The crowds asked, “What should we do?” John replied, “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” [Luke 3:10-11 (NLT)]

food pantry - feed the hungryYesterday, our nation celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday that revolves around food and unites our nation across lines of culture, race, religion, and politics in a way little else can. Regardless of what football team they support, where they live or from where they came, whether liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, my Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and unbelieving friends all celebrated around tables heavy laden with food. The menu and traditions varied—some had naan and others enjoyed cornbread or Parker House rolls. Some plates had ham alongside the turkey while others tofurkey and lentils or some of Grandma’s lasagna. Some cooks put pork sausage in their dressing and others kept kosher. There may have been glazed sweet potatoes and green beans at one house and mashed whites with gravy and corn casserole at another but, whatever was served, no one went away hungry and there were plenty of leftovers. Unfortunately, not everyone’s plate was piled with food and not everyone complained of feeling stuffed.

When I grew up, I was told there were starving children in Armenia so I should clean my plate. I once gave the smart-aleck retort that what I didn’t eat couldn’t be sent to those kids so what difference did it make! That was, of course, the wrong response and, most definitely, the wrong attitude. It wasn’t so much about cleaning my plate; my parents were trying to teach me appreciation and gratitude for the bounty at our table. They wanted me to understand that not everyone was so blessed. Unlike me, many children knew the real meaning of hunger.

The UN defines “food security” as always having physical, social and economic access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet one’s dietary needs for a productive and healthy life. Although there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, they estimate that some 815 million people in our world are “food insecure.” In our nation alone, some 41 million people (13 million of whom are children) are considered food insecure. It’s not just the Armenians or whoever else our parents mentioned that are hungry; it’s our neighbors!No one anywhere should go hungry but it’s disgraceful that anyone in our wealthy nation should be without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable and nutritious food.

As Christians, we must respond to food insecurity with compassion and action—prayer, advocacy, volunteering, and donating. When we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” let’s remember the bread with which we are blessed is meant to be shared. When Jesus shared a few loaves and fish, He managed to feed thousands; consider how many we could feed if we shared our resources! As you write up your Christmas gift list, perhaps you will include a Christian relief organization and help combat poverty and hunger. If you’re wondering what to get your pastor or child’s teacher, rather than a tie or mug, what about a flock of chicks, geese or ducks (only $20) from someplace like Heifer International? Your donation will provide both food and a source of income for a hungry family. These next few weeks, you’ll be making several trips to the grocery store. Every time you shop, consider taking advantage of the BOGO specials and giving that free item (better yet both of them) to the local food pantry. There are more than enough resources in our world so that everyone can eat well but we each must do our part.

Yesterday, we looked at our bountiful Thanksgiving feast and asked ourselves, “What will I eat?” Please remember that someone not that far from you may have said, “Is there anything for me to eat?”

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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This letter is from James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. I am writing to the “twelve tribes”—Jewish believers scattered abroad. Greetings! [James 1:1 (NLT)]

large striped swordtail butterflyFour men were in heated disagreement at a falafel stand in Jerusalem when they asked a passerby to settle their dispute about the authorship of an epistle. “I’m James, the father of the disciple named Judas (also known as Thaddaeus),” said the first man, ”I wrote the book of James.” The next man interrupted, “I’m James, the son of Zebedee, a fisherman and brother to John. I was a disciple of Christ and I wrote that epistle!” The third man disagreed, “Oh no!” he said, “I’m James, the son of Alphaeus. I was one of the twelve and I wrote those words.” The fourth man contradicted him saying, “I’m James, the brother of Jesus, and I’m the one who wrote that letter to the Jews.” The man they’d asked to settle their dispute calmly said, “You’re all wrong; I wrote it.” In unison, they asked, “Who are you?” He answered, “God—and all Scripture is God-breathed.”

Although all Scripture is God-breathed, someone named James put those words on paper. I’d always assumed it was one of the disciples but, according to Bible scholars, the weight of the evidence seems to point to James, the half-brother of Jesus. One of the earliest epistles, this letter isn’t about doctrine; it’s about the application of Jesus’s teachings and a testimony to the kind of life we should have as followers of Christ. James makes it clear that faith without works is meaningless. We can’t just talk the talk; we must walk the walk. Having known Jesus all of His life, rather than just the three years of His ministry, James knew what he was talking about. He may not have heard Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, but he’d seen Him live that sermon every day of His life. Until the resurrection, James may not have known Jesus was the Messiah but he knew Jesus as only a brother can. Whenever we wonder, “What would Jesus do?” there’s an excellent chance we’ll find the answer in James’ epistle, in words penned by a man who actually saw what Jesus did!

What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? … So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless. Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” [James 2:14,17-18 (NLT)]

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He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. [John 1:10-11 (NLT)]

desert roseCan you imagine what it was like being a brother or sister to Jesus? He had six siblings: James, Joses, Simon and Jude and two unnamed sisters. It couldn’t have been easy having the Son of God as a half-brother. Both his conception and birth were announced by angels, a star shone over his crib, and He’d been visited by foreign kings with expensive gifts. It’s tough to top that sort of entrance into the world. His brothers may have struggled with their religious studies but Jesus astounded the rabbis with his knowledge when He was only twelve. Without sin, He probably never threw a temper tantrum or a rock through a window. With no sassing, fighting, biting, or naughtiness, He was probably the perfect son and may have been Mary’s favorite. Such a blameless, intense and devout elder brother was a tough act for anyone to follow and there probably was some resentment and jealousy on the part of his siblings.

When Jesus left home and the family carpentry business for the ministry, it seems that his family didn’t support His mission. The Jews were looking for a very different Messiah—one who would be a victorious political leader. The Messianic king would free the Jews from their bondage to Rome and restore Israel as an independent nation. No matter how pious and righteous Jesus was, his brothers had seen him stub a toe, skin a knee, relieve himself, blow his nose, get a splinter and break a sweat—hardly what one would expect of the promised Messiah. John tells us “even his brothers didn’t believe in him.” [7:5] Jesus may have managed to turn water into wine but, to them, He was just a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. His ministry even may have been an embarrassment to the family, especially when he added tax collectors, prostitutes and other sinners to His entourage. In fact, Mark tells us they thought him “out of his mind” and tried to take him home. [3:21] It’s highly unlikely that Jesus’ brothers were even at the crucifixion. As He looked down from the cross, rather than entrusting Mary’s care to them, Jesus asked his beloved disciple John to care for her.

In spite of their absence from His ministry, in the first chapter of Acts, we find Jesus’ brothers meeting with the disciples and joining them in prayer after the crucifixion. If they didn’t believe their brother before his death, why would they believe the words of His disciples after it? We can only assume the reason for their change of heart was that they actually saw the resurrected Christ. Only then did they finally understand and believe Jesus and His message. The Messiah didn’t come to save the Jews from bondage to Rome but to save the world from bondage to sin; He did not come to restore an old kingdom but to establish the new one. Instead of scoffers, His half-brothers became believers!

Jesus’s brothers had lived and worked with Him yet failed to see what was right in front of them. Like Thomas, they had to see the resurrected Christ before they could believe in Him. Seeing, however, is no guarantee of belief. Plenty of others saw Jesus and his miracles and never believed. As for us, unless we have a vision similar to Paul’s on the road to Damascus, we’re not likely to see the risen Christ. Nevertheless, if we believe in Him in this world, we will see Him in the next.

Then Jesus told him, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me.” [John 20:29 (NLT)]

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And by the same word, the present heavens and earth have been stored up for fire. They are being kept for the day of judgment, when ungodly people will be destroyed. But you must not forget this one thing, dear friends: A day is like a thousand years to the Lord, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. [2 Peter 3:7-10 (NLT)]

train tracks - Galena ILAlthough more people prefer to believe in heaven than in hell, the Bible tells us that hell is as real as heaven. It exists whether or not someone likes the idea of a place of eternal punishment or refuses to believe in its actuality. The Bible uses words like fire, brimstone, pits of darkness, torment, anguish, weeping and gnashing of teeth to describe it. I won’t pretend to know what hell is like but, based on Scripture’s description (whether literal or figurative), hell doesn’t sound like any place I (or anyone I know) would deliberately choose to be.

As Christians, do we believe in heaven and hell? Do we truly believe in judgment and that Jesus is the only way to salvation? Why, then, do we seem so casual about sharing the gospel message? While fear of hellfire makes a poor basis for people’s acceptance of Jesus, concern for their final destination should be good motivation for our evangelism.

Pretend we’re at the train station. We see someone laying on the train tracks but he tells us there’s no need for concern since there’s no train coming. Although we don’t know exactly when it will arrive, we’re sure there is a train and that it is moving down that track. If we truly believed him to be in the path of that speeding train, what would we say or do? Would we walk away and quietly wait on a nearby bench or would we try to convince him to come to safety? Would we try to pull him off the tracks? If we are sure someone will spend eternity separated from our loving God, what will we do to keep that from happening?

Last April, the news aired video of a man collapsing onto the subway tracks. A utility worker spotted his fall and jumped off the platform to rescue him. The barely conscious man was scooped up and lifted back to safety just seconds before a train sped into the station. Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t ask us to step into the path of a speeding train in our witness. He does ask us, however, to clear the tracks the best we can. We do that simply by sharing the Gospel message.

If we understand what lies ahead for those who do not know Christ, there will be a sense of urgency in our witness. [David Jeremiah]

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8 (NLT)]

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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)]

Say no to hateI walked into the university workout facility and was greeted by a large sign telling me the school says no to hate. I was surprised that a Christian University felt the need to say what should be obvious. Has hate become so much a part of our everyday lives that we have to be reminded not to do it? There wasn’t a sign telling us not to pee in the pool, have fist fights, or swear. Evidently, certain acceptable behavior was assumed but not hating wasn’t! Apparently, the sign is necessary because people feel freer to express their prejudice, intolerance, and bias than do any of those other things.

Monday, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker re-established a task force on hate crimes. It will advise him on issues such as the prevalence, deterrence and prevention of hate crimes and support for hate’s victims. In 2015, the state had 424 hate crimes including intimidation, vandalism and assault. The Massachusetts Anti-Defamation League found a 44% increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the first nine months of 2017 and the state’s hate crime hotline has received more than 2,000 calls since it began just a year ago.

One look at the news tells us that Massachusetts is not alone. Hate (and its cousin anger) make the headlines regularly—violence in Charlottesville, a sport star’s home vandalized with racial slurs, Asian-Americans told they don’t belong here, swastikas painted on Jewish temples, and a Texas mosque burned to the ground. Trucks become weapons in the hands of extremists and shootings in theatres, shopping centers, schools, concerts and churches almost seem commonplace. Last night, a local pastor was interviewed about the large security/safety staff now present during any church function. His church is not alone; many places of worship have felt the need to protect themselves from haters.

Hate can express itself in subtle ways through slurs, intolerance, intimidation, harassment, marginalization, and exclusion. Hate is also a crime when a criminal offense is motivated by race, ethnicity, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religion, or disability. Whether or not a crime is committed, in God’s book, hate is an offense. Worse, hate is like an infectious disease—the victim of hate often becomes a hater himself!

As Christians we are allowed to hate evil. We can and should hate things like hypocrisy, godlessness, violence, greed, immorality, exploitation, dishonesty, brutality, deceit, abuse, idolatry, betrayal, false teaching, corruption, intolerance, and hate. What we must never do is hate people. Rather than hate, we are commanded to love and that love isn’t limited to Christians or people who think, look, speak or act like us. We are to love all of God’s children. There’s plenty that’s wrong in our broken world; let’s not add to it by spreading hate through bigotry, intolerance, racism, discrimination or prejudice. We shouldn’t need a sign that tells us to say no to hate. Let us be the ones who demonstrate God’s love in this broken world of ours.

You have heard that our ancestors were told, “You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.” But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! … You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you! … If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even pagans do that. But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. [Matthew 5:21-22a, 43-44, 46-48 (NLT)]

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Don’t let selfishness and prideful agendas take over. Embrace true humility, and lift your heads to extend love to others. Get beyond yourselves and protecting your own interests; be sincere, and secure your neighbors’ interests first. [Philippians 2:3-4 (VOICE)]

peonyOne week after Hurricane Irma, our Florida church met where they usually do in the city park. As the service began, an irate city official arrived. Afraid of unsafe conditions and liability issues, he insisted that the service be stopped immediately. While the senior pastor continued the service, our associate pastor tried to calm him down. He started by asking the bureaucrat how he was doing. The overwrought man’s response was a recitation of all of the challenges he’d dealt with in a city without power, working sewers or safe water. “No,” our pastor said, “I know the city is a mess, how are you doing?” He went on to ask about the man’s family, his house, and whether he was in need of anything. Instead of seeing him as a problem to be solved, our Pastor saw him as a person under a great deal of stress. As the two men talked and shared their personal hurricane stories, the official calmed. He finally took a good look at the park and decided the service could continue. This didn’t happen because our pastor won an argument; it happened because he saw the city employee as a person with problems of his own and showed that he (and our church) cared.

I heard the story of another minister, one who kept asking his new neighbor to church but was always rebuffed. When the minister stopped seeing his neighbor as a potential convert and actually spoke with him, he learned that the fellow liked barbecue. When he extended an invitation for a rib dinner rather than church, the invitation wasn’t declined. As the men got to know one another, a friendship resulted and that church invitation was eventually accepted. This didn’t happen because the new neighbor liked barbecue ribs; it happened because the minister took the time to look at his neighbor as a person and not a prospect.

I think of Jesus and his first encounters with the two tax collectors, Matthew and Zacchaeus. He didn’t confront the men about being cheats or traitors to their people.  Instead, Jesus went home to dinner with them. They didn’t become believers just because Jesus was a good dinner guest. They believed because Jesus saw them (and their friends) as people and not just the sinners they were.

We must never see people merely as foes, problems to be solved, prospective church members, causes, sinners, or troubled souls that need saving. Before we can change people’s minds or lives, we need to show that we care about who they are, what they believe, what made them the way they are, and the challenges they are facing today. We are told to love our neighbors but, before we can love our neighbors, we must truly see them—not just their faces but the person and circumstances behind that face.

Christianity is not a religion or a philosophy, but a relationship and a lifestyle. The core of that lifestyle is thinking of others, as Jesus did, instead of ourselves. [Rick Warren]

Love others well, and don’t hide behind a mask; love authentically. Despise evil; pursue what is good as if your life depends on it.  Live in true devotion to one another, loving each other as sisters and brothers. Be first to honor others by putting them first. [Romans 12:9-10 (VOICE)]

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