Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Do You Need a Rescue List?

Dear Friends,

There’s a story of an old country parson who was always filled with the joy of the Lord and unrelentingly thankful even during the worst of circumstances. That Saturday an unexpectedly huge snow storm swept over their town and they awoke Sunday morning to downed trees, no electrical power and collapsed roofs. As a few hardy parishioners gathered in the church for Sunday services they grumbled out loud that there was certainly nothing for the good reverend to be thankful about that morning. “MERCIFUL FATHER!” bellowed the pastor, “WE COME INTO THY PRESENCE AND THANK THEE THAT NOT ALL DAYS ARE LIKE THIS ONE..!!”

Thanksgiving day is three months away, but as Christians, we have so much to be thankful for, one day is not enough for us. We have a season of Lent to prepare us for Easter Sunday and a season of Advent to prepare us for Christmas Day. Perhaps we need a “season of thanksgiving” and maybe the season should start today and never come to an end. Because as Christian believers, everyday should be a day of thanksgiving!

G.K. Chesterton said, “When it comes to life, the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.” And that's why the Apostle Paul said, “ everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  1 Thessalonians 5:18 

As the country parson found, there is always something we can give thanks for even in the worst of storms. But how do we remain thankful for all things in the middle of our personal life-storms? We were talking one time with a good friend about how easy it is to pray, keep encouraged and have hope for our future when life is going well and how difficult that all is when we are down and discouraged. When our circumstances have plunged us into the pit of despair, it can seem like there’s nothing we can be thankful for now or ever again. We may find ourselves desperately searching for something good to hang on to, but positive thoughts are elusive and gratitude is beyond our grasp. And, that’s why we need a rescue list.
If my computer crashes, I have a “rescue disk” that I can use to reboot my computer and bring it back to life. If my day crashes, my “rescue list” will bring it back to life. I read those things which make me happy and a positive perspective will be restored; my thankfulness will be re-booted. I will be reminded of how good life really is and how much hope I have as a Christian believer. I am reminded that no matter what circumstances I find myself in at the moment, as the hymn goes: “All is well with my soul.” 

I’m sharing my list with you in the hope you will be inspired to make your own rescue list that will lift you out of the storms of life, fill your heart with gratitude to a gracious God and restore peace to your soul.

This list is very personal but I wanted you to see what I’m talking about. For the past six years it’s lived at the very front of my Bible so that I always know where it is and can quickly find it. These are just some of the things for which I am most thankful. Some may sound spiritual to you and some you may think are just plain silly, but they all bring a smile to my face when I read these.

I would encourage you to make your own “rescue list.” Make it personal and don’t worry if it’s serious or silly. Write down those things that you are most thankful for right now. What brings a smile to your face? What brings joy to your heart? Write those down; tuck the list in your Bible until you need it. The friend I mentioned has a sign in her kitchen that says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” When your life turns sour, reflecting with gratitude upon the things in your list that bring joy to your life will be the sweetener for your “lemonade.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Are You A Hypocrite?

Dear Friends,

I had cooked up a large 12 quart pot of Broccoli and Cauliflower Soup for a group of church folks one night. (Not our church, but the church of a pastor friend of mine) Sensitive to the fact that some people do have food allergies, I made a sign that carefully listed all the ingredients. Organic chicken broth, butter, flour added as a thickener, seasonings and five different vegetables. A woman read the sign, stared fiercely in my direction and rushed on over. She looked up at me and declared in a cigarette-thickened voice, “I'm lactose intolerant and can't have any gluten, sulfites, msg, nitrates, nuts or potassium. Can I eat this?” I repeated the list of ingredients that she had just read off the sign and she gave me an accusatory look as if she had just caught me in a murder plot most foul. She glared at me and said, “This soup will make me deathly ill.” Later on, I noticed she was enjoying my “toxic” soup so much that she had gone back for thirds...

We were inviting Bill and Sally (not real names) over for dinner and she informed me that she was strictly vegan. She went on to tell me that she never eats anything that “has a face” and told me that all animals have souls just like people do. I didn't have time to get into that theological discussion but did want to clarify the menu I was planning. “Okay, so you never eat anything but vegetables?” I asked. “Well, I love Sushi,” she replied. She saw the grin slowly spread over my face and quickly explained, “Well that's only a fish but animals should never be killed.” I looked at her standing there in her red leather Nocona boots with her leather Coach purse and sequined leather Brighton belt, and wondered if she had given any thought to those “faceless” cows who gave their lives for her outfit...

When our walk doesn’t match our talk– when we claim to have moral standards, ideologies or beliefs and our behavior doesn’t conform to those standards, ideologies and beliefs, we are a hypocrite. The word “Hypocrite” comes from a Greek word meaning to “pretend” and in the Gospels, few sins are denounced as strongly as hypocrisy.

Non-believers ask, “How can I trust Christianity when so many Christians are hypocrites?” Yep.. I know what they're talking about because honestly, a lot of the time Christians are embarrassing to me. They give Jesus a bad name. I don't blame people who look at Christians and decide to not follow Jesus. Brennan Manning in “The Ragamuffin Gospel” put it like this: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

Like I said, Christians are embarrassing to me and I have no tolerance for their hypocritical behavior. Then I catch myself standing in front of the mirror and looking at the guy who has been negative and critical. The guy who can be angry, impatient and rude. The dude who’s sometimes inconsiderate and unkind. I see this cranky old curmudgeon who has not always practiced what he preached. And I want to point my finger at the image in the mirror and yell accusingly at him, “And you call yourself a Christian!” So the hypocritical guy in the mirror is an embarrassment to me also. And then God reminds me that the guy in the mirror is just another sinner saved by grace.

So what do we tell the skeptics? The late wife of Billy Graham, told a story about a young woman from India who had said, “We of India would like to believe in Christ but we have never seen a Christian who was like Christ.” Ruth Graham told the young lady, “I'm not offering you Christians. I'm offering you Christ.” That needs to be our answer to those put off by the hypocrisy of Christians. We are not asking skeptical family and friends to follow Christians and do what they do. We are asking them to follow Jesus and to do what He would do.

Here's the one important thing for a skeptic to understand about why there are so many hypocrites in church. It's because all humans are hypocrites. There are times for all of us when our behavior does not match up with our values and beliefs. A PEW Survey even found that 18% of all Atheists have prayed to “God” when they've gotten into a real jam! 6% of Atheists pray daily. 11% weekly and 17% say they pray at least monthly. And 5% of those who are Atheists have said that “God,” a “Higher Power” or “Supreme Being” answered their prayers. Think about that for a moment...

The antidote for hypocrisy is authenticity, and it’s only when we lead repentant lives that we can become authentic Christians. Authentic followers of Jesus will describe themselves as “works in progress” so it should be no surprise to anyone that at times we fail to live up to what we know is the right thing to do. The evidence of our Christian life is not when they see our perfect saintly behavior, but when they see us constantly striving to follow Jesus and live like Him despite our occasional failures to do so. That’s authentic Christianity.  Amen?

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

A Protestant Saint?

Dear Friends,

Julian of Norwich. A mystic? Theologian? Medieval Cat Lady? All three accurately describe this intensely religious woman of God who is a Saint, not only of the Catholic Church, but of Protestant churches as well. This nameless woman is a much beloved Saint with a day of commemoration in the Anglican, Episcopal and Lutheran churches and she’s even considered the “Patron Saint” of Christian cat lovers! Who was this fascinating woman from the 1300s and why is she so loved by such a diverse yet ecumenical collection of people today?

We don’t know her baptized name. After she became an “anchoress” at Saint Julian’s Church in Norwich, England, she abandoned her given name and took up the name of the Saint that the church was named after. Saint Julian’s Church was built in the 11th and 12th century and has been both a Catholic and Anglican (protestant Church of England) church. A lithograph from 1829 shows what it looked like before it was destroyed by a direct hit during a wartime bombing raid in 1942. It was rebuilt in the early 1950's and exists today as a church chapel and shrine for Julian of Norwich. 

“Anchorites” were deeply religious men and women who were called by God to spiritually and physically attach or “anchor” themselves to a particular church and dedicate their life to prayer for that church, the priests and those in the surrounding community that the church served. A “cell” – a small room – in the church or on the church property would be given to the anchorite. In some cases, once the anchorite committed the rest of their life to the church, the room would be sealed up except for a small opening though which food could be passed and the chamber pot also passed through to be emptied and returned. You and I cannot possibly imagine a more intense and dedicated religious experience than living the life of an anchorite! 

At Saint Julian’s, a cell was built for “Juliana” in the garden that was walled off from public access. (Juliana is the female version of the male saint’s name and that’s how she was called.) She could leave her cell but not the small and enclosed garden and she saw no one but the woman caretaker who brought her meals. The anchorite rules prevented Juliana from seeing people, but an opening high in the garden wall allowed her to converse and pray with people who sought her wise spiritual counseling. While the Benedictine Anchorite Rule prevented relationships with people, it encouraged the anchorites to have cats that provided needed companionship when living the hermit’s life of solitude and prayer. We know nothing about her cats other than that she had at least one living with her during her life at Saint Julian’s.

Juliana lived in her cell when multiple plagues carried by rodents swept through England with each new wave killing tens of thousands of people. Isolated from the virus in her cell and living with only her cat, Juliana stayed healthy and lived a long life. During our own recent coronavirus “plague,” when I thought of the older women I knew who were isolated from the virus by living in their “hermitage” homes with only a cat for a companion, I’d wonder if they knew they were living the life of Julian of Norwich. 

Born in 1343, Juliana apparently had a husband and children who had been killed in one of the early plagues which also nearly ended her own life. That’s when at age 30 she lay dying and a priest was called to deliver the Last Rites. As he held up a crucifix over her bed, she went into a state of spiritual ecstasy that she later wrote about. She described visions that God showed her and saw a “different” God than how He was described in the church doctrine of that time. 14th Century Catholic teaching focused on sin and preached God as judgmental, harsh and condemning. But Juliana’s visions were of a God who was compassionate and loving and who protected His beloved by His providence.

Inspired by her mystic visions, Juliana felt called to be an anchoress and she entered the cell at Saint Julian’s where she wrote a short manuscript describing what God had showed her in the visions. Twenty years later she wrote a longer version "Revelations of Divine Love" that was the earliest theological book written in English. It could not be published because during the time of reformation a “woman theologian” was an oxymoron – no such person could possibly exist! The most interesting fact and our take-away is that "Revelations of Divine Love" was also the first book ever written in English by a woman. The first published copy of her book was in 1670 – over two hundred years after she had died in her 70s.

“And I saw full surely that ere God made us he loved us; which love was never lacking nor ever shall be. And in this love he has made all his works; and in this love he has made all things profitable to us; and in this love our life is everlasting... in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end” (Revelations of Divine Love)

While there are entire books filled with Julian of Norwich quotes, perhaps her best known words come at the end of a prayer she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.” 

When we find ourselves today drinking the news and social media poison that emphasizes all the hysteria, hype and rage in the world and increases stress, conflict and, for some, even panic about the future, it might be helpful to remember that God is still on the throne! Our Sovereign God still has the whole world in His hands and no matter what is happening today, as Julian of Norwich put it:

“All shall be well, and all shall be well
and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Looking Weird For God?

Dear Friends,

A few years ago I was having lunch with a co-worker at a family restaurant. He's a Fire Captain and at that time was in charge of his department's Chaplaincy Program. The food arrived and we both just automatically bowed our heads while one of us said grace to bless the meal and our conversation.

But before we could dig into our lunch, a thirty-something woman sitting alone across the room, bounded over to us and enthusiastically gushed about how wonderful it was to see two men praying together in public. I'm normally receptive to an attractive women telling me how awesome I am, but she was going on and on and my fries were getting cold and I wished she’d soon end her accolades. 

She paused and I saw the big smile on her face begin to falter as her eyes glanced quickly away from us and back again. In that instant, I saw pain flicker across her face and knew that she had not come over just to compliment us on our public piety. She was trying to say something and wrestling with how to get it out. I slid over on the bench seat and said, “Why don't you sit down and tell us why God sent you over to us. Tell us how we can pray for you.” Her demeanor instantly changed and the giggling was gone. She sat and begin to weep as she told us a horrific story. 

Our burgers and fries were now cold as we ministered to her and prayed for her. But we didn't mind a bit. God had providentially brought us into this particular restaurant at this particular time so that we would intersect this woman's life just as she was running out of hope. 

We were where He needed us to be at a time when she didn't know if she should still hang on to life or just let go.. This was at a time when she had just lost both her parents to a violent death and had no one to turn to.. At a time when she was desperately searching for the God she vaguely remembered from Sunday School.. And now at the time when she knew that she needed to reconnect with her Heavenly Father and was unsure how to do that, God brought her into a restaurant and sat her down between a Fire Department Chaplain and a Pastor.

We both thought that our conversation with the woman would have gone unnoticed by anyone else in the restaurant. But as soon as she left our booth, the waitress appeared at our table with her own eyes filled with tears by what she had just watched take place, and she silently took our untouched food back to the kitchen to warm everything up for us.

It was not until much later as I thought about that day that I realized it was not the "prayer" that had earmarked us both as Christians to the young woman. It was the posture of prayer. Heads bowed in reverence before God. Eyes closed to momentarily shut out the world and come into His presence. An unhurried moment of giving thanks to God for His provision and asking for His blessing. But had we not been willing to assume the risk of disapproval of others by praying in public view, God's plan for that woman would have been thwarted that day.

Of the 83% of Americans who identify as Christians, only 37% pray before a meal and less than 17% would say grace in a restaurant. Christians have told me that they would be mortified to pray in public and said that they wouldn’t want to offend those who were not religious.

But a former atheist writes: “Even when I was an atheist, I recall being quite moved on the rare occasions that I saw people pray before meals in public. I thought it was interesting that God was real enough to these people that they were willing to stand out and look weird to acknowledge him. In general, I had a low opinion of anyone who believed in God - Christians especially - but it was touching to see people pray before meals, and I respected the gesture in spite of my cynicism. In fact, those were some of the few occasions that I thought about God with an open mind.”  

I love the way this former atheist put that because it becomes a thought-provoking challenge. The next time we’re eating in a restaurant, we have to ask ourselves: Is God real enough to me that I would be willing to stand out and look weird in order to acknowledge Him and thank Him for all that He’s given me?

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Ten Years!

Dear Friends,

A Little AMEN Corner History:

It was the first week of August 2012 that the first AMEN Corner (AC) was published and it had been a very full year. Some personal history: I had been an ordained pastor in a Pentecostal denomination since 1997 but always worked bi-vocationally with my church work and my secular job as an administrator at a city. In January 2008, I became the associate pastor at Erwin Street Foursquare and in November of that year became the interim senior pastor. 

In February 2009, New Hope Family Church was born out of the denominational dysfunction at Erwin Street Foursquare and we became a non-denominational Evangelical Charismatic church. Between both “church and state” jobs, I normally worked seven days a week but the city did give two Fridays off every month and that’s when Rhianna and I would go to the beach. I loved everything about both jobs, but after three years of working 341 days in a year with only 24 days off, I was done with the grind and I retired from the city in September of 2012. Hmm.. gotta lot of extra time on my hands now.. maybe write a weekly newsletter..?

Being a small church of 20-30 people, we rented from churches and had our service on Sunday once their service had concluded. That worked perfectly for Sundays but eliminated a Wednesday night service or any gatherings on days other than on Sunday. My decision to write a weekly newsletter was so we could provide that mid-week connection with our church members and the AMEN Corner was intended to provide a “thought” for the week, church announcements, items that may be of interest to our church members etc. 

The first issue was dated August 8, 2012 and was mailed to about thirty people. I also sent PDF versions by email to another dozen people. The AC began to evolve into more of a weekly devotional that had a wider appeal to those who did not attend our church, and in July 2013, this online blog was developed. People could subscribe to the blog and many switched from the mailed copy to the online version. Today about ten people receive the mailed, printed AC and about fifty people receive the automated email that has a link to click on that week’s AC.

Some AMEN Corner Highlights and Lowlights:

The response to the AC was completely unexpected. People have told me that they save every one so that they can read them again and several have asked me to publish the back issues in a book. The most popular AC on the blog is an old one from August 2013 titled “Compassion - It’s What We Do” and has been read 1,633 times. 

At the top of this page are tabs with twenty-one AMEN Corners that I thought were interesting or important enough to be available, not just for one week, but every time the blog is opened. Out of those twenty-one special AC’s, fourteen of them have been read between 600 and 1,000 times. Years ago when I saw how many times our weekly online AC’s were being read, I realized that, through the grace of God, our little family church of 20-30 was ministering to many hundreds of followers. 

One of those special AC’s, “The Forgiven Cowboy” has been read 929 times and last year I was contacted by a publisher who wanted to publish it in a book of Christian western short stories. They also wanted to buy the copyright from me so that they would own it. I told them I would not sell the copyright, they were free to publish it without charge but they would have to name me as the author and copyright holder. They would not publish it unless they could buy the copyright and I was amused that a publisher liked this old sermon well enough that they wanted exclusive ownership rights so they could pretend they wrote it.

I believe in and preach the Word of God and often quote scripture in the AC’s. I’m always surprised when Christian readers are offended by God’s Word and become outraged when I quote verbatim the words of Jesus Christ! One of the most offensive things I’ve written in an AC was in 2016 when I wrote, 

“If we find ourselves participating in the cultural tornado of hate and destruction that’s swirling around our Country and we are a Christian who hates those who don’t share our political beliefs, please know that there’s no “righteous” hatred for those with different beliefs. Jesus said to His followers, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” John 13:35 NLT Does that mean that our hate for one another will prove to the world that we are not His disciples? According to the Word of God it does: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don't love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their Christian brothers and sisters.” 1 John 4:20-21 NLT 

When I wrote that it was wrong for Christians to hate each other for their different political beliefs, it so offended our more liberal readers, that one third of all the weekly readers cancelled their AC subscription. For the first time, I was discouraged and questioned if I wanted to continue writing the AMEN Corners. How do you write a devotional for all believers when so many find the Word of God offensive? But a progressive Lutheran pastor friend was actually the one who said something that strengthened my resolve to continue to preach the Word of God as it's written and not as some might wish it would be. When I asked my pastor friend why he cancelled his email subscription, he told me that he hates Republicans because “Jesus hates all Republicans and conservatives.” He also told me that “unless a person hates Trump, they cannot be a Christian.” Alrighty then.. I guess that explains it..! And then I remembered something Christian author Anne Lamott wrote: “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Every so often, an AC reader will become angry at something Jesus said and transfer that anger onto me. Today when people tell me they are disturbed or offended by my quoting some of the hard sayings from Jesus about marriage, gender or salvation, I remind them that they are allowing themselves to be offended by something Jesus said, and if they are truly upset about it, they need to take it up with Him.

Ten years of AMEN Corners times 52 weeks is a lot of weekly devotionals but I'll continue to write them if.. (as the old Hank William's song goes) "if the good Lord's willing and the creek don't rise!"

From the AMEN Corner Archives:

If you'd like to cruise through some of the most popular AMEN Corners, you can check these out:

The Very First One Published

The One Most Read

A Personal Favorite

What I've been told was the Funniest One

The Funniest, Saddest, True Story of Romance Gone Bad

A Very Personal One (that was most difficult to write)

Thank you for reading the AMEN Corners!