Stop the Bad, Start the Good (Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

We are part of the same body. Stop lying and start telling each other the truth. Don’t get so angry that you sin. Don’t go to bed angry and don’t give the devil a chance.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Be honest and work hard, so you will have something to give to people in need.

Stop all your dirty talk. Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say.

Don’t make God’s Spirit sad. The Spirit makes you sure that someday you will be free from your sins.

Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude. Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.

Do as God does. After all, you are his dear children. Let love be your guide. Christ loved us and offered his life for us as a sacrifice that pleases God. (Contemporary English Version)

All of us have a hard time breaking bad habits, even and especially destructive habits which damage us and/or others. Why, despite knowing better, is it so doggone hard to change? And why, even though having the best of intentions, does that person in my life never change because I tell them to?

Probably because our approach to change dooms us from the beginning. Here are a few approaches which, frankly, do not work:

  • Telling ourselves (or others) to stop. Barking commands may alter speech or behavior for a while but it won’t stick. That’s because people need affirmation, encouragement, and love in order to change – and not by mandated rules. Judgmentalism or shaming others never effects any sort of positive change. Neither our brains nor our souls operate that way.
  • Relying on willpower. This is really an over-reliance on thinking. Yes, it’s necessary to change our thinking. It isn’t, however, enough. That’s because we are not brains-on-a-stick. We also have a body, emotions, and a spirit which needs activation, as well. What’s more, our thinking doesn’t change by sheer force of the will. Our brains are literally not wired that way.
  • Believing in positive thinking. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….” “Dream it and do it.” “I believe in myself.” “Nothing is impossible.” I am not suggesting we indulge negative thinking or let a bad attitude take root. I’m saying that positive thinking has its limits. It’s helpful but is not the true agent of behavioral change.
  • Pursuing self-help. Yes, we must all help ourselves. After all, we are responsible for our own behavior. However, self-help alone doesn’t bring lasting change. By only going it alone, individuals come up with hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions that will not get the job done. That’s because we are hard-wired for community and any sort of effective change of habit happens with others.

To stop doing or saying something is only half the equation. We also need to start doing and saying something else altogether.

Change always involves both putting off and putting on, laying down and picking up, removing and replacing, starting and stopping.

The Christian tradition holds that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together.

Therefore, we will stop non-Christian ways of relating to each other and start a Christian way of relating to each other – because we belong to one another and are inextricably connected as the community of the redeemed.

Stop lying and start speaking the truth

Too often, we put up a plastic false front. Pretending we are okay, when we are not, or even acting like life is hard, when it isn’t, is an untruthful presentation – it’s a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Buying into the devil’s snake oil salesmanship leads one to believe we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine; it’s not worth the risk. We worry about being rejected, losing face, or becoming a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel of one’s life, instead of speaking truthfully.

We speak the truth in love because we are responsible to one another – not hiding in the shadows or avoiding the dark places of the heart – but stepping into the light and forsaking all fakery for the benefit of everyone’s needs. The only thing lying does is undermine and erode true community.

Stop stealing and start being generous

Thievery takes many forms: petty theft, identity theft, stealing intellectual property (copywrites, patents, trade secrets, etc.), fraud, plagiarism, robbery, burglary, embezzlement, shoplifting, and more. Gossip, slander, and defamation robs another person of their dignity and reputation. Likely the most insidious theft of all is the stealing and kidnapping other human beings.

Stealing will always be a way of life unless it is replaced wholesale with generosity. Learning to give back is the surest path to real change. And there a lot of ways of doing it.

We can give back to the community through donating our time, participating in charity events, volunteering at a school, hospital, or senior center, and even recycling or planting a tree, or giving blood.

Whatever it is you choose to do, connect it with the penchant toward stealing you may have. For example the one prone to gossip might replace it with gratitude; or the one who chronically steals another’s time might join an altruism group.

Stop the dirty useless talk and start encouraging others

Locker room talk and dirty jokes aren’t helpful. There’s also a lot of speech that’s just downright useless, such as: a preacher who pads the sermon with lots of unnecessary words; a relative who is vague and not specific with their words; a boss who always points out, with many words, what is wrong but barely says one word of affirmation to an employee.

Instead of tearing down others with words, replace those words with encouragement. Going out of your way to write an encouraging card or note to someone, bending down to look a child in the eye to say, “hi,” expressing sincere condolences to someone who lost a loved one, or just having a kind word for the harried cashier behind the counter or the waitress at the restaurant, are simple ways of embracing encouragement as a lifestyle.

Stop being so bitter and angry and start forgiving people

Many people either cannot or will not forgive because they want to hold onto their anger and bitterness. Somehow, in their twisted and darkened thinking, they believe that, unless they maintain their grudge-bearing, the offending person or group will get off the hook.

Please, lay down that crushing load of mental vengeance; and pick up the light backpack of grace and forgiveness.

Chances are, if you’ve been in the habit of being angry for a long time, you have a cardiologist you see on a regular basis. Do yourself a favor by changing yourself and saving your health, instead of expecting others to change and blaming them for your issues.

If you are not the person you want to be, then take a lesson from the Apostle Paul: don’t just try and stop something you don’t like but also start doing just the opposite of it, in helpful ways that are a blessing to others.

And if ever in doubt, love is always the best choice.

May the God of peace make you pure and faultless, belonging only to what is right, just and good. And may your whole self—spirit, soul, mind, body, and emotions—be kept safe and be blameless when our Lord Jesus Christ comes. Amen.

Colossians 4:7-17 – Lead with Encouragement

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. 

Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. 

Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” (New International Version)

I was recently speaking with someone who was struggling in a relationship with her daughter. As I asked the woman to describe that relationship, it became evident to me that this mother had a habit of continually correcting the daughter. And then they would argue. Every conversation ended with a fight.

God created the human brain to operate on affirmation and encouragement. Although correction has it’s own significant place, our minds and hearts cannot bear too much of it. What’s more, the way correction is communicated is just as important as the message itself.

Today’s New Testament lesson has the Apostle Paul recognizing and affirming the good work of his fellow companions in the faith. And he only has one correction, given with such grace that we might not even notice it as such.

I’m not sure where the goofy idea originated that if we give someone too much encouragement and affirmation that their head will get too big. But I can guarantee that the lack of encouragement will deflate and discourage anyone, no matter who they are.

“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

The Apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:29, GNT)

Paul described Tychicus as a “dear brother” and a “faithful minister.” Paul was sending him to the Colossians for the express purpose of encouraging them in the faith.

That’s right. Just for encouragement. How often do we do that? When does a boss send someone to a different location, just to encourage those employees? Do we go out of our way to encourage someone or a group of people?

Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus are specifically named as those who bring comfort to Paul. While many other of Paul’s fellow Jewish believers were off doing whatever, these three wanted to make sure their mentor was encouraged. They were simply doing what had been modeled for them.

Furthermore, Paul wanted the Colossian Church to know that Epaphras continually goes to the mat in prayer on their behalf. Whereas the Colossians may not see the hard work Epaphras was putting in, Paul did. And Paul had no thoughts of Epaphras getting a big head.

It’s really hard to get puffed up in pride if your head is continually bowed in humble prayer before God.

We aren’t quite sure what was going on with Archippus. Paul probably didn’t either. The old apostle could have assumed Archippus was being a slacker. Instead, viewing the man through the lenses of love, Paul thought the best of him. He provided helpful encouragement to persevere, to keep going and see the work through – rather than believing he just wasn’t doing the work.

It seems to me that, in this day and age, encouragement is in short supply. We use our words in many ways. Often, genuine encouragement of another doesn’t make the top of the list. So, by the time we may get around to it, the receiver has a hard time listening to anything positive, or even believing it.

What to do? Lead with encouragement… always. Not as a set up to a rebuke. But letting the other know this is of first importance.

“So let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up.”

The Apostle Paul (Romans 14:19, CEB)

The Apostle Paul never traveled alone on his missionary journeys. At times, he had up to seventy others with him. Paul was no lone ranger. He understood the need for community. And Paul discerned better than anyone that we, as believers in Jesus, need to have a new way of being with one another and in the world.

That new way of being is to center in a continual and reciprocal interaction of affirmation, encouragement, love, goodness, kindness, and grace. The old way of pride, posturing, positioning, preening, and pontificating are to be thoroughly replaced with the way of Christ, the way of humility, meekness, and righteousness.

Christians have been transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of light. So then, we are to live like it, by encouraging and building up one another in our common faith. It’s the best way of completing the ministry given to us by God – even if there is a need for correction.

O Lord our heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served, but to serve: We ask you to bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others. Endue them with wisdom, patience, and courage so that they may strengthen the weak and raise up those who fall. And, being inspired by your love, may all your servants minister with encouragement to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the sake of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Psalm 107:1-9, 43 – Let the Redeemed Say So

Psalm 107 by Hope Smith

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things….

Let those who are wise pay attention to these things
    and consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (New Revised Standard Version)

The psalmist encourages and invites us to consider God’s steadfast love (Hebrew “chesed”). In all truth, an eternity of pondering and discovering such love will never plumb the depths of the Lord’s faithful love.

Maybe there is so much hate, bitterness, and vitriol in this old fallen world because people don’t consider the God who is Love. After all, there isn’t much room for malicious anger whenever people are expressing gratitude.

We are divinely hard-wired to give and receive affirmation, gratitude, encouragement, and love. Doing the opposite of that throws a huge monkey wrench into our daily living. It’s not sustainable to live by criticism, ingratitude, judgmentalism, and hate. It goes against who we are as humans.

Instead, it is sage to acknowledge, appreciate, ponder, and express the great love of God for humanity. The Lord’s love never runs out – it is inexhaustible.

Many people have stories of wandering far from Love, stumbling in the darkness, and finding themselves in desperate straits. Like the prodigal son, they are found by the God who is Love. And instead of being chided for their herky-jerky life, they are given a prominent place in God’s kingdom.

Some of you wandered for years in the desert,
    looking but not finding a good place to live,
Half-starved and parched with thirst,
    staggering and stumbling, on the brink of exhaustion.
Then, in your desperate condition, you called out to God.
    He got you out in the nick of time. (Psalm 107:4-6, MSG)

Praise and thanksgiving become the reflexive practices of the folk who have returned home to God. And the psalmist calls us to speak out those stories of hope and deliverance.

Telling our spiritual stories to others is important – both for the storyteller, and also for those who listen. Together, the spiritual community of the redeemed becomes strengthened in their bonds of faith; and everyone is emboldened to share with others. 

Far too many Christians are reticent to talk about what God has done or is doing in their lives. Shame, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons might prevent us from being vulnerable enough to let others in on God’s deep work within.

We all likely have had the privilege of hearing another person share their heart and experience of hardship and God’s deliverance. It was uplifting, encouraging, and helpful. So, let’s not keep our stories to ourselves. Stories are meant to be told, not hidden. Bringing to light our faith journey is healing for all, as well as declaring that Jesus is the light of the world.

Author Frederick Buechner wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Telling Secrets.” Buechner tells of his own experience of keeping some stories inside and never letting them see the light of day. One of those stories was growing up with an alcoholic father and all the other stories that went along with that singular story.

It was only in finally telling the family secret of alcoholism that he discovered a better path forward to healing and blessing. He writes:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”

Frederick Buechner, “Telling Secrets”

Buechner went on to say:

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it, the chances are you will recognize that, in many ways, it is also your story. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

Shame is like a vampire. It lives in the shadows, feeding upon secrets. But when our stories are told and see the light of day, the vampire of shame is destroyed by the bright rays of truth and vulnerability.

We then become open to genuine relationships without propping up a false self to pose for others. We place ourselves in a position to receive and give love. In other words, we can meaningfully connect with both God and others because we found our voice and told our story.

Great God of deliverance, I praise you that I have a story to tell of your grace and faithfulness. Help me to tell of your mercy in my life so that the name of Jesus will be exalted, and that your people might be built up in the faith.  Amen.

1 John 2:7-11 – Love, Not Hate

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing, and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them. (New International Version)

It ought to be abundantly clear that hate has absolutely no place in the Christian’s life. Hate is never justified for any individual or group of people. There are no exceptions.

Love, however, is the consummate Christian virtue. The highest of all truth in Christianity is the grace that is bestowed on us through the love of God in Christ. We, in turn, reflect our Lord’s grace by loving others, no matter their gender, race, creed, or ethnicity.

Yet, we are all familiar with hate. Everyone has hated another, and others have hated us. Unfortunately, hate is ubiquitous throughout the world.

Let’s face it: You and I have people we just don’t like. And maybe for good reason. After all, if you are being gaslighted by someone, or have been abused, mistreated, or oppressed by a person or group, then it takes no effort in disliking them, even to the point of despising them in your heart.

As much as other people need to change, the Apostle John places the burden of change to fall on us who claim the name of Christ. Love must begin somewhere. Let it begin with me.

The bald fact of the matter is that we cannot change another person. We can only control ourselves, and a lot of us don’t do a very good job with that. Christians are to learn to speak and act in the loving ways passed on to us through the gospel. We are to become skilled in the ways of Jesus, which is the way of love.

I fully understand this is not easy. In fact, it is downright hard. Forgiving another, even ourselves, can be a long painful process. Making the choice to love again, or love my enemy, is no small thing. Love must always be our default and de facto response to everyone. Otherwise, our hearts will grow cold and hard. And we will become the very people we despise.

There is a shadow self, dwelling within us all. There are murky places in our hearts where darkness resides. We cannot afford to ignore those places. If we pretend there is no shadow self and keep up appearances, then we actually give the darkness power to come out of us through hateful speech and actions.

The “shadow” is a concept first coined by the Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung (1875-1961). Jung describes the shadow self as those aspects of our personality we choose to reject and/or repress. In other words, we all have parts of ourselves we don’t like—or that we think others won’t like—so we stuff those parts down into our unconscious psyche.

So then, the shadow self is a collection of things we toss into the closet of our hearts, lock the door, and forget about them. But they’re still there. And they still exert a great deal of influence from inside that dark closet.

We must be willing to face the shadowy parts of ourselves, to face the dark thoughts and feelings of secretly harming another (or ourselves), nursing a grudge, harboring bitterness, or holding onto an offense, as if it were a security blanket.

Whereas some may believe all our unwanted emotions, thoughts, feelings, and experiences are tightly hidden, they are not. Instead, the telltale sign of the darkness slipping out sideways into the world is hate. And that insidious hate typically takes the following forms:

  • Harshly judging or criticizing others by taking a superior posture over another. The critic, however, doesn’t know they are really castigating themselves.
  • Rebuking others as a common practice. Pointing out another’s “sins” is only a projection of one’s inner darkness onto the other.
  • Having a quick temper. Getting angry and belittling those who cannot fight back or respond is really self-loathing slathered onto someone else.
  • Being the victim in every bad situation. Victimization is a terrible thing. And when someone who isn’t really a victim claims to be one, it diminishes and invalidates the help that true victims need. This is the shadow self’s insecurity coming out – needing attention so that the incessant pounding from the inside of the heart is silenced.
  • Doing whatever is needed to get what you want. If that entails being mean, nasty, and hateful to achieve a desire outcome, then that is what is done.
  • Expressing implicit biases and prejudices. Anyone different is a threat to the shadow self. That other person might expose what’s inside me. So, the other gets treated with subtle digs, demeaning behaviors, and discouraging speech to keep them from getting close.

We need healing from this awful malady of hate.

The good news is that light is also available, and within us. Even in the blackest of hearts, there still remains the little spark of God’s image, way down in there. And it only takes a small Bic lighter to penetrate the darkness.

God’s glory is brighter than the brightest sun. A mere glimpse of such glory is more than enough to lay any heart bare and dispel the darkness.

The love of God in Christ is meant to be received, and then given to others. Fortunately, God has an inexhaustible storehouse of grace, mercy, and love – which means we can keep receiving and keep giving. We’ll never run out.

The shadow self sees only scarcity, so it holds onto resources in the belief there may not be enough. The true self, however, living into the grace and mercy of Christ, rightly discerns that God’s kingdom is a place of abundance. We are enhanced, not diminished, whenever we do the opposite behaviors of the shadow’s propensity to hate:

  • Encouraging and helping others. Pointing out another’s strengths and affirming their good behavior is a liberal practice in God’s kingdom.
  • Showing empathy. Being able to put oneself in another’s shoes, along with the willingness to sit with another’s pain, are common practices of the loving Christian person.
  • Doing whatever is needed to build up the community for the common good of all persons.
  • Including others, especially those who are different than me, by making room for them at the Table and giving them a voice.
  • Forgiving others, just as Christ forgave us.

The believer need not be blinded by hate but can love from a place of healthy self-awareness.

Loving heavenly Father, I thank you for looking beyond my faults and loving me unconditionally. Forgive me when I fail to love others in the same way. Give me eyes to see the needs of the difficult people in my life and show me how to meet those needs in a way that pleases you and glorifies the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.