Wednesday, January 27, 2021

What Are Your Spiritual Practices?

"The task in life is not so much finding a path in the woods
 as it is finding a rhythm to walk in."
Dear Friends,

A question being asked these days as we seek to know others better is no longer, “What religion are you?” or “What do you believe?” The question is “What are your spiritual and religious practices?” A few years ago, a woman in her late seventies approached me outside the gate at my house to ask if the foals (baby horses) in my corral would be for sale. I didn’t recognize her but when she introduced herself to me, I remembered she had been one of the most beautiful and popular young actresses in the 70's. 

We had a nice talk about horses and living here in Sylmar and when she mentioned spiritual things, I told her I was a pastor and asked her what religion she was. She immediately replied, “Catholic.” That apparently was the approved answer when you’re talking to a pastor. I asked her where she went to church and it turned out that she had not been to Mass since she was a young teenager. She said that today she actually considers herself to be more of a Buddhist. But when I asked her about her spiritual practices, it turned out she was Wiccian. Baptized as a Catholic, she wasn’t a Christian (follower of Jesus). She liked the Buddhist philosophy but was not a practitioner of Buddhism. The spiritual rituals and prayers she had adopted and practiced told me who she followed and what she believed. It’s not what we “say” but what we “do” that reveals the truth about who we are.

Many label ourselves, as the actress did, by the religious identity that we think would meet the approval of others, but the terms “Christian,” “Jew” or “Muslim” may be meaningless. If you were baptized Catholic, you are considered to be one for life. If you were born to a Jewish woman, you are a Jew for life; if your father was Muslim you are Muslim, and if you want to run for President of the United States, you will need to be a Christian, no matter what your religious background! But religious identity labels tell us nothing about the person. Christians with a “high level involvement” are those who attend church regularly, read their Bible and have regular personal prayer times. They sincerely and faithfully worship God. They continually self-evaluate, confess their sins and make an honest attempt to follow Jesus and become more like Him. 

There are 51 million Catholics in America but only 13% (6.6 million) have “high level involvement.” One third of all Catholics never go to church and 63% attend only a few times a year. There are 13 million Evangelical Protestants and 43% (5.5 million) have high level involvement. There are 7 million Mainline Protestants (ELCA Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians) and only 19% (1.4 million) have high level involvement. A very large majority of those who identify as Christians are “in name only” and have little or no involvement with Christianity. That’s why a person’s self-proclaimed Christian identity tells us nothing about their spirituality or engagement with their faith.

We are saved by grace alone through faith alone but then our Christian growth is up to us. Paul tells us: “Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from Him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God – truly righteous and holy.” Ephesians 4:21-24 NLT We need to throw off our old sinful nature and we need to put on the new. We can't do it without God, but because He has given us free will, He won't do it without us. 

The New Testament described process of “sanctification” is to become less like us and more like Jesus. To be a “disciple” of Jesus means that we willingly put ourselves under a “spiritual discipline” that becomes the foundation of a rhythm of ritual that sustains and builds our faith. I recently read a quote by a poet, who said, “The task in life is not so much finding a path in the woods as it is finding a rhythm to walk in.”  In music, “rhythm” is a strong, regular, repeated pattern of sound and in our spiritual practices, we need the rhythm of a regular and repeated pattern of ritual.

Your morning ritual may be brewing the coffee and sitting down with your Bible. In the evening it may be lighting a candle and praying one of the monastic prayers such as the Prayer of Examen (more on that next week). Your ritual may be filling your home with the sounds of Christian praise and worship CD’s as you sing along while cleaning your house. The rhythm of your day continues as you engage in a time of sustained prayer during your afternoon walk or as you sit quietly in the backyard. Your ritual may be praying those short 10 second “breath prayers” as you go about your day. These I mention are only some of the various pathways to a greater level of participation in the Kingdom of God, and what makes these practices edifying and building up are when you’ve established the rhythm of the rituals and they’ve become a regular and repeated part of your day-to-day lifestyle.

One day we’ll be standing before Jesus. The Son of God is not interested in what church we’ve gone to, our Sunday attendance record or our external spiritual practices. Jesus is interested only in the condition of our heart but it is those faithful spiritual practices that change our heart and grow our faith. Will your Lord look who you’ve become to the glory of God, smile and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant”?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

He Knows Your Face!

Dear Friends,

I cringed when I read that churches are using facial recognition technology to keep track of their congregation members. Surveillance cameras in the church lobby scan all faces to automatically identify them in order to monitor attendance. This new technology has been installed in churches as large as 3,000 and as small as 100 members. Call me old-fashioned but I can’t imagine why a pastor of a church of 100 people would need facial recognition technology to let him/her know a member has stopped coming to church!

It’s the same technology used to identify criminals and terrorists. Facial recognition technology is used by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to identify suspects. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have installed facial recognition software in airports and in most state DMV’s. The FBI’s Facial Analysis database has 641 million images of citizens and the bureau is analyzing over 100,000 pieces of video evidence to identify those involved in the recent attack on the Capitol. 

Facebook has a massive database filled with incredibly personal details on the lives of 1.49 billion people and they have never been good about keeping private details private. When you “tag” a photo with a person’s name, Facebook will automatically match it up with all the previously unidentified photos of that person and their personal information on the internet. The FBI and National Security Agency (the Nation’s intelligence agency) have already added all your social media photos, posts, personal details and your contact list of friends into their database. 

Thankful you’re not on Facebook? Equifax, the largest credit bureau, was hacked into and your credit information is for sale on the internet. If you have health insurance through Anthem Blue Cross or were ever treated at Olive View Hospital your social security number and confidential medical records are now in the hands of computer hackers along with 80 million other people. If you’ve shopped at Home Depot or Target, or stayed at a Marriot your credit card information is now for sale. Shopped or sold on Ebay? Hackers have your credit card information, user name and password. If you ever had Yahoo email, I’m able to buy your user name along with your date of birth, password and security questions that I’m hoping that you, like most people, also use to secure your bank account! Ka-ching!

In today’s technological society we can no longer have an expectation that our personal information will be private, but in the Kingdom of God, our lives have never been “private.” As Jesus said “..there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not be known.” Matthew 10:26 When it comes to God, you can run, but you cannot hide. That’s because you are so important to God, He doesn’t want to let you out of His sight!

And God has been using His own “recognition technology” since His creation of mankind. Jesus tells us that God knows us so well that He recognizes every hair on our head. Matthew 10:30 (Trivia: Did you know that a blonde woman has an average of 140,000 hairs and a woman with black hair has an average of 110,000 hairs?) And God’s “recognition technology” is so sophisticated that He knows every hair and your every thought! 

The psalmist said, “O LORD, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, LORD. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” Psalm 139:1-6 NLT

Our Heavenly Father has us under His constant surveillance. Today’s mothers use wireless baby monitors with cameras in the baby’s room that live streams their sleeping baby to their phone. Mothers love their babies and want to keep close watch on them so that if something happens, a mom can be at her baby’s side in an instant. God has us under His surveillance for the same reason.

God sees us. He knows us. He immediately recognizes your face out of the billions of people on this planet. We are not doomed to be faceless souls with endless struggles. We are privileged to be the adopted precious children of a loving Father. We are His created. We are His redeemed and we will be sustained in every difficult moment we will ever have in our lifetime. We joke that someone’s got a face that only his mother could love but God never saw a face that he didn’t love. You are His. Created in His image. And God will never leave or forsake you. God loves your face. He’d recognize it anywhere. He will never forget it. AMEN?

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

The Shekinah

 Dear Friends,

In 2011, the tenth anniversary of the Muslim terrorist attack on the Twin Towers was on a Sunday, and I led our church in an extended time of prayer for those who had lost family and friends. We were reminded of our grief during those terrifying moments when the planes had been flown into the buildings and  in the horrifying images of the people falling to their death down the side of the building. It seemed as if we had been constantly praying for disaster survivors or the families of victims that year. In the springtime, an earthquake and tsunami in Japan killed a staggering 15,800 people and, shortly thereafter, over 300 tornados blasted through the mid-West. One had narrowly missed where my mom lived in Branson, Missouri and that night another destroyed the nearby city of Joplin, killing 161 people. The United Nations had just reported that the drought and famine in Africa had killed over 30,000 children so far that year. 

All year I had been encouraging our church to pray for those affected by the disasters and, at the same time, I was feeling  overwhelmed by what felt like an onslaught of events bringing suffering and death to so many. To make things worse for me, I was just feeling spiritually dry – my own prayers had felt shallow and ineffective. The prayer warrior in me was getting tired of the constant battle and I just felt tired and worn out – like some of us do today. Then God showed up. 

I was in my study that Monday morning working on a sermon while my dog Elysee (R.I.P.) slept beside my chair. I turned and saw that the morning sun had streamed through the window where a red, stained-glass cross hangs. It was as if God was saying to me, “I’m here with you” and I immediately felt as if the presence of God and His glory filled my house. 

It was what the ancient rabbinic teachings described as the “Shekinah” – the majestic presence or divine manifestation of God which has descended to dwell among men. While the Hebrew word Shekinah does not appear in our Bible, the concept of Shekinah is throughout: When Solomon finished praying, fire flashed down from heaven and burned up the burnt offerings and sacrifices, and the glorious presence of the LORD filled the Temple. The priests could not enter the Temple of the LORD because the glorious presence of the LORD filled it. When all the people of Israel saw the fire coming down and the glorious presence of the LORD filling the Temple, they fell face down on the ground and worshiped and praised the LORD, saying, ‘He is good! His faithful love endures forever!’ 2 Chronicles 7:1 NLT

The word Shekinah is used to describe God’s illuminating and light-filled presence into a place that may not even be where you’d expect Him to be. It’s when God shows up unexpectedly in your personal life to encourage or affirm. It’s when in the midst of spiritual emptiness.. when it feels like all hell is breaking loose on earth.. when our prayers are worn and tired, the shadow of the cross glows in a dazzling, brilliant square of sunlight on the carpet in your study, and God says, “I’m here with you.”

The Old Testament tells us that the Jews returned to Jerusalem from their Babylonian captivity to  find that King Solomon’s temple, where they had worshiped for 500 years, had been destroyed. The Persian king had conquered Babylonian, and given the Jews special permission to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Their hope for a renewed civilization on their native soil was at an all time high. They worked hard to rebuild that once magnificent temple but the riches and splendor, available when the original temple was built, were no longer there. Haggai 2:3 The story continues in the ancient rabbinic writings: When the Jews saw their restored temple they wept in despair. The floors that once glowed with a gold-leaf overlay were now plain stone. The once glorious temple had lost its majestic opulence. As they wept, a dazzling, light-resplendent Presence descended. The Shekinah – God’s personal presence – filled their new humble, modest temple with glory. The people knew they were home and in God’s presence once again. The Shekinah light faded out, but God’s glory stayed behind.

We need the Hebrew concept of the Shekinah to remind us that in the middle of our humble, modest, disorganized, cluttered, busy and exhausting life, God shows up. He is there in the suffering, in the emergency room, the ICU and is at the side of the dying in the nursing home. In the magnificent temple, the well-worn church building, the small, cramped apartment and in the back alley, God manifests His presence. In the places where we would least expect God to be, He says, “Here I am.” And, in our own times of despair, spiritual emptiness, fears about the coronavirus and political unrest, God reminds us that He has been there with us all along. Throughout our Bible, whenever the glory of God’s presence filled a place, the people lifted up their hands in praise or fell face down praising and worshiping Him. There is nothing other that we can do in His presence but to give Him our praise for “He is good! His faithful love endures forever!”  Amen?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Epiphany! It's Your Holy Day!

Dear Friends,

Today, January 6th, is the Feast of the Epiphany! In ancient times, “Epiphany” in the earliest church celebrated Christ’s birth, His revelation to the Gentiles and His baptism. Then much later, in the fourth century, “Christmas” was established on December 25th by the Western Church. Too many of us Protestants are quick to discard church traditions established before the Reformation, but we must remember that the first 1,500 years of Christian history and tradition belong to us too. And that’s why, perhaps for us Gentiles (meaning those of us who are not Jews), Epiphany could be considered even more important than Christmas. 

Epiphany means “revealed” and the church today celebrates the manifestation of Christ to the first Gentiles –the Magi. We celebrate the birth of Jesus on Christmas. God incarnate. The Jewish Messiah came to save the Jews. But Epiphany marks that moment in history two years later Matt 2:16 when Jesus was revealed to the Gentiles. Perhaps Jews should be celebrating Christmas Day and the Gentiles should be celebrating the Epiphany! 

For the Magi, this was a journey of worship. The Magi (wise men) were led by a brilliant star in the sky Matt 2:1-2 and today, wise men and wise women are still led on a worshipful journey to Him by the Holy Spirit. But like King Herod, 2000 years ago, Matt 2:3 some people are still threatened or offended by Jesus. Mankind has not changed since the birth of Christ. Too many people celebrate Christmas and even come to church on Christmas and then turn away from Jesus as soon as He gets in their way. We all adore Him in the manger. The Child in the manger is safe and non-threatening. Even for atheists and unbelievers at Christmas time, the baby Jesus is tolerated as a cute and harmless bit of symbolism for the love that we all need to have for each other.

The problem is when He climbs out of the manger and gets into our lives. That’s when He gets dangerous. Jesus interferes with our selfish and sinful ambitions. He upsets our attitude of entitlement which demands that we can do whatever we want. The Gospel message confronts while the Holy Spirit convicts. Our worldly culture celebrates hedonistic sin while the politically-incorrect Word of God requires that we repent of those sins. The Word of God even contains the highly offensive and socially intolerant message that there is no other way to be reconciled to God other than through His Son Jesus Christ. John 14:6 Jesus threatens both a secular mind-set and an insipid Christianity!

Christmas day is done when the tree comes down and we pack up the Nativity scene with the cute baby Jesus and put Him away for another year. But the problem with Jesus is that He doesn’t stay in the safe place where we put Him. Jesus doesn’t stay asleep in the manger. He grew up and led a rebellion against religiosity. He came to preach the Gospel to the poor, heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free. He came not for the wealthy and comfortable but for the oppressed and marginalized. Luke 4:16-21 And then He died on the cross for our sins. 

And now the world is confronted with the radically unsafe truth of Jesus. That we must repent and believe. And some people react with hatred and hostility. That’s because the Son of God’s very presence on the earth was, and is still, a condemnation to sinful lifestyles and behaviors. That’s why we see this intense animosity toward Jesus and His followers manifesting today in the politically progressive liberal movement as churches are set on fire and statues of Jesus are destroyed. This past year we’ve seen not just a war on Christmas but a war on Christians. And how is this all going to turn out? You know how it ends! Jesus is coming back and there will be a time when.. every knee will bow.. and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of the Father in heaven.” Phil 2:9-11 

If Christians are by definition “those who follow Jesus,” then the Magi were the first “Christians.” Pursuing Jesus took time and effort for them – it was a long and strenuous journey that took nearly two years. Following Jesus is not easy. Some churches teach an undemanding Christianity that Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer condemned as “cheap grace.” But the Christian faith is a hard and difficult journey when you are following the Son of God who loves you too much to allow you to remain comfortable and complacent in your sin. And when you answer the call to follow Jesus, no matter what the cost to your comfort, then like the wise men, it will be the greatest and most incredible journey you’ll ever take. It’s a journey of worship, but we don’t offer our worship to get something from God. The wise men traveled for years not to get something from Jesus but to give Him something. We too come before God, not to get something from Him, but to give Him something – our worship. And in God’s grace and mercy He gives us His Son. 

Christmas is when we gaze adoringly at the Baby in the manger. Epiphany is when God reaches down to pick up the Christ-child and hands Him to us.