Gentleness and respect

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (I Peter 3:15-16, NIV).

“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15, NIV).

Since the founding of the Christian Church, each generation of believers has used available technology to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The writings of the apostles were copied and saved on scrolls, but before long they were collected in codex form. The printing press and less costly paper made written communication easier to distribute—the Bible itself, as well as books, sermons, tracts, and other explanations of the Bible’s message. Now the internet and social media have opened a new world of communication to the Church, making outreach, apologetics, and irenics easier than ever before. Printed material can be smuggled into a country that censures writing, but the internet sneaks across borders far more easily. Peter preached to thousands of people on Pentecost Day, but the potential audience for any internet posting can extend to many millions.

Those of us who belong to Jesus Christ have wonderful opportunities to share his promises with the world. I know that God blesses our efforts where and when he chooses. I know that all the saints on earth remain sinners, subject to the devil’s temptations to fumble our attempts to share the Gospel. My heart is broken, though, over the many samples I have seen of Christians tarnishing the name of Christ by failing to describe our hope with gentleness and respect. I am doubly heartbroken over the many times I have seen Christians debate one another online, not with mutual love and respect, but rather biting and devouring each other.

Written communication has pitfalls, and those pitfalls only increase on the internet. Much of our personal communication is helped with facial expressions, body language, and variations in tone of voice that do not appear in writing. (Emoticons help a little, but only a little.) Close friends sometimes develop a banter that, to strangers, sounds hurtful and even abusive. Language that amuses some people repels others. As Christians post and as we comment on other posts, I believe we need to keep certain ideas in mind so our words bring glory to Christ and his Church rather than embarrassment and shame.

First, I do not think rhetoric and logic alone can change the heart of an unbeliever. Only the Holy Spirit can bring a person to faith. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God—the writings of the prophets and apostles through whom he spoke. They can be quoted directly, or they can be summarized, paraphrased, and explained. In any case, our best weapon against the devil and the sinful world is God’s Word. Our best way to lead other people to Jesus is to use the very words that changed our hearts and made us believers.

Atheists and agnostics who have already encountered God’s Word and have rejected it are unlikely mission opportunities, although God is capable of working miracles even in hardened hearts. If rhetoric and logic are not enough to change their hearts, surely ridicule and demeaning language will not accomplish that goal. Even when they choose to communicate using ridicule and demeaning language, I do not think that we bring glory to God and do his work by reducing our language to their level rather than writing with gentleness and respect.

Gentleness and respect are not only for unbelievers. When communicating with fellow believers, gentleness and respect are even more required. The Church on earth has been divided into many sects and factions, contrary to the will of Christ and of his apostles. True Christian unity cannot be accomplished by compromise, watering down the truth to a pulp that all will accept. Rather, each of us is called to defend the truth, but to do so gently, respectfully, and drawing on the power of God’s Word rather than relying on our own reason and understanding.

When you disagree with another Christian, consider the level of your disagreement. Are you correcting heresy? By all means, counter dangerous lies with the truth, but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you responding to heterodoxy? By all means, communicate with fellow believers about our differences, hoping to work toward greater unity within the Body of Christ—but do so with gentleness and respect. Are you differing over a case of Christian freedom? Perhaps—for the glory of God and for the strengthening of your faith—you are refraining from something not forbidden by Scripture. (This could be eating meat sold in the marketplace, dancing, playing cards, drinking moderately, or any other practice that Christians are free to do and free not to do.) By all means, share the benefits you have seen in your fasting, but do not criticize those who choose not to fast in your way. And, if you choose not to fast in a way that benefits a fellow believer, refrain from judging or criticizing your brother or sister in the Lord.

When two Christians are disagreeing over the meaning of a passage of Scripture, stop and consider the hermeneutical principles each is using. Is one reading the Bible evangelically while the other is reading legalistically? Is one seeking prophecies of future events while the other considers all prophecies already fulfilled in Christ? We read the Bible and discover differing messages—possibly one of us is guilty of replacing exegesis with eisegesis, but the root of the difference is probably in hermeneutics.

Those of us who are one in Christ will remain diverse, not only in language and culture, age and gender, wealth and social status, but in political opinions, artistic preferences, and the like. We can and should discuss these differences, but always with gentleness and respect. In the United States last November, some sincere Christians voted for Trump, others voted for Clinton, and still others voted for third party candidates. Even if you question the judgment of other people’s votes, their political convictions do not make them heretics.

In my case, I consider liturgical and traditional worship more reverent and more meaningful than contemporary worship. I have learned, though, that other Christians are blessed through contemporary worship. Their way of worshiping does not make them heretics, or even heterodox. I am more concerned about teachings in liberal Christianity. Some of those teachings are truly heretical, and they need to be opposed with the truth of the Bible—but always with gentleness and respect.

Finally, the devil and the sinful world delight in hiding Christ’s Gospel under distractions and diversions. Proper places and times can be found for discussing science and religion, archaeology and the Bible, abortion, patriotism, men and women and how they relate to each other, and many other topics. Often these topics are a barrier to the Gospel—a barrier to proclaiming Christ and Him crucified. No one has been changed from a nonbeliever into a Christian by being proved wrong about some peripheral topic. The Gospel itself is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

Pardon my rant. I’ll try to be better now. J.

Rocky’s Bridal Boutique

Earlier this week I commented that I try not to be angry at callers on the telephone. They can call at inconvenient times, such as during meals or when I’m watching TV. Sometimes caller ID works and I know who is calling, so I don’t always answer if I don’t want to talk to them. (“The Red Cross is calling again? Don’t answer the phone—I don’t have time to donate more blood this week.”) Many times, though, caller ID will display just the number. Even though I don’t recognize it, I will take the call, because sometimes it is a family member or friend calling, even though the telephone didn’t recognize the caller.

I was a telemarketer when I was in graduate school—the job helped pay for my classes and textbooks. My job was not high-pressure sales; the company was offering to place magazines in churches for the members to purchase. I talked with a lot of pastors, a lot of church office secretaries, and various other people. Once I made a sale merely because I pronounced the pastor’s name correctly. Very rarely was anyone rude to me, even when my call interrupted more important things.

In 2014 I became more involved in politics. Every time a telemarketer called to conduct a political opinion poll, I was happy to answer all their questions. I took a lot of calls like that in 2014; it seemed like every week someone wanted to know my opinion. It was as if I was on a list of people who were willing to answer questions. Last winter I decided not to talk to polltakers on the telephone. After a few calls, they stopped. No one asked for my opinion in the spring or summer or fall. I’m not surprised the polls failed to predict the outcome of the election—the sampling clearly is skewed by their focus upon people willing to talk to them.

One time, a caller did manage to make me lose my temper, but I recovered. I was working at a church. One day the phone rang at 8:30 in the morning. I answered, but no one spoke to me; after a second or two, the caller hung up the phone. That happened the next day, and the next, and the next. (This was before caller ID was common.) The day it made me angry was when the silent caller made me run from the bathroom to answer the phone. But then I realized that making me angry might be the reason for the calls. (Another possibility is that someone felt compelled to check, to see if I actually was showing up to work.)

I decided that, rather being angry, I would have some fun with the situation. The next morning when the phone rang at 8:30, I answered with “Public Library, Children’s Department,” instead of the name of the church. The next day, I used, “Police Office, Vice Desk.” Every day I tried to use something unique. My favorite line was “Rocky’s Bridal Boutique.” I used that one more than once.

One day when I answered the phone with one of those lines, a voice responded to me. It happened to be a telemarketer calling the church. We both had a good laugh, and then I listened politely to the sales pitch before saying no. Oddly, the silent calls ended at that very time and never returned.

I am generally polite with telemarketers, but sometimes I try to have fun with them. Those men with south Asian accents who want to sell me software to correct imaginary problems with my computer probably think I’m an idiot. As they instruct me to press a certain button on the keyboard, I stall with questions like, “Does it matter which hand I use to push that button? Would it work if I used my nose?” If I’m not in a playful mood, I tell them that I have googled the name of their company, and I know that they are a scam. They haven’t called in a while either.

The telephone can be a useful device, even though most of the time it’s an annoyance. Even when it annoys me, though, I try not to let anger build. Life is too short for that kind of anger, and the people who are calling are just trying to earn a paycheck. Except for the times that the caller is a machine. J.

“Hello, my name is Joe”

From time to time I dream of winning a grand victory over an evil intelligence, as Captain Kirk so often did in Star Trek. Yesterday, on a small scale, I finally had my chance.

The telephone rang while I was working on my desktop computer at home. I did not recognize the number showing on caller ID, but that did not necessarily mean the call was not from someone I know. I haven’t memorized all the phone numbers of people I might want to speak with on the phone.

I picked up the phone and said hello. A cheerful voice introduced himself as “Joe from Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” He asked how I was doing and I said, “I’m fine, Joe; how are you?”

Instead of the usual, “I’m-fine-thanks-for-asking,” Joe moved immediately into a description of what his company offered. He implied that someone in the household had a need for a hearing aid. “I don’t think I’m interested,” I told him, but Joe then said that someone in the household had contacted his company.

Given the name of the company, I didn’t think that was likely. Instead of saying so, I offered, “Let me write down your name and number and ask my family if any of them have contacted you.”

“I’m not trying to sell you anything,” Joe assured me. “This is a free service.” I thanked him and asked again for a way to contact him if someone in the family indeed had an interest in what he was offering.

Instead of giving me a phone number, Joe said, “I’d just like to ask you a few questions, OK?”

By this time, Joe’s failure to respond to what I was saying made me suspect that Joe was not a human being, but rather a computer-generated voice. His pauses before responding were just a smidgen too long; along with his unfitting responses, our conversation made me picture a 1960s, made for TV, room-sized computer with whirling tapes and flashing lights. I knew that if I said “OK,” Joe would start asking his questions, so I said, “I don’t think I want to answer any questions.”

“OK?” Joe asked again.

“I know what word you want me to say, and I’m not going to say it,” I told him.

“I just want to ask you a few questions, OK?” Joe repeated.

Although I was tempted to tell him that logic is a chirping bird, I instead chose a more fitting line. “Joe, what we have here is failure to communicate,” I said.

“I’m sorry to hear you’re having that problem,” Joe said.

“I don’t think the problem is on my end,” I told him.

“My name is Joe,” he said, more slowly than he had said it the first time. I pictured the face of an android, eyes blank and staring, smoke starting to rise out of both his ears. He continued, slowly and distinctly, “I am from the Senior Auditory Center and Helping Hands.” After that came a silence long enough that I figured it would not be rude to hang up on Joe.

In three different episodes, Captain Kirk was able to save an entire planet and its resident civilization (not to mention his life and the lives of his crew) by talking a computer to death. I’d like to believe that, in a small way, I have now shared in the good captain’s victories. J.

Capturing all fifty

Yesterday morning I rode the elevator with a young woman—with bright blue hair and tattoos, not that any of that matters—who, after saying hello, was staring intently at the device in her hand. Evidently she was about to capture a Pokemon right there in the parking garage.

I remembered the days when telephones had to be plugged into the wall, when they had a headset connected to the main part of the phone with a long coiled cord. You couldn’t do much more with a telephone than talk to another person; about the most exciting app phones had was a number where you could hear the correct time and the temperature. Dick Tracy had a wristwatch that could do amazing things, and Maxwell Smart had a cell phone hidden in his shoe, but Star Trek communicators were going to have to wait until the twenty-third century… or so we thought.

Even in those primitive days we had a game that was as exciting as Pokemon Go. We generally played the game only on vacation road trips, but in theory it could be played around town. The goal was to “capture” license plates from other states by seeing them clearly in traffic or in parking lots. Complete victory was won only if at least one plate from each of the fifty states was spotted during the trip.

I suppose everyone has his or her own special rules for this game. As far as I am concerned, license plates only count if they are on private vehicles. Eighteen-wheel trucks, delivery vans, rental vehicles, and the like don’t count—basically, the plate is disqualified if the vehicle has any writing on the side.

Nearby states and states with large populations are easy to spot. The small states in New England and the sparsely-populated states in the west are harder to find. Delaware and Hawaii are among the hardest. The game was easier to play when each state had one unique design. Now most states have a number of special plates, and sometimes the modern plates take on similar designs and colors. Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri all have the same shades of blue in different combinations. Massachusetts and Arkansas are almost identical.

I’ve played the game starting on January 1 to see how long it takes to spot all fifty states. I’ve played the game starting over each morning to keep track of how many I see each day. Once I played the game trying to capture the fifty states in alphabetic order. That took close to three years, with Rhode Island requiring more than half a year to “capture.” When we were on a road trip, I mentioned the game to the children in the car and told them I was going to win when the next car passed us. One of them deduced, “Wyoming must be one of those states that has plates on the front of the car as well as the back,” which is correct.

On a good day, I can capture ten or more license plates. This morning I captured only seven. I didn’t spot any in the elevator of the parking garage. J.