Tuesday, April 26, 2011

She loved much

           When Simon, a Galilean Pharisee, invited Jesus to have dinner with him, Jesus accepted the invitation. Of course, when one invited the popular rabbi, there were the disciples and other close followers to accommodate, so the feast was no small event. It began in the house, but spread outside to tables in the courtyard. Certainly the neighbors were aware of the preparations, and the local vendors had provided the best foods that could be obtained. A musician had been hired, and servants bustled about with linens for the tables and basins of scented water for the guests’ footwashing, a ritual of greeting and hospitality.
A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. Luke 7:36-38 
            This woman was probably unmarried or widowed without family, since the Bible commentaries suggest that she had been a prostitute. No one loved that kind of woman. She fit no one’s notion of gentility and grace, great intelligence or interpersonal skills. Her body, having suffered beatings and perhaps sexually transmitted diseases, was no great prize. Having no husband to care for her in a society where women had no civil rights, she was probably taken advantage of, and perhaps lived in poverty in a dangerous part of town.
            For a woman like her to anoint the rabbi’s head would be unthinkable. Simon had deliberately omitted the kiss of peace, the greeting he should have given Jesus, and then waved away the servant who stood by to wash Jesus’ feet. Another insult, most certainly intentional, and a shock to the other guests. Instead of leaving the banquet, Jesus let the offenses roll off his back.
            The woman, alone among the guests who notice the insult, could not stand still as would those with greater social skills, and a political mask prepared for any occasion. Forgetting that she herself was not welcome in the midst of the invited men, she impulsively took action.
            She had no basin and towel, but she could brush his feet with her head cloth. And she could anoint at least his feet with the costly perfume meant for his head.
She knelt before Jesus and kissed his feet, but that’s when, finally, the tears of love and outrage burst from her eyes. The tears fell on Jesus’ dusty feet and rolled off, leaving streaks. So she made a further offense to the company: she let down her long hair, uncut since childhood, from her hair covering. Waves of dark, lustrous hair cascaded over Jesus’ streaked feet, and the men stared in fascination, lust—and outrage. The act is one that’s reserved for seducing a husband, in the intimacy of the bedchamber.
After rubbing Jesus’ feet with her hair, the woman opened her alabaster jar, and the room filled with the warm, soft, sweet scent of her perfume.
She brought the only thing of material value that she had, perfume she used in her business—perfume that covered the scent of what she did with the men of her town. It was expensive, the sort of perfume with which bodies were anointed before the funeral.
Could a woman who used her body to have sex with strangers, actually love? Could she see past the heaps of abuse and neglect she’d been dealt, and reach out to give her heart?
With the rich scent now hanging in the air, the woman continued to weep over Jesus’ hair-swept feet. She poured out her heart with the perfume. She expected nothing in return for her love, and felt only gratitude that the rabbi had not snubbed or shamed her, but seemed to enjoy her ministrations.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was the prophet I thought he was, he would have known what kind of woman this is who is falling all over him.”
Jesus perceived the man’s thoughts. He knew perfectly well what kind of woman this was. Not only was Galilee home to Jesus, he could tell by the woman’s actions and her looks, what kind of woman she was.
But Jesus wanted to talk about what kind of man Simon was: the kind who would invite a popular rabbi to his feast so he’d be seen as open-minded, popular, and wealthy, and the kind who would hurl one insult after the other at his guest to silently state his disapproval of the guest’s inferior social and political status, and poverty.

Jesus said to him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
            “Oh? Tell me.”
“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker canceled both debts. Which of the two would be more grateful?”
            Simon answered, “I suppose the one who was forgiven the most.”
            “That's right,” said Jesus. Then turning to the woman, but speaking to Simon, he said, “Do you see this woman? I came to your home; you provided no water for my feet, but she rained tears on my feet and dried them with her hair. You gave me no greeting, but from the time I arrived she hasn't quit kissing my feet. You provided nothing for freshening up, but she has soothed my feet with perfume. Impressive, isn't it? She was forgiven many, many sins, and so she is very, very grateful. If the forgiveness is minimal, the gratitude is minimal.”
Then he spoke to her: “I forgive your sins.”
That set the dinner guests talking behind his back: “Who does he think he is, forgiving sins!”
He ignored them and said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.”

At that, the woman had no words, but if she’d been allowed an education in the scriptures, she might have replied in the words of Ruth, a foreign laborer in Israel a thousand years before: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God: Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried; the Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me.”
But not being a poetess, not being a woman of noble character or good background, not even having a name worth mentioning at this gathering of Pharisees and the Rabbi, she had poured out her frustrations—and devotion—at the feet of Jesus. He had honored her faith, not kicked her aside, like the men in the room, some of them her clients.
She loved absolutely, with no room for doubt or insecurity. She would do anything for Jesus. Here was a woman who was despised by her community, universally recognized as a sinner, but publicly honored and forgiven and restored by Jesus.
And when he told her that she was forgiven and could go in peace, in shalom, she went with his blessing, and under his name. She was loved at last, after loving much.

Rewritten from an article by Christy K. Robinson published in ASM Bulletin, Dec. 1987

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Is it a sin to be overweight?

Recently, a friend asked in a forum, "Is being overweight as much a sin as smoking, drinking or sexual immorality?" He received 105 replies, most respondents writing that being fat is morally reprehensible because our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Few people questioned the assumption that those behaviors are actually sins. Many replied along the lines that excess body fat is evidence of sin: “Yes, it falls into the same category of abusing the body God gave you” or “anything that decreases our health or harms us (‘the temple of God’) is sin.” Out of context, they cited 1 Corinthians 6:19, where Paul calls the body the temple of the Holy Spirit, as the basis for healthful living.

But if the body God gave you has genetic disorders, or subsequent accidents, illnesses, or medications that cause weight gain even with hardcore diet and exercise, then are you a sinner? If one has been sexually violated (one in three women and one in six men), or has crazy-making job stress that releases cortisol into their system, are they to blame? Not every overweight or obese person has gotten that way by sloth and gluttony. It's no secret that the diet industry makes billions of dollars every year as people try and fail to lose weight.

There are many passages in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible that say that the sexually immoral (those who have sex outside of marriage) will not be in heaven unless they’ve confessed their sin and turned away from it. On the other hand, there are no passages about the overweight or obese not being able to fit through the pearly gates.

Gluttony was considered bad behavior, but Jesus hung out with gluttons and wine-drinkers! Gluttony is just as much a problem for slim people on whom it does not show, as it is for those who have excess weight. But gluttony is not a cause of most weight problems (ask any bariatric doctor). When I did a whole-Bible search for gluttony as a sin, the only reference I could find was for the people of Sodom: "Sodom’s sins were pride, gluttony, and laziness, while the poor and needy suffered outside her door." Ezekiel 16:49. 

As for alcohol, the Bible is full of instances of alcohol and its good points (gladness, celebration, medicine, ritual, sacrifice), as well as the adverse effects of alcoholic intoxication. There’s no good thing to be gained from smoking tobacco, and it harms not only the smoker, but many others in the immediate environment—but it’s not a biblical issue unless you take it to the extreme of “thou shalt not murder.”

Everyone would agree, I think, that the body should be in the best condition that you have the power to make it—but it’s not a matter of religion! Good health and good looks are desirable, but again—not what God looks for. He looks at the heart or the spirit, rather than outward appearance. He looks for the qualities of mercy, compassion, forgiveness, love, and humility. If you do a search for “body” in an online Bible concordance, most of the passages say or imply that the body is temporary and imperfect housing for the awesome thing that God created in his image: the spirit! God formed the body from soil or clay, and it wasn’t a living being until he breathed into it. The word is pneuma (like pneumonia), which means breath, spirit, wind.

Some people are very smug about their own righteousness in the area of food and self-control. I know a few of them who have made idols of extreme nutrition and exercise. But physical condition is not a yardstick for your spiritual or moral superiority. 

Well, that’s my opinion. Here’s the opinion of a 19th-century writer and church leader:

If they will gratify a gross appetite, and by so doing blunt their sensibilities, and becloud their perceptive faculties so that they can not appreciate the exalted character of God, or delight in the study of His word, they may be assured that God will not accept their unworthy offering any sooner than that of Cain. God requires them to cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord. After man has done all in his power to insure health, by the denying of appetite and gross passions, that he may possess a healthy mind, and a sanctified imagination, that he may render to God an offering in righteousness, then he is saved alone by a miracle of God's mercy..." (Testimony Studies on Diets and Foods, a 1926 compilation from books and articles by Ellen G. White)  Emphases by author of this blog.

The above statement is just one of many similar quotations that have hammered church members since the 1850s. The concept there is wrong, particularly the belief that man must be working, working, working, and perfecting his own salvation, and his appetite or asceticism is the key to his acceptance by God. When he is finally sanctified by his own efforts, he slides under the pearly gates in an anorexic puddle. When he’s worked hard enough to attract God’s attention, he finds pity in a last-minute miracle of mercy.

I saw this statement recently: “Life is hard; it's harder if you're stupid.” ~John Wayne. Someone replied, “So can we measure how stupid we are by how hard our life is?” I’d add, “Can we measure my spirituality or Christian witness by the tape measure around my butt?” A Christian musician who was a guest in my home left a thank-you note for me to find, which said that my witness for Christ was compromised by my weighty appearance and I ought to try harder to lose weight. She was so skinny that you could count her ribs, front and back. And now, when I hear her name mentioned, I think of the not-so-Christian impression she made on me.

But back to the question of sinning by being overweight. There were a lot of words from the Fat Police on that forum thread, but very little in the way of what God has said about foods or salvation. Here are just a few of the Bible's statements about how God sees food as a spiritual or moral issue:  

"God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago." Eph. 2:8-10
"But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do." 1 Corinthians 8:8  
"Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense." Romans 14:20
"These people are hypocrites and liars, and their consciences are dead. They will say it is wrong to be married and wrong to eat certain foods. But God created those foods to be eaten with thanks by faithful people who know the truth. Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer." 1 Timothy 4:2-5

Every human body is different from every other one. Just like one “cure” is not possible for the countless viruses that cause the common cold, I believe there's no ONE perfect way to cure overweight and obesity for all humanity--not even “diet and exercise.” Psalm 139:13-16 says that God formed us and knew us from conception. I have to conclude that the Creator made some people with the socially-desirable trait of leanness, and some with the genetic, accidental, or medical condition of fatness. Eph. 2:8-10 says that we are God's poema, his work of fine art. Red and yellow, black and white (and fat or lean), we are precious in his sight.

In our society, fatness is a curse in terms of career and romantic discrimination, bullying, the lifelong (unsuccessful) struggle to lose weight, and the damage it causes to the body. People today think that overweight people are ignorant or stupid for being fat--because if they were "smarter" about nutrition and had some personal gumption, they'd exercise and the fat would just melt off. It's so obvious, right?  Fatness was a good thing in the Old Testament. It was seen, along with wealth, as a manifestation of God's blessings for the person's righteous behavior in keeping the Sinai covenant.

Now we are members of the new covenant of the Holy Spirit living in our hearts and speaking to us personally. The verse the Fat Police quote about the body being the temple of the Holy Spirit is NOT talking about food, fitness, or health. It's talking about the pollution and desecration that sexual immorality causes to the housing of the Holy Spirit, and the spirit he put in you by his holy breath. Here’s the body-temple reference, so you can see for yourself:
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.  1 Cor. 6:18-20

If your temple has been desecrated and polluted by sexual immorality, it can be sanctified and cleansed, but not by trying with all your might to behave, or by fasting, dieting, obsessing. Only God can forgive and heal, and when he does this as a gift, there is no condemnation for you. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2  

You know what? That “no condemnation” clause covers overweight people, too. No, it's NOT a sin to be overweight. Be the healthiest person it's in your power to be (keep at it), and remember who made you. Be a loving, merciful, tender, compassionate, forgiving person, and you'll be beautiful in others' eyes, and the Lord's eyes,  no matter how much you weigh. 

And you know, go ahead and enjoy a serving of mashed potatoes at the church potluck. You deserve it!

Pay no attention to the vicious hate-speech that says if you're flat-chested or chubbier than a supermodel, you're worthless. That person is a weapon of the Adversary. Listen to what God says about you: he loved you so much that he gave his only-begotten son so you could have eternal life with him.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Springtime in Heaven

            Happy April to you! By now, you should be done with the agony of tax preparation and settled into a beautiful spring. My garden is blooming and fruiting, and I hope that your garden or potted-plant window is also responding to the sunshine and nutrients. I practically hop around the back yard for joy that my peach and almond trees are setting their green fruits, that the mulberries are putting on leaves and the beginnings of tiny berries. I nearly lose control when I see the microscopic buds that will become seedless grapes!
            When I see the baby fruits growing on the trees and vines, I think of Galatians 5:22-23: The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
            Is the Master Gardener also rejoicing over the fruits that His garden is producing? Is He pointing to you proudly and joyfully, and saying, “Today my child [insert your name here] sprouted the fruits of gentleness and peace”? Is He rejoicing over you with singing?
            Rather than anthropomorphizing God, making Him into a human image, let’s imagine that as we are His children and have inherited His characteristics by both birth and adoption, that we can project our emotions back to our Creator and Father. I really can envision God becoming excited over the growth of His children’s godly characteristics.
            We see the fruits of the Spirit in each other as we corporately and individually experience spiritual growth. And we’re pretty excited about growth of another kind: growth of the family of God. Evangelism teams, supported by your contributions and God’s grace, evangelize thousands of people around the world each year. Hundreds are baptized, but untold thousands have found the love of God so compelling that they’ve given their lives unreservedly for Jesus to change. More flowers and fruits for the Gardener.
            Take a walk in the Lord’s garden. Let Him cultivate a garden of fruit in your spirit. It’s springtime in heaven, too!

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools

Become wise by walking with the wise; hang out with fools and watch your life fall to pieces. Proverbs 13:20 MSG

            April Fool’s Day, a holiday of uncertain origin, has been known for practical joking for many hundreds of years. Prior to the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1564, the date was observed as New Year’s Day by cultures as varied as the Roman and the Hindu. The holiday is related to the festival of the vernal equinox, which occurs on March 21. The year began with the newness of the spring season, the resurrection of life from the dark, frozen winter. The Passover celebration of the Hebrews being released from slavery took place on the fourteenth day of their first month, which became their New Year every year, and Christians celebrate Good Friday (the crucifixion of Jesus) and Easter (Jesus' resurrection) during the Passover celebration.
            If God didn’t love humor, would He have created the okapi (a zebra thing with giraffe face)? Baboons? Platypus? Parrots? Have you seen yourself in the bathtub? It’s good for the body and spirit to enjoy a joke, providing it’s not at the expense of hurt feelings.
            April Fools Day is the anniversary of my baptism. Over the years, some people might have wondered, “Hmm, did it ‘take’?” I'm happy to report that even though I've sinned repeatedly since my baptism at age 13, I don't need to be rebaptized to show my repentance. I claim, by faith, Jesus' perfect baptism for the remission of my sins. You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness. Ephesian 4:4-6 MSG
            My choice for funniest Bible verse is this: Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth. Numbers 12:3 NIV   Really—on the entire planet? Did Moses write that of himself, or did an editor insert that? As an editor myself, I love the wordplay. It's almost an oxymoron, like "jumbo shrimp" or "military intelligence." The absolutely most-humble man on the face of the earth.
            Pranks will be carried out on April Fools Day. Some radio deejay will get fired for perpetrating a hoax or calling out emergency services unnecessarily. Government leaders will say something outrageous and stupid (as usualpardon my cynicism), but when they see the outrage of their constituents, will be able, for one day, to backtrack by claiming it was a practical joke for April Fools.
            Paul mentored young Timothy, explaining how rough the Christian life can be because of hoaxes and deceptions. “Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse. But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers— why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Every part of Scripture is God-breathed and useful one way or another—showing us truth, exposing our rebellion, correcting our mistakes, training us to live God’s way. Through the Word we are put together and shaped up for the tasks God has for us.” 2 Timothy 3:12-17 MSG.
            So be wary of Satan’s traps today. Be alert for the tricks of your friends and family. And before you step out the door, open your Bible and take out some wisdom on Christian living, perhaps from the Proverbs. Solomon had much to say about fools!

The Single Shoop

The singular of geese is goose. What’s the singular of sheep? Shoop?

Once upon a time, there was a flock of sheep. They all did as they were told. They walked where they were told, they jumped when they were commanded to ump. They moved as one, and the sheepdogs could run across their backs when all one hundred of them were tightly packed in the fold. Of course, the dogs also nipped at their heels when they were a bit slow, or stopped to nibble a bush along the paths.

These sheep had it good. The shepherd led them in green pastures, and beside clear, cool waters. They never shivered on winter nights because they had their thick wool coats and the company of friends and family close by. In the spring, the shepherd relieved them of their wool, and they liked the Chinook breezes that ruffled the tall grass and cooled their bodies.

But in this flock, there was one shoop. He looked just like his relatives in the flock of sheep. But inside he knew he was different. He had ideas, thoughts of his own. When the flock moved to higher pasture, he liked staying on the edge of the group, where he didn’t feel so crowded. That way, he could see the sights, not just the bodies of other sheep. If the dogs didn’t notice, he could sneak along a parallel path, and get really juicy grass, the tender variety that grew in shaded areas, away from heavy foot traffic.

The shoop knew that the shepherd was always close by. He had heard that the shepherd had defended the flock against coyotes, and things that went “bump” in the night. The shepherd had actually cleared the area of carnivorous predators long before the shoop was born. But since the shoop was always on the outskirts of the large flock, he didn’t really know the shepherd very well, except what the other sheep muttered between mouthfuls of grass.

One evening, before dark, the shoop was munching some tender grass between some large boulders. Only he knew about this little haven, and he quite enjoyed the solitude. Who needed all that bleating and baaing, anyway? Those sheep never paid him any attention or tried to integrate him into their society. They never seemed to notice him.

At sunset, he heard the shepherd call the flock, but the shoop figured he’d just rest in his secret pasture and save the walk back tomorrow morning (he thought sheepishly). He lay down on the grass, and dozed a bit under the stars, enjoying the sounds of the birds rustling in the bushes, and the feel of the breeze playing in the tufts of his wool.

When the sliver of moon was at its zenith, the shoop awoke with a shiver along his spine. There it was again—it wasn’t a dream. A thin howl, and some yips, and a small chorus of answering yelps. The shoop had never heard the sound before, but instinct told him it wasn’t a good sign. He stood up and sniffed the air, but it only smelled of grass. He looked around, but the moonlight wasn’t enough to help him see past his nose. He took a few tentative steps. There was the howl again.

He made his decision. He would have to get back to the sheep and shepherd. But to which of the night pastures had they moved? He went uphill, toward the rocky heights, but when he was nearly to the top of the hill, the howl sounded again, from just above him. In panic, he dodged and stumbled, and fell to his knees, but he was able to put a little distance between himself and the terrifying sound. He moved more cautiously, now, trying not to make noise. Step by step, he moved around the hill, trying to see in the dark.

The shoop gingerly stepped on some sandstone at one point in his travels, but he jumped when he heard a howl from only a hundred yards away. The unstable rock gave way beneath him, and he found himself actually sliding toward the howling creature! “It’s mutton time,” he bleated. “I’m a goner. The flock will never notice my absence. What’s the loss of one shoop, when there are ninety-nine real sheep?”

His forward motion was arrested when he tumbled in a heap at the feet of the shepherd. The shepherd stood tall and strong. He put his arms around the shoop, and lifted him up onto broad shoulders. The shoop’s breathing became more normal as he listened to the words of the shepherd. “There you are, my precious lamb. I’ve been seeking you for hours.”

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior… You are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you.” Isa. 43:1-4 NIV

“How wonderful it would be for you to be here among my children. I planned to give you part of this beautiful land, the finest in the world. I looked forward to your calling me ‘Father’ and thought that you would never turn away from me again.” Jer. 3:19 LB

“I long to be gracious to you; I rise to show you compassion. For I am a God of justice. How gracious I will be when you cry for help! As soon as I hear, I will answer you.” Isa. 30:18-19 NIV

The shepherd took long, bold strides as he joyfully brought the shoop back to the fold. The shoop couldn’t tell who was the more overjoyed: he or the shepherd, who had called for a celebration.

The shoop immediately set about waking the flock, and telling them of his terrifying adventure, and what a wonderful shepherd they had. And a few minutes into his story, he realized that he always wanted to stay close to his rescuer, not out of a sense of fear for the unknown, but of gratitude and love for what and who he did know.

He wanted to be in the midst of the flock, side by side with the shepherd. He wanted to be a sheep, not a shoop. He could still retain his individuality, knowing that the shepherd had specifically braved the dangerous wilderness for him. He knew he was special.

“I am his, and he is mine,” he told his fellow sheep. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.” 

The Single Shoop, by Christy K. Robinson, first appeared in ASM Bulletin, May 1989 


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