Sunday, August 30, 2015


Ken Sipley will be on vacation September 2-18.  His next post will be Sunday, September 20.

Genuine Love

Genuine Love
Romans 12:9-13
            At first this title might seem silly.  What is fake love?  Is there such a thing?  What would it look like?  Would it be hypocritical, looking like love on the outside, but in reality being some other emotion?  Would it seem to be genuine but only out for what it could get for itself?  Would it be manipulative, conniving, greedy, instead of giving and caring?  Fake love could be all these things and more.  In fact, there is probably more fake love in this world than genuine love.  How do we know the difference?
            Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians does a good job of telling us what genuine love looks like.  After criticizing his audience for their failure to love each other genuinely, he beautifully and succinctly shows them true love in Chapter 13.  Anyone who reads this chapter carefully can’t miss knowing how they should love.
            This isn’t the only place Paul talks about genuine love.  Sooner or later he gets around to it in most if not all his letters.  His epistle to the Romans is a good example.  Paul has written extensively about his people, the Jews.  He grieves because they have rejected Jesus, who Paul sees as the next logical step in Judaism—the Messiah for whom they have been waiting for hundreds of years.  But he assures his readers that the Jews will be saved, that God will keep the promise made in the wilderness of Sinai.
            Paul then tells his Gentile readers not to become smug because God has accepted them and seems to have rejected the Jews.  Not only will the Jews be restored if they accept Christ, but those Gentiles who have been “grafted in” can, if they become egotistical or careless about their newfound status, be cut back out.  So Paul says, “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think,” because conditions can change.
            Then Paul gives his readers some good advice.  In one translation this passage is headed, “Marks of the True Christian,” and it begins with the words, “Let love be genuine.”  Perhaps realizing that this statement is likely to raise questions (such as those we asked earlier) he describes what genuine love should look like.
·         Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
·         Love one another with brotherly [and sisterly] affection.
·         Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
·         Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
·         Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
There’s another paragraph which continues the list.  I encourage you to read it.  The further Paul goes in this list the more he sounds like the Jesus Christ to whom he gave his life.  By the time he gets to the end of the second paragraph he is essentially quoting Jesus’ words.
What is genuine love?  Paul tells us in terms that are so clear and concise that he cannot be misunderstood.  This love calls us to give, to forgive, to spend and be spent serving those who need us—in other words, to live as Jesus lived no matter what it costs.  That’s what real love looks like.

We need to remember what Jesus taught us about neighbors in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It’s easy to love those who love us, who behave like us, who look like us, who think like us.  When we offer genuine love we extend it not just to the few who are close to us but to the least of these, to the ones we consider not worthy of our love, the ones who are completely unlovable.  This is where love becomes difficult—but this is how we must love.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Eating With Sinners

Eating With Sinners
Luke 15:1-2, 7:36-50
            Several years ago my wife and I were teaching in a small town in another state.  We were also the music team at one of the local churches (I conducted the choir, and Mary, the one with talent, played organ and piano).  We were only there a year, but during that time there was an interesting occurrence at the church.
            A man who sang in the choir told me about the end of his first marriage.  He and his wife had been members of another church when she left him.  The church reacted negatively to him, asking, “How could you do this to us?”  He was the injured party, but instead of rallying around him, supporting him, and offering him Christian love and care, they condemned him for something that was not only not his fault, but that he had been powerless to prevent.
            The man left the church, remarried, and became a member of the church we later served.  This couple began a ministry to those who were grieving because of broken relationships.  We attended one of the sessions to see it for ourselves.  The love that poured out of this couple, the compassion for those who were hurting, and the assurance of God’s care were overwhelmingly beautiful.  Those despairing people came away from that weekend knowing that they were loved, and that God had not deserted them.  This man had turned his negative marital and church experience into one that was positive for many grateful people. 
            Later that year we arrived at church one Sunday morning to find the place in an uproar.  The news had just broken that one of the married women in the church had become involved with another member.  The affair was brief, had ended, and although the husband had been terribly hurt, he chose to reconcile with his wife.  Over the next months the couple worked diligently to repair their broken relationship.  We left town before the healing was complete, so we don’t know the final outcome, but they seemed to be making great progress towards repairing the breach.
            What was interesting was the reaction of the couple whose marriages had broken down and had turned their pain into a healing ministry.  The morning when all was revealed, they walked out of the church never to return.  Another couple who had gone through divorces left also.  The church was devastated by the loss, but managed to recover and move on.
            Sad, isn’t it: these people who had helped so many others couldn’t bend to help those close to them.  The man who had been most affected by the affair worked with his wife to try to restore their relationship.  The other couples, themselves victims of failed marriages, couldn’t offer love and care.
            What would Jesus do?  We find the answer in the seventh chapter of Luke.  Jesus not only forgave the woman who ministered to him with her tears and ointment, but also told a parable involving two debts, one small, one great.  The point of the story can be found in the hymn, “Grace Greater than All Our Sins.”  God’s outrageous love forgives all, both those who sin by breaking the law, and those who sin by keeping the law.
            Of course Jesus ate with sinners!  Everyone who shared a meal with him, everyone who came to him for help, everyone who criticized him—everyone who came into any contact with him was a sinner.  How could he avoid interacting with sinners?  But of course, he didn’t try to.  Jesus knew he had come to call sinners to repentance.  How could he do that if he avoided them?  Too often we forget that we all need God’s grace—but we won’t get it if we don’t give it.

            Who did Jesus come to forgive?  Us.  To whom do we offer forgiveness? Everyone.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Revealing Typos

Revealing Typos
Matthew 6:9-13
            Do typos drive you crazy?  They do me.  As a lifelong teacher I’ve seen more than enough of them.  Sometimes they’re annoying, like using your instead of you’re or the other way round.  Sometimes they’re glaring, like using car’s (possessive) instead of cars (plural).  Sometimes they’re downright funny.  Many humorous ones appear in newspaper headlines.  When the headline writer doesn’t think things through the result can be interesting.  We’ve all seen those headlines.  One of my favorites isn’t exactly a typo, but it does create a “Huh?” moment. 
In Illinois there are two towns close together, Normal, and Oblong.  A headline once appeared in the local paper:  “Oblong Man Marries Normal Woman.”  If you live in that part of Illinois, the headline makes sense.  The rest of us respond with, “What did it say?”
A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to a book entitled, A Diary of Private Prayer, by John Baillie.  I’ve quoted several of his prayers in this space.  Baillie wrote two prayers for every day of the month, morning and evening.  There are also two prayers for Sunday.  You can substitute the Sunday prayers for the ones for that day, or (as I do) read both.  Baillie uses old biblical English (Thee, Thou, Thy when addressing God, for instance), and all biblical quotes are from the Old King James Version.  While the antiquated language is sometimes disconcerting, there’s something majestic about it as well.
Unfortunately, the editors of Baillie’s book missed a few typos.  I don’t know whether Baillie wrote incorrectly and the editor didn’t check thoroughly, or the typesetter goofed and no one caught it.  Either way, there are a few places that make the reader say, “What?”
Two of the entries end with the Lord’s Prayer.  One of them has a typo.  The opening sentence reads, “Our Father, which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name.”
The eye reads the line, stops, goes back and reads it again.  At first the typo glares out at the reader: “ERROR!  ERROR!  ERROR!”  After a few times, the typo begins to make its own kind of sense. 
Isn’t it true that we are hallowed—made holy—by God’s name?  We know we have no righteousness in and of ourselves.  Isaiah says it (“our righteousness is like filthy rags”).  David and the other psalmists tell us the same thing.  Paul says it in many ways.  Jesus says we have no grounds on which to come before God.  Without God’s righteousness we have nothing to cling to.
But God calls us to be holy.  Acknowledging Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is a good start, but only a start.  This is how we begin our Christian walk, a path we will follow until it’s time for us to be with God.  The only way to grow closer to God is to try, day by day, to be more like God, to be more holy—to be hallowed by God’s name.
Sometimes typos can be humorous.  Sometimes they can be grating because of bad grammar or incorrect spelling.  Sometimes we grind our teeth at the seeming incompetence of the writer.  Occasionally the typo makes as much sense as the correct words.  This is the case here.  When we pray we need to say to God, “hallowed be thy name,” to recognize the innate holiness of that name and to give God what God is due. 

But perhaps we should also, at times, recognize our sinfulness and misquote the prayer, saying, “hallowed by thy name,” admitting that we are nothing without God’s righteousness, and recognizing our need to be completely dependent on God’s grace.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Changing the Way We Think

Changing the Way We Think
Philippians 4:8
            Behavior modification experts say it is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.  They’re right.  Of course they’re right!  Thinking about beginning an exercise program rarely gets us off the couch.  Thinking about watching what we eat rarely keeps us out of fast food restaurants or the snack food aisles of the grocery stores.  Thinking about giving up smoking rarely stops us from buying the tobacco products we know we should leave alone.
            On the other hand, if we start the exercise program, or change where we eat or the kinds of food we buy, or pass up the smokes counter, sooner or later we’ll start changing our habits.  It may take a while, but we’ll get into shape, and perhaps even enjoy working out (at least some days).  We’ll find that healthy foods really don’t taste bad, and consist of more than just nuts and twigs and berries and leaves.  We’ll stop smoking and enjoy the taste of food again.
            I think Paul understood this.  Perhaps he was a behaviorist without knowing it.  The word didn’t exist during his lifetime.  How do we know he felt this way?  Read his letters.  He rarely talks about thinking, but often talks about doing.  In fact, much of the Bible is about doing.  We read about the Acts of the Apostles, not their thoughts.  Even the Ten Commandments describe actions, not modes of thinking.  Jesus taught about how we should live, not about how we should think.  His summation of the Commandments?  Love God and love neighbor.  Those of us who have ever loved anyone know that love is an action verb—possibly the most active verb in the English language.
            So why is Paul telling us to “think on these things,” as most translations render this verse?  Is it possible this man of action wants us to meditate, to have good thoughts running through our minds while we sit quietly, contemplating life?  Is this perhaps a less-than-accurate translation?  Does Paul have something else in mind?
            Let’s go back to the concept of acting our way into a new way of thinking.  I remember a story I heard many years ago.  A missionary to Africa was talking to a young man who had recently become a Christian.  The missionary suggested that the new convert might want to focus on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as a way of learning how to live a Christian life.  The young man went away.  Some time later he returned to tell the missionary that he had memorized the entire sermon.  The missionary was amazed, and asked how he had done it (remember, the Sermon on the Mount begins at Matthew 5:1 and ends at 7:27—a very long passage).
            “It was easy,” the young man said.  “I just went out and did what it said to do a little at a time until I had learned it by heart.”
            Easy!  He said it was easy!  Through his actions he had developed a new way of thinking, but it couldn’t have been easy.  If it were, more of us would do it, and I’ve never met anyone who has—including me.
            One translation, the English Standard Version, says “practice these things.”  I believe this is more to the point.  If we practice being true, honorable, just, and lovely, there will come a time when we think that way.  Certainly, we won’t be perfect in our new way of thinking, just as we’ll skip a few days of exercise or have an extra dessert from time to time.  But our habits will be formed.  Our inclination will be to do those things which lead to truth and justice, to demonstrate honor in our dealings with others, to have our actions be commendable.

            How do we begin?  Like the young man learning Jesus’ words—a little at a time.  Try being true, or just, or honorable for a week or two—or a month or two.  See what happens.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Games People Play

The Games People Play
Matthew 23:27-28
Oh the games people play now
Every night and every day now
Never meaning what they say now
Never saying what they mean

            Some of us may remember these lyrics by Joe South.  There’s a bitterness to this song, and there are good reasons for it.  Some verses are about relationships between two people.  Some deal with people so removed from reality they don’t understand the pain they cause.  Some talk about religion games—and it’s those verses we’ll concentrate on.
            Games have rules.  If one of the players establishes the rules, that person has a far greater chance of winning than anyone else in the game.  Sometimes the rules are known.  Sometimes only the “lead player”—the one who made up the rules—knows what they are.  It’s up to the other players to figure them out.  By the time this happens it’s often too late.  The players who don’t know the rules are so far behind they can’t catch up.  Sometimes the rules are so stacked in favor of the lead player that even if they are known the other players don’t have a chance.  These situations happen far too often in relationships.
            Many of us have had bosses or co-workers who are game players.  Some of us know families that thrive on game playing.  We may even have been part of such families.  Many times multiple games are being played at the same time, with each person being the lead player in his/her game, using his/her rules to punish the other players.
            Game playing occurs anytime someone (or some ones) choose to disguise his/her real personality or purpose in order to gain an advantage over someone (or ones) else.  Most of us have encountered enough of this behavior to recognize it quickly.  If so, and if possible, we stop playing the game by extricating ourselves from the situation.  Oftentimes we can’t.  The lead player is in such complete control, or we are so involved in the situation, that we can’t get out.
            This was the case in first century Judea.  The religious leaders were the lead players.  Over the years (centuries, actually) they had established the rules.  Since they were also the referees, there was no way the other players could win.  They couldn’t even break even.
            Then Jesus came.  Not only was he not a game player, he also outranked the referees.  They just hadn’t figured that out yet.  But many of the other players had.  They were looking for a way to end the game, and saw their escape in Jesus’ teachings.  They saw in Jesus a way to break even or possibly end the game.
            In teaching after teaching and parable after parable Jesus showed the endgame.  Sometimes he posited a world order where games wouldn’t be played at all, where people would be straightforward and honest, matching what they said with what they believed, and creating a level playing field.  Other times, such as in Matthew 23:27-28, Jesus condemned the lead players and called them what they were—hypocrites. 
People walking up to ya
Singing glory hallelujah
And they’re trying to sock it to ya
In the name of the Lord

            “No more one-sided games,” Jesus says.  “Let’s change the rules.  Those on the bottom will move to the top, and the lead players will go to the penalty box.  If you want to be part of my kingdom you have to agree to play by my rules.  God is the referee, and God says for all of us to work together on an equalized playing field, where cooperation—not competition—is the rule.” 

God sends the same message today.  Are we listening?  Or are we too busy playing?