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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

THE MIDDLEMAN

Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea,” and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. [Mark 11:23-24 (ESV)]

zinniaA pastor friend shared a story about a woman at a previous church who had an odd habit. Whenever the pastor announced a change of some kind, more often than not, she would say to him, “I’m so thankful. I’ve been praying you would decide to do that.” When curiosity overcame him, he asked “Instead of using God as a middle man, why don’t you just tell me what you’re thinking or want changed?” Revealing that she was a preacher’s kid, the woman told of the officious interference, meddling, criticism and complaint her father had endured during his ministry. In fact, the often unchristian fault-finding behavior of his parishioners nearly turned her away from the church. She vowed that, unless asked, she’d never tell a pastor what she thought he should do. Instead, she’d simply pray about it and, “if it is God’s will, then He will reveal it to the pastor.” Apparently, as she discerned, God makes an excellent “middle man!”

When hearing this story, I couldn’t help but wonder at my behavior. Do I see God as the Middleman—the conciliator, the peace-maker, the intermediary, the one who brings two opposing parties to the table and brokers the deal—or do I see Him as the court of last resort? Do I go to Him first or only when I can’t get the desired result on my own? Would I rather intrude, advise, instruct, complain or criticize than pray?

We say we believe in the power of prayer but do we really? Do we truly believe that God really hears us? Do we trust Him enough to put our concerns into His hands before taking them elsewhere? Do we really believe in a God who can make things happen—a God who can move mountains—or do we think He needs our help? If we believe God can move mountains, why is it so difficult at times to believe that He can move hearts? While going through a middleman often seems the indirect and a roundabout way to get things done, when that Middleman is God, both hearts and mountains can be moved!

Of course, there’s another more subtle lesson in the pastor’s story. Do we pray regularly for our clergy? I don’t mean those formal prayers for the church found in various liturgies. We consistently must pray for our specific pastors—not that they’ll do what we want them to do but that they will have the energy, strength, wisdom, and courage to do what God wants them to do!

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. [1 John 5:14 (ESV)]

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. [Ephesians 3:20-21 (ESV)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

TRUE BLUE

Blue Morpho butterflySo now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

We recently visited a botanic garden that boasts a butterfly conservatory inhabited by a spectacular collection of tropical butterflies. There I was introduced to the shiny Blue Morpho. God outdid Himself with these enormous beauties so showy that pilots report seeing them from the air as they fly over the rainforest. When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, I’m thankful God didn’t make them leave the butterflies behind.

Hoping to get a photo of one of these spectacular creatures that were flitting about, I searched through the conservatory for one that was still. Although the Morpho’s upper wings are a vivid blue color, their undersides are a dull brown. When its wings were folded, I mistook the Morpho for another large brown butterfly: the giant owl. It was only when it spread its wings in the sun’s light that I recognized the Morpho by its vibrant blue color.

As Christians, we are called to love and, just as its blue iridescence identifies the Blue Morpho, our love identifies us as Jesus’s disciples. But, if we just sit in the shade and never move out in the world, we’ll look like everyone else. Wings are meant to be spread and Christian love is meant to be shared. If pilots can spot a butterfly from the air, people should be able to see evidence of a Christian’s love wherever we are!

What I later learned is that while the dreary colors of these butterflies’ undersides are produced by pigments that absorb and reflect light, the brilliant blue of their upper wings has nothing to do with pigment. That color comes from the way light reflects off transparent microscopic scales on their upper wings. There’s an involved scientific explanation but (in layman’s terms), when light hits ridges on those scales, something called “constructive interference” happens which cancels out certain wavelengths of light. As a result, when light hits the upper wings of the Blue Morpho, our eyes perceive them as being a shimmering blue.

Looking at my pictures, it’s difficult to comprehend that the Blue Morpho’s dazzling iridescence isn’t real. The blue is merely an optical illusion resulting from the architecture and arrangement of transparent scales on its brown wings. I guess we could call it a fake since it doesn’t show us its true colors. It’s a little like the Pharisees: those men Jesus criticized because they did everything for show. Their faith and righteous were but an illusion because their hearts were filled with hypocrisy and evil. Unlike either Blue Morphos or Pharisees, however, there should be nothing illusory or deceptive about a Christian’s love; we are expected to be true blue to Jesus and His command to love one another.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. [1 John 4:20-21 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

SLOW THINKING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

OFFENSE

Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults. … Overlook an offense and bond a friendship; fasten on to a slight and—good-bye, friend! … Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget. [Proverbs 12:16,17:9,19:11 (MSG)]

giant swallowtail butterflyOur sermon series was titled “Cage Fighting” but, rather than learning about fighting one another, we were learning about the ways Satan attacks and keeps us in his stronghold with things like shame, doubt, fear, and unforgiveness. While chatting with the pastor before church, I asked about the day’s topic. When he said offense, I immediately thought we’d learn how to take offensive action against the enemy.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the program and read the above proverbs. What did they have to do with spiritual weaponry? I was annoyed that I’d been misled until I realized I’d misunderstood the pastor. While I was thinking about taking the offense and attacking, the pastor would be speaking about taking offense and feeling attacked! He’d be talking about the kind of offense that leaves us feeling outraged, insulted, or (in my case) annoyed. My error that morning illustrates why we’re easily offended; I had a preconceived idea, misunderstood what I heard, and didn’t ask for an explanation.

In this day of political correctness — when BC (before Christ) has become BCE (before the common era), Christmas trees are called holiday trees, no one is quite sure how to refer to a disability, and The Journal of Animal Ethics says calling pets “pets” is demeaning (they’re now “companion animals” to their “human carers”) — mistakes are bound to happen.

Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity but never giving offense is nearly impossible. In reality, most people don’t mean to be racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, narrow-minded, impolite, or behind the times but sometimes they are. We can give offense inadvertently simply because words may have different connotations to different people, many words have changed their meaning over the years, or we don’t know the history of a symbol or phrase. For example, since my black postman wears a pith helmet, I didn’t know it was considered by some to be a symbol of white imperialism until Melania Trump was criticized for wearing one in Kenya.

Although wrong, rudeness and thoughtlessness are part and parcel of modern life. Today’s world offers an unlimited opportunity to both give and take offense and Satan loves it. To fight him, we must act and speak with love and do our best to never give offense, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Nevertheless, just as we must act and speak with love, we must listen and respond with love, as well. Knowing how easy it is to be offensive, we must work harder at not taking offense. Unfortunately, self-involved creatures that we are, we often choose to see bias, insult, or aggression even where none is meant. Taking offense just leads to anger, resentment, and retaliation (some of the enemy’s favorite weapons). Often translated as forbearance, patience is a fruit of the spirit and literally means “long temper.” Indeed, we should be slow to anger, give the benefit of doubt, not respond to provocation, turn the other cheek, love, and forgive.

I actually did learn how to fight the enemy that day, just not the way I thought. While some may say the best defense is a good offense, I learned that the best defense is not to take offense at all! As for me, I’m going to spend my time and energy being offended by the things that really matter: human trafficking, hunger, lack of safe drinking water for much of the world, poverty, homelessness, discrimination and injustice.

Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it. [Rene Descartes]

We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it. [Abraham Lincoln]

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. [Colossians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.