537) Received Him Not

     The mayor of the little village could not believe his eyes.  He had to read the message for the second time.  The message had just been delivered to him on horseback by the royal messenger of the King himself.  The message read: “I, King Edward, am on a tour of the northern provinces, and I would like to stay in your village tomorrow night.  If this is agreeable to you, please have prepared a warm supper and a place of lodging.”

     “Well,” said the finely dressed horseman, “May the King stay in your village tomorrow evening?  He awaits your reply.”

     “Why, of course,” said the mayor, “who would turn down the King of the land?  I hesitated only because I was so shocked.  The King has never visited this village, but yes, yes, we would be honored to have him stay here.  He is greatly loved in these parts, so yes, by all means, tell him we will look forward to his arrival.”  With that, the royal messenger thanked him, turned, and rode off swiftly.

     The mayor was so excited and so nervous that he did not know where to begin.  What an honor, but only a day to prepare!  Why, a month would hardly be enough time!  He called together his entire staff and all of his servants, issued all sorts of instructions and orders, and soon, everyone in town was hard at work, decorating the banquet hall, preparing the finest food, and cleaning the streets.  All the most important people would be invited, and there must be enough food for everyone.  All that night and all the next day, everyone raced around, preparing for the arrival of King Edward.  By late afternoon they were ready, and the mayor, his wife, and all their important friends stood by the road, waiting to receive the King and his great company of aides and soldiers.  The town had never looked better.

     Just then, a solitary figure came walking down the road.  He was poorly dressed, had only a ragged sack on his back, and his clothes were covered with dust from the journey.  Well, the mayor was not very happy to see this.  He had already ordered that all beggars be kept of the street that day, and now with the King arriving at any moment, this shabby man had to be dealt with.  The mayor called quickly to one of his servants.  “William,” he said, “take that traveler down the road to old Jacob’s hut.  Tell Jacob that I would like him to give this man lodging for the night.  Jacob is a good man and will not refuse you.  Hurry up!  We must get this man out of here.”

     With the beggar out of sight, the welcoming party resumed their wait.  They waited and waited.  Minutes passed, then hours, and then it was well past midnight, and still, no King.  “Well,” said the mayor, “maybe the King got delayed, and maybe he just decided not to come.  Kings can do whatever they want, you know.  Maybe he will be here tomorrow.”  So they all went home, very sad and disappointed.

     Meanwhile, William, the servant had taken the shabby beggar down a long winding path, into the forest, and to the little hut of old Jacob, the woodcutter.  When they arrived, William explained the situation to Jacob, who graciously accepted the command.

     “There is not much here,” said Jacob, pointing to his supper laid out on the rough wooden table.  “Just some bread, some soup, and a warm fire.  But you are welcome to it,” he said, “and you being a traveler, I’d like to hear tales of the places you have been.”

     So old Jacob and the beggar passed the evening in jolly companionship.  The stranger told stories of beautiful lakes and mountains that he had seen, of faraway cities that he had visited, and of strange people and customs that he had encountered.  The old wood-cutter had never heard of such things, and his eyes were wide with wonder as they talked long into the night.  It was a never to be forgotten evening for Jacob.

     When morning came and the visitor was about to leave, he handed Jacob an envelope and asked him to give it to the mayor.  Thanking Jacob for his hospitality, the shabby man disappeared down the road.

     Late in the morning, the stranger’s message reached the mayor.  What he read left him shaken.  It was on the same royally decorated paper as the previous message, and it said:  “I wish to express my sincere gratitude for the fine provision of food and lodging, and the generous hospitality of such a fine host.  You could not have chosen for me a better companion than Jacob.  Perhaps on a later visit I can meet with you.”  It was signed, KING EDWARD.

     This is a story of recognition– or, one should say, of the failure to recognize.  The King came to visit, but his appearance was not what the people were expecting, so he was not recognized.  The mayor hurried to get him out of the way, and sadly, they never got to meet the King at all.  That wonderful, once in a lifetime opportunity was missed.

     The New Testament also tells the story of the visit of a king to his people, the King of all heaven and earth.  This King also came for a visit, but he also did not look like what people were expecting.  And he too was shuffled to the side, and then even killed, by those who wanted to get him out of the way.  They also failed to recognize the one for whom they were waiting, and they missed the most important of all opportunities.

     In the first chapter of John are some of the saddest words in the whole Bible.  The Gospel of John begins with these words:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God, and through him all things were made.  In him was life, the lift that was the light of all people…  And then that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  The Word is Jesus, the Son of God, Savior of the world.  Verses ten and eleven, those saddest of all verses, speak of him, and of how he was not recognized:  “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own received him not.

     Can there be any more disturbing words in all the Gospel writings?  He came to his own, but his own received him not, and not only did they not receive him, they killed him.  They were looking for, hoping for, waiting for the promised Messiah from God, but then, when he was right there in their midst, they did not recognize him.  He was too ordinary, he was not spectacular enough, he did not fit in with their expectations or their agenda– and they did not recognize him, just like the mayor did not recognize King Edward, who to his eyes looked too ordinary.

     But this first chapter of John is not all bad news.  The very next verses tell of a very different reaction.  Not everyone would fail to recognize Jesus.  Right after it says, “he came to his own and his own received him not,” it goes on to say, “But to all who did receive him, and who believed on his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.

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John 1:9-12  —  The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.   He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

2 Corinthians 2:19a  —  God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.

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Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.

–From the 1971 musical Godspell,

Based on a prayer by Richard of Chichester  (1197-1253)

536) The Bread of Life (part two)

   

     (…meditation on John 6, continued)  Yet, Jesus is critical of this desire.  He rebukes the people, and although his criticism is gentle enough, he does make it clear that he has come for more important things than to hand out free lunches.  In verse 26 Jesus said to the crowd, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”  And then when they asked him what it is they should be looking for, he offers them the bread of life, that is, eternal life, which can be had by believing in Him.

     Jesus knew what it was to be hungry– even very hungry.  Remember the 40 days in the wilderness that he was without food and was then tempted by the devil?  The devil’s very first temptation was to offer a way to get free food.  Jesus refused to give in to the temptation, and he stayed hungry.  Jesus knew what it was to feel that most basic need.  And yet, he knew there was something even more important.  When he was hungry, Jesus said to the tempter, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  One can have plenty to eat here, and still be unhappy.  On the average, well fed Americans are less happy than the poor, but cheerful and hopeful Haitians.  And, one can have plenty to eat for their whole life, and even be happy for all of life; but this life still comes to an end for the rich as well as for the poor.  But even then, that ‘bread of life’ that Jesus was here to offer would still be there and still able to give and sustain even more life, eternal life in heaven.

     So Jesus said to the crowd, “Do not work for the food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which I will give you.”  Jesus does not mean, of course, that we need not work at all for the food that spoils– our daily work is most of all for the purpose of providing us with that ‘daily bread’ that Jesus himself invited us to pray for in the Lord’s prayer.  What Jesus means is to not make the food that spoils or anything that perishes our most important concern.  That daily bread, as important as it is, will satisfy us only for a day.  But the bread of life will be with us for all eternity.

     Kay James is an African-American woman who worked in the administration of the first President Bush (see EmailMeditation #458, A Lesson from Mama).  She grew up in the ghetto, raised in poverty with her five brothers.  Their father had abandoned the family, and the mother worked two, and sometimes three jobs to support them all.  They never starved, but they had many meager meals of thin soup and a few crackers.  One day, when the mother came home from work, one of the boys had good news.  They would be having fried chicken that night, he said, holding up the chicken he had provided.  But mama was suspicious. “Where did that chicken come from?,” she asked.  After some hemming and hawing, the boy admitted it was stolen from the school kitchen.  He and the neighbor boys had gotten away with several.  Mama angrily grabbed the chicken by the legs, and the boy took off running because he knew what would be coming next.  She hit him on the back with the chicken a couple times before he got away, and then she threw the chicken out the back door for the rats to fight over.  Mama said, “We’ll starve before we eat stolen food in this house.”  The kids were deeply disappointed, especially since they could smell the fried chicken from the neighbors houses, houses in which other mothers did accept and prepare the stolen food.

     Looking back, Kay said that it was things like that that kept that family alive.  Other boys in the neighborhood got used to taking the easy way out and were soon dealing drugs.  Several of them were dead before they were twenty years old from drug overdoses or shootings.  But Kay and her brothers learned there was something more important than food, and that was faith in Jesus and the desire to obey him in all things.  That deeper, eternal hope gave them the strength to survive even hunger.

     You may be fortunate have enough to eat, and not have to face the kinds of temptations that faced Kay James and her family.  But as you well know, there are all sorts of other temporary things that can tempt us to forget that which is of eternal value.  Jesus here encourages us to remember him and to look to him in all things and at all times, or as Paul said, “Look not to the things that are seen, for they are temporary, but to the things that are unseen, for they are eternal.”

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     John 6:25-40 (portions)  —  When they found Jesus on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

     Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you…”

     Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

     Jesus answered, “The work of God is this:  to believe in the one he has sent.”

     So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you?  What will you do?…

     Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you… it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

     “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

     Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…  For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

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Matthew 4:4  (quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)  —  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

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We thank Thee for our daily bread,
Let also, Lord, our souls be fed.
O Bread of life, from day to day,
Sustain us on our homeward way. Amen.

535) The Bread of Life (part one)

John 6:1-13:

     Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.  Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples.  The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

     When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”  He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

     Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

     Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

     Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”  There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there).  Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.

     When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over.  Let nothing be wasted.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

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     This Bible story reminds me of a Peanuts comic strip I read one time.  I’ll describe it as well as I can as I remember.  Charlie Brown’s hands are raised in frustration as he is talking to his dog Snoopy.  He says, “You are lucky to be a dog, Snoopy.  You don’t have any the worries that people have.  The whole world is in a mess– wars, storms, crime, not to mention all our own personal troubles.  I have so much on my mind.  And, you?  You’re a dog, so you don’t have to worry about anything.”  Charlie then walks away, his head so full or worries that he has forgotten to put food in Snoopy’s dish.  And then the last frame shows Snoopy, looking worried, thinking to himself, “I wonder where my next meal is coming from.”

     Actually, Snoopy had the biggest worry of all.  One of the most basic needs, for humans and for dogs, is to eat, and after a day or two of no food, hunger will begin to override all other concerns.  Charlie Brown was feeling the burden of all the trouble in the world, and, as readers of that comic strip can well remember, he also had a lot of personal problems.  But if no one fed him for a couple days, all other worries would be forgotten, and like Snoopy, he would be thinking and worrying about nothing but food.

     When I traveled in Haiti with a missionary several years ago, I met many people who were often hungry.  For them, happiness in life was a simple matter– if they got something to eat on any given day, that was a happy day, and if they didn’t eat, well then, that was a tough day; but maybe the next day would be better.  They had that simple hope.  I did not meet anyone who was starving to death.  The people I met could scrape together enough to live.  But it was not uncommon for them to go with no food at all for a day, or two, or even three days.

     The missionary I was with told me that suicide and even depression were rare among the poor in Haiti.  Happiness for them was a simple matter, and not nearly so complicated as it is for people who have so much of everything.  When you have something to eat, then you can begin to worry about finding shelter, getting yourself more comfortable, finding something fun and entertaining to do on the weekends, buying a better TV set, remodeling the house, and so on.  But if the grocery store shelves were all of a sudden emptied, and you would not be able to get any food anywhere, all those other concerns would be quickly forgotten.  Hunger can make you forget almost everything else.

     Therefore, you can hardly blame the people in the above story from John 6 for coming to Jesus looking for food.  In the previous verses, they had followed him into the wilderness, and there they let the time get away on them, and they were hungry.  It was a long walk back home, and food would be on their minds all the while, and their children would be crying with hunger.  Those country people were not wealthy, so they, like the people in Haiti, probably knew what it was to miss a few meals and feel the hunger, and they knew very well how unpleasant it was going to be.  And then, just like that, there came a huge unexpected surprise.  The disciples of Jesus were handing out food, all they could eat, and then some.  Where did it come from?  No one could even guess how someone got a hold of that much food way out there, but all were happy to have it.  They ate and ate until they couldn’t anymore, and even then, there were twelve big baskets of leftovers.  Is anyone surprised that these people came back the next day for more?  (continued…)

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MEALTIME PRAYERS for BOTH KINDS OF BREAD:

Father in heaven, sustain our bodies with this food, our hearts with true friendship, and our souls with Thy truth, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.
The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian, 1906

Lord Jesus, you are the living water given to quench the deepest thirst of our hearts and you are the bread of heaven sent to give us life that will go on forever.  We thank you that you are also mindful of our earthly human needs and that day by day you provide for these needs, even as you give us the gifts we need for our spirits.  We praise and thank you.  Amen.

534) A Few Good Prayers

MORNING PRAYER of John Stott  (1921-2011):

Good morning, Heavenly Father; good morning, Lord Jesus; good morning, Holy Spirit.  Heavenly Father, I worship you, creator and sustainer of the universe.  Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world.  Holy Spirit, I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God.  Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. 

Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.  Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.  Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me.  Amen.

     John Stott was an Anglican priest, and for many decades, a leader in the worldwide Evangelical movement.  Stott prayed this prayer every morning for much of his life.  The prayer address all three persons of the Trinity, emphasizing this central Christian understanding of God.  I like the familiarity with which God is addressed (‘good morning!’), and yet the focus is on reverent praise for God’s almighty majesty as Creator, Savior, and Sanctifier.  The prayer also includes requests for the faith and ability to live better, more obedient, lives, and, a plea for mercy for our inevitable failures.  It is a wonderful prayer and it has become a part of my own daily morning prayers.

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A MEALTIME PRAYER by John Stott:

Dear God,
In a world that is hungry, we thank you for good food;
In a world that is lonely, we thank you for good friends;
In a world that is getting ever darker, we thank you for the light of Christ.
In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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A PRAYER FOR A BUSY DAY:

Lord, I shall be verie busy this day.
I may forget Thee, but do not forget me.

–Sir Jacob Astley (1579-1652) on October 23, 1652
before the battle of Edgehill in the English Civil War.

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A PRAYER FOR THE STRENGTH TO CHANGE:
My Lord Jesus, look at how my neighbor has injured me, slandered my honor with his talk, and interfered with my rights.  I cannot tolerate this, and so I wish he were out of my way.  O God, hear my complaint. I cannot feel kindly toward him, even though I know I should.  See how cold and insensible I am.  O Lord, I can’t help it, and so I stand forsaken.  If you change me, I will be devout and have better thoughts.  Otherwise, I must remain as I am.  O dear God, change me by your grace.  Amen.

–Martin Luther, adapted from Luther’s Prayers (#173), tr. by Charles Kistler (1917)
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EVENING PRAYER:

O Thou Creator of all things that are, I lift up my heart in gratitude to Thee for this day’s happiness:

For the mere joy of living;
For all the sights and sounds around me;
For the sweet peace of the country and the pleasant bustle of the town;
For all things bright and beautiful;
For friendship and good company;
For work to perform and the skill and strength to perform it;
For a time to play when the day’s work was done, and for health and a glad heart to enjoy it.

Yet let me never think, 0 eternal Father, that I am here to stay.  Let me still remember that I am a stranger and pilgrim on the earth.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  Preserve me by Thy grace, good Lord, from so losing myself in the joys of earth that I may have no longing left for the purer joys of heaven.  Let not the happiness of this day become a snare to my too worldly heart.  And if, instead of happiness, I have to-day suffered any disappointment or defeat, if there has been any sorrow where I had hoped for joy, or sickness where I had looked for health, give me grace to accept it from Thy hand as a loving reminder that this is not my home.

I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast so set eternity within my heart that no earthly thing can ever satisfy me wholly.  I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the contemplation of a more perfect blessedness.  And above all I thank Thee for the sure hope and promise of an endless life which Thou hast given me in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

     This prayer is from a prayer book I use every morning for my daily devotions:  A Diary of Private Prayer by Scottish pastor and theologian John Baillie (1886-1960).  This devotional classic contains a one page prayer for every morning and evening of the month.  The above prayer is for the evening of the 21st day.  It is a most wonderful prayer, beginning with gratitude for this day, this world, and this life.  The prayer then lifts our thoughts to a remembrance of God’s promise of an eternal life in his home, and reminds us to see our current sufferings in the light of that eternal hope.  The prayer then ends as it began, with gratitude, this time giving thanks for our home in eternity.  

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The Bible itself contains many wonderful prayers.  Here are just a few of the shorter ones.  These can be easily memorized and prayed anytime during the day or night.

Lord, save me.  –Matthew 14:30

Lord, help me.  –Matthew 15:25

I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief.  –Mark 9:24

Come quickly to me, O God.  You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay.  –Psalm 70:5

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.  –Psalm 103:1

I am laid low in the dust; renew my life according to your Word.  –Psalm 119:25

Oh give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endures forever.  –Psalm 136:1

God, be merciful to me a sinner.  –Luke 18:13

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  –Luke 23:42

Come, Lord Jesus.  –Revelation 22:20

533) Being Open About Death

 By Randy Alcorn, September 24, 2014 blog, at:  http://www.epm.org

     Years ago when my children were still at home, before leaving on trips, sometimes I would say to them, “I’m not expecting anything to happen, but remember, if it does, I’ll see you again in Heaven.”

     Some would consider this morbid or inappropriate.  But why?  Mortality is a fact of life.  What do we gain– and what do our children gain– if we pretend it isn’t?  I’m going to die.  So are you.  So are our children.  We don’t know when, but we do know it will happen– unless, of course, Christ returns in our lifetime.  He will return, but throughout the centuries He hasn’t yet, even though countless people believed that He would return before they died.

     How many children– whether ten years old or forty– have been traumatized by the sudden loss of a parent?  When Dad and Mom speak openly of this possibility, it’s a gift to their children.  If Christian parents remind their Christian children that the worst that can happen in death is temporary separation, it’s reassuring.  Their relationship cannot be terminated, only interrupted.  What will eventually follow– whether in hours, days, years, or decades in the future– is a great reunion, wonderful beyond imagination.

     Ancient merchants often wrote the words memento mori– “remember death”– in large letters on the first page of their accounting books.  Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, commissioned a servant to stand in his presence each day and say, “Philip, remember you will die.”  In contrast, France’s Louis XIV decreed that the word death not be uttered in his presence.  Most of us are more like Louis than Philip, denying death and avoiding the thought of it except when it’s forced upon us.  We live under the fear of death.

     Jesus came to deliver us from the fear of death, “so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death– that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).  In light of the coming resurrection of the dead, the apostle Paul asks, “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).

     What delivers us from the fear of death?  What takes away death’s sting?  Only a relationship with the Person who died on our behalf, the One who has gone ahead to make a place for us to live with Him.

     It’s neither morbid nor inappropriate to speak of such things with your family.  Denial of truth, not truth itself, is the breeding ground for anxiety.  One of the greatest gifts you can bestow on your loved ones is the honest anticipation of reunion in the better world, the one for which we were made.

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We should familiarize ourselves with death during our lifetime, inviting death into our presence when it is still at a distance…  You must look at death while you are alive, but see it in the light of Christ and grace and heaven, permitting nothing to divert you from that view…  If you look at death in any other way, it will kill you with great anxiety and anguish.  This is why Christ says, “In the world– (that is, in yourselves)– you have unrest, but in me you will find peace” (John 16:33).

–Martin Luther, ‘A Sermon on Preparing to Die,’ 1519, Luther’s Works, volume 42, page 101…103-4

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Psalm 39:4  —  Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.

Psalm 90:12  —  Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

John 16:22  —  (Jesus said),  “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

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AN EVENING HYMN/PRAYER:

By Thomas Ken  (1637-1711)

All praise to Thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
Beneath Thine own almighty wings.

Forgive me, Lord, for Thy dear Son,
The ill that I this day have done,
That with the world, myself, and Thee,
I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.

Teach me to live, that I may dread
The grave as little as my bed.
Teach me to die, that so I may
Rise glorious at the judgment day.

532) Living Water

 

 Malcolm Muggeridge  (1903-1990)

English journalist, author, media personality, satirist

     “I may, I suppose, pass for being a relatively successful man.  People occasionally stare at me in the streets– that’s fame.  I can fairly easily earn enough money to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue– that’s success.  Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions– that’s pleasure.  It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time– that’s fulfillment.  Yet I say to you– and I beg you to believe me– multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing– less than nothing, and even an impediment– measured against one drink of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.”

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Exodus 20:3  —  “You shall have no other gods before me.” (the first commandment)

Ecclesiastes 2:11  —  Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 12:13  —  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

Matthew 16:26  —  (Jesus said), “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

John 7:37-38  —  On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

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Almighty God, may we fear, love, and trust in you above all things.  Amen.

–Prayer based on Martin Luther’s catechism explanation of the first commandment.

531) Schindler’s List and His Regrets

     Oskar Schindler was a German businessman in the 1930’s.  In many ways he was a most despicable man.  He did not like Adolph Hitler, but eagerly joined the Nazi party when he saw that it could be very good for business.  He was raised a Catholic, but never went to church unless he needed to make a business contact there.  He spent more money on alcohol than most people will spend in a lifetime on everything.  He was a heavy drinker himself, he threw many parties, bought many rounds, and gave away countless expensive cases of wine as he sought to gain favor with Nazi military and political leaders.  And when the war began Schindler was able to secure several lucrative industrial contracts, and became extremely wealthy.   His businesses were especially profitable because he had to pay very little for labor.  He set up his plant near a neighborhood in Poland where Jews had been imprisoned by the Nazis, and he paid the Jewish refugees practically nothing.

     Schindler was a domineering man, and could get his way with anyone, Jewish refugee or high-ranking Nazi, by doing whatever it took.  He would bully and he would charm, he would threaten and he would bribe, at times he would intimidate people and at other times he would endear himself to them.

     After the war, Schindler’s luck ran out.  He had to flee because he was branded a war criminal for illegal profiteering and for using Jewish slave labor.  He went to Argentina with his wife and one of his many mistresses.  Schindler had a wonderful wife, but carried on numerous affairs without even trying to hide it from her.  In Argentina, his marriage ended to the surprise of no one, and he also failed at everything else he tried there.  Near the end of his life, he moved back to Germany where was despised by many of his neighbors because of his wartime activities.  He died in 1974.

     Despite all that, Oskar Schindler was buried with honor in the Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem.  He had said, ‘Bury me in the Holy City among my people.’  He was declared by Jewish leaders a ‘righteous man.’  In 1993 Steven Spielberg, a Jew, made a movie about his wartime activities called Schindler’s List which won the academy award for the best movie of that year.  You see, along with all his huge faults and sins, there is one part of Oskar Schindler’s story that I have not yet described.  Oscar Schindler saved the lives of more condemned Jews in World War II than any other individual.  

     In 1943 all the workers in Schindler’s Poland plants were ordered to go to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, that death camp which was killing and cremating thousands of Jews each and every day.  Schindler had by this time already made more money than he would ever need.  He could have left the country, bought a mansion somewhere, and lived out his days in luxury.  But somewhere along the line something happened to Oskar Schindler, something that was never understood by even those who knew him best.  For some reason, he began to care about those Jews who were to him at first nothing but cheap labor.  Schindler demanded that ‘my Jews’ (as he called them) not be sent to Auschwitz, but that they be permitted to stay to run his plants.  The Nazis refused.  So he bribed them, arriving at a price in the thousands of dollars for each Jew he wanted to save.  The Jews he would buy would then be loaded into a train going the opposite direction of Auschwitz, to work in another factory he bought in Czechoslovakia.  Thus began the task of making up ‘Schindler’s List’ of those Jews who he would buy and thereby save from the gas chambers.  The movie shows him adding name after name to the list, with each name depleting his fortune, until there were over 1200 names on the list.  The bribed Nazis kept their word, and the Jews were taken to Schindler’s factory.  They were still heavily guarded by German soldiers, but Schindler treated them as well as he could.  He kept them all alive and fed and working until the end of the war.  

     Schindler did all this even though it left him with practically nothing.  The rest of Schindler’s own life did not go very well because of that incredible and unexpected sacrifice, but the Jews he saved were forever grateful.  Those he saved and their descendants are to this day called the ‘Schindler Jews.’  When the movie was made in 1993 there were already over 6,000 people in this family of ‘Schindler Jews.’

     In Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, ‘all the nations of the world’ are gathered before him.  The people are divided into two groups, and to each group, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you did (or did not) feed me, I was thirsty, and you did (or did not) help me, I was imprisoned and you did (or did not) come to me,” and so on.  This parable of Jesus is intended to give us a long term perspective on our good deeds.  When on that last day we stand before the Lord we will be happy for every good deed done, but we will sorely regret the many times we had the opportunity to do good and neglected to do so.  At the moment of decision, helping someone in need may seem to be a costly and an unwanted interruption, but than later on, we usually do feel good about helping.  In the same way, later on, we may feel guilty about not giving someone a hand when we could have.  How much more so, implies Jesus, after your life is over and all opportunities are past, will we have those good feelings or those regrets.  Paraphrasing Martin Luther:  “When we are brought to life on the last day we shall spit on ourselves and say, ‘Shame on you for not bring bolder in obeying Christ when you had the chance, since the glory is so great'” (Table Talk #203).

     Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List there is an unforgettable scene that is a powerfully illustration of this.  The war has ended and the Jews will soon be liberated.  The Nazi soldiers go home, and Oskar Schindler goes from being a big shot industrialist to being a wanted man.  The 1200 Jews gather to say good-bye.  They have all signed a letter explaining Schindler’s work on their behalf, but everyone knows that there is no guarantee that the invading Russians will believe that letter, or, if they will believe others who were angered by Schindler’s work and would want to see him arrested.  So he has to run for his life.  He says good-bye, and as he looks out over all the people for whom he risked his life and gave up his fortune, he began to weep.  At first he cannot speak, but then he says, “I could have done more, I could have done more…  This car,” he says, “why did I keep it?  I could have sold it and saved ten more lives.  This stupid diamond pin,” he said of a pin on his lapel, “Even that I could have sold and gotten enough money to save one more life.”  He kept weeping and kept repeating, “I could have done more, I could have done so much more.”

   Oskar Schindler  (1908-1974)

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Matthew 25:40  —  (Jesus said), “The King will reply,  ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

John 9:4  —  (Jesus said),  “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me.  Night is coming, when no one can work.”

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Who can tell what a day may bring forth?  Cause me therefore, gracious God, to live every day as if it were to be my last, for I know not that it may be such.  Cause me to live now as I shall wish I had done when I come to die.  O grant that when I die I may be found in Christ, who is my only Savior and Redeemer.  Amen.

–Thomas a Kempis

530) Procula Pilate

Tissot, Pilate's Wife Warns Him of a Dream

The Message of Pilate’s Wife  James Jacques Tissot  (1836-1902)

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Do not have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’  –Matthew 27:19

     This verse is in the middle of Matthew’s account of Pontius Pilate’s questioning of Jesus.  There is no recorded response of Pilate to this message.  He is already convinced that Jesus is innocent, and he is trying to get him released.  However, when he does give in to the pressure being exerted on him and does agree to allow Jesus to be crucified, he asks for a bowl of water so he could ‘wash his hands’ of the whole affair.  Was this perhaps at least an attempt to abide by his wife’s wishes?  Maybe, maybe not.  There is no direct link between this verse and any other verse in Matthew or in any other part of the Bible.  Pilates’ wife and her dream are nowhere else mentioned.  But this is an interesting little verse.

     First of all, where did it come from?  How did Matthew, writing his Gospel several years after these events, find out about that dream and this private message to Pilate from his wife during the trial?  Pilate served in Judea only a few more years, and even while he was there, it would have been unlikely that the Roman governor’s wife would have anything to do with this band of disciples of a country preacher.  That is, unless she sought them out; and there is some evidence that perhaps she did.

     Pilate’s wife is not named in the Bible, nor is she even mentioned anywhere else in the Biblical record.  But she is mentioned several times in other early Christian literature.  In these writings it is said that her name was Procula (or sometimes Claudia, or, Procula Claudia), and in those other old documents, there are accounts of her conversion to Christianity.  Not only that, but she seems to be important enough to be declared a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church.  There is also some evidence that she might have been persecuted for her faith and died a martyr.  The collected writings from these early years of the church fill many volumes, and some are more accurate than others.  Legends have crept into many of them.  But there is reason to believe that these accounts of Pilate’s wife becoming a Christian are true.

     One of the big reasons to believe that Procula did become a Christian is the presence of this little verse.  It was a private message from a wife to her husband.  It is not the sort of thing that Pilate would have wanted known.  When Ronald Reagan was president it was reported that his wife Nancy had some interest in astrology.  Critics wondered if she was influencing the president with that nonsense, and if national policy was being directed by the stars in the sky.  This is not the kind of publicity that a politician wants.  Pilate would not have wanted it known that while he was on the judge’s seat deciding a case of capital punishment, his wife was sending him instructions based on her dreams.  The religious leaders already had him in a tough spot with Jesus.  He certainly did not need this additional embarrassment.

     However, if years later Pilate’s wife did become a Christian, she certainly would have been a celebrity in the early Christian community, and her story would have been of great interest and widely circulated.  Under those circumstances, it is very easy to imagine Matthew learning of that dream and including it in his Gospel.

     The brief verse tells us nothing of the source of Procula’s dream, but there are two possibilities.  First of all, it might have come directly from God.  That happens in the Bible, and I don’t doubt that it still happens.  But this doesn’t happen very often in the Bible, and I don’t think it happens to many people today.  And without a clear sign that some dream or inner voice is from God, it is best to assume that it is not.  Without a single word about divine revelation in this verse, it is best to assume the second possibility, that the dream came to her the natural way.

     When dreams come to you in the usual way, you have to have some previous knowledge of what you are dreaming about.  Pilate’s wife, therefore, must have heard something about Jesus.  Perhaps she had heard about his ministry for three years already; teaching large crowds, healing many people of all sorts of ailments, and even raising the dead.  Perhaps she had taken an interest in the incredible work of this holy man.  Somehow, Procula had heard enough to form an opinion about Jesus, for when she sent that message to her husband she said, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man.”  Innocent.  Well, that is exactly what the chief priests, and then Pilate, had been spending the last few hours trying to decide– whether Jesus was innocent or guilty.  But Procula’s mind was already made up.  “Have nothing to do with that innocent man,” she said.

     We see in this single verse just a hint of the impact Jesus was beginning to have.  In the previous months, the crowds following Jesus had been in the thousands.  By the time of the trial, the crowds were gone.  Only the disciples and a few women remained, and most of them had deserted Jesus.  When Jesus rose from the dead, his closest followers returned, and then many others came back; and then on Pentecost Day, the number of believers in Jesus again grew into the thousands.  Then, within just a few generations, it is estimated that well over half of the people living in the Roman empire believed in Jesus as Lord.  

     Pilate’s wife was perhaps one of the very first.  She was at the very least fascinated by him and deeply disturbed that her husband might condemn him.  Think of what she felt when Pilate came home for supper and said that Jesus was on the cross.  And think of what she must have thought when the report came on Sunday morning that the tomb was empty, and people had reported seeing Jesus.  It seems to me that those accounts of Procula becoming a Christian could very well be true.  In time, a majority of the Romans would believe that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord.

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Matthew 27:24  —  When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said.  “It is your responsibility!”

Colossians 3:11-12  —  Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.   Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

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Merciful God, creator of all the peoples of the earth and lover of souls:  Have compassion on all who do not know you as you are revealed in your Son Jesus Christ; let your Gospel be preached with grace and power to those who have not heard it; turn the hearts of those who resist it; and bring home to your fold those who have gone astray; that there may be one flock under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.  –Amen  

Book of Common Prayer, 1979

529) Losing Almost Everything

     “I hardly had a drink in years,” said a man from New Orleans who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.  “But right after the hurricane hit, I started drinking again.  Now, if I stop drinking, the pain becomes so great it is unbearable.  I am scared because I don’t have any identity anymore.”  He feels like everything that made him who he once was is now gone forever.

     Life had been difficult enough already for many of the poorer residents of that city, but folks had their friendships, their old neighborhoods and hangouts, and the never-ending music.  And even though the music returned, many neighborhoods became ghost towns, and those that went back found little left of their old life.

     Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a man who lost everything.  Over the last 12 years of his life, the Nazis took away from him everything that gave him his identity.  Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and author.  In 1933, when Bonhoeffer was only 27, Hitler came to power.  The Nazis took away Bonhoeffer’s German homeland, turning it into something unrecognizable.  Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler, and was from then on under suspicion.  His freedom to speak and move around was, from then on, severely restricted.  For a few months, he escaped to the freedom and safety of the United States, but found he could not, in good conscience, stay there.  He went back to join the church’s resistance to Hitler and, to teach in an underground seminary.  When that seminary was discovered and closed, Bonhoeffer lost his place of ministry, but continued to do what he could.  Finally, he was arrested and lost his freedom, spending the last two and a half years of his life in prison.  There he was treated well at first.  He was even brought books and papers by guards who liked him.  But after a while, that too was taken away, and he had nothing left but his life– and even that was always under a cloud.  He knew that at any time, the evidence that would lead to his execution may be discovered.  That evidence was found, and he was hung in April of 1945 at the age of 39– thus, finally losing almost everything to the Nazis.

     But there was one thing Bonhoeffer never lost, and that was his hope.  His hope was in the faith he had in God, and in that he found his confidence and identity.  And with that, he became a pillar of strength to all in the prison, even to many of the guards, who also had much to fear in that war and from the Nazis.  Survivors of the prison camp spoke of his cheerfulness, his confidence, and his inner strength.  And he got all of that from his faith which was nurtured and sustained by his daily reading of God’s Word.

     In the last year of his life, Bonhoeffer wrote a poem entitled ‘Who Am I?’ which dealt with this very question of identity.  He, like the man from New Orleans, was asking what is left of a person after everything is taken away.  “Who am I?” he wrote.  “They often tell me that I step from my cell calmly, cheerfully, firmly– like a squire from his country-house…  Who am I?  They often tell me that I talk to my guards freely and friendly and clearly, as though I am the one in command.  Who am I?  They also tell me that I bear the days of misfortune with confidence and even smiles, like one accustomed to winning.”  But then he writes, “Am I really all that which other men tell of?  Or am I only what I know of myself inside, restless and longing and sick, struggling and trembling with fear and with anger, weary of worry over loved ones, faint and doubtful even at my prayers…”  And then he asks again, “Who am I?  One or the other?  One this day and the other the next?  Am I both at once, or what?”  Finally, he concludes the poem saying, “Who am I?  These lonely questions of mine mock me.  But whoever I am, you know, Oh God, I belong to you.”

     In that last line is revealed the source of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s strength that inspired everyone around him.  He knew he belonged to God.  That was his faith, and his faith kept him strong.  Even with everything else taken away, he still had God’s Word, which he first was able to read, and then when all books were taken away, was, until the end, kept safely in his memory.  In his last letter home, just before Christmas of 1944, he wrote these words:  “You must not think I am unhappy.  What is happiness and unhappiness?  It depends so little on circumstances; it depends really only on that which happens inside a person.”  In his last spoken words, just before he was hung, he said:  “This is the end for me, but it is also my beginning.”

     In that last letter home, Bonhoeffer said a little more about his source of strength.  He wrote, “In solitude, the soul develops powers which we can hardly know in everyday life.  Therefore, I have not felt lonely or abandoned…  Prayers and words from the Bible gain life and reality as never before.  It becomes like a great invisible sphere in which one lives and in whose reality there is no doubt.”  Bonhoeffer, like the man from New Orleans, had lost everything.  But Bonhoffer was able to remain strong because his identity was in God’s Word, and that gave him a firm foundation that could withstand any storm.

     The Bible is what gives us identity and strength and confidence and faith and hope, even if else is taken away; and, as we know, everything will one day be taken away.  Even then, the Bible has a Word for us that goes far beyond all we know or have or attain in this brief life.   When everything else is lost, like for Deitrich Bonhoffer, or the man in New Orleans, or a woman living her last days in the nursing home, no longer able to see or hear or feed herself, even when nothing else is left, this Word still speaks a word of hope and promise.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer  (1906-1945)

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Isaiah 43:1-2a  —  But now, this is what the Lord says— he who created you, Jacob, he who formed you, Israel:  “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned 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.

Romans 14:8  —  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

John 20:30-31  —  Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Isaiah 7:9b  —  If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.

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Eternal God, the refuge of all your children,

in our weakness you are our strength,

in our darkness our light,

in our sorrow our comfort and peace.  

May we always live in your presence,

and serve you in our daily lives;

through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–St. Boniface  (675?-754),  “Apostle to the Germans”

528) Finding Hope in a Latrine

     Long before there was a war in Vietnam, there were Christian missionaries proclaiming the Gospel to the Vietnamese.  The Christian population of Vietnam was never very large, and it has been severely persecuted since the end of the Vietnam war, but those who have persisted have grown strong in the faith.  Hien Pham was a Vietnamese Christian who worked as a translator for the missionaries in the 1960’s and 70’s during the war.  After Vietnam fell, Hien was captured by the Viet Cong and imprisoned.  He was accused of collaborating with the CIA, and while in prison he was to be re-educated.  He was taught about the evils of democracy and the many benefits of communism.  He was also told that he had been brainwashed by the Christians, and that there really was no God.  The authorities took away the Bible that he loved and forbade him to speak English, the language that he loved.

     “There is no such thing as God,” was the message that his captors drilled in, day after hellish day.

     For a long time, Hien held on to his faith, remembering the words of his Bible that he could no longer read, and, saying his prayers every day.  But finally, Hien began to wonder, “Maybe they are right.  Maybe there is no such thing as God.”  Soon his questions became convictions, and one night he decided not to say his prayers.  Instead, he made up his mind that he had been deluded all along by those missionaries, and he would no longer believe in God.  “I’m through with God,” he said to himself that night.  “When I wake up in the morning, it will be no more God for me and no more prayer.”

     The next morning, Hien, the newest atheist in the camp, stood in line as the commanding officer of the prison barked out the assignments for the day.  Hien’s job that day was to clean the latrines.  He cringed when he heard it.  This was the ultimate form of indignity for the prisoners.  The latrines were shabby and filthy and Hien would be spending the entire day amidst that filth.

     The soiled toilet paper was not flushed through the primitive plumbing, but was put into waste baskets.  One of Hien’s last jobs of the day was to empty these waste baskets.  All day long he had labored with reminders to reinforce his new belief that there is no God.  How indeed could a loving God leave him here and not rescue him from this living hell?  But as Hien’s work for the day was coming to an end, something in the last trash can happened to catch his eye.  It was a piece of paper with printed type.  As Hien looked closer, he saw it was in English.  Anxious to read this language once again, he looked around to make sure no one was watching.  He then quickly rinsed off the filth and tucked the paper into his pocket.

     That night after everyone had fallen asleep, Hien carefully took out his flashlight and removed the still damp paper from his pocket.  In the upper right hand corner he saw printed Romans 8.  Amazing!  This was a page from the Bible.  In a state of shock, Hien began reading.  The first verse he read was Romans 8:28:  “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  What a miracle to find a page of the Bible on that very day that he had decided to forget about God; and then to read first of all that verse that spoke right into Hien’s situation and into his heart.  Hien read on:  “What then shall we say in response to all this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, or anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     Hien began to cry.  Of all the Scripture verses he had known, these were the ones he most needed to hear in his present situation, and now they had come back to him in a most incredible way.  “Lord,” he prayed, “you would not let me out of your reach for even one day.”  Hien then gave up the atheism that he had just embraced, and went back to his faith and his daily prayers.

     The next morning, when Hien saw the commanding officer before the daily line up, he asked him, “Sir, would you mind if I cleaned the latrines again?”

     The officer stared at him, puzzled.  He decided Hien was trying to be a smart aleck, so he said, “All right, you are going to clean them every day until I tell you to stop.”

     Hien did not know it in the beginning, but it was that officer himself who had been tearing out pages from a confiscated Bible and using them for toilet paper.  Now, each day, Hien would find more pages, and each day, he would rinse them clean, hide them in his pocket, and read them at night.  In this way his faith was sustained and strengthened.  Life seemed hopeless to Hien as he cleaned those prison camp latrines, but there among the filth he found a word of hope.   

     After a while, Hien was released from prison.  In time, he escaped from Vietnam in a small boat.  He was one of the boat people that were so often in the news back in the 1970’s.  He made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then eventually was able to come to America.  He lives now in San Francisco, where he has a business.  Whenever possible, he looks for opportunities to tell people about how good God has been to him.      (Story told by Ravi Zacharias for whom Hien Pham worked as a translator in 1971.)

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Romans 8:18  —  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Romans 8:28  —  We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:24-5  —  For in this hope we were saved.  But hope that is seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

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My God, I believe in you.  Increase my faith.

 My God, I hope in you.  Strengthen my hope.