Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Just Help Me Jesus...

 Dear Friends,

You learn theology in a Bible University or Seminary but you learn how to be a pastor in a mentoring relationship with a pastor. My mentor was the senior pastor at a Foursquare church of six hundred members in Santa Clarita where I was the Director of Men’s Ministries. Pastor Jack told me, “Watch me and do everything I do.” I was going to learn how to be a Pentecostal pastor!

Pastor Jack was a fervent pray-er! His voice swooped up to a crescendo and down again. Prayer was loud, intense and dramatic. As his fervency increased, his hands would tremble, spittle would fly out of his mouth and he would start to shake. He said the spittle and the shaking was the Holy Spirit coming on him as he prayed. I didn’t doubt that, but I was always cautious to not stand too close in order to avoid being anointed with the holy spittle. 

I’m a quick learner and soon had the Pentecostal patter down pat. As my voice swooped up in volume and fervency, people would shout “yes” and “amen” as I prayed in church. I was soon ordained in the Foursquare Church, the second largest Pentecostal denomination in the world.

My best friend and accountability partner was my religious opposite. Jim was a life-long Lutheran and president of a Long Beach Lutheran megachurch. We met every week and would always pray together: “Vouchsafe to grant us Thy blessings and lift Thy rod and staff as Thou saveth me from mine enemies,” he would somberly intone in a resonant voice. “In the name of JEEZ-US, I BIND all demonic powers and CRUSH every stronghold under my feet,” I would shout as my right hand began to tremble. And God looked down from Heaven, shook His head and said, “What’s up with these guys?”

I know you don’t pray that way, but many of us have learned how to pray by listening to others like my friend and I had done. And, as soon as prayer becomes a verbal recitation based on a learned technique, it stops being prayer and becomes a performance – a religious “style.” The prayers in Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Black, Orthodox churches reflect their very different prayer traditions and are unique to that flavor of Christianity. 

But in our own time of private worship and prayer, we need to not simply imitate a church style. God intended for prayer to be an intimate conversation with your Creator. At the very heart of authentic prayer is you – standing spiritually naked and vulnerable before God.

Sometimes our desire to pray the right thing, the right way, is out of hope that our prayers will be “effective” and have a positive effect on our lives and the lives of our loved ones. But God is just as concerned about our prayers being “affective.” To affect means an emotional influence and a tender attachment or fondness. God wants our intimate prayer time with Him to have a tender and deep influence on us. To not just know about His love but to feel His love.

If we find ourselves desiring a deeper and more meaningful prayer life, the first step may be to set aside everything we’ve learned about “how” to pray. Prayer is a conversation that becomes false and forced when we express our words through a learned prayer format or technique. And, we will never have a truly authentic, fruitful conversation if we have to be concerned about having to say the right things in the right way.

During this time of the coronavirus, we have been forced to social distance from others, but with the closure of our churches, some of us have found themselves distanced from God. Some churches teach a doctrine that we are saved by and through the church – the church is our conduit to God. And now that it’s closed, we feel spiritually alone and isolated. But Jesus is our personal Lord and Savior. He is always with us, and when we pray, God inclines His ear to listen to us. Psalm 116:1-2

There is no need to try and replicate a church prayer ritual. As we set aside “quality time” for our loved ones, we set aside our devotional time with God. We go to our sacred space – in our  home, in our garden – in full expectation that we will be met by Him. We tell Him we adore Him, we praise Him, we ask forgiveness of our sins and we thank Him. Or we just tell Him about our day. He knows our needs, but we tell Him anyway. We speak to Him in our own words. Words that may not come easily. “Jesus..I want..I don’t know..Just help me Jesus...” There are no fine phrases. No “church” words. We stop. We listen. We wait. Maybe tears come. Maybe we hear His voice. Maybe we just sit in His presence. As long as our heart is occupied with God, whether in speech or in silence, that is enough.

Authentic, tender prayer that is developed in our quiet devotional time is preoccupation with God. Prayer is a conversation between you and the One who loves you. A conversation that flows naturally out of our heart. When our spirit connects with His. That’s really all that God ever asks of us. To just lovingly linger in His presence for awhile.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Who Do You Trust?


Dear Friends,

We were in the very quaint little town of Fillmore that’s just about 30 minutes north of the San Fernando Valley. Like stepping into a time warp of long-ago Americana, we photographed buildings built in 1887 and explored their 100 year old hardware store, antique stores and small shops. And then she and I saw the pet store. Understand that the lovely lady is absolutely unable to pass by a pet store in case it has kittens that we can look at. The owner greeted us with a radiant smile as we came in the door. A woman in her late fifties but living somewhere in the past. A blend of 70's punk and 60's hippy. Pink spiky hair. No makeup. Embroidered peasant top and a long flowing tie-dyed crinkle skirt with well-worn Birkenstock sandals. The heavy pewter and turquoise pendents around her neck tinkled like wind chimes as she rushed to meet us. Her focus was on me and she danced (literally) over to stand right in front of me and looked up to study my face without saying anything for a few uncomfortable moments. She finally gushed, “You have the kindest eyes. What’s your sign?” I told her I was born in June and she fearfully leapt backwards and whirled away. 

Both hands flew up and clutched her pendents as if for supernatural protection against this now terrifying man. She turned with a look of horrifying pity to Rhianna and wailed, “Oh my dear, you must leave him and not have anything to do with him... He’s way too superficial and unreliable... Don’t ever trust him... He’s deceitful and unemotional... Gemini’s are completely incapable of having a relationship and will break your heart.” She told us she was an astrologer and even followed us out the door to the sidewalk as she went on and on about my astrologically negative characteristics. This was eye-opening for both of us because we had never realized what a horrible person I am. And now that the truth about me had finally been revealed, I of course completely understood why Rhianna insisted on calling me “Dr Evil” for the rest of the day. The next time we were in that quaint little town, a sign in the pet shop window said, “UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT” so we went in to see if they had any kittens to look at.

Astrology is one of the ancient practices of “divination” which is the art of interpreting events and future events by means of signs called “omens.” According to Biblical archaeologists, astrology originated in ancient Babylon (now Iraq) when the Chaldeans of Babylon concluded that the stars, sun and moon were gods, and by their position in the sky, these gods determined events here on earth. By the 4th century BC, it was believed that these ancient pagan gods also gave us our personality characteristics based on the position of the gods (sun, moon and stars) at the time of our birth and this “divination” is the basis of our astrological “zodiac sun sign” and modern day horoscope. But this belief in Astrology, that the essence of who we are, is not created by God, but by the alignment of pagan gods, is an abomination unto the Lord. God says point-blank: “Do not practice divination or fortune-telling.” Leviticus 19:26

The author of the book “Cults and the Occult” tells of an astrologer’s conference where the session leaders said that they had “spirit guides” to help them give their astrological readings. In Deuteronomy 18:9-14 we are given a list of occultist practices that are “an abomination to the Lord.” Among these practices are a Hebrew word translated as “witchcraft” which means one who predicts the future using the art of “divination.” Another occultist practice is the Hebrew word translated as “interprets omens” meaning one who reads from the signs (stars) and interprets their meaning (astrology). Astrology – the art of divination – is forbidden by God because it is an occultist practice. Horoscopes are an “abomination to the Lord.”

The current pandemic plague shut down our churches, reduced the worship service to a “TV program” and fewer and fewer people are watching. It’s also changing our engagement with the Word of God. As of the first week of June, adults who faithfully read their Bible had fallen from 27.8% to only 22.6%, representing some 13.1 million Americans while interest in New Age practices has significantly increased. Many in the younger generations have  turned away from trust in God and now put their faith in occultist practices. 

The most significant political movement today is Black Lives Matter which co-founder Patrisse Cullors has called a “spiritual movement.” Millennial generation Blacks are leaving behind the Christian faith of their parents and are turning to “Ifa” the African folk religion of the two BLM co-founders. Ifa is a Yoruba-based faith (aka SanterĂ­a and Voodoo) that worships the god Olodumare as their supreme being. But it’s not occultist practices or trust in astrology and New Age rituals that we need in this pandemic; research shows it’s a person’s relationship with Jesus and with the Bible that’s the single greatest influence on her or his overall spiritual health. Scripture engagement is associated with positive emotions in Bible readers. We tend to feel hopeful, peaceful, encouraged, comforted and loved by God when we read our Bible.

Like with all of life, we have a choice. We can trust in God or we can trust in the ancient belief of pagan gods. We can read our Bible and follow God or we can read our horoscope and follow the stars. But why would any of us want to start our day with an ancient superstition based on the position of “pagan gods” in the sky when we can start it with the Word of God?  Amen?

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

An Ancient/New Way To Read Your Bible


Dear Friends,

For years I wasted my time reading the Bible. Honestly. I’d start my day ramped up on home-ground Starbucks and speed-read through the day’s obligatory scriptures and then end my day in bed with the open Bible before me - the sacred words of scripture competing with stressful thoughts of the day replaying in my exhausted mind. I read my Bible like I read everything else. It was my Protestant emphasis on Bible study. What I’d been told was that I should just read the Bible. Absorb it. Understand it. Know it. I was told that I would be sanctified and made holy by reading the Word. So I read the Word. I even at one point in my life read the Bible cover to cover. Every page. Every word. Did that make me any holier? I wish! 

Did reading the Word make me a better Christian? Well, it made me a more knowledgeable Christian. It definitely made me into a better pastor/teacher. So maybe reading my Bible wasn’t a complete waste of time, but it wasn’t making me into a better Christian. That’s because “reading and understanding” doesn’t necessarily mean you are “becoming and doing.” Jesus didn’t say read about Me. He said follow Me.

Then in my study of Christian history, I became drawn to the devotional life of the ancient Christians and early monastics and began to incorporate some of their practices including the way of reading scriptures called Lectio Divina (lex-SEE-oh dah-VEE-nah) that was first mentioned in 2nd century writings. For those of us today, incorporating monastic practices in our day-to-day lives may seem eccentric, but in ancient Christianity, a “monastic” was any man or woman who was seriously living out their faith. At a time when the coronavirus has closed church doors and turned many faithful Christians into “monastic hermits,” you might want to consider the practice of Lectio Divina. That’s a Latin phrase meaning “sacred reading” and it’s a way to read God’s Word that takes you into His presence, changes your life and strengthens your faith during this time of pandemic fears and uncertainties when we need Him most. These are the four steps of Lectio Divina:

I Lectio – reading

We find a portion of scripture and begin to slowly read it out loud. Reading out loud brings it from our head to our mouth and from our mouth to our heart. We read it once. And we read it again. We read it until we are stopped by a word or phrase that speaks to us. A word that calls to us. A word that comforts us. A word that unnerves and challenges us. A word that convicts us. It’s as if the Holy Spirit has taken an invisible yellow highlighter and has emphasized a word that is ours to ponder. We may not know why this word or phrase has stopped us, but we trust in the Holy Spirit and we pay attention to what He is showing us.

II Meditatio – meditation

For those of us Protestants who get ecclesiastical heart-burn at the mere mention of meditation, we can instead “ponder” the scripture–meaning that we can just sit-a-spell and think about it. Someone said, “We long to be filled with God but we cannot because we are already too full of ourselves.” Meditation on God’s Word empties us of ourselves and makes room for the Holy Spirit. Meditation is taking that word or phase that the Holy Spirit highlighted for you and gently repeating it. Thinking about it. Allowing it to trigger thoughts and memories. Maybe victories and maybe long-forgotten hurts. Maybe successes and maybe failures. The Holy Spirit is at work. He is the Great Counselor. He is the one taking you down this path of memories. It’s through this second step of meditation that God’s Word in the Bible becomes His Word for us. For this moment in time. His Word for that specific memory. For that hurt. For that specific sin. His Word for you. Right now.

III Oratio – prayer

We’ve been meditating on the word or phrase that the Holy Spirit gave us. We’ve begun to go down the path lead by the Holy Spirit and we’ve encountered memories and thoughts. And now we talk to God about it. The Holy Spirit has been leading us to this place and we find ourselves praying with a different heart. Our conversation with God is different now. We allow God to take this word, this phrase and now use it to change us. And as we pray, our ears are open and now we may hear that small, still Voice.

IV Contemplatio – contemplation

We have come into the presence of God and we simply rest there. When we come into the holy of holies, it’s not a place to do something. It’s a place to be. Entering that contemplative place with God is the highest expression of our spiritual life. It is here that spiritually we are fully awake and alive. Our spirit has been intertwined with the Holy Spirit. We are in the presence of the One who is the source of all love. We are in the presence of the Creator of the Universe. We are in His embrace. And time slows down...

Sacred reading is an ancient spiritual practice that is meant to be a life-changing conversation with God. It is where the Holy Spirit takes God’s Word and intersects our life with His truth. We meditate on His Word and then when we pray, we leave behind our normal list of requests and our prayers now reflect our innermost desire to be changed according to His will. And now we enter that contemplative place – the holy of holies – where we linger in His presence and simply rest awhile with Him. Just God and us.  Amen?

To view a printable PDF file of a Quick Guide to Lectio Divina that can be placed in your Bible, click HERE

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Do You Wear A Cross?

Dear Friends,

A few years ago, Rhianna and I took her mom to Solvang for her mom’s birthday. There are a handful of stores we always visit in that quaint little Danish town and one of our favorites is the one with all the cuckoo clocks and jewelry. We’ve made a few purchases of jewelry from this store over the years, and Rhianna's mom has added some of their expensive cuckoo clocks to her collection. This would be the first time we'd been in the store since the original owners had recently sold it. But we stopped in front of the store, looked at the window display, looked back at each other, and were stunned. (See photo) It was a statue of a cross with a demonic-looking, dragon-like creature clinging to it. Talons digging into the cross. Tail wrapped around it. Black wings enfolding it as if territorially proclaiming possession over it. Eyes flashing. The artist’s depiction of evil triumphing and claiming victory over the cross of Christ. If you know Rhianna, you know she’s a shy introvert who will walk a mile out of her way to avoid a confrontation. But she walked into the store and politely told the salesperson she would like to see the owner. He began to give her an excuse and she told him "Now." He took one look at her face, saw that the polite smile hadn't quite reached her eyes and he quickly scurried off to fetch the owner. 

She was extraordinarily nice, polite, firm, and articulate. She told the new owner how much we loved his store but that the statue in the window would be offensive and upsetting to Christians who love the cross and what it represents. The owner told her that he was sorry if it did but that he didn’t see anything wrong with the statue. As the conversation continued, it soon became clear that the atheist owner and his husband/business partner liked the symbolism of evil prevailing over the cross of Christ. We no longer shop in this store.

I wear a cross that my father gave me many decades ago. It’s made from iron horseshoe nails and large enough that people can’t miss it. It’s inspired many wonderful conversations about faith but lately it’s triggered hatred. We entered a Tuesday Morning store and were cheerfully greeted by the 20-something transgender clerk. She had a woman’s voice but her outward appearance was female/ male. When we were ready to check out, I found the clerk stocking shelves and let her know we were ready. She politely apologized for keeping us waiting but as she turned and looked at me, her face hardened when she saw my cross and she glared at me. We were polite to her and she was rude, insulting and sarcastic to us during the checkout process. The people of the cross are the people she hates. 

I used to shop at Trader Joe’s in Granada Hills. But there were times that the millennial generation clerks were warm, friendly and helpful and times that they were openly hostile. I puzzled about this until I noticed that sometimes it was the same clerks that treated me nicely one time and rudely the next, and I came to realize that my treatment at Trader Joe’s depended on if my cross was visible or if a jacket was covering it up. A millennial friend of mine told me he keeps his Christian faith a secret because nearly all in his generation “hate Christians.” I definitely saw that at Trader Joe’s. The cross that symbolized my Christian faith was offensive.

But before I get too upset about this, I need to  remember that nothing’s changed from 2,000 years ago. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 1 Corinthians 1:18 That word translated as foolishness is the Greek word “moria”- a strong word meaning that something is “worthy of scorn.” The Gospel message then and now is scorned and hated by those unbelievers who are “headed for destruction” as the NLT translates it. But to you and me, the message of the cross is the good news of the saving power of God. I wear my cross not to flaunt my faith but because there is nothing more important to me personally than the message of the cross. My faith is intrinsic to who I am and my cross reminds me that we are all ambassadors of the Kingdom of God. It reminds me that I need to not just believe like a Christian but to behave like a Christian. And then, when my words or attitude to others are unchristlike, my cross convicts me and brings instant repentance.

Franklin Graham said that Christians in the United States are not far from seeing a high level of violent persecution because of their faith and we’re seeing today’s liberal “cancel culture” attacking Christians who have experienced lost jobs, harassment, physical beatings and death threats for no other reason than being a follower of Jesus Christ. The culture and Marxist politics of “woke” progressive liberalism promote the hatred of Christians and Black Lives Matter protesters have been destroying statues of Jesus and firebombing our Nation’s churches. I know Christians who have fearfully pried the ICHTHYS (fish symbol) off the SUV and put their cross back in the jewelry box. Many are afraid or are uncomfortable with the hatred and rudeness from progressive liberals (what I’ve experienced at Trader Joe’s) and are hiding their Christian symbols. Some deny their faith like Peter, Luke 22:54-62 and they may want to read the words of Jesus: “Everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.” Matthew 10:33
I won’t receive heavenly “points” for wearing my cross, but if the reason for not wearing one is that I’m ashamed to do so, then I am in trouble. “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38 And so...that’s why I wear a cross.