CHECK YOUR SOURCE

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]

columbineBroken people were drawn to Jesus but Mary Magdalene was not as broken as many people think. Magdalene was not her last name; it simply means “from Magdala” and the Gospels’ writers added it to distinguish her from the many others Marys: Jesus’ mother, Martha’s sister, the wife of Clopas, and the mother of James and Joseph.

When we first meet Mary Magdalene in Luke 8, her name is linked both with women “who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases” and those who “were contributing from their own resources to support Jesus and the disciples.” Luke then elaborates that Jesus cast seven demons from her. Nowhere does he (or any other gospel writer) say anything about Mary’s immorality. In fact, since she was one of the women helping to financially support Jesus’s ministry, it appears that she was an upstanding, respectable and wealthy woman.

Whether it was because Luke’s first reference to Mary Magdalene follows the story of the nameless sinful woman who anointed Jesus’s feet or that Mary had been cured of seven demons but the idea developed through the centuries that she was immoral and probably a prostitute. Mental illness in 1st century Palestine was attributed to evil spirits and those demons probably were a mental illness of some kind. While we don’t know if her disorder was epilepsy, depression, paranoia, psychosis, or something else, Scripture gives us no reason to question her morals. We must never make the error of confusing mental illness with immorality.

It didn’t help Mary’s reputation when, in 1324, the Roman Catholic Church established a home for “the rescue and maintenance of fallen women” and called it the “Magdalen House.” Her reputation suffered further harm when, in 1591, Pope Gregory I gave a sermon associating her seven demons with the seven vices and then fused her with both the sinful woman and Mary of Bethany (both of whom washed Jesus’s feet). When monks and priests read Gregory’s sermons rather than Scripture, the erroneous story of Mary continued to be told.

It was not until 1969 that the Roman Catholic Church declared that Mary Magdalene was not the fallen woman who washed Jesus’ feet. Unfortunately, people seem to love a juicy story and Mary’s undeserved reputation still lingers. She continues to be portrayed as a repentant prostitute, the nameless woman caught in adultery, or even as Jesus’ lover or wife. There is absolutely no Scriptural basis for any of those assumptions.

Mary Magdalene appears in all four Gospels and is mentioned thirteen times. We are given no reason to think that she was anything other than a once ill woman who helped financially support Jesus and the disciples. In fact, when she’s mentioned with other women, her name usually comes first, implying that she was their respected leader. It is only when she is standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ family (His mother and aunt) that her name follows those of others. What we do know from Scripture is that, when others fled, Mary Magdalene was there. She was present at the Crucifixion, sat across from the tomb with the mother of James and Joseph as Christ’s body was laid in the sepulcher, was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection, and was the first to preach the news of His resurrection.

While I wanted to restore a good woman’s reputation with this devotion, its main purpose is to caution us as to where we get our Biblical knowledge. While it’s tempting (and often easier) to get it second-hand—from sermons, devotions, commentaries, conversations, books, websites, movies and other media—those never should be our sole source of information. God’s word is our spiritual nourishment and, just as a vitamin pill is no substitute for eating real food, there is no substitute for reading Scripture first-hand. After all, to discern between opinion, fact, and fiction, we must know the truth and the gospel truth is found only in the Gospel!

Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it’s the Gospel. [Michael Jackson]

Work hard so you can present yourself to God and receive his approval. Be a good worker, one who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly explains the word of truth. Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. [2 Timothy 2:15-16 (NLT)]

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WITH A SMALL “C”

For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. [Ephesians 4:4-6 (NLT)]

old world wisconsinIt is said that John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist movement) once dreamt of visiting the gates of Hell. Curious, he asked the gatekeeper how many in Hell were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. “We have many,” was the gatekeeper’s answer regarding each denomination. Nervously, Wesley then asked if there were any Methodists and was disheartened to learn there were plenty of them there, as well.

Dismayed, Wesley proceeded to the gates of Heaven. The preacher asked how many in Heaven were Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Baptists. To each question, the gatekeeper replied, “Not a one.” After Wesley asked how many Methodists were there, his heart dropped at the gatekeeper’s reply of, “None!” Perplexed, the concerned preacher asked who was in Heaven. The angel at the gate replied, “The only ones here are those who love the Lord and the only name by which they are known is that of Christian!”

From that strange dream, John Wesley is said to have concluded that unity within the Christian church was essential for its mission. Nevertheless, acknowledging that there will be different points of view, he said, “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may.”

I thought of John Wesley’s dream when my husband told me how, as a boy, he refused to say the word “catholic” when reciting the Apostle’s or Nicene Creeds. Not attending a Roman Catholic church, he didn’t know how he could say he believed in it! Of course, he didn’t understand that catholic (with a small c) has never meant a specific denomination.

Etymologically, “catholic” comes from two Greek words, kata or kath (meaning “throughout”) and holos (meaning “whole”). When joined as katholikos, it means, “throughout the whole.” Meaning more than universal, “catholic” captures the dual sense of “throughout all time and in all places” while pointing to the essential unity or wholeness of Christ’s Church. When the creeds state, “I believe in the holy catholic church,” they aren’t referring to any branch of Christianity; they refer to the entirety of the whole Church, not just here and now, but everywhere in the past and future as well. First used in the early 2nd century, the adjective “catholic” didn’t mean a particular denomination; it simply described the universal scope of the Christian Church. It was not until the Reformation that the Roman church used “Catholic” (with a capital C) as a denominational title to distinguish itself from the Protestants.

To avoid confusion, many Protestant churches have replaced “catholic” with “Christian” when saying the creed. Nevertheless, the original word has a beautiful subtext because it refers to the wholeness of the entire church and the unity of all believers in the body of Christ, throughout all time and in all places. The “holy catholic church” simply refers to all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ—people like the ones John Wesley found in heaven! Indeed, we won’t all think alike nor will we worship alike but we all can love alike!

Where Jesus Christ is, there is the catholic church. [Ignatius of Antioch]

I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me. [John 17:20-23 (NLT)]

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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)] 

Copyright ©2020 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

EXPLORATORY SURGERY – NEW YEAR’S EVE

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

spiderwortThe tradition of New Year’s resolutions goes back 4,000 years to the ancient Babylonians. During their 12-day celebration of the new year (held in mid-March), they either crowned a new king or reaffirmed their loyalty to the old one. They also promised to return anything borrowed and pledged the repayment of all their debts. While returning borrowed items and paying our debts are good goals for the coming year, our resolutions usually have something to do with exercise, diet, getting better organized, learning a new skill, spending less money, or reading the entire Bible in a year.

Perhaps, before resolving to floss or eat more vegetables, we should pray and ask God what it is that He would like to see us change. “Search me, O God,” is what could be called a dangerous prayer; when we ask Him to look, we’d better be ready for what He finds. Chances are that it will have nothing to do with developing better dental or nutrition habits. Asking God to examine our innermost being is asking Him to perform exploratory surgery in search of sin. While a surgeon may not find a tumor, God is sure to find plenty of areas in our hearts and minds in need of improvement! If a surgeon does find cancer, we expect him to remove it but, when God finds something offensive in us, He expects us to repent and turn away from it.

Our spiritual goals can fail as readily as the non-spiritual ones and, according to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, less than half of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful at keeping them. Perhaps we’d do better if we understood that we can’t change by ourselves. Maybe will-power alone can keep us away from Dunkin’ Donuts or get us to a 6 AM aerobics class but it isn’t enough when we’re combating spiritual enemies. Fortunately, we are powered by the Holy Spirit and, through Him, all things are possible.

Let us remember that Jesus is in the business of transformation. It was at a wedding party in Cana that He transformed water into wine. He then transformed the blind into the sighted, the lame into the strong, and the diseased into the healthy. He changed the churning sea into calm water, a few morsels of food into a feast, and the dead into the living. Jesus’s miracles of transformation continue today. He turns darkness into light, anger into peace, fear into hope, animosity into love, selfishness into generosity, mourning into joy, shame into honor, and sinners into saints.

The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul. [G. K. Chesterton]

And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.

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)]

Copyright ©2019 jsjdevotions. All rights reserved.