Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Our Oasis In A Pandemic...

 Dear Friends,

It sits near the edge of the harsh Judaean Desert that’s barren, rocky and sandy and any minuscule rainfall received is immediately evaporated by the incessant heat. There is little life in the arid desert climate. That’s on one side. On the other side, just three quarters of a mile away lies the Dead Sea. Over nine times saltier than the ocean, nothing lives in the Dead Sea. No plants. No animals. That’s how it got its name. It is truly a “dead” sea. Surrounded by a lifeless desert on one side and a lifeless sea on the other is an astonishing gift from God – an oasis overflowing with the abundance of life. 

The Biblical name for it is “Ein Gedi” which, in Hebrew, means “fountain of the kid” (ein = spring; gadu = goat kid).  Two fresh water springs flow in the oasis bringing an almost junglelike environment. Waterfalls playfully cascade into lush green grottos. Trees, plants, birds and animals abound in this oasis, and during the migration periods in the spring and fall, it’s the temporary home of over 200 additional visiting species. It is also the yearly destination of over a million visiting members of the human species! In the middle of lifeless desolation we are drawn to the abundant life in an oasis. In the middle of danger and despair we seek the sanctuary of the oasis and the presence of God. King David did. He fled from King Saul and found refuge and solace at Ein Gedi 1 Samuel 23:29 which is where David later spared Saul’s life in the well-known “cave incident.” 1 Samuel 24:1-22 It is believed that David wrote Psalm 63 during his sojourn at Ein Gedi: “In a dry and thirsty land. Where there is no water. So I have looked for You in the sanctuary. To see Your power and Your glory.” Psalm 63:1-2

Nearly all of us are experiencing the most extraordinary year of our life. We were originally assured that we’d be back to normal by Easter.. then it was June.. and then October.. then Christmas.. now it’s sometime late in 2021. Then protests, unstoppable riots and the incredible hatred and permanent “cancellation” of those with different opinions. The most intense presidential election we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes with democrats and republicans attacking and shooting each other in the streets. If you’re familiar with King David’s narrative, that’s about how his life looked when he fled to Ein Gedi. Fear, uncertainty, anger, everything familiar now different, his vision for the future now changed forever. Abject hopelessness. In the middle of danger and despair, David sought the sanctuary of the oasis and the presence of God. But in this, our own time of danger and despair, what if we are already in the oasis and we just haven’t recognized it?

The pandemic robbed us all of any certainty of what tomorrow will look like. We cling to the “old” normal because it’s.. well.. normal. We reject this “new” normal out of our fear of change but what if our new normal is like Holland?

“Welcome to Holland” is an essay written by Emily Perl Kingsley that you can Google, but I’ll give you a quick synopsis. All your life you’ve dreamed of going to Italy. You’ve studied the guidebooks and learned the language and now the day has arrived. You get on the direct flight and when the plane lands, the stewardess picks up the microphone and says, “Welcome to Holland.” HOLLAND?? You’re in denial: “This can’t be happening!” You’re furious! You’ve been told there was a change of flight plan and your vacation is now in Holland. You need new guidebooks and a language book. You’re devastated. Holland is not at all where you want to be. All your life you just knew that one day you’d be in Italy. You’d planned for Italy. Now you’re in the last place you wanted to be. But soon you look around and see windmills. You see beautiful tulips everywhere you look. You’re still disappointed that you never got to Italy, but if you’d spent your time mourning what was lost, you’d never be free to enjoy the very special and wonderful things about Holland.

As life slowed down, friends tell me that they are spending more time with God in prayer. Churchgoers who were faithful but not socially connected are now receiving weekly phone calls from people they hardly knew. Those who rarely spoke with their pastor, now have conversations with him in their front yard. I see families bike riding together in the evenings and on Sundays. People are learning how to bake, crochet, paint, make crafts and according to the manger at my local Smart & Final, based on questions people have about ingredients, they are learning how to cook meals. Busy families who survived on fast food are now preparing healthier meals at home and the family is sitting down all together at dinner time. 

Our dreams and future plans to go to “Italy” may have fallen apart. Our “Holland” that we find ourselves in today may not have Rembrandts, or windmills but it has renewed and strengthened relationships with family and friends. It has forced us into a slower and less frantic pace that’s given us more time with our Heavenly Father and more time with loved ones. We miss the old, but the changes have given us new opportunities to spend our time differently and do things differently. When the virus obscured our hazy vision for our future we’ve been left with the reality of the beauty that surrounds us today and are perhaps seeing for the first time the tulips that were already there. Maybe our Holland is our Oasis. Amen?

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Is Evil Really All That Much Fun?

Dear Friends,

I walked into one of those large discount stores on Tuesday morning and was greeted by dozens of evil demons. Hideous. Black faces with red, glowing eyes. They seemed to be looking straight at me. Some with devilish grins and some with faces frozen in silent screams. As I walked past a large group of witches, their eyes flashed at me and I could hear their cackles as my presence activated their battery operated motion sensors. It’s nearing that time once again when all of America celebrates evil on Halloween night. 

Why do we cry out in outrage over the evil we see manifesting in the Middle-East today where journalists and Christians are tortured and beheaded, and then we celebrate evil by staging gory displays of beheaded mannequins in our front yards? Why do we decry the genocide of Christians taking place in the homeland of Christianity, pray against the demonic powers and principalities that are driving these demonic acts Ephesians 6:10-12 and then dress our grandchildren in “adorable” demon costumes? Why do Christians join pagan witches and Satan worshipers in a night of celebration on October 31st and display the symbols and images of the Evil Ones in our homes?

Okay. I hear your horrified reaction. “But that’s not one and the same Pastor! You’re comparing real, ugly, harmful evil with pretend, fun and harmless evil..!” But symbols can be powerful images that evoke the reality of what they represent. Symbols are more than a representation of an object, they can connect you viscerally with that object. Let me show you what I mean.

Look at the picture of the Jack O Lantern. Do you see a popular winter squash that evokes images of a delicious pumpkin pie? 

Think for a moment about this painting of the cross... What images, feelings and thoughts come to mind? 

Look at this photo of a molded-plastic Halloween decoration... What thoughts and feelings are evoked with this image?

And now look at this Christmas decoration. Think about the baby Jesus in a manger... What comes to mind? What are the thoughts and feelings you have about this decoration in comparison to the Halloween decoration? 

There is nothing intrinsically “evil” about a plastic and painted demon. There is nothing intrinsically “good” about a painted plastic baby in a plastic animal feed trough. But those plastic symbols evoke in our minds the reality of what they represent. Those two images call to mind completely different and opposite thoughts and create very different feelings and emotions. 

You just looked at two Christian symbols and two symbols of evil. Which of those two pairs seem to stick in your mind the longest? If the evil images are disturbing and seem to linger in your mind, that’s why God’s Word tells us to avoid “fellowship with demons” 1 Corinthians 10:20-21 and “avoid all forms of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:22 This scripture says that we are to abstain from even the symbols of evil.  

Religions have always used symbols to powerfully connect people with who they worship. Throughout the Old Testament, God continually tells His people through the prophets to cast down and smash the pagan idols. That’s because the idols were far more than a carved piece of wood or a likeness chipped into a rock. They were powerful spiritual symbols that became the “avatar” – the embodiment of the deities to those worshipers. 

The Bible very clearly instructs Christians to have nothing to do with the practices of demonic darkness. Halloween is a rite with pagan, demonic roots. (For more information on the origin of Halloween, click here) At this time of year, we need to use wisdom in what we bring into our homes because symbols also represent what/who we worship. If I walk into your home and see a cross on the wall, I know who you worship. If I see a large Buddha, I know who you worship. I knew someone who collected African Voodoo masks and saw photos of her living room walls. I knew who she worshiped. 

Back to Tuesday morning. I walked past the Halloween decorations, looked at the shelving that ran the length of the store and stopped. Stunned. WHAT? It’s August!! The “dog days of summer!” Stifling hot in the valley! And already I’m seeing Christmas decorations? But I couldn’t help to notice the contrast. If the demonic and pagan witchcraft decorations raised my anxiety level by evoking the reality of Satan. Now a few steps further in the store and the decorations symbolizing the birth of our Savior were evoking the reality of Jesus and I felt the peace of the Holy Spirit. 

Our homes are our “sacred spaces,” and the images within should communicate who we are.. our priorities.. what’s important to us. We surround ourselves with the symbols of who or what we worship. Do the symbols in your home authentically represent who you are? If not, what would you need to add or take out to faithfully communicate who you are to others? If you invited a new neighbor into your home for a cup of coffee would she know that you’re a Christian by what is symbolically represented? Do the images in your home glorify God and bring you into His presence? If not, do you think it would be spiritually helpful for you to do a little redecorating?

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Trump or Biden?

 Dear Friends,

In America, about 83% of us are Christian believers and many of us are passionately concerned about the state of our Nation today and are fearful about our future. But who should we vote for? According to the liberal media (L.A. Times, CNN) President Trump is a racist white supremacist who hates all minorities, is misogynic (hates all women), is personally responsible for the 214,000 (to date) deaths from the coronavirus and is mentally unstable. The media reports that if he is reelected, our country as we know it will be destroyed and about 60% of us good, church-going Christian believers are fervently praying that Trump will be reelected for four more years. 

According to the conservative media (Fox News) Joe Biden is a senile old man masquerading as a moderate liberal when we all know he’s just a pawn of the radical left. The media reports that once elected, Biden will declare himself unfit for the presidency (or a democratic congress will) and under progressive, socialist President Kamala Harris, our country as we know it will be destroyed. About 40% of us good, church-going Christian believers are fervently praying that Biden will be our next president. Some believe that neither candidate is qualified to be president and that’s why I think my cat, Sean McDougal, has a good chance as a write-in candidate. (Ask me if you’d like some yard signs)

As a church pastor, I cannot endorse political candidates and wouldn’t if I could. That needs to be your thoughtful, prayerful decision based on sound reasoning and without the influence of the media or influence of the people in your life. Both campaigns and social media have done a wonderful job at manipulating our feelings about the candidates and have created a passionate anger that’s divided our Nation. The only way that liberals and conservatives can manipulate your vote is to manipulate your emotions. If you hate Trump you’ll vote for Biden; if you hate Biden/Harris you’ll vote for Trump and even the most devout Christians have been caught up in an unrepentant and sinful frenzy of hatred.

What might be helpful for us to consider as we darken that circle on our ballot, is whether personality or policy is most important for us. Based on how the mainstream media characterizes Biden’s personality, he gets my vote for the nicest guy in this dustup and the majority of Americans agree. A Gallup poll conducted at the end of September and released last week, reported that 66% of us believe that Biden is likable and only 36% say that Trump is. Are we shallow enough to vote based on a person’s likeability?

German and American political researchers conducted studies that showed likeability actually plays no factor in elections but “personal attractiveness” does. A politician’s personal attractiveness can actually raise his or her electability by as much as 11%. (My handsome and likeable cat is the only perfect candidate! Vote for Sean!)

If the “likeability” factor skews toward Biden, “leadership ability” skews toward Trump. In that same recent Gallup poll, 56% of us believe that Trump is a “Strong and decisive leader” while only 46% say that description applies to Biden. According to the same poll, nearly half of us in America believe that Trump displays good judgement in a crisis and is managing the government effectively. The other half of our country believes that Biden will also display good judgement and manage our country well if elected.

So how do we set aside the daily drama and high hysteria and know who to vote for? Let’s get right to the bottom-line. Twelve years ago, President Barack Obama promised that he would bring change to America and through his executive actions, made some of the greatest changes to our Nation and culture that we had seen in our lifetime. Four years ago, President Trump reversed those changes through his own executive actions and took our country in a completely different direction. The recent Gallup poll revealed that 56% of us believe that they are better off today at the conclusion of Trump’s four years than they were in 2016, and 32% said they were better off at the end of Obama’s term than they are now. 

We make our choice less about personality and more about policies when we ask ourselves the same question that was asked in the poll. “Would you say you and your family are better off now than you were four years ago, or are you worse off now.” If you agree with the 32% and believe you and your family were better off in the direction that Obama took the country, then you should put personality aside and vote for Biden. If you agree with the 56% of our Nation and believe that you have been better off under a Trump administration, then you should put personality aside and vote for him. It’s really that simple. Ignore the hysteria and hyperboles. Think. Pray. Vote.

Then chill out. The most disturbing thing about politics today is that it’s tearing apart families, friendships and even churches. Those of us devout Christians who sit in the blue-colored pews or the red-colored pews, are now yelling back and forth across the aisles, cursing each other on their facebook pages and “canceling” each other for supporting the “un-christlike” candidate. We’ve seen Christians viciously attacking each other for their political beliefs. That’s why we need to settle down, take a deep breath and consider my paraphrase of Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, there is neither Democrat nor Republican; there is neither liberal nor conservative for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Can you say “Amen” to that?

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Are You Infected With This Disease?

Dear Friends,

I have Schadenfreude.  Don't be concerned about me. It's not a deadly disease, but it’s something that I’ve struggled with all my life. Right now, I’m happy to report that my Schadenfreude is in remission and I’m symptom free. But I need to be careful and so do you because it’s highly contagious and we can all too easily become infected if we are around others who are manifesting the symptoms of Schadenfreude.

In my high school there were four social groups: Surfers, Greasers, Socs (pronounced SO-chez), and Nerds. I had a pocket protector with mechanical pencils and small screwdrivers and that’s all we’ll say about that. Mick was the Hollywood High alpha greaser (greasers did not refer to race or ethnicity – it referred to any tough dude who slicked their hair back, wore leather jackets in the heat of summer and nearly all in my school were white guys). These were the celebrity bad guys. You didn’t mess with them. They didn’t walk; they strutted with long steps and a peculiar up and down movement. It was during an assembly in the auditorium and I was up in the balcony projection booth because nerds weren’t on the football team, we were on the stage crew. In the middle of the program, Mick got out of his balcony seat and did his tough guy strut down those steep, unlit, concrete steps. Yep. That’s what happened! He shrieked like a little girl as he took that first misstep and went head over heels all the way to the bottom. It was the most wonderful and hysterically funny thing I’d ever seen and, along with everyone else, I couldn’t stop laughing. 

Schadenfreude [SHAW-den-froay-dah] is a German word and there is no real equivalent in English. Schadenfreude means “a pleasure that is derived from the misfortunes of others.” Schadenfreude is that inner delight that we have – that feeling of joy – when we see someone else fail.

I know a woman who speaks nothing but negativity and criticism about Christianity. She earns her living by giving motivational talks using new age teachings. Without going into details, she lives her life in a way that invites ridicule. She did something publically that was very hurtful and slanderous to a Christian organization and she was going to suffer the consequences. I was delighted to think that she would pay the price for her anti-Christian rants. That’s Schadenfreude.

A progressive pastor in a very liberal denomination, once told me that he hates all Republicans because, “Jesus hates them.” This pastor is serious – Jesus hates conservatives. According to him, if I don’t hate Trump and his supporters I can’t call myself a Christian. According to my Bible, if you do hate anyone, that’s a serious sin. Someday this pastor will be standing before Jesus in judgement and I’m sure this will come up in conversation. That’s not Schadenfreude. There is no joy in imagining what Jesus might say to him. I’m even concerned for his soul. One of the most frightening statements that Jesus ever made is in Matthew 7:21-23.

When the tough guy fell down in the balcony, I had no concern that he could be seriously hurt or could hit his head or break his neck and die. I hated the guy so much that my heart was filled with joy as he tumbled down the dark, concrete steps. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but if he had been, I’m sure that my thoughts would have been that the jerk had it “coming to him.” I was too immature as a Christian to realize that being joyful over someone’s illness, suffering or death is absolutely wrong no matter who they are, what you think about them and even what they may have done to you. Schadenfreude is a serious sin. When Jesus said, “love your neighbor,” He wasn’t kidding about that.

When I began to see the cruel responses to the announcement that Trump and his wife had Covid-19, my first thought was “Schadenfreude.” Some responses were filled with grace and compassion. Joe Biden said he and his wife were praying for their quick and full recovery. A fervent Trump critic and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow immediately responded: “God bless the president and first lady. If you pray, please pray for their speedily and complete recovery.” Biden’s and Maddow’s responses were America at it’s best. 

But when it appeared that Trump’s symptoms may be serious, “Saturday Night Live”, host Chris Rock and Jim Carrey started the show with mockery about the president’s illness and hospitalization. A survey showed that nearly half of Democrat voters were happy that Trump had Covid-19. Democratic politicians were far more sarcastic than kind with their comments and a Hollywood celebrity film-maker tweeted “my thoughts and prayers are for Covid-19,” meaning that his prayer was that the virus would kill Trump. On social media, there was an explosion of hatred from liberals who wished Trump would die. Anyone who desires, wishes, or prays for the death of a person needs to stop and seriously examine their own soul. That’s pure evil.

Having the common decency to “love your neighbor” shows that you have the Christian values that are indicative of a spiritually healthy person. How we responded to Trump’s illness had nothing to do with how we feel about him as our president. Our response was the revelation of our own heart. Our response was not about him but was a reflection of who we are as a person – as a Christian. Our response was an indication of the level of humanity in which we choose to live. Some of us Christians responded with concern and prayer. Sadly, some of us Christians responded with mockery and Schadenfreude. Some liberal Christians even responded with hatred, a celebration of Trump’s suffering, and death wishes. That’s a glimpse into the sad state of some of our Nation’s churches. Nearly all progressive clergy actively or implicitly promote a hatred of Trump and his supporters who comprise one half of our Nation. Denominations and churches that preach hate are the ones who are shedding members and are teetering on the edge of a spiritual abyss. 

It was Jesus Himself who told us that God had devised a test so that the world would know who the followers of Jesus are. He said that we will be known as Christians by the Christ-like love we have for others. John 13:34-35