524) Wicked Words

 By Christy Heitger at:  www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/ (stories of faithful living for youth)

My stomach dropped when I saw Phil walking toward me in the cafeteria.

“Please tell me he’s not coming to talk to me,” I whispered to my friends Lena and Alyssa.

“No such luck,” Lena replied.  “In fact, he looks like he’s on a mission.”

That’s what worried me.  The winter formal was three weeks away and rumor had it that Phil wanted to ask me out.  With thick black glasses, hyperactive sweat glands, a bad case of chin acne, and the tendency to use the word “cool” a few hundred times a day, Phil wasn’t exactly the man of my dreams.

“Hi, Christy,” he said, his voice cracking as he uttered the first syllable of my name.

“Hey,” I mumbled.

“Uhhh, I was just wondering if you’d like to go to the winter dance with me.  I think it would be cool,” Phil said as beads of sweat formed at his temples.

My friends couldn’t stop giggling.

“So, what do you say, Christy?” Alyssa said with a smirk.  “Does Philly here need to go buy you a cool corsage?”

It’s true that I didn’t have a date yet, and I did want to attend the dance, but if I went with Phil my friends would tease me to no end.

“Not interested,” I said flatly as I looked at Phil’s glistening forehead and dotted, bumpy red chin.  “I’d rather go alone than be seen with you.”

The moment the words fell from my lips, I could feel how harsh they were.  “Oh-oh-OK.  Cool,” Phil said softly.  “Well, I guess I’ll see ya around.”

With his head down and shoulders slumped, Phil slouched away to a table on the opposite end of the cafeteria.

I watched him sitting alone, staring out into space.  Here was a guy who had probably spent the morning working up the nerve to ask me out, and with just a few words, I’d crushed his spirit.

I knew God wanted me to treat others with compassion and kindness.  But instead, what had I done?  I’d blurted out something hurtful.

I looked across the cafeteria.  Even from a distance, I could see a sadness in Phil’s eyes.

I felt absolutely horrible, knowing that I was the cause of that sadness.

 I knew exactly what I had to do, so I took a deep breath and asked God for the courage to go up to Phil and apologize.  As I approached Phil’s table, my stomach knotted up.

What if I say something stupid and make a fool out of myself?  I worried.  Or what if the words come out wrong and I end up making things worse?

When I reached Phil’s table, all I could utter was a soft, “Hey.”

“Hey,” he echoed just as quietly.

I fidgeted with the shiny zipper hanging from my backpack as I tried to find the right words—any words.  My mouth was dry and my palms were sweaty.  I couldn’t help thinking that this was probably how Phil felt when he approached me.

The awkward silence was excruciating.  Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer.

“I was rude to you,” I blurted out.  “So rude.  And for no good reason.  I’m sorry.”

I glanced up at Phil, but he was quiet.  Clearly, he wasn’t in much of a talking mood.  He kind of nodded, and I grabbed my backpack and went back to my friends.

My actions that day reminded me just how powerful my words are.  They can either build people up or tear them down.  As Proverbs 18:21 says, they can bring life or death—and the choice is mine.  I made the wrong choice that day.  I let my friends influence me way too much.  I was afraid of being teased, so I lashed out at Phil.  But there’s really no excuse for the way I acted.  That afternoon, I promised myself and God that I’d always do my best to use my words in a positive way.

As for Phil, it’s funny the way life works out sometimes.  A few months after I’d said those mean things, Phil became my lab partner in science class.  To my surprise, it was an awesome partnership.  Luckily, he wasn’t the kind of guy to hold a grudge.  He treated me with a great deal of respect—just as I should have given him right from the start.  In the end, our friendship turned out to be pretty … cool.

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Proverbs 18:21a  —  The tongue has the power of life and death…

Proverbs 21:14  —  The human spirit can endure in sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?

James 3:3-10  —  When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal.  Or take ships as an example.  Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Proverbs 15:1-4  —  A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.  The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, keeping watch on the wicked and the good.  The soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.

Ephesians 4:29  —  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

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Take from me, O God, all pride and vanity, all boasting and self-assertiveness, and give us the true courage that shows itself by gentleness; the true wisdom that shows itself by simplicity; and the true power that shows itself by modesty;  through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Charles Kingsley

523) The Least of These

By Amy Morsch as told to Dean Nelson at:  www.christianitytoday.com/iyf/

 Amy Morsch is a senior at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas.

     There’s no way you can properly prepare for Calcutta.  Even the billboard on the highway going into the city makes you wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into.  It says, “Welcome to Calcutta—a City of Filth, Hunger, Warmth, Smiles and Joy!”

     I thought I was ready when I left for India.  I was a college student traveling with a group of volunteers as part of a $12 million airlift organized by Heart to Heart International, a Christian ministry founded by my dad.

     But when we got to Calcutta, I was immediately overwhelmed.  I felt a sense of hopelessness as I looked at the skin-and-bones children, the human waste in the streets, the flies, the women sitting in front of mounds of animal waste, making patties with their bare hands and baking them over open fires to sell as fuel.  And the sights were nothing compared to the smell of the city—a mixture of death, feces and rotten food.

     During our time in Calcutta, we talked with people on the streets and visited orphanages and hospitals.  But my most meaningful experience happened at a place called the Home for Dying Destitutes—a place for dying people who have nowhere else to go.

     One of the workers in the Home suggested that I help feed the lady in cot 17—a lady who was too weak to feed herself.  She weighed about 70 pounds, had three teeth and paper-thin skin.  The diaper she wore needed changing and she babbled constantly in a language I couldn’t understand.  I would like to tell you that my first thought was, Of course I’ll help her—she’s one of God’s children just like I am.  But it wasn’t.  My first response was that this work was too far below me, too gross.  But there was a sign on the wall that said, “Do small things with great love.”  It seemed to say to me, “It’s not what you do, or how much you do; what matters is the love you put in the doing.”

     So I went to the woman in cot 17 and fed her small bites of rice, curry and fish.  She ate a little, but what she wanted most was for me to sit so close to her that we were touching, as if she craved the touch of another human being more than she craved even food.  The longer I looked at her, the more I realized this wasn’t just a meal that was happening.  Finally, as I held a cup of water to her lips, she pointed at her heart, then pointed at me.

     In that very moment I experienced a whole new kind of love, the kind I think God must feel for us.  I knew I would do anything for this woman.  I said, “I love you” to her and as soon as I did, tears came pouring out of my eyes.  When the words left my mouth, I felt that I experienced God’s love for me, too.  I have done nothing to deserve his love, and yet it overwhelms me.  As he showed in the life of Jesus, God has said “I will do anything for you.”

     I left the Home thinking, God chooses to come at the weirdest moments.  Later I realized that it wasn’t such a weird moment.  It was the Thursday before Easter—the night Jesus washed his disciples’ feet.

     A few weeks later, when I got back to my comfortable room in my comfortable house in Kansas, I realized my experience in Calcutta wasn’t one of those emotional highs that goes away after a few weeks.  The lady in cot 17—I never did get her name—is like an anchor in my mind.  Experiencing God’s love through her has changed the way I work as a resident assistant in my college dormitory.  Sometimes, as I am dealing with a situation in the dorm and I really want to be doing something else, I realize that in those moments, the girls in my dorm are the “least of these” Jesus talks about in Matthew 25:40.  I need to treat them the way I would treat Jesus if he were right in front of me.  My experience in Calcutta sits at the front of my brain and affects virtually every decision I make.

     Going to Calcutta showed me that my whole life boils down to Jesus’ words, “Love one another.”  We are on this earth to show God’s love.  And we don’t have to go to Calcutta to do it.  As the sign in the Home for the Dying Destitutes showed me, it’s not how much you do, it’s how much love you put into what you do.

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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 13:34-35  —  (Jesus said), “A new command I give you:  Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

John 13:5  —  After that, Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

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Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wounds,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labor and not to ask for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your will.

–St. Ignatius of Loyola

522) Listen Up!

By Pastor Greg Laurie, September 10, 2014 blog, at:  www.GregLaurie.com

     This story is told of President Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House.  He complained that no one really paid any attention to what he said.

     One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment.  To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.”

     The guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous!  Keep up the good work.  We are proud of you.  God bless you, sir.”

     It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard.  The ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming!”

     Clearly the others were not listening!

     This is why Jesus would often say, ”He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15).  Or another way to translate it, “Listen up!”

     The success or failure of our Christian life depends on how we hear God’s Word.  It is no light thing to constantly hear the Scriptures preached and taught.

     Those who hear are made more responsible than they ever were before.

     So, let’s make sure we pay careful attention to what Scripture says, as it is the very word of God.

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Ezekiel 12:1-2  —  The word of the Lord came to me:  “Son of man, you are living among a rebellious people.  They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people.

Matthew 11:55  —  (Jesus said), “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

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O Almighty God, from whom every good prayer cometh, and who pourest out on all who desire it, the Spirit of grace and supplications; deliver us, when we draw nigh to thee, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind; that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship thee in spirit and in truth, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.
–William Bright (1824-1901)

521) Anybody Want a $50 Bill?

     Best selling author and pastor Rick Warren was once invited to speak an entire population of a large prison.  He had two hours to speak, but it was out in the prison yard.  There was no stage, and Warren had to just stand on the ground like everyone else.  But Warren did have a microphone, and with that mic he could be heard by everyone.  There were about 5,000 men in the prison yard, and most were paying no attention.  

     Warren pulled out a $50 bill, held it high, and to the few who were gathered around him said, “How many of you would like this $50 bill?”  Everyone heard that, and 5,000 hands went up.  Now, he had their attention.  Then he tore the bill in half, crumpled it in his hands, and held it up again, asking, “How many of you would still like this $50 bill?”  Again, 5,000 hands went up.  Next, he spat on the $50 bill, threw it on the ground, and stomped it into the dirt.  He then picked it up, held it high in the air again, and said, “How many of you would like it now?”  Once more, the hands all went up.

     Then Warren said, “Now, for many of you, this is what people have done to you.  You’ve been mistreated.  You’ve been abused.  You’ve been misused.  You were told you wouldn’t amount to anything.  And you’ve done a lot of dumb things, too.  You have sinned.  You have done crimes, and you are paying for them.  You’ve been beaten.  You’ve been torn.  You’ve been in the dirt and you are dirty.  But you have not lost one cent of your value to God, and God still wants to have you.”

     That day, 79 guys gave their lives to Christ, and they were baptized right there in the prison yard that day.  In time, the church in that prison grew to over 500 men.

     Even if you aren’t in prison, you can probably relate to Warren’s little meditation on the $50 bill.  We have all sinned and been sinned against.  And yet, God still loves us and still wants us to turn to him in faith and trust.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…”

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We are products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.

 –Rick Warren

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Psalm 119:25  —  I am laid low in the dust; preserve my life according to your word.

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Psalm 34:18  —  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

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Psalm 51:1…10-12…17  —  Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions…

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me….  

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.

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Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

 If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.

—Psalm 130:1-5

520) Standing Up for Jesus

    Ch2-1 

     The years before, during, and after the Civil War in this country were not only years of great conflict, but also of great spiritual revival, both in the North and the South.  Philadelphia Pastor Dudley Tyng was deeply involved in both the conflict and the revival.  He served as his father’s assistant at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in the early 1850’s, and then in 1854, when his father retired, he was called to be the church’s senior pastor.  It seemed like a great fit, but before long the trouble started.  Pastor Tyng was an abolitionist, and preached vigorously against slavery. This was the North where there were no slaves, but many in his congregation were ready to allow slavery to exist and even expand in the rest of the country, rather than risk conflict– and they did not want to hear about it from the pulpit.  There were loud complaints against Tyng, and in 1856, after just two years as senior pastor, he was forced to resign.  He was forced out because his faith in Jesus had inspired him to take a stand against slavery.

     Tyng went out and started his own church elsewhere in the city, the Church of the Covenant.  There he preached freely and powerfully, and his reputation grew.  In that time of spiritual revival Pastor Tyng promoted large meetings for young men and fathers, similar to the “Promise Keeper Rallies” of a few years ago.

     One of the largest of these rallies was held on March 30, 1858.  Five thousand men were gathered, and by the end of the rally over a thousand men had come forward to give their lives to Christ.  Dudley Tyng was at the peak of his career, and his success made him only bolder in his fearless preaching.  At one point during that March 30th rally he said he would not compromise or hold back on preaching the Word, adding, “I would rather lose my right arm than come short of my duty to you in delivering the whole Word of God.”

     A week later, while studying in his home office, Pastor Tyng took a break.  He walked over to a nearby farm.  Out in the barnyard was a mule walking round and round, hitched up to a wheel that ran a machine that shelled corn.  Tyng reached out to pat the mule, and his sleeve got caught in the wheel cogs.  His arm was ripped from its socket and a main artery was severed.  Four days later, the arm was amputated in hopes of saving his life.  But the injury was too severe, and it became clear that he would not live.

     At his son’s deathbed, his father asked him if he had any final message for his colleagues in the ministry.  Dudley Tung’s last words to them were his most memorable.  He said, “Tell my brethren in the ministry, wherever you meet them, to stand up for Jesus.

     This message was relayed at Tyng’s funeral.  One of the ministers at the funeral was Tyng’s friend, Rev. George Duffield of Philadelphia’s Temple Presbyterian Church.  Duffield was inspired by his friend’s last words, and he wrote a little poem that he read at the end of his sermon two weeks later.  The sermon was on Ephesians 6:14.  That poem was put to music and soon became the popular hymn “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”

     This hymn that has inspired the faith and service of so many, was written in memory of a man who was always ready to stand up for what he believed, and yet, the hymn is filled with words of dependence not on self but on God.  A few of the words in verse two are especially interesting.  No doubt with Tyng in mind, Duffield wrote, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone;” and then, “The arm of flesh will fail you, you dare not trust your own.”  The ‘arm of flesh will fail you’ image was more than a symbol in the life and death of Dudley Tyng.  Duffield probably also had in friend in mind when he wrote the last verse, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the strife will not be long.”  For Tyng, the strife of this life was ended when he was only 33 years old.

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Ephesians 6:13-15  —  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

1 Corinthians 15:18  —  Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

2 Thessalonians 2:15  —  So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

James 5:8  —  You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

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Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross;
Lift high His royal banner, it must not suffer loss.
From victory unto victory His army shall He lead,
Till every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone;
The arm of flesh will fail you, ye dare not trust your own.
Put on the Gospel armor, each piece put on with prayer;
Where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, the strife will not be long;
This day the noise of battle, the next the victor’s song.
To those who vanquish evil a crown of life shall be;
They with the King of Glory shall reign eternally.


519) Getting Married to the Wrong One

A WEDDING MEDITATION

     Connor and Julia, family and friends, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

     Everyone hopes for good weather on their wedding day, and the two of you sure have that today.  What a nice day on which to begin your marriage!  May your whole life together be so pleasant as the weather on this fine day.  As an old marriage blessing says, ‘may conflict and strife be far from you, may you love and respect each other, and may you live in peace until your life’s end.’  And as the Irish say, ‘may the wind be always at your back, may the road always rise to meet you, may the sunshine be always warm on your face, and may you each and every day know nothing but happiness and wedded bliss.’

      Now, just in case it doesn’t always work out that way, don’t be surprised.  Just in case there are lots of days in your marriage with clouds and not sunshine, and the wind is sometimes blowing hard in your face, and it is an uphill battle all the way, don’t worry about it.  And just in case conflict and strife do not always remain far from you, but are sometimes right there, even keeping you up at night, don’t give up.  Work through it– but don’t let it get you down.  In fact, plan on having to endure and work through lots of those times.  You can probably even expect that every once in a while, Connor, you might say to yourself, “What did I ever see in her?”  And Julia, you might say to yourself, “What did I ever see in him?”  And if that happens, it probably won’t be the first time such a thought ever popped into the mind of a husband or a wife.  

     Let me illustrate what I’m getting at with a conversation based on a true story.

     A young man one time said to his grandfather, “Hey Grandpa, Jenny and I are thinking about getting married.”

    “Oh ya,” said Grandpa, “what makes you think that’s such a good idea?”

     “Well shucks, Grandpa,” the younger man said, “we’ve known each other for two years, we get along fine, and I think we are right for each other.”

     Grandpa replied, “You hardly know each other at all, yet.”

     The young man said, “Grandpa, I thought you liked Jenny.”

     “I do like Jenny,” Grandpa said, “and I think the two of you should get married.  Just don’t be going into it with the idea that you are right for each other, or worse yet, that you are, what they call now days, ‘soul-mates,’ whatever that is.”

     “Well,” said the grandson, “I heard that you and Grandma knew each other less than a year when you got married.  Did you think you were right for each other?”

     “Yes, I thought so when we got married,” said Grandpa, “but I was wrong.  We weren’t right for each other at all.  In fact, we had a talk about that very thing one time after we were married for about five years.  We talked about how different we were, and how much we argued, and we both decided we had made a big mistake in getting married.  It wasn’t an angry conversation, just a matter of fact acknowledgement of how much we annoyed each other.”

   “Well, what did you do then?,” asked the bewildered young man.

     Grandpa said, “Well, if I remember right, it was in the evening, so I went out to the barn to finish the chores, and Grandma finished the dishes and put the kids to bed.  And then day after day, we just kept on doing what married people do.  Just because you married the wrong person is no excuse to give up on your promises and start over.  But then, after a few more years of plugging away at it, we began to realize that even though we weren’t exactly made for each other, we had become the right person for each other.  Now, I wouldn’t trade her for anything in the world.  People can never, really know if they are marrying the right person.  And a lot of times the wrong people do get married.  But then they just BOTH have to work on becoming the right person; and it is the marriage vows that keep you together long enough to give that a chance to happen.”

     In a few minutes the two of you will make your marriage vows, committing your lives to each other, come what may, promising to be faithful until death parts you.  You might be right for each other and you might, sometimes, be wrong for each other, and, if you are like most couples, your own views on that might go back and forth a bit over the years.  But if today, you both commit yourselves to that lifelong promise, and you both commit yourselves to working it out, you will be right.

     C. S. Lewis once wrote:

People get from movies the idea that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on ‘being in love’ for ever.  As a result, when they find they are not so much in love for a time, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change.  They don’t realize that when they have made that change, the thrill will soon go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one.  In this department of life, as in every other, the thrills come at the beginning and do not last…  But if you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of blessing.

     You are beginning your life together in a church.  And you are doing that not because this is a pretty place for a wedding, and not because it is a big enough place to hold all these people.  But we are in this sanctuary today because your faith in God is important to both of you; and so it is right and good to begin your life together here in God’s presence, asking for His blessing.  The closer you remain to God in your life together, the closer you will be to each other, and the stronger will be the bond between you.

     The reading you selected from the book of Hebrews begins with the command that marriage shall be held in honor by all, along with commands to love one another, to keep your life free from the love of money, and to be content.  And notice how that passage ends with a promise, God said, “Never will I leave you nor forsake you,” and therefore, says the verse, we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper, I need not be afraid.”  There is no better help to be had, and no other help at all that can be there for you forever.  But then do also remember that earlier in the same book of Hebrews, it says, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard from the Lord, so that we do not drift away.”  Give to God the attention he deserves, and do not drift away, and you will be all right.

     At the center of the marriage service there are these commitments, the commitments you make to each other and the commitment you make to God, in whose presence we gather.  And the commitment to each other is not primarily simply to love, for no one can guarantee that an emotion will be there every day.  Emotions are unreliable, coming and going as they do.  No, you do not promise an emotion, you simply promise that YOU will keep being there, every day, from now on, whether or not you feel like it.  And then, as an old marriage blessing says, you may grow in holy love until your life’s end becoming the right person for each other.

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Hebrews 13:4-6a  —  Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”  So we say with confidence,  “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid…”

Hebrews 2:1  —  We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

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A MARRIAGE BLESSING:

May the Lord God, who created our first parents and established them in marriage,

establish and sustain you, that you may find delight in each other,

and grow in holy love until your life’s end. Amen.

518) Calling All Sinners

     If you could sum up your reason for going to church in one word, what would that word be?

     You might respond that you go to church purely out of HABIT.  There would be, of course, reasons for getting into this habit, and reasons for staying with it; but habit is what gets you up to go.

     Another possible one word reason would be GUILT.  You know you should be in church every Sunday, and you feel guilty if you are not there– so you go.

     A third possible reason for going to church might be summed up in the word FORCE.  Perhaps you are forced to go to church against your will.  This might be the case for some children and teenagers who are still following the rules of their parents, and going to church is one of those rules.

     Another one word response, and one that could certainly be a part of those first three is FAITH.  You believe in God, and so you believe it is important to worship Him.  Closely related to that would be the one word response OBEDIENCE.  The third commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy, and the biggest part of that remembrance is to remember to worship God on that day.  Faith and obedience are certainly two of the very best reasons for going to church.

     There are many other possible reasons for going to church, and most of us go for not just one reason, but several.  Many people may well worship out of habit, but that habit was begun and is continued out of faith and obedience, and they would feel guilty if they were not in church on Sunday.

     But on the very deepest level, we all go to church for the very same reason.  We go, because Jesus has called us.  Jesus calls us to himself, and until we are with him in person, Sunday morning worship is one of the most basic ways of paying attention to Jesus.  In Mark 2:17 Jesus speaks of this call to himself.  To those who were critical of who he was spending time Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  SINNERS.  Jesus came to call sinners.  Those who go to church are those sinners who have answered that call.

     Even the littlest among us are sinners.  When little babies are baptized we pray that God would “wash away their sin.”  Sin?  What sin?  What can a baby do anything wrong?  But think about it.  Though outwardly babies are cuddly and cute, is there anything more self-centered and ill-mannered than a baby?  How many times isn’t the peace and quiet of the worship service interrupted by the cries and squawking of a baby?  They don’t care if you are trying to have church.  If they want to make a racket, they will make a racket.  If they want to be fed, they don’t care if you are busy with something else or if you are trying to sleep, they will demand your attention NOW.  All babies think about is themselves.  They are sinners, even if they don’t know it yet.  So even when they are coming to church at only two weeks old, they are coming to the right place.  Jesus has called them, just like he has called all sinners, unto himself.

     But babies can’t really help it, can they?  Are we really ‘sinners from our mothers womb,’ as the Bible says?  Well, what happens as soon as those cute little babies do know what is going on?  Immediately, they begin to resist their parents, and, they continue to be demanding.  Two of the very first words every child learns to say are NO and MINE.  Rebellion and selfishness, two of the central characteristics of sin, are in us right from the beginning.  And so these little sinners come to church, being led by the hand, perhaps even pulled along a bit.  Some of them might even, at times, say they hate church.  And so they sit here, sullen, determined not to get anything out of it, and muttering to themselves that when they are parents, they for sure aren’t going to put their kids through this.  Ten years old, and they lack experience and expertise in so many areas of life; but in one are of life they are already experts.  They are sinners: defiant, rebellious, selfish, sinners.

     A few years later they are still sinners, but now they are more aware of their sin than any time previously in their lives.  Perhaps they have been out with their friends the night before, and there is a big difference between the conversation and activities of Saturday night, and the Sunday morning worship– and they know it.  They know about the sin within themselves– deep dark sin, dirty thoughts, mean thoughts, thoughts about things you are supposed to even think about at all.  Conversations with friends grow more crude, and they are ashamed, but will admit it to no one.  Sin?  Yes, they know about sin, and they have heard that Jesus forgives sinners.  But they don’t want any part of that now.  They are not interested, and that is the worst part of their sin.  But Jesus keeps the door open for them, too.  That door is always open, to all sinners.

     Sinners from college come to church, too.  They are breaking away from home and from rules, but not yet completely.  They are thinking new thoughts now.  They are beginning to have doubts, calling into question everything they at one time might have believed in.  Maybe all this religion business is a sham, and if it is, why should they waste their time in church?  And still they are welcome as Jesus welcomes all kinds of sinners, even doubters and despisers.

     The next age group of sinners in church is the young adults, many of them now married.  No longer is sin simply an inner struggle for them.  Now, someone else is right there, all the time, someone who might be more than willing to point out and remind them of their sins, shortcomings, faults, weaknesses, immaturity, inconsistencies, and foolishness.  Not everything pointed out would be a sin, but much of it would be.  And not always is one’s spouse right, but many times they are, and they might even know you better than you know yourself.  In marriage, and then in child-raising, one gets many opportunities to think about what is right and what is wrong.  We are sinners, all right.  Still, there is in a good marriage the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven, and one begins to understand a bit more of what it means that Jesus calls sinners.

     There are lots of middle-aged and elderly sinners in church.  They are past the rebellion stage of sin, but perhaps they are by now spending at least a bit of time looking back over their shoulder; looking back at mistakes, regrets, things that might have been done differently, times and ways one could have been more faithful, more loving, more caring.  Faith begins to matter more as one gets older, and morality is more understood and valued.  Seeing the foolishness of the young may, for many, bring back memories of one’s own wrongdoings.  Looking back over a lifetime can make one thankful that Jesus came not to call the righteous but sinners.

    However varied are the reasons for going to church, we go because Jesus calls us, and we have answered that call, sinners that we are.  For sinners are the only ones Jesus is interested in.  He said so himself.  He said he did not come to call the righteous.  In churches all around the world Jesus calls sinners to himself, so that he can speak to them all, to us all, a bit of good news.  So keep your ears open each Sunday morning and this is what you will hear: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

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Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

Mark 2:16-17  —  When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

1 Timothy 1:15-16  —  Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

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Just as I am, without one plea,

But that Thy blood was shed for me,

And that Thou bidst me come to Thee, 

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

–Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871)

517) We Understand So Little

From The Book of Virtues, by William Bennett, 1993, pages 774-5.

Our understanding of God’s creation is imperfect, so our faith must fill in the gaps, as this old Jewish folktale reminds us.

     Once there were two young brothers who had spent all their lives in the city, and had never even seen a field or pasture.  So one day they decided to take a trip into the countryside.  As they were walking along, they spied a farmer plowing, and were puzzled about what he was doing.

     “What kind of behavior is this?” they asked themselves.  “This fellow marches back and forth all day, scarring the earth with long ditches.  Why should anyone destroy such a pretty meadow like that?”

     Later in the afternoon they passed the same place again, and this time they saw the farmer sowing grains of wheat in the furrows.

     “Now what’s he doing?” they asked themselves.  “He must be a madman.  He’s taking perfectly good wheat and tossing it into these ditches!”

     “The country is no place for me,” said one of the brothers.  “The people here act as if they had no sense.  I’m going home.”  And he went back to the city.

     But the second brother stayed in the country, and a few weeks later saw a wonderful change.  Fresh green shoots began to cover the field with a lushness he had never imagined.  He quickly wrote to his brother and told him to hurry back to see the miraculous growth.

     So his brother returned from the city, and he too was amazed at the change.  As the days passed they saw the green earth turn into a golden field of tall wheat.  And now they understood the reason for the farmer’s work.

     Then the wheat grew ripe, and the farmer came with his scythe and began to cut it down.  The brother who had returned from the city couldn’t believe it.  “What, is this imbecile doing now?” he exclaimed.  “All summer long he worked so hard to grow this beautiful wheat, and now he’s destroying it with his own hands!  He is a madman after all!  I’ve had enough.  I’m going back to the city.”

     But his brother had more patience.  He stayed in the country and watched the farmer collect the wheat and take it to his granary.  He saw how cleverly he separated the chaff, and how carefully he stored the rest.  And he was filled with awe when he realized that by sowing a bag of seed, the farmer had harvested a whole field of grain.  Only then did he truly understand that the farmer had a reason for everything he did.

     “And this is how it is with God’s works, too,” he said.  “We mortals see only the beginnings of His plan.  We cannot understand the full purpose and end of His creation.  So we must have faith in His wisdom.”

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) The Veteran in a New Field (1865)

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Job 26:14  —  And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!  Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”

Isaiah 45:9  —  “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground.  Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’  Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?”

Romans 11:33-34  —   Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”

1 Corinthians 1:25  —  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

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Dear God, be good to me; thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.  AMEN.

–Breton Fisherman’s Prayer

516) Through Heaven’s Doorway

By Randy Alcorn, July 21, 2014 blog, see:  www.epm.org

     When five-year-old Emily Kimball was hospitalized and heard she was going to die, she started to cry.  Even though she loved Jesus and wanted to be with him, she didn’t want to leave her family behind.  Then her mother had an inspired idea.  She asked Emily to step through a doorway into another room, and she closed the door behind her.  One at a time, the entire family started coming through the door to join her.  Her mother explained that this was how it would be.  Emily would go ahead to Heaven and then the rest of the family would follow.  Emily understood.  She would be the first to go through death’s door.  Eventually, the rest of the family would follow, probably one by one, joining her on the other side.

     The analogy would have been even more complete if the room that Emily entered had had someone representing Jesus to greet her—along with departed loved ones and angels.  Also, it would’ve helped if the room she walked into was breathtakingly beautiful, and contained pictures of a New Earth, vast and unexplored, where Emily and her family and friends would one day go to live with Jesus forever.

     Every person reading this blog is dying.  Perhaps you have reason to believe that death will come very soon.  You may be troubled, feeling uncertain, or unready to leave.  Make sure of your relationship with Jesus Christ.  Be certain that you’re trusting him alone to save you—not anyone or anything else, and certainly not any good works you’ve done.  And then allow yourself to get excited about what’s on the other side of death’s door.

     I’ve often read at memorial services this depiction of a believer’s death:

I’m standing on the seashore.  A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.  She’s an object of beauty and strength and I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and the sky come down to mingle with each other.  And then I hear someone at my side saying, “There, she’s gone.”

Gone where?  Gone from my sight, that is all.  She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side.  And just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of destination.  Her diminished size is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says, “There, she’s gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming, and there are other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!” 

And that is dying.  –source uncertain

     Five months before he died, C. S. Lewis wrote to a woman who feared that her own death was imminent.  Lewis said, “Can you not see death as a friend and deliverer? . . . What is there to be afraid of? . . .Your sins are confessed. . . . Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret?  There are better things ahead than any we leave behind. . . . Our Lord says to you, ‘Peace, child, peace.  Relax.  Let go.  I will catch you.  Do you trust me so little?’ . . . Of course, this may not be the end.  Then make it a good rehearsal.”  Lewis signed the letter, “Yours (and like you, a tired traveler, near the journey’s end).” (Letters to An American Lady, page 117)

     We see life differently when we realize that death isn’t a wall but a turnstile; a small obstacle that marks a great beginning.  Calvin Miller put it beautifully (The Divine Symphony, Bethany Publishers, 2000. page 139):

I once scorned ev’ry fearful thought of death,
When it was but the end of pulse and breath,
But now my eyes have seen that past the pain
There is a world that’s waiting to be claimed.
Earthmaker, Holy, let me now depart,
For living’s such a temporary art.
And dying is but getting dressed for God,
Our graves are merely doorways cut in sod.

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Matthew 4:17  —  From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Luke 10:20b  —  (Jesus said), …”Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Acts 7:56  —  “Look,” he (Stephen) said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

1 Peter 1:3-5  —  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!  In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.  This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.

2 Peter 3:13  —  But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Revelation 3:20  —  (Jesus said), “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

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Heavenly Father, your Son has promised that he is preparing a place for us.  Prepare us also for that place in your home.  In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

515) Snakes and Healing (part two)

   NUMBERS 21:4-9

     (…continued)  Death comes to us all, and, whether we are young or old, the amount of time we have left is uncertain.  The only certainty is that no matter what we have or who we are, the day will come when we will lose it all and we will be no more.  Believing in Jesus does not change the uncertainty about how much time we have left, nor does it change the certainty that we will die.  Those troubles remain, just like the snakes in the story.  We live every day in ‘the valley of the shadow of death.’  But we can look up to Jesus and find in him a promise that goes beyond death.  That’s what Jesus meant when he spoke of looking up to the snake on the pole that was lifted up in the desert.  By looking up to Jesus, we have that most wonderful and powerful of all promises, that promise of eternal life.  And so it is that immediately after Jesus refered to that strange old snake story we read the best loved verse in the whole Bible, John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

    Snakes, or serpents (as they are called in the older translations), appear 53 times in the Bible.  The best known appearance of a serpent is in the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve, and there the serpent is purely evil.  But that is not always the case.  God, speaking out of the burning bush, convinces Moses of his power by turning his shepherd’s staff into a snake, and then back again.  Later, in his appearance before Pharaoh, the Egyptian magicians do the same trick, making snakes appear out of nowhere.  But then Moses’ snake devours the magician’s snakes, thus making that snake a positive symbol of God’s power.

     In this story, the image is a mixture of positive and negative.  The snakes are killing the people, and that’s bad; but then, the people are saved by looking to an image of a snake, and that’s good.  The snake is a powerful image, because snakes are so despised by people.  They are probably the most despised of all God‘s creatures.  And that makes this positive use of a snake a deep and dark and yet profound image of salvation.  Somehow, in the hands of God, evil and good, threat and promise, life and death, can sometimes be all mixed together.  What we fear most, may sometimes be the source of a great blessing.  God can make it so.  Serious illness, always unpleasant and never on anyone’s wish list, has often prompted people to return to God.  Financial difficulties probably lead to more prayer than does abounding wealth.  And death, that most fearsome of all things, becomes in God’s hands merely the doorway into eternal life.  God’s way is to take what is bad and use it to work toward an even greater good.  The greatest example of that is what happened on that day we now call Good Friday.  No one who loved Jesus would have called the Friday afternoon that Jesus was tortured and then crucified a good day.  But the Easter resurrection and the promise of Jesus that by his death on that cross all our sins are forgiven, made good come out of what happened on that most evil of all days.

     It is often the case that what the Old Testament hints at, the New Testament fulfills in an even greater way.  In Numbers 21 the people are saved by looking up to a snake.  They are saved, but in rather unappealing way.  In the New Testament, we learn that we are saved by looking up to a cross, in another unpleasant story.  But we look not primarily to the cross but to the man on the cross, Jesus, who told us himself that we will never find a better friend than what we have in him.  “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” said Jesus, “and if you believe in me, you are my friends.”  We would be lost without Jesus, but with Jesus we are quite safe, now and forever.

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Genesis 3:1  —  Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

John 3:14-15  —  Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.

John 3:16-17  —  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.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

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Grant, almighty God, that since the dullness and harshness of our flesh is so great that it is needful for us in various ways to be afflicted, we may patiently bear your chastisement, and under a deep feeling of sorrow flee to your mercy displayed to us in Christ; and that, not depending upon the earthly blessings of this perishable life, but relying only upon your Word, we may go forward in the course of our calling; until at length we are gathered to that blessed rest which is laid up for us in heaven; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   –John Calvin

Blessed Lord Jesus, who knows the depths of loneliness and the dark hours of the absence of human sympathy and friendliness:  help me to pass the weary hours of the night and the heavy hours of the day, as you did, and know that you are with me, as your Father was with you; lift up my heart to full communion with you; strengthen me for my duty; keep me constant to my trust, and let me know that however dark or desolate the hour, I am not alone, for you are with me; your rod and your staff are my comfort; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end.  Amen.
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