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.

To the Family of God (2 John 1:1-16)

St. John the Apostle, by sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911)

From the Elder—

To the dear Lady and to her children, whom I truly love. And I am not the only one, but all who know the truth love you, because the truth remains in us and will be with us forever.

May God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, give us grace, mercy, and peace; may they be ours in truth and love.

How happy I was to find that some of your children live in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And so I ask you, dear Lady: let us all love one another. This is no new command I am writing you; it is the command which we have had from the beginning. This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands. The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.

Many deceivers have gone out over the world, people who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came as a human being. Such a person is a deceiver and the Enemy of Christ. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for but will receive your reward in full.

Anyone who does not stay with the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. Whoever does stay with the teaching has both the Father and the Son. So then, if some come to you who do not bring this teaching, do not welcome them in your homes; do not even say, “Peace be with you.” For anyone who wishes them peace becomes their partner in the evil things they do.

I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink; instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you personally, so that we shall be completely happy.

The children of your dear Sister send you their greetings. (Good News Translation)

The Pastor

Tucked away near the back of the Bible is a short little letter from the Apostle John, identifying himself as “The Elder.” This is meant to convey both his venerable leadership and his affectionate relation as the grandfatherly old man who has something important to say. In other words, John was, in our terms, a Pastor responsible for shepherding the church with care.

The Church and Christians

“The dear Lady” is a metaphor for the church. Through personifying the church, John was assigning worth, respect, and dignity to the mother with spiritual progeny.

“Her children” are the believers within the church, spiritual offspring with the church as their mother. This has been an important motif for most of Christian history – an understanding that has gotten lost over the centuries in much of the Protestant world. Yet, one of the magisterial reformers, John Calvin, retained this view of the church and its members:

“The Church is the bosom which God is pleased to gather his children… who are guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…. How useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us under her care and guidance… Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1, 4)

Indeed, Calvin was merely upholding the words of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c.200-258, C.E.)  who stated 1,300 years earlier than the reformer:

“No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”

St. Cyprian (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, ch.vi)

Love and Truth

The relationship between the mother and her children is to be always characterized by familial love. Everything within Christianity rises and falls with love because God is love.

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving.

In fact, God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

God is not okay with deceit, not at all alright with errant understandings of his Son, Jesus Christ, being made out as a mere phantom without a real flesh-and-blood body. He had to be made like us in every way. Otherwise, there is no deliverance from the deceitfulness of sin, the sting of death, and the agony of hell.

John, as the Apostle of love, consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always, insisted John. Love is only really possible when there is truth in the heart.

The true muster of mother church and of individual believing children is their love. No matter what is done – whether outreach, fellowship, or worship – it is all to be done in love and in truth. It’s not enough to be right; the rightness must be applied with the generosity, grace, and liberality of love.

The telltale sign of the deceiver, the false teacher, is that he proclaims only one without the other, either truth or love, but never both together.  

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is a red flag that impure teaching is happening. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love, neither in word nor deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and truth always go together. A mother is a mother because of her children; and a child is a child because of the mother. You cannot have one without the other.

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions, assumes we already understand their situation without hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love finds itself by carefully applying biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love.

Love must have its way, or it isn’t love.

Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Hope and Happiness

Hope is a confident expectation that promises will be kept and realized.

Happiness is the result.

Hope and happiness go together like bacon and eggs, Tom and Jerry, the moonwalk and Michael Jackson, Friday and fish fry, Harry Potter and Hogwarts, salt and pepper, Adam and Eve, Jesus and the Spirit, and well, I think you get the picture.

Unhappiness is the inevitable result of feeling hopeless. Hope and happiness are both relational terms. They come from having good relations based in love and truth.

Love and truth are very much relational terms, being realized because of mother church’s nurturing.

And the chosen mother came into being because of the Father’s gracious will.

So, tell me, what is your takeaway from this quite brief reflection on John’s little letter?…

Live Into Your Calling (2 Peter 1:1-11)

Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

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.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (New International Version)

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

My friends, we have a simple but profound task: To bend down, find the broken shards, and pick them up.

This work of making a real and lasting contribution to humanity confirms our vocational calling and is made possible by divine power.

And yet, so many of us feel like a tiny Who on a speck of dust, with such a small insignificant voice, that nobody can hear us.

But somebody does hear us – and that somebody has very large elephant ears which are attuned to listen.

A person’s a person, no matter how small. A person has light, no matter how dim.

A great deception which befalls humanity is the lie that we aren’t enough – that somehow we lack voice and light in our core personhood.

This leads to another deceitful thought: God is holding out on me; I got the short end of things; I was never given the sort of voice which can be heard, or the kind of light which can burn bright.

Those deceiving vampires only suck the life out of us. What we need, instead, is to imbibe deeply of robust theology which empowers us to live faithfully in this world of corruption.

We have everything we need to grow in grace; God’s provision for us is total and complete.

By grace, we can discern between truth and error; endure hostility and hardship; persevere with patience as we await the new heaven and new earth; and confront anything in this present life with confidence and hope. We can do it because we’ve been equipped for it all.

Core to all this provision is the very life of Christ. Jesus is the source of the power; and his is the grace needed to live life to the full. The same resurrection power which raised Christ from the grave is available and provided to us.

God’s supply for us is sufficient. It is enough. We have everything we need to walk with boldness through any dark alley. The believer’s confidence is in carrying the cross – which keeps the deceiving vampires of guilt, shame, doubt, and distrust at bay.

Sheer cognitive belief, however, is insufficient. It’s only half the equation. The other half is to let our light shine, be the salt of the earth, and take up the gifts given us by God and use them.

Therefore, put significant energy into your faith development through knowing your call to bless the world and not curse it.

Confidently using faith, fully participate in God’s divine power through the qualities of:

  • Goodness. Cultivation of moral excellence is both helpful and needed in all our relationships. Goodness is like a seed planted. It proper amounts of water and sun, as well as continual tending to keep the weeds away.
  • Knowledge. There are two words in the ancient Greek for knowledge: one is a reference to acquiring information; and the other refers to actively using the information provided. The Apostle Peter uses the latter – an experiential knowledge which is wise, discerning, and discreet.
  • Self-Control. This is the ability to get a grip on yourself, to avoid controlling others and focus on all things within your own control. Ultimate control belongs to God; self-control belongs to you and me.
  • Perseverance. To see the big picture, to look ahead and keep your eye on the goal, is the lived practice of endurance. Everyone has patience. The real issue is whether we will tap into it, or not.
  • Godliness. The heart of godliness is a growing awareness of self, others, and God – rightly relating to them all with wholeness and integrity.
  • Mutual Affection. Basic human kindness is the basis of any healthy community and every relationship.
  • Love. This is the Christian’s consummate virtue. Whereas affection is to be mutual, love can always be done whether someone loves us back, or not. Genuine love can be directed at the unlovely, even enemies.

Effectiveness in living a virtuous life is not a matter of more but better.

It doesn’t happen on an industrial scale with a mass production of spiritual resources for the busy Christian consumer.

Rather, it occurs in the soil of God’s grace, mostly below the surface of the ground, slowly but surely germinating with faith, rising in hope, and producing a harvest of love that blesses both church and world.

A little bit of Jesus is enough to turn the world upside-down. You don’t need a big loaf of bread; a miniscule communion wafer will do.

A tiny mustard seed of faith can move a mountain.

A kernel of goodness can produce a harvest of righteousness.

A bit of knowledge and awareness can uproot the weeds of bigotry and hate.

A grain of self-control can grow into a field of peace.

A simple insight can create a cascade of transformation.

A single act of kindness can alter the course of another’s life forever.

A few seconds of attention can change the world.

A teensy amount of love can feed everyone on the earth.

We have everything we need to realize the new society Christ has made possible. We are in want of nothing. We are enough because Christ is enough. So, live into your calling with courage and confidence.

Heavenly Father, you are the One ever-present on this earth in your only Son and through your Spirit:
May your Name be shown forth as holy through us, your people.
May your gracious and benevolent reign come, establishing peace and justice, hope and life; and may your moral and ethical will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven.
Give us what we need for today; and adjust our vision into a clear 20/20 awareness of others’ needs.

Forgive us of our great and many sins, for the immoral and unethical things we have said and done, and for the good words and good deeds we have failed to say and do; forgive us, just as we forgive those who have egregiously sinned against us.

Don’t let us amble down a dark path of temptation, of hardening our hearts and closing our minds; but instead, deliver us from the machinations of evil, and set our feet upon the lighted path of righteousness.

To You, everlasting God, belongs all sovereign decrees of  justice and truth;
To You, almighty God, belongs all powerful deeds of righteousness and goodness;
To You, holy God, belongs all glorious displays of love and compassion;

Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with You and the blessed Holy Spirit are one God, now and forevermore. Amen.

Coming to Grips with Grinding Adversity (Psalm 137)

“By the Waters of Babylon, They Sat Down and Wept” by Kate Gardiner Hastings

Alongside Babylon’s streams,
    there we sat down,
    crying because we remembered Zion.
We hung our lyres up
    in the trees there
    because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
    our tormentors requested songs of joy:
    “Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
But how could we possibly sing
    the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Jerusalem! If I forget you,
    let my strong hand wither!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
    if I don’t remember you,
    if I don’t make Jerusalem my greatest joy.

Lord, remember what the Edomites did
        on Jerusalem’s dark day:
    “Rip it down, rip it down!
    All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
    a blessing on the one who pays you back
    the very deed you did to us!
    A blessing on the one who seizes your children
    and smashes them against the rock! (Common English Bible)

This side of heaven is full of both love and heartbreak, celebration and lament, encouragement and insult. It is a spiritually schizophrenic existence of heaven’s kiss and hell’s bite. 

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Yet, it is a world that is presently being reclaimed by God’s kingdom. Therefore, our emotions run the gamut from joyful happiness to sheer sorrow. Either way, especially through the difficult stretches of our lives, Christians are to tether themselves to their true home of heaven.

The psalmist was speaking of Jerusalem, the city that represented the very presence of God. Yet, the Babylonians came and destroyed the temple, their homes, and carried thousands of her citizens into exile.

Although experiencing the Babylonian Exile, the people of Jerusalem were not to forget their real home. 

For the believer in Jesus, this present abode is like camping in a tent – it is a temporary home, and not our permanent residence.

It is easy to forget our true home, which is why we need the constant perspective of eternity. We ought not get too familiar with our current living conditions. 

Simple acts like looking up at the stars at night or gazing into the vast expanse of the day’s sky can be tangible reminders that we are meant for larger things, for the embrace of heaven.

None of this, however, means that we are to ignore what is happening in the here and now. Trauma is real and needs to be dealt with. Having an expansive perspective doesn’t mean we stuff the details and emotions of traumatic events.

The psalmist names the difficult experience, the agonizing emotions, and the bitter thoughts. None of it is hidden or buried under a layer of positivity.

“Lamenting Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann, 1832

We need the combination of faith that my experienced is acknowledged, of hope that a better future is coming, and of love that good still presently exists in the world. Faith, hope, and love are all vital in coming to grips with terrible adversity.

Hiding large swaths of our lives and stories from others is not the path to spiritual wellness, emotional healing, and personal peace. Spiritual and emotional health comes from owning our internal struggles. The virtues of weakness, humility, vulnerability, and faith opens us to the way of grace.

We too often struggle because we don’t struggle. 

I’m the expert on stuffing feelings and turning them into thoughts. I learned it well early in my life. Yet, feelings never evaporate just because we ignore them. Just the opposite, like a forgotten half-carton of cottage cheese in the back of the fridge, our feelings only gather moldy bacteria and crust over with nastiness. 

We need to understand that feelings really do have an expiration date to them. If not openly acknowledged and dealt with, they’ll fester into bitterness. It’s much better to deal with our present struggles instead of living with the wishful thinking that they’ll just go away.

There are 52 references to “one another” in the New Testament, including: 

  • Love one another (John 13:34-35)
  • Be kind to one another (Ephesians 4:32)
  • Show hospitality to one another (1 Peter 4:9)
  • Forgive one another (Colossians 3:13)
  • Encourage one another (Hebrews 3:13)
  • Bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2)
  • Spur one another on toward spiritual well-being and healthy community relationships (Hebrews 10:24)

Nowhere in Holy Scripture will you find references to hide from one another, pester one another, or put up a false front toward one another.

God desires for us to take a risk on betting the farm on Jesus. Embracing Christ involves owning our struggles, both to God and to one another. 

You may argue that it isn’t helpful to wear your feelings on your sleeve. But I’m not talking about emotional diarrhea; I’m referring to something far worse: emotional prostitution, where we sell ourselves to others in a cheap façade of who we really are and how we are really doing. 

We want to be liked, loved, and longed for. And we very much desire to avoid heartrending pain. So, many mistakenly believe that keeping up false appearances will get them what they long for.

What matters most is faith expressing itself through love (Galatians 5:6). It takes personal risk to have faith. And it takes two to have love.

Own your struggle. Face it squarely in all of its foulness, degradation, and ugliness. Face it with both God and others. 

If you’re mad as hell at God, then say it; the Lord is big enough to take it. If you need prayer or help, ask for it. Don’t just expect someone to read your mind or your emotions. If someone asks you to pray, stop what you’re doing, get on your knees with that person, and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Life is too short to sleepwalk through it with a constellation of unacknowledged emotions. It takes no relational effort to ask a pat question like, “How are you?” It takes even less relational energy to give a pat answer such as, “Fine,” or “Busy.” Instead, let’s get down to why you feel a constant need to say how busy you are, even when you’re not really all that busy.

Holy Scripture doesn’t call us to hide, but to love one another enough to both give and receive God’s grace. 

Daily reading and praying of the psalms is a good place to begin in learning to be authentic with God and the people in our lives. It’s the only way of dealing with the overwhelming circumstances and emotions we face.

Loving God, please grant me peace of mind and calm my troubled heart. My soul is like a turbulent sea. I can’t seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me spiritual strength, mental clarity, and emotional calm to find my purpose and walk the path you’ve laid out for me. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, may the light of your divine countenance shine on the shadowy places of my life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Amen.