Wednesday, April 25, 2018

God the Magic Genie?

Dear Friends,

When I was a kid, I loved to skate. I managed to fall down a lot on my own, but the photographic evidence establishes that sometimes I was pushed by my little sister. The shadow in the photo on the left is my father documenting the misdeed with his Kodak "Brownie" camera and the long shadow at the upper-right is my mother interrogating the little sidewalk terrorist. Fortunately, I always had a lucky rabbit’s foot in my pocket to protect me from harm! Then there was the day I’m flying down the sidewalk on my skates and the metal clamp that attached the skate to my shoe became loose. I fell face first and left about three feet of my skin on the sidewalk. Apparently I’d been given a defective lucky rabbit’s foot because its magical protection didn’t work. And God doesn’t work that way either. God is not a charm to dangle from your rearview mirror or a talisman to wear around your neck for good luck. You can’t stuff God in your pocket like a “lucky rabbit’s foot” to guarantee protection from life’s misfortunes or from pesky little sisters.

Many Christians today have fallen into the trap of what I call “Entitlement Christianity.” We go to church. Tithe. Pray. Worship. Then tragedy strikes and now we’re furious with God for letting it happen. “I’m a good Christian! I don’t deserve this!” And I’ve known too many former Christians who rejected God and became atheists after a personal tragedy because the God they’d been taught to believe in didn’t exist. They had listened to well-meaning family members and preachers and had ascribed to God the characteristics of a magic genie or talisman. As long as we have Him in our pocket, wherever we go and whatever we do, we will be safe and no harm will come to us. We are good people of faith and God owes us! But that’s bad theology and shame on our churches for teaching that.

At one time, I was a pastor in a Pentecostal denomination that taught “positive confession theology.” Taking authority. Claiming victory over health and financial problems. Preaching that God guarantees that what we “claim in the name of Jesus” will be ours. But the trouble with “positive confession theology” is that life happens and misfortune strikes. We claim God’s protection and then the earthquake occurs. The drunk driver crosses over the center divider. Prayers go unanswered and a wife dies in surgery. A son or daughter is lost to mental illness and homelessness. The tests come back positive for cancer. We named it and claimed it and stepped out in full expectation of victory and God did not meet our expectations. We are absolutely devastated. But any teaching that obligates God (based upon our diligent exercise of faith) to do our bidding and provide us with good health, wealth and protection, is the unbiblical religion of Entitlement Christianity.

Out of our love for others, we can inadvertently foster that Entitlement Christianity with our prayers and encouragements. I remember a pastor’s wife who had been given “prophecies” by those in her church assuring her that God loved her so much He was going to heal her breast cancer. As she later lay dying in a hospital bed, she told me through her tears that God didn’t love her enough to heal her cancer. Well-meaning “prophets” had made promises for God, commanded healing in the name of Jesus and nearly destroyed this woman’s faith when her cancer continued to spread. She thought that if God loved her, He'd heal her, but God loved her so much that He gathered her up in His arms and took her to heaven.

God may heal in response to prayer. Or maybe not. Yes of course we do pray for healing and believe that if it is God’s will do so, He will. But it is spiritual arrogance to “take authority” over illness and command God to heal. God’s grace, mercy and favor are His free gifts and not something that we deserve or can ever earn. The Word of God never promises great wealth, perfect health and a trouble-free life. (Actually Jesus promised the opposite John 16:33 NLT) But God does promise that no matter what happens, He will never leave or abandon us. Hebrews 13:5 

A mature theology sounds like this: God does love us. He does protect us. He does heal in response to our prayers. He does have a plan for your life. And sometimes our life is wonderful and sometimes it stinks. We can be flying down the sidewalk of life exalting in the pure excitement of it all and in the next moment we’re sliding on our face. That’s why a self-centered attitude of entitlement must be replaced with a biblical understanding that God treats us all equally. Those first century apostles experienced hardship and suffering. None were wealthy. Paul was tortured multiple times for his faith 2 Corinthians 11:22-28 and had a physical disability that God refused to heal. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 All the apostles were persecuted for their faith. Why are we shocked when God also allows us to experience tribulation in our life? When misfortune strikes, the mature Christian doesn’t push God away, but draws Him closer. God alone is our refuge. He is our God. We trust in Him. Amen?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Eat More Dirt

Dear Friends,

I was a pretty dirty kid and, if you are a member of my generation, you probably were too. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and our first house had a large dirt back yard that was my personal playground. There was also a huge vacant lot on our street that was our baseball field in summer..the great frontier where we played “cowboys and indians”..and when it was half-filled with rain, it became our swamp where we built rafts, chased frogs and caught polliwogs. When I was nine, we moved to West Hollywood where we again had a large backyard. During the hot, lazy days of summer when school was out, I’d lie out in the dirt under the lemon tree just to smell the scent of the lemons in the sun. I’d dig a large hole until I was tired of digging it. I’d fill it back in and go to another part of the yard and dig another large hole. My dad teased me and called me his “gopher” and my mom kept the washing machine busy in a futile effort to keep me clean. 

Too many kids today live in “asphalt jungles” where the only dirt on their concrete play area is the black dust from our car’s asbestos-containing brake pads. It is clear that today’s children are facing an unprecedented physical and mental health crisis in our Nation. The increase of autism alone in America’s children is very disturbing. Surveys in the 60's showed the presence of autism was in one out of 2,500 children. In 2014, it was one out of every 42 boys and one out of every 189 girls. Something has changed. We are raising a generation of obese children who have arthritic conditions in their hands from playing video games that used to be seen only in senior citizens. Many kids now struggle with diabetes and heart disease which was almost unheard of in children until the past decade. Reports show that children were much healthier back in the 50's. I wonder if that’s because we spent our days outdoors playing in the God-created dirt.

Dr Kevin Bonham is a medical scientist in the microbiology and immunology department at Harvard Medical School. He says, “While there is no doubt that sanitation and hygiene are critical in reducing the spread of infectious disease, it’s possible that we’ve gone too far in trying to live a sterile life.” In an article published in Scientific American, Dr Bonham explains that microbes living in dirt are actually healthy for us to ingest and he advocates buying organically-grown vegetables and then just rinsing them with tap water before cooking them. We thoroughly scrub our vegetables squeaky clean and even buy special sanitizing produce sprays to kill all organic matter on our veggies and yet medical science has determined that these soil-based organisms clinging to our carrots and potatoes support gut health, reduce inflammation and increase immune response. Scientists have even discovered that these soil microbes have an effect on the brain similar to the antidepressant medication Prozac, but without the side effects! There is also increased evidence that soil microbes affect our cognitive well-being and they may even ward off dementia. Perhaps our new health mantra should be: “Eat More Dirt !”

We may not want to drink a mud smoothie or bake a batch of dirt cookies, but it’s never too late in life for us to go outside and get a little dirty. We improve our overall health when we do what God created us to do – go outdoors and plant and grow things. I have a friend who has a backyard filled with greenhouses and she is never happier than when she’s working in the potting sheds as a volunteer at the Huntington Library Gardens. She is in her seventies and is happier, healthier and more active than many who are decades younger than she. Is that because nearly every day she plays in the dirt? Gardeners inhale the organic microbes from dirt, ingest it through their mouth and get it into their bloodstream if they have a cut on their hands.

Your body is about 65% water and if it was completely dried out, what would be left is mostly six elements that are abundant in the natural environment that is God’s Creation. According to both medical science and the Word of God, you are essentially “water and dirt.” Our God is the potter and we are His “clay.” Isaiah 64:8 He first created a world of waters and the “firmament (dirt) in the midst of the waters.” Genesis 1:6 And then God sent some rain and went to play in the dirt. He took up a handful of moist soil and breathed life into this handful of dirt and it became man. Genesis 2:6-7 Then, “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.” Genesis 2:8 God created man out of a handful of dirt to live in a garden but the closest most of us get to a vegetable garden today is when we go to the grocery store and buy that plastic bag of spinach greens that’s been triple-washed and sanitized with a chlorine rinse for our protection.

Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day. Environmentalists this year are focused on banning detachable water bottle caps and criminalizing the use of plastic drinking straws in California. This week in our schools, older children will be lectured on the dangers of these plastic straws while young children will be using their crayons to color trees and plants before being sent outside to play on an asphalt playground. After church on Earth Day Sunday, I say go ahead and let those kids and grandkids sip their smoothie through a straw and then send them outside with a shovel to go and play in the dirt. And let’s you and I also go outside and plant some seeds by using our hands to dig into God’s Earth. Go ahead. Get dirty. It’ll be good for what ails you. AMEN?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018


Dear Friends,

Please don’t judge me or be too quick to make assumptions about me but I have a confession to make to you today. When I was a young boy, I played with my sister’s Barbie dolls. I’d sneak them from her room and my sister and parents never knew about that. Until the day of the fire and I was caught...

When I was ten years old, my favorite TV show was RESCUE 8. It was an exciting, real-life action series based on a fire rescue squad at the Los Angeles County Fire Station 8 in West Hollywood. The cool thing was that we lived just a few blocks away from the real Station 8 where the interior and exterior shots were filmed. I loved RESCUE 8. I outfitted my red wagon with a rope, hose, shovel and a pry bar. I took a red bicycle taillight and installed it facing forward so that I could respond code-3 to any backyard emergency. When firemen “Wes” and “Skip” rescued the little girl who had fallen into the well while looking for her kitten, I recreated the rescue. The mud washed off the Barbie doll and my sister never knew. When the nun was trapped under the collapsed roof of the old mission, Barbie suffered only a couple of minor scratches after being rescued from under the pile of lumber in the garage. But when Wes and Skip rescued the actress after the escaped mental patient and deranged pyromaniac had set fire to her home, that’s when I got into trouble. The next day in our backyard, the cardboard box that was the movie star’s “house” erupted into flames which were quickly and effectively extinguished by the hose in my RESCUE 8 red wagon. But who could have guessed that Barbie’s polyester blonde hair would explode into flames like that?

Men and women “rescuers” are drawn to the helping professions in life. Firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, nutritionists, social workers and psychologists are among those who have dedicated their life to helping others. Rescuing others from situations caused by bad decisions or unfortunate circumstances. Helping them to fix the difficulty they’ve found themselves in and giving them the resources to improve and even excel in their physical, mental and emotional health. And those in Christian ministry are God’s spiritual rescuers, rushing to wherever they’re needed with the message of the Gospel to save souls, change lives and provide the Biblical resources so that others might excel in their spiritual health.

Spiritual rescuers reach out to help those who have fallen into the pit of despair and become mired in hopelessness. When a well-ordered life suddenly collapses and someone finds themselves trapped under the crushing weight of life’s circumstances, spiritual rescuers respond with the saving grace of Jesus. When a person’s unrepentant sins have caused separation from God, the spiritual rescuer leads them to the Living Water of Jesus that quenches forever the terrifying fires of Hell.

God appoints and empowers believers as “evangelists” and the job of an evangelist is to simply tell others the good news about Jesus Christ. We are all evangelists. Jesus has given us the gift of evangelist Ephesians 4:11 or we are called to “ the work of an evangelist..” 2 Timothy 4:5 and Col 4:5-6 We tend to leave the spiritual work to the priests, pastors and evangelists but God says that all believers are called to be spiritual rescuers. All followers of Jesus are called to be ambassadors for Christ and implore others to be reconciled to God. 2 Cor 5:20 We are called to turn people away from their unrepentant sins and toward God so that they may receive His forgiveness Acts 26:18 and their soul may be saved from death. James 5:20 You are a Christian, called by God to bring the Good News to others and yet many of us good Christians are too caught up in the business and the busyness of doing “church” to do that.

In Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Huck and his friend Tom Sawyer are hatching a plot to liberate the runaway slave, “old Jim.” Tom’s uncle has imprisoned old Jim in a cabin and the two young boys spend their time planning the elaborate rescue operation. Tom fantasizes that the rescue of Jim will be comparable to some of the great escapes in history! But while the boys are dreaming about being heroic rescuers, poor old Jim is chained to his bed in the dark lonely cabin without food and drink. He seems to be forgotten. The rescue operation itself had become more important than the person to be rescued. 

Jesus established the church for the primary purpose of rescuing lost souls and changing lives, Matthew 28:19-20 and we’ve turned His church into a religious system of rules and rituals. In our church today, has the rescue operation itself become more important than the people who need to be rescued?

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

An Easter Fright-Fest

Dear Friends,

People seem to fall into one of two extremes when it comes to scary movies. You either love them or hate them. In 1996, an American horror film called SCREAM started the genre of horror and slasher movies with serial killers. The movies are intensely gory, frightening and shocking. I confess that I only know that from reading about them because I’ve never seen one. Watching a psycho in a Halloween mask carve up a screaming teenager with a chainsaw is just not my idea of “entertainment.” 

I remember when entertainment was watching Roy and Dale chase down the bank robbers on horseback. White-knuckle excitement was when Sky King and his cute teenaged niece Penny are flying in a low cloud and fast approaching a mountain peak. Extreme violence was when the Lone Ranger shoots the gun out of the bad guy’s hand. Intense drama was when Lassie rescued Timmy from the quicksand. And an explicit sexual scene was when Zorro kisses the girl on the lips before leaping over the balcony railing, landing on his horse Tornado, and riding off into the night.

You may be one of the many people who love to be scared out of their wits at the movies. But 2000 years ago there were no movies or faked reality shows. There were just real-life events. And, the crucifixion of Jesus was a true-to-life horror story. 

As He hung in agony on the cross, there was a three hour period of darkness in the middle of the day. It was in that darkness that He took on our sins. God lifted His hand from the Son of God, who had known no sin, to now be filled with the sin of the world. At that moment, Jesus cried out: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And when the sacrificial Lamb of God had become the Light of the World, Jesus cried out, “It is finished.” By His death, He became victorious over all the powers of darkness and death. No movie could possibly convey the horror of being filled with every sin that mankind would ever commit.

But while there is nothing more horrifying than the crucifixion, there was nothing more shocking than the Resurrection. Two women approach the tomb to tend to the dead body of Jesus and have no idea they’re about to get the scare of their lives. An earthquake strikes with incredible force. Then they meet an angel – this was no ghost but it was not human either. Their hearts pound in fear! And to finally top off this Sunday fright-fest, Jesus, who they had seen killed and who had been dead for two days, now suddenly pops up on the road in front of the trembling women and says, Boo! (Okay...Jesus actually said “Rejoice!” but it would have had the same effect!) Matt 28:1-10

Imagine watching a loved one suffer a horrible and disfiguring death and you are there when they seal the body in the crypt at Forest Lawn. Two days later you come home still reeling in grief over your loss and find your loved one alive and well and sitting on the couch in the living room. He jumps up and says, “Rejoice!” The word “shocking” would not even come close to describing that moment. 

The Resurrection was meant to be so shocking that we’d still be talking about it 2000 years later.  It turned life upside down. It was God’s plan for our salvation and is powerful proof of God’s victory over death. And through the reality of the Resurrection, we are moved from shock at the horror of His death by crucifixion to joy and thanksgiving for His awesome work. Jesus is alive! There is now everlasting life for all those who believe in Jesus and confess His name as Lord and Savior. The Resurrection of Jesus gives us assurance of our own eternal future of joy and happiness!

The crucifixion of Jesus marked an end, but the Resurrection of Jesus marked our new beginning. And there’s nothing scary about that. In fact, the Resurrection brings the peace of God because we can see our future clearly now. And the reality of our eternal tomorrow is our hope for today.  Amen?