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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COMPOUND INTEREST

Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. [Hosea 10:12 (NLT)]

sawtooth sunflowerIn a nutshell, compound interest is getting interest on interest; when it’s on money you have, your investment keeps growing. When it’s on money you owe, however, you pay interest on your interest and end up deeper in debt. The economics lesson is because of C.S. Lewis’s words that “Good and evil both increase at compound interest.” While Lewis then switches metaphors from the bank to the battlefield, Scripture often uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping for the same concept of the exponential growth of both good and evil.

After planting just one sunflower, for example, we’d get between 1,000 and 1,400 seeds per head. If each of those seeds were planted, we’d have between one and 1.96 million sunflower seeds the next year and, if we planted those, we’d have between one and 2.7 billion sunflower seeds the third year. If those were perennial sunflowers, we’d also get seeds from the previous years’ plants! Like compound interest, that’s exponential growth (which is what happens with good thoughts and actions).

Of course, if just one Canada thistle seed got planted in that field of sunflowers, it could produce as many as 5,300 seeds that first season! Those thistle seeds would get dispersed by the wind and sow themselves far and wide. Should those seeds take root, more than 28 million new thistle seeds could be blowing through our fields the second year, with the potential of more than 148 billion seeds the following one. With that kind of exponential growth, our beautiful field of sunflowers soon would be overrun by thistles. Worse, those thistles would have spread into our neighbors’ fields. Noxious weeds and evil have a way of doing that!

Since thistles also sprout from their roots, that one thistle could grow into a six-foot thistle patch in a year. Turning to Lewis’ battle metaphor, that loss of acreage is similar to a general losing an asset like a seaport. Worse, because thistle seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to twenty years, like an enemy who’s patiently waited for our troops to get careless, those weeds can spring up years later when least expected. Just as the farmer has to be vigilant in his fight to keep thistles from overtaking his fields, the general must keep his troops battle-ready.

The subject, however, is neither military science nor agriculture; it’s spiritual warfare. Generals and farmers don’t want to cede territory to their enemies, nor do we. Our battle isn’t against armed troops or thistles; it’s against evil. Rather than tanks or herbicides, we need obedience to God’s word and the power of the Holy Spirit! When we act as would Jesus, by sowing seeds of goodness, it’s like planting another sunflower in the garden of life. But, every time we follow our own sinful desires, instead of losing a field to thistles, we lose ground to Satan. In our every act, either a seed of good or evil is planted and, like a thistle seed, any seed of evil is one seed too many!

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible. [From “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis]

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

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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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