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...

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Spiritual? Religious? Or Both?

Dear Friends,

I told Cindy I was a pastor and saw her eyes glaze over as her expression became guarded. “I'm spiritual, not religious,” she politely explained. When I asked what that meant to her, a litany of complaints about the “church” poured out. After a woman in a church offended her, she was done with what she called “religion.” I asked again what she had meant about being “spiritual” and she enthusiastically described her rituals, practices and beliefs. I told her that what she had done was simply to reject the historic Christian doctrine that had been part of her upbringing and invent her own personalized religion by creating a customized doctrine and incorporating some new age rituals. Her response was angry denial. Then she paused, thought about it, laughed and said, “I guess you're right, I did do that...” And then she thought again and said, “Is that wrong...?”

The majority of Americans say that their Christian religion is very important in their lives. They attend church, pray and read their Bible. But of those who are unaffiliated with a church, like Cindy, nearly 40% would describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, and most of them cannot effectively articulate what their spirituality means to them. It’s difficult to talk about spiritual concepts when those terms mean different things to different people. To some, spirituality is simply “feeling good about myself.”

The dictionary definition of “religious” is faithful devotion to God, church beliefs and observances. Those who are religious adhere to Biblical teachings that are apostolic, classic and historic – the foundation of our faith that has been understood and taught for thousands of years. But many who have had a negative experience with the Christian church use the term “religious” as a denigrative slur when they refer to those who are faithful to the Triune God and to their church.

In the early church, “spiritual” was understood as “that which relates to sacred matters that affect the spirit.” For the early church, religious and spiritual went hand-in-hand. You couldn't have one without the other. The apostle Paul describes the spiritual life as becoming one with the Spirit of God and Paul’s writings contrast the victory of spiritual living over living according to our weak and flawed human nature. Christians who have the mind of Christ do spiritual things in accordance with His Spirit. So for the early Christians, “spiritual” meant integrating Apostolic teachings within their day to day lives. It meant living a godly life.  

But in the 20th century, spirituality became separated from religion and “spiritual” evolved to mean a person's private thoughts and experiences that foster a sense of psychological well-being. God was now one option among many. 

And while those who are “spiritual but not religious,” have shunned the teachings and rituals of the Christian church, some, like Cindy, have filled that void with their own customized belief system and religious rituals. A BBC television show called, "The Spirituality Shopper" followed a person each week as they browsed through the practices of different religions to assemble their personalized set of rituals. One woman chose a combination of Buddhist meditation along with Jewish Shabbat meals followed by Muslim Sufi dancing where you twirl around in circles until you reach an ecstatic trance. A medical doctor enhanced his spirituality with Hindu Yoga, Islamic prayer and Shaman drumming circles.

When we separate out spirituality from classic Christianity in order to choose non-Christian doctrine and rituals, we must reject the God of the Bible if we are now following  different gods. According to the Hindu religion, every yoga position represents a different Hindu deity and holding the pose expresses our worship of that deity. Our new  narcissistic concept of having everything “my way” fosters this cafeteria approach to selecting the rituals and practices that bring us the most pleasure; and in doing so, we have become our own god. A theologian wrote,“Spirituality today just means that you are in touch with your divine self.” 

2000 years ago, authentic spirituality was understood as being how the teachings of Jesus Christ manifested in the behavior and day-to-day life of the believer. It still is today. Believers in the ancient church practiced Christianity that contained mystical elements such as meditation, the soul's mystical union with God and Lectio Divina – the simple prayerful contemplation of Holy Scripture. These authentic spiritual experiences are what many people are seeking today and they can still be found in the Christian religion that they left behind. In leaving the church and the Christian faith, too many today are struggling with an unfilled void in their life that only the God of the Bible can fill. Our culture has described them as the “nones” and we need to pray for them. They are today’s spiritual homeless.

Lord, heal their pain; open their eyes to 
Your truth through Christ and may they 
choose the path that leads to You. Amen