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?