Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Changing The Lord's Prayer?

Dear Friends,

Pope Frances shocked the Catholic world and angered conservative Catholic theologians by changing the words of Jesus Christ in the Lord’s Prayer. Even the Protestant world was dismayed. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, “This is the Lord’s Prayer. It is not and never has been the Pope’s prayer and we have the very words of Jesus in the New Testament. It is those very words that are being changed and this is deeply problematic.” Catholics call it the “Our Father” and Protestants call it the “Lord’s Prayer” and it is the most memorized and most often recited prayer in the Bible. This prayer Matthew 6:9-13 is in the Sermon on the Mount which was spoken by Jesus in Aramaic and recorded by Matthew in Greek. But the Pope determined that in the Lord’s Prayer, the words, “lead us not into temptation” were a bad translation of the Greek and a more proper translation was, “do not let us fall into temptation.” His argument was that God does not lead us into temptation and he said, “a father does not do that.” Let’s see what the Bible says...

First, this is really a “bad” translation? Matthew’s Greek is “kai me eisphero hemeis eis peirasmos” and the literal word-for-word translation into English is “And do not bring us into temptation.” For over 2,000 years, all Christians have been praying an accurate and literal translation of Jesus’ words but the Vatican recently concluded, “From a theological, pastoral and stylistic viewpoint this wording is incorrect.” Can Jesus really be “theologically incorrect”? Of course not. If His words are unclear or confusing to our 21st Century ears, than we need to use good biblical exegesis to interpret and explain this petition and not change the meaning of His words in order to “correct” the Son of God.

The Greek “peirasmos” (underlined above) refers to trials, testing and temptation.  When it is the devil who brings the peirasmos, it is for the purpose of causing one to fall. When God brings about the peirasmos, it is for the purpose of proving someone and teaching someone about themselves and their relationship with Him, but God never causes us to fall or fail. 

I was only about seven or eight but it was one of those major life events that I still remember clearly. I was a tall, skinny, clumsy kid standing on the sidewalk in front of our house with my father. I fearfully watched as my dad used a wrench to loosen the bolts so that he could remove the training wheels from my bicycle. I was scared. It was a test of my ability to ride on just the two wheels and I had no confidence in myself. I knew that I was going to crash and burn, but my dad had been watching me ride and he knew I could do it. He was an athletic young man and he told me that he would run alongside me when I started to peddle and he would catch me if I fell. I shoved off and started to peddle for dear life. As I increased my speed, I was soon going faster than my dad could run and I was now flying down the sidewalk and feeling overwhelming joy that I could now ride my bike on just two wheels! Of course this was no surprise to my father who knew what I was capable of doing better than I did. But this was more than just riding a bike. 

Through this test, my Christian dad was teaching me the biblical value of “fortitude” – having courage and an inner-strength to push through my self-doubts and accomplish what it is that my lack of confidence tells me that I cannot do. Since then, I’ve been tested and taught in the same way by my Heavenly Father too many times to count and if not for God’s peirasmos I would not be a pastor today. And yes, going through times of testing can be discomforting and even a little scary but God will also be running right alongside you and ready to catch you if you start to fall! “No testing (Gk: peirasmos) has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested/tempted beyond your strength, but with the testing/temptation he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 

The Pope said that God does not lead us into times of temptation, but the thread that runs throughout the entire Old Testament, is God bringing (leading) His people to and through temptations, trials, tribulation, adversity and affliction in order to strengthen their faith and trust in Him. See Gen 22:1-2; Deut 8:2 God lifts His hand and Job enters into a time of tempting and testing where the devil was allowed to tempt Job into rejecting God. In the New Testament, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew 4:1 God never tempts us to do wrong James 1:13 but He does lead us into, or allow us to enter into, those times where we experience temptations/testing and where the ever-present opportunities to sin await us. 

Jesus told us to pray: lead us not into “peirasmos” and deliver us from evil. When we think of peirasmos in positive terms of what a loving Father does for His children, we then see that the point of this petition is not that testing in and of itself is bad but that we, being well aware of our own weakness and propensity to yield to the devil’s tempting sins, would prefer to not have to face the temptations at all.

My personal objection to the Pope changing this wording is that whether it’s called the “Our Father” or the “Lord’s Prayer,” it is the only prayer that is prayed by all Christian believers. It is our one true ecumenical prayer of the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant church. We have used different words (sins, debts, trespasses) but the meaning of each verse is the same and this prayer joins God’s churches together and unites us every Sunday morning. By the Catholic church changing not just the words but the actual meaning of what Jesus said, we are no longer all praying together in one accord. It's a step away, albeit a small step, but it's a step in the wrong direction for the church to take.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Are You Called To Be A Spiritual Mentor?

Dear Friends,

When we started the ministry at the assisted living home nearly four years ago, a woman came up to me and addressed me as “Father.” As an Evangelical Protestant pastor, I was uncomfortable with that title and asked her to call me “Pastor John.” She looked at me, hesitated a moment and said, “Okay Father.” I have long since given up trying to correct those who attend the church services and today the residents and staff call me “Father” or “Padre.” (Padre is from the Latin word “pater” and literally means “father priest.”) Most of the residents are one or two decades older than me and their own fathers have passed on many, many years ago. But as they now journey through this last season of life, they reach out to a spiritual father to hold their hand and help them through it. It was humbling and more than a little disconcerting when I realized that God had given me to them to fill that role. It seems like no matter where we are in our life, we need a father.

On a personal note, I had one of those significant birthdays last week that put a zero in my age. I am normally too engaged with the present to concern myself about the past, but for awhile, that pending birthday had brought me to a place of nostalgic remembrances of my life to date. Faces, names and episodes that had been buried in my memory and long forgotten about were now being vividly recalled. Then last Sunday was Father’s Day. Because I never fathered a child, I’ve been uncomfortable when people wished me a happy father’s day. As when people at church call me “Father,” it has always felt like an undeserved title. Was I really a father? really. 

But then a few days ago, God showed me something through this personal “documentary” of my life that had been the focus of my thoughts. He was showing me that from when I was a young man, I had been in the role of “spiritual father” to more than I could count. When I became a pastor, my mother told me that she was not surprised because I had spent so much of my life helping others by being their listener, counselor and mentor long before I was ordained. 

You don’t have to be ordained to be a spiritual mentor. I’ve known men who had been the spiritual father to many and have known women who were the spiritual mother to many. Some were also biological parents to children and some were not. But they were the “father” that their friends sought out for help when life got tough. They were the “mother” that a co-worker turned to for advice. They were the one who offered love, support, empathy, encouragement and sometimes loving correction. In this day when we are told that we must be strong and self-sufficient in all things and at all times, we will still sometimes need that spiritual father or spiritual mother to help and guide us through the circumstances of our lives Proverbs 19:20 and help us to build our faith and grow in the Lord.

I read about a Baptist pastor who had a friend that was an Episcopal priest. The Baptist envied his friend because those in his Episcopal church called him “Father” and saw him as their spiritual father. In the Baptist pastor’s church they called him by his first name and saw him as a casual friend. The Baptist pastor was struggling because he saw the need of many in his church for a “father” figure, but in most Protestant congregations, the pastor is just the one who has been hired to manage the church, lead the service and preach a sermon. A “spiritual father” was the roll of the priest for 1,500 years until the reformation when Protestants discarded nearly all aspects of church tradition. The Baptist pastor was wistfully longing for all male clergy to once again be called “Father” and to be the spiritual parent that the church so desperately needs today. For some, the word “father” brings a feeling of love, trust and security, but for others, that same word may elicit feelings of shame or fear. Pastors hear father stories of neglect, indifference, abuse and abandonment that some psychologists call the “father wound.” 

Psychology Today says “Fatherhood turns out to be a complex and unique phenomenon with huge consequences for the emotional and intellectual growth of children.” When we grow up with a father who abandoned or abused us, we will unconsciously seek a Godly father to fill that void in our life and heal that “father wound.” People come to church to seek God and to find healing and wholeness for their lives. In too many churches we attempt to accomplish that by using uninspiring lectures (sermons) that simply tell people how they should live their life. Sometimes that works, but contrast that with the ancient church where, through the grace of God, seekers found spiritual fathers and spiritual mothers who gave them wisdom, advice, empathy and encouragement and who took them by the hand to lead them to their Heavenly Father.

A caveat here. If we have an unresolved father wound, we cannot be a spiritual parent to others until we have been healed by God and made whole again. We tend to replicate our childhood family dynamic in any current relationship. For example, studies show that we are taught how to manifest our anger by our fathers. If our father expressed his anger under control, most likely we will too. If our father raged, threw and hit things, most likely we will too. For those of us who feel called to be a spiritual parent to others, our own soul wounds must be healed by God and fully understood by us in order to prevent us from passing on the hurts we suffered to those who we mentor. 

Are you called to be a spiritual father or a spiritual mother? The need is great. Your church is filled with those who need a spiritual parent. They need the love of Jesus radiating through you. May God guide you and give you wisdom.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Afraid of the Holy Spirit?

Dear Friends,

Our three most holy days are Easter, Christmas and the Day of Pentecost which was last Sunday. It was on the Feast of Pentecost in A.D. 33 that the Christian church was born. God ushered in His presence and His glory fell on his disciples with a mighty rushing wind. Now some of us have been taught that the Spirit of God fell upon only that exclusive and select group of Jesus’ twelve disciples. We believe that because that’s church tradition and because most of the religious art from the medieval period shows the flames descending on twelve men. But that’s not what the Word of God says in our Bible. Jesus promises His disciples that God will send to them the Holy Spirit who will live with them and within them forever. John 14:15-17 

Then in the first Chapter of Acts, we find that after Jesus ascended into Heaven, the disciples came down from Mt Olivet and returned to the upper room in Jerusalem where they stayed united in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women and the brothers of Jesus. There is no description of the house with the upper room, but we must assume that it was very large because we are told that about 120 people were staying there. Acts 1:12-15 They were awaiting the Jewish holy day, the Feast of Pentecost that was to come ten days after Jesus ascended into Heaven. 

So picture in your mind the twelve disciples and Mary and about 107 more women and men who had been the close followers of Jesus. And now, Luke tells us that all were gathered together on this Day of Pentecost. That’s when there was a sound from heaven like the roaring of a mighty windstorm that filled the house where they were sitting. And the tongues of fire settled on each of them. On each man. On each woman. On Mary the Mother of Jesus. And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in other languages, as the Spirit gave them this ability. Acts 2:1-4 We need to jettison from our mind the picture of the Holy Spirit falling solely on that exclusive group of the twelve disciples and replace it with our Biblical description of this monumental world-changing event.

And then all throughout the book of Acts, as it records the experiences of the early church, we read that Christian believers were filled with the Holy Spirit. But why then do so many Christian believers today become so uncomfortable with the reality of the Holy Spirit? I received an email from a pastor’s sermon resource website that acknowledged Pentecost Sunday and asked, “Was the Holy Spirit ever meant to be an easy subject to address? How do you preach such a controversial and volatile topic?” A Southern Baptist theologian wrote that in most churches, “The Holy Spirit is talked about, if at all, in hushed tones and with some anxiety.”

I honestly think that we are we are afraid of the power of the Holy Spirit! The New King James refers to the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as a “rushing mighty wind” but another translation calls it a “violent wind.” And we are afraid of that violent wind blowing through our lives because we are fearful that God really will change us into the man or woman He wants us to be. We are afraid of being truly committed to Jesus. We are afraid of becoming passionate about God. We are afraid we may become that zealous believer we’ve always made fun of. We’re afraid of the Holy Spirit because we have become far too comfortable with our complacent spiritual calmness. If we are at the point in our apathetic Christian walk where the most disturbing thing at church was when Edna forgot the potato salad for the potluck barbecue, then we most certainly would not tolerate any life-changing violent winds blowing through our congregation! We will have nothing to disturb us, thank you very much! No surprises. No upsetting changes. There is something safe and reassuring about the grace of God and the love of our Lord Jesus, but that meddlesome Holy Spirit just cannot be trusted to leave well enough alone!

But who is this Person that we’re afraid of? The Holy Spirit is God. He is a Person. He is not an impersonal force or power. We refer to the Holy Spirit as an impersonal “it” but Jesus says, “You know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” John 14:16-17 The New Testament tells us that the Holy Spirit speaks, comforts, convicts and can be grieved. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity 1 John 5:7 who was sent to us from God and through the Son but the Holy Spirit has existed from all time. John 14:26

The Spirit of God that fell upon Mary, and the twelve disciples and on all the men and women that were there on that Pentecost day is available to you as well. Peter tells us that when we repent and are baptized, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit Acts 2:38-39 but we need to activate that gift by accepting His presence in our life. If you’re feeling spiritually empty, you need to be as Paul said, “filled with the Spirit.” Ephesians 5:18 Jesus promises us an abundant life John 10:10 and Paul tells us that God is able to give us that abundance according to the amount of Holy Spirit power that we have in our life. Ephesians 3:20 But if we are afraid of the Holy Spirit and reject or limit His power, we’ve limited the abundance from God that He wants for us to have.

Don’t be satisfied with a comfortable non-threatening two-thirds of the Trinity in your life! We were created to live in the fullness of God and with a joyful abundance of life. For some of us, the first step towards a more abundant life is simply the desire to have the Holy Spirit fully operate in our lives. Raise your hands and your voice to Heaven and ask God to give you the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Allow His refreshing wind to blow through your spirit and be filled with Him. It’s what God has always wanted for you.  Amen?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Sign of the Cross

Orthodox Christian and #1 ranked Tennis Player, Novak Djokovic
Dear Friends,

Christians make me laugh. Most Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans think that the Charismatic way of worshiping with hands raised high in worship is emotionally excessive and looks absolutely ridiculous. The fact that Jesus, all His disciples and the early church worshiped and prayed with upraised hands does not sway them in their belief that this is a very inappropriate physical gesture for today. They don’t care if the early church worshiped that way. It just ain’t right.

Pentecostals, Charismatics, Baptists and Reformed think that making the “sign of the cross” is emotionally excessive and looks absolutely ridiculous. The fact that after the resurrection of Jesus, His followers made the sign of the cross on their body does not sway them in their belief that this is a very inappropriate physical gesture for today. They don’t care if the early Christians did it. It just ain’t right. 

So let’s talk about this one gesture that evokes so much contemptuous disdain from those who sit on the Evangelical and Pentecostal side of our ecumenical church pew. The ancient practice of making the sign of the cross † is made by touching the forehead, the center of the chest and from the right shoulder to the left shoulder. (One thousand years later, the Catholic Church changed it and began to touch the left shoulder first and then the right. No one knows why. The Orthodox Church still follows the ancient pattern of right to left and so do I.)

Shortly after the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His resurrection, His followers drew crosses as the symbol of their faith. Archeologists have found drawings of crosses with stick figures of Jesus on them. But most drawings from that period of time in Christian history are of “empty” crosses declaring to fellow Christians and others that Christ’s life did not end on the cross and He lives forever. In that early persecuted church, the sign of the cross was often used as a secret gesture from one Christian to another (that gesture is the same one used by priests and pastors when they make the sign of the cross over you at the end of the service). And, throughout time, Christians have been making this silent gesture to other Christians as a way of saying “God bless you.”

The most common Protestant objection I’ve heard to making the sign of the cross on one’s self is that it’s “too Catholic.” Is it really? Five hundred years before the sign of the cross was incorporated in the (Roman Catholic) church service, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Let us then not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Be the cross our seal, made with boldness by our fingers on our brow and in everything; over the bread we eat and the cups we drink, in our comings and in our goings out; before our sleep, when we lie down and when we awake; when we are traveling, and when we are at rest.” The earliest Christians used the sign of the cross two centuries before the establishment of the Church at Rome so the only possible objection we could have is that it’s “too Christian.”

Later on, Christians used the name of the triune God to cross one’s self in the name of the “Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” When we do so, we are not simply naming the One who we worship. We receive His power and blessing when we invoke the Name of God over ourselves and others. “In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.” Exodus 20:24 ESV

The mark of the cross is God’s “brand.” Old Testament shepherds branded or marked their sheep with a vegetable and mineral dye that would stain the wool and not wash off. Cowboys in the old west, and still today, brand horses and cattle with hot irons to mark the livestock as theirs. A mark or brand is a claim of ownership. 

When you were baptized, the mark of the cross was made upon your forehead. Like the branding of sheep to claim ownership, the baptismal mark of the cross branded you for God. That mark sealed the deal and claimed your spirit, soul and body for Jesus. When you were baptized, you were signed, sealed and delivered to God! 

When we make the sign of the cross on ourselves we trace our baptismal “brand” and acknowledge that we belong to Him. Marking ourselves with the cross of Jesus Christ should never be done casually or carelessly. It should be done slowly and reverently and with faith. Many times you will feel an inrush of His peace as you do so. Times when I’m stressed or just getting too intense about something, I’ll do nothing more than slowly make the sign of the cross and immediately feel the pressure of my life being replaced with the peace of God. Even if making the sign of the cross on yourself has not been your church’s tradition, you may wish to return to this ancient Christian practice during your prayer times, when you lie down and when you awaken.

The sign of the cross should not be used ritualistically. It’s not a spiritual magical charm that will protect you from all evil and make you rich, happy and thin! But we are stamped, sealed, branded and claimed for Jesus with the mark of the cross, and when we trace the cross on our body, we are saying to the One who paid the price and now owns us, “Here I am Lord. I am all Yours. Make me according to the desires of Thy heart.”