NEVER A STRANGER

Keep on loving each other as brothers and sisters. Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! [Hebrews 13:1-2 (NLT)]

butterfly weedThe story has been told of a shoemaker who dreamt that Jesus would come to his shop the following day. His dream was so realistic that he washed his shop windows and dusted every shelf in preparation for his holy guest. The man patiently waited at his bench for the Lord to arrive but the only person to come through his door that morning was an old man seeking shelter from the icy winter rain. When the cobbler looked down at the man’s wet feet, he saw toes poking out of his beat-up shoes. Selecting a new pair of shoes, the shoemaker sat the old man down, dried off his feet, gave him a fresh pair of socks, and fitted him with the new shoes. When the rain stopped, the old man went on his way.

Just about lunchtime, a shabbily dressed woman came into the store and asked if she could stay just long enough to get warm. When the cobbler opened up his lunch box, he saw the woman hungrily eyeing his sandwiches. “I’m not really hungry,” he said as he offered her his lunch. After the woman had eaten, warmed up, and departed, the shoemaker continued to wait for Jesus but no one else came through the door. As the disheartened man closed up shop that evening, he heard a child crying. Looking down, he saw a small boy huddled in the doorway. The tearful child explained that he’d gotten hopelessly lost while running errands. He knew his address but he didn’t know how to get there. Although the cobbler wanted to get home for dinner, he wiped the youngster’s eyes and nose, took his hand, and escorted him home.

After returning the boy to his family, the disappointed man turned back toward his shop and said a silent prayer of despair. “Lord, I was so sure you’d come—so sure that I’d see your face at my door! Where were you?” It was then that He heard a gentle voice tell him, “Shoemaker, lift up your heart. I was right there at your door three times today. You clothed me, fed me, and comforted me! Don’t you know that when you did those things to my children, you did them to me?”

The Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 by Benedict of Nursia, is a set of instructions for monastic living that has served as a guidebook to Christian discipleship for 1,500 years. Benedict opened chapter 53 with this statement, “All guests to the monastery should be welcomed as Christ, because He will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’” Just as Benedict directed the monks to see Christ in their guests, so we must see Christ in the people we encounter. Like the cobbler’s visitors, that person may look like an expense, interruption, or inconvenience; nevertheless, he is Christ. Our fictional cobbler welcomed three strangers at his door and received Christ as his guest. While becoming Jesus to others and seeing Jesus in others isn’t always easy, that’s what we’re called to do. Let us serve the Lord with gladness!

I see Jesus in every human being. I say to myself, this is hungry Jesus, I must feed him. This is sick Jesus. This one has leprosy or gangrene; I must wash him and tend to him. I serve because I love Jesus. [Mother Teresa]

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me! [Matthew 25:35-36,40 (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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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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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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EVERYONE IS SPECIAL

How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me! [Psalm 139:17-18 (NLT)]

white ibisWhen speaking of the late director Mike Nichols, actress Anjelica Huston said, “He had that incredible capacity for friendship that makes you think you’re absolutely unique, that nobody matters to him the same way that you do.” Huston’s words were extraordinarily high praise for a friend and probably something we’d all like to have said about us. I wondered if I make every person who passes through my life feel extraordinary and valued. After coming up short on that one, I wondered if I have friends about whom I could say that same thing. While some come very near, there is only one who has the capacity to make each and every person feel unique and that he or she is most important person to Him; that, of course, is our good friend Jesus!

Psalm 139 is one of my favorites and the majority of it is an intensely personal song of praise in which David affirms God’s active involvement in every moment of his life. From the instant of his conception, God was there, forming him or, as The Message  translates, sculpting him, “from nothing into something.” God’s eyes remained on David and He knew his every idea and action. God’s thoughts about David were so numerous they were impossible to count. If God knew David that well, it would seem that He knows all of us that well. Indeed, God cherishes and loves each one of us as if we were His only child! He would join Fred Rogers in singing: “You’re special to me. You are the only one like you…You are special.”

While we never have come face-to-face with God, the Psalmist’s words tell us that He sees the unique beauty in each one of us. Moreover, when we look at Jesus in the gospels, we see how God behaved while walking on earth. Even without knowing Jesus’s true identity, everyone who came in contact with Him would have experienced His incredible capacity for friendship. Each person would have felt unique, special, and precious in His presence. Jesus didn’t see the sores on the lepers, the mental illness of Mary Magdalene, the uncleanness of the bleeding woman or the shame of the adulterous one. He didn’t see the filth of the beggar, the dishonesty of Zacchaeus, or the immorality of the woman at the well; he saw their pain—their innermost being. Instead of seeing a skeptic, He saw Nathanael’s integrity; instead of seeing a fisherman, He saw Peter’s ability to lead; instead of seeing a Pharisee, He saw Saul’s love of God. Jesus saw beautiful extraordinary individuals, each of whom was precious in His sight.

When writing his gospel, the Apostle John referred to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” I think each disciple would have described himself that same way. Without a doubt, Jesus had an even greater capacity for friendship than did Mike Nichols. Everyone whose life He touched felt absolutely special. Each knew that no one else mattered to Jesus in quite the same way than did they. This is the God who formed us, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and has etched our names into the palms of His hands and He is our friend!

As disciples of Jesus, we are to be His hands and feet. To truly do that, we must look at people through eyes like His: eyes that see beyond what is right in front of us—eyes that see the essence and uniqueness of our neighbor. And we must love him or her as we love ourselves: with a heart that sings, “You are my friend. You’re special to me.”

I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn’t confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. You didn’t choose me. I chose you. I appointed you to go and produce lasting fruit, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask for, using my name. [John 15:15-16 (NLT)]

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