Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Give Thanks!

Dear Friends,

Those of you who know me may have noticed the scar. About an inch long, it runs vertically through my eyebrow and down to the very top of my right eye. It’s where I was hit in the face with the sharp edge of a shovel when I was six years old. If the point of the shovel had been ½ inch lower it would have been embedded in my eye. If you hadn’t noticed the scar, I typically don’t either. In fact, for the longest time, I’d forgotten it was there. Then one Thanksgiving morning, a few years ago, I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw that old scar as if for the first time. At that moment, I realized that I had never thanked God for saving my sight and began wondering what else I’d never thanked Him for. I thought of when I was young man and engaged to the hot-blooded Sicilian girl who broke our engagement by trying to kill me with a butcher knife. I realized that I had never thanked God for saving me from a marriage to her!

And then like a slide show, face after face from my past appeared in my mind and I realized that I’d never thanked God for Father Barnes, the rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, who believed that I needed to start serving God as an acolyte when I was only nine and who started me on the path to God that I’m still on today. Many other faces came to mind and I thanked God for them. I still do. And perhaps you are now remembering your own scars and the times God bailed you of a bad circumstance. Or maybe like the country song “Thank God For Unanswered Prayers,” God didn’t give you what you’d prayed for and gave you something or someone better. Are you seeing faces of people you’ve never thanked God for?

Every Thanksgiving, I think of an Episcopal priest named Father Tim. He was a fictional character in a series of books written by Christian author Jan Karon about life in a small town called Mitford. And in one story, Father Tim wondered: What if God took away from him everything that he had not thanked God for?

That’s something to just stop and think about. What if God did take away from us everything we had not been thankful for? Would I have my right eye? For over sixty years I had never thanked God for saving it from the blade of that shovel! What if everything God gave you, that you never thanked Him for, disappeared in a flash? What would you have left in your house? Would you even have a house? What would you have left in your life? Would you still have your health? Your hearing? Would you still have your Bible? How about your clothes? Would you still have the unique personality that God has gifted you with? 

If God deleted what you never thanked Him for, would you instantly become as dumb as a rock as your intelligence vanished into thin air? Would you still have your sense of humor? Would you still have the ability to discern right from wrong? Would you still have your salvation? Would you still have your love for God? Have you ever thanked God for those things? Maybe even more importantly than what you would have left in your life is who you would have left. If God took away everyone you had never thanked Him for, would you still have all your family? Your friends? The people at your church? Would you still have your dog? Your cat?

When I realized that if I thanked God for everything He has ever given me.. Everything He has done for me.. For every meal I have ever eaten.. For everyone He has sent to bless my life.. Every time He healed me.. Every time He protected me from illness.. injury.. death.. Every time He protected me from my incredibly foolish decisions and actions.. I realized that if I thanked Him for everything He had ever done for me, I’d be thanking Him unceasingly from now until the end of time. And in that “ah-hah” moment, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 immediately came to mind: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

But how about those circumstances when it just seems like it’s impossible to be thankful? Because let’s face it. We don’t just cruise through this life on easy street. The truth is that Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation..” and I think that all of us can say “yes and amen” to that. But then we rejoice as Jesus goes on to say, “..but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” John 16:33 

All of us have experienced immense pain and grief in our past. And, here we are today with thankful hearts praising the Lord. How did we get through the trials and tribulations we’ve experienced so far? Because God is always right there in the midst of the worst thing that can ever happen to you.

We can only be truly thankful when our thankfulness is no longer a condition of our circumstances. We are not thanking Him for all things. The scripture says we thank Him in all things because no matter what our circumstances, there is always something for which we can be thankful. And then when we are thankful in all things we find ourselves rejoicing always. And, when we rejoice always, we find ourselves being thankful in all things. 

So let’s enter into a season of Thanksgiving by asking God to show us all the things that we never thanked Him for. Give thanks to God for all that He has given you and done for you. Give thanks even in the tribulations. And as you gather with family and friends, let your loved ones know how grateful you are to God and show them that Thanksgiving is not about a turkey dinner and it never has been. It’s about giving thanks to God. Amen?

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Thanksgiving Grace!

Dear Friends,

When I was a kid, we said grace at every meal and our family tradition was for us to take turns. My mom and dad said the traditional prayers of the Episcopal Church that were found in the back of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer and my dad would solemnly intone: “Bless O Lord, thy gifts to our use; And us to thy loving service; And make us ever mindful of the needs of others; Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”  

While I would like you to think that I was a deeply spiritual lad, the truth is that in my haste to eat, my prayer was a fast, three second one-word ritual: 

My sister’s grace was “Rub a dub dub, thanks for the grub! Yay! God!” which was definitely not found in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Saying grace before the meal was so important to my family that on Thanksgiving and Christmas they even called in a professional. Well, sort of.. My mom's cousin was a Congregational Church minister so when their family came to dinner, he always became the designated “prayer.” His church was the oldest (founded in 1867), largest Protestant church in Los Angeles and I looked up to and admired this man of God. He didn’t just say grace. He would incorporate a three-point sermon into a Thanksgiving prayer with words of thanks for everything and a word of blessing for everyone. By the time he was finished, the turkey had grown cold, a fatty layer had congealed on the now-chilled gravy and his own children would be looking at each other and sneaking glances at the dining room clock. But when you said “amen,” the meal had been sanctified and so had the family time. Our dining room had become a church and God had been invited to join us at the table. 

Giving a blessing after a meal comes from Jewish Law: “When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you.” Deuteronomy 8:10 But in the New Testament, we find Jesus giving thanks to God before the meal. “And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples...” Mark 6:41 And then when Jesus met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Now it came to pass, as He sat at the table with them, that He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” Luke 24:30 Jesus’ prayer of thanks to the Father before meals became a Christian liturgy taught by His disciples and we read, “And when he (Paul) had said these things, he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all; and when he had broken it he began to eat.” Acts 27:35

Saying grace is the spiritual time-out between the flurry of activity before the meal and the meal itself. It's the quiet moment at home when the food has been brought to the table. We pause and bow our heads in prayer. We ask God to bless and sanctify our meal in remembrance that all that we have, including all that we eat, is from God, and we are thankful to Him for His good and perfect gifts to us. James 1:17 

It's also the pause to remember that our meals are not magically transported to our plate after being created in the "StarTrek Replicator." Someone grew, raised or caught your food. If you are eating vegetables, someone spent all day bent over at the waist in the hot sun to handpick them for you. In the grocery store, a minimum-wage produce clerk carefully arranged those veggies on the chilled shelves and perhaps someone other than yourself prepared and cooked your meal. We are thankful for them. And as we sit down to an abundant meal, we are also mindful that according to Christian agencies, 925 million people in the world will go to bed tonight still hungry. We pray for them. Perhaps we even pray for God to show us how we can help someone in need.

If you don't normally say grace, start a new tradition in your life and express your gratitude to a gracious God before your meals. Extemporaneous prayers from the heart are wonderful and so are the timeless traditional prayers. You just read the Episcopal prayer in the first paragraph and a traditional Catholic prayer is “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord.” Methodists pray, “Be present at our table Lord. Be here and everywhere adored. These mercies bless and grant that we may feast in fellowship with Thee.” A beautiful Eastern Orthodox prayer is “O Christ God, bless the food and drink of Thy servants, for holy art Thou, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” A traditional Lutheran prayer is “Come, Lord Jesus, be our Guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.” (Unless you’re a youth pastor at a Baptist Bible Camp you may not want to pray my sister’s prayer and I know you can do better than my childhood grace!) But no matter how and what you pray, this Thanksgiving make sure someone says grace before you tuck into that plate of turkey because “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Secret To Staying Young!

Dear Friends,

Clint Eastwood recently directed a western film that he starred in and was asked how he stays so active at the age of 91. His response was, “I don’t let the old man in.” Good advice for all of us once we start getting the invitations in the mail to join AARP. Full disclosure: One way I “don’t let the old man in” is that, because I am only in my early 70's, I have refused to join AARP and will not do so until I have become “old.” This week’s AMEN Corner is intended to be read only by those of us who qualify to be members of AARP.

Three 15 year old girlfriends decided to eat at the McDonald’s across the street from the Sea Side Restaurant because they only had $6.50 between them and McDonald’s was where that cute boy in science class, Bobby Bruce worked. 

Ten years later, the same girlfriends now 25-year-olds, decided to meet for a night out at the Sea Side Restaurant because the bar had free snacks, the beer was cheap, the band was good and there were lots of cute guys. 

Ten years later, the now 35 year old girlfriends discussed where to meet for dinner. Once again they decided on the Sea Side Restaurant because the combos were good, it was near the gym and if they went late enough, there wouldn’t be whiny little kids. 

Ten years later, these 45 year old girlfriends met for dinner at the Sea Side Restaurant because the Strawberry Margaritas were huge and the waiters flirted with them. 

Ten years later, the 55 year old girlfriends chose to meet at the Sea Side Restaurant because the prices were reasonable, the cool breeze on the patio was helpful for their hot flashes and the fish special was good for their cholesterol. 

Ten years later, now 65-year-olds, the girlfriends agreed to meet at the Sea Side Restaurant because they had an Early Bird Senior Special and the lighting was good so the menu was easy to see. 

Ten years later, the 75-year-olds decided to keep their tradition of dinner at the Sea Side Restaurant because the food wasn’t too spicy and it was handicapped accessible. 

Ten years later, the same three girlfriends, now at the age of 85, discussed where to meet for dinner. After some long phone conversations, they agreed to meet at the Sea Side Restaurant because they wanted to try someplace new and none of them could remember ever being there before.

We all know that diet and exercise keeps us physically healthy, but recent scientific studies are also showing that those are the two things we can do to keep us mentally healthy as well. In fact, studies show that the number one thing we can do to “keep the old man (or old woman) out” and keep our brain young is to stay physically active and exercise. Walking for exercise can reduce dementia risk by 30-40 percent and more strenuous exercise can even restore some memory loss according to a recent article on aging.

To stay mentally young, we also need to eat like Jesus did. The research has shown that the best anti-aging diet is the “Mediterranean Diet,” and since that’s what Jesus ate, we’ll call it the “Jesus Diet.” That’s a diet primarily consisting of Fish, Vegetables, Fruit, Nuts and Beans. Studies show that older people who eat the most fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of dementia than meat-lovers. Along with our exercise and diet, our relationships will also keep us young and it’s important for us to build and maintain a network of friends. That’s one reason why our church family is so important to us. A recent 15 year study showed that a vital social life provides emotional and mental stimulation that fights off dementia. Also, learning new skills will keep you sharp. Learning spurs the growth of new brain cells and neurotransmitters (the connections between those brain cells). 

One of the interesting things that the scientific studies tell us we can do to keep our brain sharp is to meditate. MRI’s have shown that meditation actually increases the density of brain matter and meditation reduces harmful stress hormones that lead to higher blood pressure and other physical problems. For Christians, meditation means reading our Bible – the Word of God – and then meditating on a sentence or a few words that we’ve just read. Meditation not only keeps our brain young but it also quiets our spirit and makes room for God’s presence. Psalm 19:14 

A recent article on aging said that having a plan for your life and keeping a positive focus on your future will keep your brain young. Aging Christians can retire to the recliner or we can turn to what God’s given purpose is for us right now in this season of our life. God created us to love and worship Him and to love and help others. Mark 12:30-31 When my mom was in her eighties, she was a volunteer worker in the surgery waiting room at St Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank. She provided a comforting presence to those who were anxious and upset when a loved one was in surgery. She helped people in their time of need and her volunteer work was her living out the second commandment of Jesus to “love others as yourself.” 

As long as you’re on this side of the dirt, God ain’t done with you in this, your earthly existence, and He still has a plan for you at this point in your life. You have acquired a lifetime of skills, abilities and gifts given to you by your Creator. This week, ask Him to show you how that you can use those God-given gifts to help and serve others. And then, if you’re of the age where the restaurant you go to is determined by the size of the senior citizen discount, go for it, but stay young at heart and listen to Clint. Don’t let the old man or the old woman in. Amen?

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Sharing Food. Sharing Love.

Dear Friends,

My mom didn’t just teach me how to cook, she showed me that there is joy in feeding others. Some people prepare food out of a necessity to eat. My mom prepared food for others as a way of showing her love. Nothing made her happier than having the whole family over for dinner or preparing a gourmet meal for friends. My mom loved that I shared her enthusiasm for cooking and she and my dad would give me cookbooks for birthdays and Christmas. A certain loved one in my life today is not showered with diamonds, perfumes and untold riches but she does get homemade pizza, pink lemonade cookies and her favorite fresh-baked pumpkin scones! 

My mom taught me well and in past years, one of the ways I have shown my love for my church family on Christmas is when they came to my house and I cooked up a giant pot of Jambalaya – my mom’s recipe of course. The scent of baking bread would fill the house and before the meal, we took communion together with a loaf of bread fresh from the oven. I think that’s what Jesus would do...

We read throughout the New Testament how Jesus used food to serve others and show His love for them. On one occasion, He fed many thousands of His followers. Scripture tells us there were 5,000 men but there may have been just as many women and children who were also present. On another occasion, He fed a megachurch sized crowd of 4,000 followers. Mark 8:19-20 NLT 

The Jewish leaders complained bitterly about Jesus dining with tax collectors and other assorted sinners. “Why do You eat and drink with such scum?” they asked. Luke 5:29-30 NLT Jesus replied that it was in the context of fellowship with those who were lost and struggling that He could offer them a changed life. Luke 5:31-32. Jesus didn’t come to save the self-righteous; He came to save those who were lost. Those who had messed up their lives. Those who were among the marginalized in society. He ate with them. He talked with them. He blessed them.

Jesus knew that food feeds hungry stomachs and that it also feeds hungry souls. “On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, He took bread and after giving thanks, He broke it..” 1 Cor 11:23-25. Jesus’ last supper was shared with His disciples and then after His crucifixion and resurrection, one of the things He did was to light a campfire and cook breakfast for some of His disciples before ascending into Heaven! John 21:9-14 NLT

A few years ago, the offices of our City Councilmember and County Supervisor combined with LAPD, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and local clergy to plan the County’s first Homeless Connect Day. Sylmar was chosen to hold the first Connect Day event because of our large homeless population and I was the sole clergy representative on the committee. I reached out to a pastor friend and the event was held at his church – our community’s only African-American church.  It was a perfect Autumn day. Over two hundred men and women were fed a delicious lunch. Professional caterers had prepared sandwiches made from croissants piled high with deli-sliced turkey, roast beef and cheese. Huge bowls of fresh fruit. Salads. Pastries. Faces lit up with joy as they enjoyed a meal prepared and served with love. We set up a tent where both men and woman were given haircuts by professional hair stylists. There were portable showers and fresh clothing. They received backpacks stuffed with life’s necessities. They were also connected with those who could provide them with long-term assistance and opportunities to turn their life around. It was a “government event” but because I wore the black shirt and clerical collar, many approached me to ask for prayer. Those who live a life of struggle and despair on the streets were loved and cared for that day. I think that’s what Jesus would do...

Food connects us with others. It builds a bridge on which a relationship can be formed. Whether feeding the homeless, baking brownies for a church potluck or taking a meal to a shut-in, giving food provides a tangible way of imparting the love of Christ to others. And the best thing about it is that you don’t have to be a gourmet cook or a five star chef to prepare a meal for another person. If you’re sufficiently able to feed yourself, you’re qualified to prepare a meal for others! When Jesus cooked breakfast for His disciples, the Son of God tossed some fish on a campfire and baked some flat bread on a hot rock! Jesus didn’t spend hours over a gourmet meal, He cooked for His disciples what we might today call, “fish tacos!”

Do you know someone who is going through some tough times? Think about what you might do to help. Going to the grocery store and filling a couple of bags with pantry basics and frozen food for those who may be struggling with illness or difficult circumstances can be a huge blessing. Sharing food is a perfect opportunity for you to put your faith into action. It’s what we can do to show our love for others. It’s what Jesus would do...