Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quality communication

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone" (Mark 7:14).

Communication is important; without communication, relationships can’t grow. We have all kinds of tools to help with communication—phones and the Internet, texting and twitter, distant learning and teleconferencing. We have hand-held electronic devices that translate one language into another. With satellites in orbit, we can instantly communicate with people almost anywhere.

Given all this, you’d think that communication would be getting easier. Sadly, though, it’s not. Gone are the days when two friends might while away the hours with a conversation that could wander from politics to sports, from international news to religion, from social problems to literature. These days, everyone is in a rush—there isn’t time to sit down with a friend and talk about life over a cold drink or two.

Time was, politicians could argue about what was best for the country, but at the end of the day most of them would negotiate legislation that both sides could live with. But not any more. These days, politics has become so rigidly partisan that few Democrats or Republicans have the desire or the courage to reach across the aisle and work towards compromise.

When newspapers and magazines were our primary source of information, a writer had the space to explain complicated issues thoroughly. But most people these days get their news from television or the Internet; instead of thoughtful analysis, they are more likely to get controversial ‘sound bites’ that provoke strong emotion but don’t tell the whole story.

We need quality communication. We need to spend time listening and thinking things through before opening our mouths. We need to understand that there are times to fight, but there are also times to negotiate. We need to be flexible enough to accept new ideas. Unless we do these things, we talk at each other instead of to each other.

Most of all, we need to communicate with Jesus. We need to learn from Him by listening to His words; we need to share our problems with Him through prayer. Jesus specializes in communication and relationships. Give Him your time, and He will prove it to you.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Christmas is coming--reach out and share it!

Then the angel of the LORD spoke very solemnly to Jeshua and said, "This is what the LORD Almighty says: If you follow my ways and carefully serve me, then you will be given authority over my Temple and its courtyards…Listen to me, O Jeshua the high priest, and all you other priests. You are symbols of things to come. Soon I am going to bring my servant, the Branch. Now look at the jewel I have set before Jeshua, a single stone with seven facets. I will engrave an inscription on it, says the LORD Almighty, and I will remove the sins of this land in a single day. And on that day, says the LORD Almighty, each of you will invite your neighbor to sit with you peacefully under your own grapevine and fig tree" (Zechariah 3:6-10).

The Advent season points our thoughts towards Christmas. Actually, merchandisers have probably had you thinking about Christmas for quite a while by now. But the most important element of your holiday planning is this—how will you greet the Lord on Christmas Eve? Will you come to worship the baby Jesus with family or friends or by yourself? Or will you bring a guest to kneel with you at the manger’s side and gaze with wonder at the face of God?

Bringing visitors with you to God’s house is rarely easier than at Christmas time. During the holidays, people are more open to religious messages. Over the next few weeks, people are friendlier and more willing to chat with strangers. Christmas is a wonderful opportunity to introduce an unbeliever to the Savior.

Everyone reading this knows someone who doesn’t go to church. Every one of you has seen a person at work or down the road that is a stranger to you, whose church affiliation, if any, is unknown. This Christmas, God has given you the opportunity to lead someone new towards His waiting arms. But I know already that most of you don’t want to.

One reason why is that our society has become terrified of personal contact. Some people won’t offer a welcoming touch because they fear being accused of sexual harassment. Others avoid talking to strangers because they worry about being attacked. Many guard their privacy fiercely out of concern over identity theft.

I don’t deny that the world is a dangerous place, filled with criminals of every stripe. I understand the need to teach our children to be cautious around strangers, and for women who are alone to be aware of their surroundings. But frankly, I think that we are becoming too paranoid. Everywhere you look there are surveillance cameras. Do they really make you feel more secure, or do they just stir up worry about why someone else thought they were necessary?

Jesus warned His followers to live cautiously: I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard against men (Matthew 10:16-17). But we must not let caution raise barriers between us. Jesus has given every believer an important task—we are to share His love with others. How can we share the love of Christ if we are afraid to talk with strangers? How can we demonstrate His love if we are constantly on the defensive?

When we let fear isolate us from each other, the devil smiles—he is pleased, because He knows that we are not trusting Christ to protect us. Psalm 46 illustrates the kind of trust God looks for in our hearts: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.

Jesus has given us work to do—reach out and offer His love to others. Certainly He will support us in doing His will! So don’t be afraid to speak with strangers. In 1st Thessalonians chapter 2, Paul reveals the reason a Christian reaches out to others: We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. Don’t pull back from offering a hand to someone in need. Be willing to open up and share how Jesus has freed you from guilt and depression and fear. Be cautious, but don’t be afraid—that stranger might one day thank you in heaven for reaching out to him now.

I know that opening a conversation with someone you don’t know can be challenging. Our modern world, for all its advances, actually helps us keep each other at arm’s length. Television. Cell phones. The Internet. These three forms of technology are uniting the world, yet at the same time they are isolating us from each other. Reporters can show you live what is happening in an isolated African village. By going online, you can enter a chat room and communicate with people who live in several different countries, all at the same time. With so many people having cell phones, you don’t even need to know where somebody is in order to speak with him. Yet this technology also has a drawback—increasingly, it is replacing face-to-face contact between people.

There are many who are shy. For them, telecommunication can become a safety blanket. It is much easier to watch TV alone at home than to go out on a date. You can log on to a chat room and read what other people are saying without revealing anything about yourself, or you can assume a fake identity with no one being the wiser. Modern technology allows shy people to stay comfortably trapped in their isolation.

But it isn’t only the shy who are affected—the frantic pace of modern life is making it harder for families and friends to spend time together in the same room. Telecommunication allows parents to talk to children they never eat with, and share gossip with friends who work different shifts or have moved far away. Modern technology allows busy people to fit their relationships into their hectic schedules.

But how can this be healthy? Is text messaging really superior to a comforting hug? Don’t we demonstrate how much family and friends mean to us by arranging our schedule around them, instead of giving them a few minutes on the cell phone while we are in the supermarket? Jesus wasn’t content to just watch us from heaven—on the very first Christmas He came here to walk with us, eat with us, hold us in His arms. And when He returned to His Father’s side after dying for our sins, He did not leave us alone, He gave us the Church—a group of people who keep gathering in His name to support each other with His love!

Don’t use your television or cell phone or Internet connection to satisfy your need for human contact. Use the TV for getting the news. Reserve your cell phone for emergencies. Use the Internet to do research. But make time in your schedule for face-to-face contact with people, both the ones you love and those who are presently strangers to you. Jesus did not ‘phone in’ His love for you.

Of course, there is another hurdle we have to overcome—we value our privacy. In fact, we can get fanatical about our privacy. We won’t let phone directories publish our numbers. Hospital staff are prevented from sharing any information about a patient’s health with visitors.

Now I realize the importance of protecting financial information so that criminals cannot misuse it. I understand wanting to avoid the annoying calls of telemarketers. But look at the problems caused by having an unlisted phone number—old friends may have no way of finding you after years of separation. And how can a doctor or hospital reach you in an emergency if they are treating a loved one who is unconscious?

All of us are interconnected with others—our family members, those we work with, the people in our booster club. We support them and they depend on us. You have a responsibility to the other people on your bowling team. You have a responsibility to your fellow church members. Life is a network of connections between people who depend on each other. Excessive privacy can break down these lines of mutual support. If no one knows that you are sick, how can they pray for you or visit you in the hospital? If you can’t be contacted by phone, how will your friends let you know that an activity has been rescheduled? Even worse, there are times when we want to hide from our responsibilities, and privacy makes such hiding possible. How many of your friends avoid people they don’t want to deal with by getting a cell phone and not giving out their number?

Thankfully, God does not hide Himself from us. He knows that we depend on Him constantly, whether we realize it or not. And so He is always attentive to our needs—Jesus said, My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working (John 5:7). God makes Himself available to us 24/7. We can pray to Him any time, anywhere; we can receive His Words of promise, reassurance, and hope whenever we open a copy of His Bible.

Don’t let a desire for privacy isolate you from others; remember that God said, it is not good for the man to be alone (Genesis 2:18).

We live in a mobile society. Our communities are constantly fluctuating as people we’ve known for years move away and are replaced with strangers. For some long-time residents, the passage of time can make you feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood. But these changes are actually opportunities provided by God.

Strangers at work and living down the street—these individuals can bring good things to your life. What skills do they have to share with the community? Everyone is a creation of God, uniquely gifted by the Lord to carry out a duty of His design. But you’ll never find out what a newcomer can bring to the table if you don’t get to know him.

Even more importantly, each new face that enters your life presents a fresh opportunity for church work. Sure, you can put money in the collection plate to support a missionary in some faraway place. But that’s so antiseptic and impersonal. There is nothing more exciting than the opportunity to share your faith in Christ with someone who has never heard the Gospel before. When you meet a stranger, it is a golden opportunity for you to personally carry out the Great Commission: make disciples of all nations. In America, every community is a hodgepodge of many nations, all within convenient reach of your hands and voice.

No matter where you live or work, there are strangers all around you. What wonderful possibilities they present! Why should you be content with a small circle of old friends when your life could be enriched by adding someone new and interesting? Every stranger you meet offers such potential. And don’t forget that God tells us to reach out to strangers, because by loving them we show our love for Him. Illustrating the Day of Judgment, Jesus shares the following words: Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home…I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you were doing it to me!' (Matthew 25:34-40) And listen to what Hebrews chapter 13 tells us: Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it! Each stranger in your life is a potential blessing—speak to them, get to know them, and invite them to meet the Savior before this year is out.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wanting to be the quarterback

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" (1 Corinthians 12:21)

When you watch a football game, all eyes are on the quarterback. Even though people on the sidelines call in plays, the quarterback has final say over what happens at the line of scrimmage. His skills and judgment are closely scrutinized; if the team loses a game, it is usually the quarterback who takes the blame.

Of course, it’s not really fair. A quarterback can’t execute well if he is not part of a good team. He needs linemen to protect him and receivers to score points. He needs a good defensive unit to get the ball back in his hands as soon as possible. A football team needs all sorts of players, each with their own particular set of skills. Yet in spite of this fact, quarterbacks tend to get most of the attention.

We all crave some time in the spotlight. We appreciate it when people come to us for advice. We like to be in charge of things, to have others depend on us and follow our orders. No one wants to be a nameless face working in a cubicle; no one wants to feel like a small gear in a big machine.

The trouble is, there are only a few openings for quarterback. Most football players have to settle for other positions on the team. And it’s the same everywhere in life. Only a few people get to run things; most of us have to be content going through life under someone else’s leadership.

But kickers are important, too. So are centers and defensive ends and line backers. A team needs all sorts of players to be successful. So it is in life. Each of us has an important role to play, even if it’s not glamorous. We might prefer a different position in the lineup, but God is our coach, and He puts us where our skills can best be put to use.

A good coach is indispensable. It’s the coach who teaches the players to work together as a team. It’s the coach who puts together winning game plans. It’s the coach who understands each player’s strengths and weaknesses, and positions them to be the most effective. That’s what God does with each of us. No matter what role in life the Lord has assigned to you, you can be sure that He has given you an important place in His game plan.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A new start

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him--and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well" (Luke 17:11-19a).

In today’s Gospel lesson, we are introduced to ten men afflicted with leprosy. Leprosy is a terrible, incurable disease. It shows up on the skin as a dry spot in which there is no sense of heat, cold, or touch. The disease infects nerve endings and cripples them, causing loss of muscle strength, loss of sensation, and loss of circulation. It leads to clawed hands and deformity of the feet, and may paralyze muscles of the face, eye, and neck. Large eroding ulcers can form, causing loss of fingers and toes; sometimes the condition of the limb is so bad that amputation is necessary. Lepers occasionally suffer from bouts of fever, but the disease mainly results in ever-worsening disability and disfiguration.

Leprosy is not a highly infectious disease; long term exposure is needed for it to spread. Most adults appear to be immune, but children are very susceptible. It is a slow disease; it may be years before an infected child starts showing any symptoms, and many grow into adulthood before the leprosy is recognized. A baby born to a leprous mother has little chance of escaping infection unless it is separated from her; a father is almost bound to infect some members of his family if he lives with them. Tragically, the fear of separation makes families conceal the disease and thereby increase the danger of its spread.

Leprosy is passed on by living closely with others, and it is incurable. For these reasons, Jewish law was very clear—the leper had to live in isolation for the rest of his life. Lepers would camp in caves and cemeteries—any place that was off the beaten path. And lepers would often gather together, regardless of nationality or religious background—loneliness and misery makes brothers of us all.

Such was the group in today’s Gospel lesson. In a desolate area bordering Samaria and Galilee, men from both nations had gathered for companionship and mutual support. They had lost everything—family, home, and employment. Worst of all, they were not permitted to bring the annual sacrifice to God’s house and hear the announcement that their sins were forgiven. They were miserable and without hope.

Then Jesus came walking down the road. At last, a glimmer of hope! They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" Obviously, these men still had friends who cared about them. Those friends from the nearby town had heard the reports about Jesus, of how He spoke about God’s love and demonstrated its power through mighty miracles of healing. So when word came that Jesus was approaching, the lepers came close—not close enough to break the law that protected everyone’s health, but close enough for their desperate voices to be heard.

Jesus did hear. Filled with love and pity, our Lord replied: "Go, show yourselves to the priests." God’s ancient law, given through Moses, gave instructions on many things, including leprosy and how to respond to it. When the ten men arrived at the Temple, the priests would use God’s law to verify that the leprosy was gone, a step necessary in order for them to be allowed to return home.

The ten men took Jesus at His word—they immediately set off for Jerusalem, and as they went, they were cleansed. They listened to Jesus and responded in faith—faith that was rewarded with healing along the way. Jesus makes this clear when He says, your faith has made you well.

These men were given a chance at a new beginning in the fullest sense of the word. There is a saying that ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’ These men would have a new appreciation for the members of their family, whom they had not eaten with or held in their arms for such a very long time. When they returned to work, gone would be any grumbling about long hours and low pay. And they would be absolutely thrilled to attend worship freely, to hear of God’s promises and to have their sins forgiven!

I’d like you to notice something significant. We don’t know anything about these men, but we can make a few educated guesses. Leprosy was a sentence of death; when a leper was sent away, no one expected him to return. And we have no idea how long some of these men had been living in isolation. So what did they have to look forward to, after Jesus healed them? If they were employed in town, would their bosses have held their jobs for them? Not likely! Would these men still have a house awaiting their return? Not necessarily—a poverty-stricken wife might have had to sell her home in order to make ends meet. Would the former lepers have family waiting to welcome them back? Maybe—but with a husband seemingly condemned to death in the wilderness, some wives might have gone ahead and remarried, while in other cases family members might have died or moved away. There was no guarantee that these ten men could just pick up their lives where they had left off.

These men were given a second chance at life, but Jesus did not restore everything they might have lost. Instead, our Lord gave them a chance to take stock of their lives. Had one of them been a criminal in the past? Years isolated as a leper might change one’s perspective on living outside the law. Was one of them a cruel man who used to beat his wife and terrorize his children? With the new start made possible by Jesus, perhaps he started treating his family better. Maybe some of them were not very religious; perhaps their devotion to God was squashed by a passion for money, political influence, or simply having a good time. Would years of living death change their priorities?

We don’t know the backgrounds of these ten men. We don’t know how years living as outcasts changed their view of things. But this we do know—for nine of them, God was not their highest priority. They were in a rush to be reunited with family, check out the household finances, throw a party to celebrate their miraculous recovery. But where was the thankfulness to Jesus for this new start? Only one returned to praise Christ for the gift of a new life.

This incident points right at us—at every Christian who has had sins forgiven. Sin is our leprosy—an incurable disease we got from our parents.

Just as leprosy eats away at the ability to feel pain, sin eats away at our ability to feel guilt. The longer we live, the more insensitive to sin we become—evil behavior that used to bother us becomes increasingly tolerable, even acceptable. Sin makes it possible for us to hurt others and feel little or no guilt for doing so.

Just as leprosy disfigures its victims, so does sin make us ugly—ugly because of the things we think, say, and do. Even the most beautiful of people make themselves unattractive when they spend all night drinking and snorting cocaine; it is hard to see anything pleasant in a face when its mouth is filled with profanity and hatred. Sin ruins our vision, making good things look boring and evil things look like fun.

Just as leprosy causes the body to decay and die, sin constantly eats away at our souls and leads to eternal dying in hell. Jesus said, out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what make a man unclean (Matthew 15:19-20). In fact, sin makes us dead inside, as Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter two: you were dead in your transgressions and sins. Sin is the bride of death.

God gave us birth—He brought us into this world to be a part of His family. But sin isolates us from God and each other, and on our own we cannot survive for long—the leprosy of sin is fatal. So Jesus came to us—He listens as we cry "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" In response, He directs us to God’s house, and on the way He cleanses us—cleanses us of sin by the blood He shed on the cross as He died in our place. And when we arrive at church, we hear the Good News--your faith has made you well. That’s the cure for sin—faith in Jesus as the one who saves us.

But what happens then? By forgiving our sins, Jesus has given us a new lease on life. But do we appreciate this new start? Do we look at the members of our families and say, "I appreciate them so much—I want to treat them better"? Do we look at the sins we’ve committed and grow sick at the thought of repeating that kind of disgusting behavior? Or do we treat repentance like the person who takes cholesterol medication but doesn’t change his eating habits? Does the new chance offered by Jesus really change our priorities, or do we leave church and rush back to living life the way we always have? Jesus has forgiven your sins, thereby healing you of the rot in your soul; does gratitude move you to make Jesus more important than anything else in your life, important enough that thanking Him and praising Him is foremost on your mind?

Jesus said, Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37-38). He also said, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24). The Son of God died that you might live. Do you show your thankfulness by singing God’s praises in church every chance you get? Does gratitude prompt you to read the Bible regularly? Do you demonstrate your thankfulness through what you put in the collection plate? Do you honor Christ’s love for you by going to Him in prayer for guidance before making important decisions?

When Jesus enables us to start over, it is an opportunity to look at life differently—that is what repentance is all about. We don’t ask for mercy so we can keep on sinning—that would be like an alcoholic who has a successful liver transplant and celebrates by getting drunk. We know that we cannot stop sinning until we die, but repentance is about changing our attitude towards sin. When we are truly repentant, we reject our sins as unnatural and deadly to our spiritual health instead of embracing them like an old dear friend. Repentance is about examining our lives, thanking Jesus for what is good while asking His help to rid us of the bad.

Are you one of the nine lepers who went away cured, but had no time to show Jesus gratitude for His wonderful gift? I pray that thankfulness will move you as it did the Samaritan, who, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. May you be filled with joy at the new start Jesus gives you through His blood, and may that joy cause you to fall at Jesus’ feet and thank Him with all your heart.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When God seems to treat us harshly

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:8).

People often wonder why God lets problems come into their lives. Of course, none of us can read God’s mind. But the following story offers one possible explanation.

A man was taking a tour of a famous pottery shop. As he looked into one of the workrooms, he saw something going on that puzzled him. The potter in the room was sitting next to a large mound of clay. Every now and then, he took a large mallet and smacked the lump of clay with it. Curious, the visitor asked "Why do you do that?’

The potter replied, "Wait a bit, sir, and watch it." So the visitor waited patiently, and soon he was surprised to see the lump of clay start moving. It heaved and trembled, and small bubbles formed on the surface. "Now, sir, you can see," the potter smiled. "I could never shape the clay into a vase if these air bubbles were in it. Therefore, I gradually beat them out."

We are like that lump of clay. We are filled with potential; God can make something wonderful out of us. But we are also filled with flaws that must be gotten rid of. We are weak because of arrogance; we are quick to assume that we are right and everyone else is wrong. We are weak because of selfishness; we look to our own interests instead of concerning ourselves with the needs of others. We are weak because of pride; we lose our temper when we think that others are not giving us the respect we deserve.

These are flaws that must be dealt with before God can make us into something useful and attractive. But our flaws are hard to drive out; they are deep-seated and we don’t like changing our ways. So there are times when we force God to use stinging blows as He works to improve us. He is only trying to force air bubbles out of stubborn clay, but we react with surprise and accuse Him of not treating us with love. At such times, it is important to remember what the book of Hebrews chapter twelve says: God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In God We Trust

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD (Psalm 33:12).

"In God we trust." This motto appears on all our currency. But do you know how those words ended up there?

In November of 1861, a farmer in Maryland sent a letter to Salmon P. Chase, Secretary of the Treasury. The letter said that since America claimed to be made up of God-fearing Christians, some mention of the Lord should appear on our currency.

Secretary Chase referred the letter to James Pollock, director of the U.S. Mint. Pollock loved the idea and came up with two mottoes: "Our Country, Our God" and "God Our Trust." Secretary Chase then had the matter presented to Congress in 1862, but nothing was done about it. The idea was brought back up the next year, but once again nothing happened.

At that time, America was in the grip of the Civil War. The national spirit was taking a beating and morale was low. Realizing this, Secretary Chase made one last appeal in 1864. He offered "God Our Trust" for the proposed motto, saying "It is taken from our national hymn, The Star Spangled Banner, and is a sentiment familiar to every citizen of our country. It has thrilled millions of American freemen. The time is propitious. Now in this time of national peril, our strength and salvation must be of God."

Secretary Chase won his plea. Congress authorized the coining of a two-cent piece to be stamped with the words "In God We Trust." The following year, on March 3rd 1865, the Director of the Mint was authorized to place this new motto on all gold and silver coins. And so our currency reflected the words of Francis Scott Key who wrote, "Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: 'In God is our trust.' "

In a time of civil war, Americans realized how much they needed the grace of God to preserve our nation. It is the same today; our land is threatened by terrorists and criminals, economic troubles and social unrest. Now more than ever, we need to rely on God to preserve our nation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Hatred or love?

You have heard that our ancestors were told, ‘You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.’ But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell (Matthew 5:21-22).

With these words, Jesus dramatically shows us that the Commandment you shall not kill goes far beyond the crime of taking another person’s life. Today we will take up Jesus’ challenge to consider just how far-reaching this commandment of God truly is.

What lies at the root of murder? What is the emotional motivation behind the desire to end another person’s life? I think that murders happen because the killer views his victim as an obstacle that must be removed. A jealous wife kills her husband’s mistress to remove the obstacle blocking her from her husband’s love. A thief kills a store clerk to remove the obstacle blocking him from the money in the cash register. An abused teen kills his father to remove the obstacle blocking him from having a happy childhood. In every case of murder, the killer views his victim as a problem that cannot be resolved in any other way except by violence.

The problem, then, lies with the perception of other people as obstacles, as problems that must be overcome by whatever means are necessary. A person with a killer’s mentality does not concern himself with other people as human beings; he does not wonder how they feel, what their needs are, what their dreams may be. He does not wonder why the other person opposes letting him get his way—all he knows is that the other person is being a nuisance to him.

Of course, most people are not murderers. But we have all been guilty of reducing other people, in our minds, to nothing more than obstacles that have gotten in our way. When we regard people as things, we try to get them out of our way by using techniques that don’t respect them as persons. If we are at a meeting where the decision is not going our way, it is tempting to undercut a person opposing us by suggesting that he doesn’t know what he is talking about—in essence, calling him an ‘idiot’. We feel that we can win if we make our opponent look as if his opinions cannot be trusted. We see this kind of behavior all the time in political campaigns.

Besides discrediting someone, another popular technique is to intimidate them into allowing us to have our way. We see this on the playground when a child sees a group of bullies do something wrong, and they tell him not to squeal or they’ll beat him up. A more subtle, adult version of this behavior, is to use emotional blackmail on someone. Have you ever used the line, "If you loved me...?" Implied in this threat is that, if you don’t do what I want, being married to me is not going to be enjoyable. In the office, this can take the form of "do this for me, and I’ll see what I can do about that promotion that you’ve wanted." In each case, a person has been forced to knuckle under if they want to avoid some sort of future harm.

A third technique for removing people who we see as obstacles is to try and get them put somewhere where their words and deeds can no longer affect us. The old Soviet Union was infamous for sending political protesters to places where no one could hear their challenge to the government. But we can do this at work by nominating people we disagree with for job positions where their decisions can no longer affect us. A sneaky wife could suggest that her husband work longer hours at the office or join his friends for frequent nights out, in order to prevent him from noticing that she is having an affair.

Jesus would compare all of these behaviors to murder, because they all result in harm to another person. Taking a person’s life is a terrible thing, of course, but is it any less a sin to tell your child that she’s worthless? Harm can come to another person both physically and mentally. Being beaten up by bullies is traumatic, and can affect people for the rest of their lives. Being a victim of emotional blackmail can plunge a person into severe depression. Being intimidated into silence can destroy a person’s sense of self-worth. When people are treated like objects, it inevitably results in harmful pain.

When you are faced with a person who is opposing you, you only have two options: you can either view him as an obstacle to be removed, or you can view him as a fellow child of God. If you choose to look at him as a fellow child of God, your whole approach to the problem between you will be different. First of all, you will recognize that both of you are sinners, driven by selfish impulses to work towards goals that are not always pleasing towards God. When you realize this, it becomes possible to consider the possibility that what your opponent wants might actually be more pleasing to God than what you want. Or, it may be that both of you are pursuing sinful goals. Regardless, the way to find out is to talk with each other, share why you think that your needs must be given priority, and pray together for God’s help in finding a mutually agreeable solution. Only by acting in this way, by showing respect for the position of our opponent, do we show that we love them.

Ultimately, it is all about forgiveness. If I am up against another person, do I hate him or do I love him? Do I need to defeat him, or do I need to forgive him and seek forgiveness from him in return? Hatred is not interested in forgiveness. Hatred is not interested in listening and compromising. Hatred labels my opponent as the enemy and urges me to take decisive action. Love, on the other hand, wants reconciliation and partnership. Love seeks unity in purpose. Love labels my fellow Christians as my friends, and non-Christians as people helplessly drowning in an ocean of sin who need to be rescued before they drown. People who are drowning are known to panic and fight with those who try to rescue them—the challenge for the Christian is to overcome their fighting with loving strength, not brutal force. Love forgives the person who hurts me as I try to rescue him with the life jacket of God’s holy Word.

All conflict comes from sin. Sin is any action that opposes the good and gracious will of God. When two people come into conflict with each other, at least one of them—and quite possibly both of them—are acting on sinful desires, or are trying to use sinful means to achieve their goals. The only remedy to sin is forgiveness—thus, the only remedy to conflict is forgiveness. When we are in the wrong, patching things up must be our first priority; Jesus says, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24). And when we are clearly in the right in a conflict, Jesus tells us, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44). Forgiveness is the only way that we can be freed from being in conflict with God because of our sins and instead find reconciliation with Him—the same holds true for all human relationships.

Jesus came to earth to end the conflict between sinners and God. God hates sin, but He loves His children who are enslaved by sin. So God sent His only Son to teach us to pray, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. Jesus said plainly, if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15). Forgiveness is at the heart of every successful relationship; true love cannot exist in an unforgiving heart. Jesus is the highest example of forgiving love; He was willing to take His very life, a life that was divine because He was God, and trade that life for death, the death that our cold and stony hearts had deserved. Jesus offered His life in place of ours; as a result, His forgiveness frees us from conflict with God, because His life has paid for our sins.

Caiaphas serves us as an example. In the Gospel of John, we are allowed to eavesdrop on a conversation that took place among the religious leaders of Israel concerning Jesus. "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:47-50). Caiaphas viewed Jesus as an obstacle. When the Romans occupied Israel, they took away all political power from the Jews. But being very religious people, the Jews still had some who they regarded as having authority over them—their religious elite. The Romans tolerated these religious leaders, on the condition that they use their influence to keep the unruly Jews from rebelling against foreign occupation. Caiaphas feared that if Jesus made the religious elite appear to be unnecessary, the Romans would strip them of the little power that they had over the people and would dominate the Jews completely. To Caiaphas, Jesus was an obstacle to keeping his position of power over the people. Caiaphas hated Jesus—he was not interested in talking to the Lord, he wanted Jesus put out of the way. Under Caiaphas’ leadership, Jesus was captured and turned over to Governor Pilate for execution. Jesus was put to death because of hatred; Jesus died to forgive men of their hatred.

Jesus died to forgive you for your acts of hatred. Jesus endured whipping, taunts, ridicule and beatings so that you would not be punished by God for your making fun of others to puff yourself up, for your making threats in order to get your way, for your unwillingness to listen and compromise, for all the times when you didn’t want to forgive or admit that you were wrong. Jesus was hated so much that people made fun of Him has He hung from bloodied nails, dying on the cross; yet instead of lashing out at those who hated Him so, Jesus instead prayed "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

May our Lord, who loved so much, drive all trace of hatred from your heart, and fill it with His perfect love instead.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The pot calling the kettle black

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:15).

In Scotland, there was a man who made a name for himself at the boxing ring and in the tavern. However, all that changed when the Holy Spirit took hold of his heart. The Scotsman was reborn; forsaking his past, he started a new career as a man who preached about Christ to sinners.

The Lord blessed his work. But one day, just as he was about to start a worship service, someone sent a note up to the platform. When he opened it, the preacher found a long list of sins and crimes he had committed in that very city. At first he thought about excusing himself and leaving, but then, strengthened by the Lord, he faced the crowd and said, "Friends, I am accused of crimes and sins committed in your city. I will read them to you." The Scotsman read through the list; after each item he paused to say, "I am guilty."

When he had finished reading the list out loud, the preacher paused for a moment, then spoke these words to the stunned audience: "You ask how I dare come to you and speak of righteousness and truth, with a list of offenses like that against my name? I will tell you: It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all."

Sin is dangerous. Sin makes God angry. Sin destroys relationships and puts people in danger. Jesus wants sin pointed out so it can be avoided. But who is qualified to speak about sin? If I am a sinner and tell you that you’re doing something wrong, isn’t that like the pot calling the kettle black? When a Christian tries to warn against sinning, there’s always someone ready to point out your own mistakes.

You’re a sinner and I’m a sinner—that’s the simple truth. Because we’re sinners, we deserve God’s punishment in hell. But Jesus suffered our punishment at God’s hands in order to spare us from that grisly fate. Your sin can be forgiven if you realize that it’s a problem and ask Jesus to intervene. That’s why we point out sin when we see it—not so we can judge people or act all superior, but so they might repent and be forgiven by Jesus. We want to share the gift that Christ has given us—a conscience free of guilt and a soul at peace with God. Who better to share this Good News than those who desperately needed it for themselves?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

The punishment that brought us peace was laid him (Isaiah 53:5).

When you think of the Dutch painter Rembrandt, you think of an artist who cared greatly about the quality of his work. But Rembrandt had another passion too—he was passionate about his Christianity. Rembrandt was deeply concerned about his relationship with Jesus; he was also concerned about those who did not know Jesus or rejected Him as their Lord.

These two passions—for Christianity and for great art—came together in Rembrandt’s painting of Jesus on the cross. The artist showed Jesus writhing in agony, as the Son of God suffered His Father’s terrible punishment for our sins. The artist also took care to show the faces of the onlookers—people who each reacted to Jesus’ torment in different ways. But there is one important detail that a casual observer might not notice. At the edge of the crowd, standing in the shadows, is Rembrandt himself. The artist placed himself in the crowd that was present as Jesus died.

Why did the Dutch painter do this? He was making a confession—like everyone else in the painting, he was responsible for the Savior’s death. Jesus died not suffer and die because He had it coming—far from it. Jesus was holy. Jesus lived a perfect life. He always did what was right, in spite of pressure to ‘just go with the flow’. He always spoke the truth, even when the truth was unpopular. Jesus led the kind of life that God expects from every human being. He did it for us, because He knew that we cannot. He knew that we want to do the easy thing instead of the right thing. He knows that we are more apt to lie and dance around the facts than simply speak the truth. So Jesus gave His life in place of ours. He lived perfectly in our stead, and He died the shameful death that our sins deserve.

Rembrandt understood this. He knew that his sins were directly responsible for everything awful that happened to Jesus. That’s why he painted himself at the cross; it was his admission of guilt. You and I are equally responsible for Jesus’ death. Our sins made His suffering necessary, because Jesus loves you and me too much to let us be lost to hell. So honor His time on the cross by thanking Him for His great mercy; honor His sacrifice by asking Him to guide you in His ways.

Friday, November 05, 2010

The blessing of being Christian

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:1-12).

What’s the point of being a Christian? Think about the funerals you have attended over the years. All those people who have departed this life—what did they get for being a Christian? They had struggles, they made sacrifices, they endured pain and they died—and for what? What benefit did they get for centering their lives on Jesus? For that matter, what benefit do you get for building your life around the Son of God? Do you ever wonder if being a Christian is really worth it?

Reading the beatitudes of Jesus, you can get a sense of what Christianity costs you. Jesus says that He blesses the pure. Who are the pure? The pure are people who turn their backs on sin. Jesus expects us to give up doing many of the things that we enjoy. He wants us to stay sober when we drink. He tells us that sex is for married partners only. He forbids us from gossiping. He criticizes those who spend money on themselves instead of using it to serve God. To be a Christian is to renounce sinful pleasures.

Jesus also extends His blessings to those who are persecuted because of righteousness. In our society, you are expected to ‘go with the flow’. Your high school friends don’t appreciate you being a wet blanket at their parties. Your boss doesn’t want you to point out that his business practices are unethical. Whether it is your labor union or your political party, the leadership expects you to vote the way they tell you to. But Jesus instructs us to evaluate every decision we make in light of God’s laws; this means that sometimes we have to take a stand that makes us unpopular. Many people resent Christians who stand up for what is right.

Jesus praises those who are the poor in spirit, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. The follower of Jesus has to swallow his pride and admit that he is not the good and upright person he ought to be. Christians realize that the only way we can be successful in life is if God fills us with the righteousness of Christ. But it’s hard to let go of our pride; it’s hard to completely trust in someone else to take care of you, even when that someone is the Lord Himself.

Also held up for praise are the meek. When you were a baby, your parents jumped every time you cried, reinforcing the notion that you were the most important person in the world. What a shock, then, to hear Jesus say "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all" (Mark 9:35). Of course, Jesus is not suggesting anything that He wasn’t willing to do Himself—He said, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28). However, it goes against our grain to put the needs of others before our own.

But the hardest thing about being a Christian is offering mercy to those who have hurt us. Jesus said, blessed are the merciful; He looks favorably on everyone who is willing to stop carrying a grudge and offer forgiveness instead. Nor does the Lord want us taking sides when others are fighting—He says blessed are the peacemakers. Just as the Son of God came to mediate peace between heaven and earth, so does He praise those who work at resolving the conflicts that constantly swirl around us. But it is extremely difficult for us to let go of our anger over being hurt; it is hard to forgive.

Jesus does ask a lot from us. He said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). Are the costs of discipleship worth it to you? If you are going to follow Jesus, He expects you to do so without reservation; "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God," He said (Luke 9:62).

We all know people who died in the faith. Why did they accept the burdens of Christianity? How could they be happy while denying themselves certain pleasures? How could they live contentedly when their beliefs made them stick out from the crowd? How could they let go of their pride and serve others in humility? How did they find it in themselves to let go of old hurts and be forgiving?

The saints lived this way because they were grateful—grateful to Jesus. They knew that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). They knew that if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) The saints were grateful because they knew how much Christ sacrificed to make this wonderful promise a reality for us—that He suffered all of God’s terrible anger at our sins and died under His chastening hand, that you and I might be spared--pardoned for our crimes against God and man.

Does being a Christian weigh you down? Satan wants you to think so. But what does Scripture say? John writes, This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world (1 John 5:3). And the Savior promises, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). Sin wants you to look at the challenges of the Christian life—but I have to tell you, the benefits far outweigh them!

To begin with, the Christian has release from the mistakes of the past. How many thoughtless words do you wish you could take back? How many times have you caused harm that you just cannot fix? But as a Christian you are blessed because the Savior shows you mercy. When you ask Jesus to forgive you, He does—just like that! He doesn’t demand anything from you except remorse over your sin. In Christ the mistakes of your past are forgotten completely and forever. He suffered God’s anger for your sins so that you don’t have to.

Another benefit of the Christian life is that you have purpose and direction. How many people do you know who drift from city to city, job to job, relationship to relationship, with no idea of why they are alive or what they should be doing with their time here on earth? As a Christian, you aren’t like that! You are blessed because God has filled you with His Spirit, filled you with the confidence of knowing that you are special. Paul writes, we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). When the unbeliever looks into the future, all he sees is a dark, confusing fog. When we Christians look into the future, we see God.

Our world is filled with lonely people who are desperately looking to connect with others. Yet with only a flawed commitment to forgiveness, they are victims of one failed relationship after another. Christians, however, are united by forgiveness—united by Jesus with God and each other. When we belong to Him, we are blessed because He calls us sons of God. Jesus redefines family in these verses from Matthew chapter 12: Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." He replied to him, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" Pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." In Jesus, we are members of the largest family on earth.

Christians do face challenges in life, but our loving God does not leave us to face them on our own. Sometimes, God protects us from harm by keeping it far away from us. Other times, the Spirit of God equips us to handle problems by giving us strength and courage. There are times when suffering does afflict us; sometimes we set ourselves up for trouble because of our sinful behavior, and other times God permits a measure of suffering to force our wandering attention back to Him. Whatever the circumstances, when times of suffering come, there is one thing we can always count on—we are blessed, because everyone who cling to Jesus will be comforted.

But there is one blessing promised to Christians that we cannot fully appreciate in this life; Jesus assures us that everyone who believes in Him has membership in the kingdom of heaven. You and I are citizens of that kingdom right now, because Jesus rules our hearts, making us His subjects. But His primacy in our hearts is challenged—in life we are both saints and sinners, people made holy by Jesus, who still struggle with the sin that is both in us and all around us. We won’t experience the kingdom of God in its full splendor until we die and leave all sin behind once and for all. Then, on the day of resurrection, we who died in Christ will inherit the earth. But it won’t be this old, sin-ravaged earth—it will be a world remade by God in the lost splendor of Eden. There will be no sin in that new world—those who were sinners but never saints will spend their eternity someplace far away and very unpleasant. On the new earth, all the struggles of being a Christian will be gone, leaving only the blessings our Lord has promised to His saints.

The saints whom we honor in our memories on All Saints' Day made an important decision—they focused on the long term, not the short term. They agreed with Paul, who wrote these words in 2nd Corinthians: That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won't last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don't look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. The saints kept their eyes on the prize—eternity in paradise with God. Blessed are you if you do likewise.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Halloween (part 4)

Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' " (Matthew 4:10)

For the past few devotions, I’ve been comparing the fantasies of Halloween to the reality of God’s love shown us in Christ. Today we’ll wrap up this topic.

On Halloween, Satan gets a holiday. By that, I don’t mean that he gets a day off; I mean that he gets the kind of treatment that he wants from foolish humanity. Some people honor him by devoting time and money to thinks he promotes—astrology, magic, spiritualism. A very few even worship him directly. Others laugh at the supernatural and dismiss it as a bunch of make-believe. This pleases the devil, too—if no one believes that he exists, he can operate in plain sight without being recognized or opposed.

The deadliest enemy is the one you don’t see. Just ask any policeman who comes under sniper fire. Just ask any soldier who has tripped a roadside mine. Also dangerous is the enemy you don’t take seriously; how many angry young men have filled classrooms with blood because no one saw the warning signs? How many stalkers have ended up committing hideous crimes?

When we don’t take the powers of darkness seriously, we open ourselves up to terrible danger. This is why God warns us away from the devil’s playthings: Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD (Deuterononmy 18:10-12). This is why God urges us to regard Satan as a serious enemy: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).

We must take the powers of darkness seriously. Yet at the same time, we must not be afraid of them. In the past, people who feared the spirit world tried to please the powers of darkness with their devotion. They became slaves of the devil because they feared his power. But we don’t have to share their fate; we don’t have to be controlled by fear. Jesus has defeated Satan, crushed the serpent’s head under His mighty heel. The light of Christ dispels all darkness, and unlike Satan, Jesus rules our lives with love and compassion. He gives us courage to face every situation with hope and joy.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Halloween (part 3)

For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19).

Last week, I talked about the fantasy of Halloween and the reality of God. Today will continue that discussion.

A big part of Halloween is fear. Fear causes an adrenaline rush, and we all like to experience a thrill every now and then. Haunted houses, spooky movies, scary books—these all provide a thrill.

But there’s another kind of scary thrill that has become very popular—the sexy, dangerous monster. The two most common are the vampire and the werewolf. Bloodsuckers and shape shifters are the romantic leads in countless books, movies, and television shows. They are portrayed as the ultimate bad boy/bad girl.

What makes these particular monsters so alluring? The risk of danger. The thrill of keeping a secret, a secret that only a few special people are privileged to know. Power is also a turn-on, and these creatures are powerful. And there’s an emotional connection, too—everyone understands how it feels to be filled with dark urges that are hard to keep in check. But monsters are dangerous—fool around with fire, and eventually you will get burned.

Sadly, we are all monsters. We all have nasty desires that must be denied—we crave forbidden pleasures, we get a twisted thrill from violence, and we enjoy the feeling of power that comes from making others tremble in fear. Look at how easily love can turn to hate—only a monster could have such a fickle heart. No matter how charming we manage to appear, time will eventually reveal how ugly we truly are.

Jesus understands the blackness that we try to keep hidden deep inside. Yet amazingly, He still wants to be part of our lives. Jesus loves us so much that He was willing to die for a monster like you and a monster like me. He suffered the punishment that our wickedness deserves. Because He did this, Christ has earned the right to forgive us—and He will, so long as we stop looking at evil as something interesting and attractive.

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