May 23 – When Bad Things Happen

Acts 28:1-16; 1 Samuel 4; 1 Samuel 5; Psalm 52
Dr. Albert Mehrabian did a research study that showed that when feelings were communicated, only 7% of the communication was through words, 38% through tone of voice, and 55% through body language. Then, people jumped to the wrong conclusion that this applied not just to feelings, but to all of communication. As a result, you may hear people say that 55% of communication is body language. People make a living reading body language in meetings where facts are being conveyed and everyone takes what these body language readers say as absolute truth. By jumping to conclusions, people extended the study from one part of communication to all of communication and they often make mistakes reading the situation.

When you begin a conversation with a foregone conclusion, it’s easy to make mistakes in understanding what the other person is trying to say. There’s an old joke about wives holding up two dresses and asking the husband which one he likes better. When the husband replies that he likes the one on the left, the wife gets upset because he thinks she looks bad in the one on the right. The people on the island of Malta had a belief that when bad things happened, God was (or in their case, the gods were) punishing the person. When a snake came out of a pile of wood that Paul had gathered and bit him, they were sure he was bad news. “When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.'” (Acts 28:4)

It’s an easy conclusion to draw. Something bad happens and it must be that God is punishing that person. The people of Malta jumped to that conclusion when they saw the snake bite Paul. Then, things changed. Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. When the people of Malta saw that nothing bad happened to him, they decided that he must be one of the gods. When Paul started sharing the healing power of Jesus with them, they honored them. It’s interesting that when their first conclusion jump was shown to be wrong, they immediately jumped to the opposite conclusion – which was also wrong. Paul didn’t let either wrong conclusion bother him; he just preached Christ and healed the people on the island.

We shake our heads at the conclusions of those on the island of Malta, but how often do we engage in the same thing? Someone goes through a difficult time, and we let them know that God’s punishing them. We wonder what they did wrong. Worse, we may use some kind of variation of telling people that “karma” will exact revenge. Just for the record, “karma” is not a Christian principle. It comes from Buddhist and Hindu thought and relates to your actions in all of your various lives. It’s not true that “what goes around, comes around.” What’s true is that while there are often consequences for our actions, sometimes the things that happen to us just happen. When we do wrong, there is always the opportunity for forgiveness from God.We don’t serve an eternal revenge seeking God who tries to get back at us for every perceived slight; we serve a loving God who seeks to bring us into a loving relationship with Him and He forgives us when we do wrong so that we can enjoy His love.

Lord, help me to seek Your grace in my dealings with others. When they are going through difficult times, don’t let me rub salt in their wounds, instead, let me share Your mercy.

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Posted in Devotional Thoughts

November 23 – The Who of Thanksgiving

2 Peter 1; Jeremiah 41-42; Psalm 139

In the United States, Thanksgiving was established as a national holiday during the War Between the States in 1863. Prior to that time, many states had held their own observances of a day of Thanksgiving on different days. Sarah Josepha Hale thought Thanksgiving should be a national Holiday and suggested it to President Lincoln who immediately acted upon it and made the proclamation that Americans should henceforth observe a day of Thanksgiving to God on the fourth Thursday in November. This proclamation was made in the midst of the terrible war that had divided our country. President Lincoln realized that even in the darkest times, we can recognize God’s presence and bounty in our lives. Thanksgiving continues to be a favorite holiday of mine because, while so many other holidays have been cheapened by commercialism, the understanding that we need to give thanks still underlies all that happens on this day.

When we really think about it, there is so much to give thanks for on this day. Where this holiday has been weakened though, is the emphasis on “thanks” without understanding the source of the blessings. Many are thankful for different things, but they forget the “who” of Thanksgiving. As I think about this day, I make a special effort to remember who I give thanks to and the amazing way He’s changed my life. “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

Peter reminds us of the most important reason to be thankful to God: our lives have been changed so that we no longer follow the corruption of the world, now should live godly lives because we follow Him. Peter reminds us that it isn’t our effort that brings us into this relationship, it’s God’s divine power. He’s given us everything we need through knowledge of Him, through His glory, and through His goodness. This doesn’t mean that we instantly become perfect. Paul noted that now we know Him imperfectly, but by the end, we shall know Him perfectly. We come to this knowledge not through our own efforts, but because of who He is and the goodness He exhibits. In other words, we come to Him through His grace. We participate in the body of Christ because, through His mercy and grace, we have escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

I’m thankful today because I know what God has done in my life and how He has changed me. I’m not perfect yet. I still have plenty of faults. I’m thankful that God’s still working on me. I have His promises and hope that’s based on His grace and His goodness, not on my own abilities. I think that if there’s any confusion at this time of year, it’s not about what we’re to be thankful for, it’s who. I am immensely thankful for my wife and the rest of my family. They are an amazing blessing. But most of all, I’m thankful for God and what He’s done in my life. If Thanksgiving seems a little hollow, or perhaps, incomplete, examine yourself. Are you celebrating a time to be thankful for things and blessings you’ve received, but not recognizing the source of those blessings? If so, let me close with these words from the proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. “They [all the blessings of freedom, liberty and many things] are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.”

Lord, you have given us many blessings and gracious gifts because of Your grace and mercy. Thank You.

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Novembe 22 – Finding Favor in Humility

1 Peter 5; Jeremiah 39-40; Psalm 138

One of the amazing things about the internet is that it allows a lot of “niche” businesses to thrive from practically anywhere. A person can start a business with little or no overhead and still reach enough people to make a living. There are people who make a living selling items that say “Hire a teenager while they still know everything.” We all get a good laugh when we see that saying, because we’ve raised teenagers, or know people who did, or are doing that, or we remember our teenage years. I fondly remember those years when I knew more than my parents, teachers, or anyone older than me. Yet, even though I was, for a brief span of time, one of the smartest people in the world, the problems of the world still continued.

Once I got into my twenties, though, I realized that those old folks in their 30’s and 40’s had something to teach me. The older I’ve grown, the more I realize that I have a lot to learn from those who are older and more experienced. Now that I’m in my <transmission garbled> I realize that not only should I be learning from those few people older than me, I can also learn a lot from those who are younger – even teenagers and those younger. It’s easy to grow old and crotchety, as those who know me might say, and so it’s important for me to remember the joy and excitement of life that these younger folks have. Peter reminds us to show humility in our dealings across generations. “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.’” (1 Peter 5:5)

The attitudes that those from different generations have towards each other is not recent, as Peter’s words attest. We all imagine that our generation is the smartest, most advanced generation to ever exist, although someone coined the term “The Greatest Generation” for those from the World War II generation and I wouldn’t argue that point. Peter, in this passage begins by appealing to the elders of the church to act humbly towards those under their care. When Peter turned towards those who were younger, his admonition was that they, IN THE SAME WAY, would submit to their elders and act humbly towards them. It’s amazing how many times I’ve seen this verse used as an admonition to those who are younger to respect their elders without remembering that Peter reminded them that this respect was to be a two way street.

The one virtue that people ought to see from Christians above all others is humility. Too often what they see from Christians is arrogance. We fight each other over whose view of God is the best. We attack those who aren’t followers of Christ by pointing out their sins while overlooking our own. If I were not a follower of Christ I might point out the declining church attendance, the number of Christians caught in their sin, and the obvious lack of growth among Christians and ask, “How’s that working for you?” What would happen if we began showing humility instead of arrogance? If we started listening to others instead of attacking them? If we want to change the world and introduce them to Jesus, perhaps we ought to change our methods to the kind that Jesus used.

Oh Lord, how often have I been arrogant when I’ve had so many reasons to be humble? Let me live each day in humility, loving others as You have loved them

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November 20 – Returning Blessings For Evil

1 Peter 3; Jeremiah 35-36; Psalm 136

I saw a quote the other day that made me mad. The message of the quote was that the only people you should try to get even with are the people who’ve done good things for you. It’s not that I have anything against paying back those who have blessed me; it’s just that they want to take all the fun out of getting revenge on someone who’s done me wrong. That’s the American way, isn’t it? For those of us with anger issues, society counsels us “Don’t get mad, get even.” My wife says that’s meant tongue-in-cheek, but I thought it was a biblical teaching. Apparently, it’s not. Learning that was eye-opening, and disappointing. Imagine my shock, then, when I found out that the phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold,” isn’t in the Bible either. As I searched the Bible for help in my quest to justify my vengeful thoughts and attitudes, I came up empty.

Jesus apparently isn’t big on revenge. I guess that time when He was on the cross and cried out, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” should have been a big hint. In fact, it didn’t take long to realize that Jesus wasn’t really a good American. If the American dream includes a happy marriage, Jesus was single. If the American dream includes owning a nice big house, Jesus had no place to lay his head. He got into trouble with the authorities everywhere He went. Sometimes it seems like the message of Jesus is contrary to everything that America seems to stand for. And He influenced people like Peter who brought that “no-revenge” thing to his teaching also. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Peter 3:9)

When you think about it, Christians in the early church could have really gone to town on this revenge thing. They were disowned by their families, thrown out of the synagogues, and attacked by the authorities. They were turned into the authorities by family or those who claimed to be friends. If the teachings of Jesus indicated that we should seek vengeance, and we had followed them, we would have read the history of the Christian Church as nothing more than a short-lived rebellion against Rome. Peter makes it quite clear that vengeance, insults, and evil responses are not the ways of those who follow Christ. Are we wronged by others? Bless them. Are others treating us in an evil way, respond with grace. Is anyone insulting us, respond with kindness and a compliment. That is the way that Christ responded. That is the message of the cross and the message of grace.

I have a feeling that this passage doesn’t occur in all the English Bibles. Here in the United States, we’d rather fight, even if no one’s asking us to switch. We’d rather sue than take the chance that someone might take advantage of us.  We take Peter’s words and think they make an excellent admonition for others to follow, but change it slightly by adding the words “unless they deserve it” after the phrase “insult for insult.” Because, we’re Americans, and we don’t take that stuff from nobody, and, in my case, I’m a Texan and you don’t mess with Texas. We read that verse over and over again, though, and as much as we want to see those words, they aren’t there. And so we’re left with an impossible command: to repay evil and insults not in kind but with blessing and grace. That’s the thing about our faith so much of it is impossible, without experiencing the grace of God in our own lives. Only as we realize how much we’ve sinned against God and others and have been granted His grace can we look at others and extend blessing for curses, evil, and insult.

Lord, teach me to hold my tongue when I’m angry and seek to return blessing for evil and insults.

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November 19 – Welcome to the Family!

Please note: I didn’t get this written yesterday before church. When I got home after church, I had computer problems and didn’t think about this again until late at night. I finished yesterday’s this morning and will finish today’s later. I’m sorry.

1 Peter 2; Jeremiah 33-34; Psalm 135

In the ancient Japanese system of Bushido, samurai were the military upper class. They pledged allegiance to the lord of their area, or daimyo and received honor and praise from that association. The bond was supposed to be so close that should the daimyo die or be deposed, the samurai was supposed to commit seppuku or ritual suicide. Those who didn’t, or those who wee stripped of their status by the daimyo became displaced samurai or ronin. Ronin were disgraced by their very existence and wandered the countryside trying to survive. Their disgrace came because they had no family, no people. No matter what they might accomplish in life, they were always ronin.

There’s something special about being a member of a team, even if our membership on the team is that we cheer for them. When the Houston Astros won their first World Series, the whole city of Houston and much of the surrounding area cheered the fact that “we won.” Cynics might note that “we” might be a bit of hyperbole, because none of those celebrating in the streets helped play the games. And yet, every member of the Astros would probably agree with those proclaiming “we” won. The citizens of Houston were caught up in the whole “we won” excitement and everyone was part of the team. The joy they experienced was amazing. It’s far better to be a part of a group than it is to be alone; to be a ronin. Peter reminds us of that. “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:10)

This is the amazing power of God. He makes us a people. We are the people of God. We who are His people are black, white, brown, yellow, red, or any other color people may be. We are male or female. We are rich, of middle-income, or poor. We are the social elites and the socially downtrodden. Whatever differences we may have, we are all one in Christ Jesus. We are His people. We are His people because of His mercy, because of His grace. Peter noted that truth for first century Christians: Jews who didn’t endure anyone outside of their faith, Romans who looked down on non-Romans, Greeks who saw everyone else as barbarians, and all the other assorted people of the Roman Empire.  When they came to faith in Jesus, they realized that their old identification as Jew, Roman, or Greek, was useless and that without God and His mercy, they would not be a people. These came to faith through God’s mercy and became the people of God.

My first identification is as a child of God. I find that wherever I go, I can find my family – God’s people. There are a lot of great things about being a citizen of the United States, and I do my best to be a good citizen; but there’s nothing better than being part of the people of God. Because I have received His mercy I know that wherever I travel in the world, I have family. I have felt that in Mexico, in Central Asia, and in Rwanda as I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to travel and share God’s love in those areas. If I have a sadness about being part of the people of God, it’s that since we’re all there by God’s mercy, some of us still carry our old sins. There are some among us who think they’re better than others because of skin color, economic, or social conditions. God can still work on people like that, His mercy is amazing. The key is reminding those brothers and sisters that once they were not a people (no matter their skin color, economic, or social condition) but now, in God, they have become His people. No matter how great they thought their previous associations were, they were nothing compared to what they now have: being a part of the family, the people of God.

Oh Lord, thank You for welcoming me into Your family. Use me to help others to see this amazing joy.

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November 18 – God’s Grace and Glory

1 Peter 1; Jeremiah 31-32; Psalm 134

It’s perhaps one of the oldest driving jokes there is. The wife, not recognizing where they are as the roads pass by asks the husband, “where are you going?” He replies, “I don’t know, but we’re making good time.” Some of us have the ability to find that silver lining in every cloud. All I can say is that I’m glad we have GPS units now. Whether a separate unit or the unit on your phone, you can tell the GPS unit where you want to go, and it will give you directions, an estimated time of arrival, and often the speed you’re traveling. Sometimes, if you’re not making good time, it will give you alternative routes. As long as the GPS unit is working right, there’s no excuse for anyone to get lost while driving anymore.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if the Israelites had used a GPS unit on their Exodus journey. They could have punched the right button and it would have told them not to make the golden calf because Moses was coming back. Either that or, as they wandered in the desert, they would have heard the word “recalculating” a lot. Still, God spoke to His people before GPS units and He pointed them in the right direction. Peter talked about the message of the prophets that foretold the coming of the Messiah and our opportunity for salvation. “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow.” (1 Peter 1:10-11)

Through the ages, beginning in Genesis, God spoke through His prophets to let His people know that a Messiah was coming. One of the problems that many people have with the Old Testament is that they claim that it focuses on the Law. Many Christians discount the Old Testament because of that. Peter points out that these prophets spoke not of Law, but of the grace of God, the grace that was to come. They didn’t know how God was going to do this; they didn’t know when He was going to do this; all they knew was THAT He was going to do this. They even predicted the suffering of the Messiah, although many discounted that part because, well, suffering just isn’t fun and they couldn’t imagine God’s chosen one having to suffer – especially for us. They knew that God’s grace was coming, though, and continued to proclaim God’s message of grace even as the children of Israel strayed from living in God’s love.

Now we know. The Spirit of Christ predicted the suffering of the Messiah, and He suffered and died on the cross to bring us forgiveness for our sins. We know the time. We know the place. We know the effect. There’s no excuse for anyone to be separated from God and lost anymore. Oh, I’ve heard people say that they aren’t good enough for God, or find some other way of saying that God couldn’t love them. That’s why it’s important that when we share the good news of Jesus Christ we emphasize the grace of God. God doesn’t love us because we’re better than others. Jesus didn’t die for people who were good enough for God – if they were good enough for God, He wouldn’t have needed to die for them. Paul reminded his readers in a them that Peter echoes here: Christ Jesus came to save sinners, of whom I am chief. The truth, all of the history of God’s people pointed to that time on the cross when the Messiah, Jesus, suffered and died on the cross. And all of history since then is a reminder of His glory, and the glory we experience now in our walk with God reveals that there is a greater glory to follow. It all begins with accepting the grace that God offers in Jesus Christ: grace that is offered to everyone.

Lord, let me experience Your grace and Your glory more and more each day. As I experience them, let me share them with others as well.

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November 17 – A Warning to Those Who Oppress Others

James 5; Jeremiah 29-30; Psalm 133

You know “those” business people. Everything they do works out. They start businesses with the craziest business plans, and they succeed. They purchase businesses that are failing and have no hope, and within a year, the business is prospering. Everything they touch turns to gold, so to speak, and so we say that they have the “Midas” touch. Of course, when you think about it, that may not be the best compliment to pay to someone. According to the myth, King Midas asked for the power that anything he touched might turn to gold. At first, he rejoiced as he touched rocks, and sticks, and flowers and saw them turn to gold. Then, the problems started. It was time for dinner. Anything he picked up to eat or drink, turned to gold. According to one version of the legend, he gave his daughter a hug and, well, you can guess the rest of the story.

The Midas Touch would seem to be a great blessing, but King Midas found out that what he thought was a blessing turned into a curse. While I haven’t see this happen literally, I have seen people who have done amazing things to get ahead financially. Yet lost in the dust were family, friendships, integrity, faith. As James began this section he talked about gold and silver rotting and corrupting. Gold and silver don’t rot, or corrupt. Gold doesn’t oxidize, and oxidized silver has a special beauty. Yet, James made this comment in the context of a relationship with God and caring for others. He continued. “Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.” (James 5:4-5)

Perhaps there’s a little bit of guilt for me as I write this; I haven’t paid the man who mows my lawn for the last time he did it yet. I won’t go into details, but I can say what’s different in my situation and the situation James describes is that I feel guilty about not paying him yet. James talked about those people who deliberately cheated people out of their wages. I would guess this wasn’t just a case of not paying those who mowed for them. I would guess that by manipulating the situation, the rich land owner charged them for various “amenities” and tried to make them think they were lucky to be able to work for him, much like what happened in the past when companies were able to pay low wages and charge high prices for necessities. Tennessee Ernie Ford sang the song “16 Tons” and these lyrics talk about the same thing: “You load 16 tons and whadda ya get, another day older and deeper in debt. Peter don’t ya call me ‘cuz I can’t go, I owe my soul to the company store.”

The issue that James dealt with is one that still exists today: oppression by those in power. We’re dealing with that problem in society today as examples of that oppression continue to be brought out. Oppression happens because those in power don’t see those they’re oppressing as being people, or at least as being people worthy of respect. They treat others like objects to use for their own pleasure and discarded when they’re finished. Those who oppress others, be it sexually or financially, don’t really think about what they’re doing; they thoughtlessly deal with their own desires, sometimes just to show that they have power, and have no care for others. The cure for this is learning to see others, especially the downtrodden, as people created in the image of God. We need to see and recognize others as people that God has placed in our path to show His love to. Today, make sure the clerk at that store, the parking attendant, the secretary, the receptionist, and everyone you work with knows the love of God.

Lord, it’s so easy to get consumed in my own work that I forget to show others Your grace. Help me do that every day.

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November 16 – Are You Thinking About Stuffing or De-Stuffing?

James 4; Jeremiah 27-28; Psalm 132

We seem to be in eternal competition here in the United States. We compare ourselves to our neighbors. In fact, one of the major, annual competitions is about to start – house decorations for Christmas. Yep, with Thanksgiving almost upon us, in some area of every city, the competition is beginning to take shape. Who can put up the most lights? Who adds music to highlight their Christmas display? And, if you really have your “A” game on, who can synchronize the lights and the music. Oh, we may laugh and talk about how we all enjoy any lights, but the competition can get fierce. The competition exists in regards to all kinds of things – and I mean things. Stuff. The cars we put in our garages, or leave parked in the driveways because our garages are full of stuff. The watches we wear. Our kids’ accomplishments. Everything becomes a competition because the winner is best.

Sometimes I wonder “best what?” Is God going to base our entrance into heaven on our light displays: the better your display, the more He can trust that you can care for your mansion? If so, I might get a pup tent in the woods. Still, we seem to think that the acquisition of material goods is part of the competition God has planned for us and that the more we have, the more God loves us. And so, we look at the “Stuff” others have with resentment, wondering what makes them better in God’s eyes than us, His most faithful servants. And in our resentment, we belittle others because they have so much. “You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2-3)

“Stuff” by itself isn’t necessarily bad. James deals with a different issue here: the attitudes towards stuff. James deals with an extreme attitude issue in this passage: you desire something so badly that when you can’t get it, you kill. Taken literally, this would mean that you’d stick a gun into the face of someone who had what you desired, but couldn’t get. It could mean that you’d manipulate others or work them to death to gain your desires. Taken figuratively it could mean that you suck the life out of someone just to gain “stuff.” Or, as in the case of Cain and Abel, the favor of God. You covet what someone else has, so the fight starts. Perhaps you finally get around to asking God to get you that stuff you want, but you don’t get it because you ask with the wrong motives. According to James that means that you seek and ask God for stuff for your personal pleasure, forgetting that God blesses us so that we can bless others.

The problem we have is when stuff becomes more important in our life than our relationship with God and His love for all people. The rich young ruler refused to get rid of his stuff when Jesus told him that was necessary for eternal life. Zacchaeus was so excited about his relationship with Jesus that he started giving stuff away and paying back more than he needed to. His commitment to Christ freed him from his commitment to stuff. We want everything we get to support our pleasures. You won’t see many ads on TV for ways to give away your stuff to help others: most advertising is designed to make us think we need more stuff to be happy. Either we are supposed to want the stuff that’s advertised, or we’re supposed to use the product advertised to get more of the stuff we really want. Society calls us to eat, drink, and be merry, because new and improved stuff is on the way. Before you search out the newest stuff to bring yourself pleasure, seek God’s will. See if you need to give stuff away to support others.

Oh Lord, I have so much stuff in my life that I don’t have time for others. Remind me to care for others before I worry about stuff for my pleasure.

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November 15 – Blessing and Cursing From the Same Mouth?

James 3; Jeremiah 25-26; Psalm 131

Scientists today are praising the art of gossip. They explain their position by noting that this is how social norms are passed on. Apparently, people won’t know what’s right and what’s wrong unless tales of people breaking the rules are whispered undercover. I believe that’s a bunch of bunk. People gossip because it’s fun, and they can make themselves look better than the ones they’re gossiping about. There’s an important reason to shun those gossiping: if they talk about others to you, they’re going to talk about you to others. While gossip may have the peripheral benefit of passing along social norms, the thoughts in the mind of the person gossiping are usually about how to make themselves look better, not how to make society better. And that attitude makes all the difference.

As James deals with the problems caused by the human tongue, he takes the gossip picture a bit further. No longer is this gossip just anyone from the street, now they’re in the church. The church gossip is dangerous. First, the church gossip destroys the harmony of the church by disrupting the fellowship. The church gossip destroys the witness of the church when they take their gossip outside the church and non-believers see and hear the gossip, only to react by thinking, “why would I want to be around a person like that?” And, it gets worse. A gossip does things secretly, sometimes you have people who talk bad about others openly. Neither they nor the gossip are seeking to help people improve, they seek to tear others down. This is what James was dealing with. “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.” (James 3:9-10)

Whether the criticism, cursing really, is in secret or in public, the effect is the same: the people doing that are belittling another human being while they also claim to worship and praise God. And make no mistake about it – cursing as used here does not mean particular words that are included in the list of seven words you can’t say on the radio, cursing means denigrating a human being and making them appear to be the lowest kind of human being. James reminds us here that these people we’re attacking are made in the image of God. And, if they are made in the image of God, cursing or attacking these people comes full circle into an attack on God. For instance, when you call someone a “stinking idiot” not only are you cursing them, you are attacking who they are as one of God’s creations, and this would mean that you’re attacking God’s work. James reminds us that this is wrong.

Before I received the grace of Jesus, I prided myself on my ability to insult or curse others. I could find a way to cut anyone down no matter what they were doing. Once I came to Christ, I realized after a while that this wasn’t good. It used to be funny (ok, not really) to tell someone that they had a face that only a mother could love and that their mother wasn’t that one, but when I began realizing that my jokes at the expense of others ultimately became an attack on God’s creative work in their life. I realized that if I was praising God, I needed to have a hard time reviling His work. “But what about people caught in sin?” you may ask. There are ways to deal with that that don’t involve public rebuke or humiliation most of the time. Sometimes, though, the best way to help people caught up in sin is to praise them out of it. When we talk about their good qualities, many people want to emphasize those and thus their sinful ways get put on the back burner and disappear. People need me to show them the love of God far more than they need to hear me insult them. My goal is to use this dangerous tongue to show God’s love.

Lord, bridle my tongue. May the same mouth I use to praise You, be used to show Your love to others.

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November 14 – When God’s Grace Gets All of You

James 2; Jeremiah 23-24; Psalm 130

There is a debate among people who hire others to work for them that can get very interesting. Which is more important in hiring someone to do a job – their academic qualifications or their experience in the workplace. As you read articles about this debate you can discover that both sides of the discussion have good arguments. One of the arguments for the academic side is that getting the degree, or an advanced degree shows a commitment to learning that’s necessary for any job. Meanwhile, the argument from the experience side is that if someone has shown that they can do the job, why shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to keep on doing it, or find a way to do it better? The best way to stop the debate, of course, is to find someone with the academic credentials who has experience in the field.

That discussion sounds amazingly like the discussion Christians have about grace and works. What makes a person a “better” Christian: the fact that they live by grace and have faith or the fact that they do works befitting the gospel. There are some who take their understanding of grace as a license to sin. God will cover the sin because of His grace, so we can do whatever we want. There are others that people observe and say, “Oh, they must be a good Christian, look at all the good things they’re doing.” I’m amazed how often those who claim no religion at all, or a different religion are willing to make these judgments. The question of grace and works isn’t an “either/or” question, it’s a “both/and” question that depends on timing to answer the concern. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

One of the reasons Martin Luther rejected the book of James as canonical was verses like this that seem to emphasize a righteousness based on works. It’s easy to see why this passage left that impression. I think, though, that Luther, as excellent a scholar as he was, missed the boat. James doesn’t describe a works based salvation, he’s describing two people who claim to be Christians. One of those people proclaims to be a Christian and yet, when the opportunity to minister comes along, all they offer is platitudes. The other shows his faith by meeting the physical needs of the person in question. The truth is that the grace of God changes people. The grace of God changes who we are. James is dealing with a timing issue. There are no good works that we can do to earn our salvation from God. The only way to develop a relationship with God is through faith, which is a gift of grace. Once we’ve received God’s grace though, He works to change us, to mold us into the image of Jesus Christ who worked to meet the needs of people.

Because of grace, we no longer look out for our own interests, but also the interests of others. If the grace of God doesn’t move you to action to proclaim the gospel and meet the needs of people who are hurting, then James would say that you might want to examine your relationship with God. Faith is more than a noun, it’s an action verb that shows itself in our daily lives. God’s grace should move you to compassion and action, to becoming like Jesus in meeting needs. One of the faults we as Christians have is our belief that God is concerned solely with blessing us and that we’re supposed to keep all those blessings. If we are truly moved by the grace of God, we’ll realize that we have been blessed to bless others. We’ll meet the needs of people, just like Jesus said in Matthew 25 about the sheep and goats.

Oh Lord, open my eyes to the needs of people around me and let me show my faith by what I do.

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