NEIGHBORS

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Galatians 5:14 (NLT)]

The only way to have a friend is to be one. [Ralph Waldo Emerson]

When the religious scholar asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered with the parable of the Good Samaritan in which he made it clear that one’s neighbors can be strangers—even enemies. Sometimes, however, our neighbor really is the guy next door or the couple sitting in the pew behind us at church.

Many of the houses in our Florida community have beautiful front porches and nearly every one of those porches has a lovely set of wicker chairs sitting on it. Yet, in all of our years here, I never have seen anyone sitting in those chairs. There was a time many years ago when people sat on their front porches and chatted with their neighbors after dinner. Now, I guess we’re all inside in front of our computers or televisions. Have we all become so busy with our own interests and activities that we have no interest in anyone else? Have we become so afraid of getting involved that we don’t even want to know our neighbors? How can we love them if we don’t even bother to meet them?

I thought of neighbors last night while driving through a nearby community famed for their over-the-top Christmas lights. With all the Santas, elves, snowmen, gaudy lights, and music, it was incredibly colorful, tacky, and fun, but it had little or nothing to do with Christ or Christmas. It did, however, have a lot to do with neighbors and friendship.

As we drove down the brightly lit streets, residents were outside chatting with one another, driving friends around in golf carts, or gathering around fire pits in front yards. Older children in Santa hats collected money for the Cancer Society and the little ones were toted around in wagons and strollers. With each street having a theme, neighbors had to talk to and work with one another to erect arches across their roads, place giant angels on the mailboxes, put candy canes in every yard on the block, or help one another assemble their elaborate displays. They probably discussed who on the block would play the holiday music and I’m sure several extension cords were shared. The residents had to communicate, cooperate, and assist one another. In fact, they seem to enjoy decorating so much that they also bedeck the neighborhood for Halloween. Their little community isn’t just a group of homes with the same zip code and garbage pick-up day; it is a group of neighbors who share and care—both for the community and for one another.

Taking the Good Samaritan parable seriously, my husband and I care for our neighbors—or at least the ones we don’t know: the nameless faceless ones who benefit from our donations to good causes. While that’s loving our neighbor, it’s the impersonal and easy way to do it. Rather than simply writing checks for the neighbor we’ll never know, we should think a little closer to home and find ways to know the neighbors down the street. Maybe it’s time to meet the woman next door, make an effort to go beyond a quick hello to the couple with the schnauzer, invite the recently widowed man down the street to dinner, or introduce ourselves to that stranger at church. Perhaps, that neighborhood with the extraordinary holiday decorations had more to do with love, Christ, and Christmas than I realized.

I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,
I’ve always wanted to live in a neighborhood with you.
So let’s make the most of this beautiful day,
Since we’re together we might as well say,
Would you be mine? Could you be mine?
Won’t you be my neighbor? [Fred Rogers]

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

Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:31 (NLT)]

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BUBBLING OVER

Words bubble up from waters deep within a person; a stream gushes from the fountain of wisdom. [Proverbs 18:4 (VOICE)]

Reichenback Falls - Switzerland“A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story,” said C.S. Lewis. I agree and admit to enjoying the seven books comprising Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia both as a child and an adult. Even though the Narnia books take place in a make-believe world filled with talking animals, mythical creatures, and magic, there are Christian overtones to the entire series. For example, the first book calls up images from Genesis when Aslan, the Great Lion, sings Narnia into existence and evil is introduced to the land. In the second, Aslan willingly dies so that the sins of one boy are forgiven but comes alive again. In another book, Eustace, who had “greedy, dragonish thoughts” becomes a dragon. When Aslan strips away the boy’s scales and throws him into the water, the repentant boy is transformed and images of rebirth and baptism come to mind. Resembling the last book of the Bible, the final story in the series tells of a beast, a false prophet, Narnia’s fall, and a Narnian paradise (where sadness and weariness do not exist).

In spite of the Christian symbolism throughout the series, Lewis never set out to use his fairy tale as a way of writing a “Christian” book for children. “Everything began with images, a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them,” said Lewis. In fact, that image of the faun had been in his mind since he was 16, long before he became a believer. When Lewis began writing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, he thought it would be the last in the series. He didn’t anticipate writing four more Narnia books and evoking the end times with the last one. How then did his books become “Christian”? The author explained: “That element pushed itself in of its own accord. It was part of the bubbling.”

Without deliberately meaning to do so, Lewis’ deep faith in Christ couldn’t help but bubble over into his work. As the tale solidified, Lewis found himself answering the imaginary question of “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” The question, however, came after he’d begun writing the answer.

Lewis’ phrase, “part of the bubbling,” got me thinking. Gifted with a brilliant mind, C.S. Lewis has been called “one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century.” Nevertheless, I don’t think those stories sprang just from his genius; they came from the presence of the Holy Spirit! His genius may have put the words on paper but the spring from which they bubbled over was filled with Biblical truth, Christian doctrine, and love of God. Once Lewis became a believer, he couldn’t help but put Christian ideals and a Biblical worldview into everything he said or wrote.

None of us are likely to be called intellectual giants but, as followers of Jesus, I wonder if what bubbles out of us in our day-to-day existence reflects our faith the way it should. Instead of imagining what Christ would be like in Narnia, perhaps we should consider what He would be like in our world today and then make Him visible in our words and actions. What bubbles from our fountain?

There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him. [C.S. Lewis]

Do not slack in your faithfulness and hard work. Let your spirit be on fire, bubbling up and boiling over, as you serve the Lord. [Romans 12:11 (VOICE)]

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FOUR GENERATIONS

Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. [Ephesians 1:4-6 (NLT)]

black skimmersSince there are about 25 genealogy lists in the Bible, genealogy must be important to both God and His people. Genealogies were important to the Jews since priests and Levites could serve only if they were of pure ancestry. In Chronicles we saw how genealogies provide a connection between generations and the promises made to their ancestors. Matthew and Luke’s genealogies were important to Jewish believers because they showed that Jesus came from the Davidic line and important to Gentiles because Jesus’ Gentile ancestry shows that God sent His son for all people. What do they mean to Christians today?

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661) had an interesting take on genealogies in his book Good Thoughts in Bad Times, Together with Good Thoughts in Worse Times, Consisting of….Scripture Observations…. Published in 1659, the complete title is 34 words long so I took the liberty of shortening it along with bringing some of Fuller’s old English spelling into 21st century. When writing about our Lord’s genealogy found in Matthew 1:7-8, the churchman and historian observed the following:

“Lord, I find the genealogy of my Saviour strangely checkered with four remarkable changes in four immediate generations. (1) Rehoboam begat Abijam; that is, a bad father begat a bad son. (2) Abijam begat Asa; that is, a bad father, a good son. (3) Asa begat Jehoshaphat; that is, a good father, a good son. (4) Jehoshaphat begat Jehoram; that is, a good father, a bad son.

I see, Lord, from hence, that my father’s piety cannot be entailed [transmitted]; that is bad news for me. But I see also that actual impiety is not always hereditary; that is good news for my son.”

The power-hungry Rehoboam looked only to his desires rather than his people’s needs and his harshness in taxing the people excessively caused the division of the nation. During his troubled reign, he married foreign women and pagan practices flourished as Judeans set up Asherah poles, sacred pillars, and pagan shrines. 1 Kings tells us Rehoboam’s son, Abijah, was unfaithful to the Lord and committed the same sins as did his father. As Fuller pointed out—like father, like son!

Abijah was the father of Asa. Scripture tells us that, in spite of his sinful father and pagan mother, Asa “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight … [and] remained completely faithful to the Lord.” That Asa was one of Judah’s good kings shows that having a bad father doesn’t condemn one to being a bad man. While “like father, like son” doesn’t necessarily hold true, good king Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat, was like his father and “did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight.” Sadly, we then come to Jehoshaphat’s son Jehoram. 2 Kings compares him to the northern kingdom’s evil king Ahab. Jehoram “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” and even allied himself with Ahab by marrying one of his daughters. Clearly, as Fuller pointed out, a father’s godliness and virtue cannot be inherited. The good news, of course, is that neither can a father’s wickedness.

Fuller’s observation about these four generations reminds us that we each are responsible for our own actions. The good news of the gospel tells us that no matter who our ancestors are or what they did, we don’t have to be victims of our heredity, childhood, or circumstances. Although we inherit genes, we don’t inherit character. As Christians, our family is not determined by bloodline or the people with whom we grew up. We have a new family—God’s family! Because of Jesus, we were adopted by God, brought into His family, and became heirs to His kingdom. We have a good Father and, because of the Holy Spirit, we can be His good sons and daughters!

Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. [Romans 8:15-17 (NLT)]

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MIMICRY

I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it! [1 Corinthians 9:22-23 (MSG)]

Even though they have their own unique song, northern mockingbirds usually incorporate the songs of other birds into theirs. With their ability to sound like jays, thrashers, hawks, orioles, and robins (along with car alarms and frogs), rather than sounding like themselves, these masters of mimicry can sound like what they’ve heard.

While we often see people imitating the monkeys at a zoo, we’re as likely to see the primates imitating us! Along with being a way to learn, researchers have found this mimicry is a way of interacting and communicating with one another. The old phrase, “monkey see, monkey do!” actually holds true.

Even though it is unintentionally and unconsciously done, like mockingbirds and monkeys, we tend to mimic the voices, mannerisms, and gestures of the people we’re with because of something often called the “chameleon effect.” We find ourselves returning facial expressions like smiles and yawning, as well as accents, gestures, and tone or pitch of voice. Researchers say that such mimicry builds rapport and empathy and can have an impact on our social success.

In Romans 1, Paul wrote of his own willingness to emulate certain behaviors as a way of building rapport with the people he wanted to bring to Christ. Even though he knew Jesus had freed him from Judaism’s 613 laws, Paul abided by them when with Jews. When with Gentiles, however, he would disregard those same laws. Although he was willing to adapt his communication to the culture of his audience, he never changed the message of the gospel or compromised his principles.

Social success or not, not every behavior should be copied and yet we often find ourselves in situations where not joining in becomes problematic. To fit in with our classmates, neighbors, co-workers, small group, or friends, we may find ourselves mirroring behavior that shouldn’t be mimicked such as griping, gossip, coarse language, criticism, disparagement, rudeness, or complaint. Without realizing it, like the mockingbird, we start copying the voices around us.

There’s a fine line between finding common ground and losing our way. If we’re not careful, like the mockingbird, we may begin to sound more like what we’ve been hearing than who we actually are and, like the monkey, begin to act like those around us rather than Jesus. While it’s often easier to conform to the world around us than to remain in the world while staying true to our faith, our words and actions should never be compromised. If Jesus wouldn’t do or say it, neither should we!

At the end of the day, Paul knew he’d been true to Jesus whether or not he’d eaten dairy and meat at the same meal, had fringes on his robe, or wore phylacteries on his forehead and arms. At the end of the day, no matter what songs he’s sung, the mockingbird knows he’s still a mockingbird. At the end of the day, we need to be able to say that we are Christians who have sung our song in a way that honors God and reflects our faith.

Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. [Romans 12:2 (MSG)]

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THE ESCAPE ROOM

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken. [Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NLT)]

great egret - great blue heronWhen visiting our daughter’s family in New Mexico one October, stormy weather caused us to switch from the pumpkin patch/corn maze outing to an escape room attempt. With just an hour to solve a mystery and “escape,” we entered into a room filled with assorted puzzles, locks, props, and gadgets. Knowing we had to discover clues and complete a series of clever puzzles, we novices decided to divide and conquer. Each person worked on a different task speaking to their individual strengths. I worked on word puzzles while others worked on number challenges, dexterity puzzles, combination locks, or searched for hidden clues.

Silently working on our individual tasks, we missed important clues like the picture of randomly placed fruit. Had we counted the six apples, four lemons, two pineapples, and eight limes, we would have known the four numbers we needed to open a combination lock! Thinking the content of a letter was important, we missed seeing that it was an acrostic with the first letter of each line spelling the clue!

Wanting to prove our stellar problem-solving skills, we hesitated to ask our game guide for help. It wasn’t until we consulted her, talked with one another, and started working as a team that we made any headway. With less than five minutes left, we finally unlocked the kitchen door—only to find that it led into another locked room with even more hidden clues! Our guide is the one who finally released us. Even though we held a up sign saying “epic fail” in our post-game photo, we learned some valuable lessons about life.

Sure that we were as smart as the game master and wanting to get bragging rights for completing it on our own, rather than asking for help, we wasted time spinning our wheels and getting nowhere. Isn’t that what we do with God by only going to Him when all else fails? After all, if we do it by ourselves, we get the glory but, when we ask for God’s help, He gets the glory! Paul, however, tells us that God’s power works best in weakness: “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. … For when I am weak, then I am strong.” [2 Corinthians 12:9-10]

Ignoring the wise words of Ecclesiastes, rather than help one another, we divided to do our own thing. No one, however, makes it through an escape room alone—it’s a team effort and so is life! Escape rooms require collaboration, cooperation, communication, and listening to one another (even when the idea seems crazy); so does life in Christ.

Although we each had our own particular gift set and abilities—it wasn’t until we appreciated the gifts of others that we made any headway. Being the shortest one in the room, my grand saw a code on the baseboard that we bigger people missed. Even though she wasn’t good with letters or numbers, she spotted what turned out to be the most important clue! No one’s gift is more or less valuable when it’s a team effort. Isn’t that what Paul is telling us in 1 Corinthians 12?

The final lesson we learned was a simple one—don’t be afraid to lose. Failure—even an epic one like ours—is an inevitable part of playing any game so it’s best to embrace the game rather than the outcome. As for our life in Christ—we too will experience failure. With the exception of Jesus, no one else in Scripture did life perfectly. Nevertheless, because we believe in Jesus, we know the eventual outcome is a win. In the meantime, let us find joy in our journey, regardless of its challenges and difficulties.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. … But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 20 Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. [1 Corinthians 12:12-22 (NLT)]

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LOST IN THE MAZE, AGAIN

All of us like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. [Isaiah 53:6a (NLT)

blue morning gloryIn the years that followed our first maze experience, we continued the pumpkin patch/corn maze tradition but at a farm with a smaller and easier maze. While there were no arrows on stakes to assist the totally confused, there was a larger and better map. Since my daughter and husband have a far better sense of direction than do I, they carried the map and led the rest of us through the maze.

When grazing, sheep like to keep at least four or five other sheep in eyesight and I’m no different. As long as the family remained in view, I paid no attention to where we were. On one outing, after noticing some deep blue morning glories, I stopped to take photos. Spotting a butterfly near the flowers, I briefly turned away from the family to follow it down the trail. When I turned around, my family was nowhere in sight. With no map and in a labyrinth of corn stalks, I was totally lost. Every path seemed to be a dead end and, having left my phone in the car, I couldn’t even make a call! As I wandered in what I hoped was the right direction, I grew anxious. Eventually, I heard someone call my name. Looking up, I saw my family standing on a high viewing platform in the middle of the corn field. From their vantage point, they managed to guide me through the maze until I rejoined them.

Until I got lost in that maze, I’d often wondered about Jesus’ parable of the Good Shepherd. If the shepherd was properly shepherding his flock, how did that one sheep get lost? Now I know! By guiding the flock, the shepherd was doing his job and, by obediently following their shepherd, the rest of the flock were doing theirs. But, that one lost lamb wasn’t paying attention to either shepherd or flock. Perhaps it stopped for some tasty red clover and, after spotting a field of pink vetch, had wandered over for a nibble of it. Maybe, like me, it followed a butterfly and, before the lamb knew what happened, it was all alone. It didn’t mean to stray; it just stopped following the flock and paying attention to the shepherd. Once on its own, the lamb was vulnerable to attack. Fortunately, the good shepherd went looking for it just as my family looked for me.

It’s incredibly easy to lose our way, not just in mazes and pastures, but in the complicated, bewildering, and often perilous world in which we live. Knowing that predators go after the lone sheep that wanders from the herd, our Shepherd has given us His flock—the people of His Church. Unfortunately, instead of morning glories or butterflies, we can get distracted by anything from busyness to boredom, success to defeat, or prosperity to poverty. We don’t mean to stray from the Shepherd’s flock but things like ambition, popularity, self-importance, doubt, worry, discontent, anger, guilt, or disappointment easily can sidetrack us. We start to wander and, before we know it, we’re lost and vulnerable to the enemy’s attack. Fortunately, we don’t need a phone to call our Good Shepherd; a simple prayer is all it takes.

Staying connected with other people of faith—people who follow the Shepherd and will guide us when we’re lost, encourage us when we’re overwhelmed, and correct us when we make a wrong turn—is vital for our survival. As I discovered in the corn maze, it’s best to stay close to the people who have the map and know where they’re going! On the other hand, as members of His flock, it’s important to notice when one of His sheep goes missing.

After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd. … My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  [John 10:4,16b,27 (NLT)]

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