ADMIT IT

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” [Luke 18:11-13 (NIV)]

The man who is seriously convinced that he deserves to go to hell is not likely to go there, while the man who believes that he is worthy of heaven will certainly never enter that blessed place. [A.W. Tozer]

snowy egretA.W. Tozer’s words remind me of Jesus’s parable about the Pharisee and tax collector who prayed in the Temple. Acting as if God should feel grateful to receive his prayers, the Pharisee didn’t understand that he should be grateful that God listens! Rather than express thanks for God’s righteousness, power and majesty, the proud Pharisee thanked God for his own righteousness and then listed his virtues! Although it wasn’t required, he fasted twice weekly and was so fastidious about tithing that he tithed not just what was earned but also anything he acquired. If he were unsure that a farmer had tithed his produce, the Pharisee would tithe it again! Standing before God and proclaiming both his good works and his contempt for others (like the tax collector), the Pharisee is a perfect illustration of a man “who believes that he is worthy of heaven.” How wrong he was! Perhaps the Pharisee’s refusal to recognize his own self-righteousness was his biggest sin of all.

On the other hand, we have the tax collector. Standing apart, beating his breast in repentance, and feeling so contemptible that he couldn’t even look up, we find a man who clearly knew he was a sinner. Recognizing exactly who and what he was, the tax collector humbly came before God and, with a repentant heart, admitted his sin and begged for mercy.

When Jesus told this parable, He must have shocked his listeners. The Pharisee was considered the epitome of pious living and the tax collector of sinfulness. Jesus turned that comparison upside down when He said that it was the humble tax collector, not the Pharisee, who went home with his sins forgiven.

It’s only when we’re sick that we see the need for a physician and only when we see our sinfulness that we see the need for a Savior. We must approach God as did the tax collector: by understanding our wickedness and the need for His mercy. The Pharisee didn’t understand that nobody deserves salvation and it can’t be secured by fasting, tithing or other good deeds. It is out of God’s love for his children that He generously saves those who repent of their sins. It is only when we know we’re sinners, deserving of hell and undeserving of God’s grace, that we are likely to find our way to heaven.

Don’t say that a loving God is going to send you to hell – He’s not. The thing that’s going to send you to hell is that you’re a sinner and you don’t want to admit it. [J. Vernon McGee]

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. [Luke 18:14 (NIV)]

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AT WHAT COST?

Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” [John 11:49-50 (NLT)]

southern fRecently, I read a novel that blurred the lines between fiction and fact. Considered fiction, it was heavily based on the memories of two Auschwitz survivors and included people and events that actually occurred. A determination to stay alive at any cost was one of its themes. As I read how some people managed to survive the camp, I had to wonder how I might react in a similar situation. When does cooperation with the enemy, which can allow survival (not just of oneself but also of others) become collaboration or complicity? Following the war, the two main characters feared being labeled as collaborators for their actions and another person in the story actually was charged as a Nazi collaborator. After three years in Auschwitz’s hell, she was sentenced to fifteen years in the Soviet gulag. Yet, because of what was called collaboration, she saved not just her life but also the lives of others. Which is more right or less wrong: survival at all costs or refusal to compromise and death? That is not a choice I ever want to make.

Peter Black, a former historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, said that prisoners who “were in a position to help people, were also in a position to hurt people.” To keep their positions, he added, “They had to accept that duality.” The truth of his statement was brutally evident when the hero’s smuggling activity was discovered by his captors. Refusing to name the others involved, he was transported to the punishment and torture block where his torturer was a man whose life he’d saved. The man confided that his job was to get names, explaining, “Like you…I do what I have to do to survive.” He then told the prisoner that he would kill him before allowing him to name any of those names: “If I must kill one Jew to save ten others, then I will.”

The man’s explanation is in contrast to another recurring theme in the book: “To save one is to save the world.” This phrase originally comes from the Mishnah (the written version of Jewish oral law and part of the Talmud). It reads: “Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.”  [Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9, Jerusalem Talmud] “To save the one,” is repeated throughout the story.

Some reviewers have criticized the novel as inauthentic while others have praised it; I can’t vouch for its accuracy. Nevertheless, I know that many in Nazi concentration camps were faced with moral choices that meant the difference between life and death. Without a doubt, there are people facing similar quandaries today. It’s easy to see the world in black and white from the safety of my home in Florida—not so easy in a place like Auschwitz. We know we are to do good and not to do evil but there is a great deal of gray area between those two extremes.

The Christian has no fear of death but what if, by choosing to live in circumstances that come at a moral cost, more people could survive and possibly come to know Christ? What then? Christian ethics have three elements: the act we choose, our intentions behind the act, and the circumstances surrounding it. We have a merciful God and the circumstances of a concentration camp or battlefield are not the same as those of an insurance office or grocery store. As for intentions, we know they should always line up with loving God and loving our neighbor. When considering any act, we also must consider its consequences and whether they would please God. Do the means justify the end even if the means are wrong but the end result would glorify God? I can’t pretend to know the answer but, since reading this book, it is a question I’ve been pondering.

The basis of Christian ethics is the character of God and God is love. That love is seen in the life of Christ. While prayer, Scripture, and the Spirit’s guidance can direct us in our ethical dilemmas, in the end, we must ask ourselves what Jesus would do and then do it. He is the one who died, not to save just ten, but to save the world!

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. … And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. [Colossians 3:14,17 (NLT)]

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THE VIRTUE FARM

But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path. [Ecclesiastes 7:29 (NLT)]

When living in rural Illinois, I loved walking along the country roads, passing by fields of soy beans and corn, and seeing the horses, cows, goats, and sheep grazing in the fields. Virtue was a common name in the community and I often passed by the Virtue Farm. Thinking Virtue a noble name, I wondered if the Virtue family lived up to its promise of good character and moral excellence.

After Pope Gregory listed what came to be known as the seven deadly sins in 590 AD, he also listed seven virtues considered fundamental to Christian ethics: prudence (care and moderation with money), temperance (moderation in needed things and abstinence from unneeded ones), fortitude (never giving up), justice (being fair and equitable with others), faith, hope, and love. While it’s easy to recognize those last three virtues as coming from the Apostle Paul, the Pope’s list isn’t explicitly Biblical and the first four come from the Greek philosophers. When Peter listed the attributes of a Christian’s character, he included faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, patient endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love for everyone. [2 Peter 1:5-7] Paul listed the fruit of the spirit in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [5:22-23]. Looking at all of these lists, we can get a good idea of what qualities determine virtue. Unfortunately, we seem to have lowered the bar a bit since the time of Aristotle, Peter, Paul, and Pope Gregory. Nowadays, someone usually is considered of good character if they’re honest (most of the time), work hard, and don’t cheat on their spouse. While that’s a start, it hardly defines moral excellence.

With virtue in short supply these days, it would be nice if the Virtue Farm actually planted and harvested virtue as they do beans and corn. Of course, once it got to market, would there be any buyers? From what I see in the media, people aren’t much interested in things like chastity, modesty, self-respect, or fairness and good sportsmanship. Words like temperance, industry, and thrift are rarely used and the qualities of humility, courtesy, and self-control aren’t held in high regard.

We’re not born with virtue; it’s not like the blue eyes or musical talent we might have at birth. Moreover, virtue doesn’t grow on trees and can’t be purchased at the local farmers’ market or grocery. Virtue is something we choose; while the Holy Spirit provides us with His fruit, it is up to us to develop those virtues into good habits. While the Virtue Farm continues planting soy beans and corn, we must cultivate the seeds of virtue in our own lives. The Apostle Peter assures us that it can be done: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.” [2 Peter 1:3]

Father, we are faced with moral choices every day. Teach us with your word, guide us by your example, and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit so that we always choose the virtuous path.

Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:22-24 (NLT)] 

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THE ARK

giraffeThen God said to Noah, “Leave the boat, all of you—you and your wife, and your sons and their wives.  Release all the animals—the birds, the livestock, and the small animals that scurry along the ground—so they can be fruitful and multiply throughout the earth.” Genesis 8:15-17 (NLT)]

The National Geographic Photo Ark is on display at our local zoo. This travelling exhibition features large-scale animal portraits taken by Joel Sartore, a man on a quest to photograph all of the world’s animals. Sartore has photographed a little more than 9,800 of the 1.2 million species of animals that have been identified by zoologists so far.

Attributing human traits or emotions to non-humans is anthropomorphism and I admit being guilty of it as I viewed Sartore’s amazing photographs. An embarrassed-looking mandrill with its hand covering his mouth seemed to be politely concealing a burp. With his cocked head and puzzled expression, a white arctic fox looked perplexed. The Sumatran rhino’s wistful look made me wonder if he knew there are less than 100 like him on the planet. Clearly unaware that he also is an endangered species, the giant panda looked content and rather pleased with himself. The young chimp appeared to be proudly flexing his biceps, as do toddlers when they want to show how big and strong they are. The Sumatran tiger lay regally, his head erect with paws crossed in front of him as if the photographer had posed him for his royal portrait. A black-footed ferret seemed forlorn, as if he knew that only a few hundred of his species still live in the wild. Perhaps my favorite photo was that of a bashful Brazilian porcupine on his hind legs. Looking a bit anxious, he was scrunched over a bit, legs squeezed together, with his front paws tucked down between his legs. He looked just like a toddler who desperately needs to go potty!

The purpose of the National Geographic Photo Ark is to use “the power of photography to inspire people to help save species at risk before it’s too late.” Although ours is a small zoo with only 70 species and just 52 of Sartore’s photographs on display, the amazing diversity in God’s creation was evident in both the enclosures and photographs. Sadly, many animals had words like “endangered” or “at risk” beside their names. God entrusted mankind with the task of looking after His amazing creation and we haven’t done a very good job of that.

The extinction of various species has always existed (i.e. dinosaurs) but it is increasing at an alarming rate. If the current trend continues, it is estimated that one in every three animal species on earth now will have disappeared by the end of this century. Following the flood, God vowed to never again destroy all living things. He won’t have to; we seem to be doing that on our own!

As we left the zoo, I thought about my anthropomorphic view both of Sartore’s photos and the zoo’s residents. Perhaps God gave us the tendency to attribute human emotions to animals so that we’d connect with them. It’s when we connect that we begin to care. Martin Buber said that, “An animal’s eyes have the power to speak a great language.” While I’m not sure exactly what Buber meant, the eyes I looked at told me to care.

Scripture is filled with admonitions to care for animals; domestic animals were not to be overworked or treated cruelly and Jesus told us that God knows when even a single sparrow falls to the ground. What does God think when an entire species ceases to exist? All of creation belongs to Him and we are little more than tenant farmers responsible for its care. When God gave us dominion over the earth, He expected us to behave conscientiously and we will be held accountable for the way we’ve tended His world. Are we good stewards or have we become exploiters? Will our zoos become the arks of the future and the only place God’s beautiful creatures will exist? Noah once saved the animals; can we do anything less?

It is folly to think that we can destroy one species and ecosystem after another and not affect humanity. … When we save species, we’re actually saving ourselves. [Joel Sartore]

The Lord God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. [Genesis 2:15 (NLT)]

Look, the highest heavens and the earth and everything in it all belong to the Lord your God. [Deuteronomy 10:14 (NLT)]

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THE BIBLE SAYS!

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. [Luke 11:9-10 (NIV)]

loveIn the comic strip Peanuts, drawn by Charles Schultz, Linus and Lucy van Pelt are brother and sister who, like many siblings, often fight. For several days last week, Lucy tried to convince Linus to give her a Christmas gift. When she insisted the giving of Christmas presents is in the Bible, he called her bluff saying, “You can’t fool an old theologian.” Two days later, while Lucy searched in the Bible, she exclaimed, “I found it!…The word ‘sister’ in the Bible!…That proves you have to give me a Christmas present!” Her little brother merely sighed, “Oh, good grief.” While not as blatant as Lucy, we often find people taking Scripture out of context to justify their own meaning.

Luke 11:9-10 may be the most misinterpreted verse, especially by those who preach a “prosperity gospel” version of Christianity. At first glance, “ask and it will be given” sounds like God runs an Amazon wish fulfillment center in Heaven. Mercedes, check…winning lottery ticket, check…40-foot boat, check! By ignoring the verse’s context, people miss its meaning. Jesus’s reassurance of answered prayers follows the prayer model given to His disciples in what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The requests in this perfect prayer are that God’s name be kept holy, His Kingdom will soon come, for the day’s food, for forgiveness, and not yielding to temptation. Jesus didn’t ask for a new robe, a purse full of money, or a chariot to transport him on His travels! He asked for what was needed to serve God. Following His prayer, Jesus told a parable about a persistent man who boldly begged his neighbor for bread because he had a visitor and no food for him to give him. Jewish culture demanded that hospitality be offered to travelers and the entire village’s reputation was a stake if kindness was not extended. The man didn’t ask for a jug of vintage wine or a newly slaughtered lamb. He asked for the bare minimum: 3 loaves (each about the size of a pita) for a hungry guest so he could abide by the law of hospitality. Looking at Luke 11:9 in context makes it clear that Jesus’s words were not an invitation to “name it and claim it” from God’s vending machine. We wouldn’t open a novel and read a few random sentences and think we know what the story is saying but, like Lucy, we tend to do that with Scripture.

As it turns out, having forgotten about forgiveness, Linus was no better a theologian than his sister. Had Lucy read that Bible more carefully, she could have made an excellent argument for receiving a gift (and even used a verse that included the word “sister”). Linus’ refusal to give Lucy a Christmas present was because she punched him in the face several days earlier. After putting the verse in context, Lucy should have quoted Matthew 18:34-35. When Peter asked if he should forgive someone up to seven times, Jesus replied seventy times seven times and told the parable of the unmerciful servant. After the king forgave his servant’s enormous debt, the man refused to forgive a small debt owed to him and threw the debtor in prison. Upon discovering his servant’s lack of mercy, “In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” [Matthew 18:34-35] Using Scripture properly might have gotten Linus to rethink his position and Lucy her present!

George Bernard Shaw said that, “No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says: He is always convinced that it says what he means.” That should never be true of a Christian. We’re not trying to convince a little brother to give us a Christmas gift; we’re sharing the Gospel message. Let’s make sure we do it right!

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15 (NIV)]

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TRUE CHARACTER

I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. [Romans 7:18b-19 (NLT)]

smooth roseYears ago, we were acquainted with “Henry, dear” and “Mary, darling.” We called them that because we never heard them refer to one another any other way. They always were so sweet and charming in public that halos seemed to hover over their heads. My husband and I often wondered what they called one another behind closed doors and, as we got to know them better, we realized our wariness was well-founded. As noble as they appeared in public, there always seemed to be an ulterior motive behind their kindness and, while “Henry, dear” was patting your back, his other hand probably was reaching into your back pocket. While we never knew what they called one another in private, we knew that what the public saw was not what they actually got.

I thought of them the other day when watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a movie about Fred Rogers. Having read books both by and about him, there truly was nothing artificial or superficial about the man; what you saw actually was what you got. Rogers once said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self,” and that’s exactly what he did!

Recently, my day began with bad news and sped downhill from there. In my frustration, my words and actions were not those of a “church lady.” I may write Christian devotions but what you see is not always what you get and the Fruit of the Spirit was nowhere to be found on my tree! Whether in public or private, Mr. Rogers’ faith was evident in all that he did or said. Mine, however, frequently gets obscured by my reaction to circumstances beyond my control. Like the Apostle Paul, “I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” [Romans 7:15]

Both Fred Rogers (and the movie) were clear that, just like the rest of us, he was no saint. The difference is that, while many of us seem to think we can become good people effortlessly, Fred Rogers actually worked at being the very best person that he could be. One of the ways he did that was through self-discipline. He faithfully read the Bible, reflected and prayed every day, and his prayers continued all day long. He was disciplined in the way he cared for his body with healthy habits. He was disciplined about meeting his commitments, remembering his friends, and expressing gratitude. It’s not that he didn’t have emotions; it’s that he was disciplined enough to choose safe outlets for the negative ones. It’s not that he didn’t know any four-letter words; he just was disciplined enough to use words like “mercy, me!” instead of them! Rogers understood that while circumstances may be beyond our control, our reaction to them is not. He was disciplined in his faith, obedient to God, and saw everyone as his neighbor and a valued child of God. He didn’t give lip service to the power of the Holy Spirit; He lived, breathed, trusted and depended on the Spirit.

The difference between the “Henry, dears” and “Mary, darlings” of the world and Fred Rogers is that while they wear masks so they’ll look like good Christians, Mr. Rogers developed the strength of character to be a good Christian! Through self-discipline and the power of the Holy Spirit, he actually became good (or at least a whole lot better than many of us). The church would call that process sanctification. We can’t do it by ourselves and God doesn’t do it for us; rather, it is combining our efforts with God’s power to grow more and more like Christ. Spiritual progress doesn’t happen overnight and sanctification is not a passive process; it requires effort, discipline and obedience. Only then will people be able to say of us, “What you see is what you get!”

And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. [Romans 12:1-2 (NLT)]

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