AT WHAT COST?

Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” [John 11:49-50 (NLT)]

southern fRecently, I read a novel that blurred the lines between fiction and fact. Considered fiction, it was heavily based on the memories of two Auschwitz survivors and included people and events that actually occurred. A determination to stay alive at any cost was one of its themes. As I read how some people managed to survive the camp, I had to wonder how I might react in a similar situation. When does cooperation with the enemy, which can allow survival (not just of oneself but also of others) become collaboration or complicity? Following the war, the two main characters feared being labeled as collaborators for their actions and another person in the story actually was charged as a Nazi collaborator. After three years in Auschwitz’s hell, she was sentenced to fifteen years in the Soviet gulag. Yet, because of what was called collaboration, she saved not just her life but also the lives of others. Which is more right or less wrong: survival at all costs or refusal to compromise and death? That is not a choice I ever want to make.

Peter Black, a former historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that prisoners who “were in a position to help people, were also in a position to hurt people.” To keep their positions, he added, “They had to accept that duality.” The truth of his statement was brutally evident when the hero’s smuggling activity was discovered by his captors. Refusing to name the others involved, he was transported to the punishment and torture block where his torturer was a man whose life he’d saved. The man confided that his job was to get names, explaining, “Like you…I do what I have to do to survive.” He then told the prisoner that he would kill him before allowing him to name any of those names: “If I must kill one Jew to save ten others, then I will.”

The man’s explanation is in contrast to another recurring theme in the book: “To save one is to save the world.” This phrase originally comes from the Mishnah (the written version of Jewish oral law and part of the Talmud). It reads: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”  [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9, Jerusalem Talmud] “To save the one,” is repeated throughout the story.

Some reviewers have criticized the novel as inauthentic while others have praised it; I can’t vouch for its accuracy. Nevertheless, I know that many in Nazi concentration camps were faced with moral choices that meant the difference between life and death. Without a doubt, there are people facing similar quandaries today. It’s easy to see the world in black and white from the safety of my home in Florida—not so easy in a place like Auschwitz. We know we are to do good and not to do evil but there is a great deal of gray area between those two extremes.

The Christian has no fear of death but what if, by choosing to live in circumstances that come at a moral cost, more people could survive and possibly come to know Christ? What then? Christian ethics have three elements: the act we choose, our intentions behind the act, and the circumstances surrounding it. We have a merciful God and the circumstances of a concentration camp or battlefield are not the same as those of an insurance office or grocery store. As for intentions, we know they should always line up with loving God and loving our neighbor. When considering any act, we also must consider its consequences and whether they would please God. Do the means justify the end even if the means are wrong but the end result would glorify God? I can’t pretend to know the answer but, since reading this book, it is a question I’ve been pondering.

The basis of Christian ethics is the character of God and God is love. That love is seen in the life of Christ. While prayer, Scripture, and the Spirit’s guidance can direct us in our ethical dilemmas, in the end, we must ask ourselves what Jesus would do and then do it. He is the one who died, not to save just ten, but to save the world!

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. … And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. [Colossians 3:14,17 (NLT)]

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THE VIRTUE FARM

But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path. [Ecclesiastes 7:29 (NLT)]

When living in rural Illinois, I loved walking along the country roads, passing by fields of soy beans and corn, and seeing the horses, cows, goats, and sheep grazing in the fields. Virtue was a common name in the community and I often passed by the Virtue Farm. Thinking Virtue a noble name, I wondered if the Virtue family lived up to its promise of good character and moral excellence.

After Pope Gregory listed what came to be known as the seven deadly sins in 590 AD, he also listed seven virtues considered fundamental to Christian ethics: prudence (care and moderation with money), temperance (moderation in needed things and abstinence from unneeded ones), fortitude (never giving up), justice (being fair and equitable with others), faith, hope, and love. While it’s easy to recognize those last three virtues as coming from the Apostle Paul, the Pope’s list isn’t explicitly Biblical and the first four come from the Greek philosophers. When Peter listed the attributes of a Christian’s character, he included faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, patient endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love for everyone. [2 Peter 1:5-7] Paul listed the fruit of the spirit in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [5:22-23]. Looking at all of these lists, we can get a good idea of what qualities determine virtue. Unfortunately, we seem to have lowered the bar a bit since the time of Aristotle, Peter, Paul, and Pope Gregory. Nowadays, someone usually is considered of good character if they’re honest (most of the time), work hard, and don’t cheat on their spouse. While that’s a start, it hardly defines moral excellence.

With virtue in short supply these days, it would be nice if the Virtue Farm actually planted and harvested virtue as they do beans and corn. Of course, once it got to market, would there be any buyers? From what I see in the media, people aren’t much interested in things like chastity, modesty, self-respect, or fairness and good sportsmanship. Words like temperance, industry, and thrift are rarely used and the qualities of humility, courtesy, and self-control aren’t held in high regard.

We’re not born with virtue; it’s not like the blue eyes or musical talent we might have at birth. Moreover, virtue doesn’t grow on trees and can’t be purchased at the local farmers’ market or grocery. Virtue is something we choose; while the Holy Spirit provides us with His fruit, it is up to us to develop those virtues into good habits. While the Virtue Farm continues planting soy beans and corn, we must cultivate the seeds of virtue in our own lives. The Apostle Peter assures us that it can be done: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.” [2 Peter 1:3]

Father, we are faced with moral choices every day. Teach us with your word, guide us by your example, and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit so that we always choose the virtuous path.

Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:22-24 (NLT)] 

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NONDESCRIPT NOBODY BIRDS

Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:10 (NLT)]

clark's nutcrackerA few weeks ago, in Charles Schultz’s classic comic Peanuts, Snoopy sat on his doghouse and decided not to tell his little bird friend Woodstock about Santa Claus. “He’ll never get any presents anyway. Santa Claus never brings presents to tiny, nondescript, nobody birds,” he thought before concluding, “It’s kind of sad at Christmastime to be a nobody bird.” I wasn’t so sure about Santa ignoring the “nobody birds.” The previous day, several from our church had participated in a project that demonstrated just how much “Santa” really does care.

Those “tiny, nondescript, nobody” birds live in a nearby town where more than 40% of the population lives below the poverty level. Their parents, many of whom don’t speak English, are the working poor: the people who quietly bus our tables, pick our tomatoes and lettuce, mow our lawns, trim our trees, clean our hotels, and re-tile our roofs. A beautiful ray of hope exists for them in a center dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty through early childhood education, after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, and a tutoring corps. For five nights in mid-December, the Center offered a “shopping” event for families in need while volunteers served as stockers, Santa’s elves, and gift wrappers. Qualified shoppers were assigned a day and time to arrive and browse through a beautifully appointed and organized “store.” A personal Santa’s elf accompanied parents as they selected three gifts for each of their children along with stocking gifts, stuffed animals, and clothing. Parents were able to shop with dignity as they selected presents for each of their children and Santa’s own workshop couldn’t have been better stocked! At checkout, their selections were gift-wrapped in colorful holiday paper. The only difference between this store and a regular one was that the gift-wrapping was complimentary and money never exchanged hands! The store’s entire inventory had been donated by individuals, organizations and stores in neighboring communities.

People’s hearts grow bigger around Christmas and nearly one-third of all giving occurs in December. During the holidays, we see a generous outpouring of love in the Salvation Army’s red kettles, Fill the Truck and Angel Tree programs, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, Trees for Troops, assorted wishing and giving trees, and both toy and food drives sponsored by churches and other groups. The need, however, doesn’t disappear when the tree comes down. Loving, giving, sharing and caring shouldn’t be boxed up with the ornaments for the next eleven months.

I remember one father whose gifts I wrapped. Although he was thrilled to select presents for his children, tears of joy came to his eyes upon learning he also could select new shoes for them. When those two pairs of new sneakers are outgrown in a matter of months, what then? Will the family have to choose between new shoes, milk, school supplies or a visit to the dentist? Poverty, hunger, inadequate housing, lack of medical care, and the other challenges facing the “tiny, nondescript, nobody birds” in our communities remain long past December. Instead of being Santa Claus just in December, let us be the hands and feet of Jesus, generous in thought, word and deed, all year long.

I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. [spoken by Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens]

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. [Deuteronomy 15:10-11 (NLT)]

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THE FEAST OF EPIPHANY – JANUARY 6

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” [Matthew 2:1-2 (NLT)]

magi

Assuming you don’t worship in the Orthodox Church, today is known as the Feast of Three Kings or Epiphany. Since the church year for Orthodox Christians follows the Julian calendar, tonight is their Christmas Eve and Epiphany won’t be until January 19th. For those of us using the Gregorian calendar, however, today often is the day the Christmas tree is taken down, the nativity sets boxed up, and the holiday decorations are tucked away until next December.

Epiphany, however, isn’t about decorations or eating the last of the Christmas cookies. The word “epiphany” means to show, make known, or reveal. Those “ah-ha” moments when we have a flash of insight or understanding are often called epiphanies. (I frequently prayed for epiphanies when studying algebra and geometry.) When the travelers to Emmaus (in the gospel of John) suddenly recognized the resurrected Jesus, they had an epiphany as did Saul when Jesus revealed Himself on the road to Damascus. Today’s Epiphany celebration is about the coming of the wise men with gifts to visit the Christ child. Their visit revealed Jesus to the world as Lord and King, not just to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles.

When the long awaited Messiah was born, angels sent the birth announcement to lowly shepherds rather than religious leaders. The king was born, not in a palace, but in a stable. The newspaper didn’t list His birth but a star led the way. The baby gifts were brought not by Jews but by Gentiles: pagans who traveled from Persia, Arabia or India for several months to find this newborn king. They didn’t present the family with typical baby gifts and their offerings certainly weren’t what a poor carpenter’s family would expect to receive. Their offerings, however, were standard gifts to honor a king or deity in the ancient world. Gold, the metal of royalty, symbolized His kingship and acknowledged His right to rule. Frankincense, used in worship and the anointing of priests, symbolized the role Jesus would take as our High Priest. Myrrh, a spice used for embalming, was an odd gift for a child but the magi were familiar with the prophecies that told of the Messiah’s suffering. This was the perfect offering for the One who would be a sacrifice. Perhaps the greatest gift the magi brought was the one that didn’t come in a box: their worship!

As we put away the last of the holiday decorations, let’s not put away the message of Christmas. May the living Christ remain in our hearts: our King, God, and Savior—the One who lived and died so that we might die and live.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never Over us all to reign. …
Frankincense to offer have I. Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising, Worship Him, God on high. …
Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying, Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
[“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.]

They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [Matthew 2:11 (NLT)]

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PRAY, SEND, GO

The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go.” [Luke 10:1-3a (NLT)]

daisyThe story is told of a minister who made this announcement just before passing out the offering plates: “The good news is that God has all of the funds necessary to fund His church’s ministry.” As the congregation started to return their checks and cash to their wallets, the pastor added, “But the bad news is that it’s still in our pockets!”

Having been called by the Holy Spirit to serve, a young woman in our church shared her plans to become a missionary. Just as being a teacher, nurse, plumber or electrician is a career choice, so is being a missionary. Unlike those other careers, however, as a missionary, she has to provide the funds for her paycheck! Like everyone else, missionaries need a salary and insurance along with money for travel, ministry tools, professional support, and even retirement. A love for Jesus and a desire to obey His call won’t put food on the table or pay rent!

When Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of discipleship, He reminded them that builders don’t start construction without calculating the cost and being sure they have enough money to finish the project. This woman is doing that by working with an evangelical Christian mission organization to determine her funding needs. This charitable agency requires her to have a full year’s salary raised or pledged before she goes abroad. Technically, she will be their employee, but the monthly checks she receives from them will come from the funds that she has raised, and she is actively seeking financial partners for her ministry. Perhaps a missionary’s biggest obstacle is raising the funds needed to go out and share God’s word.

We rarely think about the business side of ministry and certainly not of Jesus and money. Nevertheless, in their three years together, Jesus and His disciples had financial needs. After all, they’d quit their jobs to follow the Lord. I suppose, miracle worker that He was, Jesus easily could have multiplied their few provisions or had Peter catch fish with gold coins in their mouths every morning, but that’s not how He did things. Scripture tells us they all shared a common purse and that Judas was in charge of it. From where did that money come? Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” provided for them out of their financial resources. When Jesus sent seventy-two of his followers out into the countryside, He told them to take nothing with them. They were to live on the kindheartedness of those they visited. Even Jesus depended on the generosity of others; he rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem and was buried in a donated tomb. Generosity fueled by the faith of His followers is how Jesus started His ministry and how we must continue it.

When Jesus sent out those seventy-two, He used three verbs: go, pray, and send. While all of us are called to share the gospel message, not all of us are called to go out and do missions work as a career. All of us, however, can pray both for more workers and for their funding. Some of us (perhaps many) also are capable of sending those workers to the harvest. The good news is that we have the funds to further spread Jesus’s message by financing those who do go. The bad news, however, is that the funds probably are still in our pockets!

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? [Romans 10:13-15a (NLT)]

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KARMA

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

maccawCutting in and out of traffic, the sports car sped around us and raced through a red light. A few minutes later, we saw it pulled off to the side of the road with a policeman at the driver’s side window. While the driver deserved the ticket, what happened was not karma. Nevertheless, when seeing someone suffer the consequences of their bad behavior, people often say, “It was karma—what goes around comes around!” Granted, what goes around often comes back around but the word “karma” is not a word that should be in our Christian vocabulary.

Although Christianity says we will harvest what we’ve planted, karma is not a Christian concept. Karma tells us that every good or bad action will result in a comparable good or bad consequence. Because the full reward or penalty doesn’t happen in this lifetime, it’s necessary to return to life again to reap the consequences of previous actions. The behavior during this and previous lives determines one’s destiny (and form) in future lives. Not only do people get what they deserve in karma, but they also get whatever their past life deserves! This life’s cancer, poverty, or paralysis is the result of a previous life’s transgressions or offenses (and we don’t even remember what they were)!

Karma requires reincarnation and there is no such thing as reincarnation in the gospel message. We die once and we’re judged once; our eternal reward or punishment is determined in a single lifetime. We’ll be reborn, but that rebirth is in this life, not in some future life. Yes, there will be an afterlife—but it will be as us (not something or someone else) and it only will be in one of two places: heaven or hell.

As Christians, we sow in this world and reap both in this world and the next. Because there are consequences to our actions, we often reap what we sow in this lifetime, but not completely. We live in a fallen world where the wicked can prosper, the righteous can suffer, and not every reckless driver gets a ticket. Nevertheless, a final day of judgment is promised in Revelation. It is God, however, not karma, who ensures that righteousness is rewarded and sin punished. While there will be rewards for good works and judgment for failures, there will be no condemnation to hell for the Christian. Rather than a pronouncement of doom, our judgment will be more like an assessment of value. What did we do with the gifts with which we’d been blessed? While I don’t understand how this judgment will work or what rewards we might receive or forfeit, I do know that it won’t be in some future life as an insect, dog, pauper or prince.

Thankfully, because of God’s mercy, Christians don’t receive what they ought to get; as sinners, what we deserve is death! Thankfully, because of God’s grace, we also get what we don’t deserve: salvation, forgiveness of sins, abundant life, the Holy Spirit, and an eternity in heaven!

We have one and only one opportunity to get it right and live according to God’s plan. Let’s not waste it!

Each person is destined to die once and after that comes judgment… [Hebrews 9:27 (NLT)]

For we must all stand before Christ to be judged. We will each receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body. [2 Corinthians 5:10 (NLT)]

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