BAD EXAMPLES

Friends, this world is not your home, so don’t make yourselves cozy in it. Don’t indulge your ego at the expense of your soul. Live an exemplary life in your neighborhood so that your actions will refute their prejudices. Then they’ll be won over to God’s side and be there to join in the celebration when he arrives. [1 Peter 2:11-12 (MSG)]

laughing gullWe’d gathered for coffee when the conversation turned to tipping. Several who had been servers at one time or another mentioned what notoriously bad tippers church people seem to be. Rather than a tip, some only leave a religious tract. A barista admitted removing any she finds in the tip jar because her fellow workers find them incredibly offensive. Rather than bringing anyone to Jesus, they serve to further distance non-believers from any church!

I recalled my college days in the 60s when many restaurants and businesses had restroom attendants. Rather than money, my fellow Campus Crusaders often left religious tracts in the attendant’s tip jar. Believing that a woman who cleaned up other people’s messes in bathroom sinks and stalls for tips (and purchased gum, breath mints, hand lotion, and perfume to increase those tips) would appreciate the money more than a tract, I always left money.

Thinking that leaving a tract meant they could “chalk one up” for Jesus, my friends may have  congratulated themselves for sharing the Gospel but I thought they were taking the cheap and easy way out of witnessing for Christ. Religious tracts aren’t a substitute for sharing the Word; they are mere tools. While they may get a conversation going, explain a concept, or provide information, they don’t replace interacting with someone. Tracts are an extension of a relationship, not a replacement for one. Relationships, however, take time and effort.

Since we were discussing “bad” Christian behavior, the barista mentioned the incivility of some of the local clergy who frequent her shop. One minister is so notorious that the baristas play rock-paper-scissors to determine who has to wait on him! Doing nothing to promote the Kingdom with their short-tempers, supercilious manner, or brusque behavior, those rude clergy could take a lesson from my son.

While listening to him talk with an airline’s customer service agent, I knew why he’s such a good salesman. He sincerely cares about the people with whom he interacts. Rather than beginning with a complaint about the airline, he started out by asking the agent how she was doing, where she was located, and followed up by commenting on the location and asking about the weather. He sincerely tried to find some common ground before launching into the problem at hand. My son, however, doesn’t save his charm for people who can help him. He’s that way with baristas, butchers, bell hops, bus boys, cashiers, and supermarket baggers as well as neighbors, vendors, employees, customers, and bankers. Everyone he meets is treated with the same amount of courtesy and respect. As salesmen for Christ, we must do the same!

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Sadly, many people hold that same sentiment. Both believers and non-believers can be arrogant, nasty, and stingy but that doesn’t make it right! It’s not just the eyes of God that are upon us—the world sees us and judges Jesus by our behavior.

It simply comes back to how we treat people—not just the people we like, want to impress, or who can do something for us—but everyone from the homeless man, server, janitor, and landscaper all the way to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Remembering to reflect God’s grace and generosity in all things, let’s not further the stereotype that Christians are a rude, judgmental, and cheap lot! (And, if you want to leave a tract, be sure to leave a hefty tip, as well!)

The world takes its notions of God from the people who say that they belong to God’s family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. They see us; they only hear about Jesus Christ. [Alexander Maclaren]

Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. [Matthew 7:12 (MSG)]

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GOD IDEAS

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. [Proverbs 3:5-6 (NLT)]

Every Friday, I’m emailed a “weekly wisdom” consisting of two pithy sayings like, “Don’t just trust God for things; trust Him in things,” or “You can’t enjoy today if you’re worrying about the past or the future.” Last week’s wisdom really hit home with, “Not every good idea is a God idea!” More than once, I’ve looked back with regret while saying, “It seemed like such a good idea at the time!”

When she did it, eating that forbidden fruit probably seemed like a good idea to Eve just as moving to the beautiful grazing land near Sodom seemed a good idea to Lot. David’s ideas about taking a census to know the strength of his troops and transporting the Ark on a cart might have seemed good ones at the time but he lived to regret them. Fresh from his victory over Edom, King Amaziah may have thought it good strategy to challenge King Jehoash of Israel and, anxious for a child, Sarah probably thought it a good plan to give Hagar to Abraham. Saul’s idea to make sacrifices without waiting for Samuel, Rebekah’s scheme to deceive Isaac, and Hezekiah showing off his riches to envoys from Babylon may have seemed like good ideas at the time but, like those others, they weren’t! They may have looked like good ideas but none were God’s idea and all ended badly.

What those words of wisdom should have added, however, is that not every God idea seems like a good one. In fact, many make no sense to our mortal reasoning. Even though it was God’s idea to lead the people back toward Egypt and camp facing Pharaoh’s army with their backs to the Red Sea, it probably didn’t seem like a good idea to Moses and the Israelites. Joshua probably had reservations about exhausting his troops by marching them around Jericho for seven days and Gideon must have wondered at the wisdom of reducing his army of 32,000 to 300. Being told by God to deliberately marry a promiscuous woman who would betray him probably made no more sense to Hosea than buying land occupied by the Babylonians did to Jeremiah or building an enormous boat with no water nearby did to Noah. Nevertheless, as unreasonable as God’s ideas might have seemed to them, they faithfully obeyed. Regardless of appearances, they knew that God’s ideas are good ones!

We tend to think that the ideas we like are good ones (and God’s) and the ideas we don’t like couldn’t possibly come from Him which makes it difficult to discern the difference between God’s ideas and ours. The more we know of Him and His word, however, the easier it will be to determine if our good ideas and God’s ideas are the same. Even when God’s idea doesn’t seem like a good one, rest assured that, when God tells us to do (or not to do) something, we can know that His idea is far better than any we might have!

God does not exist to answer our prayers, but by our prayers we come to discern the mind of God. [Oswald Chambers]

For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” [Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)]

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:2 (NLT)]

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SARAH SMITH (The Great Divorce – 2)

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8 (ESV)]

Growing up, one of my favorite hymns was, “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” Its author, Lesbia Scott, wrote hymns for her children as expressions of the family’s faith. Not originally intended for publication, she wrote this song to emphasize that saints lived not just in the distant past but also in the present day. My favorite verse was the final one and I recall singing it loudly with childlike enthusiasm: “The world is bright with the joyous saints who love to do Jesus’ will. You can meet them in school, on the street, in the store, In church, by the sea, in the house next door; They are saints of God, whether rich or poor, and I mean to be one too.”

It’s been years since singing that song but its words came to mind while reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy The Great Divorce. After the dreaming narrator, presumed to be Lewis, takes his bus ride from hell to heaven, he meets his guide—the author George MacDonald. Although MacDonald was dead before Lewis read any of his books, his writing had a direct impact on Lewis’ faith and work. Lewis believed there was “hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continuously close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” MacDonald’s writing was instrumental in causing the atheist Lewis to eventually become one of Christianity’s greatest apologists.

While conversing with his heavenly guide, the narrator sees a woman of “unbearable beauty” surrounded by a dazzling procession of angels, children, animals, and musicians. Although he’s sure she must be someone of great importance, perhaps even Jesus’ mother, MacDonald explains, “Fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.” Identifying her as “Sarah Smith of Golders Green,” he says she was “one of the great ones.”

Since MacDonald was a real person whose books I read as a girl, I thought Sarah Smith might have existed and immediately put down my book to Google her. Sarah Smith, however, was but a figment of the writer’s imagination—an ordinary person who loved children, was kind to people, and cared for animals. Nevertheless, explains MacDonald, like a stone dropped into a pool, Sarah had a ripple effect of love and joy on the lives of those she encountered and the “abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father” flowed over into the lives of all she met. As a result, children loved their parents more and men even loved their wives more. After knowing her and being loved by her, people were renewed, restored, and transformed in a meaningful and beautiful way. In short, ordinary Sarah Smith of Golders Green touched the lives of others as only a Christ follower can. She was, indeed, a saint of God.

Like the fictional Sarah Smith, the real Sarah (and Sam) Smiths of today humbly and lovingly shine the light of Christ on all whose lives they touch. Completely ordinary men and women, they are the kind of people about whom I sang as a child—and the kind of people Jesus call us to be. As followers of Christ, we are called to be the Sarah and Sam Smiths of our troubled world. May we all be saints of God.

We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining—they just shine. [D.L. Moody]

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:14-16 (ESV)]

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TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE (The Great Divorce – 1)

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.” [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]

sandhill crane - canadian gooseI thought of that great fixed chasm between heaven and hell again after reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. Lewis clearly warns his readers that the book is a fantasy, what he calls “imaginative supposal,” and should be read that way. He does, however, add that it does have a moral. The book’s unnamed narrator (presumed to be Lewis) describes what seems to be hell as a grey, dingy, and utterly joyless place where quarrelsome souls continually argue with one another and move further and further apart. Finding himself there, the narrator joins others as they take a bus ride from this grey world to a vibrant, beautiful, and substantial place that appears to be heaven.

Although they aren’t ghosts, his fellow travelers appear insubstantial, almost wraithlike, in comparison to this new world—a place more real than anything he’d ever known—and the solid radiant people they see there. Full of life, love, and joy, each vivid being tries to convince one of the ghostlike travelers to stay. Those who choose to remain may do so and are reassured that they will gradually become more substantial as they drink from the fountain and journey up the mountain. Those who choose to reject the offer are free to return to the bus and their joyless lives.

The narrator’s travelling companions are people like us. Some are self-absorbed or greedy while others are embittered or selfish. One traveler is sure he’s better than the “riff-raff” around him and another, sure that he’s earned his way there, demands his rights. One wants to be assured of his position before staying, another remains skeptical of its promise, and still another person refuses to stay because of shame. One refuses to forgive, one wishes to live in the past, and one prefers wallowing in misery and self-pity. When none of these choose to stay, the narrator’s guide explains that the choice of those “lost souls” is best expressed in the phrase, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He adds, “there is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…always something they prefer to joy.” Only one traveler chooses to give up the lust that controlled his life and stay. When he does so, the narrator watches as he solidifies into a new-made man.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” The contrast between the ghostlike non-believing souls with the vibrant solid people they meet is a perfect illustration of Lewis’ point. Indeed, it is only when we die to ourselves that we truly become alive and complete. Giving up oneself to follow Jesus is a real choice each person must make!

Even though the narrator takes a bus ride from hell to heaven, this fantasy really isn’t about heaven or hell. It merely answers the question so many people ask: how can a loving God send someone to Hell? The simple answer is that He doesn’t! Rather than being condemned to hell as punishment, each person freely chooses how they will spend both life in the here-and now and in eternity. The narrator is told by his guide, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

When the narrator wonders if he’d actually witnessed choices made long before death, his guide doesn’t answer. Instead, he explains it was just a dream and cautions the man to make that clear should he ever write of it. As Lewis said in the book’s preface, the story is just a fantasy but, as he promised in the preface, it does have a moral: our loving God never sends people to hell—they do that of their own free will!

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. [C.S. Lewis]

He then spoke to them all. “If any of you want to come after me,” he said, “you must say No to yourselves, and pick up your cross every day, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me, you’ll save it. What good will it do you if you win the entire world, but lose or forfeit your own self?” [Luke 9:23-25 (NTE)]

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THE OTHER LAZARUS

But Abraham said to him, “Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted, and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.” [Luke 16:25-26 (NLT)]

Shortly after accusing the Pharisees of being more concerned with appearing righteous than being righteous and warning them that God knew what was in their hearts, Jesus told them a story about a rich man (who probably appeared quite righteous) and a beggar named Lazarus. The leprous and destitute Lazarus sat by the rich man’s gate and begged for scraps from the man’s table while mangy dogs licked at his wounds. The rich man ignored the beggar; to him, Lazarus probably was a little more than a piece of trash to step over before entering his home. When Lazarus died, he was carried by angels to a heavenly banquet and seated in a place of honor beside Abraham. When the rich man died, however, he ended up in Hades or Sheol, the realm of the dead. The mention of “torment” and “flames” there indicates that the rich man was in what Jewish tradition called Gehinnom (a place of fire and anguish).

Upon seeing Lazarus in the distance, the rich man asked Abraham to send the beggar over with some water to ease his agony. After Abraham explained that the chasm between them couldn’t be crossed, the rich man asked him to send Lazarus back to warn the wealthy man’s brothers about his fate in the place of torment. Abraham reminded him that the warning already was in Scripture and, since his brothers had ignored Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t be persuaded by someone who returned from the dead.

Although Jesus spoke of sons, fathers, laborers, and land owners in his other parables, this is the only parable in which He used a proper name. Because Jesus seemed to use his words purposefully, I don’t think the beggar was named Lazarus by accident. It is only later, when Jesus raises Martha and Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead, that we understand why this is the only parable in which a character is given a name and why that specific name was chosen. Just as Jesus predicted, even when a man named Lazarus did return from the dead, the Pharisees weren’t persuaded by him. Instead, they decided to kill him!

Remembering that this is a parable rather than a literal description of the next life, there is no reason to think that those in heaven or hell can see or converse with one another. Nevertheless, there are some clear theological implications to the story. The word translated as chasm was chasma. Used just this one time in the New Testament, it means gaping hole, vacancy, or impassable interval. The next word is stérizó, meaning firmly established or solidly planted. Without a doubt, that gaping hole is an unbridgeable space and, as Abraham explained, there can be no passage between them. This parable illustrates a clear and serious reality: the coming judgment depends on the choices made in this life and it is permanent and irreversible. While we have countless opportunities to get it right while we’re on this side of the grass, let us remember that there are no second chances after death!

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord. [Romans 6:23 (NLT)]

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WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? 

Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus. [John 12:10-11 (NLT)]

Golondrinas - NMWhile Scripture tells us about Martha and Mary, the first mention of their brother is when his sisters sent a message to Jesus that Lazarus had taken sick. By the time Jesus returned to Bethany, Lazarus had been dead four days and placed in a tomb. After Jesus called for him to come out, the once dead man, still wrapped in his graveclothes, emerged. The next we know of Lazarus is that he was present when Martha served a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Because the testimony of those who’d witnessed his miraculous resurrection had spread like wildfire, people gathered there to see the living Lazarus and Jesus, the man who brought a dead man back to life with just a few words.

After that dinner, Lazarus vanishes from the gospels as quickly as he appeared. If we were filming Jesus’ life, the role of Lazarus would be a bit-part without any lines. Nevertheless, this nondescript man played a pivotal role in the gospel story. With the exception of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Lazarus’ return to life is the most amazing miracle of the gospels. So, what happened to the man?

The raising of Lazarus sealed Jesus’ fate and, since Lazarus’ existence threatened the Jewish establishment, it may have sealed his, too. Along with their plot to kill Jesus, the priests plotted to kill HIM, as well. They wanted Lazarus dead because he was a living witness to Jesus’ power. While it is believed that Lazarus fled to avoid capture, we know that Jesus did not.

Did Lazarus’ miraculous escape from death change him? How could it not? Yet, I think of Justin, a young man for whom our church was praying. The picture of health, he collapsed due to a ruptured aorta and was “dead” for more than 15 minutes. The doctors warned his family that Justin’s survival was improbable and, if he were to survive, he would suffer severe brain damage. To everyone’s astonishment, however, Justin was walking, lucid, and speaking clearly less than ten days later; his only complaint was the soreness in his chest. His amazing recovery is nothing short of a miracle. Justin, however, does not believe in God or miracles. With no logical medical explanation for his survival, I wonder if that will change. Will his miraculous recovery and second chance at life cause Justin to reconsider his atheistic stand? Only God knows.

As for Lazarus, the rest of his story is mere speculation. While he may have remained in Bethany, church tradition holds that he moved to Cyprus, eventually became the bishop of Kition, and died a natural death in 63 AD. Yet other church historians believe Lazarus and his sisters moved to Gaul where he became the bishop of Marseilles and was beheaded by the Emperor Domitian. The only thing we know for sure about Lazarus is that he died a second time and that, some day in the future, Jesus will raise him from the dead once again. As for Justin, we know that he, too, will die a second time. Whether or not he will defeat death a second time is entirely up to him!

Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. [1 Corinthians 15:22 (NLT)]

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