Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Do We Have Any Volunteers In the House? James 2:14-17

"14 What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary fortheir body, what use is that? 17 Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead,being by itself" James 2:14-17

I peeled my eyes opened. Eight a.m. on a Saturday. Forget the fact that my weeks have six Saturdays and one Sunday, my brain had been trained and  Saturday is sleep-in, lazy sacrosanct. However every Saturday we members of North Country Habitat for Humanity banded together to work on the restoration of a house for a needy and deserving family.

      I didn't want to go. Jimminy Crickets, it was Saturday. But James 2:14-17 might as well be engraved on my forehead. "Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? ... Isn't it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?"(from THE MESSAGE)

     So I rose and within the hour I shined. Once again I discovered joy in giving. I hammered nails, chatted with friends, learned skills, watched our family work for the home they'd soon inhabit and ate a fabulous lunch prepared by Joanna, a dear friend on our local board. I couldn't imagine any greater way to spend a Saturday.

     And I learned some valuable lessons to boot:

  1. toenailing has nothing to do with a pedicure
  2. shank isn't something prisoners use nor something you braise in an oven
  3. a stud is not a virile man
  4. strapping is not used in S & M
  5. dike is not a gay woman nor something that holds back water
     So tell me what you think these mean? 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Joseph: Christmas's Exemplar of Faith--James 2:20

 "But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless" James 2:20? 

English: The Nativity of Christ
I love Christmas carols. In them we celebrate Jesus and Mary and angels and shepherds.  We exalt stars and lambs and little drummer boys. Magi, Eastern astrologers, even make the list.However, I'm hard pressed to think of one carol that mentions Joseph except for the "Cherry Tree". This song ridicules him for not giving the virgin a cherry.

However, when I think of Joseph, even though he's not mentioned in Hebrews 11, the "Faith Hall of Fame", I think of a man who exemplifies James 2:14-26. He was a man of faith who demonstrated that faith through his works.

As a teenager, Joseph was betrothed to Mary who found herself pregnant. She gave him a hair-brained story that she was still a virgin and would birth the Son of God.

Being an honorable man, Joseph thought to divorce her quietly. In those days, engagements could only be terminated by divorce.

Philippe de Champaigne's The Dream of Saint Jo...
Philippe de Champaigne's
The Dream of Saint Joseph
painted around 1636
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As he slept, he dreamt. In this dream, an angel appeared to him and said, "'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit'" Matthew 1:20.

He believed. Because he had true faith, he acted on it. The Gospel of Matthew goes on to say, Joseph took Mary home to be his wife.

And to make the tale wilder, he did not consummate his marriage until Jesus had been born--no small feat for a teenaged boy.

This Christmas season, remember your faith and let Joseph be one of its models.

Merry Christmas, and be strong in your faith.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Quality of Mercy: James 2:13

"For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment "James 2:13.

"Henry" grew up in a home parented by an alcoholic father and a distant mother. With no familial example, he turned to drugs by the time he was thirteen. By his mid-twenties, he'd been twice married, twice divorced. He lost his children, ended up in jail.

He should have known better having seen his parents' life. He should be punished for his robberies, drug dealing, inept parenting. He should have...

True. Though, we need to remember we all have sinned in some fashion, and in breaking one part of God's commandments, we've broken them all. Thankfully, Henry's story didn't end with a life of incarceration.

With the new drug laws for non-violent offenders, Henry was offered drug court in lieu of a continued sentence. This procedure is essentially a civil action that depends on the will-power of the addict to stay clean and to be accountable. It's a step toward mercy.

Better for Henry, he found himself in a residential, God-centered rehabilitation program. Here, with a close reading of Scriptures, a program much like AA's Twelve Step program AND social and emotional support, he's been clean for close to a year.

His sister had been granted custody of his children. Prior to his joining the drug program, she refused all contact with her brother. Now, given his progress, he's established visitation again.

Relationships are being restored. Henry's beginning to give back to the society he robbed, and a life is redeemed.

"For judgment will be merciless
to one who has shown no mercy;
mercy triumphs over judgment "James 2:13.
He's not an isolated case. I work with CR (Celebrate Recovery), a Christian-based course that builds its precepts on the Beatitudes. It consists of worship, testimony, study, small group, accountability partners and sponsors. If a person struggling with addictive behaviors or co-dependency so wishes, he/she can take an intensive six-month study.

This community redeems the lost. Not every individual shown mercy here does turn her life around. However, many dear friends, people I've quickly formed close alliances with, had been former addicts, and some had been rightly imprisoned for their actions.

It's a network of beautiful lives restored because of mercy.

Mercy must be extended through all facets of our society, not just to addicts. Black lives, just as police lives, matter. Let's understand and work for mercy. Poverty is sometimes self-inflicted, other times it's a matter of circumstances. How can mercy not help? Christians are mocked, just as Muslims are discriminated against. Can we reach a Muslim with the truth of Jesus without mercy? Can we allow the Holocaust to resurrect because of another religious intolerance?

If one person out of ten is pulled out of the fire by mercy, we've achieved much.

Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes...
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation...

And aren't the last two lines so true? Who here would have salvation without God's mercy? In James 2:13, we receive a chilling warning if we have not mercy...our own judgment will be merciless.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Are You a Respecter of Persons? James 2: 1 & 8

"My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism" James 2:1.
If, however, you are fulfilling the [i]royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well" James 2:8.

I attended a church which hired an interim pastor from a successful congregation in a neighboring village. This man could preach a great sermon, and his church prospered. In many ways, was a good Christian leader. However, in my life, he did more to stall my Christian growth than grow it.

The prelude to his sermons or the illustrations in it always contained ungodly boasting. "We have doctors in our church. Lawyers." He would straighten his posture. His stance would widen to better awe us with the prominence of these people.

Our little flock boasted a few teachers. The rest of the members worked in delis or as laborers or farmers. No one to boast about. 

Over time, this man blustered about his boat, his home, his swimming pool, his daughters and his son, I felt smaller and smaller. His good sermons became tainted, and to this day, twenty years later, I have no respect for him or his accomplishments.

Attitudes like his are infectious. Throughout his tenure, our congregations mingled. Never did his church make me feel at home, except for one time. 

My daughter and I attended their New Year's Eve party. We worshiped, heard a good message and then adjoined to the fellowship hall. With plates full of goodies, we found two seats at the end of crowded table. We assumed we'd chat between ourselves, enjoy our meal and leave.

Suddenly, the lady next to me started a conversation. Another person chimed in. A third woman asked about our lives. For some reason, the cool, as in indifferent, congregation accepted us.

Then I discovered the reason. Three seats down, sat the braggadocious pastor. These congregants who never knew we existed had no choice but to note our presence, to acknowledge us.

As an outsider, I can tell you, Christians like these do more harm to the gospel than help. I liked my own little church, loved the dear friends there, so fortunately this interim group did nothing to shake my faith. It did, however, create a distaste for this man's teaching, and an unease in attending church and an aversion to ever recommend the interim pastor's home church--even now, long after he moved on to better things. MUCH better things.

Today I belong to a congregation filled with multifarious individuals--those with cognitive disabilities, prison records, drug addictions. We have engineers, school teachers, legislators, professors and grocery clerks. Doctors and lawyers and dentists and rich and poor all populate the group. 

As a newcomer to the community, I never know with whom I'm speaking. Because of the pastor's wholehearted acceptance of everyone and consequently my church family's love for all, my life is enriched in too many ways to share.

The end effect is a tremendous growth in my faith, my love of Jesus and my desire to share the gospel with others.

Do you envy those who prosper? Do you try to climb the social ladder? Read James 2. It can change your life.

Monday, November 30, 2015

How Pure Is Your Religion? James 1:27

"27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" James 1:27

My grandson, David, is a typical ten year old. He lives in a world of Minecraft and Clash of Clans. His family spends many a night curled up on the sofa watching their favorite movies like Star Wars. Rarely is he left alone. Only recently has my daughter allowed him to stay by himself for a few hours. I don't think he's ever walked the mile downtown alone.

A very illustrative pre-teen in an average

family, surrounded by love, compassion and protection.

The other day, The Washington Post ran a picture of a boy--no older than David, but probably around eight. He was walking through the ruins of a Syrian town. Not one building stood. The hills he climbed were the rubble of war, the remains of his village. Everything was blackened by fire, and around the corner he could face rifle fire or a bomb or the poisonous gas from the president sworn to protect this country.

I thought, "I could never let my child live under these conditions." If this was my world, I'd flee.

That's exactly what thousands of Syrians thought, and it's what they did. They ran to the shelter of the West, to towns in Serbia, Germany and France. If they got lucky, they could get to England or the United States and raise their children in saftey.

Sadly, what met them were people saying, "Go home" or "Go to another country".

President Obama wants to bring some to the United States. The loudest opponents to this are the Christians. "We don't want a Muslim here." "There'll be terrorist in the lot." "I'd be open to letting them into the United States if they were Christian."

How can we read texts like James 1:27 and deny solace to devastated peoples?
Can we gain comfort from the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), and then turn our backs on others?

Can we remember the Jews we turned away from our borders in the 1930s or the Japanese we interred at the end of World War II and still deny succor to refugees?

And how about those in ghettos in our own country--people denied human rights because their skin is dark? Do we forget the Civil War and the misery of slavery?

As my brother reminded me, my own family faced bias in the fifties simply because they immigrated from Belarus in 1915 and were still considered a threat.

We, as Christians, cannot be bigots. We cannot worship on Sundays and curse the people made in God's image and likeness on the next day.

A church that does not couple compassion with spirituality, is defiled.

Do you stand for pure and undefiled faith or is your religion vain?

Monday, November 23, 2015

Be Doers of the Word: Look in the Mirror--James 1:22-25

English: The Big South Fork of the Cumberland ...
English: The Big South Fork of the Cumberland River
 in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
 in Scott, Fentress, and Pickett Counties of Tennessee
 and McCreary County, Kentucky, USA.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude them-
selves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

On a beautiful Saturday, three friends and I hiked Big South Fork in Kentucky. The sun shone, the air was dry and crisp. Life--and the scenery--couldn't have been better. It was time for a photo.

I grabbed my phone, held it out over the overlook. Instead of seeing Devil's Jump or the Big South Fork, I saw me. 

English: A natural bridge in the Big South For...
English: A natural bridge in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in Scott, Fentress, and Pickett Counties of Tennessee and McCreary County, Kentucky, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Unaware that the lens had been turned in my direction, my image startled me. My hair stood on ends--unparted and tangled from pulling my hoodie over my head. Mascara had streaked from the wind that caused my eyes to water.

I turned the lens the opposite direction, and took the snapshots. Beauty.

Life captured my attention. I oohed and aahed with my friends. Examined the arches of the rocks, the holly berries, the sweeping panorama and the fungi. We ate a fabulous lunch and continued our hike.

But me? I hadn't changed much. The wind blew my ratted hair, but it didn't restore it to order. My eyes watered a bit more, and layered my skin with more mascara. I was a mess.

Not Looking Good
And that's us if we're only hearers of the word. I hadn't changed at all after viewing my appearance. My life only worsened it. My hair needed a comb, my face a little "spit and polish." Without tending to what I knew to be wrong, my appearance only worsened.

In our lives, we listen to the words of this week's sermon on giving thanks in all things. Then we go home and complain--about Obama, about the weather, about ISIS, or about our husband's socks on the floor. We don't get the gratitude that makes life divine. The sermon did nothing to transform us.

We read in our Bibles to give to the fatherless and the widows, but on Thanksgiving we stuff our stomachs then grouse on the couch when our favorite dog doesn't win the dog show or that our mother-in-law's cole slaw unsettld our stomach. No one is helped. Those who have nothing on Thanksgiving still have zilch. Those who gave to us are not appreciated.

You hear the building fund needs money? The kids' church lacks helpers? Someone needs to fill out the choir? 

Do you sit and say, "Why doesn't someone step up?"

Have you looked in the mirror?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Giving Birth To Sin: James 1:14-15

Lightning striking the Eiffel Tower
"14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:14-15).

With the world, I grieve over the latest actions by ISIS--more than 120 people killed in Paris

Shortly before that, 224 people died on a Russian jetliner.

And a month prior, over 90 people died in Ankara.

Their psychopathic route to destruction will have no end.

What a sad illustration of James 1: 14-15. Militants, sucked into jihadism by their own evil desire gave birth to sin which led to death on scales we haven't seen within my lifetime.

It's so easy to point the finger at these radicals. Heinous, unscrupulous, and narcissistic, to be sure. Their deadly objectives, though, can point a finger to us.

We are like the people described in Philippians 3:19. "Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame." 

A leading hashtag on twitter boasts about how proud woman are about their abortions. We, as Christians, have certainly been confronted with the transgender issue. An underground movement still exists that claims it is normal to have adult/child sexual relations. We've accepted marijuana as legal. We eschew any mention of God in our laws. Blacks are angered that whites are distressed about Paris. Whites despise Blacks because of actions like the Baltimore riots. Does anyone love a Muslim these days? Do we remember that not all of them are militant?

Many of our actions start out innocuous enough. And extra piece of cake is fine. Done too often, overeating leads to gluttony. We ooh and ahhh over celebrity status, then do things to achieve our own status--even if it's evil.

One sin always leads to another. For centuries, we've jettisoned truth, and the end result are horrible acts like Umpqua, Ferguson, Paris, the European migration or the Nazi Holocaust.

The only good found in these actions is they give us a foretaste of hell, an eternal place far worse than any of these awful situations.

We must find our moral compass. That only comes from living a life Christ ordained for us.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Faith: How to Get It: PAPS

English: The apostle James in the Stavelot Bib...
English: The apostle James in the Stavelot Bible. Initial to the Epistle of James. Folio 197 verso. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. James 1:6-8

Faith is hard for me. Before I became a believer, it was impossible. People proved the Bible by the Bible--and that to me was a fallacy. I couldn't prove the world was flat by the book I wrote about a flat world, so how could I believe in the fiction of the Bible?

God, though was faithful, and heard, if not my prayers, the prayers of my Christian brother who loved me. 
Ivan Panin
Ivan Panin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I came across a tract written about a number system developed by Ivan Panin. Essentially, he had a mathematical formula for the word structure of the Greek New Testament. It was a complex thing that, to me, proved the Bible. I no longer remember the details. It was enough for me to take a step of faith.

And what happened afterwards?

Christianity proved itself--over and over and over. Lifestyles I couldn't change by myself changed. My chronic daydreaming disappeared. Cursing died. The strange, incomprehensible stories made sense.

And I became an insatiable devourer of the Word of God. I read the Bible through in various translations--no, not Greek or Hebrew--but in the KJV, NIV, NASB and others. Through it all, my life changed, my faith grew and I forgot most of what Ivan Panin taught. It no longer mattered.

However, the one area I struggled with was the demands to believe when I had no faith. The Scripture quoted above, "That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord" seemed cruel. How could I believe in something I didn't believe?

I won't lie. It's not easy. It can be done. Here're four ways--The PAPS.

  1. Pray. One time I had no desire to forgive a person who emotionally wounded me. I didn't want to forgive. So my prayer became, "Lord, make me want to forgive. If I don't want to want to, then make me desire to want to desire to change." My "want to want tos" went on a nauseatingly, only God could love it, long time. Guess what? I forgave. I don't even remember the wound. Honestly. It is only through the power of God that faith increases.
  2. Act. Behave as though you believe. I hated my job as a school teacher. I'd walk into school each morning grousing like the best of them, about how I hated work. It was sin. So, I asked for forgiveness for the lie I was about to utter, and I thanked God for the job I absolutely loved. Guess what? I loved teaching--almost from that moment on. I adore the Book of James because it talks so much about action. Christians often forget that actions over-shout words.
  3. Persist. If you give up the first time you don't understand something, you will stumble and fall away. I go to the gym on a fairly regular basis. Lifting a twenty pound weight on the machine that works my triceps seems insurmountable. By slowly adding weight to my workout, that goal can be achieved. If I quit? All I will get is what on trainer called "the happy muscle," a waving flap of skin on the bottom of my upper arm.
  4. Study. Faith comes from hearing. (Rom. 10:17). We can listen to the preacher, and I would never discount that. However, I have heard preachers who got it wrong. Seriously wrong. And even if these humans got it right 100% of the time, they don't always preach about the issues we need. So study. Not only will you grow, but the beautiful, interwoven tales, prophecy and history found in the Word of God will increase your faith.

Monday, November 2, 2015

You Be The Judge

Who judges?

Not me!

We all exclaim not me, yet...

Recently I read an article in The Washington Post. Lizzy Velasquez was a bubbly, happy child until she went to school. She'd been born with a rare metabolic disease that makes her unable to maintain any body fat. She has 0%.

If you're like me, one who obsesses over her weight, that may sound ideal, but we know it's not. Lizzy is skeletal and her metabolism is reeking havoc with her health. It makes her look odd.

One day she happened on a YouTube video of the world's ugliest women. To her horror, she found pictures of herself and hundreds of comments. In a desperate attempt to find one positive response about her as a lovely person, she read them all. To a one, they were awful--many suggesting she do away with herself and make the world a better place. Not one person knew this beautiful woman. All looked superficially.

Phew, we say, we're not that bad.

My daughter, Sarah, has a good friend she met

when both were members of the PTO.He's a math teacher and a swim coach.   This man's done many marathons--was running the Boston Marathon the day it was bombed. He's completed multiple triathlons and is training for an IRONMAN. He's a great husband, a loving father.

And he's a dwarf.

How sad life would be if we looked at this amazing man an suggested the world would be a better place without him.

Phew, we say, we're not that bad.

Sadly, recently I discovered that I probably was in league with these people.

I volunteer in Celebrate Recovery, a Christian program for those struggling with addiction or co-dependency. With each meeting I trembled fearing people would believe I had an addiction problem. (Maybe I do, but that's another blog).

I looked at others, and I wondered about their lives and where alcohol or drugs had taken them.

As I immersed myself in the program, I discovered two are missionaries from a local Bible camp. No addictions. Another was recruited because the tragic loss in her life rivaled Job's--including the unsympathetic comforter. No addictions. Another volunteered to help with the children, another had a bubbly personality and was recruited to greet people, another had been sentenced to jail, mandated to attend and had turned her life around.

On crazy lady who looked older than I but was probably younger, the one who had no hope of redemption got saved.

Some fit my pre-conceived ideas. But it's up to God to deal with them, not me. My job is to show them hope and let them make their choices. I need to show mercy. Not judgment.

We're a mix of ordinary people whose extraordinary lives touch the souls of others.

What did I miss in my first weeks at CR? What do we miss when we look superficially at others?

And how do we stop doing it?

I suggest starting with CR's first (paraphrased) step: We admit we are powerless over our judgmental attitude, that our lives have become Pharisaical.

James is one of my favorite Bible books because he offers such practical steps on living our faith.  In chapter 2 we read:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism....Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor....If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”[a] you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it....12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.