Wednesday, February 27, 2019

From There To Here!

Dear Friends,

Last Sunday was the 10th Year Anniversary for New Hope Family Church! God had called me to a small church that had been struggling with a previous pastor. In the middle of our process of healing and restoration, the denomination decided to kick this congregation out of their home church and give their property and their $60,000 in a savings account to a Spanish-speaking church! We voted to leave the denomination and New Hope Family Church was born. We worshiped for the next 18 months in the home of Raul and Ann Gallardo and then rented a Lutheran Church in Lake Balboa until it was shut down by their denomination. That was when we rented a Lutheran Church property in Sylmar. 

We grew spiritually as our faith matured. We grew in our worship to Him, and as our praise lifted us up into His presence, that became one of the “sweet spots” in our service every Sunday. We celebrated the Eucharist every week and grew liturgically as we added prayers and creeds from the earliest Christian church. Most importantly, we grew in our love of God and in our love for each other.

We had started a Wednesday service at an assisted living facility that added about 30 people to our church. Then, about ten months later, fewer people were attending the Sunday service. For many different reasons. Old age that left some home-bound. Death. Some no longer wanting to drive the 45 round-trip miles from the San Fernando Valley to Sylmar. When the Sunday service became financially unsustainable and we were unable to afford our rent, NHFC transitioned to holding just the Wednesday service.

We had for many years prayerfully petitioned God to grow NHFC according to our vision. He patiently listened and then turned the church upside down by answering our prayer according to His plans and purposes for us. To God be the glory! In the three years we’ve been at Abbey Road Villa, we’ve had some services with over 80 residents and guests. We have permanent residents who have attended nearly every service and have had residents who have come, stayed for awhile, and then moved on to a nursing home or a different type of facility when their physical or mental health had changed. In these three years, we’ve had the opportunity to bring the Gospel message of Jesus to hundreds of people. Praise God! Last year we even had a real "fairy-tale" wedding between two of the Christian residents who  proved to all of us that Godly love between a man and a woman is not limited by age or disability!
The woman is the photo is Noem. She has been to every church service for the past three years and she "dresses" up for church by having a caretaker put a fresh ribbon bow in her hair. She doesn't speak or understand a word of English. She is Armenian Orthodox but a smile beams from her face as she worships right along with me every Wednesday. We don't take an offering.The residents typically have no money. But Noem always gives me something. It's a cookie wrapped in a napkin, or a saltine cracker she saved from yesterday's lunch, or maybe one of those little jam packets that came with her breakfast. At the end of the service, as it is common in her Orthodox tradition, she will always bless me with the sign of the cross and give me an "offering."
As we were developing into a more “liturgical” church during our Sunday services, God was preparing us for ministry at Abbey Road where the congregation is about 90% Catholic. They know I’m an ordained Protestant pastor but our ecumenical Eucharist (Communion) services are familiar to Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians. On the first Sunday of the month is the “liturgical” Eucharist service and my good Lutheran friends, Sandy and Shelley Chase come to assist. They are the “worship team” and Shelley is the “Eucharistic Minister” who assists me in distributing the sacraments of Holy Communion. 

The Wednesday services look more like the typical Charismatic Protestant service. Rhianna Voigt is now a self-employed owner of an Insurance Agency and has arranged her office hours so that she can come and assist at the Wednesday services. The residents love these new changes and new faces and feel loved and cared for by their church.
When your family makes the decision to place you in a residential care facility, your life, as you know it, has been ended. Your home and all those things in it that you so enjoyed are gone. There are so many things you miss. Your pets. Your friends. Your freedom to go wherever you wanted. You miss your church. Sunday had always been the day you looked forward to. Church was where you connected with God and connected with friends. You miss the hymns and worship music that seemed to draw you into the presence of God and give you comfort and peace. You miss hearing the Word of God. You miss Holy Communion – that most intimate time with your Heavenly Father.
We can’t give them back their home, or their possessions and pets, but we can give them church. And yes our church “family” looks a little different these days. Older and grayer. More infirm. Little or no money. And a lot more diverse and inclusive! We have devout Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans and Pentecostals worshiping right next to each other. That’s a foretaste of the glory of Heaven, Rev 7:9 and for nearly all of them, NHFC will be the last church they’ll attend before they too will enter the Kingdom of Heaven to be with Jesus. 

Most of them have been in church all their life, but we may be the last pastors they will have to love and care for them. The last ones they will talk with.. to absolve them from their sins.. to give them the sacraments – the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.. to bless them in the Name of a Holy God.. to give them hope.. They know they are nearing the end of their life and, in a place where people are dying, thoughts of death are never far from their mind. What they hear each time we are there is that God is with them now and forever – that through the grace of God, they have eternal life and a new hope in Christ. “New Hope” church and ministry is aptly named. That’s why God called us to this place. To give them hope for their future. To hold their hand during this life transition. They are precious people and I love every one of them. 
Thank you Lord for this wonderful decade of ministry and reforming New Hope Family Church into Your plans and purposes for us. To God be all the glory and honor and praise forever and ever. Amen!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Wrath of God?

Dear Friends,

After many years of not going to church, I was dragged by God into a church service where the Holy Spirit seized my soul and I’ve never been the same. I loved this church. It was a typical Pentecostal church with a raised stage at the front that we called the “platform,” and it had a stained glass window and an eight foot wood cross on the wall. This was the sanctuary – the holy of holies – where the “platform ministry” took place. It grieves me to tell you that I look back now and clearly see that this was also where the platform abuse took place. At first, I loved the older, charismatic pastor who took me under his wing to mentor me and teach me how to do church ministry. After I enrolled in our denomination’s Bible college, he used to tell me to watch him and do everything he did. I’m embarrassed to tell you that it took me a long time to realize that God was showing me how not to do ministry.

A young couple, who had grown up in the church, were getting married. They’d arranged for a good friend to play a special piano solo of their favorite hymn during the lighting of the Unity Candle. When the senior pastor found out the pianist was gay, he was banned from being at the piano on the platform because, his “sins would have contaminated the service and defiled the Holiness of the Sanctuary.” When Jesus encountered sinners, He walked with them, talked with them, ate with them, touched them, healed them and saved them from their sins. We kept it simple. We condemned them, humiliated them and banished them. It gets worse. After I’d left that church, I found out that the married senior pastor and a married leader of one of the ministries were having an inappropriately intense emotional affair, and I discovered that the married associate pastor was sleeping with a woman on the worship team who was married to a staff member. Defiling the holiness of the platform ministry in that church had turned out to be a “team effort.”

A 19 year old girl in the church became pregnant and the teenage couple agreed to marry, but the senior pastor would not sanctify the marriage until there was a public confession of her sin. During a well-attended Sunday service of several hundred people, the girl was forced by her parents and the senior pastor to go up on the platform and, standing alone, confess her sexual sin that resulted in pregnancy. (The boy was allowed to remain seated and silent.) Three years later, the young woman told me that being forced to publicly confess before people she had known since she had been a small child was the most humiliating and shameful moment of her life. That was the senior pastor’s intent. Shame was her punishment. The manner in which this was handled had no love, no restoration and no redemption. It left a permanent soul wound and emotional scaring for life. In her beloved childhood church, she had gone from blessed to damned.

The church was mostly families, but we did have an active singles group. There was an attractive blonde woman with an out-going, effervescent personality who was on the intercessory prayer team. I would not have described her as flirtatious but her beauty and personality did seem to attract the attention of the men. One Sunday, the pastor called her out of the congregation to come up on the platform. He told her that he had identified an evil “Jezebel Spirit” within her that was leading the men to have lustful thoughts toward her. He told us men to stay away from her and not to talk to her during the hospitality time. She ran crying out of the church and we never saw her again. 

There are even worse things that I could tell you about this fundamental, Pentecostal church. Things said and done from the platform that would make me cringe and in the three years I was there, many times I tried to intervene between those being abused and the pastor. The associate pastor would warn me, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed” 1 Chronicles 16:22 and I was told “Obey those who rule over you and be submissive for they watch out for your souls.” Hebrews 13:17 I was the Director of Men’s Ministries but none of us were permitted to question the authority of the pastor. For a year I persisted anyway and kept trying to make things right. I am a “fixer” but I had to finally admit that I was unable to fix the church and unable to help those caught up in the spiritual abuse. That was when I left and had little thought of that church until just a few weeks ago.

It was during one of our recent rainstorms, when a massive eighty foot tree fell into the end of the church where the platform was. The cross and the pulpit crushed to kindling. The tree didn’t fall into the church where the people gathered. It completely destroyed the platform area where the abusive ministry of that church had taken place. Nothing was left standing. The roof over the platform and the entire exterior wall collapsed. You might be able to surmise what my thoughts have been since I heard that this had happened. This must be absolutely devastating for the people in this congregation; their church has been destroyed and I pray for them. And at the same time, I began to think back to what I witnessed taking place from that platform so many years ago and I wonder about it all. I don’t know the mind of God and why He does what He does Isaiah 55:8, but the more I understand the providence of God, and that He is in control of all things in His Creation, the less I believe in mere “coincidences.”

Some of us are offended when we read of God’s curses, judgments and divine wrath and tend to dismiss the Old Testament as if it were some type of primitive religion that just doesn’t fit today with our modern, enlightened church teachings. We are told throughout the Old Testament that: God’s children are blessed. They turn to sin. God is angry and brings His wrath and destruction. The people repent and are restored and the cycle begins again. God’s wrath was most apparent when dealing with the religious ones who abused the flock (read Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 34) and He allowed the total destruction of King Solomon’s first Temple, the second Temple and then the third and last Temple in 70 AD. 

Over the platform destroyed by the tree were these words “Jesus Christ is the same Yesterday, Today and Forever.” Hebrews 13:8 The Lord God is unchanging. His love and His wrath are immutable. The more that I’ve thought and prayed about this, the more convinced I am of why this happened at my former church. But what do you think? God’s divine judgement? Or just a stroke of bad luck?

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Other AMEN Corner!

Dear Friends,

There are actually two different AMEN Corners this week. One AMEN Corner has a photo of a red heart with cupids. That’s the sappy, sentimental one I wrote for Valentine’s Day and that was sent to the other people. But this AMEN Corner, with a photo of a pastor praying in church, went only to those of you who I could trust to keep a secret. I’ve seen something in the church that I want to talk with you about and I need to keep this just between you and me. I’ve been feeling lately like I needed to talk with someone about all those other people in the church that really bother me...

What I’ve been noticing lately is that every church that I’ve ever pastored has been filled with sinners! If you are/were a member of New Hope Family Church, you might remember a time when a visitor brought in the youngest sinner we’d ever had. I know it looked innocent enough in its mother’s arms. They are all cute and cuddly when they’re only a few weeks old, but they are the most selfish and self-centered people in a service. I remember when that little sinner woke up and cried out for attention without any concern for the rest of us who were engaging in an important religious activity. For a long time, we had a bunch of sinners who were a few years older. Those were the noisy children who, after the service, had the impudence to be running around, having fun and laughing while us adults were trying to enjoy our lunch!

Then there were the old sinners. Those are the ones that really frost my prayer beads! I remember the older man who would sing the hymns with gusto but sing out of key and the woman with dementia who would sometimes just start talking to God in the middle of my service! Should these disruptive senior sinners even be allowed in church? 

I’ve noticed some sinners come into church on a Sunday morning looking reflective and repentant. Who knows what they’ve been doing during the past week. What movies or television shows they watched. What they said that hurt a loved one. What their thoughts were that they would be ashamed to admit to anyone else. They have the audacity to come to church to worship with the rest of us when they know they have sinned in thought, word and deed – and that was just in the car on the way to church!

You’re pretty observant like me so you probably noticed like I do that some of the sinners who attend church come in happy and lighthearted as if sin was the furthest thing from their minds. Yeah! Right! They sure don’t fool you or me! 

Some of the sinners at church come in early so that they can get the good seats in the back and some come in late and have to sit up front. Some are older and some are younger. Some women and some men. Some who have money and some who scrape by on pennies. Short, tall, heavy and thin. My point is that these are all sinners!

And to be quite honest, there is one sinner that bothers me the most. That  guy at NHFC that they’d call “pastor”? I suppose you could call him the “chief sinner” of them all. That’s also what the Apostle Paul called himself. “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am chief.” 1 Timothy 1:15 And I’m sure that Paul was an angel compared to me! 

But one thing I’ve always been glad about at New Hope Family Church is that it has not been like some others I’ve attended. I was a director of men’s ministries at a very large church where everyone had to be a saint. The pastor was the chief saint and he expected us to be like him. I remember talking to a man who was crying because he had just been told to leave the church because he smoked. Then there was the guy who was asked to leave after he told the pastor he was gay. There was the family who was kicked out after their unmarried daughter became pregnant. Sinners were not allowed in that church and since I was in ministry leadership, I had to pretend to be a saint like everyone else did.

If the truth be told, I really fit best in a church with other sinners who are seeking God’s forgiveness. No matter what I’ve done or have failed to do, when the prayer of confession is said before receiving Communion, and I can say “amen,” I feel the burden lift and I know that God has forgiven me. I know that Jesus called disciples like Peter, Matthew, John and the others who were also sinners just like me. Jesus even got Himself into trouble for eating and drinking with sinners just like me. Matthew 9:11-13 I know that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners like me. 1 Corinthians 15:3 And if we confess our sins then He is faithful and just to forgive our sins! 1 John 1:8-10  Can I get an AMEN here?

Thank you for letting me ramble on and please remember to keep this all confidential. This has been very helpful for me. I like the church better now that I’ve been able to talk with you about this today. It helps when I realize that I can go to church and I don’t have to pretend to be a saint when God knows that I’m just an ordinary sinner saved by grace.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Be An Authorized Distributor of God's Blessings!

Dear Friends,

Five years ago, I wrote to you about the “Chinese Blessing Scam” and last week the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office released a warning that “religious seniors” are once again being targeted. Here’s how it works. The con artist posing as a “spiritual healer” encounters a well-dressed older victim in a public place and “sees” that a curse of illness and impending death has been placed on the person or the person’s loved ones. The only way to “break the curse” is to have something of enormous value blessed by the “healer.” The person goes to the bank to withdraw large amounts of cash and places it in a paper bag along with jewelry to be “blessed.” Bags are switched and you can guess the outcome of this spiritual swindle. One senior recently lost $70,000 in the Chinese Blessing Scam.

Those who are not Christian but are “spiritual” are most vulnerable to this scam but even Christians occasionally fall victim. The scam started among the Chinese population because their religion is composed of pagan superstitions and folk beliefs involving the worship of numerous gods and goddesses who bless or curse people. Chinese spiritual healers are paid to “heal” people of major illnesses by using magical talismans to break the curse of a deity and con artists take advantage of these cultural beliefs.

But God’s blessings are not for sale! They are free of charge, and in fact, He loads a heap of free blessings upon us daily. Psalm 68:19 His blessings and mercies are even so vast and endless that they are renewed every morning! Lamentations 3:22-23 And then He appoints people like you and me to be His “Blessors.” Pastor/author Charles F. Stanley has said that “God blesses us so that we can bless others.”

It’s asking for God’s favor on another person that changes us from just being blessed to being a Blessor. Invoking God’s favor on another brings a renewed awareness of God into their thoughts and the reality of His presence into their lives. Our spoken blessing over another, commends that person to God through our petition. We bless in the name of God because we acknowledge Him as the source of the blessing. When we say, “Bless you in the name of Jesus” we are invoking the fullness of His love and grace. When we say, “May God bless you today,” we connect that person to their Creator and open him or her up to receive all that God has for them that day. Our blessing of others can sometimes even knock people off their feet!

We were at a women’s boutique clothing store in Ventura when God gave me the opportunity to minister to someone working there. She was an extroverted woman who told me she was a new-age healer. She did aroma-therapy, read people’s auras and gave spiritual readings. Every time we saw her, we’d talk about spiritual and faith-related things and she knew I was a pastor. I was struggling with how to tell her that the Almighty God was so much more powerful than the gods and goddesses she was seeking. How do you tell someone that my God is better than your god!” Then one time she asked for prayer. I lightly touched the top of her head with my hands and quietly said, “May God fill you with His blessing.” Her entire body shuddered as if she had received an electric shock. She took a couple of steps back, but her legs were buckling under and she grabbed the counter to keep from falling backward into a clothing rack. She put a hand to her chest and said. “Wow. I could feel that inside me!” She stood there looking dazed like she was trying to figure out what had just happened. She said, “That was so powerful. I’ve never felt anything like that before!” I knew immediately what had happened and laughed. While I was trying to figure out the best way to tell her about God, He showed her the power of the Holy Spirit and nearly swept her off her feet! She thought she knew what spiritual energy was, but the power from her spirits were puny in comparison with the power of the Holy Spirit. She said I was a “gifted healer” and I told her “No, I’m not” and that I was completely powerless. I told her it was God who had just blessed her by showing His true power and told her that knowing the One True God would now forever change her life. We never saw her again. God had brought us into her life for that one blessing.

I have found that when a person is experiencing anxiety or grief over something, blessing that person with God’s grace and peace will have an immediate and noticeable effect. You will often see an instant transformation. Their facial expression will become more relaxed and they may say something like, “I feel so much better now!” They feel better because they have just felt the sensation of God’s peace in their spirit. When God’s blessings are given in His name, the healing power of the Holy Spirit can be immediate.

You are all blessed indeed! But I believe that God wants more for you. He wants you to be His partner in the blessing business. He wants you to be an authorized distributor of His blessings to others. He wants you to bless your family and your friends. God wants you to bless the strangers that He sends to you. God wants you to be the one who intersects the life of the clerk in the produce department when he’s stressed and depressed. When you ask him how he is and he says “fine”, and you know he’s not. God wants you in that retail store where the worker needs a word of encouragement and He wants you to be at the hairdressers when the stylist’s son has a high fever. God wants you to speak life-transforming blessings into the lives of others. Be blessed. Be a Blessor!  Amen?