Be nice

We Christians ought to be nice, you know?

Kind, gentle, warm, friendly.

Perhaps that’s not anything new to you, but it seems to me that occasionally we overemphasize some things and forget about others.

For example, we’ve really stressed what the Bible teaches about baptism, the church, sexuality, what women can and cannot do, and so on.

And I think we should. People need to hear what God said about issues like those, and we shouldn’t shy away from them because they’re controversial.

But at the same time, I’ve known of a few people who believe all the “right stuff” but who just aren’t very kind.

I think they don’t really know what it means to follow Jesus.

Here’s what Paul said:

“Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near” (NASB).

Some versions put “gentleness” (NKJV, NRSV, NIV) or “reasonableness” (ESV).

One says it means to be “considerate in all you do” (NLT). Another says Paul wants us to be “gentle and kind” (NCV).

The word carries with it a hint of selflessness, of “considerate courtesy and respect for the integrity of others.” This person doesn’t insist on his rights (R.R. Melick, p. 149).

We’ve all fallen short in this area, but make a commitment with me today.

Let’s treat everybody we see with kindness. That includes the incompetent salesclerk, the guy who cuts us off in traffic, and the rude co-worker.

Let’s be patient with our families–our kids, our spouses, our siblings, our parents. Isn’t it interesting how sometimes it’s easier to treat strangers well than it is our own families?

Let’s be gentle. We might have to correct someone today—perhaps a son or daughter at home or an employee at work. We might have a legitimate disagreement with someone.

But even in those situations, can’t we do it with gentleness?

A harsh Christian is really a contradiction in terms.

Rejoice?

If you look at the world a certain way, it’s easy not to rejoice.

Life is stressful.

I keep waiting for that time when everything slows down. Then, I tell myself, I’ll be less stressed and more content.

Do you ever fall into this trap?

There’s negative stuff all around us, which, if we’re so inclined, can damper our spirits.

An uncertain economy. A rising deficit. Strife in the Middle East (isn’t there always?).

Personally, perhaps there’s uncertainty about health (why these weird symptoms?).

And concern for the kids (Lord, help them to turn out okay . . .).

And a million more besides.

But our world isn’t any different from the one the Bible spoke to.

Parents worried about their children. They stressed over the new emperor. In ways we can’t even imagine, their physical health was always a concern (no antibiotics???).

Yes, to that world, and to ours, Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:3).

Notice that he didn’t say, “Rejoice always.”

The little prepositional phrase in the middle makes all the difference.

If our joy depends on perfect health or a booming economy, it’ll be short-lived.

If our contentment hinges on a stress-free life or perfect relationships, we’ll always be disappointed.

It just won’t work.

Which is why Paul said to rejoice “in the Lord.”

Rejoice because of our relationship to Jesus Christ.

Because he saved us.

Because even though this world is messed up, one day he’ll fix it.

Because our names are written in the book of life, and we’ve got a certain hope for tomorrow.

No matter what kind of stresses we face today.

Rejoice, Paul says.

In the Lord.

The best gift of all

When we get together with my side of our extended family during Thanksgiving week, we do our Christmas gift exchange a month early.

Most of the time some kind of electronic gadget tops my wish list, so I got a new phone last week.

And yes, I love it.

I don’t need it, but I love it.

I hate to admit it, but I would be lost in many ways without my smartphone.

You’ve got something on your list, right? Something you’re really hoping you’ll get?

All this stuff is nice, of course, but we all recognize it isn’t anywhere close to being what’s most important.

I received the world’s greatest gift almost 30 years ago.

It was a Sunday, and I walked to the front of a little church building and gave my heart to Christ. I was baptized into him for the forgiveness of my sins. He saved me, gave me his Spirit, and added me to his body, the church.

A priceless gift.

As we conclude Thanksgiving week, let’s focus today on thanking God for what he did for us in Christ.

Let’s do what Paul urges here:

May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:11-14).

We thank him because he has qualified us “to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.”

How wonderful is that?

If you’re a Christian, you’ve been qualified for the inheritance of eternity with Christ.

He’s rescued you from darkness and placed you in his kingdom. He’s redeemed you, forgiven you, saved you.

Sure, we’re thankful for the food God’s given us, thankful for our families and blessings on earth.

But mostly, we’re overwhelmed by God’s choosing to rescue us from our rebellion against him and giving us the gift of salvation.

In your devotional time today, thank him for saving you. Thank him for forgiveness and redemption. Praise him for that incredible inheritance with the saints.

Whatever you might get this holiday season—even if it’s bought at an unbelievable discount on Black Friday—can’t begin to compare with what you already have in Jesus Christ.

The only list that matters

I wasn’t ever all that good at basketball, but I wanted to be. When I was in the tenth grade, I decided to go ahead and try out for the varsity team.

My chances of making it weren’t good.

Nevertheless, I hoped to impress the coaches, so I practiced for hours. I worked on my jump shot, my dribbling, my quickness, and my strength.

After tryouts the coach told us that the final list would be posted outside his office by the end of school the next day.

I’d never wanted my name to be on any list as badly as I wanted it to be on that one.

I wasn’t optimistic, but I still hoped.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I still remember where the list was posted, and what it looked like.

I remember scanning it quickly the first time.

And then again, this time more slowly.

And a third time, finally confirming what I had suspected.

What would almost certainly have been an illustrious career in the NBA had been cut short even before it began.

If only that coach could’ve seen the budding potential . . .

You’ve probably got a story like that one, maybe about something considerably more important.

A list of scholarship recipients that you hoped your name was on.

A list of those who were selected for an internship.

A list of the finalists who made the cut to get an interview for the job of your dreams.

Maybe your name was on it, maybe it wasn’t.

And maybe you’ve lived long enough to realize that your whole life didn’t hinge on making that list, though it seemed so at the time.

But there is a list that matters.

A lot.

Paul mentions it here:

Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Philippians 4:3).

God’s list, his record of all those who believe.

His family, redeemed children, heaven-bound believers, Spirit-indwelled Christ-followers.

Their names are engraved in his book.

I don’t think we understand the full implications of that.

Our world measures value by the letters tacked onto the ends of our names, or by how many Who’s Who lists we’re on.

Our names are printed in hundreds of places, from diplomas to plaques and trophies that adorn our office walls and bookshelves.

At the end of the day—or certainly at the end of a life—only one thing matters, though.

It’s not about making the team or getting the internship or receiving the job offer. None of those lists will matter much then.

What will matter at that time is this: as a son or daughter of God, your name is written in his book with love.

When you scroll down that list and see your name, you’ll care about absolutely nothing else.

God is good, but not everyone has it this good

Like many of you, today I’ll sit with my family around a table weighed down with all sorts of deliciousness. We’ll eat more than we should, then we’ll push back and recline in front of a flat-screen television to watch sports.

Yes, it’ll be a good day: family, food, and football. What more could you want?

Maybe yours will look something like that as well.

Having said that, though, I think we need to think.

Not everyone has it this good. In fact, from a global perspective, hundreds of millions don’t.

According to the World Health Organization, about 800 million people in the world are chronically hungry (which means they’re eating at least 100 calories per day lessthan they need to live), including 20% of the population of developing countries. Almost 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa and 70% of Asia and the Pacific have a daily caloric deficit of more than 300 calories.

When people don’t get enough calories to sustain themselves, they get sick. They can’t lead an active life and therefore can’t work. Countries with high numbers of malnourished people can’t advance, and the cycle continues.

A similar problem exists with water. About the same number of people (800 million) don’t have access to safe drinking water, and 20% of deaths of children under age 5 occur because of water-related diseases. About 80% of sicknesses in developing countries are linked to poor water (The Water Project; www.thewaterproject.org).

Here at home we don’t really worry too much about getting enough calories or getting sick from our water.

At our big meal today we’ll have our choice of several kinds of soft drinks, iced tea, and bottled water.

None of us will think for an instant about the possibility of drinking a contaminated beverage.

I don’t even want to think about how many calories will be in the dishes that are prepared, but it’s a safe assumption that no one will step away from the table with any kind of caloric deficit.

It’s interesting that most of us worry about consuming too many calories, something millions of people in the world can’t imagine. They’re just trying to make it to the next day.

So where does that leave us?

Two quick thoughts:

Let’s thank God from the bottom of our hearts for all he’s given to us. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above . . .” (James 1:17). He’s been so good to us.

And let’s pray for the people who couldn’t even dream of a meal like the one we’ll eat today. “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Galatians 2:10).

Let’s not get so consumed with our little corner of the world that we forget about the people who are struggling.

An inexpressible gift

I heard a story about a mother and son sitting in church listening to the preacher talk about the crucifixion of Jesus. As the preacher described the Lord’s incredible sacrifice, the mother noticed that her son was crying.

Turning to him she whispered, “Oh, quit your crying. You’ve heard all this before.”

That’s fictitious, I hope, but it reflects a real struggle for those of us who’ve been Christians for a long time.

Does the story of Jesus lose its emotional appeal?

Does it become just something we’ve heard before?

It can happen.

In our emphasis on gratitude this week, let’s spend time today focused just on Jesus—nothing else.

Paul wrote, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

He was probably referring back to this verse: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).

The most precious gift we’ve ever been given is Jesus. Consistent with God’s will, he gave up heaven’s glory, “emptied himself,” became a servant, and died a horrible death.

He took on himself the curse of God, became a sin offering, embraced death, felt the wrath of a holy God.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?, he cried, expressing some kind of agony I’m not sure we understand.

And he did it for us.

Why? Because we did something to deserve his favor?

Not in any way.

He did it because of love.

It sounds cliché, but he loves us more than we know.

Oh, I know you’ve heard this story a thousand times, as I have.

You’ve heard the sermons, read the gospels, taken the bread and wine to remember.

You know what he did, and you know it well.

But in an attempt to keep it from being merely a story you’ve heard before, focus on it again today.

Thank him for dying on the cross for you.

Thank him for taking on himself God’s curse, for becoming sin . . . for you.

It’s a story you know, but don’t let it become just something you’ve heard before.

Fussing in church

Have you ever (secretly) wished that everybody in the church would be more like you?

Most of us probably wouldn’t admit it, but maybe we’ve looked down our noses at some church folks and wondered why they’ve got the issues they do.

Truth is, if everybody in the church was like you and me, we’d still have problems in the church.

It’s just the way it is.

Yesterday I wrote about how much I appreciate the sweet fellowship of God’s people, and I believe that, but because we’re flawed, the church will always have problems to address.

Even the church at Philippi—the one Paul loved so much—had something going on the apostle wasn’t happy with.

Here’s what he wrote:

I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life (Philippians 4:2-3).

Apparently there were a couple of ladies in the church who weren’t getting along, so Paul decided he’d address them directly.

Can you imagine being in church on the morning one of the elders read this letter?

I’m guessing Euodia and Syntyche wanted to crawl under a pew—or whatever the pew’s first-century equivalent was. Every eye in the house turned to look at them.

What was the problem between them?

We have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m reasonably certain that it was like most church squabbles I’ve been around.

Whatever they were disagreeing about wasn’t a big deal, but the argument itself might cause problems.

To modernize this passage, you might change the names to “Mary” and “Jane” or “John” and “David.”

My experience has been that most of the time when people are upset, it’s not over something overly consequential, like denying the deity of Christ or adding animal sacrifice to our worship assemblies.

It’s over color-of-the-carpet kinds of issues, or somebody said something to somebody about someone, and brother so-and-so is very unhappy.

Paul’s advice?

“Agree in the Lord.”

I don’t think Paul is saying that we have to agree on everything.

Instead, he’s saying that we need to agree on the essentials and not make a big deal out of the rest.

I suspect we’d have fewer Euodia-and-Syntyche kinds of problems if we all did that.

In your devotional time today, pray for the unity of the church.

Pray that God will help us all to agree in the Lord, that we’ll be able to distinguish between stuff that’s worth arguing about and stuff that’s not.

Peace within the family of God is worth giving up some of the pettiness that occasionally characterizes us.

Just say “thanks.”

Sometimes my prayers of thanksgiving are motivated more by habit than by heart.

“Father, I thank you so much for this food and for this day and for my family and for every blessing. Thank you for our house and our clothes and our friends. And, of course, thank you for Jesus.”

I can say all that—and quite a bit more—without thinking at all about what I’ve said.

Do you ever do this?

We fall so easily into the rut of ritualism, going through the motions because it’s what we’ve always done.

It can infect our worship—ever sung an entire song without thinking about any of its words?

It can hurt our relationships—our conversations with our spouse might never get deeper than the superficial. “How are you?” “Good—you?” “Fine. How are the kids?” “Oh, they’re good. How was your day?” “Fine.”

We say a lot of stuff without really thinking about it.

That’s one of the things I like about Thanksgiving.

It hasn’t yet become completely commercialized, at least not as much as most holidays. It’s still mostly about an important attitude—gratitude.

Let me urge you this week to take some time to do some focused thanks-giving.

Not the ritualistic, thank-you-for-this-day kind of gratitude, but genuine from-the-heart thanksgiving.

In your devotional time today, take a few minutes in a prayer that’s exclusively focused on thanking. During this prayer, don’t ask for anything. You can do that in another prayer today, but for now, just thank God.

Thank him for who he is and what he’s done.

Thank him for his creation, for his Son, for his church, for his salvation.

Thank him for your family, your food, your friends.

Just thank him.

George Herbert wrote: “Thou hast given so much to me, Give one thing more—a grateful heart; Not thankful when it pleaseth me, As if Thy blessings had spare days, But such a heart whose pulse may be Thy praise.”

And Paul wrote:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6-7).

My family

I’m sure there’s enjoyable fellowship outside of God’s family, but I just can’t imagine what it would be like not to have the church.

My family. Your family.

Oh, they’ve got their problems, of course (don’t we all?), but people within the household of faith are my support group. I grieve and rejoice with them, I depend on them, I need them.

Where do unbelievers find this? At a bar? With their bowling club?

I’d guess it’s a far cry from the sweet fellowship of God’s family.

Feel Paul’s emotion as he encourages some of his favorite people:

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved (Philippians 4:1).

I like the way the NIV puts it:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!

And The Message paraphrases it like this:

My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don’t waver. Stay on track, steady in God.

Paul loved those people.

And that’s the way it ought to be in the church, and that’s the way it is, at least in my experience.

When there’s a sickness or death or divorce or other struggle in the church, God’s people huddle up and help everyone get through it.

When there’s a victory or success or special day, believers celebrate with one another.

We all weep and laugh together.

Suppose for a moment there were no heaven or hell, no judgment, no cross, and no God, and so salvation wasn’t to be found in Christ’s church.

I’d still want to be part of a local family of believers who love one another.

In your quiet time today, thank God for the church, for his people, for your spiritual family.

Ask him to help us all grow in our relationships with one another so that we might reflect on earth even more fully the beautiful fellowship that will be perfected in heaven.

Our real home

I’m somewhat tired of thinking about politics, elections, who won, who didn’t, and why.

I’ve done my share of poll-watching and blog-reading, but now I’m ready to move on.

Coincidentally—or perhaps not—I came to the following verses in Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi, and it reminded me of something important.

Perhaps it will help you in your devotional time today.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:20-21).

These Christians were proud of their city. Philippi was a Roman colony, and they were Roman citizens. Those facts carried enormous privileges.

Paul—writing from the capital of the Roman Empire—felt like they needed a bit of a wake-up call.

“Our citizenship is in heaven,” he gently reminded them.

We live here on earth for a little while, he writes, but we keep our eyes peeled out for the eventual return of Jesus. When he comes, he’ll transform this old messed-up body into one like his glorious body.

There was nothing wrong with being Roman citizens—Paul sometimes used his citizenship to his advantage—but he wanted them to remember what was most important.

We’re Christians first of all, and then Romans.

Maybe we need that reminder as well.

Except for a few of you, almost everyone receiving these devotionals lives in the United States. There’s a strong patriotic sentiment here, and it’s always been that way.

“I’m proud to be an American,” we sometimes sing.

During election seasons, when claims of patriotism surround us, perhaps we ought to be reminded again.

We’re Christians first, and then Americans.

We belong to God primarily, and then maybe to a political party.

We’re tent-dwellers down here . . . but our Lord is working on our permanent home up there.

The same power that raised Jesus will one day snatch us up out of our graves, and he’ll escort us to the place we really belong.

Until we get there, we’ll always feel somewhat ill at ease in this world.

But that’s to be expected because, in a very real sense, we’re just visiting down here for a little while.

It’s not really our home.