Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What Religion ARE You Here?

Dear Friends,

It was a few years ago that an older visitor introduced herself before the service and told me that she had grown up in the Foursquare Pentecostal church. But after the service, she approached me with a confused expression on her face. “So what religion ARE you here?” she asked. It took self-control to restrain my inappropriate sense of humor and not reply, “We’re Muslims, ma’am.”  And of course what I told her was that we were a non-denominational Evangelical, Charismatic church. I watched her confusion turn into a look of disbelief. We just didn’t fit into her Protestant experience. I could understand why...

The praise music that day had been celebratory, loud, contemporary. People coming into the presence of God. Tears running down faces; hands raised to the heavens. Ah yes. Very Pentecostal. The worship that morning had included a tender, vulnerable time under the healing power of the Holy Spirit. Okay.. so they’re definitely Charismatic!! But then, throughout the service, an emphasis on the Trinity and the Word of God. Could they be Evangelical? No, because the pastor wore a clerical collar, a significant time was spent on the liturgy for the weekly Holy Communion and Mother Teresa was used as the sermon illustration. They all recited the Lord’s Prayer and they even have an altar with lit candles. So, maybe they’re Catholic? They definitely don’t look like any Pentecostal church I’ve seen! But wait..the pastor – or was he a priest? – had a strong emphasis on what he called their “3-11 Ministry” from Luke 3:11. He talked about helping others in need and they even gave their entire Christmas offering to a missions group who digs wells in undeveloped countries! Maybe they’re one of those  progressive “Social Gospel” churches. But, could you believe that sermon? All that talk about the ancient church and the handout with the 2,000 year old prayers and praying three times a day with the Eastern and Russian Orthodox church and on and on about the beauty of church liturgy! And the pastor has a beard! Oh my gosh! Could this be an Orthodox church?

+ + + + + +

There was a large sign on the outside of a First Baptist Church that read:
Pastor Conflicted After Reading Church Fathers.

I can relate to that!! Knowing what the Apostolic and Church Fathers taught the early church can really mess up a Protestant’s way of doing church today. It has been said that, “ read deeply in history is to cease being Protestant.” Disturbing yes, but in truth we may need to cease being “Protestant” in order to become the authentic Christian church. Because something is missing. And while we don’t need to convert to Catholicism to find it, we may need to look back to the father of our Protestant faith, Martin Luther, to restore it.

Martin Luther failed in his efforts to reform his Roman Catholic church back to the biblical ancient church and he inadvertently started the Protestant Christian movement. But if Luther could look today at megachurch Vegas-style services, progressive social justice churches and prosperity preachers, he would not recognize his beloved church. That’s why there are those today who have called for church reform and who started the “Ancient/Future” church movement. This is not a fad or the latest trend in Evangelical churches. It’s a movement to reform the Protestant church and return it to the rich biblical and spiritual treasures that are found within the liturgy and practices of the ancient church. We need to “Lutherize” the church!

Conservative theologian and scholar J.I. Packer called evangelicalism a “stunted ecclesiology rooted in our alienation from our past.” And as early as 1977, a group of Evangelical church leaders issued a historic document which stated in part: “We confess that we have often lost the fullness of our Christian heritage, too readily assuming that the Scripture and the Spirit made us independent of the past. In so doing, we have become theologically shallow, spiritually weak, blind to the work of God in others and married to our cultures..” (You might want to read that last part again)

The Ancient/Future Church seeks to restore us to our past and focuses on traditional Apostolic teaching that embodies authentic Christian faith and on living out that distinctive faith in community with others. They embrace symbols, sacraments, contemplative prayer, and living in the Presence of God with an emphasis on sacrifice, service to others and a rejection of worldliness.

New Hope Family Church is biblically-rooted in the ancient teachings and traditions of the early New Testament church which is why we can be ecumenical in our services today. It astonishes me to think that, where we hold our Wednesday service, I am the pastor of a church of (mostly) Roman Catholics along with Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Episcopalians, Baptists, and a former leader in the Church of Scientology! Our “Ancient/Future” church strives to replicate the early church which was Evangelical, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They were Liturgical, practicing rituals and traditions established by the Apostles and early church fathers. They were Charismatic, believing that the Holy Spirit imparted spiritual gifts to each one to be used in ministry to others. And, they lived out a Social Gospel, doing for others as Jesus would have us do for Him.

"So what religion ARE you here?"
"We're Christians, ma'am."


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Fragrance of God

St. Thomas Episcopal Church ~ Hollywood, CA
Dear Friends,

I call it the “fragrance of God.” It’s in the churches that just seem to seize my soul and draw me into His Presence. The powerful “ecclesiastical odor” from my childhood church, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, is embedded in the deepest recess of my memory and I can recall it today. A dampness from the Gothic stone and concrete structure mingled with the scent of ancient wood pews and furniture polish. The paper of hundreds of hymnals and prayer books. The lingering aroma of beeswax candles and the perfumed scent of altar flowers. This fragrance of God is in the large “high” churches I sometimes visit. It’s in the California Missions. It’s in the Monastery chapels. It’s always the same; it’s always different. Many times there’s the distinctive sweet fragrance of incense weaving in and out of the ecclesiastical aroma. This unique combination of scents can only be found in the church but not in all churches. 

The church I planted in Santa Clarita had rented the cafeteria in a public school for our Sunday services and the ecclesiastical odor in that church was always the aroma of sour milk. A church that NHFC rented also rented their multi-purpose sanctuary to an athletic group who used it for  cheerleading activities. When I would come into the church sanctuary on the morning after they were there, it smelled like a locker room. One might argue that this too was the “odor of God” but the smell of teenage athletes that filled the sanctuary didn’t take me into the presence of God as does the lingering fragrance in an old church.

The phrase “smells and bells” is used affectionately by those who attend Catholic, Orthodox and “high” liturgical Protestant churches and is often used derisively by those who don’t. But I’ve always thought it funny how we Protestants decry the “smells and bells” as being “too Catholic” while we simply swap the scents. One Pentecostal church pastor, who often mocked the use of incense in liturgical churches, had installed industrial-strength room deodorizers in our sanctuary. It always smelled like we were worshiping in an airport restroom. Most Protestants would be scandalized at the thought of burning religious incense in their homes and yet they fill their home with the fragrance of Yankee Candles. We Protestants have looked down on Catholic practices as we’ve merely swapped out their “frankincense and myrrh” for our “french vanilla”!

Yesterday I received a lighting catalog from a church supply company who wants to sell me theater lighting for our megachurch, and I saw pages of special effect stage lighting and fog machines that they say will “promote reverence.” When I was a young acolyte in our Episcopal church, we also had special effect lighting that promoted reverence – at the beginning of every service, I would light those fourteen candles on the altar! But megachurches today employ lighting technicians and according to the church supply company, their lighting controllers can turn a worship experience into “a major Vegas-style extravaganza” and that rapidly changing colors in your worship service is “what it takes to get a crowd energized and on its feet.” I understand how that dazzling lighting effects would appeal to some megachurches, but in many thousands of churches across the Nation, all it takes to get a congregation to its feet is a hymn or the sound of a bell. 

My personal preference is for the small church. While we have gone through many changes in the past ten years, New Hope Family Church is, and always will be, a “family” church. I also have a deep appreciation for the “smells and bells.” The Jewish Messiah and His twelve disciples worshiped in a place lit by candles and where the sweet fragrance of incense and tinkling sound of bells filled the Temple. I’m spiritually drawn to the liturgical worship-style of the ancient Christian church and to churches where the fragrance of God permeates the sanctuary. But I’ve been to small churches where the dry and spiritually lifeless liturgy put me to sleep and have been to small churches where the liturgy brought me into the presence of God and moved me to tears. I’ve been to megachurches where the Vegas-style show entertained the spectators and a ten minute feel-good message never mentioned Jesus and I’ve attended huge churches where the congregation was engaged in worship and the Gospel was preached. 

There’s a mind-set among denomination leaders that “bigger is better” and megachurches are “best of all,” while a small town rural pastor argues that, “Megachurches are sprawling wastelands of Christianity.” Both positions are derisive and hurtful for the family of God. Big churches are not the best. Small churches are not the best. Catholic churches are not the best. Protestant churches are not the best. The best church is the one who honors God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Big or small, liturgical or non-liturgical, what matters is whether the church has remained faithful to the Gospel message and is focused on Jesus’ “great commission” to save souls and change lives. Matthew 28:19 Everything else is just personal preference. 

My church may smell like beeswax candles, your’s may be filled with the aroma of coffee from the lobby espresso machine. You may love to sing old hymns or prefer contemporary praise and worship songs. Incense may bring you into a place and time of reverent worship or give you a pounding headache. We all have different worship-style preferences and that’s why the bottom line is this: the best church is for you is the one that takes you into the Presence of God. Amen?

On a personal note: My parents met in this church and were married here in 1948. I was baptized in this church, confirmed on May 7, 1961 and was an acolyte here for ten years serving in over 500 services. I carried the cross down this aisle many hundreds of times. It was here that God called me to be a pastor. To God be praised!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Superpower Senior Citizen

Dear Friends,

There among the bills and the birthday cards was another invitation to join AARP. FREE BIRTHDAY GIFT - If You Join Today! It went in the trash. I’ve been receiving these invitations for well over a decade now and perhaps I’ll become a member of AARP someday, but I’ve decided that I’m not going to do that until I get old. In fact the “older” I get, the more clearly I realize how subjective age really is. Our “age” is no more than our perception of our self and that’s why the grey-haired gentleman with the white beard who stares back at me in the bathroom mirror always surprises me. There is a disconnect between the way I feel and the image of the old guy in the mirror. As George Burns once said, “You can’t help getting older but you don’t have to get old.” Can you say “Yes and Amen!” to that?

In our Wednesday church service at the residential care facility, the large majority of our congregation are in their eighties and nineties. We do have a few in their late fifties and early sixties – we call those guys the “youth group.” I love to quote Proverbs 16:31 “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” and I frequently talk about Caleb who has become one of their favorite heros in the Bible. Here’s why...

When Moses led the people of Israel to the Promised Land, God told him to send twelve spies to scout the land. Ten of the spies said that the people who lived there were strong and powerful and there was no chance of taking the land from them. The two other spies, Joshua and Caleb, knew they could take the land because God had promised it to them. But the people didn't have the courage or faith to believe Joshua or Caleb so God punished the nation's lack of faith by sending them back out into the wilderness. 

It’s now forty five years later. Moses had died, Joshua was the new leader and had killed or driven most of the enemy out of the Promised Land. But Joshua is getting too old and tired to fight battles so he is dividing up the portions of land still needing to be conquered. Imagine his surprise when his old friend Caleb (the same age as Joshua) comes to him and asks to lead the battle against the Anakites:

“Now, as you can see, the LORD has kept me alive and well as He promised for all these forty-five years since Moses made this promise-- even while Israel wandered in the wilderness. Today I am eighty-five years old. I am as strong now as I was when Moses sent me on that journey, and I can still travel and fight as well as I could then. So give me the hill country that the LORD promised me.” Did you catch what I underlined? And if you’d like, you can read Caleb’s story in Joshua 14:6-15 NLT & Joshua 15:13-19 NLT.

I love this! As an 85 year old senior citizen, Caleb now charges off to lead the final battle that would bring peace to the Promised Land! Joshua 14:14-15 Caleb had said to Joshua, “..give me this mountain that the LORD promised me..” Caleb was grabbing hold of his God-ordained destiny! This senior citizen was eager to climb the next hill and conquer the next obstacle. Caleb shows us that those who walk with God will always reach their destination. He shows us that we are never too old to accomplish God's plans and purposes for our life. 

What a great inspiration he is to us as we complain about our aches and pains! We reach for the ice cream as we lay back on the couch and turn on the TV. Caleb reaches for that promise from God and leads armies and climbs mountains. Caleb was as strong at 85 years as he had been at 40 years because he wholeheartedly followed the LORD, the God of Israel, and never stopped doing the Lord's work. I can’t help but to believe that this 85 year old grey-haired senior citizen would not have recognized his image in a mirror either.

If you too have gray hair and the highlight of your old age is medicare and senior citizen discounts, please know that our Bible is filled with stories of how God used senior citizens! Abraham was 75 and his wife, Sarah, 65 when God promised them a child. Moses was 80 when God spoke to him from the burning bush. Daniel was most likely in his 80's when he was thrown in the lions den. Saint John was around 90 years old when he wrote the Book of Revelation. At around the age of 104, the prophetess Anna was used by God to reveal that the little boy named Jesus was the Messiah (Savior) sent by God to redeem them and save them from their sins. Luke 2:36-38

But my favorite guy is Caleb. This was a man who resisted the temptation to sin as he got older. He was a man of God who exemplified faith, confidence, will-power, tenacity and courage as a senior citizen. At an age when too many of us have given up and become resigned to a diminished quality of life, Caleb inspires us to stay young at heart, strong in the Lord, flexible and willing to change with the time. Caleb was a man after God's own heart and Caleb kept an attitude of thankfulness for all that God had done for him. Caleb trusted God for everything. We should too. 

For those of us in our golden years, an AARP card provides limited benefits unless you really do want that discount at Denny’s. But the God of Caleb, and of you and me, provides both eternal and earthly benefits. He promises: “I will be your God throughout your lifetime-- until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.” Isaiah 46:4 That promise from God is the only lifelong benefit we will really ever need. Amen?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

You Love Him But Do You Trust Him?

Dear Friends,

If I could have run away and joined the circus as a little boy, I would have been a lion tamer. I remember being in our large backyard on a hot summer day. I was strutting around in front of six stuffed tigers and lions sitting on cardboard boxes that I'd arranged in a circle around me. I had a kitchen chair to be used as a shield in case one tried to attack me and a home-made whip that I cracked over their heads as I ordered them through their paces. While I showed no fear to the beasts, I was lucky to get out of there alive. I say that because my sister would have killed me if she'd found me messing with her stuffed animals.

When I was very young, my grandmother took me to the circus and the most terrifying act was not the lion tamer in the big cage with the ferocious lions and tigers. It was the family of death-defying trapeze artists! I just knew that at any moment one of them would fall the 100 feet to the floor below!

If you're a trapeze artist you're a “flyer” or a “catcher.” The flyer jumps off a platform while hanging from a swing. As he or she soars overhead, the catcher is hanging from his knees on another trapeze swing and he starts the downward arc. At an exact point, the flyer lets go of the swing and continues in the arc created by the momentum from the swing. Now, in a matter of milliseconds, gravity is going to take over and the flyer will start to fall to earth. But with split second timing, the catcher meets the flyer in mid-air. The catcher wraps his hands around the flyer's wrists and they both swing back to the platform. A one second delay means the difference between being safely caught or falling.  

I read an interview given by a trapeze artist who performed in a German circus. Here’s what the “flyer” said, “The public thinks I'm the star of the act, but the real star is Joseph the catcher. He has to be there with split-second precision and grab me out of the air. When I fly to Joseph I have to just simply stretch out my arms and wait for him to catch me. The worst thing I can do is to try to grab for him. I can do nothing but just stretch out my arms and have faith that he will meet me at the right moment and grab me.” 

That last sentence really caught my attention because that's the faith we need to have in God. We are all flying though life, but without trust in God, as soon as we start to fall, we began flailing about, trying to grab hold of anything that we think will save us. We need to have faith that God will always meet us at the right moment and grab us to keep us from falling. 

Without trust in God, we can only trust in ourselves. So we control our life by grabbing tightly to whatever or whoever we can, to try and make it safe for us. But because we too often  clutch and grab onto all the wrong things, we find ourselves  failing and falling. As we’re flying through life we need to simply relax and stretch out our arms and say, “Lord, I have faith in You. Catch me.”

Most trapeze artists work over a safety net. That's because, the catcher is not infallible. Sometimes the timing is off, there's a miss and they fall. But our Catcher is unfailing. We don't need a safety net. Peter walked on water when he was focused on Jesus but as soon as he took his eyes off Jesus and looked around, he became afraid and sank. Matthew 14:28-30 When we're flying though life, if take our focus off God, we can become afraid and our worrying thoughts can become obsessive. But, when we raise our eyes in faith and look up, we see God with outstretched arms reaching for us.

The last words Jesus said before breathing His final breath were, “Into Your hands, I commit My spirit.” In order for us to submit to God and put the control of our life back into His hands, perhaps that needs to be our daily prayer: 
Lord God, into Your hands, I commit my spirit. Build my faith and my trust in You, that I can just fly through life while reaching out to You in all my circumstances. Remind me Lord, that even in the scariest moments, You are waiting for me with out-stretched arms – ready to grab me and hold me tight. Amen.