BEYOND REPROACH

Elders must be blameless, the husband of only one wife. Their children must be believers, and must not be open to the accusation of loose living, or being rebellious. This is because an overseer, as one of God’s household managers, must be blameless. [Titus 1:6-7 (NTE)]

yellow-crowned night heronIn my granddaughter’s ethics class, the question was posed, “Should elected officials be held to a higher standard than the population that elected them?” She maintained that everyone should be held to the same high standard and I agreed. We have no right to hold anyone to a higher standard than the one we keep. I added, however, that having taken on the public’s trust, elected officials have an obligation to hold themselves to the highest standards possible.

In Jesus’ day, every community had a group of adult men known for wisdom and maturity called elders who gathered as a kind of village council. When Christian churches came into being, they borrowed this leadership model and elders were appointed for each congregation. Sometimes referred to as bishops or overseers, their duties were to teach and preach, direct the affairs of the church, shepherd the flock, and guard the church from error. The other church office was that of deacon. The deacons assisted the elders which enabled them to give their full attention to prayer and ministry. The qualifications for both elders and deacons were much the same.

Paul gave both Timothy and Titus a list of the qualities necessary for elders and deacons. It’s interesting that Paul wasn’t concerned with their skill sets, talents, or spiritual gifts. Whether they were competent writers, brilliant speakers, accomplished musicians, or wealthy businessmen wasn’t his concern; their personal character was!

The principal requirement was that an elder be anenklētos, often translated as blameless, not accused, above reproach, of unquestionable integrity, or of unimpeachable virtue. For the sake of the church’s good name, the elder’s impeccable reputation was as important as his good character. Perhaps this seems unfair but the early church was a minority and already misunderstood by many. It could easily be smeared by even the hint of a scandal. Those who represented it had to be irreproachable.

Paul then spelled out the characteristics necessary for an elder. In his personal life, the elder was to be discrete, self-controlled, clear-headed, fair-minded, and not arrogant, argumentative, violent, or quick-tempered. In their homes, elders were to have a well-ordered household and healthy family relationships. As for the elder’s social life—he was to be hospitable. This was an important aspect of his calling since churches often met in homes and travelling evangelists and teachers were housed and fed by members of the church. Moreover, an elder was not to indulge in riotous living. Financially, the elder was to be a good steward of God’s gifts, trustworthy with money, and not greedy. Spiritually, elders were to be mature in their faith, virtuous, and knowledgeable in the Word of God. Their lives were to be an example for others to follow.

These requirements bring me back to a slightly rephrased version of the question posed in my grand’s ethics class: should we hold those in authority (such as elected officials, pastors or church council members) to a higher standard than our own? Are our own standards as high as those Paul purposed for the elders and deacons of the early church? They should be. As representative of Jesus, we all should strive to be the sort of people Paul would want to serve as elders and deacons: people above reproach! Let us remember that public perception of Christ’s followers and the church is as important today as it was in the 1st century!

Since I recently was appointed to our church board, I also return to my addendum to the grand’s answer. As a board member and a representative of our church, I must hold myself to the highest possible standard. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that any of us can be the kind of people described by Paul: people who shine like stars in this dark and troubled world!

There must be no grumbling and disputing in anything you do. That way, nobody will be able to fault you, and you’ll be pure and spotless children of God in the middle of a twisted and depraved generation. You are to shine among them like lights in the world, clinging on to the word of life. [Philippians 2:14-16a (NTE)]

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UNARTICULATED PRAYERS

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. [Romans 8:26-27 (NLT)]

peony - field bindweedI couldn’t tell if my vague sense of unrest was because something was missing or there was something I needed to do. I couldn’t articulate it but I knew it was there and, as the days went by, the sense of disquiet continued. I simply asked God to reveal whatever was troubling me; perplexed, I didn’t know what else to pray. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit did!

A week later, when I was asked to serve on the church board, I realized my unrest was because I needed to step out of my comfort zone and do something more to grow both as a Christian and a writer. I finally understood Paul’s words that the Holy Spirit will express our prayers for us when we don’t have the words. When the pastor asked me to pray about the offer, he didn’t know that I’d been praying about it for a week without knowing I was. In fact, the board position was the answer to my unarticuated prayers!

Last fall, a young musician in Kentucky felt a longing to deepen his faith through music. While looking for music ministry positions in his home state, he found an opening not far from the Florida town where he frequently performs on weekends. He certainly didn’t ask God to lead him to a new church that meets in a park in southwest Florida but that’s where the Spirit led him. Now he’s leading worship at our church. Was that coincidence or did the Holy Spirit speak for him? His new position answered his unspoken prayers (as well as our spoken ones for a worship leader).

Several years ago, my friend Lynn moved to a town where she knew no one. Away from family, with two active toddlers, and a husband whose business kept him away for weeks on end, she was overwhelmed by motherhood’s demands. While talking to a friend 1,000 miles away about her loneliness and need for a break, the phone call was cut short by a knock at the door. Standing there was the answer to Lynn’s unuttered prayers: a girl who lived nearby and was seeking a mother’s helper/babysitting job!

As it turned out, Lynn was the answer to this girl’s unvoiced prayers, as well. The teen’s mother was gone and she lived with her father and four brothers in a house heavy with testosterone. Sports reigned supreme there and no one talked about things important to teen-age girls or could help her with make-up, hair, or fashion. That, however, was right up Lynn’s alley and she was the perfect surrogate “aunt” to guide the girl through adolescence; Lynn even taught her how to cook and sew. I doubt this teen had prayed about finding a refuge from sports central any more than Lynn had prayed for someone who offered companionship and purpose along with babysitting. Yet, God heard their prayers!

We often are in the dark when it comes to our needs and how to pray but those unarticulated prayers may be the best ones. The Holy Spirit utters wordless prayers on our behalf and intercedes for us according to God’s will. Even when we don’t know what or how to pray, we can remain confident that God will arrange circumstances to work out beautifully in a way that we’d never imagine. He has a wonderful way of knowing what it is we need long before we do!

In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart. [John Bunyan]

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. [Romans 8:28 (NLT)]

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COMPOUND INTEREST

Plant the good seeds of righteousness, and you will harvest a crop of love. [Hosea 10:12 (NLT)]

sawtooth sunflowerIn a nutshell, compound interest is getting interest on interest; when it’s on money you have, your investment keeps growing. When it’s on money you owe, however, you pay interest on your interest and end up deeper in debt. The economics lesson is because of C.S. Lewis’s words that “Good and evil both increase at compound interest.” While Lewis then switches metaphors from the bank to the battlefield, Scripture often uses the metaphor of sowing and reaping for the same concept of the exponential growth of both good and evil.

After planting just one sunflower, for example, we’d get between 1,000 and 1,400 seeds per head. If each of those seeds were planted, we’d have between one and 1.96 million sunflower seeds the next year and, if we planted those, we’d have between one and 2.7 billion sunflower seeds the third year. If those were perennial sunflowers, we’d also get seeds from the previous years’ plants! Like compound interest, that’s exponential growth (which is what happens with good thoughts and actions).

Of course, if just one Canada thistle seed got planted in that field of sunflowers, it could produce as many as 5,300 seeds that first season! Those thistle seeds would get dispersed by the wind and sow themselves far and wide. Should those seeds take root, more than 28 million new thistle seeds could be blowing through our fields the second year, with the potential of more than 148 billion seeds the following one. With that kind of exponential growth, our beautiful field of sunflowers soon would be overrun by thistles. Worse, those thistles would have spread into our neighbors’ fields. Noxious weeds and evil have a way of doing that!

Since thistles also sprout from their roots, that one thistle could grow into a six-foot thistle patch in a year. Turning to Lewis’ battle metaphor, that loss of acreage is similar to a general losing an asset like a seaport. Worse, because thistle seeds can remain viable in the soil for up to twenty years, like an enemy who’s patiently waited for our troops to get careless, those weeds can spring up years later when least expected. Just as the farmer has to be vigilant in his fight to keep thistles from overtaking his fields, the general must keep his troops battle-ready.

The subject, however, is neither military science nor agriculture; it’s spiritual warfare. Generals and farmers don’t want to cede territory to their enemies, nor do we. Our battle isn’t against armed troops or thistles; it’s against evil. Rather than tanks or herbicides, we need obedience to God’s word and the power of the Holy Spirit! When we act as would Jesus, by sowing seeds of goodness, it’s like planting another sunflower in the garden of life. But, every time we follow our own sinful desires, instead of losing a field to thistles, we lose ground to Satan. In our every act, either a seed of good or evil is planted and, like a thistle seed, any seed of evil is one seed too many!

Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible. [From “Mere Christianity” by C.S. Lewis]

Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. [Galatians 6:7-9 (NLT)]

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ONLY ONE MASTER (Part 2 – Luke 16:19-31)

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Luke 16:13 (NLT)]

primrose willowBecause the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the only parable in which names are used, some people in the early church believed that it was a real-life incident. Whether a true story or a parable is of no consequence because its lessons remain the same.

What the parable doesn’t tell us is that the poor automatically go to heaven and the rich to hell. After all, Abraham was wealthy and yet he’s there in Paradise dining with Lazarus! The angels didn’t carry Lazarus to Abraham simply because he was poor. The name Jesus chose to give him tells us Lazarus is there because he was godly. His name means “whom God helps” and Lazarus knew his help was in God. He’s named in this story because, like Abraham, he was known to God.

Just as Lazarus wasn’t carried to Abraham simply because he was poor, the rich man wasn’t condemned to his fiery torment simply because of his wealth. Although the man dressed in expensive purple cloth and fine linen, lived in luxury, and ate sumptuously every day, there was no sin in that. There’s no reason to suspect that he was a dishonest tax-collector, a double-dealing business man, a corrupt judge, or a thief and we’re not told that he beat his wife or abused his servants.

That the rich man knew Lazarus by name is what convicted him of sin. He knew Lazarus and his plight and yet ignored the poor man every time he walked in and out of his house. It was not the man’s wealth that condemned him; it was his hardness of heart. Although the Torah was filled with admonitions to care for the poor and oppressed, the rich man deliberately turned a blind eye to the suffering man at his doorway. We never know the rich man’s name because God didn’t know him and he didn’t know God!

To the first century Jew, riches were considered a sign of God’s blessings and poverty a sign of His judgment. Rather than a sign of blessing, however, Jesus taught that riches test man’s faithfulness in stewardship. Just a few verses before telling this story, Jesus gave a clear warning that we cannot serve both God and money. What isn’t said but is implied is that we can serve God with our money! Neither wealth nor poverty determine salvation; we are saved by grace through faith. Nevertheless, our faith is demonstrated by how we live and use whatever wealth with which we’ve been blessed.

Christ did not object to the riches of the rich man but to his impiety, infidelity, pride and cruelty. … [People] to not need to fear riches but vices. They should not fear wealth, but avarice. They should not be afraid of creaturely goods, but of greed. Let them possess wealth…with faith. Let them have it, and possess it, and not be possessed by it. [Augustine, Sermon 2999e.5]

When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required. [Luke 12:48 (NLT)]

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KNOWLEDGE AND WISDOM

Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take. Don’t be impressed with your own wisdom. Instead, fear the Lord and turn away from evil. [Proverbs 3:5-7 (NLT)]

white ibis - juvenileAfter his wife complained about the roaches that had invaded their garden and begged him to destroy their underground nest, a Brazilian man poured gasoline into the hole he believed to be the source of the infestation and then tossed in lit matches! Within seconds, a massive explosion destroyed his yard while his home security camera captured the entire thing. “I had no idea that this could happen!” he said. Although the man did destroy the roaches, he destroyed his yard in the process! I’m not sure where he got his bright idea but I would guess that his Smartphone was involved. A quick search with mine told me that pouring gasoline on a roach colony is an effective way to eliminate the pests. Assuming a certain amount of common sense among its readers, however, the site had no warning about the explosive nature of gasoline vapors!

According to Apple, we pull out our smartphones some 80 times a day; I suspect many of those times we’re consulting Google. While our phones give us easy access to an extraordinary amount of information, they don’t make us any smarter; they just make us think we’re smarter than we really are. Long before the internet, Solomon warned us about being impressed with our own wisdom. Nowadays, knowledge is abundant but true wisdom is scarce!

Proverbs is a treasure trove of Biblical wisdom. Written mostly by Solomon, the book stresses the importance of godly living so that people will ”live disciplined and successful lives” and do “what is right, just, and fair.”[1:3] At least six different Hebrew words are translated as wisdom in Proverbs and the first one of those is chokmah [1:2]. Used 41 times in Proverbs, this Hebrew word also referred to the technical skills and abilities used in doing things. God endowed the weavers, goldsmiths, architects, and other artisans who fashioned items for the Tabernacle with chokmah. Rather than theoretical knowledge, this wisdom is a practical application of that knowledge; it is making the right choices at the right time and in the right way.

The five other Hebrew words used in Proverbs are binah (understanding, comprehension) leb (heart), ormah (craftiness, prudence, shrewdness), sakal (prudence, common sense) and sekel (insight). None of those words have anything to do with the knowledge of facts—they are about understanding, evaluating, and discerning how to use knowledge. Wisdom is skill, expertise and competence in understanding how life really works and how to achieve positive results. It is a keen insight into life and the ways of dealing with life’s problems. It’s been said that “Knowledge knows that a tomato is a fruit but wisdom doesn’t put it in a fruit salad.” It could also be said that knowledge knows that both gasoline and fire will kill roaches but wisdom doesn’t mix the two! Let us be wise in our use of the vast array of knowledge that lies at our fingertips!

The decisions we make are either wise or foolish and Proverbs makes it clear that the beginning of wisdom lies in fear of the Lord. While it’s easy to get information on line, true wisdom comes from God! Granted, Scripture doesn’t specifically warn us about dropping matches into a gasoline-filled hole, but Proverbs 14:16 tells us, “The wise are cautious and avoid danger; fools plunge ahead with reckless confidence.” That the Brazilian man also posted his folly on line aptly illustrates two other proverbs: “Wise people think before they act; fools don’t—and even brag about their foolishness,” [13:16] and “The wise don’t make a show of their knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness.”[12:23]

Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom. [Charles Spurgeon]

Joyful is the person who finds wisdom, the one who gains understanding. For wisdom is more profitable than silver, and her wages are better than gold. Wisdom is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her. [Proverbs 3:13-15 (NLT)]

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THE PLEDGE

A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. [Numbers 30:2 (NLT)]

Every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to me. The people will declare, “The Lord is the source of all my righteousness and strength.” [Isaiah 45:23b-24 (NLT)]

green heronEvery Tuesday, we begin our afternoon Bible study with prayer and by saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible. The words we use are attributed to Homer Grice, a Southern Baptist minister, who wrote them for Baptist Vacation Bible Schools in 1925. He combined two verses from Psalm 119 into this simple vow and versions of it continue to be used by Vacation Bible and Sunday Schools, Christian homeschoolers, and even adult Bible studies. Because it reminded me of elementary school and standing by my desk with my hand across my heart, starting class with this pledge seemed rather childish at first. Once I carefully considered the words, however, I realized that saying this pledge always reminds me that the Bible is at the center of a Christian’s devotion to Jesus Christ. It was in Him that the Word became flesh and, through Scripture, God continues to speak to us today.

A pledge is a formalized promise but pledging allegiance to the Bible means more than simply promising to read it. The promise of allegiance indicates our loyalty and obedience to God’s holy word. The Bible is unlike every other book ever written—ones written to entertain, inform, explain, improve, or motivate us. Its author is God and its words are there to transform us! The Bible is more than words; it is the Word—the living breath of God. This simple pledge of allegiance reflects the importance of Scripture and its vital role in the life of a believer.

The pledge’s words mean that we honor and respect the Bible; we will let its words govern our thoughts, words, and actions. We vow that God’s words will be a lamp to light our way in this dark and difficult world so that we don’t get lost or step off His path. We promise to hide the Bible’s words in our hearts to keep us from sin (just as they did when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness). This pledge reminds us that studying God’s Word is a matter of the heart with these words: “I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word. May it be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and may I hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.”

I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. … Give me understanding and I will obey your instructions; I will put them into practice with all my heart. …Your word is a lamp to guide my feet and a light for my path. [Psalm 119:11,34,105 (NLT)]

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