Wednesday, November 28, 2018

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

Dear Friends,

Riots. Violence. Fighting. Stabbings. Shootings. Killing. No I’m not talking about Nigeria or Syria. I’m talking about Walmart. That’s the most dangerous place to be on Black Friday and where 60% of the violent incidents occur as we usher in this season of Christmas cheer. Since the marketing concept of Black Friday was created, there have been 12 deaths and 117 major injuries that occurred at retail stores on Black Friday, and the majority of them occurred at a Walmart. Has this become the true meaning of Christmas in our Nation? A Walmart worker is trampled to death after an “out-of-control” mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the locked front doors. On a Thanksgiving evening at a Walmart in Norwalk, two women get into a fist fight over a Barbie Doll. At another Walmart, two women scuffle over the last big screen tv and one of them is seriously injured when it falls on her. At a Kohl’s in Orange County, five women get into a brawl in the baby section –three are arrested and two go to the hospital. When a Victoria’s Secret store opened on Black Friday, a stampede of over a hundred people pushing and shoving in the doors injured dozens. It’s a riot! For underwear! This year’s Black Friday violence included three mall shootings and two people stabbed in the men’s department at a Macy’s. Please join me in singing: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.. Each and every day...”

I don’t know about you but I’m so old that I remember when Christmas was a church holiday. Times have changed. The official start of the Christmas season is no longer determined by the church but by the National Retailers Association and Christmas officially starts on Black Friday. There’s an old fashioned accounting term “in the black” meaning there was a profit. So Black Friday means that the stores have now taken so much of your money that they are operating in the black – at a profit. For our Nation’s retail corporations this is the miracle of Christmas! It’s the magical moment when we max out our credit cards and the retailers rejoice because your money truly is the “reason for the season.”

The birth of Jesus Christ has been transformed by secular America into a “holiday” season of spending money and acquiring more things. And now it’s time for the church to redeem America. About seventeen hundred years ago, the church redeemed a pagan holiday called the winter solstice by changing it into a celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christmas is becoming a pagan holiday again and we need to be the “modern reformers” that will change it back into a celebration of the Baby in the manger. And maybe the best way to do that is to stop celebrating the secular holiday season and start celebrating Advent. Next Sunday (Dec 2nd) is the first Sunday in Advent and the four weeks leading up to Christmas day is the season of Advent that celebrates the coming of Jesus Christ.

For the ancient church, Advent was at the end of the Christian year and it was a quiet season of reflection that looked toward the second coming of Jesus. The word Advent comes from the Latin “adventus” which is the translation of the Greek word “parousia.” Parousia is used seventeen times in the New Testament and always refers to the Second Coming of Christ. 1 Thess 2:19 The season of Advent reminds us that the coming of Jesus is triune. Jesus came to earth 2,000 years ago and He comes into our lives today when we repent and put our trust and faith in Him. And we are then reminded of Christ’s “parousia” – His second coming. So.. what if we were to abandon the secular celebration of the Christmas season? What if we started celebrating Advent and just kept Christmas Day? What would that look like?

If Christmas in our American culture is about spending more money, Advent is about spending less. Christmas is about acquiring material things. Advent is about spiritual things. Christmas is about Santa Claus, who is called the “father” of Christmas. Advent is about God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. We teach our children that Santa makes magic happen for all those who believe. According to the Bible, Jesus makes genuine miracles happen for all those who believe. Christmas is about the inflatable Grinch in the front yard. Advent is when we set up the manger scene. Christmas is about giving gifts. Advent is about giving more of yourself. Christmas is about two adult women fighting over a Barbie doll in Walmart. Advent is about giving a Barbie doll to a homeless child. Christmas is about sleigh bells ringing and snowmen singing. Advent is about “Silent Night. Holy Night. Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy Holy Face. With the dawn of redeeming grace. Jesus Lord at Thy birth...”

Celebrating Advent means a time of reflection that leads to a gladdened heart that our Savior was born. God incarnate. God in the flesh. Jesus is here and He is coming again! Paul ends his letter to the church at Corinth with the Aramaic phrase, “Maranatha” which is translated as “O Lord come.” 1 Corinthians 16:22 Jesus has come to earth and He’s coming again. The whole meaning of Advent can be summed up in that one word: “Maranatha.” It’s our creed and our prayer. We redeem Christmas with His Maranatha. We are redeemed – the world is redeemed – through His Maranatha. And as we journey through Advent toward Christmas day, we need to take frequent, holy timeouts to take a deep breath and come into His presence. Every so often let’s stop in the middle of our preparation for Christmas to remember God’s “reason for the season” and pray:

“Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus come!”

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Grace! It's What's Before Dinner.

Dear Friends,

When I was a kid, we said grace at every meal and our family tradition was for us to take turns. My mom and dad said the traditional prayers of the Episcopal Church that were found in the back of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and my dad would solemnly intone: “Bless O Lord, thy gifts to our use; And us to thy loving service; And make us ever mindful of the needs of others; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”  

While I would like you to think that I was a deeply spiritual lad, the truth is that in my haste to eat, my prayer was a fast, three second one-word ritual: 

My sister’s grace was “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub! Yay! God!” which was definitely not found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Saying grace before the meal was so important to my family that on Thanksgiving and Christmas they even called in a professional. Well, sort of.. My mom's cousin was a Congregational Church minister so when their family came to dinner, he always became the designated “pray-er.” His church was the oldest (founded in 1867), largest Protestant church in Los Angeles and I looked up to and admired this man of God. He didn’t just say grace. He would incorporate a three-point sermon into a Thanksgiving prayer with words of thanks for everything and a word of blessing for everyone. By the time he was finished, the turkey had grown cold, a fatty layer had congealed on the now-chilled gravy and his own children would be looking at each other and sneaking glances at the dining room clock. But when you said “amen,” the meal had been sanctified and so had the family time. Our dining room had become a church and God had been invited to join us at the table. 

Giving a blessing after a meal comes from Jewish Law: “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.” Deuteronomy 8:10 But in the New Testament, we find Jesus giving thanks to God before the meal. “And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples...” Mark 6:41 And then when Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Luke 24:30 Jesus’ prayer of thanks to the Father before meals became a Christian liturgy taught by His disciples and we read, “And when he (Paul) had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat.” Acts 27:35

Saying grace is the spiritual time-out between the flurry of activity before the meal and the meal itself. It's the quiet moment at home when the food has been brought to the table. It's the moment at the restaurant when the waiter has hustled off to fetch ketchup for the fries. We pause and bow our heads in prayer. We ask God to bless and sanctify our meal in remembrance that all that we have, including all that we eat, is from God, and we are thankful to Him for His good and perfect gifts to us. James 1:17 

It's also the pause to remember that our meals are not magically transported to our plate after being created in the "StarTrek Replicator." Someone grew, raised or caught your food. If you are eating vegetables, someone spent all day bent over at the waist in the hot sun to handpick them for you. In the grocery store, a minimum-wage produce clerk carefully arranged those veggies on the chilled shelves and perhaps someone other than yourself prepared and cooked your meal. We are thankful for them. And as we sit down to an abundant meal, we are also mindful that according to Christian agencies, 925 million people in the world will go to bed tonight still hungry. We pray for them. Perhaps we even pray for God to show us how we can help someone in need.

If you don't normally say grace, start a new tradition in your life and express your gratitude to a gracious God before your meals. Extemporaneous prayers from the heart are wonderful and so are the timeless traditional prayers. You just read the Episcopal prayer in the first paragraph and a traditional Catholic prayer is “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord.” Methodists pray, “Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we may feast in fellowship with Thee.” A beautiful Eastern Orthodox prayer is “O Christ God, bless the food and drink of Thy servants, for holy art Thou, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” A traditional Lutheran prayer is “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” (Unless you’re a youth pastor at a Baptist Bible Camp you may not want to pray my sister’s prayer and I know you can do better than my childhood grace!) But no matter how and what you pray, this Thanksgiving make sure someone says grace before you tuck into that plate of turkey because “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Those Little Respectable Sins

Dear Friends,

The Book of Joel says that God speaks to young men through visions and to old men through their dreams. As if to confirm my advancing years, God seems to speak to me these days through my dreams! Our dreams can rise up out of our subconscious mind, or have demonic sources or be given to us by God. I have no doubt in my mind that the life-changing dream I’ll tell you about was from God. 
I had a communion chalice filled with wine that I was trying to drink through a straw. I wasn't getting anything but air. I was craving the Communion. The presence of Jesus. I was parched, dry and thirsty. But nothing. I took out the straw and put it back in again to make sure the end was in the wine. I pulled hard on the straw but not a drop could I bring up. I took out the straw and put it in another full chalice and still got nothing but air. I was beginning to feel panic. I needed the Holy Communion. It was more than quenching a thirst. I knew that my very survival depended now on receiving the Presence of Jesus, but all I was drawing through the straw was just ordinary air. I looked at the straw more closely and found why I couldn't take in the wine that had become the Blood of Jesus. My straw had a hole in the side of it. I put my thumb over the hole to seal it off and began to drink deeply of His Presence.
I immediately awoke and lay there while every detail of the dream replayed in my mind. I began to think of all the times I have so craved the Presence of Jesus in my life and found myself spiritually parched, dry and thirsty. During those times, I am profoundly conscious of my spiritual need for Him and try to draw Him in through the things I know how to do: Worship.. Reading Scripture.. Prayer. And while I thirst to drink deeply of His Presence through those straws of the spiritual disciplines, I wind up just sucking air.
During those times when I’m spiritually dry and discouraged and maybe even lacking in fath, I roll up my sleeves and get to work. I’ve read the books, heard and given the sermons. I know what to do! I pull hard against the “straws” of the spiritual disciplines but I’m unable to draw up even a single drop of what I seek. And God had showed me in the dream that I need to check my spiritual life for holes! 

Now fully awake, I asked God to show me the meaning of the hole and the Holy Spirit revealed to me that the hole in the straw had been made by my sins. Our minor sins are like the steady drip of water that can erode and create a hole in the hardest rock. It’s those little, seemingly unimportant sins – the ones I can too easily ignore – that can erode my spiritual life and become the barrier to receiving the fullness of God’s presence that I so desire in my life. 

God was showing me that whenever my relationship with Him doesn’t feel quite right – during those spiritual dry times when His presence seems far away – I need to do a “Sin Check” to see if there is something(s) that I need to confess and repent. A wise, old monk once said, “..on the pathway to purity and spiritual growth you can't afford a reckless attitude toward even the smallest sin.” Even the tiniest of holes made in our straws by the tiniest of sins can prevent us from drawing up the Presence of the Lord Jesus from His well of Living Water. 

Many of us today have become so fixated on the sins of our Nation and that other political party that we hate so much, that we have (conveniently) forgotten about our own sins. We rant about those “big” sins that others do and minimize the “little” sins that infect our own life. But it is those little “unimportant” sins that God is concerned about in your life. Because it’s those tiny, little “respectable” sins-the ones we so easily tolerate-that can keep us from God’s presence. 

You know those little “minor” sins I’m talking about. Being discontent with the life that God has given you. Being fearful of your future by not trusting that God has everything in control. Hating those who believe today what you believed yesterday before you became politically correct. Being unthankful to God and forgetting that all you have is a gift from Him. Grumbling. Giving into anger. Nursing a grudge. The debilitating sin of unforgiveness. Pride. Being impatient and unkind to others. Engaging in new age or pagan practices that are specifically forbidden by God. Having time for TV and being online but no time for the Bible. Being self-centered and not other-centered. The sins of the tongue: gossip, slander, critical speech, harsh words, insults, sarcasm, ridicule, quarreling etc. And then there’s the little sin of when we fail to love others like Jesus does. 

The little “respectable” sins. They’re really no big deal. Right? Everyone does them! Problem is that those tiny, little sins are eating those tiny, little holes in our straws..

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

A Change Is Coming!

Dear Friends,

Some people believe that Syracuse, New York is one of the most beautiful places on earth when the thousands of trees display the brilliant colors of Autumn. Aunt Helen certainly did. At age 92, she still went bowling every Wednesday and in the Fall, she raked up the red, yellow and orange leaves from her Syracuse front yard. I was reading that a New England mail order company will send you three genuine hand-selected autumn leaves for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling!  If Helen was still alive today, she would have laughed her head off at the thought of selling the leaves on her front lawn to someone living in a “condo” in California!

In Sylmar, I’m seeing a change of color in the deciduous trees and as I breathe in the morning air, there’s a freshness in the breeze that portends the passage of a season and prepares us for the next. Autumn is a time of beauty and peace for contemplatives, photographers, writers and artists. The brilliant tapestry of autumn colors feeds one’s soul and heart with such a dazzling display of God’s handiwork that we just need to go outside and play in it.

One of my favorite places to go this time of year is the picturesque town of Oak Glen nestled in what is called the “Little San Bernardino Mountains.”  Oak Glen is known for its abundant apple orchards and rolling hills covered with vivid autumn reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s as close as you can get to a spectacular New England autumn without getting on a plane.

Seasonal transitions of “nature” in God’s Creation remind us of seasons in our church and in our life. Autumn also signals the arrival of ADVENT – that season of anticipation as we prepare for the birth of the Christ child. ADVENT leads us to the CHRISTMAS celebration which includes Epiphany– the manifestation of the Savior Jesus to the Gentiles. Soon the chill of winter gives way to the warmth of spring and a season of spiritual growth. LENT is a time of reflection and recommitment to a renewed relationship with God. We approach Good Friday with our ineffable gratitude for the ultimate gift of God’s grace and salvation mixed along with a sense of sorrow for the suffering that Jesus endured. Easter– RESURRECTION SUNDAY– is truly a glorious day and the most important of all Christian Holy Days (“holidays”). Fifty days later comes PENTECOST, marking the day that God’s presence became actively working in believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become a witness of His glory and grace to the world. After PENTECOST we enter a season of what the church calls ORDINARY TIME. But the time quickly passes and before long, we sense a freshness in the air and soon the autumn colors are bringing us once again to the season of ADVENT. The journey through our church seasons reveals the mystery of God’s plan as it unfolds for us in the life of the church, and we are reminded that in the Kingdom of God, with each transition, there is something new again. 

In God’s Creation, there is a rhythmic cycle with the organic flow of our four seasons. Every three months, a transition to the next. Depressed by the gray, gloominess of winter? The warmth of spring is right around the corner. Tired of spring showers and eye-burning allergies? The long, hot days of summer are ahead. Worn down by the relentless heat and smog? The cooler glorious world of autumn awaits you. Bored and weary with autumn and those Santa Ana winds? Grab the winter coat, gather the firewood and prepare for those long, frosty winter nights. We are reminded that with each transition from one season to the next, there is something new again.

So it is with the seasons of life. You may be in an exciting springtime season of new birth and growth. You may be feeling as if you are caught in the dry, oppressive days of what seems to be an endless summer. This may be for you a contemplative, peaceful autumn time of thanksgiving. Or you may find yourself in the cold, dark, discouraging loneliness of a long winter season. I've got news for you. Get ready for it. A change is coming!

Seasons of life. Each with its own set of experiences and the passing of each season leaving behind memories of what was. For many of us, our photo albums are the pictorial autobiography of our life. We look back and remember the seasons of life that were filled with great joy and our happy memories bring gladness to our heart. 

But some seasons of life are filled with pain, sorrow and anger and those seasons can embed bitterness, uncertainties, fears and doubts into our soul. We will stay mired in our pain-filled past if we dwell on those memories and relive those circumstances of that season in our mind. And God says: “But forget all that-- it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?” Isaiah 43:18-19 NLT Praise God! For He reminds us that with each life transition, God will give us something new again!

Remember that no matter what season of life we’re in, there are three guarantees we can count on:1) This present season will come to an end. 2) God has already begun to do something new for you in the next season. And, 3) The one unchanging constant that we can trust in and count on is this: God is standing with us in this season and He is waiting for us in the next.  Amen?