TELL THEM WHY

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. [Matthew 5:16 (ESV)]

monarch butterfly - whorled milkweed

“Simply by being in your presence, non-Christians ought to be able to tell that you have spent time in God’s presence,” were the week’s words of wisdom in my email. In Bible study, one woman echoed the week’s wisdom when saying that she behaved so that the light of Christ could be seen in her conduct all day. Although actions speak louder than words and all of our actions should shout “Praise the Lord!” I wonder if, by depending solely on our examples, we are taking the easy way out of Jesus’ command to let our lights shine. After all, what good does our light do if no one ever learns the source of its power? Eventually, we need to open our mouths and share the gospel message with words as well as actions.

“Christian” as a noun means someone who professes specific belief in the doctrine of Christianity. When “Christian” is used as an adjective merely to describe good behavior (i.e. “he did the Christian thing”), the word loses its power. After all, we haven’t cornered the market when it comes to being good people. Being respectful, helpful, caring or kind is not limited to Christians. Some of the most compassionate, loving, moral, and generous people I know are of other faiths or of no faith at all. While I’d like to think that believers usually exhibit better behavior than non-believers, the difference between Christians and non-Christians is not behavior; the difference is Christ! Unless we open our mouths and talk about Jesus, people won’t know what makes us the way we are.

When reading the cast notes in a Playbill recently, one actress finished her brief resume with these words: “All glory to God! 1 John 4:19.” Hopefully, her demeanor among the rest of the cast and crew reflects the light of Christ. But, just in case they weren’t sure from where her light comes, she told them (as well as the audience): “We love because He first loved us.” Indeed, she said, “Praise the Lord!” and told us why.

Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words. [St. Francis of Assisi]

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” [Mark 16:15 (ESV)]

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)]

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FULLY AWARE

For I hold you by your right hand—I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, “Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” [Isaiah 41:13 (NLT)]

cousinsScientists have found that even a simple hug or the holding of hands can lower both blood pressure and heart rate in stressful situations. Gentle touch also causes a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol and an increase in oxytocin (often called the “cuddling hormone”). Where cortisol might give a “fight or flight” response, oxytocin causes more of a “tend and befriend” one by increasing feelings of trust and connection. Since we were at a funeral and the previous ten days had been a roller coaster of emotion and tension for everyone, the priest’s request to join hands as we stood in prayer benefitted us physically and psychologically as well as spiritually.

While holding hands during prayer wouldn’t be unusual in many evangelical Protestant churches, apparently it is in Roman Catholic ones (especially when done during every prayer) and it has become a point of contention in some dioceses and parishes. Being a rather touchy-feely Protestant, I enjoyed the hand holding and the feeling of solidarity in prayer that came with it. The priest, however, asked us to do more than simply join hands. “Take the hand of the person beside you,” he instructed, “and, fully aware of the soul you are touching, join in prayer.” As I held the hand of the stranger beside me, I thought of those words: “fully aware of the soul you are touching.” I didn’t know the man and will never see him again. From his rosary, I knew we do not attend the same church. Nevertheless, I knew we worshipped the same God and were there for the same reason: to celebrate the life of the man whose body lay in a casket near the altar. As I became more aware of the soul I was touching, my thoughts turned from my own personal sorrow to the sorrow shared by all who were present in the sanctuary. We were one community, united in our thanksgiving for the man we mourned, in our intercessions for his family, in our love for God, and in our belief in the resurrected Christ and the life everlasting.

I appreciate that some people are uncomfortable with the intimacy of holding hands and find doing it during worship an unwelcome innovation. Whether or not we touch one another during prayer is not as important as being fully aware of one another: not just of the people with whom we pray but of all with whom we interact. Fellow travelers through this troubled world, they are struggling as much as we are to navigate the challenges, sorrow, and pain in their paths. Is there some way we can make their journey easier? Sometimes, we find that answer in a simple touch. While we probably won’t bring healing to their bodies, we may bring some healing to their souls.

At the conclusion of the funeral, the deceased’s family followed the casket out of the sanctuary and his sister passed by our pew. My husband stepped into the aisle beside her and they joined hands as they walked out together. Although we hardly know her, fully aware of her mournful soul, he knew her need to be supported during that difficult walk.

Lord, teach us to be fully aware of the souls we encounter each day. Let our words be kind, our actions helpful, and our touch gentle and supportive.

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. [Henri Nouwen]

As it happened, Publius’s father was ill with fever and dysentery. Paul went in and prayed for him, and laying his hands on him, he healed him. [Acts 28:8 (NLT)]

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A MESSAGE IN THE SKY

skywriting - love godJesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-38 (NLT)]

After a lovely walk in the park, I looked up in the sky and saw a skywriter busy at work. The word “love” was starting to fade in the sky and, thinking a marriage proposal was in the works, I thought the pilot needed to work faster to get his message written. Curious, I waited to see what came next and was surprised to see the word “God” written in pale white smoke before the pilot flew off.

“Love God” – that’s the first and greatest commandment and we are to love God with all of our heart, soul and mind. In other words, love Him with our entire being: our passions, prayers, thoughts, words, voices, skills, desires, reactions, appearance, finances, strength, desires, relationships, and possessions. With no punctuation, however, that wasn’t necessarily what was meant. Rather than the command “Love God!” those little two words in the sky could have been more like the closing and signature line to a letter, card, or love note: “Love, God.” Indeed, the sunny day had been a beautiful gift sent from Him.

Although God sends us love notes all of the time, they’re usually not done in skywriting on a blue sky day. A rainbow, the symbol of God’s covenant with His creatures to never again send an all-destructive flood, is one of His reassuring love notes reminding us that His love shines through all the storms of life. Rainbows, beautiful days, magnificent sunsets, butterflies, even the aroma of spring lilacs—all can say “Love, God” to us. Today, when I opened my email, I realized God sends His love another way—in the encouraging words and prayers of a Christian friend. Having mentioned my heavy heart for a loved one, she immediately responded with encouraging words and by lifting us both in prayer. The email may have come from her address, but it bore His signature: “Love, God.”

In church Sunday, I turned to a stranger and told her how beautifully her daughter had sung during the teen led worship service. She welcomed those words with such enthusiasm that you would have thought I’d offered her girl a recording contract. Telling me how thrilled her daughter would be to hear the compliment, she added that the teen had just been cut from a choral group and badly needed reassurance. I spoke the words but they came from one of His nudges and were signed “Love, God.” In the many ways we share God’s love, we fulfill the second, equally important commandment given to us: to love our neighbors as ourselves.

“Love God!” or “Love, God” – in this case, the punctuation makes no difference. Each day brings opportunities to love and honor God by being one of His love notes with our prayers, an encouraging word, a quick text or email, a warm touch, a hand-written note, extra patience, a friendly smile or a helping hand. It is in the love we show to one another that we can fulfill both of His commands at once.

All who declare that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. [1 John 4:15-16 (NLT)]

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THE SAMARITAN

Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. [Luke 10:33 (NLT)]

prairie false indigoAccording to the historian Josephus, around 9 AD, when Jesus was just a boy, some Samaritans snuck into Jerusalem on Passover and defiled the Temple with human remains. The hatred between Jews and the Samaritans, however, had been going on for centuries. In 930 BC, when Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) was king, the kingdom of Israel divided. The northern kingdom, known as Israel, eventually became known as Samaria. The southern kingdom, where Jerusalem and the Temple were, became known as Judah. Fearing a change of alliance if his people returned to Jerusalem to worship, the northern kingdom’s first king, Jeroboam, set up his own worship centers complete with golden calves. After they were conquered by Assyria in 772 BC, most of the Jews were taken into captivity and foreigners, bringing their pagan gods and beliefs, colonized the land. The remaining Jews began to worship idols along with the God of Israel and the Samaritan religion became a mix of idolatry and Judaism.

Samaritans were a continual source of difficulty for the Jews of the southern kingdom. Insisting that Moses said they should worship on Gerizim, they erected a temple there. Recognizing only the five books of Moses, Samaritans rejected most Jewish traditions, interfered when Nehemiah was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and offered safe haven to Judah’s criminals. Controlling the land between Galilee and Jerusalem, they regularly harassed pilgrims on their way to worship in Jerusalem. Because of all the intermarriage between the Jews and Gentiles of Samaria, Samaritans were considered “half-breeds.” Seeing them as both racially and theologically contaminated, the Jews had a proverb: “A piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.”

This is the world in which we find Jesus telling the parable of the Good Samaritan with the unlikely hero being a Samaritan (whose people were known to harass travelers). We know this parable was in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” but let’s back up one chapter to see what preceded it. Jesus and the disciples were on their way to Jerusalem. Rather than taking the longer walk around Samaria, they were walking right through it. When Jesus sent messengers into a Samaritan village to make sleeping and eating arrangements, they were not welcomed. Although Jesus had previously told the disciples to simply shake the dust from their feet if a town refused to welcome them, John and James suggested calling down fire from heaven to destroy the village. Luke says Jesus rebuked them but we don’t know what was said.

Part of their rebuke may have been the story of the Good Samaritan. The parable could have been as much for His disciples (especially James and John) as it was for the legal expert who asked the question. Jesus easily could have made his point with a Roman soldier as the story’s unlikely hero, but He didn’t. Although the Samaritans had been unneighborly in snubbing Him, Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to teach a lesson about neighbors! That parable told the disciples that, even when our neighbor is inhospitable and slights us, we still treat him as our neighbor. Whether or not someone helps us, we are to help them and, when someone offends us, we’re not to take offense. We do unto others as we would like them to do to us and not as they’ve done to us!

Although there are about 800 Samaritans still living in Israel, for most of us the word “Samaritan” refers to someone who helps other people, especially strangers, when they have trouble. How ironic that the despised “pagan half-Jews of the Old Testament” (as one writer called them) took a place of honor in the New!

Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! [Luke 6:30-31 (NLT)]

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ACCURATE SCALES

The Lord detests the use of dishonest scales, but he delights in accurate weights. [Proverbs 11:1 (NLT)]

The Lord demands accurate scales and balances; he sets the standards for fairness. [Proverbs 16:11 (NLT)]

Scales of Justice

Unless we’re butchers, greengrocers, goldsmiths, or grain merchants, we probably don’t have occasion to cheat anyone by short weighting them, so what do these words about dishonest scales mean to us? But, then I consider the scales of justice: one of the oldest and most familiar symbols associated with law. Those scales represent the impartial weighing of two sides of a question. Perhaps, these proverbs are about far more than cheating someone out of a few ounces of lamb or corn.

Just because we don’t put our thumb on the scale or cheat on our income taxes doesn’t necessarily mean we’re using honest weights. How fair are we when we have to weigh our options? Are we impartial when we consider a course of action? Do we find plenty of time for ourselves but not enough for others? How objective are we when we deal with people? Do those who are more attractive, wealthier, more fun or better educated have more importance to us? Does it tip the scales when someone can return a favor or do something for us? Do we give the benefit of the doubt to certain people and not to others? Do we prejudge people based on their race, accent, clothing, age, or position? Are we as polite and understanding to those who serve us as we are to those we serve? Do we hold ourselves to a different standard than that we hold for others? Do we readily overlook our poor behavior when we wouldn’t tolerate that same behavior in someone else? Do we love some neighbors more than others or more freely extend mercy and kindness to certain people? When we buy something do we expect full disclosure but say, “buyer beware,” when we sell it? Do we correct the check when it’s in the restaurant’s favor but leave well enough alone when it’s in ours? Do our ethics and morals change with the situation or the people present? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, we’ve been using dishonest scales!

The prophets Amos and Micah pronounced judgment on Israel for their lack of social justice, theft, exploitation, corruption, violence, bribery, and unethical business practices. They used dishonest weights; would the prophets say the same of us?

Lord, forgive us when we are false to you, others and ourselves. Free us from bias, dishonesty, and double standards. Make us worthy of your love and the trust that is given to us.

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him. [James D. Miles Allison]

The Lord detests double standards; he is not pleased by dishonest scales. [Proverbs 20:23 (NLT)]

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WHAT DON’T YOU DO?

I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. [1 Corinthians 9:22b (ESV)]

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Philippians 4:13 (ESV)]

“I don’t do desserts!” my neighbor said. My initial thought was, “Anyone can bake brownies!” As it turns out, my neighbor was absolutely right; a horrible cook, she is proof that not everyone can bake a tray of brownies! Unlike me, however, she has a gift with animals and volunteers at the Conservancy caring for injured wildlife.

God gave each of us the gift of doing some things well. As important as it is to know what those gifts are and to use them wisely, it’s just as important to know what our gifts aren’t! We’re not divine and there will always be some things we don’t do well, no matter how hard we try. When Paul said he’d become all things to all people, he meant he could find common ground with them and was sensitive to their needs, not that he could do all things for them. Moreover, when he said he could do all things through Christ, He wasn’t claiming to be a superman. He was speaking of the strength God gives us to faithfully endure the challenges of life. We can’t be all things to all people nor can we do all things for them. Trying to be Superman or Wonder Woman brings unnecessary stress to us and poor results to everyone else. Only God can do it all!

God has given each of us different ways to best serve Him and others. There are certain things, such as painting, public speaking, guitar playing, computer programming, teaching, and even baking, that some of us can do. There are a number of things, like gossiping, enabling, hating or belittling, that none of us should do. There also are specific things, like worshipping, praying and serving, that all of us can and should do.

Father, help us recognize both our gifts and limitations. Show us how to manage our talents in the best possible way to bring honor and glory to you.

For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function… Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them. [Romans 12:4,6a (ESV)]

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: [1 Peter 4:10 (ESV)]

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