Tuesday, December 31, 2019

How Much God Do You Have?

Dear Friends,

There was a time in my life, back in my twenties, when I had too much God. Honestly. The Deity was really making me very uncomfortable. I was technically a born-again Christian believer but seldom went to church. I was barely getting my feet wet in the shallow end of the spiritual pool, and there was still too much God in my life. My difficulty with God was that in order for me to live the good life my way, I needed a little less of Him in it. I wasn't what the good Christians called “walking with the Lord” and my problem was that the Lord had not walked away from me. That whole “I will never leave you nor forsake you” promise to us? Hebrews 13:5 God really meant it. And it's uncomfortable when you're trying to live a nice, carefree life of unrepentant sin with God watching over your shoulder. 

We seem to fall into one of three categories of relationship with God. The first category is what I’d call having “too much God.” It may be that He's calling us to a more righteous way of living and we don't like the cost of that call. There are things we say, do and think that we don't want to give up. Let’s face it. Most of the sins we commit are those we enjoy doing. And let’s get real here. If we were honest, most of us would admit that we would much prefer to ignore our neighbor than to love them. And despite what Jesus said, there is just absolutely no way we're going to forgive those people who have done us wrong. And that whole Matthew 25:31-46 thing about doing for the “least of these”? Forget it! And then suddenly, we're painfully aware of the pesky Holy Spirit convicting us of our sins and calling us out to live like a Christian. See what I mean? Too much God!

Then there are those Christians who honestly believe that they have just enough God. Let's do the math: I spend two hours in church on Sunday if I include the hospitality time. There are 168 hours in a week so my two hours in church is 1.2% of my time engaged in a religious activity. But I'm a good Christian so I pray for about 7 minutes a day which is 49 minutes a week. And sometimes I pray longer if there are a lot of things on my list to ask God for so let me round up my weekly prayer time to one hour. And then there’s my devotional reading and sometimes I even read my Bible so let me add another hour to my spiritual balance sheet. So now.. Two church hours, an hour in prayer and an hour reading and now I'm up to four hours a week. Whew! Let's see..That's about 2-3% of my life I'm doing a religious activity and that's just about enough. So I'm good! Don't need to be a fanatic about it! I mean really.. I got a life to live! So I’ve got enough God now, thank you very much!

Of all Christian believers, the second category of having “just enough God” is by far the largest. The first category of “too much God” is the second largest group of believers. And then there's that small group of radical Christians...

Those who just can't seem to get enough God. They long for more of Him. They thirst for His presence in their lives. God is never far from their thoughts. Prayer to Him is not a brief, compulsory religious ritual but a conversation that they periodically enter into throughout their day. Whether their prayers are extemporaneous or from a prayer book, they find themselves spiritually refreshed and filled with the peace of God. They also find themselves singing hymns and worship songs; sometimes not even aware of it. Hymns and worship songs have become the intrinsic background music of their lives and often spring spontaneously to their mind throughout the day. In every disturbing, stressful or worrisome situation, the first thing that they typically will do is to pray for guidance and often a Bible verse or thought will come to their mind that is specific for what they are experiencing and feeling. They find themselves being effortlessly thankful to God in all things for there is always something in every situation to be thankful about. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 If you were to call them a zealot for God, they’d blush at such a high compliment. Their faith is their passion and priority, and if you were to ask them, they’d answer that they never have enough God and wonder if it is even possible for anyone to have “too much God” in their lives.

As we begin the year 2020, which category are you in? Stop for a moment. Think about it...
❑ Too Much God. 
❑ Just Enough God. 
❑ Not Enough God.

Which category does God want you to be in? Do you have a faith that’s alive and powered by the Holy Spirit? Are you enthusiastically walking on a spiritual journey with Jesus becoming more like Him every day or are you just napping by the side of the road? Too many good church-going Christians have left their love of God behind and simply become dedicated patrons in the museum of religion on a Sunday morning. Or, are you perhaps at a stage in your life where you just want to be left alone and are annoyed that Jesus persistently stands at the door knocking? Revelation 3:20-21.

Wherever you are at, on your spiritual journey today, as we step over the threshold of 2020, I believe that God wants to say something to you at this very moment...

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Mary & Joe - a modern day narrative

Dear Friends,
Have you ever wondered what it would have really been like for Mary and Joseph? It’s so easy for us to quickly read their story at Christmas time, look at the pictures and romanticize about a cozy, warm barn with cute baby animals and fresh clean straw. And of course we all know that Mary rode to Bethlehem in comfort on the back of a donkey. Or did she? But what if we were to put our self into the Nativity? What if we were to imagine what the hardships were like for a teenage girl that’s nine months pregnant? Come and take a journey with me as we time travel our beloved Christmas story to a new time and place...

You’re a young, teenage girl living right here in this part of the San Fernando Valley and you come from a loving but poor family. Your father works and has a decent job so he is able to keep the family fed, but that's about it.

You recently got engaged to this guy, named Joe, who's a carpenter working for a framing contractor building houses. He doesn't make a lot of money either, but he’s just a few years older than you are and he’s just starting out. Both you and Joe come from good church-going families and always try to do the right things. You’re a good girl and you’ve never slept with any boys, and you and Joe agree that you won’t sleep together until you are married. Then the most astounding thing happens...

God sends the angel Gabriel to the San Fernando Valley to visit you. It sounds so normal when we say it like that but it actually scares you half to death. Instantly Gabriel appears before you and says: “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” You’re frightened and confused and you try to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid!” the angel tells you, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David. And He will reign over Israel forever; His Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:26-33)

Wait! Pregnant? This is impossible! You’ve been a good girl! There must be some mistake here!  You ask the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin!” The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God... For nothing is impossible with God.” No Way! You're just a teenager! And you're going to have the Son of God? (Luke 1:34-37)

Is this really happening? What are your friends from the neighborhood going to think?  What’s your dad going to say? And will this be a deal-breaker with Joe? How is he going to handle the news? But you think about this and tell the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord's servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” You then take a selfie with the angel so that you can prove to Joe and your family what really happened and when you look up, the angel is gone. You look at the photo on your phone and just see you and a very intense spot of brilliant white light. (Luke 1:38)

You are suddenly alone and now instantly and miraculously pregnant. What do you do now? You go see Aunt Liz who is very wise and a strong woman of God. Liz is a pastor’s wife and she’s also pregnant with a boy who will be called John. Liz lives with her husband Zacharias in the hill country they call Sylmar because that’s where the olive trees are. You pack your bag for a three month stay and go racing over there. (Luke 1:39-40) (Luke 1:56)

As soon as you get there and you greet Liz, her baby John jumps in her womb and Liz is instantly filled with the Holy Spirit. And Liz says to you in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Now Liz always talks a little oddly like that, but you cut her some slack because she’s a pastor’s wife and she spends a lot of time in church. (Luke 1:41-45)

But what Liz has done is to bring you to a full realization that you are soon to be the mother of the Lord. After receiving Liz’s blessing, you just do what comes naturally in the Presence of God. You burst out into praise and worship!

You sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.” 

And as you finish your song to the Lord, you’re realizing that you are starting to sound a little like your Aunt Liz. (Luke 1:46-55)

You return home, now three months pregnant and just starting to show a baby bump.  You realize that you need to tell Joe and, as you expected, he is very, very, upset about this. Because he had never slept with you, the only thing he could be absolutely certain about was that your baby was not his. It was obvious to him that you had been unfaithful and the law was very clear on the penalty for that. California Penal Code 22:23,24 clearly states: “If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones.” There is no mercy and no appeal process – not even Governor Newsom can pardon this crime. In California, if you cheat, you die. Joe doesn’t know what to do. He’s grown to love you and made a commitment to make you his wife, but there’s no way he can marry you now. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, you’ve insulted his intelligence by telling him that God had gotten you pregnant. Wait.. You say a “Spirit” got you pregnant? Yeah.. Sure, Mary... (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

But fortunately for you, God always seems to have everything under control in your life and God’s got this one handled too. When Joe is fretting about what to do, “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Hey Joe, son of David, do not be afraid to take your betrothed for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20-23)

Wow! Okay.. that’s a gamechanger! So you and Joe are good now. And it’s getting time for you to deliver. You can’t wait. You’re still helping your mom around the house, but it’s getting harder and harder and you’re getting tired quickly and needing to rest a lot during the day.

And now, you and Joe get just about the worst news possible. The entire country is reeling from some governmental decrees. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus had rolled out a new health plan called CaesarCare that was not being at all well received. And as CaesarCare was tanking, the Emperor decided that it needed to be bailed out by the government and the only way he could do that would be to raise taxes. So the Emperor decreed that every man needed to go back to the city of their family of origin to be registered so that he could make sure that everyone was paying their full share of taxes. (Luke 2:1-3)

This is bad news. Joe came from David’s family and they had come from Santa Barbara. That means Joe’s got to go to Santa Barbara and you’ve got to go with him.  And Joe doesn’t make enough to afford a car and your neighbor offered you his donkey to ride but your doctor told you absolutely no horseback or donkey riding because the bouncing up and down when you're nine months pregnant isn't good. So you guys are just going to have to do what everyone else does and walk. You don’t know how far it is from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Barbara but you google it and find that it’s about 70 miles. (That happens to be about the same distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.) (Luke 2:4-6)

A strong, healthy man or woman can walk 20 miles in one day but you wonder how far and how fast you can walk when you’re nine months pregnant. You can only take a few things to carry. Water and a little food. No extra clothing. You leave the laptop at home. You’ve got to travel light.  

After 2½ long hard days of walking you reach Ventura but here’s your dilemma. You can’t go any further because you’ll soon be in Summerland which is also called Samaria. Now everyone knows that the people who live in Summerland-Samaria and the people of the San Fernando Valley have been bitter enemies for centuries. That’s why everyone from the San Fernando Valley always avoids going through Summerland-Samaria if they can. (Luke 9:51-56) You and Joe talk about taking your chances on passing through their little beach town, but no one will give you food or shelter and they will very likely try to harm you both.

Joe is very protective of both you and the baby so you do what everyone else does when they travel north and south. Once you and Joe get to Ventura, you cross the Ventura river and go inland to Ojai. From there you go around Summerland-Samaria by taking the back roads to Santa Barbara. Normally, this is an enjoyable diversion in beautiful hills and mountain passes but your feet are so sore that there are times when you just don’t think you can take another step.

You wake up in the mornings feeling sick to your stomach and dread another full day of walking. You thank God that Joe is very loving and gives you plenty of time to rest. Your back hurts so much right now and you get short of breath even climbing small hills. But Joe is helping you walk and he’s even patient when you need to stop at every fourth bush to go to the bathroom. It’s taking forever to get to Santa Barbara. Having to avoid the dangerous Summerland-Samaria added another two days to your painfully long trip.

The one thing that’s helped you since you started out from the San Fernando Valley a week ago is the thought of staying in that cute bed and breakfast right there on the beach that overlooks the ocean. Your Aunt Liz recommended it and it’s a quaint little inn with free wi-fi and Victorian furnishings in all the rooms. 

And now you’ve finally arrived in Santa Barbara and you wonder if maybe you should see a doctor. This pregnancy thing is all new for you but from what your mom and Aunt Liz told you, you’re thinking this could be time. The pains are getting sharp and intense. But you’ve been on the road walking for a week now, it’s getting dark, starting to rain and all you can think about is a hot bath at the inn.  

And of course we all know what happens next. Because we’ve read your story and we know that you forgot to make reservations. The innkeeper and his wife are very kind and apologetic as they explain to you that they are completely filled up and there is no more room at their inn. And because of so many people who have come to Santa Barbara to register for the Emperor’s new tax assessment, all the inns, hotels and motels are also filled. But the innkeeper tells you that there’s an old storage shed in the back where he lets his dogs and cats go in to get out of the rain. He says that you and Joe are welcome to spend the night there.

As you walk hand in hand in the drizzling rain with Joe to the back of the property and to a cold, unheated shed you can’t imagine that this is what God had planned for you. Something must have gone terribly wrong. You are cold, wet and exhausted. The excruciating pains are lasting longer and coming just a few minutes apart. Can anything good come out of this miserable night...? (Luke 2:7)

"For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" Luke 2:11-14
Have you ever thought about why Mary did go to Bethlehem with Joseph? A physically exhausting trip just right before she is about to have her first child? And, we don’t know how she got there. You might remember Sunday School pictures of her riding a donkey but that’s a church legend and not biblical. She most likely did what everyone else did. She walked. But why did she go? The census was only to count men. Women literally didn’t “count” in those days. Mary could have stayed home and family members would have cared for her and helped through the birthing process. Jesus could have been born in Nazareth in a warm, comfortable home.  

But God’s autobiography, the Bible, tells us that His plan was for the Son of God to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah had prophesied that 700 years before. And yet, it would be nearly impossible for Mary to know that. Mary may have sensed that she was simply following the will of God to go to Bethlehem with Joseph. Mary didn’t know how things would turn out. But we know her faith and trust in God was strong.

We don’t know how things will turn out in our own lives either. But like Mary, it is only when we follow God in trust, faith and obedience that we live our lives according to His plans and purposes for us. And on our own journey, when we can’t see clearly what tomorrow will bring, we know that when we’re following God, somehow, everything will turn out okay...

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Best Christmas Movie?

Dear Friends,

There was a time in my adult life when layers of Christmas traditions had obscured the meaning. As a young boy, I knew it was about the miraculous birth of Jesus, but it was also about the miraculous coming of Santa Claus. Christmas was a time of mystery and wonder until someone punctured my belief about Santa with the truth and all the mystery and wonder leaked out. As I grew into adulthood, my Christmas became a sloppy mixture of sentimentality and materialism. It was a time of year when things in the world became nice again. Nice decorations, nice songs, nice movies, nice dinners, nice gifts and the miracle of Jesus’ birth was overshadowed with the miracle of people actually being nice to one another. 

We long for the hope, peace, joy and love that we often find in our sentimentalization of Christmas. We express our love for each other by giving gifts and the more the merrier. And sadly for too many of us, that’s the true meaning of Christmas. But those of us who are believers know that Christmas is more than nice, warm thoughts and what we got at Walmart on Black Friday. 

Christmas is about a Creator entering into His Creation to redeem us and bring us true hope, peace, joy and love. Christmas is about the incarnation, literally meaning “God in the flesh.” And when we return to the spiritual riches of Christmas, the sentimentality and materialism of the season is now eclipsed with the majesty and mystery of the incarnation. Our childlike wonder has returned. Thank You God!

Advent is the season of expectation. The word Advent is from a Latin word meaning “coming” and we celebrate the first time Jesus came to earth in that Bethlehem manger as we look with full expectation to His second coming. ‘Tis the season to decorate, shop, cook, bake, give, receive and spend time with family and friends. That’s what we love about Christmas, but none of those wonderful holiday traditions has anything to do with Christ. That’s why we need Advent to remind us to take a timeout from the holiday busyness and spend time with Jesus.

I love the Christmas movies. I laugh at the immature and irreverent humor in "National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation" and cry at the same sappy places you do while watching "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It’s a Wonderful Life." But of course those classic Christmas movies are about an eccentric family, the “real” Santa Claus and guardian angels. Nothing about Jesus.

That’s why my favorite Christmas movie is a animated movie (cartoon) that was introduced to the world on December 9, 1965. Its overt religious theme was out of place on TV then, and no major studio or television network would even think about producing this today. The miracle is that, not only was it made, but that networks must still show this very politically-incorrect animated movie every Christmas because it’s so immensely popular! I’m talking about "Charlie Brown’s Christmas." Here’s an excerpt:

Charlie Brown: Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Linus Van Pelt: Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.  [moves toward the center of the stage]

Linus Van Pelt: Lights, please. [a spotlight shines on Linus]

Linus Van Pelt: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, 'Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'"

[Linus picks up his blanket and walks back towards Charlie Brown]

Linus Van Pelt: That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Born Again. Again.

Dear Friends,

Last week I was listening to Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home” and thinking of a friend named Ron. On November 14, 1960, Ron came out of a comfortable and familiar place where he had been living for nine months, passed through his mother’s birth canal and into the bright light of a brand-new world. Fifty-nine years later, on November 13, 2019, Ron passed out of a comfortable and familiar place where he had been living and was birthed into the bright light of a brand-new world that exceeded everything that he had ever imagined and hoped for. 

Henri Nouwen was an internationally-known Catholic priest who wrote over forty books on the spiritual life, and Presbyterian pastor Fred Rogers (“Mister Roger’s Neighborhood”) recognized Nouwen as one of the most significant spiritual leaders of our time. In “Our Greatest Gift ~ A Meditation on Dying and Caring,” Nouwen gives us a parable on the transitions in our life:

Twins are talking to each other in the womb. The sister said to the brother, “I believe there is life after birth.” Her brother protested vehemently, “No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing else to do but to cling to the cord that feeds us.” The little girl insisted, “There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light where there is freedom to move.” Still she could not convince her twin brother.

After some silence, the sister said hesitantly, “I have something else to say, and I’m afraid you won’t believe this, either, but I think there is a mother.” Her brother became furious. “A mother!” he shouted. “What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place and we have all we need, so let’s be content.”

The sister was quite overwhelmed by her brother’s response and for a while didn’t dare say anything more. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and since she only had her twin brother to speak to, she finally said, “Don’t you feel these squeezes every once in a while They’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.” “Yes,” he answered. “What’s special about that?” “Well”, the sister said, “I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our mother face-to-face!!!”

Nouwen’s parable ends there but imagine with me that it continues: After the twins had grown up, the sister went through her life believing that this world “womb” was a temporary home and that death would simply be the transition to a new stage of existence unimaginable in this life. Her brother went through his life doubting that it had any meaning or purpose and believing that death would simply be the end of his existence.

In the metaphorical parable, life outside the womb was beyond the twin’s capacity to picture and there were sensations from the outside that they could not comprehend. Sounds. Movements. Squeezes. Bright lights would sometimes light up their dark, safe space that hinted of the life to come. The brother closed his eyes and ears to the reality of another world and brushed off the signs as meaningless wishful thinking. His sister’s “evidence” that there was someOne bigger than them was because the Holy Spirit had given her the ability to see that they were immersed in God’s existence (the “mother’s womb” in the parable), and they were being supported, fed and nurtured in every way by their “Creator.” The girl knew that as they continued to grow and develop, their existence and development made no sense unless they were meant for something more, by someone “bigger” in whom they were growing. And she knew that with the approaching end of their nine month life, the uncomfortable “squeezes” were the sign that something wonderful was waiting for them. She was filled with a hopeful expectancy of a better world to come! 

For the unbelieving world, the word “birth” can bring great joy while “death” brings fear. But for those whose hope is in Christ, our transition from our mortal existence on earth is simply another joyful “birth” into an unseen world that is only glimpsed by us in this life. “..No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9 

At Ron’s memorial service, I was talking with a friend who has absolutely no fear of death. She has complete faith and trust in God and, like the girl in the parable, had been given a vision of her next destination after she leaves this “temporary home.” Our souls were created to have eternal life. We simply transition from one world to the next, stepping over the threshold of the door that God is holding open for us. As believers, death has no victory in our lives 1 Corinthians 15:55 because “it is well with our soul.” For those who believe, what awaits each one of us is simply another birth into a better world. John 3:16; Rev 7:15-17; Rev 21:3-5  Amen?

Listen to Carrie Underwood's "Temporary Home" HERE

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Why We Need Advent!

Dear Friends,

I loved Advent. My grandmother always gave me and my sister an Advent Calendar right after Thanksgiving day. I loved those cardboard calendars with the cutout for each day of December that lead up to the illustration of the Nativity on the 24th. I would look forward every day to the ritual of slowly and carefully opening another cardboard door to reveal what was printed inside. I savored every day’s illustration. The Advent Calendar heightened my anticipation for Christmas and drew me closer each day to the celebration of the birth of Christ. I resisted, of course, the temptation to “peek” at the hidden illustrations under the closed doors that would be opened in the days ahead. But as soon as my sacrilegious seven-year-old sister got her Advent Calendar, she would run into her room and tear open every door. This was back when I was a young, God-fearing lad who was practicing to be a pastor by baptizing my sister’s Barbie dolls in the “creek” that ran through our backyard. So when I discovered her Advent Calendar desecration, I loudly proclaimed to our parents that it was an act of blasphemous rebellion against the church and everything most sacred.

A few years ago, I used pretty much those same words while ranting to Rhianna. We had just come from visiting our favorite mission in San Juan Capistrano and were walking from the Mission Gift Store to the car. You don’t find “Christian-cute” merchandise in a Catholic Book and Gift Store. They are filled with seriously religious items such as prayer cards, statues, jewelry, holy water bottles, crucifixes, icons, rosaries and prayer books. We were looking for crosses to hang on the Christmas tree when we both noticed what was on the store’s overhead music system. Michael Jackson was singing, “You’d better watch out, you’d better not cry.. You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.. Santa Claus is coming to town.” And the next “Christmas” song was “Last Christmas” by WHAM! I won’t bother giving you the lyrics, but trust me – it’s most definitely not a “Christian” Christmas song. As I’m wrestling with the dichotomy of listening to the Jackson 5 and WHAM! in this very religious environment, the smiling salesclerk rang up my purchase and then cheerfully wished me, “Happy Holidays!” Seriously? A Catholic employee is wishing me a politically-correct “Happy Holidays!” in a Catholic-owned store on the sacred grounds of this 240 year old church? I’m buying crosses for a Christmas tree and she doesn’t want to offend me by saying Merry Christmas? I may as well have been at Target. Thus the reason for the rant.

But it reminded me of why even we good church-goin’ Christians so desperately need Advent these days. Last Sunday was the first Sunday in Advent and comes at the perfect time to interrupt the political hostility that has seized our Nation. We need a timeout from the hysteria, but instead of a time of peace and joy, our Christmas ritual often starts with an appropriately named Black Friday.. Credit card debt.. Jingle Bells and jangled nerves.. Frantically dashing toward Christmas day in a one horse open sleigh.. Then finally, it’s Christmas! Da Da! It’s showtime!! We did it! And yet in the Christmas rush, the manger is still empty. We got it all done, but we’ve left someOne behind.

That’s why we need Advent. Advent means “coming” and these are the days that we anticipate the coming of Christ. Advent is the spiritual speed-bump that slows us down in our race toward Christmas and allows us to savor the journey. When we are tempted to speed up into the Holly Jolly Christmas pace, Advent takes us into a contemplative place. During this “holiday” season, we can meet Santa at the mall, but Advent reminds us that we’ll meet God in the quiet sacred places.

On the Advent journey, we find our peace and joy not in what we buy, plan, decorate, bake or cook, but in the expectancy of His coming. Find what works best for you that turns down the noise of your fast-paced life and allows you to spend time in silence with Him – just you and God – alone together. Spend some time each day in quiet prayer and contemplation. There are many good Advent devotional books* that may be helpful for you. Read Luke 1:5-2:20 and Matthew 1:18-24. Meditate on these scriptures by thinking about what they mean to you. Pray about them and then just rest in His presence. You may hear Him speak to your heart, you may be filled with His peace or you may just find yourself sitting there with God and enjoying His Presence. 

Resting in His peace will bring a joyful attitude. Then when others are stressed, anxious and angry in the weeks ahead, you can bring the joy of God into their lives. Practice graciousness, patience, and kindness with family members and frazzled store clerks alike. Be especially aware of friends and neighbors who struggle this time of year and be compassionate. Be Christ-like. Show them the love of Jesus this Christmas and do what you can to relieve their distress, suffering and loneliness. Let them see, through your love for them, the Child in the manger. Amen?

+   +   +

* These are the Books I read throughout ADVENT and would personally recommend:

Watch For The Light - Readings for Advent and Christmas by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others

God With Us - Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas by Eugene Peterson, Kathleen Norris and others

A Monastery Journey to Christmas by Brother Victor-Antoine D'Avila-Latourrette

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Be The Dog! Be Happy!

Dear Friends,

Excerpts from the diary of a dog:
6 am
Hallelujah! I’m awake! What an awesome day! I love going outside first thing in the   morning. Hey it’s raining. I love the rain! I love to run through the mud! Wheeeeeee!
7 am
Yipee! Here’s my dog food! How awesome it is that this is the very same dry food I’ve had every day for the last 12 years. I love this food!
8 am
Hey look! There’s a cat in the back yard! Let’s chase it! BARK! BARK! BARK! Dang! Over the fence. Missed it again. They’re always too fast. I love cats!
9 am
Time for my morning nap. I love my morning nap!
10 am
Wahoo! A car ride? I love car rides! They’re my favorite! To the vet? Thanks Dad! I love going to the vet! Deworming and a Parvo shot? Yay!!
11 am
Oh boy! I’m back in my yard again. I love my yard!
1 pm
Awesome! Here comes my Dad with the dog brush. I love to be brushed!
1:30 pm
Wow! A dog biscuit! With poultry by-products! Can my life get any better than this? I love dog biscuits!
3 pm
Whoopee! I’m in the house again. My Dad’s the most wonderfully awesome, most perfect person in the entire world! I love being with my Dad!
4 pm
Hooray! My favorite dog food again! This is sooo awesome! I love my dog food!
9 pm
All right! It’s time to go to bed! I love going to bed!

Excerpts from the diary of a cat: 
“I nearly succeeded at killing the prison guard this morning. I ran between her feet as she was walking into the kitchen. She almost went down but grabbed onto the counter. I must re-attempt this technique in a more open area where there’s nothing to stop her fall. I’ve been held against my will in captivity for eight years and three months. My captor continues to taunt me with bizarre little plastic things on the floor she calls toys. She also apparently gets a perverse sort of amusement out of tricking me into chasing a red dot that she shines on the floor. She thinks I can’t hear her laughing when I fail to catch the dot. I am subjected to this ridicule and diabolical cruelty every time she thinks I need to exercise.” 

“For the entire time I’ve been confined to her house, my captor dines lavishly on freshly cooked meals while I am forced to eat dry cat food. My only hope is to eventually escape. She guards the doors to the outside, and to the freedom I so long for, but one day success will be mine.” 

“The only joy in life is for the minuscule payback I am able to devise to make the guard’s life miserable. Last week when she left her underwear drawer open, I was able to jump into it and hack up a hair ball. I ran under the bed when she found it. I have done everything possible to show how I feel about being held in this prison. When I caught a mouse, I bit off its head and left the carcass on her pillow.” 

“I did that out of spite, but she read a book on cat behavior, thought I was lonely and so she brought more cats into the house for me to “play with.” The prison conditions are already overcrowded as is, but the new cats do give me someone to torture while she’s at work. This miserable confinement is unbearable, and my only relief is scheming of ways to torment the other feline prisoners. Today, I’ll destroy the side of the guard’s antique couch with my claws and when she comes home, I’ll pretend to be asleep on her bed and look all cute and innocent. She’ll blame it on those clueless cats playing and racing around the living room...” 

Have you known people who were like the cat? Feeling captive in their circumstances, they grumbled about everything in their life. Oversensitive and passive-aggressive, they saw themselves as victims of their spouse, boss, the government. Their only hope was to dream of the day when they could escape to a better job, a better house, a better  spouse. They could find no good in their circumstances. They had no peace. During a time of sharing at a Thanksgiving church service, I once asked a woman what she had to be thankful for. She hissed into the microphone, “I have NOTHING to be thankful for!”  (I love being a pastor!!)

So what if we were to live life like the dog? 6 am: Oh Boy! What a wonderful day that You have made God! Let me truly rejoice and be glad in it! All Right! Time for my coffee! I love my coffee! Time to clean the house! Thank you Lord for giving me the safety and security of a roof over my head when billions of people don’t even have water and electricity. I love cleaning my house! Lookee here! A traffic jam on my way to work! That just gives me more time to relax and pray! Lord, I love these interruptions in my day when I can come into Your presence with prayer. Oh Boy! I get to go to the dentist today! A root canal? You’re kidding me, Doc! That’s awesome! So you can save that tooth and I can keep eating crunchie munchies and I can eat ice cream on that side of my mouth again? That’s wonderful news, Doc! Yes, please..I’d love a root canal!

Make a pledge this Thanksgiving. If you’re the cat, repent! Become the dog by being grateful in every circumstance. When you replace grumbling with gratitude, your entire life will be changed and God will be pleased! “In all things give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (We are not thankful for all things but in all things we can always find something to be thankful for.) Psalm 118:24 says This is the day that the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it.” Wagging your tail is optional.

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On a Personal Note: The dog and cat diaries are based on an old joke I remembered and rewrote to describe my dog Elysee. When she was alive, I used to tell people I lived at Saint Elysee’s Monastery. That’s still how I think of my house. Today I have three cats who are each practically perfect in nearly every way and are the exact opposite of the one in my version of the cat diary. (Please understand that I have to say that for my own protection. They know where I sleep at night.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Surviving Thanksgiving With Your Family!

Dear Friends,
Sometimes the worst dinnertime disaster at Thanksgiving has nothing to do with the turkey – it’s the family. Does your Thanksgiving look like a Norman Rockwell painting where the entire family is practically perfect in nearly every way? If so, don’t waste your time reading this week’s AMEN Corner. Does your Thanksgiving look like a Jerry Springer grudge match with flying metal folding chairs? If so, I still have some coupons left that I would be more than happy to give you – I’ll explain more about the coupons in a moment. Or does your family Thanksgiving look like something in between practically perfect and perniciously psychotic? If so, this AMEN Corner may be helpful...
I’ll never forget the year that we were trying to logistically plan things out for Thanksgiving dinner with our own extended family. For a few years, we had it at a person’s house who doesn’t cook and he orders Thanksgiving dinner from a restaurant. Kind of like an upscale Turkey Box Lunch. But that year he had a new girlfriend who wanted Thanksgiving at her house. She lived in a small house with a huge undisciplined dog and her own tradition was to invite eleven of her closest relatives and friends. Even though she was engaged to this member of our immediate family, we still didn’t make the cut and were not invited. Then the family matriarch intervened and her son’s fiancee extended a reluctant, last-minute invitation to us, but we were told that because the house was too small, we’d have to sit outside on a small patch of grass and dirt next to the dog house.

The second-tier guests like us were going to be confined in the tiny back yard with the 120 pound dog and I didn’t want to be wrestling with a Rottweiler over a turkey leg, so I was hoping that maybe we could just park in their driveway and they could serve us a Turkey Box Lunch in the car. At this point in the Thanksgiving planning, the tension increased pushing us even further away and so we rebelliously did something that we had never done before. We drove to Carpinteria and bought two turkey Subway Sandwiches. The sun-warmed beach was devoid of people and it was like being on a deserted island. It was Thanksgiving in paradise! We sat in the shade of a palm tree, enjoyed the fresh ocean breeze, ate our turkey sandwiches and the pumpkin scones I had made for dessert. It was the best and most meaningful Thanksgiving day that we’d ever had.

I’m obviously going to encourage you to spend Thanksgiving with your family, but I did get some Subway coupons in my mailbox last week so just let me know if you’d like to have them. (We’ll thankfully be with our family this year, so I won’t need to use them.) Family is important to us and God made us that way. We were created to be in relationship with those who God has given to us and to whom we have been given. We were created to live in a family relationship with others, but today’s families face a minefield of trigger topics where even the mildest remark about the weather can unleash a diatribe on climate change or a niece’s newborn baby boy can trigger a heated discussion about the child’s right to choose its own gender.

Last week HuffPost called for the elimination of Thanksgiving because of its environmental impact on climate change and an MSNBC host described Thanksgiving as a “problematic food holiday” while giving advice on how to mock and denigrate the character of any Trump supporters at the table. Many in our Nation have been indoctrinated to hate any person who does not conform to their political doctrine, but the media’s agenda to provoke our rage does not have to provide the context for our Thanksgiving family dinner. This is a season of thanksgiving! Time for us to thank God for the grace He has so lovingly given to us. Time to let that grace flow through us to others in our circle of family and friends. Time to see other people not through our own eyes but through God’s eyes. Thanksgiving should be a time of warmth, harmony and peace with family and friends, but in a fractious family, how do we do that?

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If the host/hostess knows there are those present who are outspoken and have strong beliefs about an issue, (see above wordcloud) they should announce that those discussions are not welcome and that the focus of the time together is on what everyone is thankful for. If conversations turn political anyway, then do what you can to avoid triggering discussions about today’s hot button issues while knowing that others may still use just the fragment of a conversation to transition to the issues they are feeling most passionate about. When that happens, simply don’t engage – just listen without replying. We foolishly think that we can change another person’s opinion by our persuasive arguments, and when we can’t, we may feel that rage building up until we become hostile, resort to verbal violence and say things that may potentially cause irreparable damage to a family relationship. But what if we’ve chosen to not engage and another person still becomes verbally combative: “So why don’t you hate Trump?” The best response may be a mild, “That’s not a conversation to have while we’re enjoying this day together, maybe we can talk about it later.” And if you’ve been mocked or belittled by another, immediately start to work on your forgiveness, remembering that one definition of forgiveness is “Simply no longer holding against a person what deserves to be held against them.”

On Thanksgiving day and everyday, we are  responsible for what comes from our own mouth. “The tongue has the power of life and death” Proverbs 18:21 meaning that our words can either speak life, or our words can speak death. It is not Christ-like for us to let rage build in us to the point that we damage or kill a relationship with a family member by the words we use. The words from our lips, pour out of our heart and form the image of how others see us. A friend recently told me about a message she had seen on a church sign: “If the words you spoke were written on your skin, would you still be beautiful?” This Thanksgiving, let’s make sure that our own words are kind and filled with the grace of God. “Kind words are like honey..sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” Proverbs 16:24-26 NLT Amen?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

A Theology of Immigration

This AMEN Corner has been previously published but the issue of immigration is sadly more volatile today than ever before. We can simply align ourselves with liberal or conservative dogmatic beliefs and echo our favorite politicians or we can develop our own Immigration Theology that is prayerfully based upon the Word of God. For what it’s worth, here is mine...
Dear Friends,

A family member once asked me one of those truly great questions so complex and confounding that it forces you to wrestle with it for a spell until you are comfortable articulating your thoughts.

On the issue of illegal immigrants, she wrote, “I would like your opinion as a Christian and as a law abiding citizen (which comes first??)” She then wrote, “Some Christians say, "what would Jesus do"? How far are we supposed to extend our freedoms to those less fortunate??”

In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a law-abiding, red-blooded American Conservative Republican who went door-to-door with my father to campaign for Barry Goldwater in 1964. Our house in West Hollywood was the only one in the neighborhood with the American Flag on a 20' flagpole. And today, I’m also a born-again, Bible-thumping, washed-in-the-blood, Spirit-filled, unabashed and unashamed follower of Jesus Christ. 

So what I loved most about her email was her asking me, “..which comes first??” Because that answer determines my thoughts, not just on immigration, but on everything that America struggles with today. What does come first? Do we look at politics through our faith based on God’s word in the Bible? Or do we read and interpret our Bible through the filter of our adopted and ingrained political beliefs?

“Exegesis” is the rendering of scripture to determine the original meaning of what the writer intended to say. When looking at Old Testament scriptures regarding “foreigners,” “strangers” and “sojourners” we need to do our exegesis to understand the practices in Biblical times before we can even attempt to extrapolate those Godly principles that we can apply to America today.

We flag-waving Conservatives enthusiastically point to passages of scripture that refer to foreigners. Anyone from outside the nation of Israel was inferior and possessed restricted rights. There was legislation concerning their limited rights in both civil and financial matters. Deut 15:3 Deut 23:20 They could not eat the Passover Exodus 12:43 intermarry Exodus 34:12-16 become king Deut 17:15 or even enter the Temple. Ezekiel 44:9 In the New Testament, we read that the very presence of foreign Greeks (meaning the Gentile, non-Jews) in the Temple defiled the holy place. Acts 21:28 

It’s easy for some to cry “Yes and Amen” and use those verses to show that we need strong regulations to limit the rights of immigrants today. But then we remember that we too are the “Gentiles,” and that means that we were the “inferior foreigner” that the Old Testament speaks about. Of course that puts a little different spin on things here...

We love to quote Jesus summing up Old Testament law in what we call the two great commandments: “Love God with all your heart... and love your neighbor as yourself.” But Jesus quoted the “loving your neighbor” part from Leviticus 19:18 and in verses 33-34 we read: “And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19:33-34 And in the New Testament we read that we are to welcome strangers as if they were Jesus. Matthew 25:31-46 
“And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Those are the verses that tell us how to welcome and treat the foreigners in our country. But it would be a mistake to claim that those verses in our Bible are why all immigrants should automatically receive the full benefits of an American citizen. The foreigners needed to assimilate into the Hebrew religion and culture before they could receive all the blessings and benefits of an Israelite citizen. Only by obeying and accepting the law and becoming “Israelites,” could the foreigners be included in the nation. Only when they were willing to give up the ties to their mother country and learn the traditions, the language, laws and customs of Israel, could the male immigrant be circumcised into the nation of Israel and bring the rest of his family with him.

And while we may not want to require the ritual act of circumcision as a prerequisite for citizenship in America, it is required that everyone living here obey our Nation’s laws and, if they want the benefits of citizenship, they must take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Immigration has always been a controversial issue. God rebuked the Hebrews for their hostility towards foreigners and He may be just as unhappy with the way some of us Christians are responding to the issue of immigration today. That’s why, as our government decides what to do with immigrants, you and I just need to love them like Jesus. Yes, I am a flag-waving American. But above the flag, there’s a cross.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Beautiful In His Eyes!

Dear Friends,

Jesus never called God “mommy.” The Son of God gave His Father a male identity and so have His followers for the last 2,000 years. The Old Testament refers to God by name (Yahweh) but Jesus referred to God as “Father” and He did so 165 times. In Mark 14:36, Jesus used the Aramaic word “Abba” that was an even more intimate and familiar term of endearment closer to our word “daddy.” 

There is a strong movement taking place in the mainline denominations to remake God into a “politically correct” genderless deity. This recent and increasingly militant crusade has been removing the male pronouns of both God the Father and God the Son from their liturgy and prayers. One denomination suggests that pastors edit out any hymn lyrics that refer to God as a male. They’ve used the name “Mother” to refer to God and have even stopped referring to Jesus as a man. 

This movement to theologically castrate God makes the point that God as Spirit has no gender, but then they quickly reveal their true agenda by calling Him “Mother.” Their explanation behind the feminization of God and their distaste that Jesus was born a male is because those with “father” or “men” issues and who were subjected to patriarchal, abusive males are offended by the male “Father” and “Son” gender-based terms used for God and Jesus. They correctly identify our tendency to see our Heavenly Father through the experiences we had with our earthly father but the answer is not to neuter God but to know Him. Childhood issues with rejection, family dysfunctions, pain and abuse are healed in the presence of our Heavenly Father. And in His presence, we experience His total, committed, genuine, unconditional, never-ending, astounding love for us.

The Father God takes the messiness of your life and molds you into a masterpiece of beauty. He created you in His image and when you accept His Son you will have eternal life with your Father forever. John 3:16 And thanks be to God that His love for you is not based on what you do or don't do. His love for you is based on who He is. 

And He loves you so much that as soon as He created you in the womb, Psalm 139:13-16 He placed a crown of glory and honor on your head. Psalm 8:5 Men and women look in the mirror and see flaws. You see the cracks in your character. You see the physical and psychological scars. You see the fat and the zits. The sin and the failures. Your Heavenly Father looks at you and sees only the beauty of His created one. That’s your Abba. That’s your Heavenly Daddy. You are covered with His fingerprints and you have intrinsic value in His eyes. God has crowned you with His crown of glory. You may look in the mirror, and through the lies of your past, you see ugly. But beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and your Beholder sees only your beauty. Abba. Daddy. 

Let me show you how much your Father loves you. Did you know about God’s tattoo? In the ancient times, nearly everyone had tattoos. They were used to mark family ties or slave ownership. Women tattooed their stomach and breasts with magical symbols during pregnancy to guarantee a safe birth. Tattoos were most commonly used to show devotion to a god or gods. It’s no different today when we tattoo on our bodies that which has captured our own devotion. Whether it's the word “mom,” a butterfly, pagan symbols, a cartoon character or Harley-Davidson wings, we display our devotion for the world to see. But because the ancients used tattoos in pagan rituals and to declare allegiance to other gods, tattoos were prohibited by God. Leviticus 19:28 Then God turns right around and gets one of His own. Go figure.

And God’s tattoo is not a temporary one that can be washed off. No heavenly laser can eradicate it. It's permanent. And now prepare to be astonished. Because God’s tattoo is you. It's your name. God has written your name on the palms of His hands! That’s how much He loves you! The prophet Isaiah gives us that wonderful metaphor that describes God’s devotion to you! God tells the Israelites then and tells us today that He has inscribed us – meaning to cut in or carve onto something. God has engraved your name on His hands. Isaiah 49:16 It can’t be erased. It’s eternal. It shows God’s devotion and head-over-heels love for you! His love is not based on the good things you’ve done or the bad things that you didn’t do. It’s based on what God has done for you. And that, dear friends, is God’s grace. You look in the mirror and see “messed up.” He looks at you and sees His priceless jewel. Then He looks down at His hand, sees your name and rejoices over you. Zephaniah 3:17 Your Father loves you not because of what you’ve done but because of who you are. You’re His son. You’re His daughter. He’s your Abba.  Amen?