HOLIDAY GATHERINGS

zebras - serengettiAvoid foolish controversies, arguments about genealogies, quarrels, and fights about Moses’ Teachings. This is useless and worthless. [Titus 3:9 (GW)]

Four years ago, our Thanksgiving weekend was a busy one, in large part to the celebration of my mother-in-law’s 100th birthday. While the results of the presidential election weren’t disputed four years ago, the political mood that November was just as divisive as it is today, making for some awkward and challenging gatherings. Today’s contentious political climate can be problematic at holiday get-togethers this year, as well. With the rhetoric even more heated, conspiracy theories running wild, and the prevalence of vicious postings on social media, even Zoom calls with family could be challenging!

Recognizing that the next several weeks will require diplomacy, tact, restraint, and a great deal of love, I thought I’d repeat the following devotion that was first published on Thanksgiving eve, 2016.

“Our days are few, and far better spent in doing good than in disputing over matters which are, at best, of minor importance,” were the words in my morning’s devotion by Charles Spurgeon. Although they were in reference to Paul’s words to Titus regarding divisive arguments in the early church, they are words to remember as we gather with family and friends at our tables tomorrow. Let’s face it, for the next several weeks, we’ll be thrown together with a wide assortment of people, all of whom will have at least one opinion that differs from ours. Moreover, while we share genealogy and genes with family members, we often have little else in common. Some people say Thanksgiving dinner without an argument or two is like turkey with no stuffing or Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade without helium balloons. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure acrimony has to ruin our day of national thanks. Remembering Paul’s words to Titus can help us through tomorrow and the rest of the holiday season.

All of us have dropped our anchors on certain issues and we’re not about to change our opinions on those. Let’s honor the rights of others to drop anchor on their beliefs, as well. There are, however, far more issues where, rather than dropping anchor, we could tie up to the pier and quietly listen to the person berthed across the dock; we just might have more in common than we realize. Fearless listening occurs when we’re not afraid to truly hear another person’s point of view.

Keep in mind that holiday get-togethers are not debate stages or battle grounds and a friendly discussion should remain amicable. Although a friendly discussion is never about winning, I have one friend who actually prepares for disputes by packing news articles supporting her viewpoints in her purse and suitcase. Although out-of-tune pianos can be tuned, some minds can’t be changed and it is foolish to even try. Moreover, even when people have well-founded opinions, many differences will never be reconciled. Wisdom is knowing when to stop a discussion and true wisdom is knowing enough not to start!

We will gather with twenty-eight people tomorrow and seventy-five the following day. In spite of the old saying never to talk about religion or politics, considering the recent election, there is sure to be discussion of at least one of those topics. In addition to people with diverse (and strong) opinions, any holiday gathering has its share of conspiracy theorists, whiners, complainers, nitpickers, and over-indulgers. Getting through a holiday dinner can be like traversing a mine field!

Being a vegetarian, I’m used to politely saying, “Thank you, no,” when the shrimp, turkey, gravy and sausage stuffing are urged on me. Being a follower of Christ, I’ll silently say, “Thank you, no!” every time an opportunity for dissension, anger, criticism, pettiness, or insult comes passing my way. I’ll also pray a lot! Personally, I’ve found, “Please, God, put your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth!” to serve me well.

Blessings, peace, and joy to you tomorrow!

Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether. [Charles Spurgeon]

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments. You know they cause quarrels. A servant of the Lord must not quarrel. Instead, he must be kind to everyone. He must be a good teacher. He must be willing to suffer wrong. [2 Timothy 2:23-24 (GW)]

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IMPEDIMENTS OR AMBASSADORS?

Celebrate your hope; be patient in suffering; give constant energy to prayer; contribute to the needs of God’s people; make sure you are hospitable to strangers. [Romans 12:12-13 (NTE)]

Don’t forget to be hospitable; by that means, some people have entertained angels without realizing it. [Hebrews 13: 2 (NTE)]

blanket flowerThe story was told of a devout Christian woman who, after moving to a new town, visited the local church: the Church of Holier than Thou. When the children’s choir sang the prelude, she was so happy to hear their angelic voices that she applauded at the end of their song. An usher came up and whispered in her ear, “Ma’am, we don’t applaud in this church.” She apologized for the disturbance and the service continued. When the pastor gave his sermon, she was so moved by his words that she shouted out an “Amen!” in response. The usher returned to her side and again sternly instructed her, “You’ll have to restrain yourself here in the Church of Holier than Thou.” Chagrined, the woman promised to behave and the service continued. The choir rose and sang a beautiful medley that included God of our Fathers and How Great Thou Art. Overcome by the words of praise, the woman shouted out “Hallelujah” and “Praise God!” at the song’s conclusion. The usher strode up to her and said, “Lady, you’re causing a disturbance. You’ll have to leave!” The poor woman responded, “I just couldn’t help myself; I was overcome by the joy of the Lord!” In a huff, the usher responded, ‘Well, you sure didn’t get it here!”

A good friend preached several times at our Colorado church and even served briefly as a pastor for a local parish when they were without an ordained minister. This man, filled with joy in the Lord, is a mature and knowledgeable Christian, but that wasn’t always the case. When he became a Christian many years ago, he was totally unfamiliar with the Bible and didn’t even know there were several different translations and publications of this one book. He couldn’t understand why chapter and verse had to be mentioned when just a page number should do. What would have happened to him if he’d attended the Church of Holier than Thou (or others like it)? I think God might have lost a child to disillusionment and doubt.

One friend told of an experience while searching for a church. She’d just settled into the pew when an irate couple told her she had to move because she was in their pew! When we first moved here and were “church shopping,” we attended a madrigal dinner at a local church in hope of meeting members of the congregation. In spite of getting there early and the large number of empty chairs, we had trouble finding a seat because everyone seemed to saving those chairs for the people they already knew. Sadly, I’ve seen the same thing at Tuesday Bible study when a newcomer has difficulty finding a place to sit among all the empty (but saved) chairs! Although the church is supposed to be a place of welcome, it frequently isn’t.

It has been said that there are two reasons people don’t become Christians. First, they haven’t met one. The second reason, of course, is that they have! What kind of Christians are we? Are we impediments or ambassadors? Are we filled with the joy of the Lord or are we holier than thou? Do we welcome others to worship and study with us? Are willing to enlarge our circle to receive someone new? If Jesus stopped by, would He have trouble finding a place to sit?

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. [Shane Claiborne]

Welcome one another, therefore, as the Messiah has welcomed you, to God’s glory. [Romans 15:7 (NTE)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 12:20 (NTE)]

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RULES

This is what the Lord has commanded: A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. [Numbers 30:1-2 (NLT)]

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. …For you say that it means nothing to swear ‘by God’s Temple,’ but that it is binding to swear ‘by the gold in the Temple.’” [Matthew 23, 15-16 (NLT)

water lily

As any parent of a teenager knows, it’s impossible to have enough rules to cover all the ways your child can err. Schemers that they are, they’ll always find a way around restrictions. When I attended boarding school, for example, several of us girls had our ears pierced by a fellow student (an aspiring physician). We knew that neither school nor parents would endorse numbing our ears with icicles and piercing them with a sewing needle and dental floss but, without a specific rule against it, we pierced them anyway. Because it was the school’s second year, the administration hadn’t anticipated all the ways we teens could misbehave and our student handbook was only one page. Now, 57 years later, that handbook is 33 pages long and covers such things as body piercings and tattoos, drones, room searches, recording devices, prohibited clothing, subwoofers, a roommate’s rights, and unauthorized access to the school’s computer system. I imagine next year’s handbook will be even longer and reflect yet another way its students have managed to flout authority.

Of course, it’s not just teenagers who assume that, if something isn’t specifically prohibited, it must be allowed. No matter their age, people will try to find a way around every inconvenient or bothersome rule. For example, God made it clear that a vow made before Him was binding. Keeping promises, however, can prove problematic and, through a convoluted re-interpretation of the law, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time created a loophole. If one swore by the gold on the altar, the promise was binding. But, if one swore only by the altar or temple, it was like crossing your fingers and the promise could be broken with impunity: a promise was only a promise if it was expedient.

We girls knew we shouldn’t have pierced our ears that way, the Pharisees knew that God meant for all promises to be kept, and today’s students shouldn’t need a specific rule stating that roommates must be spoken to in a respectful manner. While there were plenty of laws in the Old Testament, Jesus boiled them all down to two simple ones: love God and love our neighbor. In a perfect world these would be the only laws necessary. The world, however, isn’t perfect which is why we still have regulations and school handbooks.

Just because something is legal doesn’t necessarily make it right and just because something isn’t specifically prohibited doesn’t mean it should be done. Jesus lived by one law: the law of love. Regardless of the rules, like Him, we must let the two-fold commandment of loving God and loving our neighbor guide us in everything we do.

Owe nothing to anyone—except for your obligation to love one another. If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill the requirements of God’s law. For the commandments say, “You must not commit adultery. You must not murder. You must not steal. You must not covet.” These—and other such commandments—are summed up in this one commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to others, so love fulfills the requirements of God’s law. [Romans 13:8-10 (NLT)]

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FEED THEM

When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father. [John 15:8 (NLT)]

He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep. [John 21:17 (NLT)]

squirrelJohn 21 records Jesus telling Peter to feed His flock three times. The word translated as “feed” in verse 16 is poimaino which refers to the entire process of tending the sheep: feeding, leading, guarding, doctoring, and bringing them into the sheep fold. Although the food of which Jesus is speaking appears to be the word of God, in verses 15 and 17 the word translated as “feed” is bosko, which exclusively meant to feed. Jesus gave Peter these instructions immediately after He’d fed the disciples a breakfast of grilled fish and bread. Could He also have been speaking of providing actual food?

The people of Palestine were spiritually hungry for the message of the gospel but, on at least two occasions, they listened to Jesus so long that they were physically hungry, as well. In those instances, when Jesus told His disciples to feed the people, He meant to give them something to eat! Sometimes, feeding His flock is as simple as that.

Stately oaks line the streets in our community. Since autumn is acorn season, I’ve been thinking of Jesus’s command to bear fruit. Acorns are the fruit of the oak and come from the tiny flowers the trees produce in the spring. Within each acorn is a seed with the potential of becoming another oak tree. It’s been a good year for acorns and, if those oaks were followers of Jesus, our Lord would be pleased at the abundance of fruit they produced.

Next spring, any acorns cached away by an absent-minded squirrel or chipmunk could send up shoots, become seedlings, and eventually grow into trees capable of producing more fruit. Oak seedlings in our community, however, don’t stand a chance since the landscapers will pull them up or mow them down. Even though our acorns won’t grow into trees, they’re much appreciated by the squirrels, rabbits, ducks, crows, jays and woodpeckers who feast on them. The animals often congregate in the middle of the streets to take advantage of the nut-cracking capabilities of car, truck, and bike tires. If those oaks were believers, even without producing more of their kind, I still think our Lord would be pleased by them because they are feeding the hungry!

I apologize for mixing metaphors in my examples. If we bear fruit, as do the oaks, sometimes the seeds in our fruit will take root and grow and, if we tend the flock as a good shepherd, sometimes, the flock will increase. But, other times, like the oaks in our community or the disciples as they passed out loaves and fish, we simply provide physical nourishment for His flock.

This pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and vulnerabilities suffered by many throughout the world. As the economy spirals downward, the number of hungry rises. The United Nations has warned of “multiple famines of biblical proportions” resulting from COVID-19. They anticipate the number of people in crisis level hunger rising to 270 million by the end of the year (an 82% increase since 2019) and warn that more people may die of coronavirus-driven hunger than those who will die from the virus itself!

Like the oaks, let us be generous with our fruit and, as the shepherds of His sheep, let us feed His flock.

But Jesus said, “You feed them.” [Mark 6:37 (NLT)]

Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions. [Matthew 7:20 (NLT)]

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IT’S YOUR MOVE

If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. [Matthew 5:41 (NLT)]

To feel sorry for the needy is not a mark of a Christian—to help them is. [Frank A. Clark]

white powderpuff

In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus gave four illustrations from everyday life about the Christian heart and non-retaliation in the areas of personal attack, legal disputes, forced labor, and financial requests. Although His examples were hyperbolic, His point was abundantly clear—rather than get even, we are to have a generous and compassionate heart toward others.

While personal attack, legal disputes, and people asking for money remain common occurrences today, most of us haven’t encountered an issue of forced labor (although my children might have disputed that back when I made them do chores around the house.) In the 1st century, however, a Roman soldier could commandeer a Jew to carry his armor or other burden for a Roman “mile” consisting of one thousand paces (about 4,854 feet—just a little less than our modern mile). This sort of impressment is what happened to Simon of Cyrene when he was forced to carry Jesus’ cross.

Since we’re not likely to be forcibly impressed into duty, what does Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:41 mean to us today? The idiom “go the extra mile” is rooted in His words and has come to mean making an extra effort or going above and beyond what is necessary or expected. What’s missing in the idiom is the completely voluntary, almost sacrificial nature, of Jesus’s directive. Although a Jew could not refuse to carry a Roman’s load those first thousand steps, he could not legally be made to take one step more. Yet, Jesus instructed him to freely offer that second mile without being asked.

I found the perfect example of Jesus’ directive in two letters recently written to our local newspaper. The first was written by a woman well into her eighties who’d gone to the community center to vote. Turnout for early voting has been enormous and more than 75% of the eligible voters in our county had cast their votes by last Friday. All of that early voting (along with social distancing and sanitizing between voters) meant for some very long lines at the polling places. Having arrived fifteen minutes before the polls opened, this woman hadn’t anticipated a long line and, at first glance, it didn’t look too bad. After parking, she walked toward the line’s end but was stopped by a man near the front of the line. Seeing her cane, he inquired if she was in pain and able to make the walk and endure the wait. Assuring him she was fine, she continued toward what she believed was the end of the line only to see that it extended further than she’d originally thought. Realizing she couldn’t stand that long, the woman turned around and started back toward her car. The same gentleman stepped out of the line, approached, and asked if she was leaving because of the line. Acknowledging it was too long a wait, she said she’d try again the next day but the man insisted she take his place. After walking her to his spot near the front of the line, he went “the extra mile” and took his place at the end of it. The second letter was from another elderly woman who uses a walker. She told how a young man walked across the parking lot just to help her fold and stow her walker in the car after she’d voted. I don’t know whether these men were followers of Christ, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were. They certainly understood the real meaning of going the extra mile.

Jesus summed up all of his exhortations about a Christian’s heart with what we know as “The Golden Rule.” Dr. Frank Crane, an early 20th century Presbyterian minister, had this to say about that golden rule: “The golden rule is of no use whatsoever unless you realize that it is your move.” Like those men at the polling places, let us remember—it’s always our move to take that extra mile!

He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it. [Dante Alighieri]

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. [Matthew 7:12 (NLT)]

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DO NOT DISTURB

clam pass birds naples flBut to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. … Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:27-29,31 (NLT)]

The snowbirds are back; not the retirees who arrive in cars or on planes but the migratory birds, some of whom flew more than 3,000 miles to get here. Their long flight takes a tremendous toll on their bodies. By the time they reach our beaches, they’re exhausted and hungry and many have lost half their body weight. Before I understood the trials they endure in migrating, I never gave it a thought if I happened to disturb them while walking the beach. Granted, it’s a beautiful sight to see hundreds of birds take wing at once but, every time they’re flushed by someone on the beach or a passing boat, precious reserves of energy are used and their nests are left unattended. Now that I understand the birds’ challenges, I am more considerate of their needs. When walking the beach, I keep my distance to avoid unsettling them.

Although they may not be as endangered, hungry, and exhausted as migratory birds, many people have taken a long and arduous journey to get where they are today. While some end up better for the journey, others end up bitter, rude, angry, or demanding. Just as I hadn’t thought about the challenges facing the birds, I rarely pause to consider the circumstances these difficult or toxic people must have encountered to leave them so embittered, short-tempered, or uncivil. While trials, loss, and pain never excuse bad behavior, they often cause it. Not everyone believes in God, has experienced the joy that comes from following Jesus, possesses His peace, or knows they are loved and forgiven.

In these stressful and divisive times, hostility and boorishness seem to be on the rise. Admittedly, upon encountering a toxic person, self-control, patience, kindness, love, and courtesy often fly right out the window. Rather than turn the other cheek, we want to give as good as we got. Retaliation, however, only begets more of the same. Studies have shown that incivility and rudeness are as contagious as yawns, smiles, laughter, and viruses! As followers of Jesus, our job is to make sure we don’t contribute to the problem. We’re expected to treat people with kindness and consideration, not because they’re nice people who deserve it, but simply because it’s what Jesus would do! Hopefully, our even-tempered behavior will make the rest of their journey easier.

We must choose to break the chain of incivility with love, gentleness, a forgiving heart, and by praying for the offender. It helps to remember that difficult people carry a lot of baggage with them and their quarrel, hostility, or complaint may have nothing to do with us. Remembering that we know nothing of their hardships, pain, or fear, let’s cut them a little slack and give them as much space as possible. Like the migratory birds, they’ve had a difficult journey and are struggling to survive the only way they know. “Do not disturb” is wise advice in both instances!

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. [attributed to Plato]

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. [Colossians 3:13-15a (NLT)]

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