Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Ready To Celebrate Evil?

Promotional photo of a Haunted House at a Methodist Church

Dear Friends,

There is evil so shocking it cannot be forgotten. A few years ago, a 26 year old man crossing the street just a few hundred feet from my house was hit by a black BMW racing around the corner. It was a hit and run. He was found lying on his back after being flung into the air. Covered with blood. Unable to shout, he moaned, “Please help me” to some passing horseback riders who at first did not see him by the side of the road. They called the paramedics who took him to the hospital where he died. What was illegal was that the street racer didn’t stop. What was immoral was that the driver didn’t help the person he hit. What was evil was that my Mexican neighbors heard what they described as a “grito” – a celebratory yell from the driver after the impact as he burned rubber to speed away. A celebration of your own evil when you think you’ve just killed someone? We’re all getting fed up with street racing fatalities, shootings, stabbings and the pervasive wicked evil that’s suffocating our Nation today. And yet it’s now once again time for our own October “fun-filled” celebration of evil.

In order to emphasize the horrors of the war in the Ukraine, the media – even the Christian media – has published jarring photos of dead and mutilated bodies of both soldiers and citizens. Bodies scattered throughout cluttered debris. Some in body bags but some missing limbs, lying in puddles of blood and surrounded by grieving loved ones. What Russia is doing in its targeted bombing of Ukrainian citizens is pure evil, and it’s now time for us to celebrate evil on Oct 31st when front yards will be decorated with “dead bodies” laid out among the clutter of props. Covered with blood. And yes I do know what some of you are thinking. “Oh but that’s not one and the same, Pastor! You’re comparing real, harmful evil with something fun that’s just pretend and harmless evil..!” You’re right. It is only imitation evil but we’re told “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

As our Nation has been struggling with a revival of racism, we’ve been recently and appropriately reminded of the lynchings of over 4,000 Black Americans. A permanent stain on our Country’s history. Pure evil. Next week, people will decorate their yards by hanging mannequins by the neck from their front yard trees. But of course pretending to hang someone is fun and harmless evil... “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

Throughout the Mid-East, Muslim extremists behead Christians in accordance with the Qur’an command in 47:4. “So, when you meet (to fight Jihad in Allah's Cause), those who disbelieve smite at their necks.” Mohammad’s teaching that it is God’s will for Christian believers to be beheaded is absolute evil. On Halloween night, the “fun” evil of graphic beheadings will be featured in front yards throughout our Nation. “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11

We had been renting the sanctuary from a mainline church where we held our services and I was on the phone with the congregation’s president. I’d heard that  they were going to convert their sanctuary into a house of horrors to celebrate Halloween for the neighborhood children. I told her that if they desecrated God’s holy sanctuary with scenes of gore and evil, we could no longer worship there. I told her that their sign out front should read: “TRIGGER WARNING: This Church Celebrates Evil and May Terrorize Children.” I’m not sure if the sign suggestion gave her a pause for thought or the loss of our monthly rent check made a difference, but they decided to not do a house of horrors in the church. 

But next weekend, many American churches will be holding “haunted houses” in their church as they attempt to reach out to the unchurched community. Arranging “lifeless” bloody bodies for a terrifying fright fest to show how culturally cool they are. Walking dead “zombies.” The gorier the better! Just pretend and harmless evil. But after the slaughter of twenty-six worshipers in the 2017 Texas church shooting, survivors said it looked like a house of horrors. Should churches really be imitating evil with their own bloody house of horrors?  “Beloved, do not imitate what is evil.” 3 John 1:11  

The dictionary refers to the Devil and his demons as it defines evil as “profound immorality, wickedness, and depravity, especially when regarded as a supernatural force.” The Bible uses the Greek word “poneros” that is translated as “evil” and means being wicked (ungodly) and doing wicked deeds. Evil is vicious, sinful, corrupt malevolence. Evil is an exuberant shout of celebration as the body of the young man you just hit is flung through the air and you leave him to die in the dark. 

There is no “fun” evil – no “good” evil. Evil is directly or indirectly caused by supernatural demonic forces and God is grieved by our casual participation in Halloween when evil is celebrated as good, safe and fun. When we fellowship with demons, we provoke the Lord to jealous anger. 1 Cor 10:19-22  You can dance with God or hold hands with the devil but you can’t do both. “How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil?” 2 Cor 6:12-15   Amen?

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

What Season Are You In?

Dear Friends,

Some people believe that Syracuse, New York is one of the most beautiful places on earth when the thousands of trees display the brilliant colors of Autumn. Aunt Helen certainly did. At age 92, she still went bowling every Wednesday and in the Fall, she raked up the red, yellow and orange leaves from her Syracuse front yard. I was reading that a New England mail order company will send you three genuine hand-selected autumn leaves for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling!  If Helen was still alive today, she would have laughed her head off at the thought of selling the leaves on her front lawn to someone living in a “condo” in California!

In Sylmar, I’m seeing a change of color in the deciduous trees and as I breathe in the morning air, there’s a freshness in the breeze that portends the passage of a season and prepares us for the next. Autumn is a time of beauty and peace for contemplatives, photographers, writers and artists. The brilliant tapestry of autumn colors feeds one’s soul and heart with such a dazzling display of God’s handiwork that we just need to go outside and play in it.

One of my favorite places to go this time of year is the picturesque town of Oak Glen nestled in what is called the “Little San Bernardino Mountains.”  Oak Glen is known for its abundant apple orchards and rolling hills covered with vivid autumn reds, oranges, and yellows. It’s as close as you can get to a spectacular New England autumn without getting on a plane.

Seasonal transitions of “nature” in God’s Creation remind us of seasons in our church and in our life. Autumn also signals the arrival of ADVENT – that season of anticipation as we prepare for the birth of the Christ child. ADVENT leads us to the CHRISTMAS celebration which includes Epiphany– the manifestation of the Savior Jesus to the Gentiles. Soon the chill of winter gives way to the warmth of spring and a season of spiritual growth. LENT is a time of reflection and recommitment to a renewed relationship with God. We approach Good Friday with our ineffable gratitude for the ultimate gift of God’s grace and salvation mixed along with a sense of sorrow for the suffering that Jesus endured. Easter– RESURRECTION SUNDAY– is truly a glorious day and the most important of all Christian Holy Days (“holidays”). Fifty days later comes PENTECOST, marking the day that God’s presence became actively working in believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become a witness of His glory and grace to the world. After PENTECOST we enter a season of what the church calls ORDINARY TIME. But the time quickly passes and before long, we sense a freshness in the air and soon the autumn colors are bringing us once again to the season of ADVENT. The journey through our church seasons reveals the mystery of God’s plan as it unfolds for us in the life of the church, and we are reminded that in the Kingdom of God, with each transition, there is something new again. 

In God’s Creation, there is a rhythmic cycle with the organic flow of our four seasons. Every three months, a transition to the next. Depressed by the gray, gloominess of winter? The warmth of spring is right around the corner. Tired of spring showers and eye-burning allergies? The long, hot days of summer are ahead. Worn down by the relentless heat and smog? The cooler glorious world of autumn awaits you. Bored and weary with autumn and those Santa Ana winds? Grab the winter coat, gather the firewood and prepare for those long, frosty winter nights. We are reminded that with each transition from one season to the next, there is something new again.

So it is with the seasons of life. You may be in an exciting springtime season of new birth and growth. You may be feeling as if you are caught in the dry, oppressive days of what seems to be an endless summer. This may be for you a contemplative, peaceful autumn time of thanksgiving. Or you may find yourself in the cold, dark, discouraging loneliness of a long winter season. I've got news for you. Get ready for it. A change is coming!

Seasons of life. Each with its own set of experiences and the passing of each season leaving behind memories of what was. For many of us, our photo albums are the pictorial autobiography of our life. We look back and remember the seasons of life that were filled with great joy and our happy memories bring gladness to our heart. 

But some seasons of life are filled with pain, sorrow and anger and those seasons can embed bitterness, uncertainties, fears and doubts into our soul. We will stay mired in our pain-filled past if we dwell on those memories and relive those circumstances of that season in our mind. And God says: “But forget all that-- it is nothing compared to what I am going to do. For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?” Isaiah 43:18-19 NLT Praise God! For He reminds us that with each life transition, God will give us something new again!

Remember that no matter what season of life we’re in, there are three guarantees we can count on:1) This present season will come to an end. 2) God has already begun to do something new for you in the next season. And, 3) The one unchanging constant that we can trust in and count on is this: God is standing with us in this season and He is waiting for us in the next.  Amen?

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Armageddon? or Armageddon!

Dear Friends,

Last week at a private fundraiser, President Biden warned a gathering of elite democrats about the very real possibility of a nuclear “Armageddon” as a result of the war between Russia and the Ukraine. Both his staff and the liberal media were caught off guard by his statement and other world leaders were immediately critical of his “imprudent” and “provocative remarks.” 

Our own Nation’s defense officials were quick to disagree with the president. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that, “We do not presently see indications about the imminent use of nuclear weapons.” And as it so often does after the president speaks his mind, his administration rushed to tamp down any fears resulting from what appeared to be Biden’s fund-raising hyperbole. The White House said that there is “no reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture” and that there was “no new intelligence that nuclear use by Russia is imminent.”

Russia has long-range “strategic” nuclear weapons that could  annihilate New York city and has much smaller “tactical” nuclear weapons that could take out, for example, a Ukrainian army training camp. Biden said at the fundraiser, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as an ability to easily use a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.” The implication was that if Putin targets the Ukraine with a small tactical weapon, the U.S., or another country would respond with a larger nuclear weapon which could lead to the nuclear holocaust that ends the world. People have told me that they are now fearful that a nuclear war will break out, and I remember all too well that fear.

This coming Sunday is the sixty year anniversary of the first day of the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 13 years old and terrified of the near-certainty that my family would be killed. For years, a nuclear war with Russia had been on everyone's mind. The wealthy families built bomb shelters in their backyard during the fifties. Other families like mine were sure to die. We had weekly "Duck and Cover" drills in our schools and monthly Air-Raid Siren testing that were constant reminders that a nuclear warhead could be dropped on us at any moment. 

I remember my father talking at church with the other men about those being our "end times." But what I remember most of all was the fear that I was going to die soon. That's why I have such a negative reaction to those creating that same fear in our Nation today and within families and among children. And yet, for me personally, I have no "Armageddon" fears. This is why... 

Yes, we do have two unpredictable, aging world leaders threatening each other with nuclear annihilation but I’m not worried and I sleep well at night. Only a certifiably insane (Russian or American) president with a death-wish for the entire world would generate a nuclear holocaust that brings civilization to an end. (Remember, this is real life, not James Bond vs. Ernst Stavro Blofeld, head of SPECTRE, scheming for world domination) Both Biden and Putin have the typical narcissistic egos of a politician but they are not clinically “insane.” 

And, it’s been said by some in Putin’s inner-circle that if Putin ordered a nuclear strike that could lead to World War III and the end of the world as we know it, his generals would refuse to do so and most likely assassinate him instead. If Biden were to overreact and recklessly order the world-ending nuclear holocaust, we trust that American generals would also refuse to do so. There is no “button” the president pushes to launch a nuclear weapon, he gives an order that travels down through a chain of command. 

While I’m not worried about nuclear warheads striking L.A., I really don’t like when politicians use Biblical words out of context for political purposes – especially to create fear among the American people for fund-raising purposes. Now let's look at our Bible:

“And the demonic spirits gathered
all the rulers and their armies
to a place with the Hebrew
name Armageddon.”
Revelation 16:16 NLT

Actually, no person knows exactly what “Armageddon” is, least of all the president. Bible scholars have two views of  “Armageddon.” 

1) It does not refer to a military conflict but to a spiritually decisive conflict between good and evil and uses apocalyptic language to describe the final overthrow of Satan by the power of God. 

2) Demonic spirits under the control of Satan work deceptive miracles and manipulate the rulers of the world, causing them to gather in a great show of military strength against Israel for “the war of the great day of God, the Almighty.” This battle will take place at a location called Armageddon which is possibly a biblical city called Megiddo. 

No matter how we interpret this mighty war, it is a battle of good over evil. But the world does end in the battle at Armageddon. Right? Who knows..

The book of Revelation, with its apocalyptic visions and metaphors, results in eight formal viewpoints of the End Times. How about this one? During the mighty battle over Israel, Jesus appears and slays all the evil people and takes the good Christians to heaven. Or all evil people are killed and only good Christians populate the earth. Or the earth is wiped clean of every living creature and God creates a new world filled only with good Christian people. Or Judgment Day takes place during Armageddon and Jesus will save the true believers, while non-believers left behind on the earth will face enormous suffering. 

Take your pick of what Biblical Armageddon means but it’s not as our president portrayed it – our world leaders launching nuclear warheads at each other! Whatever happens at the "end of the world" (as we know it) is spiritual and will be centered around the return of Jesus Christ. We’ve learned that Armageddon is a Hebrew word, meaning either a literal place or a metaphor. We can only guess at which one. 

But we know well the meaning of the Hebrew word, “Shalom.” Shalom is translated as “peace,” and the Hebrew word signifies not simply an absence of turmoil, but conveys complete wholeness, well-being and contentment. 

My prayer is that we replace any fears of Armageddon with God’s assurance of our own eternal life, and with the peace of Shalom, and then just trust and rest in the Lord.

“The Lord is in His holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence before Him.”
Habakkuk 2:20

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Be The "Nordstrom" Church!

Dear Friends,

Melissa was in her favorite Nordstrom store in the upscale part of the San Fernando Valley. She was browsing on the floor where the most expensive dresses cost thousands of dollars. The elevator door opened and out-stepped a woman obviously homeless. Dirty, cast-off clothing that had been slept in.. Matted hair.. The odor of life lived in back alleys.. The picture of despair and hopelessness. Melissa cringed when she saw the woman and fully expected store security to converge on the bag lady and quickly hustle her out and back to the street where she belonged. 

Instead, a tall, sophisticated saleswoman approached the bag lady, smiled at her and said, “How can I help you, Ma'am?” The bag lady said, “I'd like to buy a dress for a party.” The saleswoman said, “You've come to the right place. We have some of the finest dresses. Let me show you some.” Melissa couldn't believe what she was seeing and hearing. After the bag lady selected two that she liked, Melissa was shocked to see the saleswoman take the expensive dresses into the dressing room so that the bag lady could try them on. The beautiful dresses would be ruined once they touched her open sores and unwashed body.

In a few minutes the two women came out and the bag lady said, “I've decided not to buy a dress today.” The saleswoman replied, “That's quite all right but here take my card and when you come back to Nordstrom, I'd consider it a pleasure to wait on you again.”


The man and woman walked hand in hand toward the gleaming, white Protestant church in the San Fernando Valley. This was their first visit and they were immediately confused about where to go. The front doors at the top of the trash-covered steps were closed and seemed to be unused. Everyone was going in the propped-open side door so the new couple followed some people into the church. An usher with an annoyed expression came hurrying down the aisle toward them, handed them a bulletin and went back to sit in the darkened lobby by the front door. It was clear that the new couple had upset the usher by coming in the “member's” door when they should have entered through the front “visitor’s” door. They were surrounded with about thirty people talking, greeting and hugging each other and carefully ignoring the visiting couple. Not a single person spoke to them or acknowledged their presence. Had they suddenly become invisible? 

After standing awkwardly in the aisle for a few minutes and hoping to find someone to talk with, they began to feel like they were uninvited intruders who had stumbled into a private family function. The couple sat down quietly in a pew and waited for the service to start. After the service, light refreshments were served on the outside patio and a few people welcomed the couple, shook their hands and then immediately walked away to join their friends. The couple stayed there nearly a year and remained the “outsiders,” welcomed to worship alongside that church family on a Sunday but never invited to join the family. When the couple finally gave up and left, no one called to find out why. Did anyone even notice they were no longer there?


And the question is this. Who was more Christ-like in welcoming the stranger? That church family or the Nordstrom saleswoman? Which one was demonstrating God’s unconditional love? My understanding is that the Nordstrom story is true. Both Rhianna and I can attest to the truth of the church story because we were that couple. 

The church pastor and leadership were puzzled why they were not growing. But they had become an ingrown church family, and while they would have never posted a sign that said, “Go Back – You Are Not Welcome,” that was how they treated their visitors. Their church vision proclaimed that they were “a lighthouse beaming the love of Jesus out to the sinners.” The reality was that they had become an exclusive private social club for the “saints.”

I'm not picking on this church but using them as an example of how the majority of small to medium-sized churches “greet” their visitors and why they find their church growing smaller. Sadly, Rhianna and I have experienced this at every small to medium church we’ve ever visited and I would find it was the lament of the pastor that their church was not growing. They sincerely believed their church was friendly and welcoming. It wasn’t. 

The church of Jesus Christ needs to be the “Nordstrom” church welcoming everyone unconditionally. Because if our visitors don’t feel the love of Jesus radiating out from the body of Christ, there is no reason for them to return and stay. I love small churches because they epitomize the family of believers that provide love, fellowship and support to each other, but if they are not sincerely welcoming the stranger into that family, their church will die. 

With people not returning after Covid closed churches for well over a year, and with the majority of those in the younger generations turning away from religion, small to medium-sized churches that have been able to remain open are facing great challenges. Their only possibility of survival is to become the “Nordstrom” church. That's the church that Jesus always intended it to be. Amen?