HAUGHTY EYES

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged. [Mattew 7:1-2 (NLT)]

peacockWhile I learned about international finance and Brexit at a women-only seminar, I also learned something more important by my reaction to two of the attendees. Their plumped up lips, wrinkle free faces, and curvaceous shapes indicated the work of a plastic surgeon and their perfect coifs and make-up caused me to wonder if they’d been professionally done that morning. Dressed from head-to toe in designer wear, it was obvious they shop at stores like Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo, and Fendi rather than Kohl’s, T.J Maxx, or Old Navy. One woman’s long cardigan sported Gucci’s trademark red and green stripes and her purse, belt and shoes all displayed the designer’s gold double G logo. The other woman, with her very blond hair, heavy make-up, lavender rabbit fur vest, matching silk blouse, swanky jewelry, and glittery Lucite heels, looked like she belonged in an episode of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

Granted, their appearance was over-the-top for a meeting that called for “business casual” but the women did nothing to justify my negative reaction to them. Later, a quick internet search told me that they run in a far different circle than do I and frequently attend local charity fundraisers (the kind where tickets range from $350 for lunch upwards to $1000 and more for dinner). While their lifestyle is significantly wealthier than mine, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. That they choose to spend money in a way that seems extravagant to me doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, compassionate, generous, kind, or even devout Christians. For all I know, along with their affinity for designer clothes, they also tithe to the church, volunteer at the homeless shelter, and regularly go on mission trips!

I thought of Jesus’ words about judging others. I certainly didn’t want someone to judge my value based on my attire and I had no right to do the same with theirs. Then, realizing I would have been more accepting of someone arriving at that same meeting in jeans, scruffy sneakers, and sweatshirt, I recalled the Apostle James’ words about discrimination. Written to the early church, he told them not to show partiality to the rich. If it’s wrong to favor the rich over the poor, isn’t it as wrong to favor the poor over the rich or the ordinary over the flashy? Granted, James didn’t want the early church to show favoritism to the wealthy in hope of getting financial assistance and this situation was different. Nevertheless, his point was that prejudice and discrimination is wrong. The rich and poor have the same value to their Father in Heaven!

Self-righteous, I’d pridefully compared my modest attire with their showy display of wealth which, in their circle, probably isn’t showy at all! Other than their wealth, I really knew nothing about the women and yet I’d instantly viewed them as one-dimensional stereotypical “trophy wives” rather than individuals. I’d even shared catty comments with the woman beside me. While looking down on these two women instead of looking at them, I’d judged others without noticing the huge log of haughtiness in my own eyes! Although the Lord detests “haughty eyes,” [Prov. 6:16-17] I’d been looking through them and it was my haughty, arrogant, self-righteous eyes that caused me to belittle those women.

We shouldn’t judge people by their economic status any more than we should by their race, religion, gender, age, nationality, accent, politics, disability, appearance, or marital status. It is as wrong to fault the rich for their wealth as it is to discount the poor for their poverty. Everyone is our neighbor, a child of God, and someone to love.

Yes indeed, it is good when you obey the royal law as found in the Scriptures: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. [James 2:8-9 (NLT)]

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SECRET KINDNESS

deptford pink flowersDo nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [Philippians 2:3-4 (RSV)]

While we usually think of charity as giving to the poor, Biblical charity means love or agape: absolute love of God and universal good will to men. Not limited to gifts of money or goods, charity is any act of kindness or generosity to others. Perhaps Paul gave us the best definition of charity in his words to the Philippians—charity starts with caring for others more than we care for ourselves!

My next exercise in learning how to live an abundant life was one of charity, with the additional element of anonymity; I was to secretly do something kind and not get caught! This seemed better suited for another century when people left May baskets on doorstep. Nowadays, with surveillance cameras at every doorway and corner, it’s difficult to do anything without getting caught (and possibly shot)!

While I’d like to think we all regularly do kind things, we usually don’t keep our actions secret. “Kindness is the law of Christ’s kingdom,” said preacher Matthew Henry and our motivation for any kindness should be our desire for God’s approval rather than man’s. Nevertheless, we rarely make anonymous donations to charities and we often point out favors we’ve done so they don’t go unacknowledged! When Jesus said to keep the left hand from knowing what the right has done, he was telling us to keep our giving a secret. [Matthew 6:1-4] This exercise of doing a secret kindness, albeit a small one, was a way to understand what He meant. As Matthew Henry explained, “Do it because it is a good work, not because it will give thee a good name.” Giving, whether of money, goods, or good turns, is not a spectator sport.

I wondered how this exercise in anonymous kindness would lead to better experiencing the abundant life promised by Jesus until I remembered Jesus’ words found in Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” The blessings given to us from God are far greater than any we could possibly give and yet it appears from His words that our blessings depend on the generosity of our spirit. Jesus, however, never promises those blessings will come back in kind. Leaving someone a May basket doesn’t mean we’ll get a basket on our doorstep and writing a check to a charity doesn’t mean we’ll get a larger check in tomorrow’s mail. Nevertheless, Jesus promises that we’ll get back more than we give. When we freely give of our love, joy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and grace while expecting neither recognition nor acknowledgement, God will refill our stockpile until it overflows. That is abundance!

If you want love and abundance in your life, give it away. [Mark Twain]

And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (RSV)]

 One man gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. [Proverbs 11:24-25 (RSV)]

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LENTEN FASTING 

You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? [Isaiah 58:5 (NLT)]

monarch butterflyTraditionally, Lent has been a time for Christians of all denominations to refocus their hearts and minds on God through prayer, fasting and giving. As a way of fasting, many people deny themselves small indulgences, such as soda, candy, or their daily latte at Starbucks, but Lenten fasting isn’t limited to food. Other ways to observe this season include not making any purchases that aren’t absolutely necessary; donating or throwing away forty things during Lent’s forty days; giving up guilty pleasures like People magazine or binge-watching Netflix; refraining from complaint or gossip; not eating out or ordering in; saying three nice things to one’s spouse and children daily; reading the four gospels; doing a weekly service project; setting aside loose change for a charity; or forty days of letter writing, acts of kindness, or phone calls to special people. Some of those, like refraining from gossip or complaint, saying nice things to the family, and Scripture reading shouldn’t be limited to just these forty days!

Last week’s Abundance assignment was to give up something for Lent. Pointing out that Jesus gave up everything for us, it simply asked what we could sacrifice for forty days as a sign of gratitude for His incredible gift. Since this is part of a mission to experience the abundance of the Christian life, I had to ask myself how having less would make me experience more. Of course, if we love Oreos, Five Guys, or Downton Abbey, we will appreciate them all the more when we can indulge in them once again, but there must be more to fasting than that.

Looking at fasting in Scripture, we find that it was never supposed to be mere ritual. Fasting and sacrifice were to be a sincere way of growing closer to God through prayer and repentance. Isaiah wrote of God’s anger at Israel’s superficial fasting that wasn’t accompanied by repentance and the blessing of others. Skipping dessert, abstaining from social media, or not playing FreeCell or Spider on our phones is meaningless if we don’t link our sacrifice with prayer, a change of heart, and the blessing of others. True fasting replaces selfishness with selflessness. Giving up something (be it food, habits, money, possessions or time) should cause us to take our eyes off the things of this world and humbly and joyfully focus them on God. It is only when we look to Jesus that we truly discover the abundance of the Christian life. Whether Christmas or Lent, let us prayerfully remember that Jesus is the reason for the season!

Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors! Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. [Isaiah 58:9b-10 NLT)]

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BEYOND REPROACH

Elders must be blameless, the husband of only one wife. Their children must be believers, and must not be open to the accusation of loose living, or being rebellious. This is because an overseer, as one of God’s household managers, must be blameless. [Titus 1:6-7 (NTE)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn my granddaughter’s ethics class, the question was posed, “Should elected officials be held to a higher standard than the population that elected them?” She maintained that everyone should be held to the same high standard and I agreed. We have no right to hold anyone to a higher standard than the one we keep. I added, however, that having taken on the public’s trust, elected officials have an obligation to hold themselves to the highest standards possible.

In Jesus’ day, every community had a group of adult men known for wisdom and maturity called elders who gathered as a kind of village council. When Christian churches came into being, they borrowed this leadership model and elders were appointed for each congregation. Sometimes referred to as bishops or overseers, their duties were to teach and preach, direct the affairs of the church, shepherd the flock, and guard the church from error. The other church office was that of deacon. The deacons assisted the elders which enabled them to give their full attention to prayer and ministry. The qualifications for both elders and deacons were much the same.

Paul gave both Timothy and Titus a list of the qualities necessary for elders and deacons. It’s interesting that Paul wasn’t concerned with their skill sets, talents, or spiritual gifts. Whether they were competent writers, brilliant speakers, accomplished musicians, or wealthy businessmen wasn’t his concern; their personal character was!

The principal requirement was that an elder be anenklētos, often translated as blameless, not accused, above reproach, of unquestionable integrity, or of unimpeachable virtue. For the sake of the church’s good name, the elder’s impeccable reputation was as important as his good character. Perhaps this seems unfair but the early church was a minority and already misunderstood by many. It could easily be smeared by even the hint of a scandal. Those who represented it had to be irreproachable.

Paul then spelled out the characteristics necessary for an elder. In his personal life, the elder was to be discrete, self-controlled, clear-headed, fair-minded, and not arrogant, argumentative, violent, or quick-tempered. In their homes, elders were to have a well-ordered household and healthy family relationships. As for the elder’s social life—he was to be hospitable. This was an important aspect of his calling since churches often met in homes and travelling evangelists and teachers were housed and fed by members of the church. Moreover, an elder was not to indulge in riotous living. Financially, the elder was to be a good steward of God’s gifts, trustworthy with money, and not greedy. Spiritually, elders were to be mature in their faith, virtuous, and knowledgeable in the Word of God. Their lives were to be an example for others to follow.

These requirements bring me back to a slightly rephrased version of the question posed in my grand’s ethics class: should we hold those in authority (such as elected officials, pastors or church council members) to a higher standard than our own? Are our own standards as high as those Paul purposed for the elders and deacons of the early church? They should be. As representative of Jesus, we all should strive to be the sort of people Paul would want to serve as elders and deacons: people above reproach! Let us remember that public perception of Christ’s followers and the church is as important today as it was in the 1st century!

Since I recently was appointed to our church board, I also return to my addendum to the grand’s answer. As a board member and a representative of our church, I must hold myself to the highest possible standard. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that any of us can be the kind of people described by Paul: people who shine like stars in this dark and troubled world!

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging on to the word of life. [Philippians 2:14-16a (NTE)]

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ONLY ONE MASTER (Part 2 – Luke 16:19-31)

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Luke 16:13 (NLT)]

primrose willowBecause the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the only parable in which names are used, some people in the early church believed that it was a real-life incident. Whether a true story or a parable is of no consequence because its lessons remain the same.

What the parable doesn’t tell us is that the poor automatically go to heaven and the rich to hell. After all, Abraham was wealthy and yet he’s there in Paradise dining with Lazarus! The angels didn’t carry Lazarus to Abraham simply because he was poor. The name Jesus chose to give him tells us Lazarus is there because he was godly. His name means “whom God helps” and Lazarus knew his help was in God. He’s named in this story because, like Abraham, he was known to God.

Just as Lazarus wasn’t carried to Abraham simply because he was poor, the rich man wasn’t condemned to his fiery torment simply because of his wealth. Although the man dressed in expensive purple cloth and fine linen, lived in luxury, and ate sumptuously every day, there was no sin in that. There’s no reason to suspect that he was a dishonest tax-collector, a double-dealing business man, a corrupt judge, or a thief and we’re not told that he beat his wife or abused his servants.

That the rich man knew Lazarus by name is what convicted him of sin. He knew Lazarus and his plight and yet ignored the poor man every time he walked in and out of his house. It was not the man’s wealth that condemned him; it was his hardness of heart. Although the Torah was filled with admonitions to care for the poor and oppressed, the rich man deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering man at his doorway. We never know the rich man’s name because God didn’t know him and he didn’t know God!

To the first century Jew, riches were considered a sign of God’s blessings and poverty a sign of His judgment. Rather than a sign of blessing, however, Jesus taught that riches test man’s faithfulness in stewardship. Just a few verses before telling this story, Jesus gave a clear warning that we cannot serve both God and money. What isn’t said but is implied is that we can serve God with our money! Neither wealth nor poverty determine salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. Nevertheless, our faith is demonstrated by how we live and use whatever wealth with which we’ve been blessed.

Christ did not object to the riches of the rich man but to his impiety, infidelity, pride and cruelty. … [People] to not need to fear riches but vices. They should not fear wealth, but avarice. They should not be afraid of creaturely goods, but of greed. Let them possess wealth…with faith. Let them have it, and possess it, and not be possessed by it. [Augustine, Sermon 2999e.5]

When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:48 (NLT)]

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LAZARUS AND THE RICH MAN (Part 1 – Luke 16:19-31)

And he will answer, “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:45-46 (NLT)]

purple prairie cloverWere I not a believer, I don’t think I’d find the concept of eternal life very comforting. While Jesus made it clear there is an afterlife, He also spoke of the destinations awaiting us in that afterlife. In the gospel of Luke, we find Him telling the parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus. [16:19-31] Indifferent to the plight of the destitute and diseased Lazarus, the rich man lived a life of indulgence and luxury while Lazarus lay outside his gate, hoping for just a few scraps from the rich man’s table.

When Lazarus dies, angels carry him to the bosom of Abraham. The presence of both angels and Abraham told Jesus’s audience that Lazarus was in Heaven. Being in Abraham’s bosom refers to the Jewish custom of reclining on couches while dining (which brought the head of one man almost into the bosom of the one sitting beside him). From this description, Jesus’ listeners also knew that Lazarus was sitting at Abraham’s side, in a place of honor, at a banquet in Paradise. In contrast, when the rich man dies, he is sent to Hades, the realm of the dead. Jesus’ mention of it being a place of torment and flames, however, implies the rich man is in what Jewish tradition called Gehenna, a place of fiery torment and punishment. This parable makes clear that there are two destinations awaiting us when we die and one is far nicer than the other.

Still thinking that he’s in a position to call the shots and give orders, the rich man calls to Abraham, telling him to have pity and send Lazarus over with some water to relieve his agony (something he’d refused to do for the beggar). Explaining that there is a great chasm between the two places and that no one can traverse the span in either direction, Abraham reminds him that he had his reward during his lifetime. This parable leads us to the conclusion that, once we reach the end of the line here, we will not be getting a second chance to make things right in the hereafter. The impassable abyss means our first destination after death will be our final one!

Realizing that his behavior in life determined his hereafter, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about his fate. Abraham replies that they’ve already been warned in Scripture. When the rich man insists that his brothers will repent and change their ways if someone returns from the dead, Abraham answers that even someone returning from the dead couldn’t convince them. It’s ironic that when Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus returned from death, rather than believe him, the Pharisees planned to kill him!

While the rich man could not warn his brothers about the consequences of their behavior, Jesus warns us with the rich man’s story. Hell is a real place and, after death, the unrighteous are eternally separated from God in a place of torment. There are eternal consequences to our choices and, if we prefer not to have God in our lives on earth, He will accommodate us in eternity, as well.

It is better to beg bread on earth than water in hell. [Dwight Moody]

And anyone who believes in God’s Son has eternal life. Anyone who doesn’t obey the Son will never experience eternal life but remains under God’s angry judgment. [John 3:36 (NLT)]

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