557) Running Toward the Plague

 

Another Ebola Death in Liberia

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Christians and Ebola, by Eric Metaxas, October 15, 2014 blog at:  

http://www.breakpoint.org

     Between 250 and 270 A.D. a terrible plague, believed to be measles or smallpox, devastated the Roman Empire.  At the height of what came to be known as the Plague of Cyprian, after the bishop St. Cyprian who chronicled what was happening, 5,000 people died every day in Rome alone.

     The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under the emperor Decius.  Not surprisingly, Decius and other enemies of the Church blamed Christians for the plague.  That claim was, however, undermined by two inconvenient facts:  Christians died from the plague like everybody else and, unlike everybody else, they cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbors.

     This wasn’t new.  Christians had done the same thing during the Antonine Plague a century earlier.  As Rodney Stark wrote in The Rise of Christianity, Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled.

     Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, notes that an “epidemic that seemed like the end of the world actually promoted the spread of Christianity.”  By their actions in the face of possible death, Christians showed their neighbors that “Christianity is worth dying for.”

     This witness came to mind after listening to a recent story on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.  Host Robert Siegel interviewed Stephen Rowden, who volunteered for Doctors Without Borders in Monrovia, Liberia.

     Rowden’s grim task was to manage the teams that collected the bodies of Ebola victims.  Rowden and his team retrieved 10-to-25 bodies a day.  Since close contact with the victims is the chief means by which the usually-deadly virus is spread, Rowden and his team members lived with the risk of becoming victims themselves.

     What’s more, living in the midst of this death and suffering took its toll.  Rowden recalled entering a house and finding the body of a four-year-old victim who had been abandoned by her family.  With the typical English understatement, he told Siegel,  “I found that a very sad case.”

     Rowden’s experience prompted Siegel to ask him if he was a religious man, to which Rowden replied, “I am.   I’m a practicing Christian.”  When Siegel then asked whether what he saw tested his faith, Rowden said that “No, I got great strength from my faith and the support of my family.”

     Nearly eighteen centuries after the Plague of Cyprian, Christianity still prompts people to run towards the plague when virtually everyone else is running away.

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Matthew 25:34-36  —  (Jesus said), “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

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Lord, we entrust to you the people affected by Ebola– the families, communities, cities, and villages.

We pray especially for the health care workers, that you guide and protect them.

We pray that your Spirit inspire those researching and seeking for the drugs, medicines, and healthcare systems that respond to the suffering of the people. 

And in the midst of this, keep us strong in faith, hope, and love.   Amen.   –Charitas organization

556) Good Choices (part two)

MOORE AND MOORE

     (continued…)  In the year 2000, 22-year old Wes Moore achieved the pinnacle of academic success.  He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, the most prestigious post-graduate scholarship in the world.  He was given two full years, all tuition and living expenses paid, to study anything of his choosing at the oldest and most famous university in the world, England’s Oxford University.  This is an incredible honor and opportunity, and in every field of endeavor, in any place in the world, the doors swing wide open to a Rhodes scholar.

     On the very same day that Wes Moore was reading an article about his Rhodes scholarship in the Baltimore Sun newspaper, he also read an article about another young African-American man, this one also named Wes Moore.  This other Wes Moore was facing charges of first degree murder for the killing of a police officer.  The two young men were unrelated, and had never even heard of each other.  But both had roots in Baltimore, and they had similar stories of growing up in poverty without a father.  One graduated from college, had a Rhodes scholarship, and a world of opportunity ahead of him.  The other would spend the rest of his life in prison.  Out of curiosity, the successful Wes Moore contacted the ‘other’ Wes Moore in prison, got to know him and his story, and then wrote a book about their two lives, a book that powerfully demonstrates the importance of good choices every step of the way.

     Both boys grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, living in terrible neighborhoods.  There, the big money was in stealing and drug dealing, and where any attempt to do what is right– even making a positive effort at school– would result in being despised by all the other kids in the neighborhood.  Both boys were at first unable to resist temptation, and both ended up in hand-cuffs in the back seat of police cars.  Both received second chances, and that was where their stories began to differ.

     Both had absent fathers and caring mothers.  But the one mother showed her care by denying and then excusing her son’s drug addiction, making it easier for him to continue making his wrong choices.  It was when he was robbing a jewelry store for money to sustain his drug habit, that he killed the police officer, who was the father of five children.  This troubled Wes Moore now serves a life sentence with no chance for parole.

     The other mother showed her care by firm and persistent discipline, and by sending her son to a private school she could not afford.  She did all she could to encourage better choices, and when he continued to be a problem, she threatened to send him to a private military high school.  He thought she was bluffing, but she wasn’t, and off he went.  His grandparents mortgaged their home to pay the tuition.  He ran away five times in the first four days, but finally, the discipline wore him down, he made some friends, and decided to stay.  Four years later he graduated first in his class of 750, and was on his way to success.

     The successful Wes Moore writes in his book, “One of us is free, and has experienced things that he never even thought to dream about as a kid, but the other will spend every day until his death behind bars…  The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine.  The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”  And while pointing out the right choices he made along the way, he acknowledges the role of the others in his life, along with the hand of God.

     The successful Wes Moore had a hard-working and successful father, but that father died when Wes was only three years old, and his mother was then forced to move into that poorer part of town.  But the mother had spoken often of that good man, and even in death, the father was an inspiration to the young boy.  The father of the troubled Wes was not dead, but had never been around much.  The boy rarely saw him, and his main memory of his father was seeing his father laying in a drunken stupor on a relative’s couch.  After waking him, the father looked into little Wes’s eyes and said, “Who are you?,” before passing out again.  That father’s example did little to inspire good choices.

     Without a father, the boys sought out other role models after which to pattern their decisions and choices.  The troubled Wes looked up to his older brother, a drug dealer who always had plenty of cash.  The successful Wes, after getting tired of trying to run away from the military school, found a friend and role model in an older student, the respected leader of the best drill unit in the school.  He decided that was a far better kind of respect than what he had seen of the tough guys back in the his neighborhood, and he chose to try and gain that other kind of achievement and respect.

     To what does the scholar Wes Moore attribute his ability to make the better choices?  He gives all the credit to the place of God in his life.  In response to an interviewer’s question about his faith he said, “My grandfather was a minister and so faith played a huge role in my life.  The experience has taught me that had it not been for divine intervention, the other Wes could have had my story and I could have his.  My faith is very important to me.  I recognize my blessings and because of my experiences, my faith has taken on a greater role in my life.”

Read more:   

http://theotherwesmoore.com/

Watch:

http://www.youtube.com/embed/udQWOfALwj4

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Deuteronomy 30:15  —  (Moses said), “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.”

Deuteronomy 30:19b-20a  —  (Moses said), “…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.  For the Lord is your life…”

Proverbs 3:5,6  —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

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Lord, you know what I desire, but I desire it only if it is your will that I should have it.

If it is not your will, good Lord, do not be displeased, for my will is to do your will.  Amen.

–Lady Julian of Norwich

555) Good Choices (part one)

     

   THE GOOD SAMARITAN’S CHOICE

(Verse 34b:  …He put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.)

     What was it that made the Good Samaritan stop and help that poor beaten man on the side of the road (Luke 10:25-37)?  The Bible does not say that he knew the man, and, whoever beat up the man on the road might still be lurking nearby behind some rocks waiting for their next victim.  Common sense, safety, and self-interest were all on the side of passing by on the other side of the road, which is just what the first two travelers had done.  Why did this man stop?

     Jesus tells us very little in this parable about the man’s possible motives, saying only that ‘he took pity on him.’  This is a parable not about thinking the right thing, or even about believing the right thing.  There are certainly other parts of the Bible that talk about those things.  But this parable is about simply choosing to do the right thing.  “What must I DO to inherit eternal life?” was the question that prompted the parable.  “DO THIS and you will live,” said Jesus after telling the man to love God with him whole heart, mind, and soul, and to love his neighbor as himself.  Then, after the questioner asked ‘Just who is my neighbor,’ Jesus told this parable.  It is the story of three men, each who made a choice.  Two men chose to do the wrong thing and ignore a man in need, and a third man who chose to do the right thing and go out of his way to help a stranger in need.  Jesus then said we should “Go and do likewise.”

     The words of Moses to the people in Deuteronomy 30 are also all about choosing, and about the consequences of our choices.  In verses 15-18 Moses, near the end of his life, said to the people on the verge of finally entering the promised land:

I set before you today life and prosperity, or death and destruction.  For I command you to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commands, decrees, and laws; for then you will live and increase, and the Lord will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.  But if your heart turns away and you are not obedient, and if you are drawn away to bow down to other gods and to worship them, I declare to you this day that you will certainly be destroyed.

     Sometime later, Joshua, the man who followed Moses and led the people into the promised land, repeated the challenge.  After they were settled on the land, and when Joshua was near the end of his life, he said to the people, “Choose this day whom you shall serve, but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

     There are big and little choices.  Children make choices every day, but the consequences are usually short term.  Should I tell the truth or tell a lie?  Should I clean my room as I was told or should I continue to play and see if someone else does it?  Should I hit my little brother, or should I just tell my mom that he used his color crayons on the walls in my room?  These are small choices with short term consequences, except that in even those small choices, patterns begin to emerge, and character is being formed.  Lying might become a habit, or, hitting and anger might become the way to deal with everything.  On the other hand, the child might begin to learn that honesty is indeed the best policy, or that hard work and diligence brings its own rewards.  

     Before long there are bigger choices with lifelong consequences.  Should I go to work or go to college?  Should I take this job or prepare for that career?  Should I marry this one, or are there too many red flags in the relationship?  Choices are made and lives are set, and this is done on the basis of previous patterns of deciding and choosing.  We don’t need Moses or Joshua to tell us that choices are important.

     But we do need Moses and Joshua and Jesus and the rest of the Bible to put before us that most important choice of all, the choice of who we will ultimately believe in and who we will serve.  Moses said, “I set before you today life and prosperity, or death and destruction.”  And Joshua said, “Choose this day whom you shall serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  That is the most important choice of all, that choice has not only long term consequences for this life, but also for the eternal life which God offers beyond this world and this life.

     In the meantime, there are those day to day choices, and in those too we must be faithful.  The Bible tells us that our ultimate decision and choices about God and eternity will influence all those other, day to day, choices in our lives in the here and now.  (continued…)

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Luke 10:25  —  On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus.  “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Luke 10:36-37  —  (Jesus said), “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Joshua 24:15  —  (Joshua said), “…Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

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Grant, O Lord, that what we have said with our lips, we may believe in our hearts and practice in our lives; and of thy mercy keep us faithful unto the end; for Christ’s sake.  Amen.  –John Hunter

554) Arturo Loves Jesus

Minneapolis, Minnesota based World Mission Prayer League director Charles Lindquist tells about an experience on a recent trip to the Holy Land.  This was in an April 3, 2014 article posted at:  www.wmpl.org 

     On our first day in the Old City of Jerusalem we visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre…  This mighty cathedral is ancient.  Here, we are told, we find the very rock of Golgotha (where Christ was crucified), and the tomb in which our Lord once laid.  Writing in the first years of the fourth century, Eusebius claimed that the site had been venerated and recognized as legitimate since the days of the apostles themselves.  Constantine built a church upon the site in 325.

     I was impressed by the layers of accretion that have accumulated through the years:  layers upon layers, in loud and gaudy array.  There were stone layers laid down through centuries of building and rebuilding, from Constantine’s day, to Byzantine times, through the Crusader period, and to modern times.  There were layers of silver and gold, candelabra and censer, kneeling rails, altar spaces, main chapels, side chapels, tapestries, plaques and engravings.  There were layers of footprints throughout the place:  millions upon millions of visitors have worn the floor smooth.  There was iron scaffolding to hold up failing stone, plywood barriers to conceal ongoing renovation, boxes for offerings, receptacles for votive candles, and rope lines to shepherd the immense crowd of visitors that press in day by day.  There were layers of worship, too:  praying, kneeling, anointing, chanting, and here and there quiet meditation.  There were Catholics and Coptics, Orthodox and Syriacs, Armenians, Ethiopians, and many more.  

   

Church of Holy Sepulchre

     

     Church of Holy Sepulchre, Site of Crucifixion

     Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Location of  Jesus’ Tomb

     Jerusalem Souvenirs

     Protestants seem to have added the largest accretion of all – an entire alternative site for Golgotha and the tomb, not far from the Damascus gate, outside the walls of the Old City.  There you will find additional layers of gift shops and chapels, long lines, narrow spaces, books, guides, pathways, interpretive inscriptions, and so on.

     In all the confusing flood of images, smells and sensations, one engraving leapt out at me, in particular.  It wasn’t chiseled in stone; it was engraved in magic marker.  It wasn’t a thousand years old; it could have been written last week.  A pilgrim named Arturo left the little artifact, on a stone in the floor just opposite the bathrooms and a few paces from Golgotha.  He drew a heart on the surface of the stone.  Inside he scribed, “Arturo loves Jesus.”  Here, it seemed to me at last, I could identify.

     Our missionary work through the centuries also accumulates accretions of one variety or another, almost irrepressibly.  We add (unwittingly, for the most part) cultural accretions, denominational accretions, layers upon layers that were not perhaps inherent to the first century church.  We add worship styles, preferred worship languages, confessions, institutes, regulations and constitutions.  Yet I wonder how much our many accretions lead us in the end to Jesus.

      But Jesus is precisely the point.

     There are so many very sophisticated ways to think about Christ’s death and resurrection, so many theories and theologies regarding what, precisely, happened at Golgotha and how, precisely, to get in on it.  There are so many competing layers.  They may become a blur for us.

     But the core of it all is really very simple.  Arturo seemed to capture it.  One can have all the sophisticated accretions in the world down pat and understood; all the philosophies, theologies, histories and archaeologies planted in one’s head; but if this simple core is absent in one’s heart, the whole lot gains us nothing.

     God loves you.  Enough to give his Son for you.  Enough to raise him from the dead “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

     I am not sure, frankly, that I will remember forever the dates of construction at the Holy Sepulchre, or its principal architects through the ages.  But I will remember Arturo.  Faith must be simple, I think, if it is to be deep.  Remember to keep things simple, as Arturo seemed to do.   The world doesn’t need our sophisticated theology, after all.   The world needs Jesus.

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John 3:16  —  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

1 John 5:13  —  I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.

Romans 10:9  —  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

John 21:5  —  When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”  Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

1 John 5:1  —  Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves his Child as well.

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Lord, help us to fear, love, and trust in you above all things.  Amen.

–Prayer based on meaning of the first commandment in Luther’s Small Catechism

553) Just Passing Through

By James Dobson, Love for a Lifetime: Building a Marriage that Will Go the Distance, 1987, pages 115-117 (a book of advice for newlyweds).

     In August, 1977, my wife and children joined me on a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, for a short visit with my parents.  We enjoyed several days of family togetherness before it was time to leave.  As we drove to the airport where we would say good-bye, I asked my father to pray for us.  I will never forget his words.  He closed with this thought:

Lord, we want to thank you for the fellowship and love that we feel for each other today.  This has been such a special time for us with Jim and Shirley and their children.  But Heavenly Father, we are keenly aware that the joy that is ours today is a temporary pleasure.  Our lives will not always be this stable and secure.  Change is inevitable and it will come to us, too.  We will accept it when it comes, of course, but we give you praise for the happiness and warmth that has been ours these past few days.  We have had more than our share of such good things, and we thank you for your love.  Amen.

     Shortly thereafter, we hugged and said goodbye and my family boarded the plane.  A week later, my father suddenly grabbed his chest and told my mother to call the paramedics.  He left us on December 4th of that year.  And now, my mother is paralyzed by end-stage Parkinson’s disease and lies at the point of death.  How quickly it all unraveled.

     Even today, so many years later, my dad’s final prayer echoes in my mind.  An entire philosophy is contained in that simple idea.  “Thank you, God, for what we have… which we know we cannot keep.”

     I wish every newlywed couple could capture that incredible concept.  If we only realized how brief is our time on this earth, then most of the irritants and frustrations which drive us apart would seem terribly insignificant and petty.  We have but one short life to live, yet we contaminate it with bickering and insults and angry words.  If we fully comprehended the brevity of life, our greatest desire would be to please God and to serve one another.  Instead, the illusion of permanence leads us to scrap and claw for power and demand the best for ourselves.

     A very good friend of mine left his wife and children a few years ago to marry a recently divorced woman.  They were both in their fifties.  I remember thinking when I heard the news, Why did you do it?  Don’t you both know that you will be standing before the Lord in the briefest moment of time?  How will you explain the pain and rejection you inflicted on your loved ones?  What a terrible price to pay for so short an adventure. 

     To young men and women on the threshold of married life, I hope you can bring your attitudes into harmony with this eternal perspective.  Try not to care so much about every little detail that separates you and your loved ones.  Have you ever tried to recall a major fight you had with a friend or a family member six months ago?  It’s very difficult to remember the details even a week later.  The fiery intensity of one moment is a hazy memory of another. 

     Hold loosely to life and keep yourself free of willful and deliberate sin.  That is the key to lasting happiness.

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James 4:1  —  What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?

James 4:13-14  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

Mark 10:6-9  —  (Jesus said), “But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

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Dear God, you have given to me wife, children, house, and property.  I receive these as you desire, and will care for them for your sake.  Therefore, I will do as much as possible that all may go well.  If my plans do not all succeed, I will learn to be patient and let what cannot be changed take its course.  If I do well, I will give God the glory.  I will say, O Lord, it is not my work or effort, but your gift and providence.  Take my place, O Lord, and be the head of my family.  I will yield humbly and be obedient to you.  Amen.  

–Martin Luther

552) Staring at the Void

By Marvin Olasky, in World magazine, October 18, 2014, page 72.  See:   http://www.wng.org

     He’s very smart, my childhood best friend, and very faithful in his atheism.  When he was 6 he was clever as clever, but now he’s past 60 and knows he will not live for ever and ever.  Yet now, as in years past, even the most modest mention of God brings a growl:  “Don’t proselytize me.”

     He called me this summer and pleaded that I come visit him, so I hopped on a plane and did.  He has many physical problems for which doctors have prescribed this and that, with meds for one ailment making another worse.  He has worse psychological problems, which he first summarizes with sociology speak:  “I lack a support network.”  Then he speaks more plainly:  “I’m all alone.” 

     He puts his head on the table and says, “I don’t know what to do.”  He’s haunted by unused potential:  “I’ve wasted my life.”  He programmed computers for others but never worked on any trend-setting products.  He knew some women but never married.  No children.  He knows he could go underwater with hardly a ripple.  He doesn’t look back proudly at anything in his life, including military service.  Seems noble to me, but he says all he learned was, “It’s better to be a live coward rather than a dead hero.” 

     For a time he took satisfaction from his financial worth, having socked away maybe $2 million, but he long expected a stock market crash, kept his money in cash and commodities, and missed recent run-ups.  He’s angry about that, and blames the Federal Reserve.  He blames politicians.  He blames Obama, for whom he voted. 

     He says he would be suicidal except that he fears death and oblivion.  When he was working, he could keep his brain busy on computer problems.  When he stopped working, he could keep his brain busy learning a new language and his legs busy by learning how to dance.  But at some point the void within him became unbridgeable by activity.  He stared at the void and reacted with the cry of Ecclesiastes from 3,000 years ago:  “Meaningless.”

     Some Christian writers have understood what my childhood friend is going through.  Blaise Pascal wrote in 1670:  “I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me.  I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me.  I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which surround me as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more.  All I know is that I must soon die.”

     The Scream (1893), by Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

An iconic image of despair and fear by a painter who struggled with mental illness

     Walker Percy described the contemporary secular man as one who “works, grows old, gets sick, and dies and is quite content to have it so, living as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him after all.” 

     But what happens when secular man wises up and is no longer content? 

     I spent three days with my childhood friend as his world was disintegrating.  He was in despair, but I can’t consider that a bad thing:  With his hostility toward God, he should be in despair.  He has to hit bottom before he can rise, and maybe his only chance is to hit bottom.  But how will he then bounce up?  Augustine wrote in his Confessions that he was “speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighboring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, oft repeating, ‘Take up and read; Take up and read.’” 

     Augustine did that, picking up Paul’s Epistle to the Romans.  When others will not take up and read, true change seems impossible.  

     Except, except … with God, nothing is impossible.

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Ecclesiastes 1:2-3…14  —  “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.  “Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless.”  What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?…   I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 12:1  —  Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14  —  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.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

John 10:10b  —  (Jesus said), “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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A PRAYER FOR ONE IN DESPAIR:

Heavenly Father, I know I am close to despair.

I feel so tempted to give up, to withdraw from life, and simply let the world carry me along.
Everything seems so meaningless and nothing appeals to my better instincts.
Help me to remember that Jesus gave meaning to everything in the world.
Let me put my trust and hope in Jesus, and get over this time of despair.
Help me to believe in the depths of my being that there is a reason for living.
Show me the reason for my life and tell me what I must do.
Bring home to me that I am never alone, but that You are with me even in the depths of despair.  

Remind me that no matter what I may endure now,
an unending joy awaits me in the future, if I but cling tightly to You.  Amen.

 –author unknown

551) Comparing Yourself to Others

fat skinny boxer

God made us all different.  Why do we feel the need to compare and compete?

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By Tom Bodett, Small Comforts, 1987, pages 118-121.

     I’ve never found it a healthy practice to compare myself to other people.  It only leads to either smug satisfaction or abject self-pity, neither of which becomes me.  I sometimes feel that other people are my competition– whether it be for money, smarts, popularity, or spiritual awareness, and even though it does no good, I continue to wage silent battle with my fellow travelers.  I’d be a lot better off figuring out what makes me happy, and doing what I can to stay that way.

     Of course this is easier said than done, and no matter how noble my intentions, I continue to hold myself up against other people whether I want to or not.

     There are two times I’ve done this that stick out in my mind more than others.  These two in particular stay with me because I won the contest I should have lost and lost the one that never should have been a challenge.

     The contest I won took place in a swank hotel bar in Boston a year ago.  I was on my maiden, publicity tour, and the publisher of the book was treating me pretty good.  There were a couple presidential visits commemorated in brass by the front door of this joint, and limos and Rolls-Royces were parked four deep on the street.  I felt entirely out of my element, but decided to wallow in the good life just in case it never came around again.

     While I was sitting in the bar one evening silently enjoying the fruits (or at least the hops) of success, a very drunk man broke me from my thoughts.  I guessed him to be in his late thirties, and you didn’t have to know a lot about clothes to see that his evening attire probably cost more than my truck did.

     He was alone and trying to spark some conversation around the bar by talking too loud to nobody in particular.  He claimed to be the heir to a huge corporate fortune and to own a controlling interest in a worldwide cosmetics company.  He bragged that he inherited his pile at the tender age of eighteen, and moaned that everyone’s been trying to take it from him ever since.  He was closing up his Boston town house and building a “little ten-room” up at Kennebunkport, Maine, “to get away from it all.”  He wondered if you could get decent servants up in that wilderness.

     The word “servants” raised my hackles, and I started to listen more closely.  He hated his cars.  His Rolls was always in the shop waiting for parts from “those damn Brits.”  He’d blown three transmissions in his Porsche in less than a year.  The Mercedes “rode like a tank, and what’s the use of driving one anyway now that all the pimps have them?”

     He had to fly the SST to London in the morning and complained all the way out the door on unsteady legs how his “brains go right through the back of his head” when he rides that thing with a hangover.

     I sat in my off-the-rack clothes nursing my cheap domestic beer and gloated.  Even though my entire net worth wouldn’t rotate the tires on his fleet of cars, I was the more fortunate man.  He’d found more to complain about in a ten-minute tirade than I could come up with in a month.

     I spent my last night in the good life with a different view of it.  The next day I would fly coach back to Alaska, where I would be reunited with family, dear friends, and contentment, to name just three of the things that have obviously eluded that miserable soul at the bar.  He had everything I should have envied, but all he got from me was pity.  I won.

     I would lose everything I won a year later in Seattle.  Just a few weeks ago while on a similar tour, I had occasion to look out the window of another swank hotel.  They were still treating me good, but I was getting a little tired of it.  I had a cold and I missed my family.  While pining away waiting for room service to bring me my version of a cold remedy, I spotted a man down on the street.

     He was pushing a grocery cart of garbage bags full of God only knows what.  He couldn’t have been that old, but he carried himself like a very old man.  It was obvious that everything he owned was in the cart.  He had on three or four beat-up coats to ward off the Seattle rains, and my heart went out to him.  But just as I was about to slip into pity he did the most incredible thing.

     He pulled a rag out of his coat pocket and began polishing the public drinking fountain on the corner.  “Some kind of nut,” I thought.  Then he pushed on and started cleaning up a parking meter.  A few feet more and he was on a newspaper box.  Every few wipes he would refold the rag to present a clean face and diligently go about his chore.

     A store owner came out and started talking to him.  I thought he was chasing him off, but it was soon apparent they were friends.  The store owner gave him something.  A few pedestrians walked by and greeted him as he went at his task.  I was fascinated.

     Here was a man who had lost everything, or maybe never had it.  He had every reason to lie under a trestle somewhere and drink bad wine until it all went away, but he didn’t.  He worked his way up the street making friends and doing some small thing for the privilege of being there.

     I was beaten hands down.  There I sat in a room that cost more money than he’ll see in a year, and I was depressed.  Had he ventured a look into my window, he’d have seen a long face in a fancy chair.  He might have felt sorry for me.  Sorry that I was alone in a strange city without the benefit of all the good people he knew.  He won.

     I guess you could call this contest even, but I’m not so sure.  All the standard lessons are there.  Every luxury in the world can’t buy happiness, and all the hard times won’t necessarily break it.  There’s no good reason to be intimidated by anyone as we go through these little comparisons with each other.  You win some, you lose some.  It’s best not to play the game at all.

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1 Corinthians 4:3-5  —  I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.  It is the Lord who judges me.  Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes.  He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.  At that time each will receive their praise from God.

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If Thou, O Lord, would mark iniquities, who among us could stand unafraid before Thee?  For there is so much bad in the best of us, and so much good in the worst of us, that we dare not criticize each other.  May we all find the grace to seek Thy pardon and find the Gospel joy of making a new beginning.  In the power of Christ our Lord and Master.  Amen.

–Peter Marshall  (1902-1949)

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Incline us, O God, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge all they say and do with the charity which we would desire from them for ourselves.

–Jane Austen  (1775-1817)

550) Wow!

By Tom Bodett, Small Comforts, 1987, pages 156-159.

     Among the thousand and one truisms that were hurled at us as expectant parents was one I especially wanted to believe:  “You are going to learn the most important things from your children.”  It sounded so promising, and when accompanied by a smug veteran-parent grin, it appeared to hold water.

     I looked forward to learning about these “most important things,” but soon after our boy arrived I decided it was all a lot of tripe.  If the most important things are pricing Pampers, holding tempers, and coming up with six-hundred variations on the word “no,” then I figured people’s ideas of “important” are purely subjective.

     My partner in crime and I have spent the last twenty months with our child teaching him everything from rolling over, to the dynamics of liquids in cups not carefully handled.  All the while I held on to the hope that one day the teaching would leave off and the learning begin.  Apparently it was just a matter of time, and the time, at last, has arrived.

     We recently had occasion, as a family, to spend the night at the house of some friends in town.  They have an extra room down in the basement, and we were set up with the bed and crib in the same room.  No big deal.  The kids went to sleep early, we had wonderful late-night conversation, and retired to our accommodations.  I slept well but woke up too early, realized I was in a strange place, and couldn’t go back to sleep.

     In our natural habitat my wife and I don’t share a room with the baby.  We normally first come to know he’s awake by a series of screams from downstairs that would put any self-respecting banshee to shame.  But lying there wide awake in an unfamiliar house offered me the opportunity to hear my child wake up for the first time.  This is where the learning came in.

     Let me establish here that there are only a few words in our boy’s vocabulary.  “More” is the one we hear most often and can refer to anything from fun to food.  “No” comes in a close second as he repeats it just about as often as he hears it.  “Hello,” “Bye-bye,” “Momma,” and “Daddy” make up the rest of his standard casual conversation, and that’s all the words he’s got.  All, that is, but one.

     By far his most distinguished and seldom-used expression is the word “wow.”  He only says “wow” when something really impresses him.  If Dad lets a frying pan catch on fire and juggles it out the front door into the snow, it’s “wow.”  If we turn around backwards with the car on the way to town and hit the ditch at thirty miles an hour, it’s “wow.”  If the house were to burn down around him with the Messiah whispering reassurances into his ear the whole time, I’m confident he would sum it all up with “wow.”

     My reason for going into all this is, like I said, I had occasion to hear him come to life one recent morning.  I’d been awake for over an hour, but nobody else was up.  I lay there silently straining to hear any encouraging sign that there might be people and coffee about.  I thought about my day, and took inventory of the chores at hand.  We would have to get organized and make the drive home.  Once there I’d have wood to put up, a door to fix, a few letters to write, and some bills to pay.  My wife would clean the house. The boy would refuse to take a nap.  Luck willing, we would have a little time to spend together before Monday once again descended on our lives.  All this was less than the stuff of dreams.

     As I was lying there brooding, I heard my child stir.  He rolled over– I assume he opened his eyes– and said, “Wow.”  Suddenly, I felt like a heel.

     With all my training to “think good thoughts,” “look on the bright side,” and “take it a day at a time,” I woke up to a near-miserable world.  This little boy who knows nothing of optimism woke up, saw he had a new day, and gave it his grandest praise.  I learned something.

     It dawned on me that this innocent little child was at the place I wanted to be.  To wake up in the morning, take a look at the world, and say “Wow” is probably about as close to contentment as a person can ever hope to get.

     Contentment is a rare commodity.  The more we learn about this world, the more anxious we get.  There is trouble afoot.  There are heartbreaks, failures, tragedies, and an endless list of selfish desires that are never realized.  Sooner or later we come to resent our own existence.  I’m sure our innocent child will eventually eat this forbidden apple. and wake up, as most of us do, to say only “Ugh.”

     I wish I knew what I could do to never let this happen.  I wish he could teach me the way he sees things now so that I could help him hold on to it– and so I could remember how it’s done.  That truly would be a “most important thing” if this tiniest of guides can show me from his crib how to open my eyes in the morning, see that I am alive in Paradise, and say “Wow.”

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Psalm 118:24  —  This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

1 Chronicles 23:30a  —  They were also to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord.

Philippians 4:11b  —  I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.

I Timothy 6:6-7  —  Godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.

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549) Table Manners (part two)

     Third, mealtime is a place to learn self-control and moderation.  This, like gratitude and not complaining, is never fully learned in childhood, and is usually a lifelong struggle.  The child’s first lessons in self-control come even before mealtime.  “No,” they are often told, “you cannot have a bag of potato chips right now; it is almost mealtime and you will spoil your appetite.”  Self-control over one’s appetite for food, and, over all of one’s appetites and passions is fundamental to the formation of good moral character.  Many basic table manners have to do with this self-control.  We don’t just grab the food with our hands and shove it into our mouths.  It takes time, but little children learn to keep the food out of their hair and off of the floor.  They learn to take what they need and not waste.  They learn to use a fork and a spoon.  We dish up our plates, and then we pass the food around to others, and we make sure everyone has enough before we take more.  Even then, we should not take too much, even if more is available.  Eat too much, as we all have at times, and you will end up not feeling well.  In the rest of life it is the same:  drink too much, spend too much, insist on your own way too much, sleep too much, procrastinate too much, or goof around too much, and you will regret it.  Meal-time is a good place to begin to learn about doing things in moderation and about practicing self-control and about orderly behavior.

     Fourth, the family table is a place to learn to communicate, to have a polite conversation.  Families that make the effort to have a meal together have at least that much time to talk to each other.  This doesn’t happen automatically.  Mealtime may be rushed, family members may be upset with each other, and there may be interruptions.  But when the effort is made, the opportunity is there, and children can learn the give and take of reasonable conversation– no interrupting in, no loud talking, no talking with your mouth full of food, and to respect the words and the views of others.

     Part of wisdom is learning the principles and moral behaviors of a good and upright life.  But another part of wisdom is learning to be with people, learning to get along with people, and learning to get your ideas across and to listen to and respect the ideas of others.  The family table is an excellent place to learn that.

     Jesus himself once used the teaching of table manners to teach a larger lesson about life and morality.  Luke 14 tells the story of a time when Jesus was invited to a wedding banquet hosted by a prominent Pharisee.  Place cards were apparently not yet invented, so we are told in verse seven that Jesus noticed how the guests were all jostling around, picking for themselves the places of honor at the table.  So Jesus said to them (beginning with verse eight): “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat;’ and then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.  But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when the host comes he will say to you, ‘Friend, move on up to a better place.’  Then, you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”  There Jesus teaches the table manners, and then in the next verse, he applies the lesson to the rest of life, saying, “For everyone who exalts himself, will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Proper humility, says Jesus, can be learned at the table.

     So can gratitude, self-control, communication, civility, and many other things.  When teaching the people the laws of God, Moses said (Deuteronomy 6), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up… and be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God.

     We surely do not want to forget the Lord our God, and an excellent way to remind ourselves of God is to give Him thanks every time we sit down to eat.

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Deuteronomy 6:11b-12a  —  When you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord.

Luke 14:10-11  —  (Jesus said),  “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’  Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.   For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Titus 2:11-13  —   For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.  It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age,  while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

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A thousand gifts Thou dost impart.  

One more I ask, O Lord:  A grateful heart.

–George Herbert

548) Table Manners (part one)

     

     Several years ago, a little known author named Robert Fulghum made a hit with an article he wrote called, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.  It was a nice piece of writing– simple, down to earth, and filled with wisdom.  It contained several basic Kindergarten rules like play fair, don’t hit others, say you are sorry when you hurt someone, clean up your own messes, share with the others in the room, don’t take things that aren’t yours, put things back where you found them, and, when you go out into the world, stick together and things will go a lot better for you.  That sort of thing.  You may remember it.  It was written in such a way that the reader could make the application to all of life, including adult life, and see how the whole world would indeed be better off if everyone simply lived by the basic rules learned in the Kindergarten classroom.

     I read a similar article one time in Touchstone magazine by Patrick Henry Reardon.  The name of the article was Wisdom from the Table, but it could also have been called, Everything I Need to Know I Learned at the Dinner Table.  The article begins:  

The quest for wisdom begins with learning how to eat.  The most basic steps toward virtue are mastered at the family table.  Character begins with etiquette.  Teach a child how to dine like a human being, and you have gone wonderfully far in his education.

     At that point I almost turned the page and skipped the article, expecting some high-brow lessons on how to properly fold the napkin when you place it on your lap, which fork is the correct one to use for your salad, and so forth.  But when I saw that the first rule at the table was to say your prayers, I decided to read on.  It was well worth it.  It turned out to be like the Kindergarten article– lots of down to earth wisdom, but along with an eye on heaven.   There are only four things to learn, Reardon says, but those four things, if learned well, would influence one’s entire life.  “Mealtime,” said the author, “should nourish the soul and the mind as well as the body.” 

     First of all, the meal should begin with a prayer.  Even the smallest child, even before learning to talk, can learn to bow his or her head at the beginning of the meal.  One should, after all, at the table pause to thank God for his blessings, some of which the family is about to share in with the meal.  Food and water, when plentiful, can be easily taken for granted.  The mealtime prayer reminds us that those things come from somewhere; from Someone.  They come from God, as his gracious and undeserved gifts, without which we could not live.  In the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray we pray “Give us this day our daily bread.”  When that daily bread is given and there before us, the very least we can do is give thanks for it.  In that most widely used Protestant meal prayer, we invite Christ’s presence and pray for his blessing.  “Come Lord Jesus,” we pray, “be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blessed.”  In our home, from the time of my childhood and now with my grandchildren, we add a prayer of thanks.  We add a verse that is found in many of the Psalms, and especially in Psalm 136, where it says again and again, “Oh give thanks, unto the Lord, for He is good, and his mercy endures forever.”

     Gratitude to God is an essential element of faith.  Thanksgiving is a central, often repeated theme in the Bible.  And gratitude is also the key to a happy life.  Life is, for us all, filled with suffering, full of ups and downs, full of sadness and disappointment.  But it is also filled with blessings, blessings that include the gift of each day, and, the food to sustain life day to day.  Gratitude to God remembers that even life itself is a gift, and to keep that in mind gives a person of any age a firm foundation for faith and for happiness.  On the other hand, a lack of thankfulness can lead to resentment for what one does not have, and fill one with sadness and unbelief.  Beginning each meal with a prayer of thanks is a basic first step toward teaching such gratitude.

     Second, because we have just thanked God for our food, we must not complain about it.  Complaining about the food should be discouraged.  Such complaining contradicts the prayer of thanksgiving just said for the food there given.  On the contrary, we should eat gratefully all that is put before us, and this is a good lesson for children to learn.  Did you ever hear a child say, “I don’t like that?”  Did you ever say that?  Well, a good lesson for life is to learn that we need to receive gratefully what life offers, even when it is not always exactly what we want.  Our daily experiences will oftentimes not conform to our preferences, life will at many times and in many ways disappoint us, and a child can begin to learn to accept that by something as simple as eating green beans even if he or she likes marshmallows better.  In all of life you must learn to put up with many things you do not like.  This simple lesson is indispensable to the formation of good character, and it can be learned at the family table.

     Several years ago I spent a week in Haiti, and for many months after I returned I did not feel like complaining about anything.  Everything that we so easily take for granted became for me an opportunity for gratitude:  clean water, a warm shower, plenty of food, peaceful sleep without worrying about disease-carrying rodent or bug bites, and far safer conditions on the road, to name just a few things.  Most of the people I met in Haiti had none of that.  Having consistent, nutritious, safe, plentiful food is a blessing not enjoyed by hundreds of millions of people.  We can learn at a table full of food to first of all be thankful, and secondly, to not complain; and then we can work to apply those attitudes to all of life.  (continued…)

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Luke 11:3  —  Give us each day our daily bread.

Numbers 11:4-6…10b  —  (the people complain about the food)  The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat!  We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.  But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”…  The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled.

Psalm 136:1  —  O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.

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God is great, God is good,

And so we thank Him for our food.  Amen.