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.

God and the Human Condition (Romans 1:18-25)

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and injustice of those who by their injustice suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them because God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.

So they are without excuse, for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. (New Revised Standard Version)

Exchanging Good for Bad

Nature abhors a vacuum. Everything is filled with something. If one thing is given up, another thing will take its place. Change is actually more like an exchange of one thing for another. Something is taken out, then replaced with something different.

We have exchanged:

  • Behavior that attends to the common good of all persons, for self-interested behavior to what is good for me and my family and/or group
  • Good deeds done from a pure heart, for good deeds done from an impure heart which give me an advantage or leverage over another
  • Steadfast committed love of others, for hustled love that gets discarded whenever things get hard
  • Submission to one another out of a sense of sacred reverence, for disobedience to anyone I don’t like
  • Dignity of being an image-bearer of God for the shame and ignominy of self-image
  • Majesty and worth of all persons in the world, for becoming masters of small worlds
Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

And that’s not all, there’s more. We also have a nasty tendency to replace:

  • Freedom for shackles
  • Virtue for vice
  • Morality for immorality
  • Justice for injustice
  • Goodness for ungodliness
  • Truth for a lie
  • Wisdom for foolishness
  • Immortality for mortality
  • Honor for dishonor
  • Devotion for disregard
  • God for gods

These are all very poor replacements. In fact, the exchanges are so dark that they leave us in a state of guilt before God and all creation. Indeed, we all have sinned and fallen short of our intended purpose on this earth.

Guilt and Shame

Our response must not exchange guilt for shame because they are different words:

Guilt is assigned by God so that repentance and reconciliation might happen.

Shame, however, is introduced by us; we are the ones who label ourselves as a bucket of pig slop, not God.

Guilt is a function of the conscience, letting us know when we have said or done something wrong or hurtful; it is specific to a particular action or lack of action.

Shame, however, is a function of the “inner critic.” It interprets bad words or actions as we ourselves being bad, focusing not on actions but on our very personhood in the form of judgmentalism leveled at myself.

Guilt says, “I have done something bad.”

Shame, however, says, “I am bad.”

Guilt serves a redemptive purpose through alerting us that we need to deal with a wrong.

Shame, however, damages our spirits through telling us we are flawed and unworthy of love and connection with others.

Because guilt and shame are not the same, they need to be dealt with in different ways.

Guilt, if not faced and dealt with, becomes gangrene of the soul. Over time it festers and poisons our spirits, leading to significant emotional and sometimes physical problems. Forgiveness (both in apologies and in forgiving oneself) is the primary tool in dealing with guilt.

Shame, however, lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name your shame and tell your story – thus taking away shame’s power and giving it back to yourself. Vulnerability is the tool which erases shame.

“Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged and healed.”

Brené Brown

Emotional Creatures

In the absence of light, there is darkness. Purging oneself of belief in God merely means that another god will take her place. Scripture labels this “idolatry.”

What’s more, in the absence of feeling, in the quest to absolve oneself of unwanted emotions, there still remains emotion – because humans are emotional creatures.

People mostly rid themselves of any god concept because of how they feel about it. In fact, we do just about everything in life based on our emotions. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. We get into problems and fuss about emotions mucking up things, only because we never faced those feelings to begin with.

A person will never know God unless they understand this. The worship of God and the practice of Christianity is not only to engage the mind and the spirit, but also the body and the emotions.

Emotions and feelings are not like foreign microbes that enter the body as unwanted interlopers. They didn’t enter humanity as part of the world’s curse, after Adam and Eve’s fall into disobedience. No!

Rather, we are our emotions, just as much as we are our body, mind, and soul. Therefore, every emotion which exists, resides in us, all the time. We cannot purge ourselves of our emotions any more than we can remove the heart, the brain, or the bowels, and then expect to live.

Denying our emotions, suppressing feelings, and leaving them unacknowledged is terribly unhealthy and will slowly kill us – because our emotions are vital to our very existence.

Getting Rid of God

There are millions of spiritually dead zombies walking the earth who have jettisoned God altogether – either deliberately or unwittingly – because they discarded their emotions, long before they exchanged the sacred for the secular.

We all sometimes get physically ill; it’s part of the human condition, and we all understand that. So, we go to bed, or to the doctor, or to the hospital’s emergency department – depending upon the severity of our illness. We even go to a physician when we are healthy, just to get a check-up and make sure everything in the body is working as it should.

We also all get spiritually and emotionally ill; it’s part of the human condition. But we all don’t understand that. So, we soldier on, going about our regular business as if everything is hunky-dory. We don’t attend to our emotional selves. We don’t slow down and address what’s going on, or go to a church, or go to anyone. Instead, we suffer in silence.

Just as it ludicrous to get rid of the body altogether whenever we get a disease, so we must not rid ourselves of God whenever we get spiritually and emotionally sick. We face the illness and deal with it. It might require surgery. Recovery will hurt. That’s all part of facing it.

Ignoring God is about as smart as ignoring a heart attack. It might go away for a short time, but it’ll come back with a vengeance and do you in.

Emotions aren’t to blame when things are rough. Neither is God to blame when bad stuff happens. Both our emotions and God are realities we must deal with.

Just like the force of gravity is always there and needs to be respected (by not simply walking off the roof of your house, believing you don’t need gravity anymore) so the person and the power of God is always here and we absolutely need to come to terms with that reality, instead of walking away.

What will you do?…

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?…

Speaking Truth to Power (Jeremiah 26:1-15)

The prophet Jeremiah, 6th century mosaic, Ravenna, Italy

Early in the rule of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, this word came from the Lord: The Lord proclaims: Stand in the temple courtyard and speak to all the people of the towns of Judah who have come to the temple to worship. Tell them everything I command you; leave nothing out. Perhaps they will listen, and each will turn from their evil ways. If they do, I will relent and not carry out the harm I have in mind for them because of the wrong they have done. 

So tell them, The Lord proclaims: If you don’t listen to me or follow the Instruction I have set before you—if you don’t listen to the words of the prophets that I have sent to you time and again, though you haven’t listened, then I will make this temple a ruin like Shiloh, and this city I will make a curse before all nations on earth.

The priests, the prophets, and all the people heard Jeremiah declare these words in the Lord’s temple. And when Jeremiah finished saying everything the Lord told him to say, the priests and the prophets and all the people seized him and said, “You must die! Why do you prophesy in the Lord’s name that ‘this temple will become a ruin like Shiloh, and this city will be destroyed and left without inhabitant’?” Then all the people joined ranks against Jeremiah in the Lord’s temple.

When the officials of Judah heard these things, they went up from the royal palace to the Lord’s temple and took their places at the entrance of the New Gate of the Lord’s temple. The priests and the prophets said to the officials and all the people: “This man deserves to die for prophesying against this city as you have all heard firsthand.”

Jeremiah said to all the officials and to all the people, “The Lord sent me to prophesy to this temple and this city everything you have heard. So now transform your ways and actions. Obey the Lord your God, and the Lord may relent and not carry out the harm that he’s pronounced against you. 

But me? I’m in your hands. Do whatever you would like to me. Only know for certain that if you sentence me to death, you and the people of this city will be guilty of killing an innocent man. The Lord has in fact sent me to speak everything I have said to you.” (Common English Bible)

When it comes to the spiritual and religious life, on the one hand, we hold the joy and contentment of divine connection and peace; and, on the other hand, we hold the sadness that many turn their backs on divine realities. In Christian terms, Jesus is both the cornerstone of faith and the stone which causes people to stumble and fall. (1 Peter 2:8)

Frankly, the Lord is not okay with cruel injustice, hollow worship, and inattention to both the divine and human. There is a way to make things right. But not everyone wants that. Systemic evil persists because there are always those who benefit from the current structures of power – and they care little about how it impacts those on the underbelly of their control.

Things may be going well for a large chunk of people. And, conversely, things may not be going well at all, for an even larger group of folks. Therefore, it is necessary to acknowledge that the world is not only good, but also quite broken. We must speak truth to power. I understand that this is no easy task, because rarely are things simply black and white, all good or all bad.

Jeremiah preaches in the temple gate, a woodcut by Unknown artist, 1886

In the prophet Jeremiah’s day, it was not that his opponents were pure evil with no acknowledgment of God. Rather, the problem was that the power brokers in Judah tried to keep a strict separation of religion from everything else; they were perfectly fine with God, that is, if the Lord would stay in the temple where he belonged.

But Jeremiah would have none of this sort of mentality and behavior. Keeping Yahweh out of matters of social justice, geopolitics, and institutional governance led to severe humanitarian problems. Jeremiah became God’s voice to a generation of people who ignored the divine in everything but religious ritual.

Bifurcating worship and work disconnects daily life from divine resources. Without God infused in all of life, a lack of grace fills the empty places. What’s more, the sovereign Lord can neither be silenced nor dismissed; God will find a way to accomplish peace and justice for the common good of everyone, and not just the few.

The heart of Jeremiah’s message was for king and people to be obedient in all of life, to recenter themselves around God’s law – not just the religious bits but the social ones, as well. Jeremiah did not proclaim something new. He was calling those in places of power and authority to a proper Torah observance.

The true needs and interests of our communities can never be addressed and lifted-up in the narrow self-serving interests of persons in power who turn a blind eye to anyone unlike them.

The needs and interests of our world lie in becoming who we were designed to be from the beginning: A people belonging to God, tapping into the deep reservoir of light and spirituality within us. It is to acknowledge the image of God inside us all.

We are to follow in the way of grace and truth. There is to be no division between the sacred and the secular because, for the Christian, Jesus is Lord of all.

We are to continually use our voice for both praise and prophecy, for shouting celebration to God and for speaking truth to power.

Holy God, the gracious Sovereign of all, we give you praise for your steadfast love toward us, your people. Keep us grounded in humility, sensitive to sin, attentive to that which is just and right, merciful in all things, pure in worship, and peace-loving through Christ our Lord in the strength of the Spirit. Amen.