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After King Cyrus had made the proclamation for the Jews in exile to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, we are given a detailed listing of those who answered God’s call to go.  In Ezra chapter 2, we find just who was first to raise their hand and return to their homeland after nearly seventy years of captivity in Babylon.

Ezra 2:2 gives us the names of some leading men, but, interestingly, Ezra names the laity before he names the clergy in two instances in this account.  We can understand just how important the common people are in God’s plan for building and rebuilding his kingdom by recognizing this purposeful arrangement of facts.  This emphasis on the usefulness and important work of common men is one of the main themes of both Ezra and Nehemiah.

In verses 2-35 we are told the names of the common people.  In verses 36-58 we are given the names of the clergy including the priests, Levites, singers, sons of the gatekeepers, the temple servants, and the sons of Solomon’s servants.

Notice that only the sons of the gatekeepers and the sons of Solomon’s servants are mentioned.  The reason for this is because in captivity there was no gate to keep and no Jewish king to serve.  Those who had done these jobs prior to the exile had died and only their sons were alive to carry on their work when they finally returned to their homeland.

Lastly, in verses 59-63 we are told the names of those who returned but could not prove their ancestry as belonging to Israel.  The sons of Barzillai were mentioned in particular as having intermarried and traded their Jewish names for a foreign title.  Because of this reason they were not found in the genealogies and were excluded from the priesthood and partaking of the holy food.

The lot of these men should serve as a warning to we who are ever tempted to trade our identity in Christ for that which the world offers.  The stakes are higher yet for us, because the record that keeps our names is the Lamb’s Book of Life and the consequences of not being found therein are eternal exclusion from the Lord’s table.

Lastly, in Ezra 2 we are told that the first things many of these families did when they came to the ruins of the house of God in Jerusalem was give offerings of gold, silver, and priestly garments.  With their personal generosity and willingness, they proved that they were serious about their commitment to serve the Lord and build His kingdom.  Let us learn to do the same.

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unity

As a mom of three girls, it is a rare day when no sibling unrest occurs.  Despite the conflicts, usually they play without needing my assistance for some time.  They often figure out how to reconcile their differences alone.  Yesterday, however, was not one of those days.

Somewhere between dragging them to the phlebotomist with me and grabbing school supplies, two girls were fighting.  One was being selfish, the other self-righteous.  One was crying, one pouting.  It occurred to me after much repeated correction (this went on for some time)  that once the issue was over and the cosmic balance of our home had been restored, I had not made it a point to sit down with either of them and just talk about what had happened.  Between the busyness of the day and the struggle to call an effective cease-fire, by the time it was over I think we all just wanted to forget about it.

I feel like I forgot to be a parent.  Comfort and convenience have a way of producing selective memory.  Maybe we will revisit World War 3 today…

Anyway, Paul does not seem to have this problem with churches.  Paul never forgets to parent God’s church.  First, he instructs and corrects.  Correction is almost always followed up by exhortation.

In the closing of Colossians, Paul’s final address stresses the importance of inclusion and unity.  He mentions ten specific people, including himself, as well as an entire church body.  He urges the people in the Colossian church to “welcome” and accept them.  Consider his words.

“Tychius...is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord.  I have sent him

Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you

Aristarchus my fellow prisoner…

Mark, the cousin of Barnabus…welcome him…

Jesus who is called Justus.  These are the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God and they have been a comfort to me…

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Jesus Christ…for I bear him witness...

Luke the beloved physician greets you as does Demas…

Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house

…I, Paul…remember my chains.”

Why does Paul name these people?  What is the point?

Doubtless, this is a father managing his children.  He is saying, “Hey guys, I’m not there but here comes your brothers and sisters.  Here’s how they’ve served me, you, and the Lord faithfully.  These people are part of God’s kingdom.  Welcome them.  Accept them.  Treat them as your own.  Consider their sacrifices for the gospel and include them as your own when they come to you.  It couldn’t be more clear what Paul is saying here.

Why would Paul close his letter this way?  What reason would he have to tell them these things and name these individuals?

Paul spent his efforts on this letter making sure the Colossians knew who not to listen to.  Perhaps he does not want them to get conveniently confused.

Tychius was a fellow minister.  Onesimus had been a poor slave who’d been converted from a particularly wicked lifestyle.  Mark had been at odds with Paul previously.  Epaphrus prayed fervently for these people.  Jesus, now called Justus had changed his very name out of respect for the Redeemer.  Luke was a doctor.  Nympha was a woman who held church in her home.  Archippus was of the of the ministers in Colosse with them.  Paul himself was a prisoner for the gospel and an overseer of the churches.

Surely the temptation was to exclude certain types of people from the church.  Little wonder why Paul does this end of letter name dropping.  These mentioned are very different types of people.  There is no doubt Paul mentions them by name so that the Colossians make no mistake.

These are your people, church.  These – the pastors as well as the paupers.  Those from the wrong side of the tracks just the same as the doctors.  The women as well as the men.  The ones who have had differences with me and you as well as the chum buddies who’ve been serving alongside you.

Welcome them.  They are all beloved.  They are all your brothers.  They are all faithful.  They are all of you.  Greet them.  Hear them.  Include them.  Welcome them.

Remember me.

~Love, Dad

“The meanest circumstance of life, and the greatest wickedness of former life, make no difference in the spiritual relation among sincere Christians: they partake of the same privileges, and are entitled to the same regards.”  ~Matthew Henry

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reach

I wish the church knew what it felt like to walk into a bar.

My husband of fifteen years is a mechanic.  We live in a depressed semi-rural area chock full of have-nots and has-beens.  His nickname growing up was “Poorboy.”  Mine should have been “Poorgirl.”  From an early age, we knew what it was like to be without.  Without finer things that is – namely friends.

The Lord, with the help of our fathers, gave us both a good work ethic.  We are among the few from our former coal-era county that have managed to climb out of the lower-middle class.  Today, the poorboy owns a successful performance garage for high end vehicles and I am blessed to be able to stay at home teaching my 4 (soon to be 5) children every day.

Miraculously, we were married and saved by the time our teenage years came to an end.  We were pretty straight-edge and avid church goers throughout our twenty’s, and now, thirty’s.  We never just attended church.  We always became heavily involved and served wherever we went.

Christ can take the kids out of need, but he doesn’t take the need out of the kids.  Our need was, is, and always has been that of the majority of our unchurched peers – camaraderie, or, to use a churchy word, fellowship.

We have been a part of numerous churches over the years.  Early on we explored doctrine and grew out of a few churches due to our progressive understanding of the scriptures.  Later we endured two church splits, hierarchical corruption, and even wrongful excommunication.

The common denominator is clear within the troubled church situations we have experienced in our area.  Across the board, there is a severe lack of willingness regarding honest communication from the top down.  When church leaders are not wiling to deal authentically with people, whether it be a difference in doctrine, an accountability issue,  a lack of initiating contact or keeping an open dialogue, or even a personal preference conflict, their congregations inevitably follow suit.

Unfortunately, our culture’s primary perceived need just so happens to be relational in nature.  It is that of authentic friendship.

When I walk into church – even a good church who loves me and whom I love, it often feels very cold.  My week, void of those same people’s presence on the phone, in text, and in person feels extremely lonely.  Aside from a few half-hearted “Hi’s” and “How was your week’s,”  I sit alone with my children and my thoughts wondering when and if the real dialogue will ever begin.  After service is the same.  A few huddled groups resume and I wonder once again how to break one of the unseen perimeters.

Even if I could, would we ever get to the place where we could clean out our basements together?  Where we could make fun of each others’ bad hair days and admit we failed again to each other?  Where we would veritably welcome waywards even less like the status quo here?  Because I believe the exact same things as these people.  My socioeconomic status is the same.  I dress the same.  I do the same the activities with my family and my children.  I am the same race and ethnicity.  If I, in all my sickening sameness, feel like an outsider, what do actual outsiders feel like when they show up here?

Because when I, on rare occasion, have walked into a bar in this same town, I have been overwhelmed by a flood of good ol’ boy and good ol’ girl charm and embrace.  I have felt welcome, wanted, and wholly included.  I was not the only one initiating contact the following day, week, month, and year.  There was an understood dynamic that said, if I want to be friends, contact must work both ways.

If the former is real and the latter false, the nagging question in my mind is “Why?”

Why did I not feel awkward or an outcast or unapproachable?  Granted, there were things done and people there that did make me feel a bit out of place, but it had nothing to do with how they were treating me but only to whom I belonged.  “These are my people,” I thought, “because they understand where I came from.”  The reason they understand is because they came from the same place.  Sadly, most of us aren’t going to the same place.  And they might never make it to where I am going if our church doesn’t start to feel more like their bars when a person walks in.  They might never get there if no one ever contacts them outside of church even though they have been coming for months on end.

The church must never forget where we came from.

When we do not remember who we were, or worse, think we never were lost and without hope, we exclude those like our former selves and we cannot speak life to them.  They end up feeling awkward, unwelcome, and uninvited even if we want to love them.  These are the reasons my peer group is mostly missing from our mezzanines.

So, the solution.  The solution seems quite simple.  Be friendly, right?  Invite people unlike yourself into your life; your home; your struggles; your celebrations.  Practice hospitality in the day to day.  At all costs, learn how to be hospitable.  Put away pretense.  Stop looking inward and begin to focus your energy outward.  Visit.  Pray.  Serve.  Love.  And by golly, bring the kids along.  Children love to reach.  Stop using them as an excuse not to reach.

Simple does not always equal easy.  No matter!  Become a people who reach.  Because we serve a God who reaches – a God who is ever reaching for us.  Therefore, this is not an optional choice or a task relegated for only a few super-people person extroverts.  Our very identity is wrapped up in reaching.  This is, by (new) nature, who we are if we belong to Christ.

We are known as the bride of Christ.  Maybe a good place to start is prepping for the wedding.  Each day, reach for an old friend.  Reach for a new one.  Reach for a borrowed blessing and give it away as you reach for the one who is blue.  Whatever it takes, reach.  Because the bar will not give birth to believers.  The church should be loving people much better than the bar.  Believers must bring life, love, and friendship to all whom God places in our paths – not just those whom we prefer.

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mercy

Like a single song lyric stuck on loop in my mind, I wake with a verse.  “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

It’s Sunday.  Upon arrival at church we’re met with a request to fill in and teach the children’s Sunday school class.  With no lesson and nothing prepared, I muse at God’s provision.  Well, I’ve got a verse.  Curiously, we open to Matthew 9:13.

“Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  For I came not to call the righteous, but the sinners.”

“What does it mean?” I think to myself.

I listen as the mechanic reads the context to the kids.  It is the calling of Matthew – a man who was hated for his profession.  Matthew – a tax collector who doubtless made a habit of lying, cheating, and stealing from the have-nots and the hard-working.  Jesus – the God of all creation called him away from a life of deceitful money-loving idolatry and into his very own small group of close disciples.

Matthew listened.  He followed.  He quit his unpopular job.  He threw a great feast for all his unpopular, crooked, money-loving friends and had Jesus be the keynote speaker.  Pretty impressive for a new convert, I’d say.

Still, there were some who were less than impressed.  There were some who were angry that a man who claimed to be of God would entertain such a motley crew.  They were none other than the most religious men of the day – the Pharisees.

It was to these men that Jesus spoke the words, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

The one requirement for following Christ is being a sinner.  Of course we all are, but Jesus’ point here is that only some of us know it.  It is the those who find their identity and most closely associate themselves with the church that have the highest risk of self-righteous fellow sinner snubbing.  It is those who should be known as “Churchians” rather than Christians.  It is they who seem to have a secret club, clique, and code which wholly excludes anyone who is not so shiny on the outside.  The problem is that these ones are not shiny on the inside.  They are jealous and full of animosity towards others unlike themselves.  They have no regard for what – or who – Jesus wants.  They offer “sacrifice” to God for show and the praise of men but they treat others with ignorance, exclusion, contempt, and biased injustice.

Matthew Henry says, “They are very strict in avoiding sinners, but not in avoiding sin; none greater zealots for the form of godliness, nor greater enemies to the power of it.”

If we are honest, we have to admit that there are times in all of our lives that we encounter people with whom we would rather not engage.  As Christians, though, we really aren’t at liberty to pick and choose.  When Christ puts a soul in front of us, we have a great responsibility to serve them in whatever way he calls us to.  Don’t have that burden?  Repent.

Jesus has news for the “No sinners allowed people hater club.”  He exposes them by pointing to the fact that not associating with sinners – whatever brand you most dislike – is hardly a sacrifice.  Of all the grandiose, pompous, showy sacrifices they made, this was yet another piece of detestable garbage to God.

Jesus proves that he is in the business of mercy.  Mercy responds when called to a feast full of lost sinners – even if there’s a feast full of self-righteous teachers going on at the same time.  Mercy spends its time saving those who do not deserve to be associated with.  Mercy includes the worst of sinners because it understands that excluding people from its sacred circle is no sacrifice.  No.  That is utter selfishness, self-protection, and pride.  Mercy, by definition, is an offering one gives that is undeserved – the opposite of what is deserved, even.  That is why it is called mercy.

The name “Matthew” means “the gift of God.”  We are the gift of God to others – not our shiny, showy, so-called sacrifices.  When God calls us, his call is all enveloping.  It is all of life.  If you find yourself immersed in a sea of Churchians content to mingle among themselves, excuse yourself.  Find some sick.  Leave the pretend healthy people and begin offering the Great Physician to those who know their need.  Invite them into the parts of your life that are outside of the proper protocol of a weekly handshake, hello, and see you next week (but hopefully not until.) If God has been merciful to you, be merciful to others who don’t deserve it any more than you did.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather be the one unwelcome than the one unwell.  Christ expects us to be merciful to sinners because he is merciful to we who are sinners.  When we are not, it proves than we, neither, have received mercy.

“Christ came not with an expectation of succeeding among the righteous, those who conceit themselves so, and therefore will sooner be sick of their Savior, than sick of their sins, but among the convinced humble sinners; to them Christ will come, for to them he will be welcome.” ~Matthew Henry

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churchmouse

I’ve been reading Aesop’s fables with my little girls and I thought it might be fun to make some adaptations.  The Country Mouse and the City Mouse was one of my all-time favorite childhood stories.   Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a country mouse afraid to venture into the unknown.  Anyway, here’s my story…

Once there lived two mice.  One was a poor, cursed mouse and the other was a rich, blessed mouse.  The mice were brothers, but they hadn’t seen each other in some time.  Church Mouse was always inviting Country Mouse to come over and meet all of his great friends, but Country Mouse felt poor and dirty.  He was afraid Church Mouse and his friends would laugh at him and make him feel bad for being so poor.

Finally one day Church Mouse dropped in to see Country Mouse.  “You look so shiny,” Country Mouse told his brother.  “Do tell me how you became so rich!”

“Thank you,” said Church Mouse.  “Do come and see!”

Country mouse thought for a while and finally decided to go to Church Mouse’s home.  He still felt quite backward and afraid, but he really wanted to be rich and clean like Church Mouse.

When Country Mouse arrived at Church Mouse’s home, he was met by many other rich mice.  One after another they greeted him, all in the same, almost rehearsed manner.

“Hmmmm,” Country Mouse thought.  “I wonder why these rich mice are so strange.  No one ever talks much to me except other dirty mice.  They seem nice, but I wonder if they’re just being polite.  I’m sure they don’t really want someone like me here in their perfect, shiny home.  I’m so dirty and ragged.  They probably want me to leave so I don’t ruin anything they’ve cleaned up so nicely.”

Country Mouse stayed a few days while Church Mouse and his friends served him hand and foot.  Country Mouse could hardly believe it!  He was being treated like a king by a bunch of mice he didn’t even know!

It soon came to an end, though.  Country Mouse had lice.  When all the church mice came down with church lice, they stopped being nice to Country Mouse.  They became angry at him.  The church mice didn’t like suffering.  They loved comfort.  Country Mouse’s poverty was ok as long as it didn’t affect them.  But now their shiny church was dirty and bug-infested.  The church mice wanted Country Mouse to leave.

Church Mouse was the leader of all the church mice, though.  He couldn’t send Country Mouse away after he’d invited him so many times.  He loved his brother despite his filth.  He wanted to make his brother clean.

Besides, now all the mice needed cleaned.  They were all dirty.  Somehow their riches and comfort couldn’t save them from being the rodents they really were underneath.

Church Mouse did not call a meeting.  He did not ask advice.  He saw the pain and suffering of his friends and he decided to do what only a very brave and noble mouse could do.  Church Mouse sat down at the front of the church and told all the mice to form a line.  One by one he sat with each mouse and he washed their fur.  He picked the nits out and he spoke softly into their ears about forgiveness and grace until they were only angry at themselves for how they’d treated Country Mouse.

Then the mice were finally actually clean.  They were truly shiny now – inside and out.  Church Mouse blessed them all individually and told them to play nice with the poor mice they were sure to meet outside.  “Invite them all,” Church Mouse instructed.  “Don’t be afraid.  I will clean them like I cleaned you.  I don’t want anyone to miss the feast I’m preparing!”

The church mice listened because they knew their leader loved them.  The poor mice became rich and the dirty mice became clean.  And they lived happily forever after.

Church Mouse’s name was Jesus.

The End

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After reminding the Ephesians of how immense God’s grace had been to them, he reminds them to remember some more.  It’s as if Paul is saying, “This is who you were without Christ; this is what you were like, so take a good look at it.  Remember, remember, remember.  Do not ever forget where you would be today – and where others are today – without Christ.

You were separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to God’s promises, without hope and without God.  In a word, Ephesians, you were excluded from everything good, spiritually speaking.

“But now…”

But now!  Oh, look at what he has done for you all!  Look!  Remember!

“But now in Christ Jesus…”

Because you are in him, look what he has done!  You have been brought near to God;  the dividing wall which kept you from the place of sacrifice for sin has been broken down;  peace has been made; reconciliation with God has come; hostility has been killed; you’ve been preached to; you have access by the Spirit to the Father; you’re no longer strangers and aliens; you have been made fellow citizens; you have been made citizens and members of one body.  In a word, Ephesians, you have been included in everything good, spiritually speaking.

Now, I can’t tell you much about how it feels to be treated like a Gentile in a Jewish-run synagogue, but I do know something about what it is like to be treated like an unbeliever in a self-righteous religious-run church.

The Jews, who trusted in and flaunted their external privileges rather than the mercy and grace of God did so at the costly expense of the very people God sought to join them together with.  The Christians, who often trust in and flaunt their external privileges rather than the mercy and grace of Christ, do so at the costly expense of their very own blood-bought brothers and sisters.

If we could all just remember, remember, remember and never forget who we were without him and that his whole purpose is to have one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, and one Father of all, we would never be prideful, arrogant, self-righteous excluders of God’s people — or any people.  Instead, we would be humble, generous, kind includers of all who would come to know him.  Why?  Because that is who he has been to us.

He has been good to we Gentiles.  Let us be good to those who remain dead in sin as well as those alive in Christ.  We may be better off, spiritually speaking, but we are certainly no better.

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Image

Paul has written a letter to the Galatian church with a heavy heart.  He has corrected and admonished them regarding exclusion, works-based religion, and the danger of following the arrogant leaders who teach such things calling them the gospel.  He’s given instructions on how to restore an erring brother (little wonder why!) and brings his letter to a close with a final exhortation and warning.

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. 7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. ~Galatians 6:6-10

Paul has three things left to say in his effort to summarize his instructions here.  Give back, don’t give up, and do good.

Give back.  How many times were we taught the gospel before we embraced it?  How much love were we shown by God’s people?  How many served us?  Every believer owes a debt of love to Christ and to his people.  As we have received, we must so give.

Do not give up.  Paul says do not grow weary.  He tells the Christians that they will only benefit if they don’t give up.  For some of us, that seems like quite an enormous “if.”  This is the crippling fear of every martyr and every saint who is under fire, pressed by temptation, and bearing great burdens for the gospel’s sake.  Doubtless, an instruction like this implies our great tendency and ability to do so.  But to whom shall we go?  And to what?  We’ve only two options in this world: spiritual life or carnal life; living for Christ or living for self.  And isn’t it just like us to believe we can sow to our flesh yet still reap good to our soul?  Oh!  How deceived we so often are!  Otherwise, we’d haven’t need for Paul to write, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, of whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

In times when the darkness seems so dark and the masquerader seems so much like our saving angel of light, we must pine to remember Paul’s true words.  

Do not be deceived!  Do not grow weary!  Do not give up!  Do good!

Finally, do good.  Do good to everyone, but especially those who believe.  Where the Judiazers in Galatia sought to exclude, Paul includes.  We cannot do good to people if we have grown weary of them.  We cannot do good if we give up.  We cannot do good to those we exclude, ostracize, or alienate.  We cannot do good if we are sowing to please our flesh.  We cannot do good if we allow favoritism, cliques, superiority, or stereotypes to infringe upon on Christianity.  We’ve no business being involved in such things.  Our business is only to do good to everyone.  

Give back.  Do not grow weary.  Do not give up.  Do not give up.  Do not give up.  Do good to everyone.

God, help me hear Paul’s words today.  

 

 

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