Wednesday, July 29, 2020

10 Ways To Boost Your Mood!

Dear Friends,

Last week I wrote about the organic disease of chronic depression, but all of us are suffering from some depression and sadness at the isolation and changes we are experiencing during this pandemic. Dr Lois Dobbs PHD, a Christian Clinical Psychologist, says that mild depression is a “normal and common response to the distressing events in our world right now and to not feel depressed and saddened is the abnormal response.” Based on material published by the American Association of Christian Counselors (I’ve been a member since 1999), here are ten suggestions on how you can boost your mood and not get stuck in feelings of depression:

Meditate on God. Reading the praise and thanksgiving Psalms can boost your degree of gratitude and remind you of God’s creation and love. It can also enable you to see that God created every emotion, and that we do not have to hide ours from Him; He always understands. Even five minutes with Him can set the tone of your day. Longer time reading, meditating and reflecting is even more helpful! Thank God for His strength, His power, His wisdom for your day. Remind yourself of His promise that He gives us “love, power, and a sound mind” and that the “spirit of fear” is from the enemy. Your future is in His Hands!

Listen to Music. Lyrical, gentle music, choral or instrumental, is especially helpful, such as hymns and praise and worship music. Gregorian Chant is very healing.

Pray. God inclines His ear and listens to your prayers. Psalm 116:1-2 ESV Tell Him what you’re struggling with and receive His peace. Philippians 4:6-7 And praying for others takes the focus off us and brings the power of God into their lives.

Start Your Day Right. I wake up and pray: “Open my lips Lord that my mouth shall proclaim forth Your praise.” (Psalm 51:15) I stand up, roll my shoulders to release the kinks, cross myself in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, thank God for my night’s rest and give Him glory for the new day. While I’m making the bed I’ll pray a short prayer such as, “Here I am Lord all devoted to Thee, make me according to the desires of Your Heart.” Get dressed, feed the cats and fill my Goofy mug with coffee. Your ritual will and should be different than mine, but having a healthy morning ritual that turns your heart and mind to God is perhaps one of the most important things you can do to positively impact your entire day.

Get Sunlight. Let the light in and get out in the light! Open your curtains and blinds and expose yourself to a maximum amount of light, immediately upon arising. Let your skin and your soul absorb the light of the sun. Sunlight helps your whole sense of physical, emotional, mental and spiritual well-being and Vitamin D is essential to a healthy body. Get outdoors and do chores, play, garden, walk or just sit-a-spell.

Eat, Exercise, Sleep. People who experience depression often seek self-comfort in high-sugar, high-fat foods, numb their minds with hours in front of the television or computer and then have trouble sleeping after a day of slothful inactivity. But healthy foods, plenty of exercise and adequate sleep will be the three most helpful things we can do in maintaining our body’s immune system. A healthy immune system will allow our body to better resist illness and disease and help it to recover more quickly if we do get ill. During this time of the pandemic, it is more important then ever to take good care of your body.

Read Books. Along with our body we need to take good care of our mind. Reading books stimulates and exercises the brain – watching television and videos slows down our brain and lulls it into a semi-conscious state. A university study showed that reading increases activity in the brain’s central sulcus which controls our motor skills. Medical studies have shown that for those of us who are older, reading stimulates the mind which increases memory and can slow down Alzheimer’s and dementia. Reading also transports us from living in a pandemic to another world where we become engaged in the story and in the lives and personalities of the characters.

Be Nice. Do Nice Things. Dr Dobbs suggests that you, “Do something nice or helpful for someone else, even when you don’t feel like it. This changes your perspective! The very act of accomplishing something nice for someone else gives you a feeling of coping and lends a new perspective. Sometimes we receive back appreciation, a bonus which adds an extra level in boosting our mood. Keep helping even if you don’t get thanked!”

Connect with People. Social isolation is one of the major causes of depression. God created us to be in relationship with others and for those who live alone, it may be challenging to connect with others – particularly with the closing of our churches. In the mid-70's one of the most popular commercials of all times was the AT&T and Bell Systems “Reach out and touch someone.” If you’re my age, you may still remember the jingle! During these days of social distancing, we may not be able to literally touch someone but we do so metaphorically when we connect with them by phone or computer. Take the time to call, write, text, email and connect with family and friends and you’ll bring smiles to your face and theirs. We can even “keep in touch with someone” simply by looking at their picture. Our loved ones come alive in their image. Connecting with others gets you “out of yourself” by breaking the cycle of morose introspection which often accompanies depression. 

It’ll Get Better. Perhaps the most important thing for all of us to do is to constantly remind our self that life will not stay like this and we need to trust in God for patience during this time. Reminding ourselves of the promises of God is the age-old remedy when life gets us down and we find ourselves tumbling into the pit of despair. And even if we do, there’s no state of mind we have fallen into that is too far for God to reach: “He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.” Psalm 40:1-2 NLT Can I get an AMEN to that?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The Suicide Epidemic is Preventable

Dear Friends,

Years ago a friend of mine, a Lutheran pastor who lives in my neighborhood, was taking his regular walk by my house one evening. As we were chatting over the fence, a young Black man walking in the street stopped nearby and stood in the darkening shadows watching us. My friend nervously looked over his shoulder a few times at this young man just standing about twelve feet from him, interrupted me to say goodbye and quickly walked away. When he did, the man in the shadows came over to me. He asked if I knew where the pedestrian bridge was that went over the freeway and I asked him where he was trying to get to. An awkward, fragmented conversation ensued and he seemed evasive and reluctant to say. After awhile, he told me that he wanted to go to the railroad tracks. Trying to be helpful, I was giving him detailed directions on how to get there when I finally heard the loud clanging warning bell that had been going off in my head. I said, “What are you thinking of doing when you get to the tracks?” He looked down and away and his silence answered my question.

I told him I was a pastor and asked him if he thought it was possible that God had brought him past my house at that very moment in time so that he could have someone to talk to. At first he laughed. And then he cried. And then the feelings of discouragement, fear and hopelessness just began to pour out of him. We talked for nearly an hour...

Because suicides involving trains always make the news, I anxiously checked the next morning and then thanked God that this young man had apparently changed his mind after our conversation. But this story could have so easily had a different ending. My grandmother's second husband, who was like another father to me, picked up his gun and walked into his barn. A once close friend picked up his gun and walked into the woods. My brother-in-law picked up his gun and walked into his garage. There were others I knew and grieved over and many, if not most of you, have also known someone who took that final walk. 

Now with a coronavirus pandemic soon to be in its sixth month with no end in sight, we are reading almost daily about the increased rate of suicide among health care professionals. This is now the largest at-risk group who have been overcome with job-related stress and suffering. And while physicians and other medical professionals are focused on the terrifying physical effects of Covid-19, therapists and mental health professionals are just as concerned about the emotional and mental impact on our health. 

Pastors too are faced with many in their congregations who have lost jobs, are losing homes and some of them have lost loved ones to the virus. Yet, through no fault of their own, pastors may be the least able to help. A Baylor study revealed that out of 59 seminaries in the U.S. only fourteen had mental illness and counseling courses. Most Bible University graduates have had one maybe two classes in Biblical Counseling which only equips a pastor to give a person words of encouragement and some Bible verses to study. 

Many Protestant pastors believe that all mental health problems are rooted in an insufficient prayer life while many Catholic priests blame demon possession. A 2013 LifeWays survey found that 48% of evangelical Christians were taught by their church that Bible study and prayer would heal bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. A pastor may be a highly qualified counselor or may have little or no education or experience in mental health counseling and possibly do far more harm than good.

For those with pre-existing mental health issues, the pandemic is compounding those problems and amplifying the struggles. A weekly Emergency Census Bureau survey showed that people experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms have tripled since the beginning of the pandemic and according to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association we may be at the beginning of a suicide epidemic. But this epidemic is preventable. The JAMA reports that an increase in suicides is expected as a result of 1) Economic Loss as jobs are lost, mortgages are unpaid and homes foreclosed. 2) Social Isolation as leading studies show that isolation and loneliness play a major role in feelings of hopelessness that may lead to suicide. 3) Decreased Access to Religious and Community Support. Studies show that weekly attendance at church services bring a five-fold lower suicide rate compared with those who do not attend church. 4) Increased Mental Health Problems such as chronic depression which is the leading cause of suicide in all age groups.

Some of us will feel better just by connecting with others and talking things out, but if you have chronic depression, you may be feeling helplessly overwhelmed by the pandemic, rioting in our cities, social isolation and the hopeless feeling that nothing will ever again be the same. Chronic depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, anger, or frustration are felt every day and last for many months and years. Chronic depression is an illness that the best and most spiritual of Christians can struggle with. We Christians can have great difficulty seeking treatment of our mental health issues if we've been taught a flawed theology and believe that a psychological problem is an embarrassing admission of our lack of faith/prayer/belief etc. 

We would not hesitate to see a doctor if we had a long-lasting illness or disease and we need to understand that chronic depression is also a physical, organic disease of the body. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. It's an organically-caused physical illness. And like with any other illness, we need to see our doctor or a mental health professional if we are struggling with feelings of being overwhelmed right now. Amen?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Got Wisdom?

Dear Friends,

I came home from church one Sunday and found a car parked next to my driveway. I got out to unlock my gate and saw a woman standing outside the car and talking on her phone. I couldn’t see her face but heard her making some odd choking noises that sounded as if she was crying. I asked her if she was okay or if she needed any help. As it turned out, she was laughing and talking with her mother and seeing my black clerical shirt with the white collar, she told her mom that she needed to talk with a priest and she’d call back. 

She was an extroverted Hispanic woman in her mid-thirties with one of those bright and lively personalities. And she wanted to talk. She had grown up in the San Fernando Valley but now lived near downtown Los Angeles. She’d been raised Catholic but left the church as a teenager because she didn’t like always being made to feel “badly about herself.” She said she was spiritual and believed in God and Jesus but had not found a church liberal and inclusive enough to fit into her religious beliefs. She had friends who were urging her to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but she felt that she had more in common with Buddhists who she’d been hanging around with lately. She asked me what I thought she should do. I asked her what she thought about the Bible, she said, “Well, everyone has a book they believe in and they’re all good.” In answer to my next question, she told me she’d never read the Bible.

As she talked, it was apparent that she was taking the God from the Catholic Church of her childhood, adding a pound of Oprah’s new age teachings, a generous scoop of Buddhism, a bushel of her own feelings and thoughts about how life should be, an ounce of Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, a sprinkling of some Hindu deities and forming those ingredients into a “faith” that fit her liberal progressive politics. She had invented her own custom religion and was trying to find a church that would support and validate these scattered and unfocused beliefs. She was compassionate, inquisitive and obviously very intelligent, but she was struggling with her spirituality because it had no foundation based on God’s Word. She longed for God but was at a spiritual crossroads in her life and was paralyzed with indecision. I told her that she needed “wisdom.”

Without wisdom, our life is an unholy mess. Without God’s wisdom, our life is ordered and ruled by customs, traditions, our friends, and what we see in the news media and our social media. 1 Cor 3:18-19 When our life is a mess it’s sometimes because we are rebelliously “doing what seems right in our own eyes.” Judges 21:25 And of course that never turns out well because God’s plan for us is that we do what is right in His eyes. And that leads us right into the biblical definition of wisdom.

Biblical wisdom is the “ability to judge correctly and to follow the best course of action, based on knowledge and understanding of God and His will for us.” There are three parts to that definition. Godly wisdom allows us to accurately discern the truth and gives us the ability to judge correctly. Wisdom reveals the best course of action to take. Isaiah 28:29 And, wisdom is the knowledge and understanding we have of God based on His Word to us. Biblical wisdom is never the end result of twisting scripture in order to fit it into our politics or cultural correctness. Wisdom means acting according to God’s will for us and not looking for an ambiguity or an easy out. Biblical wisdom is having the knowledge and understanding to recognize the right course of action and having the will and courage to follow it.

We gain knowledge and wisdom through study of God’s Word. There is no other way. Praying for God’s wisdom without studying His Word is as foolish as praying that you will do well on your DMV written test and never reading the driver’s handbook. Through the grace of God, His wisdom is available to everyone who reads their Bible. Proverbs 2:6

I told the woman that she would find the answers to her questions about her spiritual beliefs in the Bible. I reminded her that she’d told me all religious books are good and said, “Mohammad wrote dozens of verses in the Qu’ran, that all Jews and Christians must be mutilated or killed. Jesus said, and what His disciples wrote in the Bible, are that we are to love the unbelievers – the people that Muslims would call the “infidels.” I asked her, “Which would you say is the good book? The Bible or the Qu’ran?” She didn’t answer me. I said, “Based upon what a magician named Joseph Smith wrote in the Book of Mormon, all black people are cursed by God because of their skin color. Many Mormons today still teach and believe that blacks are an inferior race that sided with the devil against God.” She looked down at the ground. I told her, “The Bible says that in God’s eyes all are created equal. Would you say that the Bible or the book of Mormon is the good book?” I said, “You’re right that all religions have a book they follow, but not all books will take you to the God that you seek.” 

I asked her to wait and I went into my house and got one of the easy to read New Living Testament bibles that our church gives to new believers. When I handed it to her, I said, “Do you think it’s a coincidence that God stopped you in front of my driveway to talk with your mother at the same time, I came home?” She smiled, told me “No” and promised me she’d read the Bible. I can only hope and pray that she did because all the wisdom and all the answers that she will ever need for her life are right there in that one good Book. Proverbs 19:8  Amen?

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Is Tithing For Today?

Dear Friends,

After preaching a sermon entitled, TITHING IS NOT FOR TODAY, I was happy to see that the Sunday offerings had noticeably declined. One church council member was very upset with me, "How dare you tell the church they don't have to tithe!" When I told a pastor friend about my sermon, he laughed at me and said that I was an idiot. I told him that while many would rightfully agree with him, I needed to elevate the Word of God above unbiblical church traditions. 

Jesus admonished the Pharisees and told them to continue to tithe because they were under the Jewish Law that required tithing. But nowhere in Acts or in any of the letters to the New Testament churches is tithing mentioned much less required. The Apostles did not teach tithing nor did the early church fathers who followed them. They instead taught that we are no longer bound to the law. 

It was not until 585 AD that the church, focused on accruing great wealth, reinstated the tithe to make it church law and then in 1545 AD the Roman Church added excommunication for anyone who refused to tithe. But the Reformation did away with this unbiblical tithe and much later on when Christianity came to America, giving was still voluntary and based on the teachings of the Apostle Paul. 

Then in the late 1800's, the American Protestant church looked at the wealthy Catholic church and had an idea. From that point on, the American church taught  that tithing was mandatory for the church again! Tithing was now based on gross income, men gave a greater percentage than women and you didn’t have to tithe if you were under the age of 18 or over the age of 65! But ignoring New Testament scriptures and resurrecting the Jewish law of tithing still wasn’t bringing in enough church income and in the 1950's the “Word of Faith Movement” a.k.a. the “Prosperity Gospel” was created and continues to be preached in many Black churches and megachurches today.

The Prosperity Gospel teaches that: The tithe guarantees financial favor. The tithe guarantees your covenant partnership with God. The tithe is proof of your holiness and your obedience. The tithe silences the Enemy in your life. The tithe guarantees a consistent harvest on your seed money. Does tithing guarantee that there will be a reward of health and prosperity? See if you can believe this...

Brain Tamaki is the pastor of New Zealand’s largest, multi-campus megachurch. At the start of the coronavirus, he told his churches in a sermon that: For Bible-believing, born again Christians, God assures that you will be protected from the coronavirus, as long as you pay your tithes. Prosperity preacher Kenneth Copeland told viewers they will be healed from the coronavirus by laying their hands on the television screen as he prayed and said that you must tithe to his ministry even if you have lost your job.

Both pastors claim that their tithing promises and threats are Biblical, but no scholar or historian can argue with a straight face that tithing was taught in the New Testament church. Paul did show us a four-fold Christian standard of faithful giving that we may want to consider as we evaluate our own Sunday offering. 

1. Give at Church on Sunday ~ Paul says that we should save up, earmark and put aside money for our offering at church on Sunday. 1 Cor 16:2 

2. Give Voluntarily ~ Paul praises the church for giving not only what they could afford, but far more. And doing it not out of obligation but of their own free will. 2 Cor 8:3 NLT

3. Give Generously ~ Paul encourages the church to give generously. 2 Cor 9:5 Note that no percentage is given and Paul says that we should give according to our prosperity. 1 Cor 16:2

4. Give Cheerfully ~ We are not to give grudgingly or give under any pressure from anyone to do so. God loves it when we cheerfully give freely of ourselves and our financial resources to help others. 2 Cor 9:7-8

We give to meet the needs of others in the church 1 John 3:17 and we give to meet the needs of the poor. Prov 19:17 ESV We also give to support those in Christian ministry. 1 Tim 5:17-18

My incongruous delight in watching the Sunday offering decline was because I knew people were being set free from previous teachings that had hammered them with an unbiblical obligation to tithe. Without a doubt, the New Covenant extols the virtue of generous giving, and it’s only when we are truly free from legalistic tithing that we are able to respond to God’s grace and give to His church voluntarily, generously and cheerfully. 

Most churches have not had “in-house” services since March and even “virtual” services are struggling as church-goers have discovered all the other churches they can now visit online. Denominations are expecting many of their members will have broken their Sunday church habit, found other things to do on Sundays during these prolonged closures, and not return once the churches are reopened. For some people, as commitments to their church fade, and as personal income is cut to the minimum through job loss, they are no longer able to, or willing to, support their church. Many churches that could barely pay the utility bills and the pastor's salary, have had a reported 50% - 70% decrease in weekly offerings over the past four months. 

Large churches have laid off pastoral and other staff and some pastors have been advised by denominational leaders that they must become bi-vocational in order for their church to survive. Especially suffering are the mainline churches who have already lost tens of thousands of members over the years. Catholic dioceses are considering bankruptcy and Lutheran Bishops are expecting many of their churches to permanently close. Even megachurches are struggling because megachurches have mega-budgets and huge mortgages or leases. Like any other business, a church must have income in order to survive. The future is grim for some churches and they need our prayers. To be blunt and direct about it, they also need our financial support as well. Consider blessing your church by giving generously and cheerfully during these tough times. Amen?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Who's Your Jesus?

click on photo to enlarge

Dear Friends,

Statues of Jesus and Mary are now the target of hate by Black Lives Matter leaders and organizers. One of the most visible and listened to BLM leaders, Shaun King, has called for protesters to demolish all statues, images, murals and stained glass windows that picture Jesus and Mary as “white European.” He declared that all white images of Jesus “have always been a gross form of white supremacy” and are “racist propaganda.” Anthea Butler, a university professor of Africana studies said, “Every time you see white Jesus you see white supremacy (because) if Jesus is white, authority is white.” Churches, statues and crosses are now being attacked and vandalized and burned. A group of pastors in Seattle has formed a protection group and vowed to use physical force to keep their churches from being vandalized or destroyed by BLM protesters. Some of us White and Black Christians are confused and hurt. Why is the BLM movement, that we whole-heartedly support in its purest and non-violent form, now turning on us and attacking our churches? We’ll look at why this is happening in another AMEN Corner, but for now, let’s see if we can answer the question being asked by many Christians today. Was Jesus really White? If not, should He be portrayed as white?

Yes and no to both questions. Remember there is one race, one blood in the Bible but what we call the Caucasian (White) race is comprised of original people from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. So by our definition of race, Jesus was a “white European.” But we’re talking about Jesus of Galilee, not Jesus of Huntington Beach and some of our modern day images of Jesus look nothing like the olive-skinned, Semite, Jewish messiah that He was. The New Testament does not give a physical description of Jesus; presumably because the Gospel writers understood that their readers knew that Jesus looked like one of them. But in the writings of Rabbi Ishmael who lived in the first century, he said that “The children of Israel are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” The boxwood tree is found only in the Middle East/Mediterranean and its wood is colored light brown with a slight yellow/green tint. Its color is closest to the shade of skin found in populations from the Middle East. We call that “olive-toned” and that’s technically known as Type V pigmentation and is a skin tone ranging from olive to tan. 

Over the years, Roman Catholic artists have created the images of Jesus that we typically see today in our Children's Bibles and on our Sunday School walls. Look again at the Catholic Jesus. How on earth did an olive-skinned Jew morph into a feminized, blue-eyed Jesus with Lady Clairol wavy blond hair? At the time religious art became popular during the Renaissance period, antisemitism was raging and olive-skinned Jews were painted as demonic and ugly with grotesque hooked noses. That was when Jesus’ Semite ethnicity was erased by the Old Masters artists and He was transformed into a more comfortable image of a white “Gentile.” 

There is nothing racist about any of the above images of a white or black or brown Jesus. It is absurd for BLM leaders to call for the destruction of all statues and images of Him as a white European with light skin tone. The color of Jesus we worship is the one with which we are the most comfortable. As an example, the Anglican Church (Church of England and Episcopal Church) have images of a “White” Jesus while the Anglican Church in Africa typically has images in their sanctuaries of a “Black” Jesus. Looking again at the photos above, you might not be comfortable worshiping the Maori Indigenous Jesus with the facial tattoos but for the Maori Tribes in New Zealand, this is the Jesus they worship and revere. This is their Jesus. Asians have their Jesus. Blacks have their Jesus. We want our Jesus to be someone we can identify with, so we’ve created Him in our image. And while that’s understandable, when each ethnic group has their own personal Jesus, it can lead to further division and disharmony in the body of Christ. Where the trouble lies is when the image of Jesus in my church has skin the color of mine and the African American family in my church wishes that they could also have a Jesus who looks like them. Honestly. Would the typical White family be comfortable worshiping in a church with the Asian Jesus on the wall over the altar?

Pantocrator ~ St. Catherine's Monastery
That’s perhaps why we all need to stop creating images of Jesus as someone who looks like us and return to images of an olive-skinned Semite Jew that could look like Him. I don’t have “Protestant” or “Catholic” images of Jesus in my house. I have over the altar in our home chapel the earliest known image of Jesus created in around 550 AD in Constantinople during the Byzantine empire. This Eastern Orthodox icon is called the “Pantocrator” which is Greek for “God Almighty” and the original, painted on a piece of wood, has been at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai from the 6th Century. Byzantine icons of Jesus and His mother throughout the centuries have looked remarkably alike because it is said that the very first icons were painted by those who knew Jesus and Mary and the many icons painted from then on kept the same facial characteristics. 

What did Jesus really look like? Not like the Mormon’s movie star Jesus. Not the Catholic’s Disney Prince Jesus. Not like either the Chinese Kung Fu Fighter Jesus or the homogenized Protestant Jesus. Not like the Maori Warrior Jesus (although I personally think that’s the coolest Jesus). 

What Jesus may have looked most like is the Pantocrator Jesus in the Orthodox icon that you see pictured. We’ve printed small cards with this image of Jesus and given them to everyone who has ever come to our ethnically and religiously diverse church. Ask me to give you one if you'd like to have it. Perhaps this is the image that should be in every Christian church and the one we could then all look at and say, “That’s our Jesus.”