MAUNDY THURSDAY: THE ROOSTER CROWS

“Don’t be so sure,” Jesus said. “This very night, before the rooster crows up the dawn, you will deny me three times.” Peter protested, “Even if I had to die with you, I would never deny you.” All the others said the same thing. [Matthew 26:34-35 (MSG)]

Ballenburg roosterThere’s a therapeutic riding center across the highway from one of the churches we attend. Along with horses, barn cat, and dog, they have a rooster. No matter what the time of day we’re there, that rooster crows. Every time I hear that bird’s loud “cock-a-doodle-do!” I remember Jesus’s words to Peter and ask myself, “Have I denied my Lord today?”

I can’t say I blame Peter for his betrayal. He was there when Judas, along with Temple guards and a contingent of Roman soldiers armed with swords and clubs, arrived in Gethsemane. Peter saw them man-handle and arrest Jesus. Peter was the one who impulsively drew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave. Although Jesus healed the man, Peter had to be afraid as he stood around the fire with the servants and guards in the high priest’s courtyard. Would he be the next one arrested? His name may have meant “rock,” but his behavior was anything but rock-like that night.

Would I have been braver and more faithful than Peter or would I, too, have denied Christ? I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have behaved any better than did Peter. I often deny knowing Jesus, and I’m not even afraid of being arrested. I deny Him when I ignore His call to service, remain silent when I should speak, or speak when I should remain silent. I deny Him when I hold a grudge, withhold forgiveness, judge others, and act prideful, spiteful or self-righteous. I deny Christ when I do what I know is wrong, when I don’t do what should be done, when I accept what I know He wouldn’t, and when I take credit for His gifts to me. Unfortunately, there are many ways we can deny knowing Jesus.

Lord, forgive us for the times we’ve denied being your servant. Fill us with your Holy Spirit so that our denials become affirmations and our lives give testimony to your saving grace.

All this time, Peter was sitting out in the courtyard. One servant girl came up to him and said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean.” In front of everybody there, he denied it. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” As he moved over toward the gate, someone else said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” Again he denied it, salting his denial with an oath: “I swear, I never laid eyes on the man.” Shortly after that, some bystanders approached Peter. “You’ve got to be one of them. Your accent gives you away.” Then he got really nervous and swore. “I don’t know the man!” Just then a rooster crowed. Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” He went out and cried and cried and cried. [Matthew 26:69-75 (MSG)]

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THE ROAD TO HELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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SEEING THE ERROR

For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones. Watch out! I have warned you about this ahead of time! [Mark 13:22-23 (NLT)]

white ibisYesterday, I wrote about Cyrus Teed, the Koreshan Unity, their strange theology, and Cellular Cosmogony: the belief that the earth is a hollow shell and the entire universe exists inside that shell. Whether he was a charlatan or insane fanatic, Cyrus Teed claimed to be immortal. When he died in 1908, his followers kept his body in a bathtub for five days and waited for his resurrection. Rather than rising, Teed began to stink and authorities forced his corpse to be buried. Nevertheless, many of his followers faithfully waited another thirteen years for his return.

When it became obvious his second coming would never come, membership in the Koreshan Unity began to decline (the belief in celibacy not helping their numbers). By 1961, when it was clear the community would not survive, its last four members deeded the remaining 305 acres of Unity land to the state.

Hedwig Michel was the last of the Koreshans. In 1982, reporters asked if she still believed in Cellular Cosmogony and she replied, “Well, I did believe it until I saw the boys walking on the moon.” That moon walk took place in 1969, 61 years after Teed’s failed resurrection and several years after Sputnik and Explorer 1 launched, Alan Shepherd flew into space, and both Yuri Gagarin and John Glenn orbited the earth in spacecraft. Yet, Hedwig Michel held fast to her Koreshan beliefs until she saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon.

For the most part, the Koreshans were an educated lot and, when walking through their settlement, I wondered why they clung to their strange theology and pseudo-science for so long. Then again, while it’s easy to recognize the folly of someone else’s ideas, it’s not so easy with our own. Jesus warned us about false prophets but not all of them are as obvious as Cyrus Teed. At some time or another, we all may have believed in the wrong person or ideology or held on to erroneous viewpoints or prejudices. Perhaps, we still do.

Why do people continue with false beliefs or follow false prophets? Perhaps, it is easier to believe a lie than admit our thinking could be wrong. The Koreshans gave up their homes and personal possessions to devote their lives to Koreshanity. Like them, could we stubbornly cling to certain beliefs or biases because admitting our error might mean we’ve wasted opportunities, time, energy or even money? For many years, the Koreshan Unity prospered, having 7,500 acres of land and more than a dozen businesses. Skepticism and doubt probably don’t thrive in well-being and, like Teed’s followers, we’re unlikely to question what appears to be successful, even when we suspect it could be wrong. With such a strong sense of community, some Koreshans may have been afraid to abandon their sect and step out on their own while others may have feared ridicule from outsiders if they admitted their error.

Like those die-hard Koreshans, do we have blind spots? Are we unwilling to examine some of our beliefs in the light of God’s truth? While it’s never easy to admit we’re in error, it’s easy to know God’s truth. If we’re not loving God, loving all of His people, and walking in the way of Jesus, we’re in error. When our attitude, values, principles or opinions don’t line up with God’s word, they’re wrong. For Hedwig Michel, it took seeing men walk on the moon’s surface before she accepted the falseness of Koreshanity. What will it take for us to see any falseness in our lives?

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. [2 Timothy 4:3-4 (NLT)]

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BEYOND OUR UNDERSTANDING

How great is our Lord! His power is absolute! His understanding is beyond comprehension! [Psalm 147:5 (NLT)]

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. [Proverbs 3:5 (NLT)]

Koreshanity - Cellular CosmogonyJust north of us is a state park that once was home to a group called the Koreshan Unity. In 1894, Dr. Cyrus Teed, known as the Prophet Koresh, brought about 250 of his followers to the banks of the Estero River where they hoped to establish a “New Jerusalem.” The Koreshans believed that the Bible needed prophets to interpret it and that Teed was the seventh in a line of biblical prophets. As the designated prophet, Teed would reveal everything about the universe that Jesus failed to explain. Taking verses out of context from both testaments of the Bible, the Koreshans believed in reincarnation, communal living, heaven and hell, immortality, and celibacy.

The most curious belief of the Koreshans was that of Cellular Cosmogony: that the earth is a hollow shell about 8,000 miles in diameter and that the entire universe exists on the inside of this shell. Although the earth’s surface appears convex, Teed claimed that was an optical illusion and the earth’s surface actually was concave. Picture a globe but, instead of having the land and sea on the outer side, they are on the inner side; instead of life existing on the outer surface, it exists on the inside of the shell. The universe rotates inside the earth’s shell rather than the earth rotating in the universe and the sun is a giant electromagnetic battery in the middle of the sphere. Rather than gravity, centrifugal force is what holds us down.

Teed felt that God had revealed to the first six prophets (Adam, Enoch, Noah, Moses, Abraham, and Jesus) only what they (and their followers) were capable of understanding. As the most evolved of the prophets, Teed believed that God would reveal everything to him and, once God had done so, Teed would then usher in the age of Koreshanity.

For Teed, living on the inside of a hollow sphere meant that the universe and everything in it was knowable and finite—all wrapped up in a hollow sphere. Pictures of the earth from space easily tell us his Cellular Cosmogony is wrong and Scripture tells us he was in error with his theology—Jesus had the last word, not Teed! His biggest mistake may have been the same one we often make ourselves: wanting the world and God to be limited, explainable, and understandable.

Although Jesus and Scripture have given us all we need to know, there still remains much that we’ve not been told or that we’ll never understand about God, our existence, eternity, and the universe. None of us truly comprehend how God could speak the universe into existence, can know what we want before we know it ourselves, or see our yesterdays, todays, and tomorrows all at the same time. No prophet can give us a satisfactory explanation as to why bad things happen to good people or evil people prosper while the righteous suffer. How can we possibly truly understand God’s grace, His unlimited love for us, or how God can be one Being containing three persons while remaining only one God? That God is infinite, having neither beginning nor end, is mind boggling!

A universe that is contained in a shell would be far less baffling than one that is continually expanding and infinite in scope! We all want to think that God is understandable, life makes sense and everything is explainable but it isn’t. In spite of Scripture (and even science), there is much that remains incomprehensible and will remain that way during our lifetimes. Teed tried to limit God and His creation to make the inexplicable explainable. God and our existence, however, can’t be nicely wrapped up in a neat package or a closed universe. The good thing for us is that, while fully understanding God may be impossible, knowing, trusting and loving Him is not!

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! … For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. [Romans 11:33,36 (NLT)

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DOING IT RIGHT OR DOING THE RIGHT THING?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE ART OF PERSUASION (Philemon – Part 2)

Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. [Philemon 1:4-6 (MSG)]

brown pelicanPaul’s letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus is a lesson in the subtle art of persuasion. It’s said that we catch more flies with honey than vinegar and Paul illustrates that beautifully. A lot was on the line for the runaway slave Onesimus—if Paul didn’t convince Philemon to forgive him, the man could have been killed or sold to work in the lead mines. And, if Paul’s letter offended Philemon, the new church at Colossae could have suffered. As short as his letter is, I imagine Paul prayed and labored over it a long time.

Paul’s strategy is evident from the first line when he addresses not just Philemon but also Apphia, Archippus, and the entire church. That the letter was to be shared meant that all in the church would know of Paul’s request and Philemon’s response. Philemon is being held accountable for his decision from the first line of the letter.

Wisely, Paul begins with honey and sincerely praises Philemon and thanks him for his love, faith, hospitality and loyalty both to the church and Paul. The great thing about praise is that, while it encourages us, it also challenges us to live up to its words. Paul then tells Philemon that he prays for him so that the generosity that comes from Philemon’s faith will be put into action. Note that Paul’s prayer isn’t that Philemon will do what the apostle asks but that he’ll put his faith into action by doing the right thing.

There’s no doubt that Paul is the one with authority in this relationship and could easily pull rank on Philemon. Remarking favorably on Philemon’s character again, Paul says he knows an order isn’t necessary because his friend knows the right thing to do and so, rather than make a demand, he makes a personal request. As Paul pleads Onesimus’ case, he calls the slave both his child and a beloved brother, calls Philemon his brother and partner, and finishes by calling Onesimus and Philemon brothers. Rather than emphasizing differences in position and sending back a slave, Paul emphasizes their oneness in Christ and sends back a brother. After offering to make restitution by paying Onesimus’ debt, Paul applies gentle pressure by reminding Philemon that he has a debt to Paul (it was the Apostle who brought Philemon to Christ). By mentioning Philemon’s salvation, Paul subtly reminds him of the forgiveness we have in Christ and that Jesus saved our lives by paying a debt that wasn’t His.

Hidden in Paul’s request to prepare a room because he hopes to visit Philemon soon is the notice that Paul will soon have firsthand knowledge of Onesimus’ fate. Paul closes the letter with greetings to Philemon from others in Rome, making it clear that Paul’s request is public knowledge (and yet another reminder that Philemon will be held responsible for his actions).

Although Paul presents his request as a favor, one commentary describes it as the Apostle promising he wouldn’t twist Philemon’s arm but then our hearing the bone crack! While that’s a rather brutal description, it’s probably accurate. Nevertheless, I think of it as an example of how to use tender nudges rather than strong arm tactics. Admittedly, Paul’s letter backed Philemon into a corner, but I don’t think Philemon even knew it. The letter is written so sincerely, humbly, lovingly and gently that it wouldn’t surprise me if Philemon thought forgiving Onesimus was his idea!

The mere existence of this epistle lends credence to the belief that Onesimus was forgiven. Had Philemon not forgiven him, the letter wouldn’t have been copied and circulated throughout the early church. Philemon is thought to have become the bishop of Colossae and to have died a martyr under Nero. There also are records of a bishop in Ephesus named Onesimus that many scholars believe to have been Philemon’s repentant slave. Paul’s faith in both men seems to have been well founded.

With only 25 verses, the letter to Philemon is far shorter than the devotion I’ve written about it. I urge you to read it in both a traditional translation and a contemporary one like The Message. It is a beautiful example of how we, as Christians, should approach resolving differences. It reminds us that the power of gentle persuasion often is greater than the strong-armed power of authority; a humble request is always sweeter than a dictatorial command. Remember, we’ll always catch more flies with honey than vinegar!

Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good. I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. [Philemon 1:20-21 (MSG)]

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