DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]

grey catbirdWe recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.

Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.

Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”

While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.

While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. [Matthew 5:38-42 (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 CROWN OF MARTYRDOM

If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. [1 Corinthians 13:3 (MSG)]

yellow-crowned night heronWe all know drama queens (and kings) who don the crown of martyrdom. On occasion, we even may have worn that crown ourselves. Along with the crown, we put on a robe of selfishness and self-righteousness. Dressed for the part, we see outer circumstance only in the light of how they negatively affect our lives (ignoring how they may be affecting those around us). Rather than asking, “What can I learn from this?” we protest, “I don’t deserve this!” as if anyone else does! Forgetting that God only wants our best and there is purpose in our pain, we find our troubles the perfect excuse for resentment, complaints, bitterness, and an all-out pity party.

If anyone had the right to play the martyr; it was Jesus. He was born in a stable and slept in a feed trough! His parents couldn’t afford a proper offering at the purification ceremony and his family had to flee to Egypt for several years. Once they arrived in Nazareth, there probably were whispers among the neighbors. “That’s Jesus; he’s not really Joseph’s son, you know! That shameful Mary was already pregnant.” Jesus knew He was a king, but He didn’t live like royalty; instead, he lived and worked as an ordinary man. Rather than riding in a chariot, he walked the dusty roads. There was no bed in a palace for this Prince of Peace; he rested wherever he could lay his head. People pursued Him wanting miracles but forgot to thank Him for his healing. Angry crowds reviled Him and the religious leaders of His own town wanted to toss Him down a hill! He gave and taught, healed, blessed and loved, fully knowing where it would all end—on a cross at Calvary. He knew He would be martyred, yet he never complained; He never once said, “Pity me!” Brutally beaten and humiliated, Jesus wore his crown of thorns without complaint. Then, instead of being angry about His torture on the cross, He lovingly asked God’s forgiveness for those who were killing Him.

A few years later, Stephen, who is believed to be the first Christian martyr, followed Jesus’s example when, as the rocks rained down on him, he used his last few breaths to pray for his slayers’ forgiveness. Jesus and Stephen were real martyrs and no anguish we endure will equal theirs. Yet, rather than the crown of martyrdom, they wore the crown of love and forgiveness!

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. … Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life. [James 1:1,12 (MSG)]

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GLOW IN THE DARK

Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” [John 8:12 (NLT)]

photoluminiscent exit signsA business friend took us upstairs at his corporate center and then turned out all of the lights. With blackout curtains covering the windows, we were in complete and utter darkness. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we saw glowing strips marking the perimeter of the room and around the door. A luminous exit sign was above the door and the doorknob was marked with a glowing circle around it. In spite of the blackness, we easily found our way to the door. When we opened it, another glowing sign warned us “Caution—watch your step.” Although the stairwell was pitch black, we weren’t frightened because the hand railing, baseboards, and edges of every stair were marked with glowing strips and another exit sign, outlined door, and marked doorknob indicated the way out of the dark stairway. That luminous greenish light safely guided us even when we couldn’t see where we were going.

My friend manufactures photoluminescent tapes and signs and it was his products that were glowing in the dark. He explained that photoluminescence occurs when a substance is capable of absorbing energy photons, storing them and then emitting them as a glowing greenish or yellow light. His products also glow in the light but, because of the ambient light, our eyes don’t see the glow; they seem brightest in the darkness!

Light and dark in the Bible are usually metaphors for good and evil, God and Satan, believers and unbelievers. Maybe it’s because I write Christian devotions but, after seeing how that glowing light led us through the building, I couldn’t help but think about the light of Christ that leads us. Just as the purpose of those photoluminescent products is to give off light, Christians are called to be the light of the world. Needing neither electricity nor batteries, those tapes and signs must absorb external light before they can make light of their own and it is Christ’s light that enables us to illuminate the world’s darkness; we can’t do it on our own. And, just as those photoluminescent tapes and signs seem brightest in the dark, the light of Christ shines brightest in the shadowy and troubled times. While darkness can never overpower God’s light, His light can overpower the world’s darkness.

Photoluminescent products continually absorb ambient light and, when fully charged, can glow brightly for about 90 minutes. But, without being recharged by light, they’ll eventually run out of energy and stop glowing. While 90 minutes is more than enough time to guide one out of a burning building, Jesus expects us to have more than a mere hour-and-a-half worth of His energy in us; we are to shine 24/7! Moreover, if photoluminescent tapes and signs get dirty or covered with paint, they can’t do their job. The same goes for Christ’s followers, but it won’t be dust, mud or paint that will soil us; rather, the filth of the world can keep us from lighting the way. We must keep ourselves free from sin and continually recharge with prayer, Scripture, fellowship, study, worship, praise and thankfulness.

Jesus led us from darkness into light. Are we doing our part to lead people to the fire exit and safely home to the Lord? Do we live as people of the light and glow with the glory of the Lord?

The fundamental principle of Christianity is to be what God is, and he is light. [John Hagee]

For once you were full of darkness, but now you have light from the Lord. So live as people of light! [Ephesians 5:8 (NLT)]

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. [Matthew 5:14-16 (NLT)]

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WHICH ARE YOU? 

I will appoint over them four kinds of destroyers, says the Lord: the sword to kill, the dogs to tear, and the vultures and wild animals to finish up what’s left. [Jeremiah 15:3 (TLB)]

hummingbird - vulturesWe were enjoying hundreds of exotic butterflies amid tropical plants in the conservatory of a nearby botanic garden when I turned around to see a hummingbird hovering nearby. In spite of the building’s double-door containment procedures, this beautiful little bird managed to find his way into what, for him, must be paradise and no one seemed to mind. Seeing him reminded me of a question asked several years ago: “Which would you rather be—a hummingbird or a vulture?”  I thought, “That’s a no-brainer!” as I watched the iridescent bird hover over the flowers; then I remembered the question wasn’t what we wanted to be but rather what we actually were.

Most of us want to think we’re hummingbirds—those beautiful delicate birds with the fluttering wings—but I’m not sure we always are. Hummingbirds may be small but they’re fearless; they’ll even pursue hawks in defense of their nest. Are we that fearless? Hummingbirds are optimists who always look for the bright and sweet in the garden of life. Do we? These avian helicopters, often thought of as harbingers of good luck, are welcome everywhere. Does seeing us bring joy the way seeing a hummingbird does or is the reaction to us more like that of seeing vultures at the side of the road—something like “Yuk!”

When we search for something or someone to pick apart, we’re like the vultures soaring in the sky and sniffing for the stink of rotting carcasses. Rather than road kill, we’re sniffing around for rumor and scandal so we can dine on other people’s misery or disgrace. When we discourage rather than build up or disparage rather than praise, we’re not much different than the hungry vultures who gather as the swamp dries and anxiously wait for the fish to die so they can pick at the remains. When we remorselessly spew hate, bigotry, or anger, we’re like vultures that, with a well-aimed shot of acidic vomit, can slime someone or something they don’t like. When we choose to live with resentment, bitterness, and the rotten leftovers of yesterday, we’re not much different than vultures who defecate on their feet.

If we want to be hummingbirds, there can be no more concentrating on the unpleasant garbage of our lives or the lives of others. There can be no more feasting on sour guilt, fetid anger, foul-smelling regrets, or the rotten remains of past relationships and issues that died long ago. Hummingbirds don’t just seek out the sweeter things in life; they are one of those sweet things. As hummingbirds, we can’t just enjoy the happiness we find, we must bring joy to those we meet. After all, people plant brightly-colored flowers and hang special feeders for hummingbirds, but I’ve never heard of anyone trying to entice vultures into a garden.

The hummingbird and vulture have no choice—they are what they were born to be. We, however, can decide if we’re going to be hummingbirds and welcome spreaders of joy, or vultures, those unwelcome omens of misery. The choice is ours!

Lord, guide us in our thoughts and actions so we can be like hummingbirds from this day forth!

Always be full of joy in the Lord; I say it again, rejoice! … Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely, and dwell on the fine, good things in others. Think about all you can praise God for and be glad about. [Philippians 4:4,8b (TLB)]

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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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