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Faith AND Works?

When I grew up, many people tried to claim that all I had to do was believe in Jesus and pray the sinner’s prayer and I was good to go… forever. While that’s a great starting point, I was challenged by James’ words: “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” -James 2:17 (NLT)

And today, I ran across this Christian writer from antiquity who summed up the knowledge part of faith and the role of the “works” of faith really well:

“Even though knowledge is true, it is still not firmly established if unaccompanied by works. For everything is established by being put into practice.” – St. Mark the Ascetic, Philokalia, vol. 1, p 126, #12.

Maybe “faith put into practice” is a better way of thinking about faith and works! If our faith is based on on our head knowledge, it’s dead! But if we can put the faith we believe into practice, then we’re REALLY living out our faith!

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Marks of a Methodist

John Wesley wrote the following as a preface to a tract he called THE CHARACTER OF A METHODIST: He wrote “SINCE the name first came abroad into the world, many have been at a loss to know what a Methodist is; what are the principles and the practice of those who are commonly called by that name; and what the distinguishing marks [are] of this sect…”

And with that introduction, he began, in 17 points, to logically argue what one could look for that would help identify what a Methodist was really like.

This, then, in today’s words, was the essence of his response…

  1. THE distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His agreeing to this doctrine or embracing that belief have nothing to do with it. So anyone who imagines that a Methodist is someone with a certain dogma mistakes the truth completely. Yes, we do believe that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;” and so we are distinguished from Jews, Muslims, and atheists. We believe the written word of God to be the only needed source of guidance for us to live the Christian life; and so there is a fundamental difference between the Roman Catholic Church and us. We believe Jesus Christ to be the eternal, supreme God; and so we are clearly different from groups like the Mormons, the Jehovah Witnesses, and others like them. But as to all of the other disagreements in Christianity, if they aren’t at odds with those basics of the faith, then we think and let think. Our individual beliefs on those things, whatever they are not what makes us Methodists.
  1. Neither are words or phrases of any sort. We don’t get hung up on a particular religious way of talking. We prefer to make our conversations and our preaching as easy to understand for those who are new as well as those who’ve been in the church for years.
  1. Nor do we desire to be distinguished by meaningless practices or habits that try to show how religious we are. Our religion isn’t about what we wear or what we do or don’t do, or eat or wear. Unless instructions are specifically found in the word of God, you won’t find it being a Methodist practice.
  1. Nor can you define a Methodist by how we make our beliefs and practice try to stand up to a particular Scripture passage. We recognize that our faith is a gift God gives us and we grow into clearer understanding as we go to ALL of the Scriptures… not just by setting up tests by which we judge and evaluate each other based on some favorite Scripture. In other words, we don’t look to the Bible as a way to compare ourselves with others. That would be as bad as a woman who decides she is absolutely virtuous just because she isn’t a prostitute; or a man who convinces himself that he is truly honest just because he does not rob or steal. Methodists, and Christians in general, can’t be seen just by trying to compare them to others.
  1. So you might ask: “What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist?” Wesley answers: A Methodist is one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit;” a Methodist is one who “loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.” God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul.
  1. A Methodist is happy in God. He has “a well of water springing up into everlasting life,” and overflowing his soul with peace and joy. Having found forgiveness of his sins through Jesus, he can’t help but rejoice, whenever he looks back on the horrible pit out of which he has been delivered. He can’t help but rejoice, whenever he looks on the way his life is now, because he has peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
  1. A Methodist is one who has hope because of Christ and thus gives thanks to God in all things, for he has learned to be content in whatever situation he finds himself. Whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, he gives thanks from his heart to God who directs his life; knowing that every good gift comes from above. He therefore can cast all his care on God in all things, making his request known to him with thanksgiving.
  1. In fact, a Methodist is known as one who “prays without ceasing.” Not that a methodist is always in the house of prayer; though he doesn’t miss a chance to go to church when he can. Neither is he always physically on his knees in prayer. But he’s one that offers God his very heart, and in the times of praying or even in the times of silence, his heart is ever lifted up to God. Whether he lie down or rise up, God is in all his thoughts; he walks with God continually.
  1. And while a Methodist can be known by the way they love God, by praying without ceasing, by rejoicing evermore, and in giving thanks in everything, there’s another commandment written in his heart that says, If you love God, then love your fellow humans also. As Jesus said it, a Methodist loves his neighbor as himself; he loves every man as his own soul. His heart is full of love to all. That someone comes along who’s not personally known to him, is no irrelevant. Even if someone comes along that dislikes him or wants to harm him, a Methodist “loves his enemies.” And if it isn’t in his power to “do good to them that hate him,” still he’ll pray for those who “despitefully use him and persecute him.”
  1. For a true Methodist is “pure in heart.” By that we mean that a methodist seeks, and lets, the love of God purify his heart from all revengeful passions, from envy, malice, and wrath, from every unkind temper or malign affection. A Methodist forgives, if he had a quarrel against someone else; in the same way that God through Christ has forgiven him.
  1. In the same way, a Methodist tries to do the will of God. His one intention at all times and in all things is, not to please himself, but to please God. God then reigns alone in his life.
  1. And in the same way that you can tell a tree by the fruit it bears: an apple on a tree reveals that it is an apple tree and oranges hanging from the branches reveals the orange tree, so it is that you’ll be able to tell a Methodist by the fruit of his life… his actions and attitudes, behaviors and choices will show that this is a person who is connected to Jesus Christ. Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God hath commanded, he does.
  1. A Methodist seeks to love God by obeying God as much as he can. For his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows. And therefore, loving God with all his heart, he serves him with all his strength. He continually presents his soul and body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God; entirely and without reserve devoting himself, all he has, and all he is, to his glory.
  1. So, by consequence, whatever the Methodist does, it is done for God. His business and entertainment, as well as his prayers, all serve this great end. Whether he sit in his house or walk by the way, whether he lie down or rise up, he is promoting, in all he speaks or does, the one business of his life; whether he put on his clothes, or go to work, or eat and drink, it all is meant to give glory to God. His one invariable rule is this, “Whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him.”
  1. Nor does the Methodist take his cues from the world around him. He knows that sin does not stop being sinful, just because everyone else is doing it. Even his very thought life is directed not by the society in which we live, but by the Scripture passage that says, “Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right.”
  1. Finally, as he has time, he does good to others… whether neighbors or strangers, friends or enemies. A Methodist reaches out physically, emotionally, and spiritually, so that those others that God brings into their path, might meet Jesus through them.
  1. These are the principles and practices of our group; these are the marks of a true Methodist. By these alone do we desire to be distinguished from others.

You might say, But the things you’ve described are only the common fundamental principles of Christianity!”

Yep! You got it!

John Wesley meant that very thing. He said: I would to God that everyone understood this truth that we vehemently refuse to be distinguished from others, by any but the common principles of plain, old Christianity. In fact, we renounce and detest all other marks of distinction.

And that’s who a Methodist is… he is a Christian, not in name only, but in heart and in life. He is inwardly and outwardly conformed to the will of God, as revealed in the written word. He thinks, speaks, and lives, according to the method laid down in the revelation of Jesus Christ. His soul is renewed after the image of God, in righteousness and in all true holiness. And having the mind that was in Christ, he so walks as Christ also walked.

  1. By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labor to

distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatever denomination they be, we have no real desire to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after Christ. Like Jesus said: “Whoever does the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

Wesley hoped that Methodists would be known by our Christianity… that there would be no other divisions among ourselves. He paraphrased a Scriptural passage and asked “Is your heart right, as my heart is with yours? If it be, then give me your hand. Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.

Like Paul so long ago, Wesley would ask: “Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and sympathetic? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one heart and purpose.” “Lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace. We are all one body, we have the same Spirit, and we have all been called to the same glorious future. There is only one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and there is only one God and Father, who is over us all and in us all and living through us all.”

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The Twelve Steps for Christians

A friend sent me a message asking me about how the Twelve Steps of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous line up with Scripture and Christianity. 

I shared with her about the way the Twelve Steps are used in a specialized Study Bible called: The Life Recovery Bible. I’ve owned this study Bible for about a decade and refer to it often: professionally (as I work with others) and personally (as I continue to struggle often with my own addictive relationship to food).

The second resource I referred her to is a small book: The Twelve Steps for Christians. There are encouraging and inspirational meditations on each step. It also highlights Biblical passages that contain the principles embodied in the Twelve Steps. 

I highly encourage any Christian who struggles with any kind of brokenness (and we’re all broken aren’t we?) to delve into these resources and others like them.

1.        We admitted that we were powerless over our dependencies – that our life had become unmanageable.                           (Romans 7:18)  (Psalm 6:6-7)

2.       We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.                            (Philippians 2:13)  (Mark 9:23-24)

3.       We made a decision to turn our will and our life over to the care of God.                           (Romans 12:1)  (Galatians 2:20)

4.       We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.                           (Lamentations 3:40)  (Galatians 6:3-5)  (Psalm 139:23-24)

5.       We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.                          (James 5:16a)  (Psalm 32:3-5)  (Romans 14:12)  (Jeremiah 14:20)

6.       We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.                          (James 4:10)  (Psalm 37:4-7)  (Romans 12:2)

7.       We humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.                          (1 John 1:9)  (Philippians 4:6)  (Psalm 51:10-12)  (James 4:6-8)

8.       We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.                                                                              (Luke 6:31)  (Luke 19:8)  (Matthew 7:3-4)

9.       We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.                           (Matthew 5:23-24)  (1 Peter 4:8-10)  (Romans 13:8)

10.   We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.                        (1 Corinthians 10:12)  (Psalm 34:12)  (Ephesians 5:15-16)

11.   We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry it out.                       (Colossians 3:16a)  (Mark 11:24)  (Hosea 6:3)  (Matthew 7:7)

12.   Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs.                       (Galatians 6:1)  (Philippians 4:8-9)  (Colossians 4:5-6)  (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11)

 
These Twelve Steps were adapted in the Life Recovery Bible (Tyndale: 1998) from the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Scripture passages cited for each of the Twelve Steps are from The Twelve Steps for Christians (revised). (RPI Publishing, San Diego, CA: 1994).


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The HEART of the Team

These are my sermon notes for this past Sunday (January 1, 2012) at the Clarks Mills UMC. This is primarily an expanded outline from which I then preached. 

JUST A FEW WEEKS FROM NOW…

 

Super Bowl!

TEAMWORK…Establish a team that can work together and knows the same playbook…
AS CHRISTIANS……..
Christ wants to establish a team WITH US!
Not just those who SAY they’re Christian or those who go to church… but those who know the same playbook, have the same ground rules for working together with each other and with Christ.

 

1 Samuel 16:7

“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
It is in our hearts that we will be Christian.
In our hearts we will make the choices to be a part of the team, set out to make disciples for Jesus Christ.
It is through our hearts that we will show
Matthew 7:16
“By their fruit you shall recognize them.”
What will people around us recognize by the “fruit” the grows from our hearts?


Dr. Roy Trueblood, in his book Partners in Ministry, used that word HEART as an acrostic to identify 5 key ground rules that teams, especially ministry teams, HAVE TO HAVE in order to be GREAT teams.
H
HEAR AND UNDERSTAND ME
Jesus said repeatedly, Let him who has ears to hear, hear.
Don’t let this message go in one ear and out the other….
PAY ATTENTION… HEAR ME AND UNDERSTAND ME!
Jesus showed us the importance of this and gave us the example…
John 4… Woman at the well.
He’s tired, and sits down to rest while the disciples go on…
He hears the woman… understands the rejection and pain that she’s operating out of, and meets her right there where she is.
So often we Christians look at where the world around us & the people around us OUGHT to be and get upset , angry, or depressed because they don’t seem to get it.
Jesus showed us the better way… Stop. Hear them and REALLY listen. Understand where they’re coming from. Meet them where they are.


E
EVEN IF YOU DISAGREE, PLEASE DON’T MAKE ME WRONG
Again, Jesus is our example:
John 8…woman taken in adultery…

Who accuses you?

Go and sin no more.


A
ACKNOWLEDGE THE GREATNESS WITHIN ME
Jesus affirmed the greatness and worth of those around him.
Example:
·       Ate & drank with sinners and even prostitutes mk 2.16
·       Nathaniel… I saw you under the fig tree… john 1:48


R
REMEMBER TO LOOK FOR MY LOVING INTENTIONS
John 12:1-18
Mary & Martha’s home
Mary broke box of ointment, disciples complained about impracticality. 

Jesus saw her loving intentions.


T
TELL ME THE TRUTH WITH COMPASSION
Ephesians 4.15
Paul teaches that it is as we speak “the truth in love” that “we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ.”
Truth, without love, without compassion, tears down and wounds the one to whom you speak.
   – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – 
In many organizations, at their first meeting of the year, they install their new officers. And, in essence, so do we today. BUT, I want us to be MORE than just a roster of officers… It is my hope, my prayer, and my goal, that we be a MINISTRY TEAM.
Officers have authority to do their job and are responsible to go do their job and carry out their assigned tasks.
A Ministry TEAM, has team members who do have specific tasks and areas that are their responsibility, but they are dependant upon everyone else in the team doing their jobs as well.
So, I don’t talk about “officers” of the church “organization,” but rather we work as a “team” each of us doing our job but completely ineffective unless we’re doing it WITH the rest of the team as a part of that team.
One final word…
All of these things we’ve talked about today are built upon the assumption that you KNOW Jesus Christ first!
These are not qualities that you’re going to be able to work on alone. You MUST have Jesus Christ as your foundation you or it won’t make a difference.
That’s why one of the United Methodist Book of Discipline, (the “play book” if you will of the United Methodist Church) includes a requirement that those serving in positions of leadership and responsibility must have Jesus Christ as their Lord and their Savior first or else they are NOT eligible to lead in our church.
As we work together in 2012, let’s remember the HEART of the team!
–All Scripture references from The Holy Bible, New International Version, 1984 (NIV).

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Thankful in All Things

Last night, I was the preacher for the Lakeview Ministerium’s Community Thanksgiving Service at the Oak Grove Church not far from Clarks Mills. I repeated (!) a sermon I had used in 2006… Turns out the Bible hasn’t changed since then!

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Thankful in ALL Things
Philipians 4:4-8

Thanksgiving. I love this holiday. It’s one of the most peaceful, deeply spiritual holidays for me. Yeah, I know Christmas and Easter are the biggies in the realm of religious holidays, but this one is SPIRITUAL…. there’s no big religious festival, no ritual, no special call to worship prescribed in some book. In the Revised Common Lectionary there’s not even a special Thanksgiving set of passages like the other religious days.

It’s not a religious holiday, because it’s not one prescribed by the church… not the church throughout the ages, not the Roman Catholics, not the Eastern Orthodox churches, not the Protestant churches, not even my own United Methodist Church.

But it is a spiritual holiday… and for me it is a Holy Day.

Why? Because it calls each of us to consider our lot in life and to be thankful…But not even to just be thankful, but to go beyond being thankful and actually give thanks.  It’s wonderful to be full of thanks, but you gotta do something with all of that thanks or else it means nothing except a warm feeling.

With Thanksgiving, as we have it here in America, our government asks us to give thanks to God….yes, I said the government asks us to give thanks to God.  They may not highlight that aspect, but that’s where it comes from isn’t it?  You go to Canada and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Mexico and this week is not Thanksgiving week.  You go to Britain and this week is not Thanksgiving week. You go to Israel, the one place where God’s religious holidays are still observed, at least in part, and you’ll find that this week is not Thanksgiving week. Only in America, where we are ONE NATION UNDER GOD.

Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?  If I ask school children, they might tell me stories of pilgrims and Indians and a cold winter and then a fruitful harvest and a big feast with plenty to spare and the pilgrims proclaiming a day to give thanks to God.  Yep.  That’s part of what we remember this week.

After that first harvest was brought in, it was the Governor of the colony, William Bradford, in 1621, who proclaimed a day of thanksgiving and prayer.

It was an American President over two hundred years years later that asked us….”to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November.”  And he did not ask us to just to be thankful, but listen to President Lincoln’s actual words about this day. He wanted us to have a day of thanksgiving: “…as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens…”

And every year since then, whichever President is in that office has asked us to do the same thing. And so we celebrate Thanksgiving… and we give thanks and praise to GOD, because our governmenthas asked us to.

Separation of church and state? Yeah, right.

Now, before you think this preacher is getting too strange, I just want to clarify something here.  I am not complaining that the government calls us to prayer.  I happen to like that a whole lot. 

(Although I’m not convinced that even us Christians use it as a day of prayer and giving thanks.  Unfortunately for many of us, if you watch us on this Thursday, you would think the day should be called THANKS-PIGGING, instead of Thanksgiving.)

My concern is much more Christian…. not governmental.

You see, I am afraid that since we find Paul and others reminding us so often to “give thanks” and then even the government of the United States has to set aside a day for us to give thanks, that maybe it is a sad indicator that we, the Christians, instead of entering the gates of our Lord with praise and entering His courts with thanksgiving, are actually nothing more than an ungrateful bunch of hypocrites.

Let’s take a minute, shall we, and just do a reality check. Now, being a good Christian pastor, I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but just consider with me the following items:

ØWhen we pray, are we praising and thanking God…or just asking for stuff and for blessings or healings or whatever? Are we thankful people?

ØWhen we are at church, are we in an attitude of gratefulness and worship…or are we looking for what someone else does wrong or does that annoys us? Or checking to see if the preacher makes a mistake? Are we thankful people?

ØWhen we meet with the other people in our town are we focusing on the positives and the good things, the things someone has done well and praising them for a good job…or are we sitting there like vultures just looking for a weakness so that we may attack? Are we thankful people?

ØDo we look around us in this country where we have the right to select our leaders, worship as we desire, and even are encouraged unwittingly by the government to have days of thanks and prayer and to praise God for a great land where we still live as One Nation Under God…  or do we deliberately badmouth and curse our leaders rather than pray for them? Are we thankful people?

The passage of Scripture I read a few minutes ago that says “THINK ON THESE THINGS” isn’t just a nice suggestion… It is Scripture. There is a life-giving, life-fulfilling dimension of following the principles of Scripture. If we were to look at all aspects of our lives through the glasses of this Scripture, we truly could give God thanks and praise in all of life… no matter what may come our way… Because we would see things as God sees them.

It all boils down to a pretty easy mind-picture for me:

Imagine with me that we are at the mall in some other community where no one knows us and we are walking into a bookstore. There’s the magazine section off to our left. We walk towards it and there are all kinds of magazines there, aren’t there?

I am waiting for my wife to shop for whatever it is she’s shopping for. I am bored stiff and so I have come to look through the magazines…. If I find one I really like, I may even pay money for it so that I can keep it.

What magazine to choose?  

 I see some of the titles: People, Us, Seventeen, Biblical Archaeology, Reader’s Digest, Billy Graham’s Decision magazine, Guideposts, US News & World Report, Teenbeat, Newsweek, Playboy, Penthouse… and the list goes on, because there are hundreds of magazines.

Now, do I begin picking up each and every magazine, reading it cover to cover?  NO! Because for me, some of those titles are AUTOMATICALLY ruled out, because they are advocate and support behaviors and actions that are contrary to what I believe.  I won’t even consider buying them and I won’t even considerlooking inside them. I do not want my mind filled with the images that are contained in their pages.

That’s EXACTLY what Paul’s saying here, my brothers and sisters.  Every single day of our life, in every waking moment, we will choose things for our mind to dwell on and to think about.  And Paul says we, as Christians, need to be keeping our minds on the things that are true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. The things that are worthwhile and worthy of praise.

To allow our minds to focus otherwise is a direct contradiction to what we as Christians are to do.

It would be just like you or I going into that bookstore and making poor choices in our magazine reading. 

That’s how we can easily become thankful again… by deliberately choosing what we’re going to focus on in our minds, in our thoughts. Rather than looking for negatives (which is SO easy), we’re going to start focusing on the things in our lives the way God does…by looking for the good in each situation, the lovely, the pure… by looking for the “thanksgiving” moment in each situation… the part of the situation that we can turn into a praise to God.

Yeah, we’ll still encounter people who annoy us and do things wrong…they may even do a job differently than we like.  And they may even do something in the church in a way that we think is ridiculous and so very inefficient. Oh well. Too bad.

God didn’t ask you or I to be his efficiency experts, we weren’t called to right all the other Christians in the world… let alone stand as their judge.

Rather, we were called to shine a light… so that everyone who sees us will want what we have.  If all we do is focus on the bad and focus on the faults of other people, then all the others will see in us is vinegar…. and instead of drawing others to our churches and to our God, we will see them staying away from us like the plague.

Paul hits this message pretty hard and pretty personal… because it’s a message that we seem intent on forgetting.  God is to be approached with praise and with the giving of thanks… and we are to approach our very lives with praise and the giving of thanks… and that’s pretty hard to do if we’re looking for the what’s wrong around us. 

Let’s approach this Thanksgiving time, and then the season of Christmas which so quickly follows, with the positive, affirming, praising, thankful approach.

And maybe we won’t need the government to remind us to give thanks.

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God of Judgment OR God of Mercy

This was my devotional for the September 2010 newsletter from our Reynoldsville church…

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Jeremiah 9:3-9 (New Living Translation) God explaining why Judah ought to be destroyed:
“My people bend their tongues like bows to shoot out lies. They refuse to stand up for the truth. They only go from bad to worse. They do not know me,” says the LORD. “Beware of your neighbor! Don’t even trust your brother! For brother takes advantage of brother, and friend slanders friend. They all fool and defraud each other; no one tells the truth. With practiced tongues they tell lies; they wear themselves out with all their sinning. They pile lie upon lie and utterly refuse to acknowledge me,” says the LORD. Therefore, this is what the LORD of Heaven’s Armies says: “See, I will melt them down in a crucible and test them like metal. What else can I do with my people? For their tongues shoot lies like poisoned arrows. They speak friendly words to their neighbors while scheming in their heart to kill them. Should I not punish them for this?” says the LORD. “Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?”

As I write this devotional, the Mix house is in full swing getting ready to head back to school. There are preparations to make and things to buy: new clothes, crayons, pencils, a bookbag, and more. But ultimately, the most needed preparation for school cannot be purchased at a store: an eagerness to learn. As my son begins first grade, there is an abundance of that commodity, so we’re just about set!

This morning though, this idea of being an eager learner came back to me while getting ready to have my own devotions. I try hard to NOT have my own personal devotional reading of the Bible be the same as searching the Bible in preparation for a sermon or a Bible study, so as I poured my coffee and headed to the table I was thinking: “OK God, is there some passage you want to lead me to this morning?” And as I laid my Bible down on the table, it fell open to the ninth chapter of Jeremiah.

I started reading through the chapter and was literally drawn to the short little Hebrew poem in verses 23 and 24:

“This is what the LORD says: ‘Don’t let the wise boast in their wisdom, or the powerful boast in their power, or the rich boast in their riches. But those who wish to boast should boast in this alone: that they truly know me and understand that I am the LORD who demonstrates unfailing love

and who brings justice and righteousness to the earth,

and that I delight in these things.
I, the LORD, have spoken!’”

God warns that there isn’t a good enough reason in ourselves to boast to others. The only reason we ever really have to boast is that we know Him! And then He gives us another peak at what He’s truly like: a God of never failing love and mercy who will none-the-less make sure there is justice and righteousness. By our choices and actions, we determine which way He’ll respond to us: mercy & forgiveness for those who have repented of their sin and judgment in order to establish justice for those who do not.

Did you catch that? God WANTS to be known to you and to me as a God of mercy and forgiveness MORE than as a God of judgment!

The phenomenal thing about this little poem about God’s real desires is that it follows a very hard passage (Jeremiah 9:3-9) where He is laying down the law so to speak. It’s like He’s in a courtroom detailing for the jury (which is also Him) why judgment and destruction are appropriate for the people of Judah based on these horrible actions they’ve committed.

THAT’s when He throws in this reminder that even though they may deserve judgment and vengeance, HIS hope is that they will repent, turn their back on their evil intentions, and ask for forgiveness. Because God would rather be gracious and merciful.

And in the midst of this I am reminded it’s not just our school kids that need an eagerness to listen and to learn… it’s ALL of us!

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Civil War, Ku Klux Klan, and anonymity

      In the aftermath of the Civil War, there were some in the south who felt powerless because they had lost and their desired way of life was no longer available to them (i.e. owning slaves and getting to act like the GOD over those slaves). When they lost that, they resorted to going out at night, hiding their identity with white hoods and sheets, and trying to bully the ones they used to be able to intimidate as slaves. They started intimidating and bullying their own neighbors when the neighbor did something to irk them. And people never talked about those things because you never knew who was, or wasn’t, a member of the Ku Klux Klan organization. They just kept the town secrets to themselves for fear that they would be the next one on the receiving end of the intimidation.

     Nowadays, as far as I know, it’s not the KKK that does the bullying. Even in the church, there are the “anonymous” letter writers who hide their identity in order to bully others. And most of the time, the letter recipient is so devastated that they never tell others and so nothing ever changes. And the church of Jesus loses another person that Christ himself died for.

     A friend of mine recently got two anonymous letters telling her what to do and what not to do, even going as far as telling my friend she could no longer attend her church. The authors of these letters apparently are ticked off about something that happened (or didn’t happen) and feel they “just have to” take action to set things right. And so they hid their identity by calling themselves a “Concerned Parish member” and a “regular [church] attendee.”

     As a pastor, I’ve received my share of anonymous letters. And they’re worthless! There’s a reason that newspapers specify that they will not print letters to the editor that aren’t signed. Because if there is something important that needs to happen, people will own up to the idea or the critique and help DO SOMETHING about whatever problem there is. Those who are just ticked off because they don’t get their own way, and know they’d be wrong if they openly confronted someone about their concern, try to be anonymous. Folks, if your beef isn’t worth YOUR name and YOUR time being associated with it, then it’s not worth our time and attention either.

     JESUS taught us, in Matthew 18:15-17, that if we have a problem with someone else WE are to GO TO that person that offended or hurt us… alone and in person. That way, you can hopefully get things worked out and a friendship is maintained. If that person doesn’t respond by making things right, then you get a couple of other people to go with you next time. In my religious tradition, that quite often is either the pastor or the Staff-Parish Relations Committee (SPRC). If the person STILL doesn’t make things right, then you treat her or him like you would a common sinner.

     HOWEVER, if YOU remember that YOU are the one who has hurt someone else by your words or your actions, then Jesus explained in Matthew 5: 23-24 that it is up to you to go approach the one you hurt to try to make things right. That doesn’t mean they forgive you (some will, some won’t), but you must do your best to make it right if you want God to bless what you do.

     As Christians, we ARE in a Civil War today. Those who ought to be subjects of the Almighty King (Satan & his demons) have rebelled and refuse to bow their knee to their rightful King and Lord. Furthermore, when Jesus died on the cross, and then was raised from the dead, he defeated Satan completely. JESUS WON THAT WAR!!!

     However, in the same way that the KKK was unwilling to admit defeat and tried to intimidate those who had been made free, so it is with the devil and his hordes of followers. When we are following what Christ taught us, we are dangerous to them and we become targets for the evil tactics of a frustrated, defeated enemy. Since Satan cannot get at God, he sends his remaining demons to try and make life so difficult for the believers that maybe, just maybe, he can get us to give up on church and on God.

     OH, by the way, there is one more concern to take into account for those who would jab and fight from under the cover of anonymity: you are NOT anonymous to God. He sees what you do and knows the evil you intend, whether you burn crosses or send unsigned nasty letters.

     FOR THOSE OF US who know someone who’s been on the receiving end of a bully’s evil efforts, there are a couple things we can do.

     First, PRAY! Pray that God would cover the letter recipient with his love and comfort and grant them the courage and peace they will need to be able to deal with such evil.

     Second, find a way to let that person know how much they ARE loved and how little that bully speaks for the group. Talk, listen, spend time with him or her. (And facebook, twitter, and my space don’t count! The one you are trying to encourage needs to be able to hear the empathy and love as you are with them… online doesn’t allow that and even great thoughts can seem hurtful at times).

     Third, don’t just react to them. I mean, they need to feel loved and connected, but if you and I just get MORE offended and take his (or her) problem on as our own, then we can’t help as much. Usually, it ends up sounding like a gripe session where EVIL is the only topic of discussion and the God of love is left out. (Again, that’s another reason to avoid the online treatment of such an important matter.)

     GOD knows who is a bully and a coward trying to destroy one of his loved ones. Let’s make sure that can NEVER be said about us.

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