Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Following Jesus?

At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by "I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in." Hungry not only for bread- but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing- but naked of human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a home of bricks- but homeless because of rejection.

(Mother Teresa )

As followers of Jesus, how do we represent Him in our personal lives to those who are hurting?

Is this the primary ministry of our churches and ministries or are we more concerned with building bigger buildings or raising more money?

If this is the standard that is required of us as Christ followers, why aren't we more concerned about the "least of these?"

Why do we spend our money on second homes when some people don't even have a place to live? Why do we lavish ourselves with designer clothes and shoes when destitute parents aren't able to provide adequate clothing for their children?

Why do we preach love and grace in our churches, but we turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to those who are hurting and broken?

Why do we rip each other apart with hurtful words when we have been given mercy?

Why do we withhold love and respect from those who are different from us?

If these questions make us uncomfortable now, just imagine how we will feel when Jesus, who gave everything for us, asks us why we weren't willing to give to others.

As His hands and feet in this world, why are we presenting Him as a stingy, self-absorbed, angry God who doesn't care?

In the light of eternity, what will it matter if you are president of a charity when you steal the home, food, and clothing from people in need to build your own empire in the name of God? I wonder what you will say when He looks deep into your soul and reveals your greed and deception for everyone to see?

Perhaps we need to throw out all our religious strategies and traditions, and start to follow Jesus. But wait, if we go to that extreme, we may also be homeless and poor . . . or it may lead us to a cross.

Brenda Branson, Copyright 2008, All Rights Reserved

Monday, September 8, 2008

Invisible People

Invisible People

I recently attended a church where they were beginning a new evangelistic program called “Just Walk Across the Room.” It is a very good series developed by Bill Hybels of Willow Creek Church. The emphasis is on getting to know the people around you so you may have an opportunity to invite them to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

What could be wrong with that? Nothing . . . unless you think the end justifies the means. I wonder if our evangelistic strategies really please God, or if He is more interested in the motives of our hearts as we reach out to people around us.

When you decide to befriend someone, is it because you really care about them (as Jesus did) or because you feel better about yourself for inviting them to church? Are you motivated by the amount of money or status they have, or do you choose them the way you choose fresh produce—only the unblemished, most beautiful ones will do? How much time and energy would you put into a relationship if you knew that person would never be interested in knowing Jesus or attending your church?

When the goal has been met and your conquests have been enlisted, do you continue to nurture these relationships or do they quickly become invisible people as you move on to make other converts?

What does it mean to be invisible?

  • When the pastor leans across your seat to greet the person sitting next to you, but doesn’t even make eye contact or communicate with you, it may mean you are invisible.

  • When a clique of well-dressed church ladies walk right past you, making no eye contact or polite greeting, and spend the next half-hour talking among themselves in the same room while you sit quietly alone, it may mean you are invisible.

  • When your relatives who attend the same church walk past you without saying “hello” week after week, it may mean you are invisible.

  • When you’ve missed attending church for several weeks and no one calls to see if you are okay, it may mean you are invisible.

As I think about the invisible people in my own church, it grieves my heart that many of them have come and gone without notice and we have missed knowing some amazing people. When people are treated as objects or as a means to an end, they will be quickly discarded unless they have something special to offer such as status or money.

Here’s what it says in James 2 (The Message):

My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir, this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?

Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens! Isn’t it the high and mighty who exploit you, who use the courts to rob you blind?

To our shame, we do treat people differently in our churches. People who are too fat, too deep, too loud, too quiet, too poor, too flashy, or too much of a misfit are often ignored and judged. Perhaps we need heavenly glasses to see all the invisible people, to see the value in those who have been deemed insignificant, and to see everyone the way God sees them.

For all the invisible people who feel discarded and ignored, God sees you! He sees the real you—the person deep down inside your skin that others have missed, the person with gifts and dreams and love to offer, the person He created you to be. Don’t spend too much time grieving the sting of insensitive people who claim to know God; instead, look up and celebrate the incredible life God has birthed inside you and ask Him to help you see others with the same delight He has when He thinks of you.

God, give me eyes to see those whom you love and ears to hear the cry of their heart even before they say a word so that no one remains invisible or insignificant.

Brenda Branson Copyright 2008 All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Looking Back

Looking Back

I could hardly recognize myself. I was no longer the quiet, easy-going girl that very seldom got angry. In my reaction to my husband’s tirades and verbal abuse, I began having unkind thoughts (that’s putting it mildly!) and often responded with a sharp edge to my voice.

It felt like my insides were boiling and any day this volcano of bitterness would erupt to scald whomever stood in my path. When my intuitive co-workers confronted me and asked if I was harboring some anger inside, I became very defensive and said, “I’m not angry! That’s ridiculous!”

Although it took me a while to admit it, I began to see a mirror image in myself of the traits I detested in my husband. How could this have happened? I despised my stinking attitude and felt defeated by the man who knew which buttons to push to get a negative reaction out of me. Even more, I dreaded seeing the smirk on my husband’s face when I sank to his level, and hated hearing him declare how “unchristian” my behavior was.

I wanted the old me back—not the part who became my husband’s doormat, but the peaceful, kind person who was still there beneath the surface of turmoil and anger. During a marriage counseling session our pastor asked, “Are you willing to try to make this marriage work?” As a good little church lady I responded, “Of course!”

The next day his question haunted me. I knew the truth, but I had not been courageous enough to admit it. “No! I do not want to make my marriage work!” I said it out loud as if God couldn’t read my thoughts. “I don’t want to make this work!”

Living with a difficult, abusive man for 20 years was just about all I could take. I was not willing to go back and endure more of the same. I did not believe my husband would ever change, and I no longer had the strength to carry both of us. As soon as I admitted the truth to myself and to God, I was able to make one last attempt to reconcile the marriage. I agreed to seek the help of a professional counselor as long as he would hold my husband accountable for his actions.

I asked God to forgive me for my sinful attitudes and actions, and restore to me the joy of living and a purpose for being alive. I submitted my anger and right for revenge to God, trusting Him to provide justice and deliverance from harm.

As I expected, my husband had no intention of changing, and seemed to delight in pushing me over the edge. Instead of reacting to his rage, I remained calm and in control. Although he became increasingly violent, I made a conscious choice to restrain my tongue, set limits, and do whatever was necessary to maintain my safety.

Instead of remaining a powerless victim, I began focusing on what I could change—myself. I began to keep a journal and write down thoughts and feelings, as well as documenting incidents of abuse. My prayer life was more active as I prayed for my husband and for wisdom to know how to proceed if he refused to change or get help. The scriptures became a precious source of strength and builder of self-esteem as I rediscovered my worth through the eyes of the Lord, my creator.

Like a struggling baby bird pecking its way out of the shell, I began chipping away at the lies I had believed in the prison of my own making. I was emerging as a person capable of surviving and thriving on my own.

When faced with the decision of whether to allow my son to suffer the trauma of a broken home or live in an abusive home, I chose to leave and take him with me. It was the right choice for me . . .and ultimately for him.

When I had to choose whether or not to be truthful on financial questions when my husband skillfully hid assets and lied about his income, God helped me choose honesty over money. He helped me choose faith over feelings and integrity over manipulation.

I did not get the old me back, but the Lord gave me a new me instead. I praise Him for the changes He has made in my life. Some were very painful, but all have been for my good. My life is full of joy and anticipation as God opens doors, provides for my needs, and fulfills my every desire.

Brenda Branson, Copyright © 2002-2008, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Greed, Envy and Jealousy


“Greed is the selfish desire for or pursuit of money, wealth, power, food, or other possessions, especially when this denies the same goods to others.” (from Wikipedia)

Greed’s two sisters are envy and jealousy. Together, they form a diabolical trinity that sneaks their way into the heart of a person, unnoticed at first, weaving and twisting their toxic vines around the heart, poisoning the soul.

Where does greed come from? “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:14-18 ESV)

It was greed that germinated in Lucifer’s heart. He was one of the most beautiful creatures in heaven, but he wanted more. Instead of being thankful for all God had given him, he wanted what he didn’t have and tried to take it by force. He manipulated other angelic beings with his lies and corrupted, twisted thinking and gained allies to join him in his diabolical attempt to gain power and control over God himself! Crashing headlong up against a holy God sent him reeling, banished from heaven forever, but still power hungry in his temporary dominion of earth. Since then he has taken great delight in reproducing his vile nature in the hearts and minds of people who listen to his lies instead of trusting God’s promises.

Greedy people are often blinded to the truth about themselves. They rationalize their actions when they take what belongs to others by saying, “Well, I don’t have what you have, so I’m going to take yours.” They may even delude themselves into thinking they are serving God with the bounty they have taken from others. But God is not pleased. Jesus spoke harshly to religious people who appeared to be generous and merciful on the outside, but were inwardly “full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matthew 23:23-26 ESV)

What does greed look like? It often hides in the heart of a person, unnoticed until the greedy person is squeezed by disappointments in life; but sometimes it is overtly evident in the selfish child who grows into an envious, greedy adult. Here are some components of the multifaceted face of greed:

· Narcissism—I love myself more than I care about your well-being, and even though I say I care about you, what I want is really more important.

· Arrogance--I am always right, even when others say I’m wrong for taking what belongs to you. I’m digging in my heels and refuse to consider anyone else’s opinion, and I’m shutting my ears to what God has to say.

· Entitlement--I deserve to have what you have, so I’ll just take yours without any regard for your welfare or other people’s needs.

· Envy and Jealousy—My good deeds and hard work have gone unnoticed while people applaud you. I want what you have so people will like me more. I will not rest until I have rendered you powerless, invisible, discredited and stripped of everything that I want for myself.

· Control—You are confident and assertive while I am needy and afraid. When I take from you, it makes me feel “large and in charge.” When I have it all and you are left with nothing, I may be able to control you by my selective, strings-attached generosity.

· Judgmental and punitive attitude--You hurt me so I will punish you by taking whatever will hurt you the most. Just when you think it’s over, I’ll come back to take more so you will suffer like you’ve caused me to suffer.

· Selfishness—I want what I want when I want it, even if it means you will go without. I will destroy you if you get in my way.

What is the spiritual condition of a greedy person? It is very hard for a greedy person to trust that God is good. Regardless of God’s blessings in their lives, they wonder if He is holding out on them. It’s the same lie Eve believed when she was living in paradise, surrounded by everything she needed and desired, but still wondering if there was more. When a person rationalizes that God might not come through for them, they decide to take charge of their own life and become a god unto themselves.

When someone values anything more than God, scripture calls it idolatry. The twisted logic of a greedy “religious” person says that what they are coveting and taking from others is for God’s work in the kingdom; therefore it is justified. Greedily taking from others to further the cause of their own “ministry” becomes the idol that separates them from worshiping the true God who requires mercy and justice instead of tainted offerings that have been stolen from others.

The apostle Peter spoke about people whose “hearts are trained in greed” (2 Peter 2:14-22), calling them “waterless springs and mists driven by a storm” who promise people freedom, not realizing they are themselves enslaved. “For whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved.” (verse19)

Are you a “waterless spring?” Do you appear to have God’s life in you (living water) as you engage in religious rhetoric and humanitarian good deeds, but in reality you are as dry as dead men’s bones because of your greed and envy and jealousy?

If you have found your own reflection in the tri-fold mirror of greed, envy, and jealousy, what should you do? You’ve already taken the first step toward healing by opening your eyes and admitting your brokenness. God has great compassion and mercy for those who run into his open arms for forgiveness. He despises an arrogant, stubborn spirit, but embraces a repentant heart.

The next step in true repentance is to turn and go in another direction. In Colossians 3, Paul advises us to put the idolatries of our hearts behind us and pursue “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (v. 12), and most importantly, to allow God’s self-sacrificing love (v. 14) to flow through us.

As you pursue the path of righteousness, you may still occasionally hear the voice of the enemy whispering familiar lies in your ear, trying to get you off course. “She’s got stuff that you don’t have . . . you deserve better . . . people love her more than you . . . maybe God is holding out on you . . . you should take matters into your own hands and take what should be yours.” When those lies assault your ears and invade your heart, don’t let them take root. Take the whole rotten mess to your Father and let Him replace your fears with His truth. To the extent that you keep running toward Him with a tender heart that seeks truth, the enemy’s lies will lose their potency.

If you harden your heart and continue to embrace evil, God will most definitely deal with you. Sometimes He relentlessly pursues his wayward children and sometimes He leaves them to their own devices until the consequences of their actions send them running back to Him. For you, dear one who is struggling with greed and envy, God desires to rescue your heart from the clutches of the evil one. If you’ll just risk standing naked in the presence of holy, He will redeem and transform your heart and mind through the power of His incredible love. What will your choice be?

Brenda Branson, Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved