Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Wired For Worship

Dear Friends,

A few years ago when I was doing a sermon series on the original twelve disciples, I discovered that in 1964, the head of the Apostle Andrew had been a thoughtful gift from Pope Paul VI to a Greek Orthodox church in Patras, Greece. The body of Saint Andrew had been cut up and distributed as relics to other churches who claim Andrew as their patron Saint. Relics are typically a body-part of a Saint and it is believed that their presence consecrates (makes holy) a Catholic or Orthodox church. The faithful are to venerate the relics meaning they bow down before them, kiss them and revere them with ritual actions. Catholic Church teaching is that when you venerate a human relic, “..many benefits are bestowed by God on men.” 

In actual practice, there is little difference between “venerating” and “worshiping” and the veneration of human relics is practiced by Catholics, Orthodox, Buddhists, Shamanism, Hindus, Santeria, and Wiccans. Whether Christian, pagan or atheist, we all have an innate and intrinsic need to worship something or someone.

In the early days of Hollywood, movie stars and singers were described as “goddesses” and “gods” with spell-binding power over their audiences. If you’re of my generation, you might remember hysterical, screaming girls watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show or the Farrah Fawcett poster that hung in nearly every teenage boy’s bedroom. If you’re younger than me and can’t relate to the worship of John, Paul, George and Ringo, then think of the young girls (and their mothers) still screaming at Justin Bieber concerts. The only thing that’s changed from one generation to another are the faces of the celebrities we worship.

We even collect their relics with the same fervor as the early Christians sought the relics of Saints. In 2002, a former barber of Elvis Presley sold a clump of the singer’s hair for $115,000. A lock of Justin Bieber’s hair was a comparative bargain at only $40,668. A piece of bubble gum chewed by Britney Spears sold for a more affordable $160. And a tissue used by actress Scarlett Johansson went for $5,300. Lady Gaga’s autographed toilet seat was auctioned for $460,000 and one of her broken acrylic nails sold for $12,000. Perhaps the best celebrity relic was a kidney stone passed by Star Trek actor William Shatner that sold for $25,000 which was probably a good deal considering the price of celebrity kidney stones these days! 

We are wired for worship. It’s in our DNA. That’s why we have that intrinsic desire to worship something or someone. Yet, only someOne can truly satisfy that desire. Blaise Pascal, a famous French mathematician and philosopher, put it like this: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God the Creator, made known through Jesus Christ.” If we try to stuff anything but God into that God-shaped hole in our lives, we'll end up dissatisfied, restless, and  discontented. But when we fill that God-shaped hole with God Himself, we will always find the completeness that we had been seeking all along.

Listen now to the Apostle Paul debating in Athens with the philosophers and polytheists about God: “Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I'm telling you about. He is the God who made the world and everything in it. Since He is Lord of heaven and earth, He doesn't live in man-made temples, His purpose was for the nations to seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward Him and find Him – though He is not far from any one of us.” Acts 17:22b-24,27 NLT

Paul told them that God does not live in temples, He lives in our hearts. In the 4th century, a bishop named Augustine wrote, “Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find You.” We have an emptiness inside us that cries out to be filled. “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for,” sang the Irish band U2. We have an aching loneliness without God. A restless search for something to fill that void. We try to fill that void with New Age or pagan religions, material things, shopping, drugs, alcohol, eating too much or unhealthy eating, parties, pets and other people. And yet we remain empty and find ourselves restlessly seeking. We may even religiously and faithfully attend a church and still find that something seems to be missing in our lives.

God said, “You must not have any other god but Me,” Exodus 20:3 NLT and then our Heavenly Father designed and created us so that only the one true God clicks into that God-shaped void. And when we say “Yes God, fill my heart with You!” and we then truly desire and worship Him alone, our searching for that missing piece is over. Yes, it really is that easy!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

An Abundant Life!

Dear Friends,

What’s the difference between a Prosperity Preacher and a Politician? (answer: Not much) In 1928, the Republican Party released a newspaper ad for Herbert Hoover promising “..a chicken in every pot and a car in every backyard.” A few years ago, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager stated that the “talking points” of her campaign were, “to give every family, every small business, and every American a path to lasting prosperity by electing Hillary Clinton the next President of the United States.” In our most recent presidential election, one party promised cutting government waste and more jobs and the other party promised free money (universal basic income), free healthcare, free childcare, free college education, free housing but did draw the line at promising a chicken in every pot.

According to my dictionary, “prosperity” means to “achieve economic success and wealth.” The politician says that they will make you prosperous if you support their party with your money and vote for them. The prosperity preacher says that God will make you prosperous if you support their ministry with your “seed money” and then “name and claim” the wealth that God wants you to have. Yes! Take authority over your bank account in the name of Jesus and demand the wealth that you’re entitled to! The politician’s and prosperity preacher’s false promises appeal to our desire for more money and things but what if you were rewarded with great wealth because you did give money to support their ministry or political campaign? Does having economic success and wealth really bring the quality of life that we so desire?

The old adage, “MONEY CAN'T BUY HAPPINESS” is proven true time and time again. America is one of the wealthiest nations in the world and yet the majority of Americans are among the most unhappy citizens of our world. You may be surprised to hear that a 2020 Gallup poll surveyed people in 153 countries and found that the United States was only the eighteenth happiest country in the world. Of the seventeen happier countries, the people in fifteen of those have much less wealth than the average American citizen.

So if money can’t buy happiness, how do we find, have and keep the joy, happiness and life satisfaction that we all seek? A 2011 report drew evidence from over 1,400 studies and found that Christians live a happier, healthier and longer life than non-believers do. A study of over 20,000 Americans found that income and education had little impact on their quality of life and their longevity, but Christian believers had "increased well-being, life satisfaction, hope and optimism, purpose and meaning in life, higher self-esteem, better adaption to bereavement, less loneliness, lower rates of depression, lower rates of suicide, less anxiety, less criminal behavior, greater marital satisfaction and stability in relationships.” 

It’s not coincidental that as more Americans turn away from the Christian faith, they are becoming more unhappy, angry and dissatisfied with life. They rage out of control at the slightest thing they find personally offensive. The problem is not that they don’t have enough money. The problem is that they don’t have enough Jesus. The Son of God never promised us a prosperous life filled with wealth and riches. But Jesus does promise His followers that they will have a more abundant life John 10:10 and the Greek word He used means a life that is absolutely overflowing with vitality and filled with superabundance! It means a life brimming over with all you could ever desire and hope for – a rewarding life overflowing with His blessings! The words used by Jesus to describe your abundant life are from a Greek tense that means to “have continuously.” It doesn’t mean that you will have times of abundance. It means that in Jesus, you’ll have abundance continuously

The word “abundantly” has unfortunately been misused by prosperity preachers to primarily mean financial abundance but the Prosperity Gospel concept came out of the New Age Christian Science religion in the 1950's and is not found in your Bible. The word used by Jesus (Greek: PERISSOS) and translated as “abundantly” means “over and above and more than you will ever need or even want.” But Jesus is not saying he came to give you abundant wealth. Jesus said, I have come to give you a superabundant life. 

Years ago I came across a great interpretative translation of John 10:10 by a Greek Bible scholar that goes like this: 

"But I came that they might have, keep, and constantly retain
a vitality, gusto, vigor, and zest for living
that springs up from deep inside.
I came that they might embrace this unrivaled,
unequaled, matchless, incomparable, richly loaded,
and overflowing life to the ultimate maximum."

That's the abundant life we all long for and that life is available to all and absolutely free of charge! No donation to a ministry or political campaign is required. You don’t have to send your credit card info, check or money order. There’s no obligation or contract to sign. And wait! There’s more! With Jesus, your abundant life comes with a 100% eternal lifetime guarantee! Amen?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Who's Your Anamchara?

Dear Friends,

The ancient Christian Celts sought out the “thin places” where the spiritual realm of heaven was so close it seemed as if it were a footstep away. The Celts were profoundly aware of the presence of God and sought to live their life in the manner that we today call “walking with Jesus.” The Christian Celts in Ireland and Scotland, (my own family roots) suffered through famine and disease in an incredibly harsh climate and yet, in their struggles, they managed to live in peace and harmony with each other. In communities of faith, what enabled them to find joy in the gray winters of their life was their anamchara.

The Gaelic word “anamchara” [ah-num-KAH-ra] is translated as “soul friend” and originally referred to those in monastic life. Men who entered the Celtic monasteries were assigned an older brother in the community who would shepherd them through their early days in religious life and would often become a lifelong friend. Celtic scholar Edward Sellner says that to be a soul friend is to provide a place of sanctuary to another where, through acceptance, love and hospitality, both individuals can grow in wisdom and in depth. In the sixties, when we found a person of the opposite sex whose soul seemed to be intertwined with ours, we called them our “soul mate.” But the anamchara is closely associated with Christianity and flows out of our relationship with God. It’s been said that, “Friendship is the nature of God. The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. Jesus is the secret Anamchara of every believer.”

A soul friend is the person with whom you can talk about anything. The relationship is safe and trustworthy. You can reveal the secret sins that your lips tremble to name because you know that your anamchara can be trusted. You can remove the masks of pretense, of egotism, of pride and unshutter the window to your soul. Jim was the head elder in a mainline megachurch and we were each other’s accountability partner many years ago. We met weekly and God used us to help each other stay on the straight and narrow path destined for every Christian man. We supported and encouraged each other through difficult times in our marriages. We were each other’s anamchara. Brain cancer took Jim from this temporary home on earth and he is now spending eternity with Jesus. I still miss him.

In Celtic Christianity, your anamchara was someone of the same gender. In our Bible, the close friendship between Jonathan and David exemplifies the anamchara between two men. “..the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.” 1 Samuel 18:1 The Hebrew word translated as loved is the same word used to refer to the love that people had for God and the love that God had for His people. In an anamchara friendship, both people grow into a greater love for God and a fuller and more rewarding sense of His presence in their lives.

Too many of us live our lives mired in our secret struggles and we wrestle alone with our finances, job issues, marital problems and with questions and doubts about our faith. But a soul friend provides a sanctuary (a holy place) where the worst parts of us can be acknowledged. And then, through repentance and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, our lives can be transformed and genuine change can occur.

In a loving relationship between soul friends, when there is no physical attraction or co-dependencies, what remains is a godly love for one another – an  unconditional commitment to the care of another’s soul and to the person’s spiritual growth. To be in an anamchara relationship means being a good listener. Being noncritical, compassionate, trustworthy and safe. It also means telling the truth when it needs to be told. It’s being spiritually mature and maintaining a humble spirit – knowing it is the Holy Spirit who is guiding and directing the relationship.

Is God calling you to be the soul friend of someone that He has brought into your life? Is He calling you into relationship with someone with whom you can walk on a mutual journey of faith and share the innermost secrets of your heart? Someone who will speak the truth in love and love you unconditionally as you will love them? Someone who will help you in your pursuit of God? 

A 12th century Celtic monk, Aelred of Rievaulx, in writing about the soul friendship said, “Here we are, you and I, and a third is also present – Christ Himself. Since no one else is here to disturb us, open your heart and let me hear what you have to say.”

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Spiritual Housecleaning

Dear Friends,

It was early one Monday morning. I was writing an Amen Corner when I heard a muffled explosion come from somewhere within my house. Odd. Not like anything I'd heard before. This was back in the days when I didn’t have a cat and so that ruled out feline terrorist activity. A cursory security check of the interior of my house revealed nothing. But later on when I went into my pantry, it looked like a scene from the old Ghostbusters movie. Sticky black and brown tendrils of slime dripped from the ceiling. The gross and gooey ectoplasm-like substance had splattered on canned goods and was running off shelves. But before I could call an exorcist, I discovered what happened.

I found this can on a back shelf with its pull-tab lid blown open. (See Evidence Photo)

The label said DOLE PINEAPPLE CHUNKS and what remained inside were gooey black globs of what had once been pineapple. During the forensic investigation with a magnifying glass, pinholes were found in the bottom of the can. Apparently, the highly acidic fruit dissolved the lining of the can and created tiny holes that allowed airborne bacteria to enter. This caused the fruit to decompose which increased the internal pressure and Bam! The expiration date on the can was six years ago. Looked like it was time to clean out my pantry.

As I cleaned up the black gooey ooze, I remembered a book I'd read years ago. Author Frank Peretti, who has been described as a Christian “Stephen King” wrote an award-winning novel called The Oath. The story focuses on a small mining town where many of the townspeople are suffering gruesome deaths. Their bodies are found partially decomposed and covered with a black oozing slime. 

The reader discovers the black ooze is their sin. It starts with a minor blemish – a darkened area of skin over the heart. If ignored, sin becomes a black oozing sore. If the sins remain unconfessed, the black slime begins to grow and takes over their soul. Their once happy lives turn dark and evil and eventually their body decomposes from the inside out. The pressure of the unconfessed sin continues to build up and Bam! The person explodes and there’s gross sticky black ooze all over the place. The Oath is not a book for the faint-hearted or one that you’d want to read during dinner.

That morning as I was scrubbing black ooze and cleaning out my pantry while thinking about the Peretti book, I had the impression that God was telling me I need to clean out my own life. Did I still have unconfessed sins that were well beyond their “freshness dates”? I didn’t want what happened to the sinners in the Frank Peretti book to happen to me. I didn’t want to be shopping at Costco someday and...Bam!  “Attention Costco maintenance. Clean up black ooze on aisle twenty three.”

Scripture tells us that God’s grace covers all of a believer’s sin through the atonement of Jesus on the cross. So why do we need to continue to confess? Because we continue to sin! And when we confess and repent of those sins, we are taking the steps to leave behind the daily sinful thoughts, words and deeds, and we are becoming “sanctified” (meaning that we are spiritually maturing in Christ.) 

Here’s how it works. Once saved, we begin the process of sanctification where we are growing spiritually and are learning how to live and love like Jesus. But any continued sin clogs that process. In fact, we find that God even turns away from us when we continue in our unrepentant sins. “If I had not confessed the sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” Psalm 66:18 NLT The literal translation for the word “sin” in this verse is “futile sinful pursuits.” 

We sin daily in thought, word and deed but if we pursue sin and look favorably or indifferently upon the sins we commit, God stops listening to our prayers. And Isaiah tells us that God hides Himself from those who are in sin and He will not hear you. Isaiah 59:2 And then we cry, “God doesn’t answer my prayers!” But whenever we have unconfessed and unrepentant sin in our lives, we have clogged up our lines of communication with Him. We unclog those lines when we confess and say, “Lord, I messed up again, here’s what I did...” And God’s immediate response is, “You are forgiven and cleansed from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9

Are there things you do that you know are sinful and you do anyway because they are so satisfying? But are they really worth doing if God turns a deaf ear to your prayers? Like I realized, when I saw the black ooze, do you also have some unconfessed sins that are beyond their freshness dates? If so, consider taking some time this week to do some spiritual housecleaning!  Amen?

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Have You Crossed A Spiritual Line?

Dear Friends,

Those of you who are a better Christian than I am may be horrified to know that there have been times in my life when I've said or thought unkind things about another person’s faith and made fun of them. Let me embarrass myself by giving some examples.

Many, many decades ago, I used to make fun of an older woman in my family who was Catholic. She had married into my extended Protestant family and she went to mass every day. Every single day. Her priority was not her family but her faith and we all had lots of unkind things to say about how she cared more for church than she did for her husband. She prayed her Rosary three times a day. What a crazy old religious fanatic she was! She loved her Lord with all her heart. She adored Jesus. She was absolutely devoted to God. What a nut, we all thought.

And there was that time Rhianna and I went to the San Fernando Mission. In the back, there's a small private cemetery in a walled-off garden area where the rich and famous, like Bob Hope, are interred. We had noticed a private security guard in the little garden when we first walked in and as the mission bells began to ring at noon, he took out a prayer carpet. He gave us a glance then carefully unrolled it on the ground facing East and got down on his knees to pray his Muslim prayers toward Mecca. 

What a zealot! To be obsessively controlled by your religion to the extent that you publicly embarrass yourself like that was just bizarre. Can you imagine if we Christians were at the food court when the mall clock chimed noon and we had to stop what we were doing and kneel down to say our prayers? Like that would happen! I was critical and made fun of that Muslim security guard for the rest of the day.

When I was young, I also used to make fun of monks and nuns. I used to believe that the only reason a woman or a man chose monastic life was that they were so unattractive or had such an unacceptable personality that no one would want to marry them. No way would I be a monk although, by my criteria, I was more than qualified because I certainly wasn’t the most attractive guy in town and was an unpopular nerd. But I did want to live a normal life. Because a normal guy could have a job and earn lots of money to buy really cool stuff. He could go wherever he wanted and pretty well do whatever he wanted. 

My hope was that even a nerd like me could marry a beautiful woman, buy a fast car and live the good life that the good Lord intended for him to have! Or a guy could trade it all to live the rest of his life in a small room with just a bed and a Bible in a monastery. He'd have to wear a heavy brown wool dress with a hood and live with a bunch of old guys and spend all his days for the rest of his life in church praying. When I was young, the idea of becoming a monk would have been like volunteering for a life-sentence in prison.

I made fun of the Catholic woman, the Muslim and the monks, but now I want to be like them. I don't want the Catholic woman's non-biblical traditions added by her church but I do want her devotion to God. I want her deeply committed faith. I want my adoration of Jesus to be as strong as hers was. I don't want the Muslim's skewed doctrine in the Qu'ran but I want his commitment to prayer. I want to have such a strong commitment to God that whenever and wherever I am, I would interrupt my day to pray. I don't want the monk’s physical lifestyle but I do want their spiritual lifestyle. Like the monk, I want to spend the rest of my life living daily in the presence of God.

At some point, the Catholic woman, the Muslim and the monk crossed a spiritual line in their lives. From a normal faith to an abnormal faith. From a cursory and casual relationship with God to one deeply meaningful. They crossed that line where they moved from a shallow spirituality into a sold-out, God-centered lifestyle. And, when they crossed that line, they made God so important to them that they began to structure their life in a way where they would set aside times in the day to intentionally come into His presence. I used to make fun of those who were religiously super-spiritual. Now I'm trying to learn from them...

Who have you admired for their faith? Is there someone who comes to mind right now? What is it about their spiritual walk that seems to be different from others? If you could sit down with them and ask them to tell you the one thing you could do that would make the greatest difference in your spiritual journey today, what do you think they’d say to you?