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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GIVE A WAVE

A gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare. [Proverbs 15:1 (NLT)]

black-crowned night heronA man down the street has surrounded his home with security cameras pointed in every direction. I’m told that he’s an unpleasant old coot but I wouldn’t know; in all the years we’ve lived here, I’ve never seen him. He has, however, managed to irk one neighbor enough that she salutes his cameras with her middle finger every time she passes by his house.

Anthropologist Desmond Morris claims the middle finger sign of rudeness is one of the oldest known insult gestures. Aristophanes wrote of the gesture in his play Clouds and the Romans called the middle finger the digitus impudicus or indecent finger. Sadly, in this day and age of rudeness, road rage, and irate neighbors, we frequently see it.

Several years ago, one of our pastors suggested that we give the “thumb’s up” gesture rather than the middle finger salute. He frequently repeated that thought until one day he misspoke and suggested the finger rather than the thumb! Popularized during World War II when pilots used it to signal ground crews their readiness for take-off, the “thumb’s up” gesture generally has a good connotation in English speaking countries. Unfortunately, it has a negative meaning in Greece, Russia, Sardinia, parts of West Africa and much of the Middle East. A full-fingered wave probably is a safer suggestion than thumb, especially when accompanied by a smile!

We all have moments when we’re angered or upset but, hopefully, we’re mature enough to refrain from giving that middle finger or yelling nasty words and escalating the situation. Nevertheless, it’s easy to mutter bad words to oneself, have hostile thoughts, and mentally give that rude gesture. After a reckless driver cut us off and nearly caused an accident, my husband growled angrily, “Here’s the thumb for you!” Although he refrained from a rude gesture, I gently reminded him that we’re not supposed to be thinking the finger when giving someone the thumb! Not doing the wrong thing is only half right; we also need to think and do the right one.

While Scripture never specifically refers to vulgar gestures, it does say a great deal about how we are to treat our neighbor and everyone is our neighbor—including the driver who cuts us off, the man who doesn’t clean up after his dog, the woman who pushes ahead of us in line, and the recluse down the street with his dozens of security cameras.

Not everyone who crosses our path is going to cross it nicely; nevertheless, there is no excuse for returning incivility with more of the same. Let us respond with grace and humility. Since we’re told to pray for our enemies, instead of merely refraining from nasty words and gestures, we could say a quick prayer for the person who’s offended us. While asking God to encourage our offender to improve both skills and attitude, we might want to ask Him to do some work on us, as well. With the help of the Holy Spirit, let’s give a friendly wave in actions, thoughts, and prayers!

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. [Colossians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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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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LET IT GO (Part 2)

frost aster - northern cataulpaInstead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:32 (NLT)]

After writing about forgiving ourselves as a step to experiencing the abundance of Christian life, I came across some classic Peanuts comic strips (drawn by Charles Schulz) that illustrate the importance of forgiving others, as well. In the first one (originally published Christmas Eve, 1972), Charlie Brown tells Snoopy that Poochie is coming for a visit. Snoopy responds that “it would be like getting the mumps twice! …You don’t forgive someone who does to you what she did to me!” The sulking Snoopy then whines, “Just what I didn’t need…a Poochie Christmas.”

A week later, Snoopy is lying on the roof of his doghouse when Charlie Brown tells him of Poochie’s arrival. “I don’t want to see her!” replies the dog. Saying that beagles have long memories, Snoopy relates his last encounter with Poochie. He was just a puppy when she tossed a stick for him to fetch. Eager to please the girl, he retrieved it just in time to see her walk away with an English Sheepdog. When Charlie Brown expresses amazement that Snoopy remembers the incident so vividly, the beagle replies, “How could I forget?” Showing the boy what he’s holding, Snoopy explains, “I still have the stick!” The following week, the story continues with Poochie’s visit. Wearing his sunglasses, Snoopy puts on his “Joe Cool” persona and snubs the little girl. Refusing even to speak with her, there is no reunion or reconciliation and a disappointed Poochie leaves.

Peanuts looks like kid stuff but Schulz’s characters show us what it’s like to live in a world of disappointments—where our baseball team never wins, the football is yanked away, kites get tangled in trees, big sisters boss around little brothers, people suffer from unrequited love, grudges are held, and a security blanket often seems like a good idea. Charles Schulz portrays the kind of world in which we live: one where we’re more likely to lose than win.

Almost certainly, the embittered Snoopy fretted about Poochie’s visit all through the Christmas holiday right into the new year and he probably spoiled another week or more reliving their unsatisfactory meeting. Although we don’t see it, I’m sure Snoopy still has that stick and continues to bears a grudge against the little girl who chose an English Sheepdog over him!

Snoopy is just an imaginary character, living in a comic strip, but he’s not much different from us. Granted, we may not keep a stick we fetched as a puppy but we often keep other mementos of heartbreak and disappointment, use social media to stay connected with the people who hurt us, or make ourselves miserable by replaying an offense in our minds or revisiting it in our conversations. Intentionally holding onto our grievances is like rubbing salt into our own wounds!

Being hurt by people, even people we love and trust, is part of life, but dwelling on what happened in the past can only rob us of today’s joy. If we ever want to experience the abundant life promised by Jesus, if we want to be filled with His joy, if we ever hope to enjoy His peace that surpasses understanding, we must love others in the same way He loved us. We have to let go of the stick and forgive!

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. [John 15:10-12 (NLT)]

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ENTRANCE EXAMS

Another said, “Yes, Lord, I will follow you, but first let me say good-bye to my family.” But Jesus told him, “Anyone who puts a hand to the plow and then looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God.” [Luke 9:61-62 (NLT)]

In Jesus’s time, rabbis weren’t the Jewish equivalent of a minister or employed by a synagogue. A rabbi simply was a teacher of the Torah—what we’d call a sage—and his students were called disciples. Jesus’s disciples often called him “rabbi” and there were more than just twelve of them. Although we know the identity of His inner circle, we don’t know the names of the seventy-two he sent out to prepare towns for his visit or the two with whom He spoke on the road to Emmaus that Sunday morning.

Disciples normally chose their rabbis and two of John the Baptist’s disciples (Andrew and probably John) left the Baptizer to follow Jesus. Sometimes a disciple was called by the rabbi, as were Simon Peter, Philip, and Matthew. In either case, the decision to follow any rabbi meant a total commitment. Hoping to become like their teacher, disciples left their employment, home, and family for an extended time to learn from him. Wanting only those he thought could fully live up to his standards, the rabbi would examine his potential students carefully. By accepting the rabbi’s invitation to follow him, the disciple was totally submitting to his authority in all things. In that context, Luke 9:57-62 and Jesus’s curt response to three would-be disciples makes more sense.

When the first potential disciple promised his willingness to follow Jesus anywhere, Jesus quickly warned him of the privation encountered by an itinerant rabbi. Although the proper response would have been that he’d follow Jesus in spite the hardships, we hear no more from the man.

When Jesus called another man to follow Him, he asked to return home and bury his father first. Responding that the dead can bury the dead seems harder to understand until we realize that a funeral was not imminent. If the man’s father had just died, rather than talking with a teacher, he would have been home in mourning. Perhaps wanting to collect his inheritance before leaving, the man wanted to postpone his discipleship until his father was dead and buried (which could have been years). By telling him the spiritually dead could bury their own dead, Jesus made it clear that proclaiming the Kingdom of God was not to be delayed; it should be a disciple’s first priority.

When the third follower said he wanted to say good-bye to his family first, Jesus had another abrupt response. Reminding him that a plowman who looked back couldn’t plow a straight furrow, Jesus made it clear that a man who looked back was unsuitable as a disciple and would be of little use to Him. Nothing in life, not even family, was to have greater priority than following Jesus. If Jesus had been an ordinary rabbi, those would have been harsh words, but He wasn’t ordinary. The only One who has a greater claim on us than family is God and Jesus was God! He had every right to make such demands upon those who wanted to be His followers. He expected absolute and immediate, not conditional and delayed, trust and obedience.

These somewhat harsh exchanges tell us in no uncertain terms that Jesus is not interested in half-hearted discipleship; He demands our undivided attention. What are we willing to sacrifice to be His disciple and grow more like Him?

But the soul renounced shall abide in the boundlessness of God’s life. This is liberty, this is prosperity. The more we lose, the more we gain. [Watchman Nee]

Then he said to the crowd, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross daily, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. Luke 9:23-24 (NLT)]

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