QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

Make the most of your chances to tell others the Good News. Be wise in all your contacts with them. Let your conversation be gracious as well as sensible, for then you will have the right answer for everyone. [Colossians 4:5-6 (TLB)]

doris longwing butterflyWhen Meg and John walked into the church narthex, Meg was visibly disturbed. “I just can’t believe they said that. How can they call themselves Christians?” she asked her husband. Seeing Meg’s obvious distress, the pastor who’d been greeting at the door went over to talk. The two had been at a small group study before service when, after class, another couple nonchalantly dismissed the virgin birth as fiction and, as they walked out the door, added that the resurrection was as much a fabrication as the virgin birth.

The virgin birth is a doctrine plainly stated in the Apostle’s Creed—a creed that is regularly recited at that church. Christianity holds that Jesus had no earthly father and was not the product of intercourse. How it happened, we don’t know and certainly can’t understand. The resurrection of Christ is also affirmed in the Apostle’s Creed. For the most part even non-believers won’t argue the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus nor will they dispute that his tomb was empty on the third day. They simply can’t accept how the tomb came to be that way. Just because we can’t understand how something happened, however, doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur!

This devotion, however, isn’t about defending the virgin birth and the resurrection. It’s about Meg and John. “I don’t think that group is right for us,” she said. “Let’s find another group; we’re not going back there again.” Her husband, however, emphatically disagreed: “Oh, yes we are! We’re not going to let this go unanswered.” Meg and John have a valuable opportunity to share the gospel and one that I hope they use wisely.

This devotion is also about that other questioning couple and I think back to nearly fifty years ago when a young woman, from a Buddhist background, was about to join our church. Having grown up in a Buddhist home with a family altar, she was struggling with a way to reconcile praying to her ancestors (something she had always done) with her new Christian beliefs. While there is no place for ancestor worship in Christianity, our pastor’s answer was gentle and loving. Rather than condemning her for her past beliefs and practices, he encouraged her to grow in her new ones. His words were encouraging and accepting—not of ancestor worship—but of her.

Meg and John’s experience is a reminder that not everyone we meet at church, Bible study, or small group is a firm believer. The fact they are there, however, is a step in the right direction! We must do our best to keep them there by being sympathetic, compassionate, humble, loving, gracious, patient, and willing to listen. If people can’t freely question doctrine, express their disbelief, or ask for further explanation in church, where should they go? Remember, even Thomas had doubts! Rather than telling them what we think and why we think it, perhaps we should start by asking them what they think and why they think it. Let’s meet them wherever they happen to be, walk with them into a deeper understanding of the gospel, and pray with and for them.

Try to help those who argue against you. Be merciful to those who doubt. Save some by snatching them as from the very flames of hell itself. And as for others, help them to find the Lord by being kind to them, but be careful that you yourselves aren’t pulled along into their sins. Hate every trace of their sin while being merciful to them as sinners. [Jude 1:22-23 (TLB)]

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TRUE BLUE

Blue Morpho butterflySo now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. [John 13:34-35 (NLT)]

We recently visited a botanic garden that boasts a butterfly conservatory inhabited by a spectacular collection of tropical butterflies. There I was introduced to the shiny Blue Morpho. God outdid Himself with these enormous beauties so showy that pilots report seeing them from the air as they fly over the rainforest. When Adam and Eve were banished from Eden, I’m thankful God didn’t make them leave the butterflies behind.

Hoping to get a photo of one of these spectacular creatures that were flitting about, I searched through the conservatory for one that was still. Although the Morpho’s upper wings are a vivid blue color, their undersides are a dull brown. When its wings were folded, I mistook the Morpho for another large brown butterfly: the giant owl. It was only when it spread its wings in the sun’s light that I recognized the Morpho by its vibrant blue color.

As Christians, we are called to love and, just as its blue iridescence identifies the Blue Morpho, our love identifies us as Jesus’s disciples. But, if we just sit in the shade and never move out in the world, we’ll look like everyone else. Wings are meant to be spread and Christian love is meant to be shared. If pilots can spot a butterfly from the air, people should be able to see evidence of a Christian’s love wherever we are!

What I later learned is that while the dreary colors of these butterflies’ undersides are produced by pigments that absorb and reflect light, the brilliant blue of their upper wings has nothing to do with pigment. That color comes from the way light reflects off transparent microscopic scales on their upper wings. There’s an involved scientific explanation but (in layman’s terms), when light hits ridges on those scales, something called “constructive interference” happens which cancels out certain wavelengths of light. As a result, when light hits the upper wings of the Blue Morpho, our eyes perceive them as being a shimmering blue.

Looking at my pictures, it’s difficult to comprehend that the Blue Morpho’s dazzling iridescence isn’t real. The blue is merely an optical illusion resulting from the architecture and arrangement of transparent scales on its brown wings. I guess we could call it a fake since it doesn’t show us its true colors. It’s a little like the Pharisees: those men Jesus criticized because they did everything for show. Their faith and righteous were but an illusion because their hearts were filled with hypocrisy and evil. Unlike either Blue Morphos or Pharisees, however, there should be nothing illusory or deceptive about a Christian’s love; we are expected to be true blue to Jesus and His command to love one another.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. [1 John 4:20-21 (NLT)]

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OFFENSE

Fools have short fuses and explode all too quickly; the prudent quietly shrug off insults. … Overlook an offense and bond a friendship; fasten on to a slight and—good-bye, friend! … Smart people know how to hold their tongue; their grandeur is to forgive and forget. [Proverbs 12:16,17:9,19:11 (MSG)]

giant swallowtail butterflyOur sermon series was titled “Cage Fighting” but, rather than learning about fighting one another, we were learning about the ways Satan attacks and keeps us in his stronghold with things like shame, doubt, fear, and unforgiveness. While chatting with the pastor before church, I asked about the day’s topic. When he said offense, I immediately thought we’d learn how to take offensive action against the enemy.

Imagine my surprise when I looked at the program and read the above proverbs. What did they have to do with spiritual weaponry? I was annoyed that I’d been misled until I realized I’d misunderstood the pastor. While I was thinking about taking the offense and attacking, the pastor would be speaking about taking offense and feeling attacked! He’d be talking about the kind of offense that leaves us feeling outraged, insulted, or (in my case) annoyed. My error that morning illustrates why we’re easily offended; I had a preconceived idea, misunderstood what I heard, and didn’t ask for an explanation.

In this day of political correctness — when BC (before Christ) has become BCE (before the common era), Christmas trees are called holiday trees, no one is quite sure how to refer to a disability, and The Journal of Animal Ethics says calling pets “pets” is demeaning (they’re now “companion animals” to their “human carers”) — mistakes are bound to happen.

Everyone should be treated fairly and with dignity but never giving offense is nearly impossible. In reality, most people don’t mean to be racist, sexist, ageist, elitist, narrow-minded, impolite, or behind the times but sometimes they are. We can give offense inadvertently simply because words may have different connotations to different people, many words have changed their meaning over the years, or we don’t know the history of a symbol or phrase. For example, since my black postman wears a pith helmet, I didn’t know it was considered by some to be a symbol of white imperialism until Melania Trump was criticized for wearing one in Kenya.

Although wrong, rudeness and thoughtlessness are part and parcel of modern life. Today’s world offers an unlimited opportunity to both give and take offense and Satan loves it. To fight him, we must act and speak with love and do our best to never give offense, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Nevertheless, just as we must act and speak with love, we must listen and respond with love, as well. Knowing how easy it is to be offensive, we must work harder at not taking offense. Unfortunately, self-involved creatures that we are, we often choose to see bias, insult, or aggression even where none is meant. Taking offense just leads to anger, resentment, and retaliation (some of the enemy’s favorite weapons). Often translated as forbearance, patience is a fruit of the spirit and literally means “long temper.” Indeed, we should be slow to anger, give the benefit of doubt, not respond to provocation, turn the other cheek, love, and forgive.

I actually did learn how to fight the enemy that day, just not the way I thought. While some may say the best defense is a good offense, I learned that the best defense is not to take offense at all! As for me, I’m going to spend my time and energy being offended by the things that really matter: human trafficking, hunger, lack of safe drinking water for much of the world, poverty, homelessness, discrimination and injustice.

Whenever anyone has offended me, I try to raise my soul so high that the offense cannot reach it. [Rene Descartes]

We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it. [Abraham Lincoln]

So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. [Colossians 3:12-14 (MSG)]

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TRUTH BE TOLD

Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?” Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining, so he said to them, “Does this offend you? … And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. … At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him. [John 6:60-61,63b,66 (NLT]

plumbgoSome prophets weren’t bothered by the truth and were available for hire. Ahab, for example, had 400 prophets on his payroll acting as his “yes men.” When he asked Jehoshaphat to join him in a campaign against Aram, Jehoshaphat requested the advice of prophets so Ahab summoned his seers. Jehoshaphat, however, recognized them as pagans; when he asked for a true “prophet of the Lord,” Micaiah was summoned.

Honest prophets, like Micaiah had a difficult life; if they prophesized an unpleasant truth, they often were punished or killed. Although warned to promise victory, Micaiah was unafraid of offending the king and responded with God’s truth about Israel’s defeat and Ahab’s death. His reward for telling the truth was a slap on the face, prison and a diet of bread and water; Ahab’s reward for ignoring the truth was death by a randomly shot arrow.

Daniel served as prophet to four kings; facing a series of egocentric and powerful rulers and surrounded by idolatry, his was not an easy job. When Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a tree, the troubled Daniel hesitated to tell the king that it predicted a period of insanity for him. Nevertheless, he truthfully interpreted the dream and, at the risk of offending the king, bravely advised him to stop sinning. When the proud king didn’t, he ended up spending time living in the fields like an animal.

When Belshazzar called Daniel to interpret the mysterious writing on the wall, the king offered him beautiful gifts and great power for explaining the message but Daniel declined. His prophetic gift was never about gaining reward or power and, knowing the words’ meaning, he knew the reward was worthless. Unafraid of offending the king, Daniel boldly began by taking him to task for the way he’d dishonored God with his sinful disobedience, pride, desecration of sacred objects, and idolatry. The prophet finished by telling Belshazzar that his days were numbered, his reign had been found deficient, and that Babylon would fall and be divided among the Medes and Persians. Confident that he had an impregnable fortress and enough provisions to survive a twenty-year siege, Belshazzar didn’t take the words of warning seriously. Daniel’s prophecies proved correct. The ancient historian Xenophon writes that while the Babylonians were in the midst of that drunken feast, Darius the Mede diverted the Euphrates. Walking on the dry river bed, his army easily entered the city through the water gates. Belshazzar died that very night and the kingdom of Babylon was divided into 120 provinces.

Even when they knew their messages were unpleasant and that the consequences for speaking the truth and offending a king could be severe, neither Micaiah nor Daniel ever sugar-coated God’s truth. Finding their prophecies distasteful, Ahab, Nebuchadnezzar, and Belshazzar chose to ignore them. Like those kings, many of the people who heard Jesus found His truth offensive and inconvenient; choosing to ignore it, they walked away from Him. The fact that the truth is often unpleasant and can be ignored, however, doesn’t change its veracity.

Sometimes, as Christians, we are afraid to offend people with the truth and so we say nothing when God calls us to speak. While we never want to come off as domineering, disparaging or arrogant, we must not let fear keep us from speaking the truth. That God’s truth, even when lovingly and considerately spoken, may offend some people doesn’t mean the truth must not be told.

And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.  All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants. [John 3:19-21 (NLT)]

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LEARNING TO WALK

So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and all slander. Like newborn babes, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. [1 Peter 2:1-3 (RSV)]

toddlerWatching a friend’s video of her grandbaby’s first steps, I thought back to my children’s first faltering steps. They teetered and tottered, often fell, got up, and fell again. Eventually, the wobbly legs of my eldest became the confident legs that take him down mountain slopes on a snowboard, the awkward steps of my daughter became the graceful ones of a dancer in toe shoes, and the child who took forever to walk now runs marathons. It took time and maturity, however, before they could carry themselves with such strength and assurance.

A pastor friend told me of a young woman, Anne, who recently joined his church. Tuesday mornings, a group meets in the sanctuary to pray over the weekend’s prayer requests. Although Anne is a brand new Christian and self-conscious about offering prayers in a group, she feels called to come on Tuesdays and be a part of this ministry. One morning, she arrived late. With Bible in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, Anne rushed down the aisle only to stumble. As the coffee spilled over her blouse and onto the floor, what came out of Anne’s mouth definitely was not a nice church lady, “Oops!” Having uttered words not typically heard in church, her face turned red with embarrassment. Mortified at her misstep, I imagine she would have given anything to rewind the previous sixty seconds. Instead of gasps of horror and scornful frowns, however, the prayer warriors in the sanctuary chuckled and reassured her. Like Anne, they once were baby Christians and experienced their share of missteps and lapses. They didn’t approve of her language but, having “been there and done that” (and probably much worse), they understood and reacted with love rather than judgment.

When we first accept Christ, we’re really just baby Christians. Babies aren’t born with all the knowledge and skills they need and we’re not reborn with all the knowledge and skills we need either. There will be stumbles and missteps as we learn to how to walk the Christian way. Like Anne, the new Christian is often torn between the old way of thinking, speaking and acting and the new Spirit-led way of living. Sometimes old habits and attitudes are hard to break. Nevertheless, the baby Christian welcomes the Holy Spirit, follows His lead, listens to His conviction, prays, studies Scripture, and gradually grows more like Christ. Like a toddler, when she falls, she just gets back up and keeps going and growing.

Babies don’t remain babies forever nor would we want them to. We want our children to mature and become all they’re meant to be. That doesn’t happen by being critical, judgmental and unforgiving whenever a child falls. Growth happens with encouragement, patience, love, and through example. While the prayer warriors at my friend’s church understood that, not everyone does.

When our Bible study leader announced that we’d be discussing Nicodemus the following week, the woman beside me asked who he was. I saw her shrink in embarrassment when another woman condescendingly replied, “How could you not know who Nicodemus is?” I quickly looked in my Bible’s index and, reassuring her that she wasn’t alone in her question, told her she’d find his story in John 3. I can only hope she’ll return next week.

Not everyone who attends a Bible study or church is a mature believer; some are brand new disciples while others are seekers or just testing the water. Let’s always be as reassuring, forgiving, and welcoming to baby Christians as we are to our little children and grands!

Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. [1 Peter 4:8-9 (RSV)]

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast. [Ephesians 2:8-9 (RSV)]

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AT HIS TABLE

“This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it.” … Anyone who eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily is guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. That is why you should examine yourself before eating the bread and drinking the cup. [1 Corinthians 11:25b, 27-28 (NLT)]

oregon grapeIn 2009, the United Methodist Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America became full Communion partners. This agreement, while showing respect for each other’s differences, created a relationship based on a common confession of faith and a mutual recognition of Baptism and the sharing of Holy Communion. That the partnership included a mutual recognition of ordained ministers of both denominations meant that a local Methodist church could hire a soon-to-be ordained Lutheran minister. Her ordination, done by the Lutheran bishop, was held in the Methodist church she would be serving. The only sticking point for the rite was the Lutheran Bishop’s insistence that actual wine be used for Communion. Methodists have a strong temperance tradition and this church uses only grape juice. The senior Methodist pastor managed to find an excellent compromise when he obtained a non-alcoholic wine that satisfied both Methodist and Lutheran sensibilities; the ordination went off without a hitch.

A week later, Lutheran and Methodist clergy from around the state attended an ecumenical service to celebrate their new partnership. After numerous speeches and prayers about Christian unity, the service culminated in Communion. There were, however, two cups of purple liquid on opposite sides of the sanctuary. The Methodists were instructed to go left to dip their wafers in grape juice while the Lutherans were directed to the right for the wine! Surely, with all of the great minds who’d put together the celebratory service of unanimity, a better solution (such as non-alcoholic wine) could have been found. Sadly, it wasn’t! The pastor who shared this story still shakes his head at the absurdity of it.

How silly are we? When we come to the Lord’s Table, we don’t come as individuals—as Bob, Mary, Marty, or Deb—nor do we come as Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, or Baptists. We come as brothers and sisters—members of Jesus’s family—members of the body of Christ. Communion is a sign of Christian unity and, in the early church, it was part of a communal dinner—a 1st century version of a potluck supper.

Potlucks, shared meals, covered dish dinners—whatever your church calls them—they’re pretty much the same across the denominations: at least one macaroni casserole, something made with gelatin, deviled eggs, and more desserts than vegetables. Meeting as friends and putting aside our differences, the commonality at a potluck is our love of food! That same sort of unity should happen whenever we eat at the Lord’s Table where the commonality is our love of Jesus.

Transubstantiation, divine mystery, consubstantiation, receptionism, or memorialism; wine or juice; wafers, crackers, or Wonder Bread; intinction, common cup, individual cups, or sealed cups with juice and wafer; taken separately or together, in the pews or at the altar rail—the Bible is rather silent on the “correct” way to take Communion. There really are only two commands: do this in remembrance of Him and examine ourselves before we partake of His meal. He is the Bread of Life; let us always welcome others to His table and celebrate our unity in Christ.

They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. [Acts 2:46-47 (NLT)]

When we bless the cup at the Lord’s Table, aren’t we sharing in the blood of Christ? And when we break the bread, aren’t we sharing in the body of Christ? And though we are many, we all eat from one loaf of bread, showing that we are one body. [Corinthians 10:16-17 (NLT)]

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