Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Are You REALLY a Christian?

Dear Friends,

Someone asked me one time, 
“What determines if we are really a Christian?” 
What a great question that was! Let’s see...

Bob was raised by parents who took him to a Presbyterian church every so often. He can remember that at Christmas, his family sang carols and had a manger with the baby Jesus. As an adult, the only time he was in a church was ten years ago when his friend got married. He remembers a Sunday School story about Jonah being eaten by a whale. He has never read a Bible but does believe that Jesus existed. Bob says that he’s a Christian. Is he?

Gloria was raised in a loving Catholic home and her faith is very important to her. She’s survived the death of her husband and her own struggle with cancer and attributes her ability to do so to the grace and glory of God. She faithfully attends mass every morning and she prays three times a day using her rosary. She worships Jesus and prays to His mother Mary and to her patron saint, St. Theresa. She tries to love others as she believes that Jesus would. Is she a Christian?

Jim was also raised in church and he can’t remember a time in his life when he was not in a Sunday school or church service at least once a week. He accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior as a child and his father was a pastor. Today, he’s married with two children – a nine year old girl and a 12 year old boy. He’s a Sunday school teacher and an elder in his church. He believes in the inerrant Word of God and faithfully tithes 10% of his income. He says he is a Christian. Is he? Before you answer that, there’s something else I need to tell you about Jim. For two years, he has been sexually abusing his daughter. Is he a Christian? 

Julie is a single mom who wasn’t raised in church, but in college she accepted Jesus as her Lord and Savior at a Campus Crusade event. As a young single woman, her church was very important to her, until she got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. She was so hurt by the church’s response to her pregnancy that she hasn’t been back since. She prays every night for herself and her little daughter. She studies her Bible and uses God’s Word to guide her life. Because of her treatment as an unwed mother, she has become very guarded and cautious around other Christians. She loves Jesus but is afraid to become involved in another church. Is Julie a Christian?

Helen is an older, “spirit-filled” woman and there is not a day that goes by without her spending time with God and praying in her spiritual language. She is the leader of an intercessory prayer ministry at her church, but she’s avoided telling her pastor that at home she prays to and converses with the angels who she believes are her spirit guides. She uses crystals that she believes will heal her arthritis and has a Navajo dream-catcher with a “medicine bag” over her bed to protect her as she sleeps. Helen knows that her shamanistic New Age beliefs are non-biblical but has intermingled those with her Christian beliefs and firmly believes that she’s still a Christian. Is she?

Is it our beliefs that determine if we’re really a Christian? These five believe in the existence of Jesus, but is that enough? Our Bible tells us, “You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe – and tremble!” James 2:19 The demons believe and even confess that Jesus is Lord. Luke 4:40-41 Satan and his demons are “believers” but they are definitely not Christians!

Okay. If it’s not what we believe, is it what we do? Is it our good works? We can go to church and act exceedingly religious and do phenomenal works and yet, according to Jesus, “Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of My Father in heaven will enter.. Many will say..we prophesied in Your name and cast out demons in Your name and performed many miracles in Your name. But I will reply, 'I never knew you. Get away from Me, you who break God's laws.” Matthew 7:21-23 NLT

In the ancient church established by the Apostles, the derisive term used to describe the early disciples was “Christian” – meaning a Christ follower. Acts 11:26 That’s a good definition to use. If being a Christian means “one who actually follows Jesus” then it’s more than just a biblical belief or religious behavior. Here’s how it works: With the grace of God we enter into a relationship with Him through belief in His Son Jesus. Then out of that relationship flows  a desire to follow Jesus. The biblical concept is “sanctification,” meaning the process of becoming less like us and more like Christ. It’s living out the Gospel in our own life. It is a synergistic relationship between His grace and our will to follow Jesus that conforms us to the likeness of Christ. 2 Corinthians 3:18 To follow Jesus means submitting our life to Him and, in all ways possible, doing what He would do. Following is not just walking on the same path; it’s journeying along closely in the footsteps of the One who is leading. 

Look again at Bob, Gloria, Jim, Julie and Helen. Are they following Jesus and doing what He would do? If some are not, what would they need to do differently? When Jesus looks back over His shoulder, does He see you closely following Him? If not, what do you need to do differently?

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Where Would Jesus Pray?

Dear Friends,

It’s called the Ojai Church of the Wild and the article appeared on the online religious news service which I read daily. I looked at the photo. Twelve souls sitting around the pastor seeking God in the middle of lush green.. Oh Wow! What is this idyllic grove of greenery they’re sitting in? Is it what I think it is? I enlarged the photo. Yep! Distinctive clusters of three leaves with scalloped edges. Perhaps this church should be called “Saint Calamine” in honor of Calamine Lotion – the doctor recommended treatment of severe itching from exposure to poison oak!

I remembered the time I took our entire church on a Sunday to worship at Descanso Gardens. We strolled through the beautiful rose garden, smelled the fragrance of the Camellia gardens and walked on through the oak forest to a large pavilion where we sang, prayed and had Holy Communion. But we worshiped the Creator and not the creation itself. 

The Bible tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” John 1:1 As we read on, we find that the “Word” is Jesus Christ. We are connected with God the Father though God the Son. The leader of the church in Ojai says she’s a Christian but she has substituted nature for Jesus. Literally. On the website of the Ojai church, their key verse is translated like this: “In the beginning was the Conversation. And the Conversation was with God. And the Conversation was God.” Their theology is that we come to God through our “Conversation” with nature. Our conversation with the earth, rocks, flowers and trees is the sacred deity we seek. This church replaces scripture readings with poems about nature and the article describes how one person builds an “altar” of leaves and sticks while another meditates upon the metaphysical meaning of a broken rock. 

Pantheism is an ancient belief that God consists of everyone and everything. A tree is God, a mountain is God, the universe is God, you and I are God. Jesus said “No one comes to God except through Me,” John 14:6  But Pantheism disagrees and says all that which is created is God so you can communicate directly with God when you talk to the God that is the lush green shrub or worship the God that is the oak tree. That’s not biblical. Our Bible tells us that God the Creator is separate from His Creation. Genesis 1:1-30 And when God created humans, He created us in His image and likeness. Genesis 1:26 He did not create in His likeness the soulless shrubs and trees. There is no holy, sacred meaning to be found in a broken rock.

I found out that this Ojai church is part of a wider group of churches that are in the “Wild Church Network” and I was happy to read about other “wild” churches who worship in nature without worshiping nature. There’s New Life Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Dripping Springs, TX, that worships the God of the Bible outdoors in their Oak Tree Sanctuary and uses an old cattle water trough as an altar. I loved reading that. When it rains, they put up a tent. This is a church surrounded by nature but with Christ at the center.

God’s Creation fills us with a sense of wonder and worship for the Creator. “How amazing are the deeds of the LORD! All who delight in Him should ponder them. Everything He does reveals His glory and majesty.” Psalm 111:2-3 NLT God’s Creation.. a spectacular sunrise.. a redwood forest.. roaring waves at the beach.. the stillness of a mountain meadow.. the Grand Canyon.. reveal His glory and majesty. 

We often find that our contemplative time with God comes effortlessly when we are outdoors in His Creation. When Jesus wanted to be alone with His Father, He did not go into the Temple. The Son of God went outdoors to places of silence, solitude and stillness. Mark 1:35  Mark 6:46 Luke 5:15-16

A pastor friend of mine relaxes in his hot tub that is his "private chapel." That's where he comes into God's presence and prays. Another friend meets God in the quiet sanctuary of his beautifully landscaped backyard. We too need to find a quiet sacred space where we can let the silence envelope and enfold us. A place where we can be by ourselves in solitude. Where we can set aside the chaos of our day-to-day lives and just sit in stillness. We clear out the clutter of our mind to make room for God. Our thoughts slow down and we come into the Presence of God. In the silence, the solitude, the stillness, we are in a place of peace with our Creator. 

The Yosemite Naturalist, John Muir wrote “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” John Muir was a devout Christian who loved his Creator and understood “nature” to be God’s Creation. With that understanding, lets paraphrase that quote:
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where God can use His Creation to heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

What Will Your Name Tag Say?

Dear Friends,

I was driving down a side street in Glendale when I saw him pushing a shopping cart. No big deal. Homeless guys are all over the place. A blight on the neighborhood and a public nuisance. I passed him by without another thought. Until the small, still voice of the Lord spoke to me. “Give him $5.00.” I was on my way to work and running late as usual so I ignored God and kept driving. The Holy Spirit said it again, “Give him $5.00.” Dang! I began to feel that all too familiar conviction in my spirit that I needed to do what He’s telling me. I went around the block, circled back, pulled up alongside the man and handed him a five dollar bill. I told him, “I just want you to know that God loves you so much that He had me drive back just to give this to you.” Tears filled his eyes and I drove away with tears in my own. But it was not until later that I realized that I'd given that five dollar bill to Jesus. Sometimes we’re the sheep.

Then there was the time on the mountain road. We came around a curve and saw an old gray-haired woman at the side of the road, frantically trying to wave us down. I avoided her eyes as I drove on by and saw her car parked in the turn-out with an even older man sitting inside. Did she have car trouble or was he having a medical problem? I didn't know but it wasn't going to be my problem. As we rounded the corner, the voice of God spoke through the person sitting in the passenger seat. She said, “We should have stopped.” I replied, “Maybe someone behind us will stop.” It was not until later that I realized that the woman trying to wave me down and needing my help was Jesus. Sometimes we’re a goat.

It's going to be the biggest event the world has ever seen. The day that Jesus comes back. And He's not coming alone. He will have the entire heavenly universe along with Him. He's bringing a huge angelic army and He means business. Matthew 25:31 No one will escape a Day of Judgement. Everyone will come from every corner of the world to stand before Him. It's time for the sheep to be separated from the goats. Matthew 25:32 But how will the Good Shepherd do this? 

Shepherds used their stick to gently – forcefully if need be – separate out sheep from goats who may be grazing in the same herd. The stick has a "crook" on the end to catch the hind leg of an animal if it tries to get away. There's no escape from the shepherd! But for you and me, Jesus won’t need a stick when He’s got a heavenly host of angelic warriors to help with the separation chores. 
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. 2 Corinthians 5:10 NIV 
We can evade Jesus in life but not in death. Each one of us will stand before Jesus as our entire life flashes before Him which is the most wonderful thought you can imagine or the most terrifying. The Son of God looking right at you. Penetrating your soul. Evaluating. Assessing. His gaze never leaves your face as He points to the right. Or points to the left. Matthew 25:33-34 You look down at your name badge. Is the word “GOAT” written there? If so, you don't get to make a phone call to your attorney. There is no higher court of appeals. God has spoken.

How is Jesus making these decisions? What's His criteria as He separates the sheep from the goats? The sheep will be the ones who fed Him when He was hungry and gave him water when He was thirsty. They gave Him clothing, took care of Him when He was sick and visited Him in prison. And the righteous will say, “Are you serious, Lord? We don't remember ever doing that?” Matthew 25:35-39 And Jesus will say something to you like this, “Do you remember when you came upon the man sitting on the bus bench and bought him a hamburger? Remember the time you gave those winter coats to the woman’s shelter? Do you remember the men you saw when you went to the fire camp at Christmas with the prison ministry? That was Me you met at the bus stop, at the shelter and in the prison camp. Every act of kindness and compassion that you did to the least of My brothers and sisters was done to Me.” Matthew 25:40

We are saved through Christ alone by faith alone. 
The evidence of our salvation 
is our good works and changed life.

We know that we are saved by God's grace, not by our works, deeds or actions. But if our faith is in principle only and not in practice are we really saved? Matthew 7:21-27, James 2:14-18 NLT Good works doesn't result in salvation. Good works is the result of salvation. Only the saved can truly love their neighbor like Jesus does. John 13:34-35 A Christ-like love for others will always manifest itself in tangible ways as we reach out to serve those who need the love of Jesus. 

Small deeds. A drink of water. Simple acts of kindness. Helping a stranger. They may have the weathered, grimy face of a homeless man or the troubled face of a stranded woman motorist. They all look different. Distressed. Discouraged. Downcast. Different faces but all with the face of Jesus.  Amen?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

That's The Cross!

Dear Friends,

It’s the most powerful symbol in the world. It’s been the most recognized, the most revered, the most feared and the most hated symbol for the past 2,000 years of world history. It’s the cross. And it’s under attack. But according to the father of the Protestant faith, Martin Luther, that's a good thing! 

Stephen Colbert once famously said, “What do liberal Democrats and vampires have in common? They both scream when they see the cross!” A Kentucky librarian is fired for wearing a cross because the library dress code prohibits the wearing of “potentially offensive items.” A nurse is disciplined and reassigned for refusing to stop wearing the cross she had worn at that hospital for thirty years. A student worker is fired from a university bookstore for wearing a cross. A television anchor-woman is fired for the same reason. Last month, a man was ordered to leave a restaurant for wearing a cross that “violated its dress code.” A Target store fires a woman employee because she refused to remove or hide a Christian cross on a necklace that was visible to customers. In New York, atheists sue to prevent the display of steel beams that had been welded into the shape of a cross by the horrific fires during the World Trade Center terrorist attack. The U.S. Army removes all crosses from chapels after the Pentagon determines that the cross is offensive and violates military regulations.

Around the world, the communist military in China demolishes all crosses that are visible on churches. In Muslim countries, those who wear a cross are beaten and often killed. In Great Britain, the government has said that Christians have no right to wear a cross at work and in our own country, the American Atheists organization is focused on the abolishment of all crosses that are in view of the public. And Martin Luther prophetically said that “when the cross is abolished, and the rage of tyrants and heretics ceases on the one side, and all things are in peace, this is a sure token that the pure doctrine of God’s Word is taken away.” I agree with the German Reformer and that’s why I’m personally okay with this attack on the cross, the recent attacks on Bible-believing churches and the attacks on our Christian faith. This recent onslaught of hatred by some atheists, progressive liberals, educators, and many politicians is the evidence that we are being faithful to Scripture. As Luther said, when the rage of those who attack Christians subsides, and they leave us alone, that’s the red flag warning that we have compromised the Gospel message and are not being true to the offense of the cross.

The increasingly frequent and hate-filled attacks on the cross testifies to the power and meaning of the cross. In the ancient church, after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the cross’s historical meaning as an instrument of torture and death was inverted to epitomize glorification and eternal life. Symbols trigger the memory of what they represent and the cross arouses in our hearts the reality of God incarnate in the Son. The cross is prayer without words. The cross is a symbol of our obedience on our spiritual journey to follow Christ. The very image of the cross invites the grace of God. Just a glimpse of the cross focuses our thoughts on God and takes us into His presence. The cross is not just a horizontal piece of material fastened to a vertical piece. In my Episcopal church, we genuflected before the cross. The cross represents something holy. Something sacred. It represents the triune God. And, as such, the cross is the ultimate expression of our faith. When we hang that cross on our living room wall, over our bed or wear a small cross around our neck, we signify to others that we live our life under the seal of the cross.

The image of the cross also transports us to the end of human history. In Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus to tell them what will be the sign of Him coming and of the end of the age. And Jesus tells them that the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven. Matthew 24:30 The early church believed that the “sign” Jesus spoke of would be the symbol of the cross. 

It is in the cross that the body of Christ becomes united and spiritually solidified. It’s magnificent and mounted high on the wall of the persecuted Coptic church in Egypt. In Nigeria, two crude sticks are nailed together on the wall of a church that’s made entirely from salvaged shipping crates. A gold-gilded Crucifix in a Catholic Cathedral and a plain, simple wooden cross at the front of a little country Baptist church. Different doctrine, conflicting traditions but reaching across those theological divides to stand united under the cross of the risen Christ. That’s 2.18 billion Christians today whose hearts have been knitted together as one by the cross. That’s the power of the cross. Amen?