Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Jacuzzi Jesus

Dear Friends,

Let’s start this AMEN Corner by standing to our feet and singing the Doxology!

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise God now for an hour or so
Praise God right now it’s Him we seek
Then we’ll forget God ‘till next week

Okay.. So maybe that’s not the doxology that you sing at your church, but too many Christians are singing that in their hearts. We like our watered-down, easy Christianity in America because the last thing we want from our religious experience is disruption and challenge. We don’t want a radical, kicking over the tables in the temple Jesus. We don’t want a challenging, life-changing Jesus. We most definitely don’t want an in-your-face, “go your way and sin no more” Jesus. What we want is a “Jacuzzi Jesus.” 

Too many of us want to be immersed in a nice warm and bubbly religious experience that will leave us relaxed and feeling good about ourselves the way we are. Hey! I’m okay, you’re okay. Right? A Jacuzzi Jesus leaves you feeling that your soul has been soothed. A Biblical Jesus breaks you out of that cuddly religious experience and leaves you feeling as if your soul has been stirred up and shaken awake. We want our Jesus to be nothing more than safe and affirming. Not adventurous and convicting. But a radical Jesus calls us to a more righteous way of living. Infused throughout the entire New Testament is Jesus calling us to radically change to be more like Him and many Christians don’t like the cost of that call. Thanks Jesus, but I’m good the way I am.. I don’t need transformation.. Let me just go to church, sing a few songs and go home. I’m okay singing, “Change my heart, O God” in church, but on the way home I’ll be singing Sammy Davis Jr’s, “I gotta be me!”

Most believers today are not committed Christians, they’re crusin’ Christians. They have just the right amount of God. When we’re crusin’ Christians, we have enough God to proudly proclaim that we’re a believer, but not enough God that we are compelled to act like one. And so we skate along on the surface of our faith until that day when we have to face the problem of the Holy Spirit. Because it’s the unrelenting, in-your-face Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin and calls us out to live like a genuine follower of Jesus.  

God loves us too much for us to simply disappear into the bowels of Hell when we die. That’s why He sent His Son Jesus. So that all who believe in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. And God loves us so much that He loves us exactly the way we are. But He also loves us too much to let us stay that way. God does have a plan for your life but that plan always involves transformative change!

We are saved through Christ alone, by faith alone. And the evidence of our salvation is our good works and changed life. And it’s through God’s grace that we do have a changed life. And here is how He accomplishes that. When we are born again, we are made brand new again. “..anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! And all of this is a gift from God who brought us back to Himself through Christ.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT This very essence of our faith is short, sweet and powerful. Your old life is gone and your radically changed new life has begun!

But we must want that. Because God will let us lounge in the old ways if that’s what we choose to do. Some people prefer to live the old way because they fear the new – the unknown. Some of us are just so comfortable with the old, that no matter how dysfunctional it is, we prefer that things stay exactly the same. God chose you to be “conformed to the image of His Son” Romans 8:29 and some of us have replied “No thanks God..I just gotta be me..” But, some of us, jump at the thought of a fresh start and grab onto the new. We long for a fresh start on life. A second chance at becoming the person we’d always hoped to be. And, that’s what a radical Jesus offers us.

To be “in Christ” means to let the Spirit of Christ so infiltrate your being that your very essence is affected. The word “Intrinsic” means something innate, inherent, inseparable from the thing itself. A baby in the womb is intrinsic to his or her mother. When you are “in Christ,” Jesus is intrinsic to you. Every cell in your body becomes permeable to Christ's spirit. Like a thirsty sponge we soak up Christ and He transforms us from the inside out.

When you are in Christ, you’re a brand-new creation! When we say “Yes” to Christ, we can say “No” to worldly things. We can say “No” to the fears about our future. We can say “No” to sin. We can say “No” to ungodly living. When we are “in Christ,” the “old things” in our lives do not miraculously disappear as if they never existed. But as we grow in Christ-likeness, we see our situations and circumstances through the eyes of Jesus. We still see the same things, the same people. But “in Christ,” the people and circumstances in our life have become new.  Not because they have changed, but because we have changed.
Last week we asked “Who’s Your God?” and this week “Who’s Your Jesus?” Is He the Jacuzzi Jesus immersing and enveloping you in a nice, warm spiritual bubble bath? Or is your Jesus the radical Son of God, calling you to a new level of righteousness on your journey to be conformed into the image of Him? Just take some time today and ponder that question: Who’s your Jesus?

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NOTE ON THE DOXOLOGY: No church would ever sing my version of the “Doxology” so I obviously had to fake the photo above. The real Doxology has been sung in churches from the time of the Reformation and is still the most commonly sung hymn in the Protestant church today. In the Roman Catholic Church, the only permitted music had been chanted Psalms, but the Reformation began a new tradition of singing those Psalms to “hymn tunes” that were composed in the 1500s. In 1551, a tune called the “Old Hundred” was written by a French composer and has become the best known Christian hymn melody for these past many centuries. In 1674, a bishop in the Church of England wrote the words that, when combined with the “Old Hundred” tune, became what we know as the Doxology. As was the tradition in the early Anglican church, at every Eucharist service in our church, we raise our voices in unison and sing the Doxology “a cappella” (without instrumental accompaniment) as we praise God from Whom all blessings flow!
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Who's Your God?

Dear Friends,

Last week I was at Costco early in the day but it was already crowded. As I came around one of the shelving stacks, I saw a young woman who had stepped away from her cart to reach for something on the shelf. Sitting in the cart’s child seat and facing me was a small boy about 1½ - 2 years old. As soon as he saw me, his face lit up in a gigantic smile, he threw out his arms toward me and yelled out, “DADDY!” His mom whirled around and looked at me with panicked eyes opened wide. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something but she closed it as she looked around her and saw an audience of other shoppers now eavesdropping with grins on their faces. I was old enough to be the mom’s grandfather so it was apparent that this the little boy had confused me with his dad and they were waiting to see what would happen next in this Costco reality show. The boy still had his arms stretched out toward me and his now mortified mom was frozen in silent embarrassment. I said, “I don’t care what he says, I’m not paying you child support!” Both the mom and the crowd broke into laughter as I walked into the dairy cooler.

But on the way home I couldn’t help but to reflect back and wonder if that little boy mistook the face of a stranger for his father’s because his own father was also a stranger to him. I don’t know of course if that was their situation at home, but I prayed for the boy and his mom in case it was. I also thought about how most of us could easily recognize our daddy when we were young, but how often today that we struggle to recognize our “Daddy” – our Heavenly Father – when He shows up in our life.

We all know there is a God. His Word tells us that God has made it plain that He is real. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” Romans 1:19-20 NIV But who is He? The Bible shows us His characteristics using words more familiar to the theologian than the person in the pew: Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent (all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful), and in our struggle to imagine who He is, we “fill-in-the-blanks” by creating Him in our own image.

A progressive liberal friend believes that if Jesus were on earth today, He’d throw open all prison doors and set the prisoners free, legalize all drugs and Jesus would lead all the liberal democrat’s marches for justice. My friend voted for a recent liberal President who declared that God had blessed Planned Parenthood for the over 300,000 abortions that they perform every year. A fundamentalist friend believes that Jesus would build a wall on the Mexican border as was built around Jerusalem – to keep out intruders and unwanted persons. He believes that homosexuality is the sin that God hates the most and that God condemns abortion providers to hell for murdering babies. He voted for our current President who described himself as “strongly pro-life” and declared, “Every life is a sacred gift from God.” Both my two progressive and fundamentalist friends, until recently, attended the same mainline church and yet they worship completely different gods. When we don’t know who God is, we make Him look just like we do – in fact, if I was a betting man, I’d bet that your God even votes the same way you do!

Okay..So we know there is a God (remember the scripture in Romans) but how do we know God? How do we recognize our “Heavenly Daddy” from the gods that we have created in our own imagination? Can we count on the Biblical God being preached in our churches? Sometimes we can and sometimes we hear about a “God” that exists only in the far-right or far-left worldview of the preacher. 

If you’re a friend of mine, I have photographs – images (Greek: icons) – of you. It is your exact image. It’s not an air-brushed image or a cartoonish-looking “avatar.” The image of you is the accurate and precise embodiment of who you are! I love those images of my loved ones because you are known to me in your image. I see in your face the kindness that I have known through your actions. In your eyes I see the sparkle of your sense of humor. I see your strength of character. I am reminded of your intelligence, your beliefs and your faith. Your image is more than a disconnected pictorial representation of what you look like. Your image is you. And that’s how we know our Daddy God. He is known to us through His image. And His exact, mirror image is Jesus Christ. Colossians 1:15

We know Jesus from the men who lived with Him. John and Matthew wrote about Him while Mark and Luke recorded the disciple’s experiences and recollections. It’s all there in the Book that so many of us revere and so few of us read. In a 2014 survey, 56% of mainline Protestant Christians admitted that they never read their Bible and only 30% read it at least once weekly. 74% of all Catholics never or rarely read their Bible. When we don’t read our Bible, we don’t know Jesus. When we don’t know Jesus, we don’t know God. When we don’t know God, we are like the confused little boy, and we cry out “Daddy” to every “god” who comes around the corner.

Jesus tells us how we know God: “If you really know Me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.” John 14:7 NIV Jesus is saying, “When you look at Me you are looking at God!” So you know what to do. Start looking at God. Begin at Matthew 1:1 and don’t stop until you get to Revelation 22:21. Amen?

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Just Love Them Like Jesus


I’d been to my denomination’s Pastor’s Conferences before as a Bible College student but this was my first one as an ordained pastor. I always looked forward to these week long conferences held every Fall at one of the churches in the San Fernando Valley. Sprawled over two large campuses, this megachurch was the premier Starship in our denominational fleet and was commanded by a much respected nationally-known senior pastor. Thousands of pastors attended from various denominations with each one of us eager to learn how to grow our own church into a megachurch. 

It was after lunch and about a hundred or so pastors were standing in the courtyard at the West Campus. We were waiting for the sanctuary to open for the afternoon session and most of us were standing in small groups and talking the church talk. Listening to the loud talk, you’d believe that all of our churches were experiencing huge God-ordained growth and we were all doing awesome things for the Lord in our ministries. The gifts of humility and humbleness don’t easily float to the surface of an extroverted  personality. We all wore the uniform of the “off-duty” pastor. Polo shirt with khaki Dockers. Guys from the larger churches had their church name and logo embroidered on their shirts; those of us from smaller churches had IZOD embroidered on ours. 

I was standing with a group of eight guys who had surrounded the executive pastor of the Ministry Care Department at the megachurch where the conference was being held. He had given some of the break-out sessions that week and was now being bombarded with questions about ministry in a megachurch. He was clearly enjoying being the center of attention in this group of pastors. Some of the guys in the group I knew. They pastored small to medium-sized churches in our Southern California district and were all charged up and ready to grow their church into the megachurch of their dreams. As a new pastor, I was frankly enjoying being in this group of seasoned ministry veterans and tried hard to present myself as one of their “peers.”

I noticed a young couple enter the courtyard and approach a group of pastors. The girl asked something and one of the guys pointed to our group. I watched as they tentatively approached us. She was about seventeen or eighteen and if he was older it was by no more than a couple of years. They were both white, very thin and looked like runaways. They had frightened expressions on their faces and the girl looked like she was trying hard to keep from crying. The executive pastor asked if he could help them. The boy asked if the church was open and the pastor told them it was not and this was a conference for pastors. In a soft southern accent the girl said, “We just wanted to find a place where we could pray and maybe talk to someone.” 

The executive pastor quickly said, “You can try the Ministry Care Department and see if there are any of my staff people who can pray with you.” Obviously impatient with the interruption, the pastor turned his back on the young couple and continued to tell us about the blessings of ministering to the needs of their congregation of 20,000. I can still recall today the hurt, confused look on the faces of this young couple as they looked at each other and then down at the ground.

The church pastors in my group were paying no attention to the couple and I was trying to do likewise. After all, this was our once in a year opportunity to find out how to be better pastors. But I couldn’t help to notice that as they walked back through the courtyard, hand in hand, shoulders slumped in rejection, they looked completely defeated. They walked towards the street and disappeared from my sight. The small, still voice of God whispered to me, “Go pray with them.” I ignored it. Hey, sometimes a pastor needs to pay attention to the big picture and I was at this conference to learn the important stuff about how to do “church.”  

The executive pastor was now telling us how important it was for a megachurch to have a well-structured Ministry Care Department to meet the complex needs of a multi-cultural congregation. Some of the pastors around me were taking notes. “GO PRAY WITH THEM.” This time I felt my anxiety rise. I knew this was the voice of God, but I’d look like an idiot to these guys if I went running after these two kids. I was now proudly holding my Bible with the title "Rev."freshly stamped in gold leaf before my name and I was part of the pastoral inner-circle.

GO PRAY WITH THEM.” Suddenly I felt an urgency in my spirit that overcame my pride and I hoped I was not too late. I turned from the group and walked quickly out of the courtyard and to the street. I looked along the sidewalk in front of the church and didn’t find them. There they were. Sitting on a bus stop bench across the street. He had his arm around her. It looked like she was crying now. I punched the “walk” button to change the light to green. The light for westbound traffic turned yellow. They were still there. I impatiently punched the button again, harder this time. One more minute and I’d be across the street.. talking with them.. praying with them. Suddenly a westbound bus hurtled through the intersection on the yellow light and pulled up in front of the young couple on the bench. The light changed and as I took my first step into the crosswalk, the bus pulled away. The bench was empty. They were on the bus. They were gone. My eyes filled with tears.

A young couple desperately seeking answers, comfort and spiritual guidance had gotten on a bus to come to church that day. To come to the only place they knew of that would be a refuge in their personal storm. A safe sanctuary. A place to pray. Burdened with heavy hearts they came to church to find someone who could lead them to Jesus... They came seeking someone who would listen to their pain... Someone who would love them, pray with them and wipe away their tears... Someone who would speak words of faith and hope... And instead, they found professional ministers...

The details of those moments stay glued to my memory like a movie that I have seen over and over again. God used that one experience to change my heart and profoundly reshape my ministry. That is why I have the burden I do for people who are hurting from the circumstances in their lives and seeking the One who can heal. It’s why I became a counseling pastor. It’s also why, when I felt the urging of the Holy Spirit, I annoyed the people behind me in the “15 items or less” line at the store by praying with the checker – right then, right there after she had told me about her daughter.

The reason I had not immediately obeyed the Holy Spirit that afternoon was that I was more concerned about fitting in with a group of ministers than doing ministry. I was more concerned with what these men thought of me than what God wanted from me. As I walked back into the church courtyard I was deeply convicted of the wrongness of my attitude and was soon to find that I wasn’t the only one who would be changed by the redemptive power of God that day. I returned to the group of pastors I’d been standing with.

The executive pastor was still talking but all the guys looked my way as I rejoined them. One of them asked, “Did you pray with them?” I told them that just as I’d gotten out there, the bus picked them up. The executive pastor looked at me and said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. We get people like that all the time here.” Words spoken a little too loudly – a little too uncaring. Those thoughtless words hung in a loud silence as the Holy Spirit swept though the group and the countenance of each man became noticeably repentant. One of the pastors said, “I should have prayed with them.”  Another one said, “We probably all should think about what just happened here...”  

With nothing more to say, each man awkwardly turned from the group and walked away in silence. The executive pastor looked around, shook his head and walked toward the Ministry Care Department.

We had been eagerly absorbing the lectures, programs, sessions and sure-fire methods for church growth. But for that little group of eight pastors, the teaching moment was when the Holy Spirit interrupted our important pastor’s conference to remind us that God had called us not to grow a big church but to love people like Jesus does and then let Him do the rest.

They're desperate for hope
Darkness clouding their view
They're looking to you
Just love them like Jesus...

Love Them Like Jesus by Casting Crowns

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Where's Your Purr Place?

Dear Friends,

I stretch out in my recliner and reach for my book. Cody leaps onto my lap, crawls upward to curl up on my chest and immediately begins to purr. On a cold winter day, he likes to take naps stretched out on my legs to absorb their warmth but he never purrs. Up close to my face is his purr place. He likes to tilt his head back and press it against my nose so that he feels the warmth of my breath on his skin. For Cody, life doesn’t get any better than this. My other cat Luke also jumps up to lie down on my chest and likes to snuggle next to my face. I look in the mirror and don’t see why that thing attached to the top of my neck is so attractive to my cats but cuddling next to it is also Luke’s only purr place. My cat Sean’s purr place is on the floor, lying on his back with his stomach being brushed. He closes his eyes, his head lolls back and forth as he purrs and he is instantly relaxed by the caresses of the natural-bristle cat brush. 

A good friend who happens to have over 80 years of accumulated wisdom recently told me that her New Year’s Resolutions were to “Listen First; Talk Later; Waddle Around More” – perhaps a good set of resolutions for anyone of us, especially me. And I would add just one more: “Discover your own ‘Purr Place’ and go there often.”

As a child our world was filled with wonder and today our world is filled with worries. We obsess about our past and we fret about our future. My cats live for the moment. They don’t get their tail in a knot over their past. Luke is not fuming about that scuffle with Cody yesterday over the catnip mouse. Sean is not nursing that hurt feeling when he turned upside down so that I could give him a stomach rub and I was too busy and ignored him. They have no worries about their future. They’re not worried about their health, finances, living situation and have no concerns about anything called “impeachment.” Their goal in life is to eat, sleep, play and to go to their purr place as often as it is felinely possible. Perhaps, as often as it’s humanly possible, we should too. 

What is a human “purr place”? For many of us it’s the convergence of a physical place and a state of mind. When I’m walking on the Carpinteria beach at low tide, the scent of the salt water, cool breeze on my skin, the soothing sound of the waves washing up on the sand, the vividly blue skies are the elements that synergistically combine to be so overwhelming that I’m drawn into an intimate relationship with God’s Creation and no worrisome thought has ever penetrated though the peace I feel at that very moment. That’s what a purr place looks like to me. Your’s will be different. 

For some, a walk through a botanical garden is their purr place – captivated by the sights and scents, it’s an intimate connection with the Creation and with the Creator Himself. For some, their purr place may be the church service on a Sunday morning or sitting with the day’s first cup of coffee in the back yard. When I was younger, I often started out the day on the back of my horse, Cass, riding through the wooded area in the hills and enjoying just being in the moment. Today, being in a different place on my Christian journey, it’s opening the Daily Office prayer book of the Anglican monks and engaging in the morning prayers and scripture readings that bring me to that state of spiritual mindfulness into which no worrisome thought about the past or future can penetrate and disturb the peace of God that my prayer time brings. Again, your own purr place will be different than mine, but in describing what some of my places have looked and felt like, I’m hoping that will be helpful as you seek to discover your own.

Okay.. What if you’re a dog person or even just the above photo of Cody makes you sneeze and your eyes water? Just substitute the word “dog” for “cat” and the expression “puppy place” for “purr place.” What if you’re a seriously sophisticated intellectual and the silly phrase “purr place” makes your eyes roll up so far in your head that your mother’s warning that they will stick there becomes a painful reality and a surgical challenge for your ophthalmologist? If so, you might be more comfortable with the modern therapeutic term, “Mindfulness.” 

Because what I’m calling our “purr place” brings about the state of mind called Mindfulness and where we are or what we are doing can simply provide the helpful context that takes us into these mindful moments. Mindfulness means being fully immersed in the present moment and it is what Christians have practiced from ancient times when we capture every thought for Christ 2 Corinthians 10:5 and set our mind on things above and not on the earth Colossians 3:2. In our purr place, we’ve stepped away from today’s earthly world of terror, politics, dysfunction, social injustice and rage, and in those moments we do so, all is right and well in our personal world where it’s just us and God. We are living in the moment, unencumbered with thoughts of our past and future. 

In 2020, eating healthier and waddling more are good resolutions for us to have. But perhaps the healthiest thing we can do for our body, mind and soul is to discover our own personal “purr place” and go there often. Amen?