poor leadership skills.”

“If Jesus sang from the green hymnals, why can’t we?”

(To a pastor who married interracially). “You are living in sin. You shouldn’t be married to a colored woman.” 

“I don’t like the brand of donuts in the foyer.”

“You didn’t wrap the hot dogs in bacon for the church picnic.”

“You shouldn’t drink water when you preach.” 

“The toilet paper is on the wrong way in the ladies restroom. It’s supposed to be rolled under.”

“You don’t have ashtrays in the fellowship hall.”

“Didn’t you see me waving in the back of the church? You preached too long. It was time to eat!” 

“The eggs were not scrambled enough at the senior’s  breakfast.”

“We’re leaving the church because of the red cross on the building. That’s the color of the devil.”

“Sorry I was late to church. My dog Rambo and I have been witnessing to people.”

“Are you the one who took the beer off my daddy’s grave?”

“We never had hurricanes until you moved into our town.”

“You need to turn all the lights up during worship. You can’t worship God when it’s dark because He is light.”

“Can you perform a ceremony for just living together since we don’t want to get married?”

“I really appreciate the content of your sermons, but I can’t stand to watch you as you deliver it.”

“You don’t have the anointing of God. My cat agrees with me.”

“You blink too much when you preach and your skin is too pale.”

“The donuts and cakes you bring every Sunday are not enough. You need to make sandwiches and bring salads for after each service.” oh wait a moment.. that last comment was made to me..

We can easily laugh at some of these until we think about how they were received by the pastors. Were these all laughed off or was there discouragement? Were these no big deal or the final straw that ended a ministry career? Here's the secret that pastors don't want you to know. A 2016 survey showed that 80% of church pastors have experienced burnout. 77% regularly deal with unrealistic expectations from their congregation. 85% have seriously considered leaving the ministry and 75% consider doing that on a regular basis. 60% believe their church is a toxic environment because of some of the church members. 61% fight depression and an astounding 83% say they take prescription drugs for anxiety or mood disorders. Because of the demands of ministry and toxic people in the church, 71% have considered suicide. Sadly, we’ve been reading lately about a number of pastors who have ended their life.

October is Pastor Appreciation Month and I’ve always appreciated the thoughtful things people would write in the cards given to me on that one special Sunday. But I’ve also often wondered what it would be like if this were reversed. We could have Pastor Unappreciation Month and on that one special Sunday people could submit a list of their complaints and criticisms. Then on the other 51 Sundays, people could be encouraging to their pastors. Next week, I’ll give you some suggestions for how you can do that...