Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The End Is Near?

Dear Friends,

There has been an excited rush from politicians, prophets and pastors alike to predict that Russia’s Vladimir Putin will detonate a nuclear weapon and bring an apocalyptic end to our world. Please don’t be alarmed. It was going to end soon anyway according to liberal socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who, four years ago, predicted that the world would come to an end in twelve years because of climate change. So we really only have eight years left!

AOC said that  global warming will “destroy the planet” in twelve years and that everyone in the millennial generation knows that it will happen.” She said, “And, like, this is the war; this is our World War III. For real.” That was helpful news when I heard it because I needed to get my roof replaced and was considering a roof with a 25 year guarantee. But since I believe everything politicians tell me, I’ve decided to save money and just get the less-expensive ten year roof...

Isaac Newton is a well-known  scientist from the 17th century who “discovered” the law of gravity. But few people know that he was also a certified whacko. Newton’s passionate interest was black magic and he went on an obsessive endeavor to create a magic “rock” which he believed would have the power to bestow eternal life. Newton studied the Bible, renamed himself “Jehovah Sanctus Unus” (the one holy god) and famously predicted that the world will end in 2060. So if we believe the scientist over the socialist, that gives us about three more decades and may help those who are planning their retirement annuities.

A few years ago, Christian numerologist David Meade scared the millennial generation half to death with a book called “Planet X” that described a death star destined to crash into the earth and annihilate it on April 23, 2018. After that didn’t pan out like he hoped, he corrected the end of the world for sometime between May and December 2018. I guess I don’t have to tell you how that prediction turned out either. We can look back and scoff at the silliness of it all, but I knew some intelligent, Bible-believing Christians who were absolutely certain the world was coming to an end in 2018 and that belief changed their entire life.

Even worse was when Christian radio broadcaster and evangelist Harold Camping provided “biblical proof” that the world would end on May 21, 2011 and his followers very sadly did some extremely foolish things in expectation that the Rapture would happen that day. Jesus had said about His return, “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.” Matthew 24:36

What part of that did this “Bible teacher” and evangelist not understand? I was not angry that this Harold Camping was an idiot. What made me angry is that this one foolish and false prophet gave place to the devil and the level of ridicule toward Christians ratcheted up to an all-time high.

As Camping’s day of Rapture approached, there was an article in the LA Times about a website called “You've Been Left Behind.” For $14.95, a Christian could have a letter sent to their unbelieving loved ones to inform them that they (the believer) had been “raptured” and were no longer on earth. Christians wrote large checks to “Eternal Earth-Bound Pets” to take care of the believer’s dogs and cats when the rapture occurred. The LA Times portrayed these atheist businesses as shrewd and depicted Christian believers as na├»ve and foolish. Harold Camping received nation-wide attention from liberal network news anchors who made no attempt to hide their laughter and disdain at Christian believers.

Harold Camping repented and admitted his “predictions were sinful” but the damage had been done. He’d spent 100 million dollars on billboards and radio advertising!! What if he'd given 100 million dollars to the Christian non-profit “Feed The Children” that supplies food, medicine and clothing to needy families? What if he’d spent that 100 million dollars on Bibles in different languages to send to other countries? The late Harold Camping shows us that a Christian’s actions – our behavior – will bring people one step closer to Jesus or move them one step away. 

During my own relatively short time on earth, the end of the world has been predicted at least 79 times according to my research. Predictions from politicians, psychics and Popes; astrologer Jeanne Dixon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee and others. Predictions by scientists and socialists. The earth will end in giant tides and earthquakes, collisions with death stars, apocalyptic race wars, a change in the earth’s axis that pulls it into the sun, alien invasions and now climate change and an unstable Russian president.  Every time an “end-date” comes up, I’ve known Christians who listened to the false prophets and were terrified. 

Perhaps we just need to read our Bible. The Sovereign God is in control of all that happens in His Creation and He rules over all the nations. Psalm 22:28 And Jesus said that “all end-times predictions are hogwash” Matthew 24:36 (my translation). I’m not sure that anything else needs to be said about it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Yes You Can Pray Without Ceasing!

Dear Friends,

I wrote last week about the Apostle Paul’s direction to “rejoice always” and what that looks like in this one pilgrim’s life. Let’s continue looking at that one scripture that can seem so difficult to do: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thess 5:16-18. How on earth, and in our busy lives, can we possibly pray without ceasing

For many decades, I couldn’t even pray without a prayer book. Some of you know that I grew up in the Episcopal Church back when it looked like the conservative Anglican Church of England and not what the progressive Episcopal Church looks like today. Comfortably perched halfway between Luther’s Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, our “high church” liturgical service was almost indistinguishable from a Catholic Church service. All prayer was read by the priest from the liturgical book with appropriate responses by the congregation. Prayer was primarily a church ritual and any prayer outside of the church walls was usually the recitation of a written prayer or two that had been memorized. I faithfully recited the Lord’s Prayer every night before falling asleep. Six decades later, I still do. I’ll never forget the first time I went to a non-liturgical, Pentecostal service and we gathered in prayer groups to pray for one another. I was terrified. It wasn’t just the heart-pounding thought of praying out loud in front of others. How in heaven’s name can a person pray without a prayer book to read from?

But in the early church, prayer was as natural as breathing. When Paul wrote to the church to pray without ceasing, he wasn’t asking the impossible. In fact, he was simply encouraging them to keep on doing what they’d always done! To pray without ceasing is obviously not the impossibility of praying every moment of every waking hour. It is simply to turn one's heart and mind toward God throughout our day. If you have ever loved, you know how our thoughts just naturally turn to our loved one and we find ourselves thinking of them "without ceasing." That periodic heart connection to someone is what Paul meant.

There are those today who follow a regular and disciplined prayer time and are much blessed by a prayer ritual to which they have made a commitment to follow. That used to be me, but I found that I had compartmentalized my life into my (much too short and too often rushed) prayer time with God and then for the other sixteen waking hours my time was spent in work and in the world. 

My entire spiritual life turned upside down when I came across THE PRACTICE OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD by Brother Lawrence who was a 17th century monk. Brother Lawrence said: “He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

I start and end everyday in prayer, but prayer is no longer limited to a specific time of my day. It’s become a lifestyle and, like Brother Lawrence, my own constant prayers – those little acts of adoration throughout the day – have become the background music of my life. I’ll often stop what I’m doing and pray: Lord God, here I am, all devoted to Thee; make me according to the desires of Thy heart.

Oswald Chambers was an early twentieth-century Scottish Baptist and Holiness Movement teacher and evangelist, best known for the devotional My Utmost for His Highest. He wrote, “Think of prayer as the breath in our lungs and the blood from our hearts. Our blood flows and our breathing continues ‘without ceasing’; we are not even conscious of it, but it never stops...Prayer is not an exercise; it is the life of the saint. It is coming into perfect fellowship and oneness with God.”

Speaking the name of Jesus throughout our day invites and instills His presence. The name of God, verbally expressed, contains His presence. Orthodox mystics and Protestants alike ascribe to the ancient belief that speaking forth His name places the reality of God into our circumstances. I have often written and spoken of the ancient monastic “Jesus Prayer.” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner. Matthew 16:16; Luke 18:13 I have found that after awhile, the Jesus Prayer becomes as natural as breathing and you’ll find yourself praying it while going about your daily activities. The Jesus Prayer will allow you to stay focused, relaxed and energized at the same time. This prayer is one which can bring us into that perfect fellowship and oneness with God.

Other short prayers maybe helpful for you. They are easily memorized and can be spoken out loud or silently as we think of Him throughout our day:

Lord, You know that I love You.

Maranatha, O Lord come.

Lord Jesus praised be Your Name.

Jesus, You are my Healer, make me whole.

Have Your way with me, O Lord.

Lord God, have mercy on me.

Glory and honor to God.

Lord, give me a heart of (love) (hope) (peace) (strength).

Not my will but Thine be done.

Here I am Lord, I am Yours.

I in Him and He in me.

To You Lord, all the Glory, and Honor and Praise!

Let your prayers become the ambient background in your journey through life. Turn your thoughts and your prayers to God throughout each day and remember, “One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Can We Really Rejoice Always?

Dear Friends,

One of my favorite high-tech devices is the Bluetooth Mobile Phone Headset. That’s the device that people wear in their ear to be able to instantly answer their mobile phone and engage in a loud conversation when they’re in back of you in the line at Starbucks. I should quickly say that I don’t use one of those wireless headsets myself. I’m just not important enough to need to be immediately available to my people. Okay...the truth is I don’t even have “people.”

But the cool thing about wireless headset technology is that it has allowed me to now be in public without frightening others. I’m now able to walk down the street without mothers clutching their small children to them in fear. People no longer quietly edge away from me when I’m in line at the bank and I can now even go into retail stores without a clerk quickly slipping behind the counter to stand near the red emergency button.

Because sometimes I engage in what others might describe as “bizarre behavior.” I’ll be in my yard cleaning the horse stalls in the early morning hours singing praise songs. I’ll be walking down the street and praying quietly to myself or softly singing a worship song out loud. I’ll think of something and under my breath be praising or thanking the Lord. And so now, thanks to the popularity of those wireless headsets, people no longer look at me as if I could be psychotically dangerous. They just assume I’m on my phone.

One time I was browsing in a thrift store and softly whistling “IN CHRIST ALONE.” A bit later, when I brought my stack of used books to the cash register, the lady asked if I was the one who was whistling. Not realizing I could be heard, I apologized and she quickly said, “No, was nice to hear someone happy!”

Seeing a cross around her neck, I knew she’d understand. So I replied, “That was a worship song and when I praise God, He always makes me happy.” That began one of those conversations where I was thankful that God had brought me into an uncrowded store and into a quiet conversation with this volunteer who was going through a difficult time in her life.

We can find ourselves living in a constant state of brokenness from our past, commingled with too much dysfunction in our present. Where stress and anxiety clutter our mind and prevent us from finding any joy in our day. Where we’re struggling with our present circumstances. Where we might even find ourselves mired in what King David called the “pit of despair.” Psalm 40:1-2 NLT

And then we read something in our Bible that seems laughably impossible for us to do. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always? Even in the middle of what may be lousy circumstances? Yes! And sometimes that’s indeed very difficult to do, but with God all things are possible. Those Biblical instructions or commandments that raise the bar for our behavior are not just directed toward the spiritual saints who have it all together. They’re also directed toward people like you and me.

So, how do we “rejoice always” in the middle of difficult circumstances? Not though any mind-games, psychological techniques or religious formulas. We simply praise God for what He has done for us and worship Him for who He is. King David found himself in that pit of despair and cried out to the Lord. God lifted David out of the mire, set his feet on the “rock” and put a new hymn of praise in his mouth! Psalm 40:3 NLT 

Do I get discouraged, worried and stressed at times? You bet I do. And singing praise songs to the glory of God will always bring me out of my Eeyore-like, self-centered gloom. Praise and worship takes you out of yourself and into the Presence of God. When we are filled with the awe of God, we become less full of ourselves and our self-important problems are put into perspective. 

Our praise rises up to the heavens like sweet incense and He reaches down and gently lifts us into His Presence. Praise and worship are not just what we do on Sunday morning, it’s a lifestyle. When worship is an attitude of our heart, then our lives are lived as an act of worship to Him. Praise comes to our lips, prayer flows out of our heart and in that moment, God meets us right where we already are. We rejoice. Always!

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Eat More Dirt?

Dear Friends,

I was a pretty dirty kid and if you’re a member of my generation, you probably were too. I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and our first house had a large dirt back yard that was my personal playground. There was also a huge two acre lot on our street that was our baseball field in summer, the great frontier where we played “cowboys and indians,” and when it was half-filled with rain, it became our swamp where we built our Huckleberry Finn raft and caught pollywogs. When I was nine, we moved to West Hollywood where we again had a very large backyard. During the hot, lazy days of summer when school was out, I’d lie out in the dirt under the lemon tree just to smell the scent of the lemons in the sun. I’d dig a large hole until I was tired of digging it. I’d fill it back in and go to another part of the yard and dig another large hole. My dad teased me and called me his “gopher” and my mom kept the washing machine busy in a futile effort to keep me clean. 

Too many kids today live in “asphalt jungles” where the dirt on their concrete play area is the black dust from our car’s asbestos-containing brake pads. It’s clear that today’s children are facing an unprecedented physical and mental health crisis in our Nation. The increase of autism alone in America’s children is very disturbing. Surveys in the 60's showed the presence of autism was in one out of 2,500 children. According to the CDC, twenty years ago it was one in 150 but today it’s one in every 44 children that has autism disorder. Something has changed. We are raising a generation of obese children who have arthritic conditions in their hands from playing video games that used to be seen only in senior citizens. Many kids now struggle with diabetes and heart disease which was almost unheard of in children until the past decade. It’s a statistical fact that children were much healthier back in the 50's & 60's when we spent our days outdoors playing in the God-created dirt.

Dr Kevin Bonham is a medical scientist in the microbiology and immunobiology department at Harvard Medical School. He says, “While there is no doubt that sanitation and hygiene are critical in reducing the spread of infectious disease, it’s possible that we’ve gone too far in trying to live a sterile life.” In an article published in Scientific American, Dr Bonham explains that microbes living in dirt are actually healthy for us to ingest and he advocates buying organically-grown vegetables and just rinsing them with tap water before cooking them. We thoroughly scrub our vegetables squeaky clean and even buy special sanitizing produce sprays to kill all organic matter on our veggies and yet medical science has determined that these soil-based organisms clinging to our carrots and potatoes support gut health, reduce inflammation and increase immune response. Scientists have even discovered that these soil microbes have an effect on the brain similar to the antidepressant medication Prozac, but without the side effects! There is also increased evidence that soil microbes even affect our cognitive well-being. Perhaps our new health mantra should be: “EAT MORE DIRT !”

We may not want to drink a mud smoothie or bake a batch of dirt cookies, but it’s never too late in life for us to go outside and get a little dirty. We improve our overall health when we do what God created us to do – go outdoors and plant and grow things. I have a friend who has a backyard filled with greenhouses and she’s never happier than when she’s working in the potting sheds as a volunteer at the Huntington Library Gardens. She’s in her late seventies and is happier, healthier and more active than many who are decades younger than she. Is that because nearly every day she plays in the dirt? Gardeners inhale the organic microbes from dirt, ingest it through their mouth and get it into their bloodstream if they have a cut on their hands.

Your body is about 65% water and if it was completely dried out, what would be left is mostly six elements that are abundant in the natural environment that is God’s Creation. According to both medical science and the Word of God, you are essentially “water and dirt.” Our God is the potter and we are His “clay.” Isaiah 64:8 He first created a world of waters and the “firmament (dirt) in the midst of the waters.” Genesis 1:6 And then God sent some rain and went to play in the dirt. He took up a handful of moist soil and breathed life into this handful of dirt and it became man. Genesis 2:6-7 Then, “The Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden, and there He put the man whom He had formed.” Genesis 2:8 God created man out of a handful of dirt to live in a garden but the closest most of us get to a vegetable garden today is when we go to the grocery store and buy that plastic bag of spinach greens that’s been triple-washed and sanitized with a chlorine rinse for our protection.

This Friday, April 22, is Earth Day. In years past, California politicians used it to focus on banning detachable water bottle caps and criminalizing the use of plastic drinking straws. This year it’s banning all single use plastic from all restaurants including takeout and food trucks. Will cardboard forks work as well as those paper straws did? This week, school children will be lectured on the dangers of plastic forks and spoons and be using their crayons to color trees and plants before being sent to play on the school’s asphalt playground. I've been reading about some schools tearing out the asphalt that gets blistering hot on a summer day and returning their playgrounds to dirt and grass. That's good news! According to medical science, it'll be much healthier for the students to be out playing in the dirt. And let’s you and I also go outside and plant some seeds by using our hands to dig into God’s earth. Go ahead. Get dirty. It’ll be good for what ails you!

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Stations Of Our Life...

Dear Friends,

In Jerusalem they call it the via Delorosa (The Way of Sorrows), and in the 16th century, the church established devotional stations at various points to depict the events in the last hours of Jesus’ life as He carried the cross to the hill at Calvary. For those unable to travel to the Holy Land, churches later created what they call the Stations of the Cross using paintings, plaques and sculptures. Nearly all Catholic churches have the Stations of the Cross and many of our California Missions have gardens where the Stations are depicted. But every Lent I walk the Stations at Saint Andrews Abbey. 

Here in the high desert, the fourteen Stations are not artistically arranged along a garden path but are scattered up a steep, rocky hill. There are no carefully tended flower beds. Wild sage and scrub brush dot the hillside. The sculptures are not carved by artists but are handmade and hammered together by the monks. Most Stations of the Cross in church and mission gardens have comfortable benches on which to sit, pray and meditate. In front of the Stations at the monastery, there is a flat rock to kneel on. On this steep rocky slope it can be snowy and bitter cold, windy or suffocatingly hot. It is always still. Always silent.

My Protestant problem with the fourteen Stations is that only seven of them are biblical and the other seven are based on the tradition of the Catholic Church. It's difficult for me to know what to do with the Station where “Veronica Wipes The Face Of Jesus” when I know that's not mentioned in any scripture. As I walk the Stations, I typically hurry past that one, the ones showing Jesus falling and those others that are church tradition but have no biblical foundation.

But something different is happening this Lent. The Stations are intended to foster thoughts, prayers and meditations as the images evoke a visceral connection with the suffering of our Lord. But today I'm experiencing a different response to these images. My thoughts are drawn to my own life experiences. And now I find that even the non-biblical “traditional” Stations have meaning for me.

Veronica’s compassion reminds me of the year when my family fell apart, my father died and God sent someone to take my hand and walk with me through life. The three Stations that depict Jesus falling remind me of all the times that I've stumbled and "fallen" in my life and God would once again reach down and set me on my feet. These memories are my own “stations.” Our life stations are the snapshots of our past and, merged together, paint a portrait of our life and God's mercy and grace. No matter what the worst of our stations look like, God was there.

What are the stations of your life? Do your images depict the loss of a spouse or a child? A betrayal by a friend or loved one? Is there a station where God sent a “Veronica” to dry your tears in a time of hardship or grief? Was there a time when the burden was so heavy you couldn't bear to take another step with it and a “Simon” showed up unexpectedly to shoulder your “cross?”

My eyes have been opened and the suffering of Jesus Christ now transcends theology and has become more real to me than ever before. And, now I'm at the Station where Jesus is nailed to the cross. I’m overwhelmed with the realization that the worst things I have suffered in my life are nothing compared with the suffering that Jesus willingly took on for my sake. It was not the whip that caused my Lord and Savior the most pain. It was my sins.

I've been moving from Station to Station deep in reflective thought. Today, the trail seems so much narrower and steeper than it's been before. My feet slide and twist in the loose rocks. Sharp thorns from the Mesquite tear at my skin as I pass by. The desert environment is harsh and challenging, and I find that as I struggle along this steep rocky trail, it becomes the perfect metaphor for my life. And then I look up. At the highest point on this rocky hill – so much like the hill at Calvary – I see the broken body of Jesus hanging on the cross. 

Our journeys are different. Our life “stations” are different. But at some point, each one of us must raise our eyes from our own sorrows and look up. To see Jesus. Up there on the cross. For you.

Watch Video of Saint Andrews Abbey

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The Stations of the Cross

On Good Friday in 1991, Pope John Paul II displeased some Catholics and delighted many Protestants by initiating a new biblically-based Stations of the Cross. While nearly all churches retain the beloved traditional version, Pope Benedict approved the new Biblical version for meditation and public celebration by Catholics in 2007. 

As Protestant believers, we might consider now taking, what has been a Catholic-only tradition, and incorporating the Biblical version of the Stations of the Cross into our own Good Friday devotions.

Pastor John
Traditional VersionBiblical Version
1. Jesus on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39-46)
2. Jesus, betrayed by Judas, is arrested (Luke 22:47-48)
3. Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71)
4. Peter denies Jesus (Luke 22:54-62)
1. Jesus is condemned to death5. Jesus is judged by Pilate (Luke 23:13-25)
6. Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns (Luke 22:63-65; John 19:2-3)
2. Jesus takes up his cross7. Jesus takes up the cross (Mark 15:20)
3. Jesus falls for the first time
4. Jesus meets his mother
5. Jesus is helped by Simon the Cyrene to carry his cross8. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross (Luke 23:26)
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls for the second time
8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem9. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem (Luke 23:27-31)
9. Jesus falls for the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of his garments
11. Jesus is nailed to the cross10. Jesus is crucified (Luke 23:33, 47)
11. Jesus promises his Kingdom to the good thief (Luke 23:33-34, 39-43)
12. Jesus on the cross, his mother and his disciple (John 19:25-27)
12. Jesus dies on the cross13. Jesus dies on the cross (Luke 23:44-46)
13. Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to his mother
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb14. Jesus is placed in the tomb (Luke 23:50-54)

Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Sure Glad I'm Not A Sinner Like Will Smith!

Dear Friends,

You didn’t have to watch this year’s Academy Award show to know what happened. We’ve seen the shocking video, the photo and heard about it now for over a week. Unless you’ve given up all media for Lent, you know that one of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities, Will Smith, stormed the stage during the live broadcast and slugged another celebrity with his open hand after a joke about Smith’s wife. 

Comments and criticisms from celebrities and the media came quickly. Some justified and excused Smith saying that the violence was a normal, natural response from a Black man defending his wife’s honor. An African American reverend who is the founder of the highly liberal New Democracy Coalition told a television news reporter that he hoped the attack, “..will become a teachable moment where we can highlight the reality of black-on-black crime.” A handful of well-known White and Black pastors gave their opinions on Will Smith and his faith and the Christian media highlighted an interview that Smith gave last year. He said that he was a man of faith who loves the Lord and said that his success in life was the result of his faith. He said, “You can’t get where I get if you don’t love the Lord; you don’t get to sit how I sit; move how I move if you don’t love the Lord.” He went on to talk about the power of faith that had been instilled in him by his religious grandmother. 

After the Academy Award attack, Smith received a Best Actor award and his first words were, “I am overwhelmed by what God is calling me to do and be in this world.” He talked about how the character he played had protected his family and how God is calling him to do the same. He said that he wants to be a “vessel for love” and to be “an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern.”

My initial thoughts were that Smith’s inferring that his uncontrolled moment of violent rage was justified because of God’s calling for him to be a protector, and then characterizing himself as a vessel and ambassador of love, care and concern right after assaulting another person was perhaps not the best witness of our Christian faith to 10.5 million viewers. But to be honest, it’s pretty easy for me to be judgmental about the faith and behavior of others. That brings us right around to the problem of Lent. A time of humble, self-reflection and a close look at our own walk with the Lord. A time of inspecting the “fruit” of our own lives. An honest, perhaps even painful, examen of our faith.

So many of us obsess about our outward appearance and so few look inside to see our gracelessness and sin. We all can instantly spot the most minor of blemishes in another person’s walk with the Lord and have such a difficulty seeing and acknowledging the spiritual deformities in our own disordered life. Digging in to uncover one’s own sin – one’s own hypocrisy – is just too painful. So much easier to make Lent about giving up candy, preparing for a visitation from the Easter Bunny and planning the Easter Sunday family dinner.

The reason that Lent is a long forty days is that the journey through truth and awareness is not a stroll on the beach, but a struggle through the brambles and thorns of the wilderness. Yet, as we stumble along, we find that the Holy Spirit is helping us navigate this difficult journey and then, as it suddenly comes to an end on Good Friday, we find ourselves looking up at the cross where we find redemption and salvation. Lent would be a liturgical farce if we were not the sinful creatures that we are – that’s why we need it. We are in constant need of rescuing, repentance and redemption. As Paul so famously said, “I don’t do the good I want to do and the evil that I don’t want to do is what I do.” Romans 7:19 

I can’t cast stones of judgement at Will Smith because I’ve spent so many decades as a Christian “slapping” people whom God has brought into my life. I’ve never physically slapped anyone but there are so many ways we slap down others and never lift a hand. We hit out in anger, frustration or impatience with sharp, unkind words or actions that may cause an even deeper injury than a physical slap. 

I once counseled a woman at church that I’ll never forget. She was in an extremely abusive relationship and told me one time that she’d rather her husband beat her than for her to hear the hurtful things he say. Surprised at this, I asked why that was and she said that the bruises and broken bones that he had given her had always healed, but the names he called her and the cruel things he said to her, were the permanent injuries that never healed.

When we self-reflect, the hard truth seldom brings joy and comfort. But the very purpose of Lent is to create a healthy hatred of our own sins and a passion for repentance. We then drop to our knees and thank God for His forgiveness. Here’s how it works. We self-reflect and God opens our eyes to see our sins. We feel a sense of conviction of our wrongdoing and that brings repentance, confession and God’s forgiveness. Our hearts are filled with gratitude to God for His grace which then transforms us into a Christian ambassador of God’s love, caring and concern for others. 

I’d suspect that Will Smith has figured out by now that God did not have a call on his life to deliver a celebrity smack-down in honor of his wife, but to show others a Christ-like love. Lent prepares us to be a true Christian ambassador that ushers others into His Kingdom and helps them to grow in the Lord. You, me, Will Smith. We all need Lent...

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

A Very Merry Easter?

Dear Friends,

Easter is now just three weeks away and, if you’re anything like me, your Easter cards are mailed out, but you’re still frantically looking for the perfect Easter gifts for those special people in your life! Weeks ago I put up my Easter decorations starting with the one that’s been in my family for many decades. That’s the one with the plastic skull-shaped rock called “Golgotha” and Jesus hanging on the cross and every year I add a few more heirloom-quality, Bradford Exchange figurines of those who were there at His crucifixion. 

But I must confess that, as much as I look forward to the Easter parties, the presents and the Easter cookies, by this time in Lent, I’m getting tired of the constant holly jolly Easter songs on the radio and the “Empty Tomb” sales at all the department stores. I still look forward to the biggest day of the year however, and anyone who knows me, knows that I’m one of those in-your-face Christians that, when I’m wished a “happy holidays” at the store, I’ll tell them “Merry Easter” right back!

Nothing about the above sounds right to us. Have a Merry Easter..?  Easter decorations..? That’s because there’s a dichotomy between the suffering and death of Jesus and our joy in His resurrection on Easter morning. Perhaps that’s why in so many Christian homes, Easter is not much more than a nice Sunday ham dinner. Many years ago an older woman came up to me after our church service. She was a life-long Christian who loved the Lord but firmly walked her own pathway and brooked no hindrance from above. It was during the season of Lent, the sermon had been on fasting, and I could tell by the expression on her face that she wasn’t going to tell me that she was so moved by my message that she was giving up chocolate donuts during the hospitality hour. She told me that she never enjoyed Easter because of sermons like that one on fasting and she disliked the whole idea of a gloomy self-reflective Lent. She told me that she loved Christmas because it was fun – Easter was not. She asked if there were any happy Easter songs we could sing in church...

She was right, of course. Easter is not fun. On Christmas day we have a gaily-lit tree and get presents. On Easter day we have an empty blood-stained cross and get Jesus. What’s most meaningful about Christmas is the birth of Jesus. But what we most love about Christmas are the non-religious and secular things: wrapped presents, snowmen, decorated trees, lights, food, drink, loud parties. Christmas is a fantasy – Easter the reality. Christmas is how we wish life would be year round – Easter is the way it is. Life ebbs and flows from one extreme to the next. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows with the ordinariness of the mundane sandwiched in between. 

We have many happy times in our life that give us wonderful memories. You and I have also had times of pain and suffering – we still will. We all experience times of discouragement, depression and weariness. Times of loneliness. Times of feeling betrayed and rejected by others. And yet in the middle of whatever hardship we have ever gone through, and will go through, we find the resurrected Jesus triumphant over illness, pain, suffering and death. The Son of God experienced great pain and suffering at the hands of the Roman soldiers, was betrayed by Judas, rejected by Peter, cried out in discouragement and despair in the Garden of Gethsemane and felt the weight of extreme loneliness after His disciples fell asleep. 

Before Jesus took our sins to the cross that we might be redeemed and restored to our Heavenly Father, His human form suffered everything that we could ever go through. Jesus experienced the most intense severe pain that any human body can endure. In our worst hardships and suffering, Jesus enters into it with us. He knows what it feels like. He transforms our suffering and we are healed or taken to live with Him in eternity. 

The hard days of Lent followed by Good Friday and then the glory of Easter is the never-ending cycle of life as we know it. We’re seeing the entire nation of Ukraine in an unbelievably horrific "Good Friday" of suffering and death. Among those for whom I pray daily, twelve are suffering and in pain today. Five battling cancer. Two are near death. Some facing surgery; others recovering from recent ones. One having their gall bladder surgically removed right now as I write this. Each one is going through a personal Good Friday. I’m not even sure that all of these twelve are aware that Jesus is with them right now. But He is. 

The time of Lent in our Easter season is a time of self-reflection about the meaning of our life and our walk with God. During Easter week we remember the suffering and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ but that’s tempered by our knowledge of what takes place Easter morning. We’ve read the Book. We know how Easter week ends. He is risen! He’s alive! We enter into His suffering knowing that He will be victorious over death because His resurrection has already happened in history. During our personal Lenten seasons and “Good Fridays,” we must also never lose sight of our own Easter morning that’s right around the corner. It’s not just a mere hope that Jesus will turn our trials into victories because, by His death on the cross and His resurrection, He already has. The good news of His resurrection that’s life-changing for you has already been written into your personal history!

Unless standing in line for over an hour to pick up your Honey-Baked Easter Ham is your idea of a good time, then you’d probably agree with the woman in my church – Easter is not a “fun” holiday. But for those who believe in and follow Jesus, it’s our most celebrated, joyful and important day of the year. Easter changed your life 2000 years ago! That first Easter morning changed everything, from then until the end of time. Amen?

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Where Are Your Thin Places?

Dear Friends,

It’s the 200 year old church sanctuary at Mission La Purisima.. In the high desert, it’s the holy grounds at the Benedictine Monastery, Saint Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo.. It’s the sacred gardens at Santa Ynez Mission where she and I always take Holy Communion.. These are my “thin places.”

In Celtic Christianity, thin places are those physical locations where God’s presence is more accessible than elsewhere. The Celts were keenly aware of the Cross over all of God’s Creation and were very much aware of their physical surroundings. The Celtic Saint Patrick prayed as he walked, “Christ beside me, before me, behind me, around me, within me.. everywhere.” The sacred and holy places spoken of by the Celtic Christians were where the line between Heaven and Earth was “tissue-paper thin.” Where the Holy Spirit of God seemed as near as one’s own breath. These are the thin places. Places that take us effortlessly into God’s presence and invite transformation in us. Places where we sense the nearness of Him and the life-changing reality of His mercy and grace. These sanctified thin places are the places that we step into and come “face-to-face” with God. 

I love walking along the shoreline next to the ocean. The cyclical tides remind me of the rhythm of our days – the rhythm of our lives. As with our life, there are times of sunny calmness with warm, gentle waves and times when fierce storms pound the shores with unrelenting waves of fury and life-threatening danger. At the ocean’s edge, I am reminded of God’s sovereignty and providence. It’s a place where I always come away refreshed and restored. But it’s not one of my “thin” places.

Like the beach for me, there are many places we enjoy going to that make us happy, thoughtful, relaxed and filled with a sense of peace and well-being. But then there are those inimitable places where we feel a mysteriously deep connection with God that just about takes our breath away at the intensity of the experience. Places where He is just one step away and we are overwhelmed by His presence. Those are the thin places. 

While the term “thin places” does not occur in scripture, we find Jesus frequently withdrawing to a place where He can come “face-to-face” with God. Leaving behind the distraction of places crowded with people, Jesus Christ withdrew to those places nearest to God. Like you and I can, Jesus could stop what He was doing at anytime to speak to the Heavenly Father, but to more fully come into His presence, Jesus went to the thin places.

He started His earthly ministry by going to the wilderness–the desert. Luke 4:1-2 Jesus went to the mountaintop to choose His disciples. Luke 6:12 When John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus went to a thin place for reflection and prayer, Matthew 14:13 and later that day went back to the mountaintop to pray. Matthew 14:23 Jesus started His days in silence and solitude at a thin place where He could come fully into God’s presence. Mark 1:35

This Lenten season comes at the perfect time for us. Two years of an on-going pandemic, a politically divided country, church attendance down and churches closing and now a horrifying war in Europe that has the potential of a terrifying ending. Many are experiencing an emotional reaction to all this that’s taken a toll on our mental health. Lent is the perfect time to cast aside these things of the world and give our self a spiritual timeout. 

One of the things many people are giving up this year for Lent is reading/watching media news. Maybe we all should. Lent is when we step away from the chaos and clamor of life and into the quiet. Lord, let us turn down the volume of our cluttered thoughts and come into Your peace.

During Lent, we need to find those sacred spaces where the noise in our head quiets and we come into His presence. These are the “ordinary” sacred spaces that you can easily get to. Maybe your backyard or a quiet room in the house is your sanctuary. Maybe it’s the early morning walk where you rejoice in God’s Creation. God is always present in our lives but it’s in the sacred spaces that the din of life recedes and you may hear the small, quiet voice of God. Yet, there is a distinction between the sacred spaces and the thin places.

Thin places are those holy places which have been sanctified and saturated in prayer for centuries. Places where the intake of our breath inhales the Holy Spirit. Places so close to God that we tremble with fear to reach out and touch Him but where He will always reach out and touch us. Whether it’s a mountain top, a monastery  garden or an ancient mission church, let’s each one of us find our own thin place. Then go there often. Amen?

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

What Will Your Obituary Say?

Dear Friends,

Have you given any thought to your obituary? I don’t mean to bring up a depressing subject, but you all know that you’re not getting off this planet alive. Right? Last week I was reading newspaper obituaries which is something that I normally never do. What struck me was how a lifetime of our priorities and passions are so neatly and concisely stated in a few words that summarize our earthly existence. Academic degrees attained, military service, careers, children raised, memberships, golfing and bowling accomplishments, service awards. Some obituaries written with tedious details that sound as if written by a public relations company and some written by family members who convey their love and sadness in the memories of their loved ones. But nearly all sum up the person’s life with a list of what they’ve done. It’s a “life resume” of their most important achievements. 

But all stand before Jesus someday and He will not be interested in our military record, golf trophies or our career promotions. Even our “church activities” are of no importance. We are known by others for what we’ve done. We’re known by God for who we’ve become.

As I thought about my own obituary, I’d like to have it sound like Marian Jean Kalionzes’ who died at the age of 91 on March 7th. “She knew the assurance of her salvation through Jesus Christ and spoke with conviction of the life awaiting her in Heaven. Her faith never shaken, she encouraged the many who loved her up to the finish...”

A friend was reflecting on this time of Lent and how they wished to be remembered when they have left this planet. They were thinking about what they needed to do and change about themselves now in order to accomplish their desire to be thought well of by others. 

Lent is a season of self-reflection and repentance. The Biblical definition of REPENTANCE means to be remorseful and contrite over our sinful behavior and then have a change of mind about our behavior that results in a change of our actions. Acts 26:20 If giving up something for Lent is no more than a obligatory church tradition, we can proudly fast for 40 days on chocolate ice cream to accrue religious “Heaven Points,” but then we come out of Lent looking the same way we did as when we entered the season. God requires more.

At some point in time, the clock will stop for us. Our body will be done. And who we are at that moment, will be how our loved ones will remember us. I don’t want to have the words “CRANKY OLD CODGER” chiseled on my tombstone. 

Some might say that I need to work on my personal “brand.” Personal branding is what professionals do to create and establish an image or impression of themselves in the minds of others. Your online and social media image may not be true to your authentic self but is a tightly managed group of online assets that package and promote how you want to be perceived. 

Today there are many books and resources on how to recreate and market a professional image, but our spiritual image was established at the moment of our birth. We were created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 Of course we don’t physically resemble God because He is Spirit John 4:24 but we were created to reflect God’s character and attributes. Obviously not His divine attributes such as His sovereignty, omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence. God and God alone is the Supreme Authority, all-knowing, all-powerful and present in all places and at all times. 

But we were created in His image to reflect His character and, as Spirit-filled Christians, we should be looking less like us and more like Jesus every day of our lives. In Galatians 5:22-23 NLT, Paul lists the “fruit” of the Spirit. In the Greek, the word translated as “fruit” is singular meaning that the one single characteristic of a Christian is all of these nine attributes combined: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness and Self-Control. These are the Christ-like attributes that identify the true follower of Jesus, but of course while we were created in His image, we can choose to reject that image.   

Is the image you project to others a man or woman of God or a man or woman of the world? How would your closest friends describe you? When your earthly body dies, what will your obituary say? How do you want to be remembered by your loved ones? Are there attributes of the Fruit of the Spirit that are weak or missing from your life? Are you okay with the idea of coming out of yet another Lent unchanged? If not, what would God want you to change about yourself?

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

A Prayer For Lent

Dear Friends,

We have quietly entered this week into the season of Lent. With all taking place in the world today with a continuing plague upon our land and a new war in Europe, Lent provides a spiritual place in which we can rest under His covering, pray and come into His presence. Lent is a time of quietly coming before God in preparation for Easter. It’s a time of asking God to help us look deep within to honestly assess where we are missing the mark. It’s a time of repentance and renewal. And for those of us who may be looking for a new, fresh way to participate in Lent, let's continue to look back to ancient times and see what we can borrow for our own journey.

They call him Saint Ephrem the Syrian and he was born around the year 300 AD. Ephrem was not a bishop but an ordained deacon and is known by Bible scholars and historians because of the monumental quantity of writings he left behind. Ephrem wrote sermons, commentaries and hymns to combat the gnostic heresies that were, during his time, leading people away from God’s Word and the teachings of the apostles. But he is best known in the Eastern churches by his prayer for Lent. 

This is not a Catholic prayer – most Catholics have never heard of St. Ephrem or this prayer. But it’s prayed by Orthodox believers everyday during Lent. Eastern Europe is the seat of the Orthodox church which is the oldest, established form of Christianity. And Ukraine is one of the most Christian countries in Europe with 89% of Ukrainians being Orthodox Christians. When we pray the Lenten prayer of St. Ephrem, we are joining our voices with the Orthodox churches who still pray and worship with the most ancient of liturgies. 

For some of us who have been worshiping in non-liturgical Protestant churches all our life, (three fast praise songs, two slow medleys, pastor’s prayer, offering, 40 minute sermon, announcements, dismissal and donuts) and sensing there is something more, we are exploring historical Christianity to see what can be recovered for our use today. In doing so, we are discovering spiritual treasure in these ancient church prayers and practices.

In the Orthodox church, the prayer of St. Ephrem is considered to be the most appropriate summation of the season of Lent. You could call it a Lenten Checklist. The Orthodox English version that is translated from the original Greek has been prayed in the Eastern churches for nearly two thousand years and that's the one I'm using for my commentary below. But if you are not comfortable with the King James English, at the bottom of this post, you'll see a link to a PDF file of both the original version and a contemporary version of the prayer that you can print out if you'd like.

“O Lord and Master of my life, give me not..” We are saying, “Keep me from succumbing to these evil thoughts and deeds. Lord keep me from falling prey to “..the spirit of sloth, meddling, lust for power, and idle talk.” Sloth brings a spiritual poverty to the soul. Someone at church once told me that they were just too lazy to pray. At least he was honest! We come up with all kinds of excuses to not spend time in worship, prayer and God’s Word but if we also were honest about it, many times it simply comes down to sloth. Paul says we should not be lagging in diligence, but should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord. Romans 12:11 Spiritual sloth will starve our soul! 

The next sin is “meddling” and in 1 Tim 5:13, Paul says that we must not be idle gossips and busybodies, and go around town saying things which we shouldn’t. 

The prayer of St. Ephrem continues with a petition to keep us from the “lust for power” – a self-centered attitude. When we love power and control, we fight to elevate ourselves over others. Lord, take away our tendency toward self-centeredness and show us everyday how to be more other-centered in our lives.

We next pray that God would take away our “idle talk.” Lord, clamp Your hand over my mouth and keep me from idle chatter and empty words. Keep me from talking just to hear myself talk. Keep me from negative and complaining words that are empty of anything positive and life-giving. 

It’s too easy to give up chocolate or red meat for Lent. It’s much more difficult to give up laziness, meddling, a self-centered attitude and idle chatter empty of edifying and encouraging words. The only purpose of a Lenten “fast” is to give up what comes between us and God. So it the chocolate that’s coming between you and God? The prayer of St. Ephrem asks our Holy Father to remove from us that which keeps us from living the joyful and abundant fullness of life in Him. 

“But grant unto me, Thy servant, a spirit of chastity..” Chastity is not just used in the narrow sexual context but in the larger sense of living a wholesome life. Then “..humility..” Much of our sinful behavior is due to pride and the antidote to pride is humility. A heart of humility will take away any sense of entitlement we have. Next is a request for “..patience..” You may be blessed with the patience of a Saint or you may be more like me. Patience means accepting things as they are and not how you want them to be at that moment. 

And finally we ask in this Lenten Prayer for “” Not the touchy-feely love that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You don’t even need people for that. You just need a cat or a dog. But this is God’s agape self-sacrificial love. This is the love that truly cares for another person’s needs and we willingly give of ourselves for them. This is Christ-like love. When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself,” Mark 12:31 He really meant that.

And that leads us to the last part of this prayer. “Grant me to see mine own faults (sins) and not to judge (others).” We tend to worry, obsess and rage over the sins of others while ignoring our own. You can’t force others to change, but through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, He will show you your sins and give you the power to change yourself. And then finally we bless, extol, exalt and glorify God as the Orthodox Christians say “unto the ages of ages.” For 2,000 years, this prayer, mostly unknown to Protestants and Catholics, has been the “perfect” Lenten prayer in the Orthodox church. Perhaps it should be our prayer too. Amen?

If you'd like to pray the Prayer of St. Ephrem during Lent, click HERE for a PDF version that you can print and cut out.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Are You His? Are You Sure?

Dear Friends,

I wrote last week, “We need to live in such a way that people see the image of Jesus reflected within us. Because in today’s culture, that’s growing more and more secular, you may be the only Jesus that some people will ever see.” That’s not a new thought...

Priests and pastors have been encouraging their fellow Christians to live a God-honoring lifestyle ever since Paul first put a reed pen to parchment. Do you remember when it was cool for Christians to wear wristbands that said W.W.J.D? The initials stood for the words, “What Would Jesus Do?” and that was a movement in the late 1990's to encourage Christians to not just believe in Jesus but to act like Him. In 1896, preacher Charles Sheldon, wrote a book called “IN HIS STEPS – What Would Jesus Do?” This timeless book was a call for Christians to show their faith as an outward action toward others, and 100 years later it sparked the W.W.J.D? movement in our own generation. 

The W.W.J.D? crusade in the ‘90's was the rage among youth groups, and Christians of all ages were encouraged to follow Jesus and do what He would do. But that passion to follow Jesus has faded in many churches today as more and more Christians have allowed their life to be shaped not by the Word of God but by the world we live in. We are seeing and hearing that Christians are losing, or have lost, their influence in our society and yet many of us have marginalized our own faith by turning our backs on God. We no longer do what Jesus would do but what a cultural influencer, a politician, or our friends would do or what our horoscope says to do that day. 

There are two very different and distinct families of Christians today. Those who try to base their thoughts, words and actions on the Word of God. And then there are those who live their life and make decisions as if they were God. One family of Christians is influenced by the Word; the other is influenced by the World. Jesus established the church to impact and influence culture and yet too often it’s the secular culture that impacts and influences the church.

W. Paul Jones is a professor, theologian and a monk. He said that “Christians who permit themselves to be shaped by secular culture are guilty, not only of betraying God, but of losing their own true selves.” A Christian is defined as one who follows Jesus. But if we are a “Christian” who is following secular culture, and not Jesus, are we then still a Christian? Or have we lost our true selves?

When we give ourselves over completely and fully to the Holy Spirit within each one of us, we are motivated by the love of God and that love is manifested toward others. When we come into the presence of God, our life is irrevocably changed and our Christian faith will be clearly visible in our life and our lifestyle. A Christian lifestyle of good works toward others flows out of our relationship with Jesus, so if there is no evidence of Christ-like behavior in our lives, could it be possible that we are just Christians in name only?

James, the brother of Jesus, said it as plain as you can get: “faith is dead without good works.” James 2:26 NLT Pastor and Protestant theologian Timothy Keller clarifies that for us: “We are saved through Christ alone by faith alone. The evidence of our salvation is our good works and changed life.” Our good works and changed life is evidenced by the visible manifestation of the “Fruit of the Spirit” Gal 5:22-23 in our lives. And in Luke 6:43-45, Jesus describes good works as the fruit that comes from the good treasure that we have stored up in our heart by God’s grace. That treasure we’ve stored up comes from reading His Word and following Jesus. 

“We are saved through Christ alone by faith alone. 
The evidence of our salvation
is our good works and changed life.”

So how do you do what Jesus would do? The first step is to read your Bible, particularly the Gospels. If you don’t, you’ll have no idea what Jesus would do if He were in your situation or faced with your decision. Then submit choices and decisions to Him. Pray that the Holy Spirit would give you wisdom and insight. Ask yourself: What would Jesus decide to do if He were me in this circumstance? What would Jesus say? How would Jesus respond to that email or text? How would Jesus act if He were in my situation? 

Search “W.W.J.D? bracelets” on Amazon and you’ll see hundreds of choices. But some of us today may be too old, too cranky or too vain to wear a W.W.J.D? bracelet and I admit to being two out of the three. But even if we don’t wear a bracelet, maybe it’s time for us to be one of the cool Christians again that actually follows Jesus. Because if we Christians are following in the footsteps of secular culture then we’re walking in the wrong direction.

Maybe we need to reverse that trend and start a W.W.J.D? fad that’s new all over again. Amazon and Christian retailers have some really nice W.W.J.D? bracelets and you could wear one to remind you to seek His will. Write W.W.J.D? on post-its and put them in your house. In the bathroom where you start your day or near your front door to remind you as you leave your home. Maybe on the dashboard of your car to remind you of what Jesus would do if that driver had cut Him off on the freeway. Perhaps a post-it on your desk at work. Maybe upload a W.W.J.D? background on your phone. You'll undoubtedly think of even better ways to remind yourself.

And finally.. are you unsure if you really do want to actually start following Jesus at this point in your life? If you're not sure, then ask yourself, if Jesus were you.. W.W.J.D?

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

What Would They See?

Dear Friends,

The Feast of Dedication came on a cold winter day in Jerusalem. Families stayed indoors for warmth as the smoke from hundreds of wood fires hung in a gray layer and mingled with the dark rain-swollen clouds. In the early morning stillness of the city, Jesus went for a walk. A tranquil time for reflection and prayer. Protected from the morning’s drizzle, the Son of God quietly walked alone under the covered porch area on the east side of the temple. Providing shelter from winter weather and offering shade on a hot summer day, the enclosed porch known as “Solomon’s Colonnade,” ran the full length of the temple and was usually crowded with scribes giving lessons to their followers. 

On this chilly winter morning, Jesus strolled through small groups of men scattered throughout the narrow area. Fully absorbed in His peaceful thoughts, He was oblivious to the murmurings and sharp looks. Then, stepping around a large pillar which supported the heavy roof, Jesus suddenly found Himself surrounded by the angry Jews!

Emboldened by each other. Uncertainties and fears hidden behind folds of cloaks drawn around their faces. Eyes darting around and unable to look Jesus in the eye.  Contemptuous voices rising in pitch, the words coming loud and fast. Jesus stood silently and could feel their hearts – cold, hard, oozing with self-righteousness. He saw the large, heavy rocks in their rough, work-hardened hands. He looked calmly at each one of them and He waited. Then from the back of the crowd came a belligerent shout, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly!!”

Jesus had told them before. Plainly. Many times. And now, ready to stone the Messiah on the spot, the angry crowd would not be satisfied by mere words. They wanted proof and they wanted it now. But how could Jesus prove to these hostile religious leaders that He was indeed God? The Son of God told them that if they wanted to understand who He was, than they should look at what He had done. In essence, He told them to not look at His words but at His deeds. He said, “Don’t believe me unless I carry out my Father’s work. But if I do His work, believe in the evidence of the miraculous works I have done, even if you don’t believe me. Then you will know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.” John 10:37-38 NLT

Just as those unbelievers were primed and ready to throw rocks at Jesus, the mockers, doubters and “woke” unbelievers today seem just as eager to “stone” His followers in the workplace, military, schools and in society. Hatred of Christians and anti-Christian bias has become so normalized among atheists, there’s even a name for it: Christianophobia.

We can so easily become discouraged by the growing anti-Christian backlash in America today. But, when we’re under attack, our response should be the same as our Lord’s, “Look at our works before you judge us!” So let’s stop for a moment and think about what this would mean if you actually did say that. Does this pause for thought create a little concern for you as it does for me? 

If someone was attacking or mocking our Christian faith and we told them to look not at our words but at our works, what would they see? We once rented a church building from another church and I would occasionally visit with that congregation during their hospitality time. I heard blasphemies and the “F” word during their causal conversations. I heard a woman give witchcraft instructions to another and I overheard some of the filthiest sexual jokes I’d ever heard. Their hospitality time was just moments after their service ended and I’d wonder: if this was their behavior at church, what was it in their workplace and with unbelieving friends? Theologian and author Brennan Manning wrote: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

How do non-Christian friends, co-workers, acquaintances, neighbors see you? Do they see tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, and self-control? Would they say that your devotion to God has radically changed your life or just made you more religious? Do others see by your behavior and words that the Spirit of the Living God resides within you? Do they see someone who more and more resembles Christ or do they see someone who more closely resembles the ugly side of themselves? When we tell others about our Christian faith, are they thinking that our faith must explain our good qualities? Or do they think: “If this is what Christianity looks like, I want no part of it!” 

We need to live in such a way that people see the image of Jesus reflected within us. Because in today’s culture that’s growing more and more secular, you may be the only Jesus that some people will ever see.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Where Are Your Red Dots?

Dear Friends,

We are hunters and gatherers. Ever since Adam and Eve foraged in the Garden, we have been on the hunt. It’s in our DNA – what we’re wired to do. Friday is the day she and I often go hunting.

We pause outside the store and look at each other one last time. She will go her way and I mine – we are after different prey. We anticipate the next moments and adrenaline courses through our bloodstream. There is a surge of synaptic brain activity. Senses are sharpened. As we enter, a tinkling bell over the door signals our arrival and the hunt is on. She moves quickly to the left. The women's "Goldstar Collection." She’s incredible. A glance at an article of clothing and within a second she can determine and evaluate the brand name, size, color, style, cost and how it will look on her. I move to the right. I’m hunting for hardcover books and within minutes I’ve captured two for me and three for her. Nearly new. Read maybe once. Original cost is $26.95 apiece but now they’re only a dollar. 

She catches my eye and holds up a red jacket with western embroidery. It’s a Scully – a high-end brand of western clothing. Not a brand you wear when you grab the reins and step into the saddle. Scully outfits are worn when you grab your guitar and step up on stage. Original cost was well over $200. It looks brand new. Never worn. Price tag says $15 and she tries it on. Perfect fit. Too good a deal to pass up! We take our plunder to the cash register. The lady looks at the tag on the Scully and tells us that green tagged items are the daily special. The jacket is only 99 cents. YES!! Thank You Lord!!!

She and I are far too mature and cool to be doing a happy dance on the way to the car, but we are both very excited. This has been one awesome hunting trip. We’ve just bought approximately $285 of almost brand-new merchandise for six bucks. I guess that’s why they call them “thrift” stores.

The thrift stores we like to go to are the ones run by churches, parachurch organizations and those with a mission to help disadvantaged children. Our favorite thrift store, the “Bargain Box” in Ventura (described above) generates about $200,000 a year for at-risk children and those with special needs. That’s why every year we love to take boxes of clothing, books, household items, even collectibles, crystal and furniture to this thrift store. Some “thrift stores” are actually just second-hand stores but when you donate to and purchase from thrift stores operated by non-profit organizations, you are actively participating in their ministry and mission to help others.  

Many of us are familiar with the St Vincent de Paul Thrift Stores. These are run by a world-wide Christian organization dedicated to providing assistance for the needy. Income from their thrift stores provides the funding for food programs, job training, disaster relief, shelter for the abused, youth programs, prison ministries and indigent burials.

Vincent de Paul was born in 1581 into a peasant family in a small village in France. As a young priest, he was sent to Paris to minister to the wealthy and instead came face to face with French peasants living in squalor and misery. From this point, God changed the direction of his life. He enlisted others in helping orphans, the sick, and the hungry and a religious order was formed that became the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

On a wall in a mission chapel founded by Vincent is a map of the city of Paris. Small red dots cover the entire map. Each dot marks a place that was touched by the humble priest during his life. An orphanage founded. Starving people fed. The sick healed. People helped. A sermon preached to those hungry for the Word of God. Each dot representing the fruit of his ministry. Vincent believed in the priority of action – in spreading the Kingdom of God into where God had placed him. Not just preaching about God’s love. Showing people what God’s love looks like.

The Gospel calls us to a life of love. Love for God. Love for others. The upcoming season of Lent is a time of self-reflection as we await in semidarkness for the glory of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Take a moment and reflect upon your life. What does your map look like? Do you have a bunch of red dots scattered all over and filling the map of your own lifetime? Do you have dots showing where you have made a difference in the lives of others? Where God’s love has been manifested through you? Where you have helped others? Where you have reached out and touched someone with the Kingdom of God? Do you have red dots spread all over your map showing your kind deeds, gentle words and loving actions? What does the map of your life look like...?