THE SERVANT SAVIOR

They replied, “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” … When the ten other disciples heard what James and John had asked, they were indignant. So Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. [Mark 10:37, 41-42 (NLT)]

great blue heron - great egretThe day’s gospel was from Mark 10 and, as the sermon began, the pastor shared having spent three hours earlier that week in a tiresome meeting on evangelism. The speakers had been lauded for the high number of “first public professions of faith” in their parishes. As the meeting went on, the pastor furtively checked his phone to see if memory had served him right. Indeed, his church far exceeded the numbers of the keynote speakers. Part of him (the bad part), like James and John, wanted to boast and be honored but the other part reminded him that ministry is about people and not numbers. He ate a little humble pie and said nothing. As often happens in long meetings, his mind wandered and he thought back to an encounter some twenty-eight years ago when he first came to the parish.

In 1991, both the church and our nation had much less liberal views about alternative lifestyles and homosexuality. An era of homophobia, there often were economic, social, and even physical repercussions to coming out. AIDS was the leading cause of death among men 25 to 44 and, in an attempt to raise AIDS awareness, the Red Ribbon Project had just launched.

That year, Wayne, an elderly retired minister in the parish approached the pastor. “This homosexual thing,” he said, “I just don’t comprehend it and I can’t condone it. But,” he added, “all people are God’s children and are of sacred worth.” Wayne then spoke of the many gay men dying in the area. In those early years, most families abandoned their gay AIDS infected sons and brothers. Fearing contagion, AIDS patients were touched only by hands in rubber gloves and, because of surgical masks, they saw only the eyes of those who attended them. Facing death and without a support system, they felt alone, unloved, and worthless. Reiterating that he neither understood nor approved of homosexuality, Wayne added that he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. He asked permission to serve AIDS patients in the local hospitals. “I don’t want them to die without feeling the touch of a warm hand, seeing a smile, or knowing that they have value. I can’t let them die alone or without telling them that Jesus loves them.” The pastor immediately agreed to Wayne’s ministry of love because being a servant is what Jesus was and what He told us to be.

As the pastor thought back to Wayne’s selfless and loving service, he understood why his church’s growth numbers are exemplary. It wasn’t evangelism techniques, community events, baseball team sponsorship, or advertising; it was that the church and its members serve as Christ’s hands and feet. Through service, they both tell and show people that Jesus loves them.

When the pastor wanted to brag about his numbers, he realized he was being like James and John when they wanted their place of honor in God’s kingdom or the other disciples who were indignant at the thought they might not be honored as well. When he thought back to Wayne, however, he thought of Jesus’ words: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others…” As Christ followers, we don’t need to understand or condone, we just need to serve our brothers and sisters (and all are our brothers and sisters).

One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbour; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us. [John Wesley]

But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many. [Mark 10:43-45 (NLT)]

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QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Make the most of your chances to tell others the Good News. Be wise in all your contacts with them. Let your conversation be gracious as well as sensible, for then you will have the right answer for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (TLB)]

doris longwing butterflyWhen Meg and John walked into the church narthex, Meg was visibly disturbed. “I just can’t believe they said that. How can they call themselves Christians?” she asked her husband. Seeing Meg’s obvious distress, the pastor who’d been greeting at the door went over to talk. The two had been at a small group study before service when, after class, another couple nonchalantly dismissed the virgin birth as fiction and, as they walked out the door, added that the resurrection was as much a fabrication as the virgin birth.

The virgin birth is a doctrine plainly stated in the Apostle’s Creed—a creed that is regularly recited at that church. Christianity holds that Jesus had no earthly father and was not the product of intercourse. How it happened, we don’t know and certainly can’t understand. The resurrection of Christ is also affirmed in the Apostle’s Creed. For the most part even non-believers won’t argue the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus nor will they dispute that his tomb was empty on the third day. They simply can’t accept how the tomb came to be that way. Just because we can’t understand how something happened, however, doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur!

This devotion, however, isn’t about defending the virgin birth and the resurrection. It’s about Meg and John. “I don’t think that group is right for us,” she said. “Let’s find another group; we’re not going back there again.” Her husband, however, emphatically disagreed: “Oh, yes we are! We’re not going to let this go unanswered.” Meg and John have a valuable opportunity to share the gospel and one that I hope they use wisely.

This devotion is also about that other questioning couple and I think back to nearly fifty years ago when a young woman, from a Buddhist background, was about to join our church. Having grown up in a Buddhist home with a family altar, she was struggling with a way to reconcile praying to her ancestors (something she had always done) with her new Christian beliefs. While there is no place for ancestor worship in Christianity, our pastor’s answer was gentle and loving. Rather than condemning her for her past beliefs and practices, he encouraged her to grow in her new ones. His words were encouraging and accepting—not of ancestor worship—but of her.

Meg and John’s experience is a reminder that not everyone we meet at church, Bible study, or small group is a firm believer. The fact they are there, however, is a step in the right direction! We must do our best to keep them there by being sympathetic, compassionate, humble, loving, gracious, patient, and willing to listen. If people can’t freely question doctrine, express their disbelief, or ask for further explanation in church, where should they go? Remember, even Thomas had doubts! Rather than telling them what we think and why we think it, perhaps we should start by asking them what they think and why they think it. Let’s meet them wherever they happen to be, walk with them into a deeper understanding of the gospel, and pray with and for them.

Try to help those who argue against you. Be merciful to those who doubt. Save some by snatching them as from the very flames of hell itself. And as for others, help them to find the Lord by being kind to them, but be careful that you yourselves aren’t pulled along into their sins. Hate every trace of their sin while being merciful to them as sinners. [Jude 1:22-23 (TLB)]

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SAY IT NOW

Hong Kong Orchid - Hepatica - HibiscusThis is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another.  [1 John 3:11 (NLT)]

Last week, I delivered the eulogy for my 102-year-old mother-in-law at the celebration of her life. The word “mother-in-law” does not adequately describe our relationship. Although my mother died when I was fifteen, at the age of twenty God blessed me with another mother when I got married. Along with a husband, I gained his wonderful parents. My mother-in-law opened both her arms and heart to me and loved me well. It was from her that I learned how to be a woman, wife, mother, grandmother, mother-in-law, and friend. I never had a problem calling her Mom; indeed, I loved her as if she had been my very own birth mother.

Four years ago, I wrote a Mother’s Day devotion about Ruth and Naomi titled “Mothers-in-law.” While considering what an amazing woman Naomi must have been to inspire such love, I kept thinking of my mother-in-law and how I was a Ruth to her Naomi. Since my mother-in-law was approaching her 99th birthday that year, I suspected that I would probably use that comparison in a eulogy at her Celebration of Life in the not too distant future. When I delivered my father-in-law’s eulogy nearly fifteen years ago, I had glowing words to say about him; sadly, as happens with eulogies, he never heard them.

Although anyone who would be in attendance at my mother-in-law’s eventual funeral would certainly know from my words how much I loved this beautiful woman, I wondered if she knew it. People say actions speak louder than words and my actions were always kind, loving, respectful and considerate. Yet, in spite of my behavior, I wondered whether my mother-in-law knew that, even in difficult circumstances such as those encountered by Ruth and Naomi, I gladly would say, “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.” [Ruth 1:16-17 (NLT)] Sometimes, words need to be spoken and it occurred to me that I should share my thoughts with my mother-in-law while she was alive rather than wait to say them to those who mourned her when she’d passed. And so, along with Mother’s Day candy, flowers, and card, I gave her a letter comparing us to Ruth and Naomi and expressing my devotion, admiration and love for her.

When the Apostle Paul told us that eloquent words and generous actions without love were worthless, he wasn’t telling us not to express ourselves but rather to use our words and actions authentically. We often assume that the people we love know it, but do they? The time to express our love is now, when our words and actions can be appreciated, rather than later, when they can’t!

I would rather have a single rose
From the garden of a friend,
Than to have the choicest flowers
When my stay on earth must end.
I would rather have the kindest words
Which may now be said to me
Than flattered when my heart is still
And this life has ceased to be.
I would rather have a loving smile
From the friends I know are true,
Than tears shed ’round my casket
When this world I’ve bade adieu.
Bring me all your flowers,
Whether pink, or white, or red,
I’d rather have one blossom now
Than a truckload when I’m dead. R.D. Richards

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. [1 John 3:18 (NLT)]

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GOING HOME

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. [John 14:1-4 (ESV)]

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” [John 11:25-26 (ESV)]

After a brief stay at hospital, we’d brought Gert, my 102-year old mother-in-law, home to die. Although she was a woman of faith, she seemed frightened of the journey that lay ahead of her and kept calling for her mother and father (who’ve been gone for more than half a century). When I shared this with the Hospice nurse, she asked if I’d told her that it was all right to leave. Since Gert was in a state of semi-consciousness, I questioned whether she would understand but the nurse assured me that hearing is the last sense to go.

That day, as I sat at her side, I read to Gert from the Bible, prayed with her, thanked her, and reminded her of her favorite memories. I knew them well since, not wanting to lose her amazing history when we lost her, I’d asked her about them (and written them down) several years ago. While talking to her that afternoon, I remembered a story Gert told me. Beginning with, “I believe in prayer!” she told of a cold winter day when she’d met some friends at a resort across the lake from her house. On her way home that evening, she took a short cut across the frozen lake (probably something the twelve-year-old had been told not to do). “I heard the ice cracking all around me,” she related, “and, believe me, I honestly thought I was a goner that time!” Sure that she’d fall through the ice and no one would ever find her, the terrified girl recited everything she had ever learned in her Sunday school classes. Having seen the “Star Memory Certificate” she’d received as a girl, I knew that included the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the 23rd Psalm, and all of the books of the Bible.

I reminded her of that cold winter night when she was a child and how her faith had gotten her across the ice and safely home to her mother and father. Telling her I understood the walk was frightening, I reassured her that she wasn’t a goner and we’d all know where to find her. Reading from the book of John, I reminded her that God had prepared a room especially for her and that, across the daunting lake was that room and her home: a home where the lights were on, the fire was lit, and her loved ones were waiting for her with spritz cookies and a warm cup of cocoa. Calmed and almost serene, Gert went to her forever home early that evening.

Gert once told me she loved the 23rd psalm but added that she always skipped “that one line.” Sunday afternoon, when I read that beautiful psalm to her, I included all of its comforting words. I spoke to Gert of that dark valley and God’s reassurance that He is beside her, just as He was that cold night ninety years ago. While I’ve always thought of our Christian faith as comforting to those who mourn, that afternoon reminded me of how comforting it is for those taking their final journey through the dark valley of death. Although neither family nor friends can accompany us on our last walk, we will not be alone and, waiting on the other side, is a beautiful room  prepared especially for us in our eternal home.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. [Psalm 23:4,6 (ESV)]

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CELEBRATING VALENTINE’S DAY

When the Lord your God goes ahead of you and destroys the nations and you drive them out and live in their land, do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.” You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. [Deuteronomy 12:29-31 (NLT)]

just engagedSt. Valentine may (or may not) have been the Catholic bishop of Terni, a priest who helped persecuted Christians during the reign of Claudius II, one who suffered in Africa, one who secretly married couples when marriage was forbidden, or one who converted the family of a jailer named Asterius and restored sight to his blind daughter. It was a common name and whether there was only priest named Valentine who did all of these things or as many as three, supposedly he or they were beheaded by the Emperor Claudius II on February 14 around the end of the third century. The confusion about Valentine’s identity led the Roman Catholic Church to drop his saint day from their official calendar of feasts in 1969.

Today’s romantic traditions, however, have pagan roots. On February 14, the Romans celebrated a day dedicated to the goddess Juno. Included in the revelry was a matchmaking lottery that paired up couples for the duration of the festival. On the 15th, they continued the merriment with Lupercalia, a fertility festival that involved sacrificing goats and a dog and whipping women with thongs made from the skins of the sacrificed animals. Understandably, the early Christian church was displeased by such behavior and, around 496, Pope Gelasius I recast the pagan festival as a feast day in honor of St. Valentine. Instead of men drawing names of women who’d become sex partners, children drew names of saints whose lives they would emulate for the year.

Although there was a common belief that birds began to mate for the season on February 14, it wasn’t until the late 14th century that Valentine’s Day became associated with romance, thanks to the publication of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Parliament of Fowls. Probably about the wooing of Anne of Bohemia by King Richard II, the poem depicts a dream of a pagan heaven where all of the birds have come before Dame Nature to choose their mates. “For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,” wrote Chaucer, “When every fowl comes there his mate to take.” The birds have a debate while three eagles unsuccessfully try to seduce a female eagle.

Written valentines began to appear in the early 15th century and, by the middle of the 18th century, it became common for friends and lovers to exchange notes and tokens of affection. By the early 20th century, ready-made cards replaced the personal notes. Nowadays, over one billion valentines are sent each year.

With its pagan beginnings and the murky history of a man or men named Valentine, what does Valentine’s Day mean to Christians? At first thought, the day seems harmless enough. Some churches, however, prohibit celebrating this holiday because it, like certain other popular holidays, Christianizes or “whitewashes” pagan customs and traditions. We know from the Old Testament that God detests anything pagan. The Israelites were warned not to worship other gods but also not to adopt any pagan customs. The Apostle Paul warns us about not copying the behavior and customs of the world. [Romans 12:2] I wonder what God thinks about Valentine’s Day. What does He think of our spending nearly $20 billion to celebrate a day that began as pagan wantonness?

Although God is love, He is nothing like Cupid (the Roman god of erotic love). His love for us is immeasurable, consummate, unconditional, and sacrificial and has nothing to do with chemistry, sexuality, romance or even likability. We are called to love one another as He loves us—with a love that is generous, compassionate, forgiving, unqualified and expects nothing in return. We are to love the undeserving, unlikeable and adversarial as well as family, friend, and ally. How we celebrate this day is between us and God. There is no question, however, as to how we are to love one another every day of the year.

This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:12 (NLT)]

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SLOW THINKING

sliders - turtlesBut the wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and the fruit of good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. [James 3:17-18 (NLT)]

Someone has a small rubber ball tucked into the palm of his hand and you have just one minute to do whatever it takes to get the ball away from him. What would you do? If you were an inner city youth, chances are you’d start by trying to pry his hand open. Your efforts may even escalate into a wrestling match. I’m not sure you’d have to be an at-risk youngster to have that same response; my husband responded the same way. Imagine his reaction when learning that all he needed to do was ask for the ball and it would have been his!

That is just one of the exercises in a program called “Becoming a Man”®, a cognitive behavioral program offered in cities like Boston and Chicago. Knowing that small slights often can lead to pulling a trigger, the program is designed to help young men avoid life’s pitfalls and develop the social and emotional skills necessary for success: integrity, accountability, positive anger expression, self-determination, respect for women, and visionary goal setting. Young women are not exempt from needing life skills and a similar program called “Working on Woman”™ cultivates the core values of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, healthy relationships, visionary goal-setting, and leadership.

Instead of life skills, as Christians, we might call these faculties “Christ skills”, as does a local Christian school in my town. Instead of a formal code of conduct, the school’s teachers make a covenant with the students to live up to ideals listed as Christ skills: trustworthiness, cooperation, truthfulness, courage, organization, curiosity, patience, effort, perseverance, flexibility, pride, common sense, problem solving, caring, resourcefulness, personal best, responsibility, no put-downs, sense of humor, active listening, initiative, friendship, and integrity. With the goal of growing more like Christ, students learn to evaluate their choices and their consequences based on these skills.

All of these programs teach youngsters that there is power in slow thinking—in living deliberately rather than impetuously. Automatic thinking, such as assuming we have to force the ball out of a person’s hand, can mean the difference between life and death in the inner city but it can have bad consequences everywhere. Our typical weapons of anger and irritation may be less lethal than a gang member’s Smith & Wesson but none of us are exempt from needing to learn to think before acting or speaking.

We don’t need to live in the inner city to know it’s an angry, rude, intolerant, and violent world: a world of road rage, air rage, middle finger waving, swearing, bullying, pushing and shoving, domestic violence, tweet rants, peaceful demonstrations that turn violent, school shootings, child abuse, heckling, bickering, heated arguments, fights between students in school, fights between fans at the game, indignant outbursts, name calling, and a “do unto others before they do unto you” kind of mentality. Perhaps we all need a course in cognitive behavioral therapy or a list of desired Christ skills to emulate.

Even so, under our own power, we still will tend to act impulsively and heedlessly. On our own, we’ll never be the people God means for us to be. Maybe, instead of a list, we need a whole lot more of Jesus and the Fruit of the Spirit (love, joy peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and a whole lot less of self. Along with the power of slow thinking, let’s tap into the power of the Lord!

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. [1 John 2:4-6 (NLT)]

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