Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Be Good!

Dear Friends,

For many years now the most popular New Year’s resolution has been “Be a better person – be good.” But as a result of Covid, lockdowns and inflation, the most popular resolution for 2022 is “Better finances.” My prayer is that God will provide for all of us in this coming year, but as we one day stand before Jesus, I’m thinking that He won’t be judging us based on our financial investments and the cash value of our Estate that we just left behind. That’s why for those of us who are Christian believers, being sanctified (made holy) by God and becoming less like us and more like Jesus, the resolution I believe God would want us to make is still “Be a better person – be good.”

According to a recent survey, only 44% of us will make resolutions this year, and of those who do, only 10% will stick to them. That means for those who decide they want to be a better person, as soon as February rolls around, the vast majority of these well-intentioned people will have thrown up their hands in despair, decided that it’s futile to become a better person and “being good” is an elusive and unattainable goal! But is it? Not if the power of God is active in your life! 

We’ve seen that in our culture today, right and wrong have morphed into subjective opinion and there are many contradictory beliefs about what is good. We know that only the true and immutable (unchanging) word of God can define what’s is “good” for the believer and if we want to be a better person, we must read our Bible to find out what God’s definition of a good person really is. Then to be a “better person” we need to next place God first in our life and make it our passionate desire to do the will of the Father. Only then can we look forward to the day that Jesus says to us, Well done good and faithful servant.

While we all sin daily in “thought, word and deed,” for many of us, it’s our words that can cause the most hurt in others. There is life and death in the power of the tongue Proverbs 18:21 and our words can crush the spirit of another. We’ll use as an example a sinner I know all too well. Because I have been, thus so far, unsuccessful in convincing my own loved ones that my sarcasm is a spiritual gift from God, this is one area of my personality with which I do struggle. When I pray the prayer of self-examination at the end of the day, the Holy Spirit will replay the tape of any unkind words I’ve used. Many years ago I was convicted by Ephesians 4:29 and I began to pray that scripture every morning and throughout my day: “Lord, let no corrupt or unwholesome word proceed forth from my lips but what would be for the edification of others, according to the need of the moment, that it would impart grace to the hearers.”

But my flesh still occasionally pulls me toward thoughtless and graceless words, as evidenced by a certain loved one giving me a book for Christmas: “TAMING THE TONGUE – How The Gospel Transforms Our Talk.” I wish of course that I didn’t need to read this book, but those of us who are human beings still sin, and the biblical concept of “sanctification” is not a one time event but a process of change that takes place during your lifetime journey. 

How we change to be a better person is through reading the Gospels and allowing the Holy Spirit to change our heart as we read the words of our Lord. If we want to change our words to be words of grace and life to others, we first need a heart transplant. Jesus said that, “What you say flows from your heart,” Luke 6:45 NLT and what we think and how we behave flows from our heart as well. We need God to transplant in us a heart passionate about following His will.

In a recent survey, 48% of those who did not carry out their New Year’s resolutions confessed that it was lack of motivation to succeed. Our passion is the most powerful motivation for success that we can possibly have. My brother wanted to be a bull rider. Seriously. We grew up in Los Angeles, but he went to every rodeo in Southern California. He studied the moves and techniques of the famous, top-money-earning, celebrity bull riders. They were his mentors and he wanted to be exactly like them. And yes he rode bulls until God gave him a holy smack upside the head to knock some sense into him and he got a job with the DWP instead. But his passion for learning how to ride bulls by studying those at the top of the game shows us the passion we must have to become a better person. 

God already created you to be a good person and do good things with your life. Ephesians 2:10 You thought it was a New Year’s resolution, but it’s been God’s plan for your life all along! It’s your God-given destiny! But how do we turn that promise into a practice that changes our lives? Whether you’re a ballet dancer or a bull rider, you’ll need a mentor to emulate and look up to. You and I also need a spiritual  mentor to study and only one Person fits the bill – His name is Jesus Christ. We are told to “be imitators of God” Ephesians 5:1-2 and “walk in the same manner as God does” 1 John 2:6 and then God sent His only Son as the perfect image of the God we are to imitate. Colossians 1:15 

Become passionate about seeking out your mentor Jesus Christ and becoming like Him! Know Him. Study Him. Meditate upon Him. Follow Him. Seek His will for all things in your life. Give Him your heart and let Him change you from the inside out. Let’s all be a better person in 2022. It’s not just a resolution. It’s a promise from God! It’s our destiny!

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Ponder the Majesty and Mystery!

Dear Friends,

“Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” 

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 

Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Luke 2:8-19 

I like the imagery invoked in the painting of Mary by Henry Ossawa Tanner who was the first African-American painter to gain international acclaim. Our Christmas cards often show a brightly lit stable crowded with cute animals and packed with shepherds, wise men with gifts, angels and the Holy Family in a party-like atmosphere. Tanner, known for his religious paintings, particularly ones of the Nativity, always shows Mary in a quiet, dimly lit place in deep contemplation – pondering the incarnation of God. I’m wondering if perhaps we should be doing the same.

The incarnation is the divine Son of God, existing from the beginning of time, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was made a human being. Just ponder that miracle for a moment. And yet in our Christian worldview, we’ve developed this odd dichotomy between the glory of the incarnation and the celebration of Christmas. Let me show you what I mean.

It was many years ago that I asked a coworker how he’d spent his Christmas. The night before Christmas, he and his wife and their two young children had gone to his in-laws for a Christmas dinner and gift exchange. He told me that his mother-in-law goes all out for Christmas and her house looks like Santa’s village. The next morning his kids rushed into the living room to find that Santa had filled their stockings and left presents under the tree. His wife made their family’s traditional Christmas breakfast and then it was time to open the huge pile of Christmas gifts. Later that day, his parents came over and his wife made a crown roast with all the fixings and a traditional Christmas yule log cake for desert. More gifts and a very special time between his parents and his step-children. He told me that he and his wife love Christmas and said that his family had a wonderful time together on Christmas day. I marveled at this because everything he told me, even down to the crown roast and traditional Christmas yule log cake, was almost exactly how my own family had just celebrated Christmas. I was thinking this family definitely knows how to do Christmas right! Because of last minute Christmas preparations, we had not gone to a Christmas church service but I asked my coworker if he had. He laughed and told me that he, his wife, his parents and his in-laws were all atheists. Oh. I see. Have I mentioned to you yet that my Christian family had spent Christmas nearly the exact same way that his atheist family did? I spent a long time pondering that...

The danger is how easily we can get caught up in the preparation and pageantry of Christmas while leaving the manger empty of Christ. For too many of us, Christmas Day is not an experience of glorious joy at the birth of Jesus, but a feeling of relief that all our work to prepare for this day is finally over. 

On Christmas morning, let’s look to Mary to show us how to make the day Christ-centered. As Mary pondered the birth of Jesus in her heart, we may also need to give ourselves a time out just to sit and dwell on the mystery and majesty of the miracle. December 25th is your salvation story. Ponder the wonder of God who loved you so much that He sent His Son to you personally. As the angel said on that night, “..a Savior has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord.” And our only response to that can be to raise our hands to heaven and give praise to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all the glory be from now until forever.  Amen.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Have A Christ-Centered Christmas!

Dear Friends,

In the fourth century, the church established a liturgical service (the “Christ Mass”) that would celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25th. And while the exact date of the birth of Jesus is unknown, the earliest known reference to His birth being on December 25th was in a commentary on the Book of Daniel that Hippolytus of Rome wrote in 204 A.D. Some time after that, a pagan festival honoring the sun god “Sol Invictus” began to be celebrated on that day and it was later claimed that the church then formally established December 25th in the fourth century as the birthday of Jesus to counteract the influence of paganism. But in 320 A.D., one theologian answered this criticism by noting, “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it.”

If we were to objectively look at our own pre-Christmas activities, preparing for parties, setting out snowman inflatables on our front lawn, stringing colored lights, “Black Friday” and a frantic shopping for gifts, we might see that what we’ve done so far may be more “pagan” than “Christian.” That’s why we might want to spend these remaining two weeks preparing for a Christ-Centered Christmas and here are some things that may be helpful:

Read a Christmas Devotional Book as a daily devotional or ignore the designated days in Advent and just read until the words reveal something that stops you and fills your thoughts with what’s personally meaningful for you. Spend some quiet time meditating on what the Holy Spirit just called to your attention and ask God to speak to your heart what He wants you to know.

Be bold with your faith! Say “Merry Christmas” to everyone. If you are genuinely worried about being politically incorrect and offending someone, read last week’s AMEN Corner: Do The Math!

Read the Christmas Story in your Bible. Isaiah 7:14; Luke 1:5-56; Matthew 1:18-24; Luke 2:1-20.

Surround yourself and family with visual images of the “reason for the season.” The focus for Christians and non-Christians alike is a decorated tree. I’ve had trees with lights and brightly-colored painted glass round ornaments. Trees with only country-cute wood ornaments. My past trees were filled with beautiful, heartwarming secular images but our tree today, with the exception of a few religious ornaments, is nearly all crosses – it’s our “Jesus Tree” (see Rhianna’s photo above). 

And no Christian home should be without a Nativity scene! That’s because the Holy Family with Jesus in the manger, always has been, and always will be, the most Christ-centered image of Christmas. We love to decorate our homes at this time of year, but if you invited a family, who didn’t know you well, into your house, would they know that you’re a Christian by the images depicted in your seasonal decorations? This may be an uncomfortable thought, but others can always tell who or what we worship by the things in our home that are important and meaningful to us!

Fill your home with Christmas music and I don’t mean “Last Christmas” by Wham! or Mariah Carey’s hit holiday song “All I Want For Christmas Is You” (Spoiler Alert: She’s not singing to Jesus). There’s more and more secular “Christmas” music on our radios and being streamed, but to keep Christ in Christmas, let's listen to and sing along with the traditional Christmas hymns we remember from our childhood. There are also many excellent contemporary Christmas albums with Christ-centered lyrics in genres from Gospel to Country and from Rock to Rap.

Watch a biblical Christmas movie. “The Nativity Story” was released in 2006 and received the highest rating from the Dove Foundation. The film portrays the birth of Jesus in a warm, loving manner and the Dove reviews said “The cinematography in this film is breathtaking and the acting is solid throughout.” The film was also acclaimed for its historical and biblical accuracy and shows the viewer what life in those times would have realistically been like. 

Attend a Christmas Eve service in person or on-line. 

I hope that some of these things that connect us with the true meaning of Christmas will be as helpful for you as they are for me. Many of us have focused this Advent season on Christmas-centered activities – the tree, outside lights, shopping, decorations, gifts, cookies and greeting cards because we love the Christmas season. But for these next weeks, let’s transition from a Christmas-centered mind set to a Christ-centered Advent that will prepare us for the coming of the Lord and our celebration of Him on December 25th. When we do so, we set aside the stress-inducing crowdedness of our days and give Jesus the space to move fully into our lives. When we make this holiday season Christ-centered, we are rewarded with His grace and with the love and warmth of His presence in our hearts. And then dear loved one, that’s when Christmas becomes Christmas...

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Do The Math!

Dear Friends,

“Happy Holidays!” said the sales clerk as I walked away. I turned back to her and looked in her eyes for a moment. “Merry Christmas!,” I responded. Her face lit up and she said, “Oh yes. Merry Christmas! Thank you for saying that to me.” No other customers were in line so I asked if her  company told her that she should say happy holidays and she looked a little confused. She said that they hadn’t told the employees what to say but everyone said happy holidays and she assumed that was just what she supposed to say. We had a nice conversation about our Christian faith for a few minutes...

I have no qualms about saying “Merry Christmas” to people after they have just wished me a happy holiday. It always frees people to then tell me, “Merry Christmas.” I do not hesitate to say “Merry Christmas” because I understand the math. The most recent surveys show that 96% of people in America celebrate Christmas! That number may surprise you but even 81% of non-Christians in our Nation celebrate Christmas. 

That means that eight out of every ten atheists, agnostics and people of other religions celebrate Christmas. One third of American Jews have a Christmas tree in their home. 76% of Buddhists and 73% of Hindus celebrate Christmas. On Al Abrbiya News, a commentator complained about the increasing number of American Muslims who are now celebrating Christmas. Of course most non-Christians view Christmas more as a cultural holiday than a celebration of the birth of Christ, but they are certainly not offended when we wish them a “Merry Christmas.”

When you do the math, you realize that if you say “Merry Christmas” to one hundred people, you may say that to four people who don’t celebrate Christmas. Who are those four? Atheists who prefer to sit out the holiday. Wiccans and other Pagans who prefer to celebrate the winter solstice. And the one million Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Christ denomination who don’t acknowledge Christmas. But of those four percent, only a very small percentage admits to being actually “offended” if someone says “Merry Christmas” to them. 

According to some atheist websites, most atheists who do not celebrate Christmas, are not at all offended if someone wishes them a “Merry Christmas.” They just say “Merry Christmas” right back. I was unable to find actual statistics on how many people are genuinely offended by someone saying “Merry Christmas” but a conservative guess would be that 1-2% of Americans might possibly be offended. And that would mostly be those who are obsessed with being politically correct.

Some call it a “war on Christmas” but it’s a very powerful movement by those on the politically far left to normalize Christmas as a non-religious secular holiday. While recent polls show that the self-described “liberal progressives” are only about 6% percent of our society, they are the ones most offended and outraged by Christians and Christmas. Because they control much of the media and our Country’s educational systems, they are most effectively leading our Country in its secular direction, and I’m personally not worried about offending them since they are already offended because I’m a white, Christian, male.

If I say “Merry Christmas” to one hundred people and one or two are possibly offended, I’m okay with those odds. That’s because you and I offend people all the time. That’s life. To offend means to cause another person to feel upset, annoyed, or displeased. 

Let’s just take me as an example. I offend others just because of my gender, skin color and faith. Polls show that 32-34% of non-White Americans will not like me because of my race. Some women will instantly dislike me because they simply don’t like confident males. I’ve offended “woke” friends who have “canceled” our friendship because I believe in the Bible that they say contains “hate speech.” I’ve even offended fundamentalist Christians because of my beard! When I order a medium-rare hamburger in a restaurant, I no doubt upset and offend the animal-lover vegan (5% of all Americans) who’s picking the bacon bits out of his/her salad at the next table. 

And you my friend, offend (upset, displease) people simply because of your skin color, race, religion, economic status,  etc., and you really upset them when you remind them of that dreadful ex-wife or ex-husband! Knowing how offensive I am for just being me is why I’m okay with wishing someone a Merry Christmas and potentially annoying 1-2% of them for doing so. You and I both offend a greater percentage of people just by showing up and breathing!

Even some dedicated church-going Christians have succumbed to the politically correct movement that celebrates Santa as the reason for the season. We need to deflate the family of Snowmen and put the Nativity back on our front lawns. We need to stop being ashamed of our faith. We need to remind people that Christmas is about Jesus. We need to boldly tell people “Merry Christmas,” because  when we do, they are then empowered with the same boldness to tell others “Merry Christmas.” It’s time to let people know, “Hey, it’s okay to say Merry Christmas!”

Thursday, December 2, 2021

An Atheist In Advent!

Dear Friends,

When I was young, one of my favorite things at Christmas time was when my mom and dad took us kids to Olvera Street for Las Posadas. Olvera Street is considered to be “the birthplace of Los Angeles” and is where you’ll find the oldest house in the City. The Olvera Street adobe and brick buildings were restored in 1930 and today you’ll find a block-long, tree-shaded, brick-lined market place that ends at the historic plaza. “Las Posadas” is a Catholic-Mexican tradition that commemorates the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the search for a place where Jesus would be born. You could feel the excitement all along the narrow, colorful street as we waited for Las Posadas (The Inns) to begin. 

You first heard the singing and then saw a teenage Mary riding a small donkey lead by a teenage Joseph. There was a bunch of kids, about my age, dressed as either shepherds or angels and all were singing and carrying candles. As the crowd passed us, we joined the procession as it made its way down the street. “Mary and Joseph” stopped at every shop entrance asking for shelter and were turned away until they reached their final destination. The “innkeeper” invited them in and everyone was served a Mexican hot drink and cookies. Things were far less inclusive in the early sixties, but it never seemed odd to me that we were one of the very few non-Catholic, non-Mexican families who took part in this Christmas tradition on Olvera Street!

Las Posadas is the perfect metaphor for the Advent season. Jesus knocks on the doors of hearts and He’s either rejected and turned away or He’s invited in. Jesus invites us to come and live within Him and He will live within us. John 15:4 You can ignore Jesus the rest of the year, but He’s in your face from Thanksgiving day until Christmas. That’s why this is a very tough time of year for atheists. Immanuel means “God with us” and while Jesus is with us year-round, you definitely can’t escape from Him at Christmas time! 

Even atheists cannot hide from the “God with us” for He is with them too. Two days ago, on the speakers over the pumps at the gas station, I heard “Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her King..” The songs, Nativity scenes and images of Jesus Christ are everywhere we go and that means that the atheist must be constantly and continuously rejecting the Son of God.

A few years ago, we were at our favorite beach restaurant on a very cool, overcast December day so we were happy to find that the outdoor patio heaters were working. The only other one braving the outdoor patio was Peggy and her small dog. She’s a regular at the restaurant and we had talked with her before. This time, we asked what she was doing for Christmas. She said that she and her grown children were taking a trip to South America. After sixty-four years of a happy marriage, her husband had died a year and a half ago and she began to talk to us about the loneliness and emptiness of her life without him. We heard her sadness and saw her eyes fill with tears.

God prompted me to turn this conversation toward Him and I asked about her faith. Peggy said, “I know I’m going to disappoint you both because I always see you pray before you eat, but I’m an atheist.” She said that she had been uncertain about God throughout her life and at the age of seventy-two decided that she just didn’t believe. She told us that one of the hardest things about being an atheist, and not believing in God or in an afterlife in Heaven, was that she had no hope of ever seeing her husband again. I asked her if she ever prayed. She shook her head “no” and I told her that we would start praying for her. I told her that we were both strong Christian believers who believe in the efficacy of prayer and I told her that I was also a pastor. She said she hoped that we would still like her even though she didn’t believe in God and we assured her that we still did. We all finished our lunch at the same time and the three of us stood to leave and said goodbye. Peggy started to walk down the steps toward the street but then stopped and turned back. “Don’t forget to pray for me,” she said. “I’m leaving Wednesday and pray for my plane trip. I’m not afraid of terrorists but bad airplane mechanics. Please pray that I have a safe flight.” We assured her we would. 

The Advent journey is the journey of Las Posadas. But in the spiritual realm it’s Jesus Christ knocking on the closed doors of hearts all across the world and inviting us to come and abide in Him. It started with us asking Peggy how she was going to spend her Christmas that year, and she apologetically but firmly explained that she did not believe in God or prayer. But then as she was leaving, she not only asked for our prayers to the God she “didn’t believe in,” but she asked specifically for God’s protection of her and a safe flight. At some point during our conversation, the Holy Spirit intervened and Peggy opened that door to her heart just a little crack. Perhaps just wide enough to wonder if she had made the right conclusion about God. To maybe even find a longing for hope again in a Savior who offers eternal life. The Advent season before Christmas, immerses believer and non-believer alike in God’s presence and in the reality of Jesus – God with us. No one can make Him go away...