CARE FOR THE LAMBS

And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. [Matthew 18:5-6 (NLT)]

tiger swallowtailEarlier this week, the news broke that church leaders in six Pennsylvania Roman Catholic dioceses have protected more than 300 “predator priests.” More concerned with protecting the church and abusers than helping the more than 1,000 victims or preventing further abuse, they failed to report allegations, discouraged victims from reporting abusers, conducted their own biased and faulty inquiries, pressured law enforcement to delay or close investigations, and spun their own versions of the events. Earlier this summer, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis agreed to a $210 million settlement to 450 victims of clergy sexual abuse there. It’s not just the Roman Catholic Church that has failed in this arena. It was just revealed that Willow Creek, a non-denominational Protestant mega-church, paid $3.25 million to settle two lawsuits over sex abuse by a church volunteer. No amount of money, however, can remove the trauma of abuse.

This is neither a Catholic nor a Protestant problem; it is everyone’s problem and it certainly is not limited to churches. We’ve seen institution after institution put reputation before serving and protecting our children. A growing number of Olympic athletes have joined the U.S. women’s gymnastics team in allegations of sexual abuse in their sports. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that the Chicago Public Schools failed to protect their students from sexual abuse and assault. Among other things, ineffective background checks didn’t protect the children from offenders and abuse was not reported. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the Boy Scouts over sex abuse and they’ve paid out millions of dollars in settlements. Recently, I watched the news in horror as eleven malnourished children (and the remains of a twelfth) were discovered in a New Mexico compound. Earlier this year, a 17-year old escaped from her house of horrors to make the 911 call that rescued her twelve shackled and severely malnourished siblings from their California home. Sadly, these are but a few of the sickening tales of child abuse we find in the news.

If we ever questioned that we live in a fallen world, these horrifying examples leave us no doubt. Child abuse in any form is the work of Satan: the one who came to “steal and kill and destroy.” He is destroying our young people when he steals their innocence, their physical health, their emotional well-being or takes their lives. Made in God’s image, children are not meant to be used and abused; they are meant to be nurtured and loved.

Whether or not we know those who’ve been hurt and abused, they all are our children and this is our problem. As Christ’s body on earth, we must open our eyes to the children around us and never be silent bystanders. As His body, we can’t stand idly by when abuse of any kind is suspected and the church must never hide the ugly truth even when it occurs within our walls. Abuse can’t be swept under the rug nor can we send offenders off to another parish, school, gym, or scout troop with little more than a rap on the knuckles. Moreover, untrained in forensic interview techniques, we are not the ones to conduct internal investigations. Neither judge nor jury, it’s not our job to determine the validity of an accusation; abuse is both a sin and a crime and our job is to report suspected crimes! We have a God-ordained responsibility to protect and preserve all children (not just the ones in our homes).

We all are called to be shepherds. Father in Heaven, show us how to protect your lambs.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. [1 Peter 5:2 (NLT)]

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SACRIFICED TO THE GODS

hindu pujaSo then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things through whom we live. [1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (NIV)]

If the multiple gods of Hinduism could be explained in one sentence it is the belief in one supreme being, Krishna, who has appointed many demi-gods with various powers and abilities. I mention this because one of my sons is married to a lovely woman whose heritage is Indian/Hindu. While he and his wife practice neither Christianity nor Hinduism, they try to honor the traditions of both sets of their more religious parents. Saturday, we attended a puja (ritual) to bless their new home. An altar had been placed in front of the fireplace and on it were several statues of Hindu gods and a tray with items like mango leaves, ghee, coconuts, and money. Red threads were tied around wrists and red tilaks applied to the participants’ foreheads, prayers and mantras were chanted in Sanskrit, and Ganesh, Vishnu, and Lakshmi were among the several deities honored. During the puja, things like water, rose petals, milk, uncooked rice, nuts, wheat, fruits, and assorted sweets were offered to all the idols.

My husband and I (as the only two practicing Christians out of thirty in attendance) did not participate in the puja and quietly sat in the back as observers. The ceremony ended with the distribution of prasadam: the remains of the food offerings. When we were handed plates with an assortment of nuts and dried fruits, a beautiful mixture of mango and other fresh fruit, a scoop of cooked wheat, and sweet kaju pista rolls made of cashew and pistachio flour, I began to understand the controversy faced by the early church over food offered to pagan gods. Knowing this was food had been offered to several idols, “What,” I wondered, “would the Apostle Paul say?”

Idols are inanimate and powerless to change food in any way; while they can corrupt hearts, they can’t corrupt food. We weren’t in danger of corrupted hearts and the puja hadn’t tainted the food. Moreover, as ignorant of our faith as we are of theirs, my daughter-in-law’s family wouldn’t judge us as hypocrites for eating the food but they would judge Christianity harshly if we were judgmental or inconsiderate and failed to be respectful of their traditions. This was not the time to evangelize, discuss the first and second commandments, or refuse food offered to us in love. The Apostle Paul wrote of sacrificial meat, eating in pagan temples, not endangering the faith of new Christians, and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles but this seemed to be one of those situations neither clearly addressed nor expressly prohibited in Scripture. It was time to let our consciences guide us.

Christians must accept that people will have different beliefs. We don’t have to accept those beliefs but we must respect their right to have them. Don’t misunderstand; while I joined my extended Hindu family in wishing peace, prosperity, and serenity for my son’s family in their new home, as fascinating as the puja was, I found it distasteful and disturbing. Nevertheless, knowing that we were not endorsing Hinduism or idolatry, we graciously accepted our plates of food.

Were we right? I don’t know. I do know that we let love guide us as we, like many others in today’s multi-cultural world, tried to navigate through a gray area to find a way to honor both God and family.

Tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you. [Tim Keller]

For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. [Romans 14:17-18 (NLT)]

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UP IN FLAMES

In the same way, the tongue is a small thing that makes grand speeches. But a tiny spark can set a great forest on fire. And the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. [James 3:5-6 (NLT)]

great blue heronRecently, a pastor shared a troubling experience while at the annual conference for his denomination. Along with other ordained ministers, he was to vote as to whether or not candidates for the ministry would be ordained. While usually a gratifying experience as this ministerial board accepts people into their vocation, on occasion the vote can be heartbreaking. If a candidate receives a negative recommendation from his supervisor, he or she is permitted to offer a defense before the vote is taken. At the last conference, such an instance occurred and, sadly, one individual did not receive an affirmative vote for ordination.

In their deliberations of the ministerial candidates, the board considers qualities of faith including evidence of God’s grace in the candidates’ lives, their ability to communicate the Christian faith, their worthiness of people’s faith and confidence, and their accountability to the church, its standards, authority and discipline. Candidates are expected to take responsibility for their actions and exercise self-control, emotional maturity and social responsibility. Unfortunately, this candidate had responded to an unfavorable assessment by a superior with a social media diatribe and Facebook rant. Foolishly, he took a private evaluation into a public forum and launched an attack; as a result, his several years spent in university, seminary and the ministry went up in flames.

In the days before social media (or as this pastor calls it—“unsocial media”), James wrote of how an untamed tongue can set our world on fire. Nowadays, that applies to untamed fingers flying across a keyboard, as well. The pastor who shared this story of a future turned upside down added that he asks his staff to wait a full twenty-four hours before responding to negative comments and always to lead their response with an expression of appreciation for the other person’s words. He also admitted to not always following his own advice!

It’s not just potential candidates for the ministry, pastors, and their staff who should maintain high standards of holy living in the world—we all are called to do just that. Those in the ministry may lose their careers with untamed tongues, but we all can lose relationships, respect, reputations, and our ability to be effective witnesses for Christ. Simply put, if we can’t control the words we use and the way we use them, it appears that other areas in our lives are equally out of control. But, when we allow the Holy Spirit to control our behavior, we have no need to worry about seeing our hopes and dreams go up in flames.

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. … If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. [James 1:19-20 (NLT)]

For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline. [2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)]

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CLOSED MINDS

Again I say, don’t get involved in foolish, ignorant arguments that only start fights. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth. [2 Timothy 2:23-25 (NLT)]

killer whaleWhen discussing whales, the 3rd grade science teacher insisted that because of the whale’s small throat it was physically impossible for one to swallow a human. Disagreeing, the little girl told her that Jonah had been swallowed by a whale. When the teacher insisted it was just a silly story, the girl said that when she got to heaven she would ask Jonah. ”Well,” replied the teacher scornfully, “What if Jonah isn’t there? What if he went to hell?” The little girl politely answered, “Then I guess you can ask him!”

Last year, we took a bus tour of the Canadian Rockies and, at times, our tour guide and bus driver must have felt like they were herding cats. Although there were less than forty in our group, I compared us to the two million Israelites of Exodus and them to Moses and Aaron who led those “stiff-necked” people for forty years. When people weren’t ready on time, asked already answered questions, complained about the food, whined about accommodations, didn’t follow directions, wanted special treatment and misplaced their possessions, I appreciated the frustrations the brothers must have had leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. Overhearing my comment, a fellow traveler took me aside. After advising me that he didn’t want to disparage my faith, he added, “But really—two million people? Forty years? How can you possibly believe that? How could they all be fed?” My response was easy: “God provided manna!” Rather than continue the conversation, I smiled and walked away. This man didn’t want to talk miracles or God’s provision and, in spite of his words to the contrary, like the teacher in the joke, he really did want to disparage my faith.

As for that whale, according to several sources, including the Smithsonian, while most species of whales (like the killer whale pictured) couldn’t swallow a human, the exception is the sperm whale. Capable of swallowing a whole giant squid, it could easily swallow a man. In actuality, however, both the girl and the teacher were wrong. The Hebrew Bible says neither whale nor fish but rather dag gadôl  which means a great sea creature. The Greek translation was kêtei megalô, meaning a mega-sized ketos or huge sea serpent. The ketos was a sort of dog-headed sea dragon and several references to it are found in both art and non-Biblical literature from 700 BC through 500 AD. Whether the leviathan mentioned in Job, Psalms, and Isaiah is the same creature as that in Jonah and whether it was fish, reptile, whale, or some extinct form of sea monster, we really don’t know. Just because we don’t know, however, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Would the teacher have been interested in this answer? I think not. Like the man who spoke to me, her mind was already made up.

There always will be non-believers who are more interested in proving we’re wrong than hearing our answers. Wanting to display their cleverness and our naiveté, they ask questions like, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in the Bible? How did Noah get those animals in the ark? How did the penguins get to the ark from Antarctica?” and, “If God is so all-powerful, why did it take Him six whole days to create the world?” The Bible is filled with a slew of fantastic and extraordinary accounts that defy easy explanation and I’m not sure it’s worth getting into a debate about such things. In most cases, even if we answered these types of questions to the skeptics’ complete satisfaction, it wouldn’t make a difference to them. All we can do is decline to accept their challenge with a simple and gracious answer. Jesus told the disciples to shake the dust from their feet as they left any town that refused to welcome them. Sometimes, we must do the same thing.

Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. [Ephesians 4:18 (NLT)]

Instead, you must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. But do this in a gentle and respectful way. Keep your conscience clear. Then if people speak against you, they will be ashamed when they see what a good life you live because you belong to Christ. [1 Peter 3:15-16 (NLT)]

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THE HACKER

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Stand firm against him, and be strong in your faith. [1 Peter 5:8-9b (NLT)]

red shouldered hawkAfter asking us how we protect our personal safety, the cyber-security specialist asked how we protect ourselves from cyber attacks. One woman proudly told how Microsoft had recently saved her from a hacking attempt. After a message popped up telling her to call them, she gave them remote access to her computer. The necessary patch and technical advice only cost $700 and now her computer was secure. Until the speaker told her, she didn’t know the hack was the $700 she’d spent, access to her credit card, and possible malware now active on her computer. While she never would have allowed a complete stranger into her home, she unwittingly opened the door to a criminal and welcomed him into her life.

Following the seminar, I couldn’t help but think about Satan. Scripture describes him as a serpent, lion, liar, thief, and tempter with adjectives like prowling, cunning and crafty. Those same words describe a hacker rather well. Both Satan and the hacker want to take over our lives and they can do it without our even realizing it’s been done. The weakest link in both cases is the user—us. Outside consultants regularly try to hack into our bank and the good news is that their security software works. Unfortunately, in every test, someone (who clearly knows better) was conned into replying, hyperlinking, or opening an attachment. When Satan comes trolling, how often do we err by ignoring God’s guidelines, not examining the source of the message, going somewhere we shouldn’t, or letting curiosity get the best of us?

Our speaker spoke of maintaining the security of the devices and networks we use. Since new hacking techniques are developed continually, once secured doesn’t mean forever secure; software must be updated to stay current with new threats. Once saved doesn’t mean forever safe, either. We must keep updating our soul’s software with regular prayer, Bible study, and church. Where we use our devices and the sort of data we transmit and receive affects their safety and where we go and what we put into our minds affects our souls. We don’t hang around dangerous neighborhoods but, sometimes, that’s exactly what we do with our computers and phones or our friends and media choices! When the considering the importance of backing up data, I thought of the value of Christian friends who have our backs and both encourage and support us in times of trouble—times when we’re most vulnerable to Satan’s attack.

Two-factor authentication (2FA) was another security feature discussed. Although a website can use 2FA to make sure it is us, we should use 2FA to make sure those great ideas we get have come from God rather than the enemy. A little two-factor authentication in the way of seeing whether those thoughts match up with God’s word and Jesus’s actions could keep us out of a lot of trouble.

Good cyber-security habits include malware protection, virtual private networks, cloud storage, secure routers, password protection, 2FA, and common sense. None of those, however, will protect us if we fail to use them. The same goes for the armor of God. We’ve been given the best protection money can’t buy but God’s armor won’t defend us from the enemy if we don’t put it on!

A final word: Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. [Ephesians 6:10-12 (NLT)]

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FULLY AWARE

For I hold you by your right hand—I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, “Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” [Isaiah 41:13 (NLT)]

cousinsScientists have found that even a simple hug or the holding of hands can lower both blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations. Gentle touch also causes a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in oxytocin (often called the “cuddling hormone”). Where cortisol might give a “fight or flight” response, oxytocin causes more of a “tend and befriend” one by increasing feelings of trust and connection. Since we were at a funeral and the previous ten days had been a roller coaster of emotion and tension for everyone, the priest’s request to join hands as we stood in prayer benefitted us physically and psychologically as well as spiritually.

While holding hands during prayer wouldn’t be unusual in many evangelical Protestant churches, apparently it is in Roman Catholic ones (especially when done during every prayer) and it has become a point of contention in some dioceses and parishes. Being a rather touchy-feely Protestant, I enjoyed the hand holding and the feeling of solidarity in prayer that came with it. The priest, however, asked us to do more than simply join hands. “Take the hand of the person beside you,” he instructed, “and, fully aware of the soul you are touching, join in prayer.” As I held the hand of the stranger beside me, I thought of those words: “fully aware of the soul you are touching.” I didn’t know the man and will never see him again. From his rosary, I knew we do not attend the same church. Nevertheless, I knew we worshipped the same God and were there for the same reason: to celebrate the life of the man whose body lay in a casket near the altar. As I became more aware of the soul I was touching, my thoughts turned from my own personal sorrow to the sorrow shared by all who were present in the sanctuary. We were one community, united in our thanksgiving for the man we mourned, in our intercessions for his family, in our love for God, and in our belief in the resurrected Christ and the life everlasting.

I appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with the intimacy of holding hands and find doing it during worship an unwelcome innovation. Whether or not we touch one another during prayer is not as important as being fully aware of one another: not just of the people with whom we pray but of all with whom we interact. Fellow travelers through this troubled world, they are struggling as much as we are to navigate the challenges, sorrow, and pain in their paths. Is there some way we can make their journey easier? Sometimes, we find that answer in a simple touch. While we probably won’t bring healing to their bodies, we may bring some healing to their souls.

At the conclusion of the funeral, the deceased’s family followed the casket out of the sanctuary and his sister passed by our pew. My husband stepped into the aisle beside her and they joined hands as they walked out together. Although we hardly know her, fully aware of her mournful soul, he knew her need to be supported during that difficult walk.

Lord, teach us to be fully aware of the souls we encounter each day. Let our words be kind, our actions helpful, and our touch gentle and supportive.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. [Henri Nouwen]

As it happened, Publius’s father was ill with fever and dysentery. Paul went in and prayed for him, and laying his hands on him, he healed him. [Acts 28:8 (NLT)]

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