Romans 2:1-11 – Connection, not Criticism

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.

You’re not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it’s going to blaze hot and high, God’s fiery and righteous judgment. Make no mistake: In the end you get what’s coming to you—Real Life for those who work on God’s side, but to those who insist on getting their own way and take the path of least resistance, Fire!

If you go against the grain, you get splinters, regardless of which neighborhood you’re from, what your parents taught you, what schools you attended. But if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs, again without regard to where you are from or how you were brought up. Being a Jew won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind. (The Message)

Claiming the moniker of self-appointed Judge will only get you, well, judged! There is only one true Judge. And Judge Jesus renders decisions which are always right, just, and fair, with no favoritism, cronyism, or malice.

A critical spirit is an evil spirit. It vaults oneself over and above others who are viewed as inferior, unworthy of love and belonging. It is the very antithesis of Christ’s way of being in the world with others.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in polarizing times such as ours. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness.

As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I wholeheartedly affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop their destructive behavior or thinking, get their lives together, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of criticizing judgment.

Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, treats them like a fellow person, offers helpful encouragement, and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we, period.

God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy – no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental, as if owning multiple Bibles or giving lots of money exempts one from a wagging tongue and an insensitive spirit.

Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way. 

No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace. Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

A critical spirit begins to melt away when the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance are used to forge connections and provide support.

It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Ask clarifying questions. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion.

The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  Amen.

John 4:7-26 – Living Water

Samaritan Woman at the Well by He Qi

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (New International Version)

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman by He Qi

Many years ago, I was the pastor of a small congregation north of Detroit, Michigan. Many of the people in the community viewed the big city as a place of disrepute. So, they avoided going into the heart of the great city as much as possible.

The locale of Samaria was viewed much the same way by many Jews back in Christ’s day. Samaritans were seen as untrustworthy, a mongrel people with a mix of Jewish and ancient Assyrian blood. And their religion was most suspect of all – an amalgam of Jewish and Gentile practices.

Jesus, however, didn’t avoid the territory. He confidently walked through Samaria and had no problem stopping to rest on his journey in a foreign area. That’s because Jesus didn’t class people into groups, nor did he attach adjectives to people, such as “those” Samaritans.

Jesus had no obstacles between himself and others.

Which is why an organic conversation happened between Jesus and a Samaritan woman. Christ simply saw a human being who happened to be a woman and a Samaritan. He acknowledged both her gender and her ethnicity without those being a problem. Not even Christ’s knowledge of her string of husbands was a problem in conversing with her.

Every time I read this narrative of Jesus interacting with the Samaritan woman, I wonder and use my imagination about all the non-verbal communication. I am sure the conversation was as much about Christ’s affect, gestures, and tone of voice, as it was his well placed words. I fully believe his verbal and non-verbal communication was perfectly congruent with each other, giving the woman a compelling sense that her ultimate needs could be met with the living well of a person in front of her.

Water gives life. And Jesus, as living water, gives new life. A bunch of failed relationships testified to the woman’s dissatisfaction. Even though we hear no more about her after this story in the Bible, we as readers get the overwhelming sense that the woman finally found satisfaction. The love which kept slipping through her fingers now had staying power.

I am sure the Samaritan woman discovered true worship, in spirit and in truth.

I still remember my first encounter, at least my first aware experience, with the living Christ. I am quite sure Jesus was near me for a long time, without me knowing his presence. Words will never truly capture the overwhelming sense of love, acceptance, mercy, kindness, and deep satisfaction – a contentment and gratification which has stuck with me now for decades.

Messiah, “Savior,” is an apt term for Jesus. He certainly saved me from myself. And Christ has never left me nor forsaken me – always there, always available, always loving with both tender love and tough love.

I’m glad that Jesus didn’t consider this earth like the city of Detroit – a place to avoid – but willingly came to encounter people like the Samaritan woman, and me. And this is the basis of true worship.

“Have faith in me, and you will have life-giving water flowing from deep inside you, just as the Scriptures say.” (John 7:38, CEV)

Lord Jesus, Son of God, Savior of humanity, there is a river flowing straight from your heart into mine — replenishing, renewing, sustaining. May you, as Living Water, be persistent in me, breaking through every barrier in its path. Send this hydro-power through the dark crevices of my heart like a mighty flood overcoming and pushing everything out of the way that blocks its path. I want my heart to be washed clean of any debris cluttering and blocking your life-giving flow. May your love overflow onto your people — your grace, your mercy — into the lives of those we encounter, to your glory and honor, in spirit, and in truth. Amen.

Colossians 3:12-17 – Wear the Right Clothes

God loves you and has chosen you as his own special people. So be gentle, kind, humble, meek, and patient. Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace. So let the peace that comes from Christ control your thoughts. And be grateful. Let the message about Christ completely fill your lives, while you use all your wisdom to teach and instruct each other. With thankful hearts, sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. Whatever you say or do should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks to God the Father because of him. (Contemporary English Version)

New life is fantastic!… Until it isn’t.

Like a new car eventually losing its new car smell, so it is quite easy for the Christian to experience the mountaintop of transformation, only to lug back down and walk through the boring old valley.

And it’s fun to have a new set of clothes… until they wear out, go out of style, or fall apart in the washing machine. the thing about those new clothes we were so excited about when we got them is that they are wearing out.

When I was eight-years-old (a long time ago!) I still remember my favorite pair of jeans. I wore them every day. My Mom had to order me to take them off so she could wash them. Finally, after having several patches sewn on them, having grown too much, and with the material so thin you could see through them in places, that old ratty pair of jeans actually just fell off my body in a heap, as if to say, “Enough is enough, boy!”

Our nice white spiritual clothes, given to us through Christ’s resurrection, are to be our favorites. We need to clothe ourselves in them every day.

Because of Christ’s redemptive events of crucifixion and resurrection, believers can experience new life, free from sin, death, and hell.  Oh, it isn’t that we never need to deal with evil; we very much do. The difference is that we now have a new awareness of our spirituality.  And with awareness comes choices. 

If we aren’t aware of our feelings, our spirit, and/or old nature, well, then, it’s as if we operate on auto-pilot – losing altitude in an immanent descent into tragedy. When we are aware of our inner selves, then we mindfully ascend through the clouds to join Christ.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:22-24, NIV

We can make choices about what to wear. With awareness, we look in the mirror and see that the grave clothes need to come off. The old raggedy garments of pride and hubris, greed and immorality, selfish lust, jealous envy, spiritual gluttony, unholy anger, and complacency get taken off and tossed in the garbage. 

We then go to God’s expansive walk-in closet and choose the bright raiment of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and grab the beautiful coat of love which covers it all with such dignity and honor.

It would be super weird to try and put the new clothes over the old raggedy grave clothes. That’s not only gross, but it’s also downright wrongheaded. Practical Christianity always involves two actions: taking-off and putting-on. 

“No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.”

Matthew 9:16-17, MSG

Human willpower and/or ingenuity tries to live a virtuous life while ignoring the vices. This will not do for the Christian. The endearing qualities we so desire to possess cannot be obtained without first dealing with the crud of sin which clings to us like so many stinky dirty clothes. To put this in theological terms: the cross and resurrection go together. Sin must be put to death before a victorious life is put on.

Once we have acknowledged sin, let Christ take it all off, and put on the new clothes. Then we’re ready to hit the town in style!  We walk out the door with a tremendous sense of peace, knowing God in Christ has cleaned us up.  We stroll into the world with lips whistling and a song in our hearts – singing with gratitude for what the risen Christ has accomplished on our behalf. 

After all, we just put on expensive clothes and it didn’t cost us a dime.  In fact, we’re so darned thankful that we don’t just talk to others, we sing our words to them – even though we can’t carry a tune.  It doesn’t matter.  Our coat of love compels us.

Almighty and everlasting God, you willed that our Savior should take upon him our clothing of death upon the cross so that all humanity would have the privilege of wearing humility, gratitude, and love. Mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of Christ’s life, and also be made aware of our participation in his glorious resurrection, in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Samuel 10:1-5 – Misunderstood

Sometime later, King Nahash of Ammon died, and his son Hanun became king. David said, “Nahash was kind to me, and I will be kind to his son.” So, he sent some officials to the country of Ammon to tell Hanun how sorry he was that his father had died.

But Hanun’s officials told him, “Do you really believe David is honoring your father by sending these people to comfort you? He probably sent them to spy on our city, so he can destroy it.” Hanun arrested David’s officials and had their beards shaved off on one side of their faces. He had their robes cut off just below the waist, and then he sent them away. They were terribly ashamed.

When David found out what had happened to his officials, he sent a message and told them, “Stay in Jericho until your beards grow back. Then you can come home.” (Contemporary English Version)

Showing mercy, grace, and good faith doesn’t always have a happy ending.

Sometimes people get burned for their genuine gracious overtures. Not only do some folks not return or reciprocate with grace. There are times when someone refuses it and even responds with criticism and judgment.

King David was at the pinnacle of his rule. All Israel and Judah were under his gracious authority. David acted as a godly sovereign when he sought to use his power to show kindness and grace to those in his kingdom, even to those who were related to his former enemy, Saul. (2 Samuel 9:1-12)

Yet when David kept up his gracious ways and sent a delegation to the Ammonites in order to bring compassion to a grieving nation, they not only spurned the kindness but attributed evil intent to it.

Why in the world would they do such a thing? Why did Hanun, the new ruler of Ammon, reject David’s kindness? Because he severely misinterpreted David’s motives, and completely misjudged David’s intentions.

It is important to make wise assessments of others, and not quick judgments about people or their situations.

Being misunderstood is downright difficult to swallow. Yet we can avoid sinful reactions and respond with grace, even if grace isn’t being shown to us:

  • We can be gracious by not always needing to have the last word. Any fool can get easily get sucked into an argument. Know when to stop talking.

Too much talk leads to sin. Be sensible and keep your mouth shut. (Proverbs 10:19, NLT)

Even fools may be thought wise and intelligent if they stay quiet and keep their mouths shut. (Proverbs 17:28, GNT)

  • We can be gracious through cultivating a humble spirit. Pride assumes that another can be silenced with the power of words. What’s more, wounded pride typically manifests itself by gossiping to others about our hurt.

Destructive people produce conflict; gossips alienate close friends. (Proverbs 16:28, CEB)

Pride leads to destruction; humility leads to honor. (Proverbs 18:12, CEV)

God opposes arrogant people, but he is kind to humble people. (James 4:6, GW)

  • We can be gracious by developing our capacity for civility and empathy. Often when someone spews their off-base judgments and criticisms upon us, they have a world of their own past personal hurt behind the angry diatribe. We can choose to be gently curious about this, discovering why there is such a visceral reaction to our kindness.

“I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45, NIV)

Show respect for all people. Love your brothers and sisters in God’s family. Respect God and honor the king. (1 Peter 2:17, ERV)

  • We can be gracious through tapping into an inner storehouse of wisdom. Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up. Wisdom is insight into reality. For the believer, it is the ability to take God’s Word and lovingly apply it to the lived experience we are enduring.

Hold on to wisdom, and it will take care of you. Love it, and it will keep you safe. Wisdom is the most important thing; so, get wisdom. If it costs everything you have, get understanding. (Proverbs 4:6-7, NCV)

It is true, of course, that “all of us have knowledge,” as they say. Such knowledge, however, puffs a person up with pride; but love builds up. (1 Corinthians, 8:1, GNT)

One of life’s hard lessons is that bestowing grace and mercy to others does not necessarily mean they will receive it and respond in kind. 

In fact, there are some individuals who refuse grace and give back only scorn and derision. Even the Lord Jesus experienced this like no other before or after him. Christ endured all the foulness and degradation of a cruel cross because there were people who refused to see that he was extending God’s grace to them. He turned scorn on its head by despising shame and enduring pain so that we would be spared of such ignominy. (Hebrews 12:2-3)

In those times when we, at best, scratch our heads, and, at worst, weep uncontrollably over having our genuine love paid back with harsh misunderstanding, it is a good reminder that we are imitating the life of our precious Lord Jesus who knows exactly what shame is and what a profound lack of mercy can do. 

It is in the seasons and events of life which produce frustration that we understand this: Perfect peace will not be found in this life. So, we more fully attach ourselves to Jesus and find genuine grace and the solidarity of faith and love.

Consider what Christ went through; how he put up with so much hatred from those misinterpreting and misjudging him. Do not let yourselves become discouraged and give up from gross misunderstanding.

Loving God, I give you thanks for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus. Christ is the pioneer of my faith. Just as he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at your right hand, so help me to live into the grace you offer through Christ’s redemptive events so that I might persevere with grace through all the unmerciful acts of this world. Amen.