WHAT LANGUAGE DO WE SPEAK?

The leaders saw that Peter and John were not afraid to speak, and they understood that these men had no special training or education. So they were amazed. Then they realized that Peter and John had been with Jesus. [Acts 4:13 (NCV)]

Sometimes, we Christians use religious jargon or “Christianese” when speaking. In fact, we might “testify” or “witness” instead of talk about our faith and “fellowship” instead of meet with friends! If, while speaking with non-believers, we use words we (and our fellow church-goers) can barely define we may as well be speaking a foreign language. Tossing about words like propitiation, sanctification, justification, glorification, conviction and reconciliation show that we can talk the talk, but what does it mean to anyone else? Let’s remember that Christianity isn’t a secret society like a lodge, college fraternity or sorority. There’s neither a secret handshake nor a password required for admittance.

When sharing our faith [witnessing], let’s not make the mistake of making Christianity harder than it is. Man rejected God [sinned] and we all stand guilty before God [condemnation]. Mankind’s sin alienated us from God but Jesus’s actions restored mankind’s relationship with God [reconciliation]. Jesus is God in flesh [incarnation].  Although the punishment for sin is death, Jesus paid that price [redemption]. Because Jesus took our punishment on the cross [propitiation/substitutionary atonement], we are no longer considered guilty [justification]. Jesus rose from the dead [resurrection]. When we believe in [accept] Jesus Christ and decide to follow Him [salvation], we turn from our old ways [repent] and are changed [born again/regeneration]. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we then grow more and more like Christ [sanctification]. Salvation is not something we earn [works], but something God freely gives to us [grace] when we believe in Jesus [faith].

Jesus didn’t use fancy words; he used parables and metaphors to make his point. Better yet, he explained his parables so everyone could understand the point he was making. The men he chose to spread the faith, men like Peter and John, were simple men. They didn’t require impressive words to preach or heal; they just needed faith! The bracketed words in the previous paragraph weren’t necessary and I’m not even sure I even used them all correctly! We don’t need $10 words or a special vocabulary to talk about Jesus; we just need to be sure we’re speaking the same language as the people with whom we’re talking.

Too many of us have a Christian vocabulary rather than a Christian experience. We think we are doing our duty when we’re only talking about it. [Charles F. Banning]

But we hear them telling in our own languages about the great things God has done! [Acts 2:11b (NCV)]

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SEEING THE ERROR

For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones. Watch out! I have warned you about this ahead of time! [Mark 13:22-23 (NLT)]

white ibisYesterday, I wrote about Cyrus Teed, the Koreshan Unity, their strange theology, and Cellular Cosmogony: the belief that the earth is a hollow shell and the entire universe exists inside that shell. Whether he was a charlatan or insane fanatic, Cyrus Teed claimed to be immortal. When he died in 1908, his followers kept his body in a bathtub for five days and waited for his resurrection. Rather than rising, Teed began to stink and authorities forced his corpse to be buried. Nevertheless, many of his followers faithfully waited another thirteen years for his return.

When it became obvious his second coming would never come, membership in the Koreshan Unity began to decline (the belief in celibacy not helping their numbers). By 1961, when it was clear the community would not survive, its last four members deeded the remaining 305 acres of Unity land to the state.

Hedwig Michel was the last of the Koreshans. In 1982, reporters asked if she still believed in Cellular Cosmogony and she replied, “Well, I did believe it until I saw the boys walking on the moon.” That moon walk took place in 1969, 61 years after Teed’s failed resurrection and several years after Sputnik and Explorer 1 launched, Alan Shepherd flew into space, and both Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn orbited the earth in spacecraft. Yet, Hedwig Michel held fast to her Koreshan beliefs until she saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.

For the most part, the Koreshans were an educated lot and, when walking through their settlement, I wondered why they clung to their strange theology and pseudo-science for so long. Then again, while it’s easy to recognize the folly of someone else’s ideas, it’s not so easy with our own. Jesus warned us about false prophets but not all of them are as obvious as Cyrus Teed. At some time or another, we all may have believed in the wrong person or ideology or held on to erroneous viewpoints or prejudices. Perhaps, we still do.

Why do people continue with false beliefs or follow false prophets? Perhaps, it is easier to believe a lie than admit our thinking could be wrong. The Koreshans gave up their homes and personal possessions to devote their lives to Koreshanity. Like them, could we stubbornly cling to certain beliefs or biases because admitting our error might mean we’ve wasted opportunities, time, energy or even money? For many years, the Koreshan Unity prospered, having 7,500 acres of land and more than a dozen businesses. Skepticism and doubt probably don’t thrive in well-being and, like Teed’s followers, we’re unlikely to question what appears to be successful, even when we suspect it could be wrong. With such a strong sense of community, some Koreshans may have been afraid to abandon their sect and step out on their own while others may have feared ridicule from outsiders if they admitted their error.

Like those die-hard Koreshans, do we have blind spots? Are we unwilling to examine some of our beliefs in the light of God’s truth? While it’s never easy to admit we’re in error, it’s easy to know God’s truth. If we’re not loving God, loving all of His people, and walking in the way of Jesus, we’re in error. When our attitude, values, principles or opinions don’t line up with God’s word, they’re wrong. For Hedwig Michel, it took seeing men walk on the moon’s surface before she accepted the falseness of Koreshanity. What will it take for us to see any falseness in our lives?

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. [2 Timothy 4:3-4 (NLT)]

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THE ART OF PERSUASION (Philemon – Part 2)

Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. [Philemon 1:4-6 (MSG)]

brown pelicanPaul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus is a lesson in the subtle art of persuasion. It’s said that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar and Paul illustrates that beautifully. A lot was on the line for the runaway slave Onesimus—if Paul didn’t convince Philemon to forgive him, the man could have been killed or sold to work in the lead mines. And, if Paul’s letter offended Philemon, the new church at Colossae could have suffered. As short as his letter is, I imagine Paul prayed and labored over it a long time.

Paul’s strategy is evident from the first line when he addresses not just Philemon but also Apphia, Archippus, and the entire church. That the letter was to be shared meant that all in the church would know of Paul’s request and Philemon’s response. Philemon is being held accountable for his decision from the first line of the letter.

Wisely, Paul begins with honey and sincerely praises Philemon and thanks him for his love, faith, hospitality and loyalty both to the church and Paul. The great thing about praise is that, while it encourages us, it also challenges us to live up to its words. Paul then tells Philemon that he prays for him so that the generosity that comes from Philemon’s faith will be put into action. Note that Paul’s prayer isn’t that Philemon will do what the apostle asks but that he’ll put his faith into action by doing the right thing.

There’s no doubt that Paul is the one with authority in this relationship and could easily pull rank on Philemon. Remarking favorably on Philemon’s character again, Paul says he knows an order isn’t necessary because his friend knows the right thing to do and so, rather than make a demand, he makes a personal request. As Paul pleads Onesimus’ case, he calls the slave both his child and a beloved brother, calls Philemon his brother and partner, and finishes by calling Onesimus and Philemon brothers. Rather than emphasizing differences in position and sending back a slave, Paul emphasizes their oneness in Christ and sends back a brother. After offering to make restitution by paying Onesimus’ debt, Paul applies gentle pressure by reminding Philemon that he has a debt to Paul (it was the Apostle who brought Philemon to Christ). By mentioning Philemon’s salvation, Paul subtly reminds him of the forgiveness we have in Christ and that Jesus saved our lives by paying a debt that wasn’t His.

Hidden in Paul’s request to prepare a room because he hopes to visit Philemon soon is the notice that Paul will soon have firsthand knowledge of Onesimus’ fate. Paul closes the letter with greetings to Philemon from others in Rome, making it clear that Paul’s request is public knowledge (and yet another reminder that Philemon will be held responsible for his actions).

Although Paul presents his request as a favor, one commentary describes it as the Apostle promising he wouldn’t twist Philemon’s arm but then our hearing the bone crack! While that’s a rather brutal description, it’s probably accurate. Nevertheless, I think of it as an example of how to use tender nudges rather than strong arm tactics. Admittedly, Paul’s letter backed Philemon into a corner, but I don’t think Philemon even knew it. The letter is written so sincerely, humbly, lovingly and gently that it wouldn’t surprise me if Philemon thought forgiving Onesimus was his idea!

The mere existence of this epistle lends credence to the belief that Onesimus was forgiven. Had Philemon not forgiven him, the letter wouldn’t have been copied and circulated throughout the early church. Philemon is thought to have become the bishop of Colossae and to have died a martyr under Nero. There also are records of a bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus that many scholars believe to have been Philemon’s repentant slave. Paul’s faith in both men seems to have been well founded.

With only 25 verses, the letter to Philemon is far shorter than the devotion I’ve written about it. I urge you to read it in both a traditional translation and a contemporary one like The Message. It is a beautiful example of how we, as Christians, should approach resolving differences. It reminds us that the power of gentle persuasion often is greater than the strong-armed power of authority; a humble request is always sweeter than a dictatorial command. Remember, we’ll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar!

Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. [Philemon 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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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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