Brotherly Kindness

5-9 So don’t lose a minute in building on what you’ve been given, complementing your basic faith with good character, spiritual understanding, alert discipline, passionate patience, reverent wonder, warm friendliness, and generous love, each dimension fitting into and developing the others. With these qualities active and growing in your lives, no grass will grow under your feet, no day will pass without its reward as you mature in your experience of our Master Jesus. Without these qualities you can’t see what’s right before you, oblivious that your old sinful life has been wiped off the books.

2 Peter 1:5-9 (The Message)
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I’ve been taking some time to contemplate the encouragement given by the Apostle Peter in this passage. Today, I’m looking at the phrase “warm friendliness.” It is also translated as brotherly affection, or brotherly kindness. If we want to pursue Godliness (of which the pursuit of prayer is an essential part) we must look at these characteristics, and put them into practice. Last time, I looked at reverent wonder, which would seem like the acme of such a list…after all, what could be better or more important in following Christ than to live in constant awe of God’s Holiness, Majesty, and Power? Peter answers this question with the last two characteristics– brotherly kindness/warm(th)/friendliness, and generous/selfless love.

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We cannot claim to follow Christ and fail to follow His example in our interactions with others. Jesus Christ was a friend of the friendless. He radiated kindness and integrity and brotherhood– even to those who despised Him. Kindness and friendship, on the surface, don’t seem to be characteristics that require faith, spiritual understanding, or deep reverence. We can be kind to animals, we can have a lot of friends, and not be a Christian– or even be particularly spiritual. But this passage is talking about a different level of warmth and friendship. It doesn’t just happen because we like interact with someone who is likable, or worthy of warmth and friendship. It comes because we have had an encounter with the author of warmth and friendship– and Love. Jesus drew others to himself by His gentle warmth, His generous spirit, His genuine good will and compassion. Those who disliked Him were often upset at His treatment of the lowly, the marginalized, the “others.” Didn’t Jesus realize how sinful or despicable they were? Didn’t He care that they had leprosy, or that they were “unclean?” But that was the point…Jesus DID know. He knew them better and more intimately than anyone. And He wanted them to know that they were loved; they were worth dying for! Not because they were “clean” or “righteous;” simply because they were created in His image and the objects of His eternal passionate love.

Once we have matured and developed the fundamental characteristics of faith and patience, understanding and reverence, it should become more natural for us to radiate kindness, gentleness, warmth, loyalty, integrity, and friendship toward others. That is not to say that we become people-pleasers, or compromise our Spiritual Understanding and Faith. Instead, it means that we speak the truth in love; that we forgive easily; that we are eager to show compassion, strength, wisdom, and encouragement–especially where they may be in short supply.

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This world needs more warm friendship and brotherly kindness– more positive encouragement and less cold criticism; more open arms and fewer closed fists; more hope and less despair; more earnest help, and fewer patronizing handouts; more honest conversations, and fewer dismissive “easy answers.”

We know the source of the greatest warmth, friendship, help, and hope in the universe! Let’s not “lose a minute” in making it part of our day, today! Pray for your neighbors, your co-workers, your families, your enemies, and all those who need a friend. Reach out to someone with hope and affection–be the arms and hands (and feet and smile) of God to someone today. It’s the next logical expression of the awe and reverence we owe to our Creator and Savior– to embrace those He Loves so dearly!

The “Curse” of Proverbs 31

If you are a woman who has grown up “in the church,” you are probably familiar with Proverbs 31. It is the chapter about a virtuous woman. She is the role-model that is held up for young girls and older women alike. And she is, like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” She gets up before the sun, stays up late into the night–always busy, always productive; she never slows down. She never has a bad hair day, never loses her temper, never forgets to pack a lunch or fold the laundry. She never nags, never scolds, never pouts, and never has to raise her voice.

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It helps that she has serving girls to do her bidding, and has her own business. She appears to be independently wealthy and active, yet she has time to raise children who “rise up and call her blessed,” and satisfy her husband, who “lacks nothing of value.”

I would love to say that I am just like that woman. Most days, however, I feel nothing like her. I don’t have money to buy a new field. I don’t get up before the sun and my hands are not eager to work. I don’t make and sell linen garments. No one is running around calling me “blessed” or singing my praises… I can never measure up to this woman. I feel cursed.

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But a closer reading of this chapter makes me think again.

While the woman described in this chapter is a model to emulate, she is not the norm. Nor is she the standard to which I must adhere to “earn” my way into God’s good graces. Indeed, God’s Mercy is the richer and His Grace more precious for knowing that I cannot “measure up.”

Instead of using Proverbs 31 to beat myself up for not being perfect (or using it to discourage or intimidate others), I need to learn from it. Here are a few things I’m hanging on to as I read through it this week:

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  • “She brings him (her husband) good, not harm…” (v. 12) What are some ways I can bring good, not harm, into my home and marriage? How can I listen more, nag, less, be more available, and otherwise show love and care? I won’t be perfect, but I can look for ways to improve!
  • “She works with eager hands..” (v. 13) “She sets about her work vigorously…”(v. 17) I may not be spinning wool or flax in the early light; I may not have serving girls to order, but I have hands and work to do throughout the day. How can I do a better job of seeing chores as opportunities, rather than oppression and drudgery? How can I bring a greater sense of purpose to my tasks? I may not have serving girls, but I have appliances–am I “ordering” them properly by taking care of them, instead of just taking them for granted? And am I grateful for their help?
  • “She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy…” (v. 20) What can I do to “give” more–donate, volunteer, provide hospitality and encouragement? How can I keep in mind that during various seasons of life the “poor” and “needy” may be in my own home and family–children or grandchildren needing nourishment and discipline; parents needing care and support…How can I be more available to those outside of my home, or during my work hours? Can I send an e-mail or make a call to offer encouragement? Can I share a recipe with a friend, or invite them to come with me shopping or to church? Can I make time to pray with a neighbor? Can I clean out a closet and donate clothes or linens?
  • “She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue..” (v. 26) What a challenge!? What is “on my tongue?” Gossip? Criticism? Complaining? Idle chatter? Do I speak too much? Do I remain silent when I could offer needed instruction, encouragement, or correction? Do I speak with gentleness and compassion? With conviction and truth?
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  • “…she does not eat the bread of idleness..”(v27). Ouch! Everyone needs to rest– even the seemingly indefatigable woman of Proverbs 31! But am I becoming “fat” on leisure time? How much time to I waste on distractions and entertainment that could be put to better use?
  • “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord will be praised..” (v30) I may strive to be an “accomplished” woman– someone who is poised, talented, successful in business and society, with a picture-perfect house and garden, children on the dean’s list or the winning sports team; I can be will-traveled and well-educated, someone who seems to “have it all”–and still NOT be a woman of noble character. God isn’t impressed by my clothes or my achievements; He doesn’t give me credit for being “better” than my next door neighbor, or having the best kitchen on the block; God will not love me any more for being more successful or productive than anyone else. If my house is cluttered, my hair is untame-able, my kids have public melt-downs, and I don’t belong to the “in” club; if my business fails, my car is rusty (or I don’t have one), and my husband and I wear second-hand clothes, God still sees my heart. I can still be a woman who fears, trusts, and serves the Lord– one who is loved, accepted, and even “praised” by the One who matters most!
  • Finally, I can Pray to become a woman/wife of noble character (v.10), striving for good habits, rather than fretting over and wallowing in bad ones. I can trust God’s willingness and ability to transform my life and my attitudes. In fact, I am reminded of a seemingly unrelated portion of scripture from Philippians:

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.

Philippians 4:8-9 (The Message)
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I need to spend less of my time worrying about getting things “done”, than getting them done God’s way! I don’t need to fear the “curse” of Proverbs 31– failure to measure up to a model– instead, I need to see the opportunity to become a woman after God’s own heart– one who accepts God’s help and wisdom to become the woman HE wants me to be. I pray that God will give me the chance to develop–and help others–today and each new day.

As Iron Sharpens Iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

Proverbs 27:17
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Do you have a friend who “sharpens” you? Someone who keeps you honest? Someone who challenges you? Someone who holds you accountable? The Bible has much to say about relationships that we form– and some of it may surprise us. Earlier in Proverbs 27, the writer says, “Better is open rebuke than hidden love.” (v.5 NIV) and, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” (v. 6 NKJV).

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I don’t know about you, but I want friends who encourage, friends who make me feel good about myself; friends who make life more pleasant and uncomplicated. I don’t enjoy hearing criticism, or having my beliefs and ideas challenged. I don’t enjoy conflict, and I tend to avoid it whenever possible. However, I also know the truth of verse 6 from experience–I can trust the constructive criticism of a good friend, even when it stings in the moment. A loving friend will take the risk of saying what needs to be said, and not just what I want to hear.

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There are three points that struck me recently as I came across these verses:

  • “Iron sharpens iron”–nothing gets sharpened by a marshmallow, and an iron blade that is left unsharpened will either lose its edge over time, or rust from disuse. We may not like conflict. But we need to be disciplined, and that means that we need to be held accountable. We need to be challenged and sharpened, or we will grow dull or rusty. God can use the “fire” of circumstances to soften our hard hearts, but He often uses other people to “spark” us into action. Left to my own devices, I can grow rusty and useless. I can feel sorry about a bad or sinful habit– I can confess it, and make plans to change. But I am more likely to grow and develop positive habits and actions if there is someone keeping me honest. I can have good ideas; I can know what the Bible says– but I can also fall into deception, lazy thinking, and pride. A good friend can help keep me “sharp” in both actions and thinking. We are not meant to do life alone, and God does not want “Holy Hermits.” He also does not want us to be so timid and accepting that we fail to sharpen others. It is really hard to risk a friendship by speaking the truth–but NOT speaking is sometimes more damaging to the friendship– and to our friends!
  • “Iron” is what sharpens “Iron”–We need to seek out truth and wisdom, and that’s what we need to offer others, as well. We should not waste time on petty disagreements, trying to “win” every point in an argument, or pointing out every minor fault. We also need to have mutual respect; being willing to listen, willing to let a few sparks fly, and willing to respect another’s strengths as we develop our own. This verse is not about letting someone else dominate you or shut down your voice, just as it is not about dominating or “fixing” someone else by forcing your opinions (even if grounded in the truth) down their throat.
  • “So one person sharpens another.” Notice it doesn’t say whether the person is a believer, a dear, personal friend, or a relative. Any person can “sharpen” us. I may disagree with another person– a coworker, a peer, a neighbor–and still respect that their ideas, their words, even their criticism.
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How does this tie into our pursuit of prayer? Conflict and testing can make us better or bitter–in this analogy, it can make us humble or it can make us brittle. A humble person will be shaped and sharpened. A brittle person will snap or break.

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When I am challenged or criticized, do I take it to God or do I take it to heart? Do I ask God to reveal truth or have I already decided what I want to believe? Not all criticism is constructive; not all challenges are meant to sharpen us. Do I react in anger? Do I become sullen? Do I crumble into a puddle of doubt? Or do I see it as an opportunity to become sharper, to change course, or to refine my thinking? Conflict and criticism do not happen in a vacuum–God is as close as a prayer, and willing to give wisdom, discernment, and strength!

How do I react to the other person? Do I become bitter toward them? Do I seek for ways to repay them with criticism or prove myself to them? Do I pray for THEM to change, without looking at my own responsibility? Do I appreciate the risk they may have taken to speak up? (Or do I appreciate the reasons they may have for feeling or thinking as they do, even if I am convinced they are in error?) Can I offer thanks to God for the way He may be using that person to sharpen me–even if that is not their intent? Can I pray for God to bless and strengthen them, even if we don’t agree?

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This is all easier to write than to put into practice. But I can say from experience that God has often used the most unlikely people to “sharpen” me in unlikely ways and unlikely moments, and I am so grateful for the “faithful” (and temporary!) wounds of friends. I am also grateful for others who challenge me to defend the Faith, and who open their hearts to me– even when we clash sometimes.

Everyone’s a Critic!

Social Media can be a wonderful thing– it connects us, and helps us share good news, prayer requests, events, photos, and more. It can help us make new friends, get re-acquainted with old friends, learn new skills, and be more informed.

Sadly, though, social media can also bring out the absolute worst in us. Social media is immediate– we see or hear something, react to it emotionally, and respond without taking time to think. But social media is not really social. It is social only in the “virtual” sense. And that creates problems. There is nothing like being anonymous behind a computer screen to turn us into the biggest bullies, critics, and self-indulgent know-it-alls. Worse, we find it easy to spread vicious gossip, misinformation, and negativity by pressing a single “share” button…we didn’t even say it!

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But we DID send it out. And others saw it, heard it, felt it– for better or worse. Even the “good” responses– followers, “likes”, smiling emojis, and such–can feel impersonal or even forced. But what about the comments that reveal contempt, anger, sarcasm, or hatred? Critical, biting, self-righteous, self-gratifying, smug comments and posts.

“Oh, but I would never do that…” Really? I have been guilty of passing along posts (or even creating posts) that drip with sarcasm, or gleefully correct people or groups I feel have said something “wrong”. I’ve even passed along Bible verses with smug captions.

“Well, everyone is a critic.”
“I’m only saying what is true.”
“Doesn’t the Bible tell us to warn others and speak out against sin?”

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There are many “gifts” of the Holy Spirit–teaching, preaching, healing, even prophecy– but nowhere in the Bible does it say we are “gifted” to be critics, nags, or to speak out in contempt, anger, and malice. In fact, the Bible contains several warning against such behavior:

Judging Others
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+7%3A1-5&version=NIV

Galatians 5:15Verse Concepts
But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Philippians 2:14-16
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain.
James 4:11-12
Do not speak against one another, brethren He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?

https://bible.knowing-jesus.com/topics/Criticism,-Amongst-Believers

For more, visit: https://deeptruths.com/bible-topics/criticism.html

This does not mean that we are to stay quiet about evil, or excuse sin. But we are to do so in love, not with contempt for others, or pride in our own understanding.

Moreover, God, who has the right to be critical and pass His perfect, Holy judgment on us, is the very one who offers us Grace and Mercy, encouragement, and hope!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c]And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:1-4 NIV)
https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8&version=NIV

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God is NOT our critic– He is our Savior, our advocate, our Father.

Lord, may I honor You by my words and deeds today–including my activity on Social Media! May I demonstrate Your love, encouragement, mercy, and goodness today.
Amen

Look-alike Morals

It is Morel season in my home state of Michigan. Morels are mushrooms that only grow in mid-Spring. They are usually found in or near wooded areas, and they are delicious! Thousands of eager hunters search woods, roadsides, forests, orchards, and glades looking for the elusive spores each year. While morels can be “grown,” they are not easy to cultivate. Finding them is like a treasure hunt in all the freshness of spring’s new growth!

Morel mushroom

But there are several look-alike mushrooms– some of which are dangerous and even poisonous– growing now, too. It takes a good eye and some knowledge to tell the difference. False morels may have a similar shape, but they usually are slightly different in color and texture. Some false morels will appear brown, reddish, or even slightly purple, while true morels range from yellow, yellow-gray, or gray-black. False morels may be “puffier” or “spongier” than true morels. And while true morel “caps” attach to their stems, false ones may be detached or flared. It is important to know the difference and to be cautious when collecting the elusive morel.

false morel–gyromitra esculenta

The same is true of morals–there are plenty of people masquerading as men and women of integrity. They are polite, clean, charming; many are even respected members of the community. They may volunteer, give to charities, attend a local church, run for public office, hold a job requiring responsibility and trust. They look and act like honest, kind people. But they may be dangerous– even poisonous. They may even rise to positions in the church, destroying faith and trust among members of their flock, or spreading distrust and confusion among neighbors and even families.

So how do we “spot” the difference? Just as importantly, how do know which type we are!?

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There are a few principles in the Bible that we can use to identify “false prophets” and those with “look-alike morals.”

  • First, we need to study what a true “Christ-follower” should look like. It is vital that we take the time to study for ourselves what the Bible says. Asking “what would Jesus do?” does us no good if we don’t know what He actually did and said! Putting all our trust in a role model or a dynamic leader is like choosing a mushroom because it “looks tasty–it could be a morel…”
  • Second, we need to look for people who try to “color” or “shade” the truth to look “tastier.” All the way back in the Garden of Eden, Satan used this trick with Eve– twisting God’s words, adding supposedly “hidden” knowledge, and dismissing the severity of God’s warning:

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Genesis 3:2-5 (NIV)
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  • Closely related to this, we need to look for people who use words to spread division or discontent–including constant critics and complainers. It is tempting to get caught up in arguments about certain traditions, worship styles, external standards, new practices, personal revelation, etc.. But we must avoid such poison, and avoid spreading it! One poisonous mushroom can poison the whole “batch!”
    • Beware of those who arrogantly claim to have “new knowledge” or “new interpretations”– God does NOT change; nor does His Word. New insights and deeper or personal understanding should stand up under testing. Someone who is not willing to be questioned or asked to explain themselves may have a bad reason for their unwillingness. Just because something is traditional, or “old” doesn’t mean it must change.
    • Also beware those who are dismissive toward others in the church, whether they are critical of the teaching, the music, certain ministry programs, or individuals who serve. We are commanded to build one another up, not pass judgment based on personal prefrerences.
  • Look (and listen) closely to make sure we are still “attached” to our stem– the Living Word of God. Many Christians will quote “moral” sayings that are found nowhere in the Bible:
    • “God helps those who help themselves.”
    • “The devil made me do it.”
    • “There are many paths to God.”
    • “All you need is love.”
    • “God just wants us to be happy.”
    • “God will never give you more than you can handle..”
  • Finally, we need to look at the person’s “fruit.” Someone can have an impressive outward show of morals, yet miss out on “bearing fruit.” Such people may display all the trappings of earthly success, yet they seen to have no peace, or their lives seem joyless or filled with discontent or intemperence. In my own life, am I demonstrating Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control? (see Galatians 5:22-23) Am I humble? Or am I impatient, unkind, judgmental, fickle, reckless, complaining, bitter, envious, angry, dissatisfied, greedy, worried, and prone to mock others– especially those in the church?

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

Matthew 7:15-20 (ESV)
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When we find true followers of Christ, we should be able to recognize the treasure of a life redeemed and transformed. While none of us is perfect while we remain in our present bodies, we should be producing a harvest of good fruit that sets us apart from “look-alikes” who are merely outwardly moral.

If You Only Knew…

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:36-50 (ESV)
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The Pharisees in the New Testament seem to spend a lot of time judging and criticizing everyone. They rail at Jesus for healing people on the Sabbath, they grumble about His disciples not following the ritual hand-washing customs, and they are constantly critical of Jesus for “hanging out” with sinners and undesirables. We shake our heads and lament how narrow-minded they were. But I have to wonder what would happen in today’s world if Jesus were walking among us today. Would He “hang out” at our churches? Would He praise those who spend their time pointing out the hypocrisy of others? Would He be a “social justice” warrior?

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Many of Jesus’s miracles were done quietly and without pretense. No one criticized “what” Jesus was doing. No one said, “you shouldn’t be healing people,” or, “how dare you turn water into wine.” Instead, they criticized “how” Jesus did His miracles and what He said about Himself, others, and God. In the book of Luke, we have a story that doesn’t even involve a miracle. Jesus was invited to be the guest of a Pharisee. Jesus didn’t turn down the invitation. He didn’t start out criticizing the host or the food. But when a woman crashed the party– a woman known all around town for her sinful ways–and made a scene, Jesus didn’t recoil in horror, order her to leave, or stop her from making a fool of herself. The Pharisee, believing that he had “unmasked” Jesus as a charlatan, concluded that Jesus didn’t “know” what sort of woman she was. But Jesus, breaking His silence, ended up “unmasking” the Pharisee, instead.

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Jesus “knew” what sort of woman made such a spectacle of herself–one who needed compassion and forgiveness. Jesus knew exactly “who” and “what” she was. But He also knew who created her, loved her, and wanted to redeem her to become someone better. Moreover, He knew what kind of man Simon (the Pharisee) was. He started out with a parable about cancelled debt and a question. Simon answered the question correctly, but he had missed the point. Simon “knew” the woman was a sinner; he didn’t recognize that he was a sinner, too! Simon thought he was smarter and holier than Jesus. He didn’t know himself, and he didn’t recognize Jesus as God in the Flesh.

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How often I make the same mistake! I think I “know” who God wants me to love and honor– those who say all the right words and wear the right clothes and belong to the right church. But if I want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, I will have compassion on the people who most need it; I will be ready to forgive those who owe me the most; I will spare judgment where I do not “know” all that God knows about someone else.

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It is easy to lift up in prayer those I admire; those to whom I am already close. It is more difficult to pray for those who persecute me, or taunt me about my belief in Christ. It is difficult to withhold judgment about why they may dislike me or why they distrust Christians in general. It is tempting to pray for their “exposure” or punishment, rather than their well-being. It may be unpleasant to spend time with them or take them seriously. But it is essential that I do, with God’s help, what I would not do in my own pride and limited knowledge. Otherwise, like Simon, I am showing only how little I love the one who died for me– and the person I choose to hold in judgment and contempt.

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I have a lot of work to do in this area. Just today, I read a news snippet about a political office-holder; one with whom I heartily disagree. My first instinct was to pray that she be ousted from office in the next election, and publicly scorned. And perhaps that will happen. But my first priority should be to pray that she would be protected in her current role as public servant, and that God would give her wisdom and discernment in the months ahead. Not because she is a “better” person; but because Jesus died for her. If she were the woman in this story, would I be another Simon the Pharisee? I pray not.

Laughing With the Sinners

There is a line in a song by Billy Joel (Only the Good Die Young) which reads, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints. The sinners are much more fun.”

There is a myth about sin– that sin is fun and obedience is drudgery. Sinners laugh and live carefree, happy lives, while “saints” lead gloomy lives filled with tears, worry, and anguish. Heaven will be filled with sour-faced do-gooders playing harps, while Hell will be an eternal party.

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Nothing could be further from reality. While sin gives momentary pleasure and temporary laughter, it also leads to devastating pain and haunting regret. Broken families, lost relationships, stress, and guilt are just some of the consequences of sin. The idea that “I’m not hurting anybody– I’m just doing what makes me happy” is a false comfort.

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Similarly, while obedience may require us to make sacrifices or suffer momentarily, it also leads to great reward–discipline, wisdom, integrity, and a legacy of hope and help. The idea that “I’m missing out on the fun” is also a false one. “Saints” may cry, but often their tears are for the misfortunes of others!

Unfortunately, the common stereotype of sinners laughing while saints cry or, more often, sit in judgment, is based on observation. I have known some very sour Christians. They may not be crying, but they frequently make others around them cry! They nag, scold, wag their fingers, consign their neighbors and family members to Hell, and act as though they are too good for everyone else. When challenged about their negative attitude, sometimes they suggest that they are just “waiting for Heaven.” Others plead a genuine concern for others, and they worry that the laughter they hear now will turn to mourning in the future.

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But I have also known joyful Christians– laughing, singing, encouraging others, whistling while they work, even laughing in the face of suffering and persecution! They, too, are “waiting for Heaven.” But in the meantime, they are celebrating their new and abundant life in Christ. Their attitude and actions attract others, and reflect the love, joy, peace, and hope that transcends the mere “happiness” of a moment’s sinful pleasure.

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The Bible says much about the value of both laughter and tears; of joyous celebration and sober reflection. In the end, ALL of us are “sinners”–no one is righteous on her/his own. Jesus, when He walked the earth and interacted with people, wept and celebrated with them. The Pharisees reprimanded Jesus and His disciples for their “feasting” and spending time with prostitutes and tax collectors. And yet, Jesus had harsh words about sin and Hell, and often spent time alone and in anguish of heart.

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The crying of saints is not, in itself, of any more value than the laughter of sinners. But laughter and happiness in the moment cannot save us from the sting of death or the yawning emptiness of an eternity without God. And that is no laughing matter! Unfortunately, the song is based on an empty myth. Death comes to all of us, young or old, “good” or “bad,” gloomy or exuberant in life. What makes the difference is not our laughter or tears, or even our efforts to obey or live “good” lives– what makes a difference is GRACE and FAITH. And I’d rather live with the redeemed than die with the defiant!

Salty Talk

With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in God’s likeness. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. It should not be like this, my brothers! 11 A spring cannot pour both fresh and brackish water from the same opening, can it? 12 My brothers, a fig tree cannot produce olives, nor a grapevine figs, can it? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

James 3:9-12 (International Standard Version) via biblegateway.com
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We live in a culture of complaint and condescension. We pass judgment on people we’ve never met, based on stories we read second- or third-hand on Facebook or in a magazine, or hear on a gossipy talk show. We complain about situations we’ve never been in, on behalf of yet more people we’ve never met. We take pleasure in tearing down the reputation and character of people who don’t even know we exist.

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And then we pray…

Our Father, who art in Heaven…”

I have caught myself in the middle of criticizing someone, as the Holy Spirit reminds me that God LOVES that person. Jesus DIED for that person, just as He died for me. Even if my criticism seems “valid,” it is not for me to pass judgment– especially to others and behind their back.

James (the brother of Jesus) wrote about our words coming out of our mouths like water pouring forth from a spring. We cannot pour forth pure, fresh water and brackish, salty water from the same spring. Similarly, we cannot pour forth praise and wholesome words, and turn around and trash-talk our neighbor–people will “taste” what pours out, and judge the whole spring.

This seems like such a small thing in our culture–surely a sarcastic comment about someone “everyone” dislikes can do no lasting harm, right? Yet an old proverb my parents taught me still rings true: “If you can’t say anything nice about a person, say nothing at all.” Imagine the difference it would make in the world if we all followed that advice. The silence would be deafening!

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Yes, it’s tempting to add our “two cents” to a conversation that is filled with criticism and complaint– but the price we pay in the long run is just not worth it! When we give in to temptation, snarling and sniping and slandering others, we ruin our own reputation. We become known for gossip and sarcasm, and ill-will. Like saltwater flowing from a spring, we bring a bad taste– and bad results to everything we touch. God wants us to bring forth pure water– encouragement, truth, and justice– when we speak. God knows each person — there is no hiding from HIS judgment. But He will not be snide, or clever, or nasty. He will be righteous and Holy in His judgment, not petty or vindictive. As followers of Christ, we should strive to do the same.

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Father, guide my tongue. Purify it, so that I speak words of life and healing; words that honor you AND those you have created in your image. Help me to remember that words matter. Words hurt, and words heal– words give life and hope, or they bring darkness and dissension. May my words reflect the True Word–Christ– in me. Amen.

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WWJD–Coronavirus edition

What Would Jesus Do? This question, shortened to the acronym WWJD, appeared as a fad on bracelets, t-shirts, billboards, etc., a few years ago. The idea was to ask oneself how Jesus Christ would act or react in various situations.

While I don’t disagree with the premise, I have never been a fan of this trend– mostly because it calls for people to speculate or imagine what Jesus would or might have done in their place. There is nothing wrong with wanting to act like Jesus– that’s what we’re supposed to do–to be disciples of Christ, and be His ambassadors. But our minds and hearts are not perfect; in fact they can be deceitful and arrogant, self-righteous and self-justifying. It is more common for us to justify how Jesus would act like us, than for us to adjust our thoughts and actions to those we know Jesus took during His time on earth. Would Jesus be angry about injustice– of course! Would He want us to have empathy for others– undoubtedly! But what would He actually DO? There are some pretty clear examples in the Bible– both examples of what Jesus DID, and what He DID NOT do:

  • Jesus drank wine; He visited and ate with known sinners; healed on the Sabbath (in direct violation of the church leaders of His day); interacted with the Romans (soldiers and leaders, etc.)who were oppressing the Jews– without protesting their rule or joining rebel groups; healed and performed miracles for some, but not for others; forgave sins for some, but not for others; paid His taxes without complaint; challenged religious leaders and spoke harshly against their practices; refused to get drawn into condemning and stoning a guilty adultress….
  • Jesus prayed. He want to temple regularly; read and studied God’s word; He rested, meditated, and spent time alone; He listened to strangers and treated those He met with compassion and respect; He honored His mother, but did not put her above His work; He loved his friends, even those who did not understand Him and the one who betrayed Him; He did not flatter those in power or disdain those in lowly positions; He cared deeply, wept unashamedly, and laughed heartily…
  • Jesus did not own a home. He didn’t have a “regular” job; He had no savings account or retirement fund; He had no donkey or horse for transportation; He wasn’t a member of a particular congregation or church council, like the Pharisees. Jesus didn’t have a university education; He didn’t run for public office; He never got “employee of the month;” He never married or had kids; We have no evidence that He ever gave to a particular charity, or joined any activist group. Jesus never hosted a barbecue, or led an evangelistic gathering, like His cousin, John the Baptist…
  • Jesus never addressed many of the issues we deal with today– civil rights, gay rights, abortion, health care, income inequality, democracy/socialism, smoking, drug use, pornography, violence in the media, global climate change, speed limits on highways, income tax structure, campaign finance reform, gender dysphoria, unisex bathrooms, vegans vs. meat eaters…

But the point of Jesus’ ministry on earth was to preach the coming of the “Kingdom of God,” and to fulfill His promise to go to the cross, die for our sins, and to rise again on the third day. He spent time teaching and discipling twelve very different individuals, who saw and did things very differently from each other, and differently from Jesus himself. Peter was fiery, John was a quiet observer, James was stern and concerned about actions, Matthew was concerned with history and prophecy. And all of them were loved by and commissioned by Jesus to spread the Gospel.

In these days of COVID-19, faced with fear and panic, many Christians (myself included) are struggling with the “right” response–we all want to show the love of God, and honor Him above all. In doing so, however, I find myself spending a lot of time justifying my own actions, and condemning the words and actions of others. And I find myself getting hurt and angry when someone I know and love reacts differently, uses different words or tones, or gets caught up in arguments about what “we must do.”

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We MUST seek God’s wisdom in these times. And we MUST listen to and obey His word. But beyond that, I believe that God wants us to be very different “parts of the body” (see 1 Corinthians 12) https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+12&version=ESV And I believe that God wants us to work together, honoring the various gifts and personalities that we have been given. Some of us are going to be fiery in our defense of health care workers, and advocating for the best and fastest medical care and treatments available. Some of us are going to be spreading small words and acts of encouragement wherever we see the opportunity. Some of us are going to be standing up against threats of corruption and injustice lurking among the actions of those in power. Some of us are going to speak boldly about our Hope in Christ, evangelizing and calling people to repentance. Some are going to be “standing in the gap” in prayer and counseling. Some are going to be providing money, food, PPE (personal protective equipment), and other services. And we must honor the other members of the body– in whatever role they take on– and seek unity, rather than division.

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Instead of blasting each other on Facebook or angry e-mails, we need to bring our initial reactions– anger, disappointment, hurt, confusion– to God. HE is the one who will judge our actions and motives in the end. Unless we see Christians who are flagrantly violating God’s laws– looting, cheating, spreading malicious lies and causing division, cursing God and/or misrepresenting Him in heretical fashion–we should ask, not just what Jesus would/might do in my situation, but what DID Jesus do in my place.

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Because He died for me when I was still a sinner. He sacrificed His life. Not because I had done anything “right,” or “good enough.” He didn’t keep a list of all the things I got “wrong.” He did not bring condemnation– He brought forgiveness, mercy, and hope! And His mercies are new every morning. If I “get it wrong,” if I do something, or don’t do something–because I am still human and I don’t know everything about COVID-19 or the global economy or what tomorrow will bring–God will still love me. God will forgive me.

My prayer is that I will do the same for others– that I will extend Grace, and true encouragement (rather than flattery or mutual congratulation), and Love, because I know without a shadow of doubt or speculation, that this is What Jesus Would Do.

Green Acres

Psalm 23:2a King James Version (KJV)
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures

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Many years ago (never mind how many..) there was a television show called “Green Acres.” It was a comedy about a couple from New York City, who moved to a small town in the country. The husband was excited about the move– he was tired of the rat race and bustle of the city; his wife, however, was reluctant to leave all the opportunities– she missed the shops and activity.

Green Acres was one of a group of shows that both celebrated and poked fun at rural life in America in the sixties and early seventies. The shows were very popular among viewers, but were panned by critics, and cancelled by network executives, even at the height of their popularity. https://www.closerweekly.com/posts/cbs-rural-purge-mayberry-rfd-green-acres/

More than fifty years later, you can often see these shows on networks like TV Land. They are still popular among some viewers, who like the nostalgia and the gentle humor. These shows all have happy endings. They don’t involve grotesque murders, lots of foul language, preachy lectures on social issues like homelessness, domestic abuse, or drug addiction, or copious amounts of sex, violence, or nudity. They don’t talk about war and gangs, poverty or prejudice, or urban sprawl. They celebrate family, fresh air, hard work, community, truth, justice, kindness, and humility.

What does “Green Acres” (or Andy Griffith or any other old TV show) have to do with Psalm 23 and Pursuing Prayer? Not a lot, but I would like to look at the phrase in verse 2– “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures..” Not the same as “Green Acres,” but I think the green pastures of God are viewed by the world in much the same way as “Green Acres;” scorned by a small and vocal group, but quietly cherished by many others.

Our Shepherd causes us to lie down– to find rest and nourishment and refreshing– in green pastures. That doesn’t mean that He won’t lead us through times of bustling stress, struggle, anxious moments, or rugged paths. But He will make us lie down. He will cause us to stop our frantic rushing, and renew our strength in green pasture. He doesn’t offer green pastures as an “escape from reality”, but as a reminder that dealing with reality requires us to see beyond the immediate stresses of the day and listen beyond the distracting noises around us.

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God’s green pastures won’t look like “Green Acres” with old tractors and fresh-mown hay. They may not look like the small town simplicity of Americana. In fact, God’s green pastures may not be places at all, but practices– spending time in Scripture, time in prayer, times in fellowship and encouragement, time in meditation, even time in service to others. You may find green pastures in the heart of a barrio, or in the quiet of a walk in the forest, or in praying as you climb a flight of stair or fold laundry. But you will find spiritual nourishment and renewal in God’s green pastures, wherever they are and whatever they look like. https://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-23-2.html

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God’s green pastures will have many critics, who will ask that you cancel these practices. They will call them old-fashioned, failed practices– naive, simplistic, even laughable. But as we respond to God who make us lie down in green pastures, others are watching– and taking heart. The critics in our life may be loud and insistent. It may seem like they have the power to “cancel” our rest, and pave over the green pastures to build another fast food restaurant. But there are others silently watching, longing to experience the kind of rest and refreshment they see in us– the kind that cannot come from sophisticated treatises on war or crime, or harsh critics’ disdain, or yet another trip to an upscale shop or fast food restaurant or spa.

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A few years ago, I left a full-time job– a job I loved–to help my husband open up a second-hand store that also sells amateur radio equipment. Most people would look on our store as a failure–it doesn’t make a lot of money; we don’t have hundreds of sales in a week; it hasn’t made us famous or important. But it gives me the opportunity to spend time talking and listening to the customers we do have, many of whom are lonely. It gives David the opportunity to do the same. And it gives me time to pray more, spend more time in God’s word, and write and edit this blog. It has allowed me more flexibility to spend time with my family. And it has reminded me that God is our provider and protector in ways I took for granted when I drew a bigger salary and had a more prominent position. From a worldly perspective, this is a move I would never have chosen. I spend most of my days lonely and unpaid–hardly a recipe for worldly fulfillment. And many days, I actually miss the bustle of deadlines, the drama of staff conflicts, and the extra money in the bank. And some days I am frustrated and ungrateful and restless–God has led me to the green pastures, but I refuse to lie down and receive the rest He wants to give me. And God may choose to make me get up and move through valleys, up hills, or over rocky paths to the next pasture. But for this season, in this pasture, He is teaching me to lie down–to be less busy about my business, and more open to His.

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The world may offer us Times Square; God offers us fresh air. The world may offer us clever ways to spend our time and money– God gives us peace that passes all understanding. God’s “Green Acres” is the place to be–resting where and how our Shepherd leads us.

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