THE ROAD TO HELL

PythonI don’t want Satan to outwit us. After all, we are not ignorant about Satan’s scheming. [2 Corinthians 2:11 (GW)]

The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, is a series of letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, a demon-in-training. Screwtape, acting as Wormwood’s mentor, advises the novice tempter on ways to acquire the soul of a nameless young man known as “the patient.” Wormwood, like many young people, is both enthusiastic and impatient. He hopes to win the man’s soul quickly by having him sin on a grand scale with an act of deplorable wickedness. Screwtape, however, points out that the patient succumbing to the many little temptations of life are what will eventually corrupt him. The experienced demon points out that evil on a petty scale will seep into the man’s relationships, prayer life, and view of the church and that, says Screwtape, is the way to capture a soul.

Lewis’ book reminds us to keep alert regarding Satan’s plots. It’s easy to be confident about not becoming terrorists, murderers, blackmailers, bank robbers or kidnappers because we’d see those satanic schemes a mile away. It’s the little things like pique, exhaustion, fear, disillusionment, annoyance, disappointment, over-confidence, or boredom that can give Satan a foothold in our lives and blind us to his presence. Once he’s gotten in the door, he provides us with temptations to gossip, bicker, ridicule, lie, cheat or covet and nudges us with discontent, restlessness, and a dash of envy so we want bigger, better and more than our neighbor. He encourages unforgiveness, self-importance, jealousy, and intolerance and then tells us we’re not being boastful, selfish, petty, hypocritical, greedy, self-righteous or vain. He tells us what we want to hear—that the end justifies the means, the crowd can’t be wrong, or that no one will know! He subtly encourages us to put other activities before prayer or Bible study and to put other relationships before our relationship with God.

Make no mistake about it—Satan and his forces are out and about and we must never forget it. He knows our weaknesses, doesn’t play fair, and won’t announce his presence or tell us his plans. Whether the enemy crushes us with one blow from a wrecking ball, a few swings of a sledge hammer or patiently chips away at us with a chisel makes no difference to him; he just wants to defeat us.

You will say these are very small sins … The only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are, provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts. [Screwtape to Wormwood, from “The Screwtape Letters” by C.S. Lewis]

So place yourselves under God’s authority. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come close to God, and he will come close to you. Clean up your lives, you sinners, and clear your minds, you doubters. [James 4:7-8 (GW)]

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THE SA MEETING

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:15-16 (RSV)]

Canada geeseReading Paul’s words acknowledging his sinfulness makes me picture a meeting of the Pearly Gates chapter of a 12-step support program called Sinners Anonymous (SA for short). The meeting would be well attended simply because sinfulness is an undisputed characteristic of all mankind and we are all guilty before God.

Paul would get the meeting started by introducing himself and claiming to be the worst sinner of them all: “I’m the sinner once known as Saul. I persecuted Christians and stood by while people stoned Stephen.” The hymn writer might disagree. “I’m the wretched sinner John Newton. Blind and lost, an ‘infidel and libertine,’ I was a slave trader.” Then the disciple would rise and introduce himself: “Hello, my name is Thomas and I’m a sinner. I abandoned the Lord when he was arrested and then doubted his resurrection.” A nameless man from the back of the room might speak: “I was there at His crucifixion but I, too, am a sinner. My life was spent in crime.” Perhaps the gospel writer would speak next: “I’m the sinner Matthew; as a greedy tax-collector, I was both traitor and thief.” The priest would introduce himself: “I’m Augustine: a sinner who once abandoned the faith for paganism, used and abandoned women, and lived a life of debauchery.”  A matronly woman would announce, “I’m Martha and a sinner who often became so busy with life’s mundane details that I failed to put our Lord first.” Peter would jump up and say, “I’m worse! I’m such a sinner that I denied our Lord, not once, but three times!”

If there were a heavenly SA group, however, it wouldn’t be called Sinners Anonymous; it would be Saints Anonymous! The same people would be there and the same sins would have been committed but the introductions would be quite different from the ones I presented. While all those at that SA gathering were sinners, their sins were forgiven and their faith in Jesus would have made them saints. Instead of identifying themselves as sinners and listing their sordid transgressions, the attendees would introduce themselves as the redeemed children of God whose sins had been forgiven and forgotten. As members of the body of Christ, they’d introduce themselves as saints, not sinners!

Like Paul, we’re all sinners but, like Paul, through our faith in Jesus Christ, we’ve been reborn. We may be sinners but we’re also saints. Thank you, God!

There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future. [Augustine of Hippo]

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. [Colossians 1:11-14 (RSV)]

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DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners. [Matthew 9:13b (NLT)]

grey catbirdWe recently saw a stage production of Les Miserables (“Les Miz”), a musical based on Victor Hugo’s novel. Set in France in the early 1800s, it tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving family. When Valjean, known as “Prisoner 24601,” is released, he is issued a “yellow passport” which he’s required to present to the police in any village he passes through. Stating he has been released from prison but listing his crimes, this yellow piece of paper marks him as a criminal forever.

Almost immediately upon his release, Valjean steals from the Bishop of Digne, the only person who shows him any kindness by offering him food and shelter. When the ex-convict is caught by the police, the bishop refuses to accuse him and even gives him more silver. The astonished Valjean then commits his life to virtue and service. Realizing he can’t start life anew as a convict, he breaks parole by tearing up his yellow passport and changing his name.

Valjean becomes a model citizen but, to an unrelenting policeman named Javert, Valjean remains Prisoner 24601 and a criminal. Even after Valjean saves his life, Javert remains wholly dedicated to enforcing the law by arresting Valjean and punishing him for breaking parole. He sings these words about Valjean: “Once a thief, forever a thief. What you want you always steal.”

While hardly a Christian story, Victor Hugo’s tale depicts the way Christian love can transform a person. We see how the bishop’s love and forgiveness affects Vajean and how his new personality positively impacts the lives of others. When we accept Jesus, like Valjean, we become new people and the old is gone. The “yellow passport” identifying us as sinners is torn and tossed and we are new people with a new purpose.

While we identify with Valjean, we also can resemble the unrelenting Javert or the merciful Bishop of Digne. Like Javert, do we ever act as judge and jury and insist that “a man like that can never change”? Are we people who can’t forgive: people who believe justice is more about retribution than mercy? Like Javert, are we more interested in being right or, like the bishop, is our concern doing what’s right? As did the bishop, do we truly believe in redemption, forgiveness, love and mercy? To give someone a new lease on life, would we lie to the police or give even more to a thief? Would we follow the letter of the law or the word of God? When I ponder this question, I think of the advice given to a young man by his minister father: “Don’t just do what is legally right, do what is morally right!” Let us remember that, as Christians, we are not called just to do things right; we are called always to do the right thing!

You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles. Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow. [Matthew 5:38-42 (NLT)]

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BITTERROOT AND BINDWEED

Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many. [Hebrews 12:15 (NLT)]

bitterroot - hedge bindweedThe bitterroot plant was a staple in the Native American diet; just a few ounces of the dried root provided enough nourishment for a meal. Bitterroot could also settle an upset stomach, relieve the itch from poison ivy, and numb the pain of a sore throat. Unlike the bitterroot, however, the root of bitterness is anything but life-sustaining or healing.

With its large pink flowers, the bitterroot is lovely and welcome; the root of bitterness is not. Bitterness is more like bindweed, a wild relative of the morning-glory. Both look harmless enough at first but, before you know it, they take root. Bindweed wraps itself around every plant nearby and bitterness wraps itself around our hearts. The roots of both bindweed and bitterness can reach deep and spread wide. Gardeners often call bindweed the “zombie plant” because it’s nearly impossible to kill; the same goes for bitterness. Without continual effort to keep cutting down bindweed and cutting out bitterness, both may be here to stay.

It’s hard to avoid bindweed, and the same goes for bitterness. We’ve all had people who’ve hurt us in seemingly unforgiveable ways. When bitterness rears its ugly head, we may find ourselves wishing ill upon them or taking secret joy if adversity hits them. Their inexcusable behavior makes us feel justified in allowing this bitter root to grow. The longer bitterness and bindweed are allowed to grow, the deeper their roots go and the more they destroy the garden or life hosting them.

Forgiveness is the only way to eradicate the root of bitterness and it doesn’t come easily. A desire for justice, revenge, and retribution is the natural response to injury. While we think that someone should pay for the harm that’s been done to us, we forget that Jesus has already paid that debt. If we ask how we possibly can forgive those who’ve hurt us, we must also ask how God possibly can forgive us. When Jesus saved us from God’s condemnation, we lost any right to condemn other people; we are no less a sinner than anyone else.

It takes patience, perseverance, and determination to rid a garden of bindweed and the same goes for ridding our lives of bitterness. As with bindweed, whenever we spot bitterness sprouting in our souls, we need to prune it back to weaken its roots. Praying for our enemies kills bitterness in much the same way herbicide kills bindweed. We should improve our soil with God’s word and consider cultivating new friends—ones who won’t share our bitterness, feed our resentment, encourage our hostility, listen to our complaints, or tolerate our anger. It can take three to five years of concentrated effort to eradicate bindweed from a garden; ridding ourselves of bitterness doesn’t happen overnight either.

There is one similarity between the root of bitterness and the bitterroot plant. Bitterroot’s scientific name is Lewisii (in honor of Meriwether Lewis) and rediviva (meaning “reviving from a dry state”) because of its root’s ability to grow again after being dug up, dried whole, and stored for several months. Like the bitterroot, the root of bitterness often can find a way to revive when we think it’s dead and gone. Then again, we must remember that both bitterroot and the root of bitterness can only revive if we replant and water them.

Love keeps no record of wrongs, but bitterness keeps detailed accounts. (Craig Groeschel)

Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. [Luke 6:28 (NLT)]

Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

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FACING THE MUSIC (Philemon)

Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living. [Romans 6:18 (NLT)]

swamp milkweedPhilemon was a wealthy member and leader of the church in Colossae and Onesimus was his slave. Apparently after stealing from his master, Onesimus ran away and ended up in Rome. After finding his way to the Apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at the time, Onesimus became a Christian. The one page book of Philemon is simply a personal letter to the runaway slave’s owner pleading the man’s case.

Although Onesimus had become a new man in Christ, both he and Paul knew that, before the runaway slave could begin his new life as a Christian, he had to finish his old one with Philemon. As a fugitive slave, he’d always be looking over his shoulder wondering if and when he might be caught. He wouldn’t even be at liberty to openly share his new faith or be active in the church for fear that Philemon would learn of his whereabouts. Paul sent the remorseful slave back to Philemon with a letter asking his forgiveness and offering to make any financial restitution necessary.

I can’t help but think of steps eight and nine in many twelve step programs. Step eight is to make a list of the people who have been harmed and be willing to make amends and step nine is to make direct amends wherever possible, except when doing so would harm them or others. Making amends is a delicate process; sometimes it can be done directly, such as repaying a debt or making a repair. Sometimes, however, direct amends are impossible; neither lost lives nor stolen innocence can ever be returned. Moreover, there are times direct amends are unwise—some secrets are meant to be kept and one’s conscience should never be cleared at the expense of others. When direct amends can’t be made, then indirect amends are. Nevertheless, in all cases, part of making amends is facing the consequences for our behavior. The consequences facing Onesimus were serious: a thieving runaway slave could have been killed. Nevertheless, trusting in God (and Paul’s letter), Onesimus returned to Philemon to “face the music” and make amends. It certainly couldn’t have been an easy choice for him.

Onesimus’ story reminds me of news stories I’ve seen over the years of individuals who failed to resolve their past before starting new lives. Perhaps they arrived here illegally, evaded arrest, jumped bail, escaped jail, or remarried without benefit of divorce and managed to go undiscovered for many years. In some cases, they became productive citizens and may have married and had families. Then, through a routine traffic stop, a picture posted on line, or a chance meeting, their lives come tumbling down around them. Their past is discovered and they end up deported, in legal difficulties, or even in prison.

Unfinished business can plague us all; not living in the past doesn’t mean ignoring it. When we don’t deal with yesterday’s unresolved issues, the past can end up defining us. Without returning to Philemon, in spite of his new found faith, Onesimus would always be a runaway slave. We’re not runaway slaves but could we be slaves to the past? Are there problems we have escaped but not really resolved? Are there any loose ends that need tying up or amends to be made? Are there people we need to face or issues that need to be sorted out before we can truly be free of yesterday? We will continue to be troubled by the past until we face it; only then will we be able to live our new lives as free men and women.

Make peace with your past so it doesn’t screw up the present. [From “God Never Blinks” by Regina Brett]

My guilt overwhelms me—it is a burden too heavy to bear. [Psalm 38:4 (NLT)]

Fools make fun of guilt, but the godly acknowledge it and seek reconciliation. [Proverbs 14:9 (NLT)]

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DAY ONE

DawnThe faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” [Lamentations 3:22-24 (NLT)

For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. [2 Corinthians 4:6 (NLT)]

I’m an early riser anyway but the three hour time difference between the east and west coasts had me up well before dawn. While sipping my morning latte, I looked out the window and watched the morning appear. As the sun began to rise, God got out his paints to color the sky and the horizon took shape. I slipped on my shoes and went out to greet the new day. While a rooster in the distance crowed his welcome to the sun, I silently shouted my good morning to God and thought of Matthew West’s song Day One of the Rest of My Life. “It’s day one and here comes the sun!” I sang to myself. Indeed, each morning brings day one of the rest of our lives—day one of the best of our lives! Thank you, God.

Seeing the sunrise shouldn’t just be saved for Easter morning services and I feel sorry for those who sleep through the day’s awakening. They miss experiencing that perfect moment when dawn breaks through: when today becomes yesterday and tomorrow becomes today. Although saying, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life!” is a cliché, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Telling us that yesterday does not have to repeat itself today, each dawn brings a new beginning.

Of course, we don’t have to arise while it’s still dark to enjoy a dawn in our lives. Our faith in Jesus takes us from the darkness of unbelief into a new beginning. Moreover, because of God’s grace, we’re assured that even when we mess up (and we surely will), there is another new beginning and plenty more after that. Nevertheless, seeing a sunrise reminds us both of God’s forgiveness and the new life in Christ we’ve been given. It tells us that this is the day we should live life to the fullest, honor and serve God the most, and be the best we can be. This is the day we can get back on the right path, realize our dreams, fulfill His will, and be wiser, better, and more forgiving. But, just as we don’t have the power to make the sun rise, we don’t have the power to become the person God wants us to be by ourselves. That power comes from the Holy Spirit within us. It is He who fills us with the peace, love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to meet each day.

The Psalmist said, “This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it.” [118:24] Indeed, each new day brings reason to rejoice. Yet, since every dawn inevitably ends in a sunset, the sunrise also serves as a subtle reminder of the brevity of life. Not a moment should be wasted in regret, anger, resentment, worry or fear. Lord, whether today is the first or the last day of the rest of our lives, fill us with your Spirit so that it is the best day of our lives!

Well, I wish I had a short term memory,
Wish the only thing my eyes could see
Was the future burning bright right in front of me;
But I can’t stop looking back.
Yeah, I wish I was a perfect picture of
Somebody who’s never not good enough.
I try to measure up but I mess it up
And I wish I wasn’t like that. …
Well, every single day Your grace reminds me
That my best days are not behind me.
Wherever my yesterday may find me
Well, I don’t have to stay there.
It’s day one of the rest of my life!
It’s day one of the best of my life! [Matthew West, Peter Kipley]

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5:17 (NLT)]

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