CRUEL WORDS

I call on the Lord in my distress, and he answers me. Save me, Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues. [Psalm 120:1-2 (NIV)]

canna - bandana of the evergladesFeeling wounded by an unwarranted condemnation, I was struggling with forgiving what to me were slanderous words. The peace that accompanies true forgiveness eluded me as the memory of the accusation haunted me. In comparison to the betrayals, deception, and abuse I’ve managed to forgive in my 74 years, this barely qualified as a misdemeanor. Nevertheless, my integrity had been called into question. Wounded in a way I never expected, I struggled to forgive.

I kept scratching at those hurtful words the way a child does a mosquito bite and, every time I did, it just got worse. Granted, there are far worse things than a false accusation but, sometimes, it’s the little things that are hardest to forgive. That my accuser hadn’t apologized helped fuel my resentment. Bringing my problem to God, I asked why I couldn’t let this slight go. Why was I allowing someone else to make me miserable over what really wasn’t worth losing sleep over?

As I prayed about it, God brought me to Charles Spurgeon’s commentary on Psalm 120 and his words about slander: “Those who have felt the edge of a cruel tongue know assuredly that it is sharper than the sword.” Aimed at our sense of honor, slurs and disparagement can be shot privately, polished up, and delivered with subtlety; nevertheless, they are tipped with poison. “We could ward off the strokes of a cutlass, but we have no shield against a liar’s tongue,” continued the famed 19th century preacher.

Pointing out that stirring up the allegation only makes it spread, Spurgeon continued: “Silence to man and prayer to God are the best cures for the evil of slander.” The Apostle Paul tells us that, “When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.” [1 Cor. 4:12-13] Heeding the words of both Charles Spurgeon and Paul, I chose silence and prayer. My best response to the attack was quiet integrity rather than any of the sharp retorts filling my mind because the only One who needed to know the truth about me already did!

As for that missing apology—when Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy times seven times, He never set an apology as a prerequisite! As Christians, we are to have forgiving hearts, regardless of the circumstances. We must forgive with as much grace as God has forgiven us! We can’t do so on our own power but we can with God’s! As I resolved to be a peacemaker, God empowered me to forgive the offender.

When we are slandered it is a joy that the Lord knows us, and cannot be made to doubt our uprightness: he will not hear the lie against us, but he will hear our prayer against the lie. [Charles Spurgeon]

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. [Matthew 5:9-11 (NIV)]

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A GOOD SERMON

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke and encourage your people with good teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. … Work at telling the Good News and fully carry out the ministry God has given you. [2 Timothy 4:2-4,5b (NLT)]

fish vreek falls - COIn a Dennis the Menace comic strip (drawn by Marcus Hamilton), Dennis is sitting next to his father at church. As their offering envelope is dropped in the plate, he asks his father, “Can we get a refund if the sermon isn’t that good?” For Dennis and many church-goers, a good sermon is one that is pleasant and entertaining. Unlike movies and concerts, however, sermons aren’t meant to be entertainment. The Christian church is neither the “church of what’s happening now” nor the church of “anything goes.” While many messages can make us feel good, feeling good is not the purpose of the Good News.

As much as the Romans, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and others looked forward to hearing from the Apostle Paul, I doubt any of the early churches were entertained by his letters while they were read to the congregation. While he always had words of encouragement for the church, the intense Apostle appears to have had no sense of humor and his words were often ones of conviction and correction. False ideologies were corrected, sins of immorality were confronted, and proper behavior was addressed. Corinthian church members probably squirmed in their seats when Paul’s letters took them to task for infighting, abusing the Lord’s Supper, and their wanton behavior. When Paul told the Galatians they’d perverted the gospel of grace, surely not everyone welcomed his words. He unreservedly admonished the new churches for such things as false beliefs, divisiveness, lax morals, and questionable motives in preaching.

Although Paul’s words in his epistles are knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate, he admitted that he was a poor speaker [2 Cor. 11:6]. Some of the Corinthians even complained about his weak appearance and worthless speeches! [2 Cor. 10:10] Paul wasn’t an eloquent orator or an imposing figure and he probably wouldn’t have won a popularity with his messages. Nevertheless, apart from Jesus Himself, no one influenced the history of the Christian church more than Paul. Because of his words, the early church not only survived but thrived through persecution and troubled times. The 21st Century church faces many of those same problems—internal conflict, hypocrisy, questionable doctrine, arrogance, and a dumbing down instead of raising up. Without some tough love from our pulpits, can we survive and thrive?

Watered-down “feel good” messages that don’t condemn sin or challenge us to grow more like Christ are not the sort of epistles Paul would have written. They certainly aren’t the sort of messages Jesus gave. Yes, He spoke of peace, love and forgiveness, but Jesus also made people uneasy when He spoke of things like sacrifice, hypocrisy, obedience, repentance, taking up one’s cross, future persecution, and God’s judgment. With a sermon like that, Dennis might choose to demand a refund.

Let’s never forget that a good pastor is as zealous as was the Apostle Paul. His job is to shepherd his flock—to warn, correct, educate, rescue, convict, set goals, lead, and protect as well as to comfort, nurture and encourage. His job is not to make us happy; it is to guide us on the path to salvation. His job isn’t to preach only good news; it is to preach the gospel which is the Good News of Christ. It may not always be the news we want to hear; nevertheless, it is the news we need to hear.

It is far better to be plain in speech, yet walking openly and consistently with the gospel, than to be admired by thousands, and be lifted up in pride… [Matthew Henry]

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. [Philippians 4:11-13 (NLT)]

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TRYING TO SERVE TWO (Part 3)

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. [Deuteronomy 5:7-9a (NLT)]

campionAlthough Elisha once worked his land with a plow and oxen, after he accepted Elijah’s cloak, he burnt his plow and oxen, left home, and joined Elijah as an itinerant prophet who depended on others for food and shelter. We know that every time Elisha passed through Shunem, he was fed and sheltered by a family there and Scripture tells us that pious Israelites commonly brought gifts to the prophets they consulted. So why wouldn’t Elisha accept any of Naaman’s generous gifts?

As a pagan Aramean who was ignorant of Jehovah, Naaman was used to priests and prophets who greedily demanded rewards for their services. As a servant of God, however, Elisha knew it was wrong to accept payment for Naaman’s healing. After all, he’d done nothing but tell the man to wash himself in the Jordan seven times. Elisha’s refusal of payment made it clear to Naaman that Israel’s powerful God alone had done the healing and God’s grace and miracles are not for sale. When Jehovah made Himself known to the pagan warrior, Naaman realized that, rather than being one of many gods, the God of Israel was the only God. Saying, “There is no God in all the world except in Israel,” the Aramean vowed never again to worship another god.

Naaman then made a rather strange request—that he be allowed to load two mules with some of Israel’s dirt to take back home. While that seems a bizarre sort of souvenir to us, it made perfect sense to Elisha. The pagan people of the ancient Near East believed that gods were tied to the lands they ruled and that a deity only could be worshiped on the soil of the nation to which he was bound. If Naaman wanted to worship Israel’s God, he thought it necessary to use some of Israel’s dirt to make a brick altar on which to make sacrifices. The man who once undervalued and scorned Israel’s Jordan River now overvalued its dirt and wanted to take some back to Damascus! The pagan didn’t understand that all of earth’s soil is God’s!

Having converted to the God of Israel, Naaman made one more request of Elisha. Even though his heart was committed to Jehovah, Naaman knew there would be occasions when he would be required to enter the pagan temple with his master the king. The warrior requested Elisha’s permission and God’s forgiveness when he bowed to the Aramean god Rimmon. Although we’d expect Elisha to respond with the first commandment, the prophet didn’t address Naaman’s dilemma. He simply encouraged the man’s desire to be faithful to God while serving a pagan king with these words, “Go in peace.”

Elisha’s words were ones of grace acknowledging that the world is filled with difficult decisions for people of faith. Unlike Naaman, we may not be expected to bow down to an idol to please the king, but we regularly face both big and small moral dilemmas when we’re asked to bow to the idols of position, appearance, popularity, success, status, fashion, fame, wealth, reputation, or sex. We must ask ourselves who is our master and to what will we bow.

We don’t know what happened to Naaman but I wonder how serving two masters worked for him! I suspect one of them was not pleased.

So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. [Joshua 24:14 (NLT)]

Jesus replied, “The Scriptures say, ‘You must worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’” [Luke 4:8 (NLT)]

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THE WRONG MASTER (Part 2)

You cannot be the slave of two masters! You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than the other. You cannot serve both God and money. Matthew 6:24 (CEV)

black vultureWhen writing about serving only one master, I thought of Gehazi, the scoundrel who tried serving both God and mammon. A servant to the prophet Elisha, Gehazi’s story is found in 2 Kings 5. When Naaman offered Elisha great riches in gratitude for being healed of leprosy, Elisha refused. It was God’s power, not his, that healed Naaman and, knowing that the only master he served was God, Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve. I will not accept any gifts.”

It must have irked Gehazi to see his master refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth around $750 million today). After eyeing those riches, the servant pictured the life of luxury he could enjoy with some of Naaman’s treasure. It seemed foolish to send all that wealth back to Aram. Wanting some for himself and thinking Elisha would never know, Gehazi secretly followed after Naaman’s chariot.

After catching up with Naaman, the servant explained that his master had sent him. His master, however, wasn’t Elisha; it was mammon! The deceitful servant concocted a story that Elisha would like a talent of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. Granted, the servant’s request was somewhat modest considering the size of Naaman’s initial offer; nevertheless, it was the equivalent of 300 years’ worth of wages! I suspect Gehazi was afraid a larger request might have aroused suspicion. Nevertheless, more than happy to find a way to repay the prophet, Naaman offered twice that amount of silver and Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains.

When Elisha asked where he’d been, the servant foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain. As a result of his greed and deceit, Naaman’s leprosy became Gehazi’s and would afflict his descendants forever. The exact nature of his disease is unknown since leprosy in the Bible referred to Hansen’s disease (leprosy) as well as any other skin disease like psoriasis, alopecia, impetigo or dermatitis. Although his punishment didn’t threaten Gehazi’s life, such a skin disease condemned him to life as an outcast. Having served mammon instead of God, Gehazi expected the power, comfort and luxury promised by riches; what he got was life as an untouchable pariah.

There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

People who want to be rich fall into all sorts of temptations and traps. They are caught by foolish and harmful desires that drag them down and destroy them. The love of money causes all kinds of trouble. Some people want money so much that they have given up their faith and caused themselves a lot of pain. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (CEV)]

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THE MONEY TREE (Part 1)

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. [Matthew 6:24 (RSV)]

money tree - pachira acquaticaWhile walking through the botanic garden recently, I looked up to see the showy flowers of the Money Tree (Pachira aquatica). Although the tree is said to bring good fortune and prosperity, no money was hanging from its branches. Nevertheless, its name reminded me of my father’s frequent caution that money didn’t grow on trees! Perhaps it’s because money doesn’t grow on trees that we frequently seem so obsessed by it.

I’ve read claims that Jesus talked about money more than any other topic. His mention of money, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that was His topic. Although the parable’s good Samaritan gave the innkeeper two coins and promised to pay the injured man’s debt, the parable isn’t about money any more than the Hidden Treasure parable is about investing in real estate or the parable of the Loaned Money about loan sharking! Even though Jesus may have mentioned money when speaking, it seems that He was far more interested in the topics of God’s Kingdom, faith, salvation, and forgiveness than money.

Jesus, however, did tell us that we can’t serve two masters—we can’t serve both God and wealth. The word translated as serve was douleuō, which meant to serve as a slave or one in bondage, and the word translated as master was kuriois, which meant one who possesses uncontested power and absolute ownership and authority over another. In Jesus’ world, the slave had no rights and the master had complete control over him. The master owned both the slave and all of the slave’s possessions including every minute of his time!

Because Jesus’ words make it clear He was speaking of servitude, we mustn’t make the mistake of substituting “work” for douleuō or “employer” for kuriois. For example, as a consultant, my daughter works for several employers at once. Unlike a slave, however, she is free to pick and choose for whom she works and how she divides her time between them. One who serves a master, however, has no such choice because a master demands total commitment and allegiance.

The two masters of which Jesus was speaking are God and mammon (often translated as money or wealth). Nowadays, mammon has the negative connotation of filthy riches or ill-gotten gains but, to Jesus’ listeners, it didn’t. The word used was mamōna, a neutral word encompassing money, possessions, property, earnings, and riches of all kinds. The rabbis even had a saying, “Let the mammon of thy neighbor be as dear to thee as thine own,” which meant we should care for others’ possessions as carefully as our own. Like many things in life, mammon is neither inherently good or bad; how it is regarded and used is what makes it good or bad. Rather than saying wealth is inherently evil, Jesus is telling us that we can’t serve both wealth and God; at some point, the two masters’ interests will diverge.

There is nothing wrong with having a home, car, job, business, fine jewelry, or investment accounts—what is wrong is allowing any of those things (or the desire for them) to own us! We can enjoy them as long as we understand that God alone is our master and all of our possessions and time belong to Him. Although He’s loaned them to us for the time being, we are to serve God with them. When we set our hearts on money or things, however, we’re serving another master. We must never crave wealth more than we desire God, put our trust in money rather Him, love possessions more than we love Him, or choose to serve mammon rather than serve God. We cannot claim Jesus as Lord if our allegiance is to anything or anyone other than Him. He, alone, is our master and He is the one we serve!

Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. [Matthew 6:19-21 (RSV)]

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MAKING THE MOST OF IT

You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people. [Genesis 50:20 (NLT)]

purple cone flowerOne morning, the self-assured Joseph went out to check on his brothers’ flocks and, by nightfall, Jacob’s favorite son had been stripped of his beautiful robe, thrown in a pit, betrayed by his brothers, and sold to Ishmaelite traders. That day seventeen-year-old Joseph found out how capricious life could be. For the next month, he journeyed through the desert before ending up in Egypt. Imagine how alone, frightened, and lost the young shepherd from Canaan was when, unable to speak, read or write the language, he found himself in the most advanced civilization of the time—one with monumental architecture, centralized government, papyrus, ship building, and a military force.

Rather than give up all hope, the wealthy man’s son adapted to the role of servant. As Potiphar’s slave, Joseph worked hard and became so essential to his master that he ran the man’s entire household. Loyal both to Potiphar and God, the youth rejected Potiphar’s wife’s sexual advances. When she falsely accused him of rape, however, life threw another curve ball and the trusted overseer of Potiphar’s estate was tossed into prison.

Once again, the youth’s life turned upside down through no fault of his own, but Joseph adapted by becoming a model prisoner and serving as the warden’s administrator. Nevertheless, he still was a slave in prison, away from family and friends, without any rights, and considered guilty until proven innocent. Joseph had a glimmer of hope when Pharaoh’s cup-bearer was restored to his position, but it was two more years before the man remembered Joseph’s kindness and ability to interpret dreams.

When Pharaoh summoned the young man to interpret his dreams, another transition began. After giving Pharaoh a survival plan for the next fourteen years (and crediting God with his wisdom), the boy from Canaan moved from prison to palace and from slave to prime minister of Egypt. Joseph had been released from a cell but he wasn’t free. He served at the whim of Pharaoh, a capricious man who thought nothing of expressing his displeasure in the chief baker by impaling the man on a pole!

Joseph didn’t cause his life to crash at seventeen. Over the span of at least thirteen years, he was betrayed, mistreated, sexually harassed, falsely accused, punished unjustly, and forgotten. In spite of that, Joseph never gave up because he knew he was not alone. Because he knew God was with him, Joseph made the most of every situation. Throughout his story, we are told that the Lord’s presence was the reason for Joseph’s success.

Although we know the happy ending of Joseph’s story, Joseph didn’t know any of that when he was thrown into a pit and sold into slavery! He didn’t know that he’d eventually be reunited with his family or that what his brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. Nevertheless, he faithfully served God and others by adapting, adjusting, and making the most of every situation into which he was thrown. Let’s not forget that Joseph did more than save the lives of the entire population of Egypt. He saved Jacob’s family—the sons of Israel who were the seed of Abraham and the ancestors of Jesus.

Like Joseph, our lives are filled with upsets, shocks, setbacks, and disruptions; author Bruce Feiler calls these events “lifequakes.” While their purpose probably isn’t to save whole nations from starvation as did Joseph, they have a God-ordained purpose. We get no choice in experiencing “lifequakes,” but we can choose how we deal with them. The challenge comes with navigating our way through these upsets into the new normal of our lives. Do we resist, throw a pity party, complain, grow resentful, or give up? Or, like Joseph, do we take on the burden of climbing out of the pit and making the most of wherever life takes us? We won’t have to do it alone. Scripture tells us that God was with Joseph from pit to palace because, when serving Potiphar, the prison warden, and Pharaoh, Joseph always was serving God!

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything you do. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. Serve them sincerely because of your reverent fear of the Lord. Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ. [Colossians 3:22-24 (NLT)]

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