Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Be Good (Part 4)

Dear Friends,

According to a survey taken by U.S. News, 80% of our New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned by February. That means that for this year’s most popular resolution: “Be a better person – Be good!” only about 20% of us are still trying to do that. According to the survey, the vast majority of these well-intentioned people have thrown up their hands in despair, decided that it’s futile to become a better person and “being good” is an elusive and unattainable goal! But is it? Not if the power of God is active in your life! 

We’ve seen that in our culture today, right and wrong have morphed into subjective opinion and there are many contradictory beliefs about what is good. We saw that only the true and immutable (unchanging) word of God can define what’s is “good” for the believer and if we want to be a better person, we must read our Bible to find out what God’s definition of a good person really is. We’ve also spent some time examining our own motives to be a good person. Is it for a selfish desire to make us look better in the eyes of people? Or have we placed God first in our life and our only desire is to do the will of the Father and look forward to the day that Jesus says to us, Well done good and faithful servant. We’ve entered into a season of self-evaluation, praying for God to search our hearts and show us what we’ve done to offend Him. Okay. We have our list of what the Holy Spirit has shown us. What’s the next step?

Because I have been, thus so far, unsuccessful in convincing my own loved ones that my sarcasm is a spiritual gift from God, this is one area of my personality that I’ve had to struggle with. And when I pray the prayer of self-examination at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit will replay the tape of the unkind words I’ve used. Many, many years ago God convinced and convicted me that my words were lacking in grace and offensive to Him and He led me to Ephesians 4:29. I began to pray that scripture every morning and throughout my day: “Lord, let no corrupt or unwholesome word proceed forth from my lips but what would be for the edification of others, according to the need of the moment, that it would impart grace to the hearers.”

My flesh still occasionally pulls me toward thoughtless and graceless words, but those who know me from two decades ago would tell you that my speech is very much different today than it used to be and God gets all the glory!  A major part of my personality shifted over the years and it was not due to any psychological trick or self-imposed behavioral modification. It was the power of God actively working in my life. Jesus said that, “What you say flows from your heart,” Luke 6:45 NLT and by my simply praying scripture, God changed my heart.

Now in the month of February, if you, like me, are in the 20% still desiring to be a better person and do good, continue to pray the prayer of self-examination at the end of each day. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends You, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. Psalm 139:23-24 NLT Then ask God to show you a scripture that addresses what you struggle with. That’s your prayer scripture. Pray your scripture every day and pray your scripture when you mess up in that one area. Through His grace, your heart will be changed.  And then...

My brother wanted to be a bull rider. Seriously. We grew up in Los Angeles, but he went to every rodeo in Southern California. He studied the moves and techniques of the famous, top-money-earning, celebrity bull riders. They were his mentors. He wanted to prepare like them, exercise like them, dominate the wildest and most dangerous bulls like them. He wanted to be exactly like them. He went to bull riding school in Colorado. In the middle of this quest to ride bulls, God gave him a holy smack upside the head to knock some sense into him and he became a lineman for the DWP instead. But his passion for learning how to ride bulls by studying those at the top of the game shows us what we need to do to be a better person and be good. 

God already created you to be a good person and do good things with your life. Ephesians 2:10. You thought it was a New Year’s resolution, but it’s been God’s plan for your life all along! It’s your God-given destiny! But how do we turn that promise into a practice that changes our lives? Whether you’re a ballet dancer or a bull rider, we need a mentor to emulate and look up to. And you and I also need a spiritual  mentor to study. Someone that we can become close to so that we can learn from them in the context of a personal relationship. We need to study their techniques, their habits, and then we need to notice and practice their “moves” until they become ours. We need to emulate them. To be like them as much as possible. 

We need a mentor and only one Person fits the bill – His name is Jesus Christ. We are told to “be imitators of God” Ephesians 5:1-2 and “walk in the same manner as God does” 1 John 2:6 and then God sent His only Son as the perfect image of the God we are to imitate. Colossians 1:15 Are you inspired to seek out your mentor Jesus Christ and be like Him? If so, you’ve already found Him! That’s the grace of God! Know Him. Study Him. Meditate upon Him. Give Him your heart and let Him change you from the inside out. Let’s all be a better person in 2018. It’s not just a resolution. It’s a promise from God! It’s our destiny!  Amen?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Be Good! (Part 3)

Dear Friends,

I woke up this morning right after a most bizarre dream. Struggling to understand the full meaning of it and why there was so much clarity in the details, I suddenly got it. Thank you Lord! God had just changed what I was going to write about today in this series on “Being a Better Person and Doing Good.” In the dream, I’m walking across a field of grass soaked with recent rains. I see a woman nurse trying to push a hospital gurney that’s now stuck in the mud. I somehow know that the woman on the gurney is dying and the nurse is trying to push her to where the person’s life can be saved. Realizing she needs my help, I rush over to the nurse. Pushing with all my strength, the gurney surges out of the thick mud and starts rolling over the wet grass. I now see, over on my right, a large crowd of people watching. I suddenly feel very prideful and I’m overjoyed to find that so many people are seeing me do a “good deed” for another. We push the gurney into a hospital and look down to see that the person has died. The nurse is  angry that she wasted her time pushing a dead woman. But my thought was that I couldn’t wait to go back to the crowd because I could tell my exciting story of how I tried to save the person. That was when I woke up. Was that dream for ME, Lord? And to some extent it was. I wish that God would not use my propensity for pride as an illustration for the AMEN Corner but He does. And in my quiet prayer time this morning, I felt God say, “Why do you want to be good?” And both you and I need to answer that question...

I thought about the poll showing that the number one New Year’s resolution was to “Be a Better Person – Be Good” and wondered how many want to be good for selfish reasons. We contribute money anonymously to a popular “gofundme” campaign for an needy family and then post a boast about it on our facebook to let all our friends know what a wonderful person we are. We volunteer for a homeless organization and tweet the dramatic stories with the selfie photos of us and the old man in the park to our friends. But, if our motivation for “doing good and being a better person” is no more than a selfish desire to feel good about ourselves, and make ourselves look good in the eyes of others, we need an attitude check.  

What does God say about us rushing to post or tweet our latest good deed? The word of God says: Watch out! Don't do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. Those who boast about it to call attention to their acts of charity  have received all the reward they will ever get. But when you give to someone in need, don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. Matthew 6:1-4

We need to be a better person and be good while remaining humble. Sometimes we instinctively, and out of the goodness of our hearts, do rush to do good and help others (push the gurney out of the mud) and then we later take advantage of the good deed (hey.. awesome..look at all my friends over there watching me). Instead, when we yield to the leading of the Lord to do good, He tells us “..when you obey Me you should say, ‘We are unworthy servants who have simply done our duty.’” Luke 17:10 NLT

I’ve prayed about what I’m going to tell you next and truly have no wish to be “admired by others.” I’m an unworthy and struggling servant of God doing what it was my duty to do. So I’m sharing something intensely personal with you and God gets all the glory because He was the one who told me to do it. In fact, the first time I did this, it was out of a begrudging obedience to Him. I did not want to do it. Five years before I retired, the city I worked for began giving upper management $350 bonuses at Christmas time. For each of those years, I’d cash the check and put the cash in an envelope with an unsigned Christmas card. I had a good friend who worked in the Human Resources department and I would ask her to find a city employee for me who was a single mom with young children and struggling financially. (HR people were often aware of an employee’s personal struggles when helping them with issues affecting their job) I asked her to give the single mom the envelope of cash but the conditions were that my HR friend was to never tell the recipient who gave the money and never tell me who she gave the money to and never tell any other employee what I had done. I looked forward to doing that each Christmas because it was one of the most joyful things that I have ever done in my life. Other than just a couple of people (and now you), only God knew what I had done. What God was showing me, and hopefully now you, was that when doing good for others, the most joyful and satisfying experiences are when it’s for His eyes only.

I’m not alone in my desire to be a better person and to do good in 2018, but the question remains, “Why do you want to be good?” The answer is found in who we are living for. Is our life dedicated to people or to God? Do we live to make other people admire us or do we live to please God? We can test our motivations by asking ourselves, “If no one but God knew that I was giving (this money, time, help), would I still do it?” If you’re not sure or if the answer is a “no” then we are living for people’s praise, and before we can be unselfish, loving, altruistic Christians, we need to dedicate or rededicate our life to God. If our resolution is to be a better person and do good, our motivation can only  be a Christ-like life in the presence of God.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Be Good! (Part 2)

Dear Friends,

Last week we saw that the top resolution in 2018 was to: “Be a better person.” In other words..BE GOOD! But then we immediately got bogged down because there is no agreed upon good or bad or right or wrong in our society and not even within our church traditions. We saw that we can’t depend on politicians, our society or even our religions to determine what’s good and what’s bad. Last week’s AMEN Corner ended with a question: “So how in heaven’s name can we be good and become a better person in 2018 if there is no absolute moral truth that would define for us what “good” looks like?”

But of course we actually do have a Book that contains the absolute moral truths that we need to know in order to become a better person. The problem is that so few of us Christians actually read it. Like the rest of the world, we have let the loudest voices in our society and in the media determine what is “good.” We’ve ignored the word of God and have let the world define “good.” Polls show that 100% of churchgoers read news, watch TV commentary and/or engage with news on social media, but only 19% of churchgoers read their Bible on a daily basis. In fact, 40% read their Bible just a few times a year or never read a Bible. And yes these are the churchgoers! For those nominal Christians who do not attend church, the statistics are even more depressing. So then, who do you suppose that our Nation’s Christians are being most influenced by, MSNBC or by God? But if we do go to church, are we not taught what is good and bad and right and wrong? Let’s see. There are two large branches of the Lutheran church in our Nation. One preaches that same sex relationships are “bad”–that homosexuality is a sin. The other branch preaches same sex relationships are “good” and have a bishop and his husband to promote that new doctrine. If you remember the “law of non-contradiction” from last week, we realize that only one of those Lutheran teachings can be the word of God and is “right and good.” But which one is it? It’s up to each one of us to rediscover the absolute moral truths that can only be found in our Bible.

If the word of God is indeed true and immutable as we claim it to be, then everything we need to know about good, bad, right and wrong is written in our Bible. So, in order to be “good,” we need to find out what God defines as good. That’s why you need to read your Bible. By the way, everyone who has ever told me they don’t understand their Bible has a King James that they’re trying to read. I tell them to keep the beautiful King James Family Bible on display in the living room and get a Bible that they can understand. The New Living Translation (NLT) is a literal, accurate translation in English that you and I can easily understand. The NIV and ESV are also popular and easy-to-read translations. Let me know if you’d like to have the NLT, I have some extra copies. 

And then, we need to read the New Testament. That’s where we find the good, bad, right and wrong stuff for those of us who are Christian believers. The Old Testament is the Jewish law which is not as helpful for us in determining what is “good” unless you are looking for the right way of presenting your sheep for sacrifice at the Temple. We’ll read the Old Testament later.

Step One on our journey to be good is to take a hard look at ourselves. I was at the funeral of a co-worker once where the priest attempted to preach one of the most malefic humans I have ever known into heaven. I knew the guy. Baptized Catholic, this now self-described atheist was abusive to his family and to those he supervised at work. But out of consideration for the grieving family, the priest selected a few good attributes (loved his two dogs, loved his motorcycles, was a good provider) and the dude was on his way to glory. We need to make sure that when we are self-evaluating we are not just looking at the good things. We don’t want to pat ourselves on the back for dropping the dollar in the beggar’s cup and overlook the shabby way we treat our family members. 

Like the priest working hard to promote the deceased to sainthood, we tend to brush aside our sinful behavior and spin the highlights of our own existence into something close to angelic. Steven Covey once said that we “judge ourselves by our intentions while we judge others by their behavior.” And our behavior, or more specifically, the “fruit” of our lives is what we need to look at. We are saved through Christ alone by faith alone, but the evidence of our salvation is our good works and changed life. As Jesus said, we are to judge others by the  “fruits” of what their words and actions produce. By using the metaphor of a good tree producing good fruit, He gives us the metrics to measure our own life as well. Matthew 7:18-20 

If your resolution is to be a better person and do good, then use this next week for some self-evaluation. Let go of your own ideas for self-improvement and determine God’s desire for you. “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends You, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” Psalm 139:23-24 NLT When we self-examine, we are taking care to not condemn ourselves but to just notice those areas in our life that God is pointing out to us. Take the week to do this every day and write down in a journal or notebook the things that you are doing that offend God and make Him unhappy. Remember that God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way. We’ll conclude this next week...

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

#1 Be Good!

Dear Friends,

The most hopeful sign that America is on the cusp of becoming great again is a surprising change this year in the most popular New Year’s resolution. Our resolutions always reflect what we are lacking. We lack good sense or willpower when it comes to what we eat and so we vow to eat better. We lack the good health we wish we had and commit to exercise in the new year. We lack the funds we need and pledge to handle our money more wisely. That’s why for the past many years the three most popular resolutions have been to eat better, exercise more and save money in order to reduce our debt. 

But for 2018, the top resolution was to: “Be a Better Person.” In other words..BE GOOD! And maybe the most encouraging thing about our desire to “be good” is the realization that perhaps we’re not quite as good as we thought we were. The goal to be a better person is the acknowledgment that something is lacking with our morals and ethics. So if those in our Country are joining in this implicit confession and taking personal responsibility for improving their own morals and ethics, could this be the first step in seeing our country return to its now abandoned Judeo-Christian values?

But here’s what we now must wrestle with. In our culture’s current thinking, there is no agreed upon good, bad, right and wrong. No longer is there absolute moral truth because morality depends on values and everyone has their own value system. So how can we possibly “be good” in 2018 when it seems that no one can agree on what is good? We can’t let politicians determine what is “good.” The Democratic candidate for president had stated that her goal was for an open border with Mexico that would allow free passage between the two counties. She sincerely saw that as a “good plan” for our Nation. The Republican candidate’s goal was, and now as President still is, to build a wall between the two countries that would limit and control immigration. He sincerely believes that is the “good plan” for our Nation. Could you possibly get two more different plans? Which one is the “good” one? Are you sure? 

We can’t let all religions determine what is good. Islam extremists literally follow the teachings of their prophet Mohammad and sincerely believe they are doing good by exterminating Christians for our belief that Jesus Christ is equal to Allah. In India, Hindus do “good” by worshiping idols and massacring the Muslims. 

We can’t let our culture determine what is good. Is it good to be “pro-choice” or is it good to be “pro-life?” As with many moral and ethical issues, it’s one or the other. You can’t believe that both of those positions are “good.” Philosopher Aristotle determined the law of non-contradiction from scientific reasoning. For example, as I write this, there is an animal curled up and asleep on the low file cabinet next to my desk. I say that’s my cat Cody. You tell me that it’s not a cat, it’s a dog. Aristotle’s principle of non-contradiction means that only one of us can be right. The other one is wrong. 

Our culture today ignores the principle of non-contradiction and preaches that both of us are experiencing legitimate realities and so therefore I have no right to impose my belief on you that Cody is a cat. Today we hear of bi-gender adults who consider themselves equally male and female and parents who are allowing three year olds to determine which gender they would like to become. Psychiatrists say that’s harmful, but today’s progressive culture says that’s “good.” In last Sunday’s L.A. Times newspaper, there was a very positive article on the religious fervor of young women attracted to Satanism and the revival of the atheistic Church of Satan. Worshiping the Mother Creator “Lilith”, this so-called “church of witches” performed the anti-baptism ritual of a coven-mate. Rejecting her Christian church baptism, the young woman was stripped naked, smeared with blood and was offered up in service to the goddess Lilith as an avenging angel for crimes against women. Today’s culture says that’s “good.” Is it any wonder that once our society abandoned the politically-incorrect Judeo-Christian values, we became confused over the messy realities of what really is “good?” 

So how in heaven’s name can we be good and become a better person in 2018 if there is no absolute moral truth that would define for us what good looks like? It’s so confusing that maybe we all should just eat better and exercise more! But if your resolution really is to be good and become a better person, there are three things you need to know that will help you to do that. We’ll look at those three next week...

Friday, January 5, 2018

Subversive Resistance!

Dear Friends,

I miss Christmas already. I loved going into the most secular retail stores and hearing the words to Hark The Harold Angels Sing on their music system: “Christ by highest heav’n adored, Christ the everlasting Lord. Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a Virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the God-head see, hail the Incarnate Deity...”

We all join hands and celebrate that “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” and then we end the season and put Him back in the box. We take the lights off the dried-out tree and carefully remove the fragile porcelain nativity figurines from the stable. We bubble-wrap the baby Jesus and pack him away.

A family was driving by their church the week after Christmas. Their son had noticed that the Nativity Scene in front of the church had been already taken down. The little boy said, “Look! They've put Jesus away for another year.”

That's what the world does with Jesus. If Jesus was even a part of their Christmas celebration, He's now packed away with the lights, ornaments and tree stand. But does your celebration of Jesus really end when there’s nothing left under the tree but dried pine needles scattered on the tree skirt? Is your joy and happiness gone after gifts are opened and the trash cans are overflowing with empty cardboard boxes and crumpled wrapping paper?

By the end of the 19th Century, the start of the Christmas season was no longer being determined by the church. The major department stores had hijacked the holy days and reinvented Christmas to be a time of giving gifts. Today the Christmas season is driven by the National Retail Federation and officially begins when the plastic Santas are on the shelf next to the Halloween skeletons. And the season is officially over as soon as the Christ- mas clearance items have been sold and the January “White Sales” have begun. The baby Jesus is gone but there’s an astounding 30-60% off on all sheets and bedding at Macy’s! 

Let's do something revolutionary and take back the Christmas season! Let’s continue to make it Christ-centered and have it start on the first Advent Sunday. But then let's do something even more radical. Let's have this “Christ Season” never end! What if our celebration and worship of Jesus started every year on the first Sunday of Advent and didn’t end on December 26th? What if the “Season that Jesus is the Reason of” never ended but the season of joy just continued all year long? And then what if, on every first Advent Sunday, the never-ending season of celebrating Jesus just started all over again?

And what if every day of that season, we longed to live our life in the presence of the One who was the Child in the manger? What if every day of that season, we dropped to our knees to confess our sins of the day and prayed that God would make us into the image – the very likeness – of His Son Jesus Christ? What if we took every opportunity we had during our new extended Christ Season to speak with others about Jesus. What if instead of just inviting our family and friends to church with us on Christmas Eve and Easter day, what if we invited them to come to church on February 11th or how about May 27th? Or even August 12th? Or even next Sunday?

Christmas Day is over. Vacuum up the dried pine needles. Pack up the Nativity set. But don’t bubble-wrap the real Son of God and pack Him away. Let's keep the real Jesus right here in our day-to-day life.  Yes, Jesus is the “Reason for the Season,” but let’s be subversive and make His season a season that never ends.  Amen?

Reprinted from a 2013 AMEN Corner