INSTRUCTIONS FOR CHRISTIAN HOUSEHOLDS – Part 1

1909 Milwaukee Pfeiffer familyWives, submit yourselves to your husbands…. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything…. Fathers, do not embitter your children…. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything…. Work at it with all your heart…. Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair…. [Colossians 3:18-23,4:1 (NIV)]

In a Christian household, the Apostle Paul instructs wives to submit, husbands to love and be gentle, children to obey, fathers to encourage, slaves to obey and work honestly, and masters to provide and do what is right. People often find these verses troubling for a variety of reasons. The word “submit” is a stumbling block for many and the mention of slavery is disturbing to us all. Unfortunately, slavery was a way of life in the 1st Century and quite different from the slavery found in our American history books. While not right, it was a part of the economy and social structure of the time so Paul addressed it. At the end of these instructions, Paul reminded the Colossians that God has no favorites and their Master was in heaven. In God’s eyes, slave, master, wife, husband, and child were all the same and it was to Him they all were accountable.

These verses, however, are not all-inclusive. While every action Paul mentions should be taken, he never said they were the only things people should do for one another. The Bible is the sum of its parts, not just a few select verses. Paul eloquently explained love in 1 Corinthians 13 and further defined a Christian household in Ephesians 5 and 6. After telling people to submit to one another and wives to submit to their husbands, he adds that men should love their wives as much as Christ loved the church. He tells children to honor their parents as well as obey them, fathers to discipline (not provoke) their children, slaves to respect their masters and masters not to threaten their slaves. In both family and work relationships, Paul makes it clear that we have a mutual responsibility involving submission, love, gentleness, honor, obedience, discipline, encouragement, respect, diligent and honest labor, fairness, and respect.

In Colossians, Paul doesn’t ask us to do anything in our lives and relationships that Jesus didn’t do or that Paul, who called himself a “slave of God” wasn’t willing to do. Did Jesus submit? He submitted to his disciples when He humbly knelt and washed their feet and to God’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane. The one who raised the dead, stilled the sea, and healed the sick certainly could have struck down the guards mocking and beating him, but He didn’t. Instead, Jesus submitted willingly.

Did Jesus love? He loved us enough to lay down His life for us—people he didn’t even know and who were totally unworthy of such a sacrifice. He loved enough to suffer as a man although He was God and to ask forgiveness for those who crucified Him. As for obedience, Jesus was obedient to His earthly parents, Jewish law, and even paid the temple tax! He remained obedient to God’s word when tempted by Satan and was obedient to His Heavenly Father’s will all the way to the cross.

Rather than disparaging or demeaning the people He met, Jesus loved and encouraged them. He took every opportunity to tell his disciples not to worry, be anxious, or afraid. Rather than criticizing and shaming the adulterous woman, he forgave her and encouraged her to sin no more. From the time He was a boy in the temple, he went about His Heavenly Father’s business by learning, teaching, preaching, healing and miracle making. He neither ignored the needs of the people around him nor neglected the work God gave Him to do. He worked without complaint or resentment. Even though He wasn’t a slave, Jesus took on the role of one and did His work with sincerity of heart and reverence for His Lord.

Did Jesus provide? From wine at a wedding feast and food for a multitude to the gifts of salvation and the Holy Spirit, Jesus provided generously for his servants. We are called to follow the example of Jesus. To do that, we must conduct our lives the way Jesus did: by submitting, loving, obeying, encouraging, working for our Master and providing for His people.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. [Romans 15:5-6 (NIV)]

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WHAT’S YOUR ORANGE?

“There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich. [Luke 18:22-23 (NLT)]

orange“What’s your orange?” the teacher asked her remote learning class. Before having them answer, she explained the “monkey trap.” In Southeast Asia, hunters capture monkeys by drilling a hole in a pumpkin. The hole is just large enough for a monkey’s hand but too small for his fist. They secure the pumpkin to a tree, put a piece of sweet juicy orange inside the gourd, then retreat and wait. Eventually, an unsuspecting monkey comes along, smells the orange, and reaches through that small hole into the pumpkin. Once he’s grabbed hold of the orange, however, his fist can’t get back through the same hole. The monkey pulls and pulls but can’t free his hand. While he’s struggling to pull out his orange-filled fist, hunters easily throw a net over him. Not understanding that he can’t have both his freedom and the orange, he loses them both. After telling this story, the teacher again asked her students, “What is your orange? What is it you can’t release?”

This lesson was part of an expanded on-line curriculum at my grand’s high school. Its purpose is to address the emotional issues encountered by the teens in this strange time of social distancing and on-line classes. Whether the “monkey trap” is an actual technique or simply a parable, its lesson applies to Christians as well as pandemic teens. Do we have an orange (or two)?

We’ve all asked God to save us from one predicament or another but, after promising we’ll do anything He asks, we often add a condition to that prayer and tell God not to ask us to give up the “orange.” We’re deep in debt but we tell God not to ask us to sell the boat or downsize the house. When our marriage is in trouble, we tell God not to ask us to give up the internet flirtation or the nights out with the guys. We’re having ethical challenges at work but tell God not to ask us to give up the well-paid position. Like the orange, some things are a whole lot easier to grab than to let go!

Like the monkey, we’re often held hostage by whatever our “orange” is: whether it’s alcohol, drugs, food, gambling or another addiction; an unhealthy relationship, money, possessions, or prestige; or emotions like resentment, worry, anger, arrogance, remorse, pain from past hurts, guilt, or self-doubt. Whatever we’re holding tightly in our heart keeps us from being truly free to enjoy the abundance and peace Jesus offers. Until we let go of that “orange,” there’s no room for God’s blessings.

The gospels tell of the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer that he must give away all his wealth makes us all uncomfortable. Does God really expect us to give away everything? Giving away all we possess, however, isn’t a universal requirement and Jesus didn’t ask that of anybody else. What Jesus asked the man to do was to give up the thing that possessed him: his orange. That’s what He asks of us, as well. Every person has his own “orange;” we must recognize it for the trap it is, open our hands, and let it go. The rich young ruler’s “orange” was his wealth; what’s yours?

If you have not chosen the Kingdom of God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead. [William Law]

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. [Matthew 6:33 (NLT)]

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COMFORT ZONES (Esther – Part 2)

So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and fasting. I also wore rough burlap and sprinkled myself with ashes. [Daniel 9:3 (NLT)]

So we fasted and earnestly prayed that our God would take care of us, and he heard our prayer. [Ezra 8:23 (NLT)]

orchidWhen writing about Esther yesterday, I thought how terrified she must have been when Mordecai asked her to step out of her comfort zone to save the Jews. Even though she was queen, her access to Xerxes was severely limited.  Living secluded in a private chamber in the women’s quarters, she didn’t regularly dine with the king. Powerless, she was the one to be summoned rather than the one who did the summoning and she hadn’t been summoned by Xerxes for a month. She was just one of many beautiful women in the king’s harem and perhaps someone else had caught his eye. The previous queen was banished when she defied the king and Esther could expect nothing less if her presence wasn’t welcomed. The young queen had a simple choice: comfort or courage. She chose courage and saved a nation!

Where did Esther get the courage to defy the law and approach the king? She got it from God! That may seem a strange answer since God isn’t mentioned anywhere in her story. After asking Mordecai to gather together all the Jews in Susa and fast for three days, however, Esther promised that she and her maids would do the same. The beautiful queen wasn’t fasting so she’d fit into her sexiest gown! She was fasting in prayer.

For a Jew, fasting and prayer went hand in hand and, while prayer is not specifically mentioned, it certainly is implied. Fasting combined with prayer was a customary practice in times of grief, distress or repentance. It was a way to seek God’s favor and demonstrate the sincerity of one’s prayers. Although fasting was only demanded on the Day of Atonement, Scripture tells us that the Israelites and people like Ezra, David, Nehemiah, Jehoshaphat, and Daniel all combined fasting with prayer. When Esther and the people of Susa fasted, I have no doubt their fast was accompanied by their heartfelt prayers. Only then did Esther have both a plan and the courage to step out of her comfort zone.

Unlike Esther, we may not be asked to save a nation. Nevertheless, God has a mission for each of us. Because He is far more interested in our growth and obedience than our comfort, God’s mission for us, like Esther’s, usually begins at the end of our comfort zone. How do we move from comfort to courage and from fear to faith?

Like Esther, we could choose to fast. The purpose of fasting is never to change God; its purpose is to change us. A fast helps us take our eyes off the world and focus them on God. While Esther probably fasted from food, a fast also can be from things like gaming, social media, alcohol, television or anything else that takes our mind off God. Although Scripture tells us that Jesus and the early church fasted, it does not demand that Christians fast.

The spiritual practice of fasting is a personal choice for a Christian but prayer is not. Prayer is an act of obedience to God; it is the way we demonstrate our faith. When faced with the choice of comfort or courage, whether or not we choose to fast, we must choose to pray. Prayer is what will enable us to step out of our comfort zone and courageously do God’s work.

Courage is faith that has said its prayers. [AA slogan]

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears. Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened; he saved me from all my troubles. [Psalm 34:4-6 (NLT)]

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INDIFFERENCE (Esther – Part 1)

No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. [Micah 6:8 (NLT)]

snowy egretIn 1986, holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” That thought, however, has a longer history. In 1897, in George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, these words were spoken: The worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them: that’s the essence of inhumanity.” The evil of indifference can be found as far back as 474 BC in the story of Esther and as recently as today in our newspapers.

It’s in the Persian capital of Susa that we find King Xerxes’ “prime minister” Haman (a descendant of Agag from the race of Amalekites) facing off with the Jewish Mordecai (a descendant of King Saul’s tribe of Benjamin). The two families had a long history of hatred between them and Mordecai continually refused to bow down to the powerful Haman. Although Jews were permitted to bow down to people out of respect, Mordecai did not respect Haman and no self-respecting descendant of Saul would ever bow before an ancient enemy like an Amalekite. The incensed Haman took their personal animosity to another level by convincing the king that a “certain race” in the empire posed a threat and should be killed. The king was so indifferent to these unidentified people that he never even asked who they were. Xerxes gave Mordecai free rein to do with them and their wealth as he wanted. Written in the king’s name and sealed with his ring, Mordecai sent out an order for the Jews’ extermination to take place March 7.

Although the Jews had their unique dietary laws and customs, they had integrated into the Persian culture. They lived throughout the kingdom and interacted with the Persians daily. Mordecai, for example, had been born in Persia, had a Persian name, was a court official himself, and had even saved the king’s life. The Jews reacted to their extermination date with mourning, but what of the Persians? Scripture tells us that the city of Susa was perplexed but nothing more. There was nearly a year between the edict and execution date but we never read of people approaching the king on behalf of their Jewish friends and neighbors. The nation appeared indifferent to the slaughter of an entire people!

Enlisting Esther’s help, Mordecai asked her to beg the king for mercy. While not exactly indifferent to the Jews’ plight, Esther was more concerned with her safety than theirs. She balked at his request until Mordecai pointed out that the Jewish queen was not exempt from the king’s edict. To quickly summarize: Esther took action, Haman was executed, Mordecai became prime minister, and the Jews were saved.

Xerxes’ indifference to the fate of an entire race, the Persians’ indifference to the massacre of their neighbors, Esther’s initial indifference to her people’s plight, the indifference of Elie Wiesel’s countrymen as Jews were hauled off to Auschwitz, the world’s indifference as it looked the other way while millions were exterminated, and our indifference as we witness injustice, genocide, inequality, human trafficking, discrimination, slave labor, and repression in the world today—indifference to wrongs that don’t personally affect us—is, indeed, “the essence of inhumanity.” Let us remember that, like the beautiful queen Esther, we are not exempt from being touched by the world’s evil. Perhaps, like her, we are here “for just such a time as this!” [Esther 4:14]

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. [Martin Niemöller]

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. [James 4:17 (NLT)]

Those who shut their ears to the cries of the poor will be ignored in their own time of need. [Proverbs 21:13 (NLT)]

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LUKEWARM

Look! I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends. [Revelation 3:20 (NLT)]

I’ve learned something about my housekeeping habits during this pandemic. Like many, when it first began, I took my pent up energy and enthusiastically cleaned, arranged, sorted and scrubbed. Cupboards and baseboards were wiped, windows were washed, furniture moved, fan blades dusted, files sorted, and every closet, cupboard, and drawer organized. That, however, was many months ago. I now realize that hospitality was my real reason for cleaning house. Pre-pandemic, we frequently entertained, neighbors regularly stopped over, and houseguests often occupied one of the bedrooms. Being ready for visitors at a moment’s notice was my incentive for keeping the house spic-and-span. Guests, however, are a thing of the past and only repairmen get beyond the front door! While our house is still presentable, it’s not the way it used to be. With just the two of us, I’ve lost my motivation and become far more tolerant of things like dust, disorder, and dirty windows!

The image of Jesus knocking at the door to an unbeliever’s heart has been used by evangelists for decades but the unbeliever’s heart is not the best understanding of Revelation 3:20. Jesus wasn’t speaking to a non-believer; He was speaking to the believers in the church of Laodicea. Like the tepid water supply of their city, they were neither hot like the healing waters of the nearby hot springs nor cold like the refreshing springs in Colossae. They were a church that had become lukewarm and indifferent to Jesus. Their self-satisfaction and apathy had led to idleness and lethargy. Jesus had some harsh words for them as He stood knocking at the door of a church that didn’t even know He’d left the house!

The church at Laodicea had grown as lax in their faith as I have in my housekeeping. Their initial fervor for Jesus waned just as my early enthusiasm about cleaning did. They’d become satisfied with superficial religion rather than growing deeper in faith and I’ve become satisfied with surface cleaning rather than getting deep into the corners. The church at Laodicea, having grown content with their wealth and easy life, were cutting corners. Having grown content with sheltering in place, I’m taking short cuts, as well. While making these comparisons, I realize that the Lord’s words of censure are not limited to Laodicea. Just as I slipped into indifference about housework, like the Laodiceans, we easily can slide into a half-hearted perfunctory faith.

Indifference leads to idleness but I’m sure my zeal for housekeeping will return when I again welcome people into our home. Sheltering in place, however, doesn’t keep Jesus from knocking at our doors. Have we become too complacent, self-satisfied, or apathetic to hear Him knocking? Open the door, invite Him in, and share a meal as friends! He’s far more interested in our hearts than the cleanliness of our homes! Let us never become indifferent to Him or spiritually lukewarm!

I do not think the devil cares how many churches you build, if only you have lukewarm preachers and people in them. [Charles Spurgeon]

I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!… I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference. … Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. [Revelation 3:15-16,19,22 (NLT)]

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THE MILLSTONE

These people are as useless as dried-up springs or as mist blown away by the wind. They are doomed to blackest darkness. They brag about themselves with empty, foolish boasting. With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception. [2 Peter 2:17-18 (NLT)]

zion parkAround 67 AD, Peter wrote to the church at large to warn them about the danger of false teachers. In a stark contrast to the Messiah’s living water, they were likened to wells without water and Peter warned that they were dangerous, especially to those new to Jesus.  The Apostle’s words reminded me of Jesus’ caution to the disciples about causing one of His “little ones” to fall into sin. “What sorrow awaits the one who does the tempting,” He warned while mentioning a fate involving a millstone. It’s bad enough when we sin but even worse if we drag others down with us. We can do that by preaching a false message, inviting them to share in our sinful behavior or, in a far more subtle way, by causing them to distrust the gospel message or turn from their faith.

The Greek word translated as “cause to sin” is skandalizō, meaning “to put a stumbling-block or impediment in the way upon which another may trip and fall.” In the New Testament, it meant “to entice to sin.” If skandalizō  sounds familiar, it should. It’s the source of a word we see far too frequently nowadays: scandal. Yet another well-known name has been added to a long list of church leaders brought down by scandal and I think of the stumbling block of scandal. The worst thing about any scandal in the church is what it does to those left in its wake: the “little ones,” the spiritually immature, the “baby Christians” in our midst. They are the people who may be tempted to reject the gospel message because of the sinful behavior of those who supposedly represent Jesus and His followers!

While it’s easy to point a finger at fallen evangelists, let’s remember that three fingers point back at us. Our failings may not be as well-publicized or as blatant as theirs but they easily can be stumbling-blocks to someone’s faith. Our transgressions do not invalidate the message of Jesus but they certainly undermine our witness. When we fall, we wound more than ourselves. If we don’t shake people’s faith in Christ, we do shake their faith in His followers.

Granted, the non-believer will not be able to excuse his lack of faith or sins because of our failings. Nevertheless, if we’ve harmed or lost a soul because of our behavior, we’ll be held accountable. That millstone of which Jesus spoke? A stone used to grind grain, it was so large and heavy that it had to be turned by a donkey. Drowning with a millstone around one’s neck actually was a form of execution used by the Romans for particularly heinous crimes and Jews found this method especially repulsive and inhumane. Jesus’ reference to the horrific fate of those who cause others to fall into sin was not lost on them. Let it not be lost on us!

But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. [Matthew 18:6-7 (NLT)]

So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall. [Romans 14:13 (NLT)]

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