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...?


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Do We Still Need A "Physical" Church?

Dear Friends,

This is the worst time for churches in our lifetime. In the past year, many thousands have permanently closed their doors because of nearly empty sanctuaries and no income. A recent church survey showed that as churches can no longer pay salaries, 51% of Protestant pastors are searching for a secular job. It grieves me every time I read about a church becoming a community center, an indoor skate park, a brewery, a Dollar Tree store etc. 

Many years ago, the once-largest Methodist church in Glendale closed due to declining attendance and had a “going out of business” sale. Most were buying kitchen equipment, office furniture and books and I did buy a Bible that had been on one of the Civil War ships. The Bible had been rescued as the ship sunk and was subsequently donated to this church. A cross is the sum and substance of our faith and a plain wooden one had hung over the altar in the church’s chapel – it was the very essence of that historic church. Ninety five years of worship and prayers, celebrations and tears, are embedded in that cross and it now hangs over the fireplace in my living room. 

The death bells toll daily for churches throughout our Country as the pandemic continues because many one-time committed church-goers now prefer to watch a service on TV. For many, their churches have in-person services, but let’s face it. Is a physical church really still important in our fast-paced, energized, digitalized world? I can turn on my “smart” television or any web-connected device and live-stream services of Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Tim Keller and other church superstars. So why do I need to sit through a sermon by an “ordinary” pastor at a church? I can download music from the top worship bands in America’s megachurches, so why do I need to listen to amateur worship singers in church and Edna Müller’s enthusiastic but off-key “special music” during the collection? I can interact with my Christian friends online and even meet with my Bible study on Zoom, so why do I need to spend time with a bunch of people at church? In this day and age, isn’t church just a quaintly old-fashioned tradition that’s on its way out?

A woman wrote, “Frankly I just don’t get much out of the Sunday morning thing. A lot of the time, I like the music, particularly when it’s contemporary. But there is a lot that goes on Sunday morning that doesn’t do much for me. Am I supposed to feel something? What is the good of the praying and the singing and the sitting and the listening?”

The writer of that letter was a “spectator” in a mainline church and I understand the point she’s making and why she feels that way. She attended her church as she would attend any class, lecture, movie or concert – as a spectator who expects to be entertained or taught something that would be of value to her. At church, she would passively sit, look, listen and then wonder why she’s there. 

The mainline Protestant churches are closing because those in the congregation who were only spectators became the online spectators during the pandemic. After awhile, they wondered why they were even doing that and did something else on a Sunday morning. I’ll be the first one to admit that it really is pointless to attend church if you’re only a spectator. Because God calls us into His Kingdom to be a participator. The Christian faith is both God’s offer of His love to us through Jesus Christ and our active response to that love. We glorify God and respond to Him with worship and praise! 

But if we can easily remain a spectator with an online church service while sitting in our underwear, drinking coffee and eating our chocolate donuts, what could possibly be the purpose of getting up and setting aside all other things in order to go to church? Why do we dress up and look nice? Why do we sing and clap and raise our hands and pray and stand and kneel and shed tears and confess and take His Body and Blood? Because God didn’t call you to be a religious hermit sitting alone, watching a digital church service; He called you to be the church that Jesus created for His followers.

When we are participants in our church we intercede in prayer for each other and carry their burdens. We mark our calendars to remind us that a brother or sister has something that day that needs our prayer covering. We send each other thoughtful notes and get well cards. We volunteer to do the hospitality time after the service. We spend our own money to prepare a meal for the family of that new mom or someone who is ill. Active participation in our church family is an expression of our love for Christ.

Why do we go to church? To participate! The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” Whether our liturgy is high church, low church, mainline, Catholic, Evangelical or Pentecostal, what takes place in our service that brings glory to God is not just the work of the pastor, it’s the “work” of the people – our church family. 

We hear the Word of God spoken by our pastor. He’s not Joel Osteen but then Joel wasn’t the one who sat by our side in the hospital room the day after our surgery. And Edna Müller will never win a GMA Dove Award but we love her spirit as she shares her love for the Lord with us through her solo. And there is absolutely nothing that takes place through your Wi-Fi that can possibly come close to the exhilarating experience of singing praise and worship songs with your congregation to the glory of God! And that my friends is why we still need our quaintly old-fashioned church service!

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Is The Attack On The Cross A Good Thing?

Dear Friends,

Stephen Colbert once famously said, “What do liberal Democrats and vampires have in common? They both scream when they see the cross!” It’s the most powerful symbol in the world. It’s been the most recognized, the most revered, the most feared and the most hated symbol for the past 2,000 years of world history. It’s the cross. And it’s under attack.

A Kentucky librarian is fired for wearing a cross because the library dress code prohibits the wearing of “potentially offensive items.” A nurse is disciplined and reassigned for refusing to stop wearing the cross she had worn at that hospital for thirty years. A student worker is fired from a university bookstore for wearing a cross. A television anchorwoman is fired for the same reason. A man and his family were ordered to leave a restaurant because he was wearing a cross that “violated its dress code.” A Target store fires a woman employee because she refused to remove or hide a Christian cross on a necklace that was visible to customers. In New York, atheists sue to prevent the display of steel beams that had been welded into the shape of a cross by the horrific fires during the World Trade Center terrorist attack. The U.S. Army removes all crosses from chapels after the Pentagon determines that the cross is offensive and violates military regulations.

Around the world, the communist military in China demolishes all crosses that are visible on churches. In Muslim countries, those who wear a cross are beaten and often killed. In Great Britain, the government has said that Christians have no right to wear a cross at work, and in our own country, the American Atheists organization has the support from progressive liberals to prohibit all crosses that are in view of the public. 

And Martin Luther prophetically said that “when the cross is abolished, and the rage of tyrants and heretics ceases on the one side, and all things are in peace, this is a sure token that the pure doctrine of God’s Word is taken away.” I agree with the German Reformer and that’s why I’m personally okay with this attack on the cross, the recent attacks on Bible-believing churches and the attacks on our Christian faith. This recent onslaught of hatred by atheists, progressive liberals, educators, and too many politicians is the evidence that we are being faithful to Scripture. As Luther said, when the rage of those who attack Christians subsides, and they leave us alone, that’s the red flag warning that we have compromised the Gospel message and are not being true to the offense of the cross.

“When the cross is abolished, and the rage of tyrants and heretics ceases on the one side, and all things are in peace, this is a sure token that the pure doctrine of God’s Word is taken away.”

The increasingly frequent and hate-filled attacks on the cross testify to the power and meaning of the cross. In the ancient church, after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the crosses’ historical meaning as an instrument of torture and death was inverted to epitomize glorification and eternal life. Symbols trigger the memory of what they represent and the cross arouses in our hearts the reality of God incarnate in the Son. The cross is prayer without words. The cross is a symbol of our obedience on our spiritual journey to follow Christ. The very image of the cross invites the grace of God. Just a glimpse of the cross focuses our thoughts on God and takes us into His presence. 

The cross is not just a horizontal piece of material fastened to a vertical piece. In my Episcopal church, we genuflected before the cross. The cross represents something holy. Something sacred. It represents the triune God. And, as such, the cross is the ultimate expression of our faith. When we hang that cross on our living room wall, over our bed or wear a small cross around our neck, we signify to others that we live our life under the seal of the cross.

The image of the cross also transports us to the end of human history. In Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus to tell them what will be the sign of Him coming and of the end of the age. And Jesus tells them that the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven. Matthew 24:30 The early church believed that the “sign” Jesus spoke of would be the symbol of the cross. 

It is in the cross that the body of Christ becomes united and spiritually solidified. It’s magnificent and mounted high on the wall of the persecuted Coptic church in Egypt. In Nigeria, two crude sticks are nailed together on the wall of a church that’s made entirely from salvaged shipping crates. A gold-gilded Crucifix in a Catholic Cathedral and a plain, simple wooden cross at the front of a little country Baptist church. Different denominations, different doctrine, conflicting traditions but reaching across those theological divides to stand united under the cross of the risen Christ. That’s 2.18 billion Christians today whose hearts have been knitted together as one by the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s the power of the cross. Amen?