589) Something Strange? (part one)

     The New Testament book of I Peter was written to encourage Christians in the early church who were suffering severe persecution.  I Peter 4:12 says:  “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”  They would have had reason to think what they were suffering was indeed strange.  It certainly was excessive.

     Peter was writing during the flare up of persecution under the Emperor Nero.  Nero was among the worst of the Roman emperors, and stories of his cruelty, violence, and insanity are astounding.  The church in Rome had been growing rapidly during his reign, and unfortunately, the Christians attracted his attention.  They were an unpopular minority, unwilling as they were to give their ultimate allegiance to Rome and the Emperor.  The early confession of faith, ‘Christ is Lord,’ was considered treasonous since the emperors had, by that time, declared their own divinity.

     In 64 A.D. there was a horrific fire in Rome that burned for over a week, destroying much of the city.  It was rumored that Nero, in his madness, had started the fire himself, and then casually played his violin as he watched the city burn from a safe distance; thus, the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned.”  It was never proven that he did start it, and the violin story might have been a false rumor.  Historians disagree on the question.  Either way, Nero was at the time blamed, and needing a scapegoat, he blamed the Christians.  The Romans, eager to see someone punished for the destruction, were more than happy to see this new religion selected for the persecution.  Nero never did have any qualms about having people killed, so Christians were rounded up and put to death in a variety of ways.  The crowds at the coliseum were always anxious for new forms of entertainment, so while the Christian men faced the usual crucifixion, women and children were dressed up in animal skins and pushed out into the arena to be torn to pieces by wild dogs.

     It was at this time that Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.”  Peter was not writing from a safe distance.  He too would in time be rounded up in this same persecution, and was crucified (upside-down at this own request, because he did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord had died).

     St. Peter’s Crucifixion, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), Rome, Italy

     So Peter said, ‘Don’t be surprised, Jesus also had to suffer; why should we expect to be exempt?’  In verse 13 he went on to say, “Rejoice, that you may participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you…  So if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.”

     It is sobering to think about these words in the context of when they were first written.  Peter was encouraging people to remain firm and not renounce their faith, if given the chance; and they usually were given the chance.  After all, the knowledge of friends and neighbors abandoning the faith to save their own lives would certainly be discouraging, and would lead to more denials.  Peter knew what it was to deny Jesus, and he, for one, would not do that again (Mark 14:66-72).  But by remaining firm, and encouraging others to do the same, Peter was sending them to their doom; sending them all, children included, to vicious and violent deaths.  Yet, he held before them the vision of a greater future glory.

     Keeping in mind the details of Nero’s persecution, consider these words (5:6-11):  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of sufferings.  And the God of grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.  To him be the power (and not Nero), for ever and ever.”

     Most did stand firm.  There are incredible stories from this time and the later persecutions of the courage of the believers to stand firm, and to not renounce their faith, even in the face of death. One example is Polycarp who was killed for his faith (in a later persecution), and in his last words reflected the kind of determination and faith that Peter encouraged.

     Polycarp was 86 when he was arrested.  He was a kindly and likable old man.  The Roman authority in charge of sentencing him was reluctant to kill him, so he gave Polycarp several opportunities to renounce his faith.  “Old man,” said the Roman governor, “renounce your faith, swear by Caesar, and save your life.”  Polycarp refused.

     “Just renounce Christ,” said the Roman, pleading, “and I will set you free at once.”

     Polycarp replied, “For 86 years I have been Christ’s servant, and he has never done me wrong.  How can I blaspheme my king who has saved me?”

     The Roman went on, now in a threatening tone, “I have wild beasts,” he said, “I will throw you to them.”

     “Go ahead,” said Polycarp, “call them out.  I am ready.”

     “If you do not fear the beasts,” said the Roman, “then I will burn you alive.  Change your mind, old man, or I will prepare the fire.”

     Polycarp answered, “The fire you threaten will burn only for a short time, and then I will be gone and the fire extinguished.  But there is a fire that you know nothing about, the fire of the judgment to come and of eternal punishment, the fire preserved for the ungodly.  Why do you keep hesitating?  Might you want me to tell you how you can be saved from that fire?”

     Now angered, the Roman ordered that the fire be built.  As it was being lit, Polycarp prayed this last prayer: “Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.”  What Polycarp said in his last words is very similar what Peter had said in verse 13: “Rejoice that you may participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”  (continued…)

************************************************

I Peter 4:12-16…19  –  Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.  If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.  If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler.  However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…  So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.

************************************************

THE LAST PRAYER OF POLYCARP:

Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.

588) The Story of Squanto

By Chuck Colson, for:  http://www.breakpoint.org

 Squanto - Courtesy of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth

Bust of Squanto from Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA.

     Most of us know the story of the first Thanksgiving; at least we know the Pilgrim version.  But how many of us know the Indian viewpoint?

     No, I’m not talking about some revisionist, politically correct version of history.  I’m talking about the amazing story of the way God used an Indian named Squanto (1585-1622) as a special instrument of His providence.

     Historical accounts of Squanto’s life vary, but historians believe that around 1608, more than a decade before the Pilgrims arrived, a group of English traders sailed to what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts.  When the trusting Wampanoag Indians came out to trade, the traders took them prisoner, transported them to Spain, and sold them into slavery.  It was an unimaginable horror.

     But God had an amazing plan for one of the captured Indians, a boy named Squanto.

     Squanto was bought by a well-meaning Spanish monk, who treated him well and taught him the Christian faith.  Squanto eventually made his way to England and worked in the stables of a man named John Slaney.  Slaney sympathized with Squanto’s desire to return home, and he promised to put the Indian on the first vessel bound for America.

     It wasn’t until 1619, ten years after Squanto was first kidnapped, that a ship was found. Finally, after a decade of exile and heartbreak, Squanto was on his way home.

     But when he arrived in Massachusetts, more heartbreak awaited him.  An epidemic had wiped out Squanto’s entire village.

     We can only imagine what must have gone through Squanto’s mind.  Why had God allowed him to return home, against all odds, only to find his loved ones dead?

     A year later, the answer came.  A shipload of English families arrived and settled on the very land once occupied by Squanto’s people.  Squanto went to meet them, greeting the startled Pilgrims in English.

     According to the diary of Pilgrim Governor William Bradford, Squanto “became a special instrument sent of God for [our] good . . . He showed [us] how to plant [our] corn, where to take fish and to procure other commodities . . . and was also [our] pilot to bring [us] to unknown places for [our] profit, and never left [us] till he died.”

    When Squanto lay dying of fever, Bradford wrote that their Indian friend “desir[ed] the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishmen’s God in heaven.”  Squanto bequeathed his possessions to the Pilgrims “as remembrances of his love.”

     Who but God could so miraculously convert a lonely Indian and then use him to save a struggling band of Englishmen?  It is reminiscent of the biblical story of Joseph, who was also sold into slavery, and whom God likewise used as a special instrument for good.

*******************************************

Genesis 50:15-21  –  When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”  So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died:  ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph:  I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’  Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.

      His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.

     But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  So then, don’t be afraid.  I will provide for you and your children.”  And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.

*******************************************

An English Prayer of Thanks, 1625, by George Webb:

O Lord our God and heavenly Father, which of Thy unspeakable mercy towards us, hast provided meate and drinke for the nourishment of our weake bodies.  Grant us peace to use them reverently, as from Thy hands, with thankful hearts:  let Thy blessing rest upon these Thy good creatures, to our comfort and sustentation:  and grant we humbly beseech Thee, good Lord, that as we doe hunger and thirst for this food of our bodies, so our soules may earnestly long after the food of eternal life, through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour,  Amen.

587) Common Sense

     

     ——————————–

     Prudence means practical common sense, taking the trouble to think out what you are doing and what is likely to come of it.  Nowadays most people hardly think of Prudence as one of the ‘virtues’.  In fact, because Christ said we could only get into His world by being like children, many Christians have the idea that, provided you are ‘good’, it does not matter being a fool.  But that is a misunderstanding.  In the first place, most children show plenty of ‘prudence’ about doing the things they are really interested in, and think them out quite sensibly.  In the second place, as St Paul points out, Christ never meant that we were to remain children in intelligence.  On the contrary; he told us to be not only ‘as harmless as doves’, but also ‘as wise as serpents’.  He wants a child’s heart, but a grown-up’s head.  He wants us to be simple, single-minded, affectionate, and teachable, as good children are; but He also wants every bit of intelligence we have to be alert at its job, and in first-class fighting trim.  The fact that you are giving money to a charity does not mean that you need not try to find out whether that charity is a fraud or not.  The fact that what you are thinking about is God Himself (for example, when you are praying) does not mean that you can be content with the same babyish ideas which you had when you were a five-year-old.  It is, of course, quite true that God will not love you any the less, or have less use for you, if you happen to have been born with a second-rate brain.  He has room for people with very little sense, but He wants every one to use what sense they have.  

–C S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

———————————————-

On speaking to an audience about Christianity:

     One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audience’s mind the question of Truth.  They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good (of course it is good, but it for it to be good it has to first be true).  And in the discussion they will at every moment try to escape from the “True or False” issue into stuff about a good society, or morals, or the incomes of Bishops, of the Spanish Inquisition– or anything whatever.  You have to keep forcing them back, again and again, to the real point.  Only thus will you be able to undermine their belief that a certain amount of “religion” is desirable, but one mustn’t carry it too far.  One must keep on pointing out that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, is of infinite importance.  The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

–C. S. Lewis, God in the Dock, 1945

********************************************

Mark 10:15  –  (Jesus said), “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

Matthew 10:16  –  (Jesus said), “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I Corinthians 13:11  –  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

Hebrews 5:11-14  –   We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.  In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.  You need milk, not solid food!  Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.  But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

John 18:38a  –  Pilate said unto Him, “What is truth?”

John 14:6  –  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

********************************************

A MORNING PRAY FOR TODAY (source lost):

Almighty God, I praise Thee that I have wakened to the light of another earthly day; and now let me think of what a day should be.  My days are Thine, let them be spent for Thee.  My days are few, let them be spent with care.  There are dark days behind me, forgive their sinfulness; there may be dark days before me, strengthen me for their trials.  I pray Thee to shine on this day, the day which I may call my own.  Lord, as I go to my daily work, help me to take pleasure therein.  Show me clearly what my duty is, and help me to be faithful in doing it.  Let all I do be well done, fit for Thine eye to see.  Give me strength to do, patience to bear, and let my courage never fail.  When I cannot love my work, let me think of it as Thy task and that I am serving Thee; and may the light of Thy love shine in all that I do; in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

586) What Are You Looking At? (part two)

    Jealousy 

     JEALOUSY:  It starts early

——————

     (…continued)  A man was complaining to his neighbor about his bad luck in his business and finances.  He was wondering why he could not be as lucky and as well off as their other neighbor down the street who had been extremely successful and seemed to have it made.  The other man said simply, “I know very well that man, and I know about his hidden cares and burdens, and I can assure you  that you would not want to trade places with him.  You might want to trade bank accounts, but I know you would not want to trade everything.”  We all get our own mixed bags of blessings and woes, and if we knew the whole story of everyone else, we would not be so quick to envy.

     According to the Bible we are not born inherently good, and, we are not born as blank slates as some psychologists have believed.  Rather, says the Bible, we are sinful from our mother’s womb; we are born selfish and turned in on ourselves.  There are few areas where this is more obvious than this whole matter of jealousy– of looking not at what you have with gratitude, but in looking at what someone else has with envy.  If you put two small children into a room full of toys, nine times out of ten what toy is that each child wants?  They want whatever it is that the other child has.  Children must be taught to share because sharing does not come naturally.  The envy and selfishness is what comes naturally.  You do not have to teach a child to be jealous.

     This matter is so important that God dedicated two of the ten commandments to it.  “Thou shalt not covet” are the first words of the ninth and tenth commandments.  ‘Coveting’ is desire with a wicked twist to it, desire that is not satisfied with one has, desire that is resentful about another’s good fortune, desire that might even scheme to hurt another.  The farmer in the parable I began with (EmailMeditation #585) was granted three incredible wishes, but he ruined everything by coveting.

     “How is your wife,” said one man to another.  “Compared to what?” said the other man in the familiar comeback.  Meant to be humorous, the reply illustrates the point.  How should one make such a comparison?  Compared to Marilyn Monroe, the comparison would come out one way; compared to Mother Teresa, the comparison would turn out quite another way.  Basic to any sort of evaluation is the question of what standard one chooses to use, and this is certainly true in comparing our blessings in life with other people, as we think about whether or not life has been fair to us.

     The issue is always, ‘compared to what?’  In the parable, if the farmer compared his wealth to what he had at the beginning, before the angel of God came to him, he certainly had reason to rejoice.  What someone else did or did not receive should have certainly been secondary to the fact that out of nowhere he was greatly blessed.  It was only when he compared what he had to what his neighbor had that his rejoicing turned into resentment.

     This is the crucial issue for all of us as we examine the circumstances of our own lives.  The place to start is by asking what we had before God entered the picture– and of course God entered the picture at the very beginning to give us life itself.  Before that we had nothing at all.  As long as we stay focused on where we began and realize that life itself is a gift and birth itself is a sheer windfall for everyone of us, then a spirit of astonishment and gratitude will never leave us.  Before you complain to the Dealer about the hand that you have been dealt in life, you need to remember that if it wasn’t for the love and grace of God, you would have not been dealt any hand at all.  When you forget that fact, and begin making comparisons not to what you had at the beginning but to what someone else has, then the gratitude turns to accusation, and faith and trust disappear.  The ‘amazing grace’ of God isn’t just that your sins have been forgiven.  Everything you have and everything you are, including the fact that you were even born, comes by grace of God.  There is no other source of anything.

     German preacher Helmut Thielicke was right when he said, “The goodness of God can never been seen through jealous eyes, for this involves looking in the wrong direction for what is most important.  The goodness of God is seen only through the eyes of gratitude.”

     So what are you looking at?– your neighbors’ blessings, with envy; or your own, with gratitude?

***************************************************

Proverbs 14:30  –  A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

I Corinthians 13:4  –  Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Psalm 103:2  –  Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

****************************************************

Eternal God, my sovereign Lord, I acknowledge all I am and all I have is yours.  Give me such a sense of your infinite goodness that I may return to you all possible love and obedience.

–John Wesley  (1703-1791)

585) What Are You Looking At? (part one)

     

     A Polish rabbi once told his disciples the following parable.  A simple Jewish farmer was awakened one night by an angel of the Lord.  The messenger said to him, “You have found special favor in God’s eyes.  God wants to bless you as He did your ancestor Abraham.  Therefore, ask any three things that your heart desires, and they will be granted.  There is only one condition– your neighbor will receive a double portion of whatever is given to you.”

     The farmer was so excited that he could not get back to sleep.  He woke up his wife and they lost no time in formulating his first request.  Being very poor, it is not surprising that the request turned out to be one for material blessings.  He had only a couple of pigs and they weren’t doing very well.  In order to alleviate the bleakness of their poverty, he asked for a thousand more.   As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he and his wife could hear the sound of a great number of animals, grunting and rustling around outside.  They went out to find the whole house surrounded by large, healthy pigs.  They were rich.  The farmer was overjoyed.  He praised and thanked God over and over again, and started making plans for building new barns and fences.

     Just then he happened to look over and see his neighbor, and surrounding him was an even larger herd– 2,000 equally impressive hogs.  And then, for the first time since the angel appeared to him, the smile left the farmer’s face, and it was replaced by a scowl and clenched teeth.  Suddenly, the joy that had filled his whole being had evaporated, and feelings of jealousy and resentment took their place.  When he returned home that night his wife sensed this change of mood.  She asked him what had happened, but he refused to speak and went to bed in a sullen rage.  But he could not go to sleep, because when he closed his eyes all he could see was his neighbor’s larger number of pigs.

     The next day the farmer remembered that the angel had promised him three wishes, and the joy returned.  When he shifted his attention back to his own good fortune, all became well again.  He realized that even more than wealth, he and his wife had always wanted a child.  He made that request, and before long his wife was expecting a baby.

     The next months were filled with joy as the farmer stayed focused on his own blessings.  The night his son was born was a time of great celebration.  The next day was the Sabbath and he was eager to go to the synagogue to share his great news.  The rabbi rejoiced with them, and then said, “The Lord has indeed blessed our little community.  Did you know that your neighbor Joshua and his wife had twin sons also born last night?”

     On hearing that, the old scowl returned to the farmer’s face, and he returned home that day not full of joy like he had been, but now, again filled with jealousy and anger.  This time, the negative emotions took full possession of him and did not go away.

     Not long afterwards, he made his third and final request to God.  This time, he requested that he go blind in one eye.  

     The next night the angel appeared to him and said, “Your last request has come before your Maker, and he is very sad.  What has prompted you to make such a wicked request?”

     “My cursed neighbor,” said the farmer, “I cannot stand to see him prosper more than me.  You said he would get double of what I get.  I will be glad to go blind in one eye to see him suffer even more and be totally blind.”

     With that, tears began to flow down the angel’s cheek and he said sadly, “You are a pitiful creature.  Your jealousy has taken what could have been good for all and turned it into evil.  What a tragic waste.  Your last wish will not be granted, not because God lacks integrity, but because he is full of mercy and will not let you direct him into evil.  Know this, jealous one, you have made not only yourself sad, but also God.”

     When the farmer looked at his own blessings, he was overjoyed.  Before the angels appearance, he had nothing, and would not have dreamed of such good fortune.  But all was ruined for him when he started looking at someone else’s blessings.  Even though he had been richly blessed, and still had one wish to go, he could not be happy, knowing that his neighbor had even more.  Even though he himself now had great wealth and was a proud father, he could not enjoy anything because he knew that someone had more.  And that jealousy led first to his despair, and then to his wicked request.

     This is an extreme illustration of a common problem.  Much of our frustration and sadness comes not from what we have or do not have, but from our comparisons to what someone else has.  This does not have to mean only material blessings; we might be jealous of another’s health, job, family situation, abilities, luck, or just about anything.  No matter who you are or what you have, you can find someone else who has it better.  These comparisons can destroy not only personal happiness and well-being, but may also mean the end of any kind of gratitude to God.  (continued…)

**********************************************************

Proverbs 27:4  –  Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?

James 3:16  –  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

I Thessalonians 5:15-18  –  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.  Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

**********************************************************

God, give us grateful hearts.  For if we do not have the grace to thank Thee for all that we have and enjoy, how can we have the audacity to seek Thy further blessings?  For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

–Peter Marshall

584) “What’s With You?”

     

     Thirty-five years in the ministry have taught me that people are impossibly complex and unpredictable.  In college I majored in social work and minored in psychology, in seminary I took all the counseling classes that were offered, and as a young pastor I filled my shelves with books on the subject.  I believed back then that if I could just understand people, I would be able to fix them; and I was fascinated by what I learned about human nature in those books and classes.  I thought if I had enough books, I could look up whatever I needed to help anyone and everyone with anything.

     But as I got to know people better, I came to an understanding of how complex we all are.  I would look at someone and ask, “Why do that keep doing that?; why are they that way?; why don’t they just change this or that?– it is so obvious what they need to do.”  It wasn’t that I could not come up with reasons for why they were the way they were.  I had read enough books that I could come up with a dozen convincing theories to explain someone’s bizarre behavior.  But I might be wrong on every one.  How would I know?  How can anyone know?  I began to understand better (and fully believe) what Paul meant when he said in the seventh chapter of Romans that he did not understand even himself.  I could also understand Paul’s words in I Corinthians 4 where he said he would not even examine his own motives, but would just do his best to keep on preaching Christ.  Paul did not try to figure everyone out, but just kept pointing people to the cross and the forgiveness of sins for all of our failings.  There are experts in psychology and psychiatry and I’m glad they are there and I have referred people to them.  But my work as a pastor, I learned, would be to proclaim Christ, and not to try to figure everyone out and fix them.  Not even Paul attempted that.

     People keep surprising me.  One of the first weddings I ever did had a rather shaky beginning.  The groom-to-be had not been getting along very well with his future father-in-law and one night in a drive-by shooting shot a bullet through his future in-laws living room window.  The future father-in-law had guns too, so he and his brother got their guns and went out looking for his future son-in-law.  Fortunately their paths did not cross that night.  Things cooled down a bit and the wedding took place, though no one gave it any chance of succeeding.  I probably should have refused to marry them under those circumstances. But, years later I heard that they had several children and were doing just great.  I can also recall other couples who I have married with every reason to believe they would succeed, but the marriages did not last a year.  People are so unpredictable.

     Confirmands are unpredictable.  I think back to some of my favorite confirmation students.  They were bright, friendly, faithful, and blessed with every opportunity– good parents, good friends, and no financial difficulties in the home.  Yet, some of these fortunate children went on to squander it all, messing up their lives, and hurting everyone who got close to them.  Then I think of some of my less privileged students, coming out of broken homes, living in poverty with parents who ignored them, and taking out their frustration on everyone around them, including their pastor in confirmation class.  Yet, years later I would hear that some of those difficult kids, now grown adults and parents with children of their own, were doing well, and not making the same mistakes as their parents.  Who would have thought?

     In the well known story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) Jesus saved a woman from being stoned to death by telling the mob that whoever was without sin could cast the first stone.  After the crowd dropped their stones and left, Jesus told the woman that he did not condemn her, but that she should, “Go and sin no more.”  Jesus is always ready to forgive us and offer us a new beginning, no matter what we have done.  At the same time, he is always challenging us to follow him in lives of obedience.

     So I always tell my confirmation students and couples preparing to get married:  “Always remember, no one (and no marriage) is hopeless, and no one (and no couple) ever has it made.”

————————————

“Every saint has a past.  Every sinner has a future.”  –Oscar Wilde

————————————

“In college I mastered four methods of successful child raising, but had no children.  I now have four children and know of no methods of successful child raising.”  –A frazzled young mother.

*************************************************

John 8:10-11  –  Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”

     “No one, sir,” she said.

     “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared.  “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

————

Romans 7:15  –  I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

I Corinthians 4:4-5  –  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.

I Corinthians 10:12  –    So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!

*************************************************

O God, our Father, we are exceedingly frail and averse to every virtuous and noble undertaking.  Strengthen our weakness, we pray, that we may be courageous in this spiritual war; help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts.  Amen.

–Augustine

583) Diocletian vs. Jesus

 

     Do you recognize the man shown above?  Probably not, though as emperor of the great Roman Empire, he was at one time the most powerful man on earth.  Diocletian (245-311) ruled as Roman emperor from 284-305 A. D.  His reign brought many changes to the Roman Empire, and some of them were quite innovative and beneficial.  However, he was also one of history’s most merciless persecutors of the Church of Jesus Christ, and even fancied that he had defeated Christianity once and for all.  He had a medal struck with this inscription:  “The name of Christianity is extinguished.”

     Bible commentator David Guzik writes of him:

Diocletian set up two monuments on the frontier of his empire with these inscriptions:

–’Diocletian Jovian Maximian Herculeus Caesares Augusti for having extended the Roman Empire in the east and the west and for having extinguished the name of Christians who brought the Republic to ruin.’

–’Diocletian Jovian Maximian Herculeus Caesares Augusti for having everywhere abolished the superstition of Christ for having extended the worship of the gods.’

Diocletian is dead and gone, a footnote on the pages of history.  The fame and glory of Jesus Christ has spread over all the earth.

     The above photo would be recognized by very few people in the world today.  But the man in the statue below would be recognized by almost all of the people in the world today.  Diocletian believed he could ‘extinguish the name of Christ.’  But Diocletian is long dead and forgotten, but Jesus is remembered and worshiped, and still lives.

Christ the Redeemer, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

     We hear much in the news today of those who are seeking to eliminate all the Christians in various countries, and even in the whole world.  Christians may be killed.  Christians have been killed for proclaiming Christ throughout history.  But the name of Christ will go on, and Christ will rule, forever and ever.

*****************************************

Philippians 2:9-11  –  God exalted him (Jesus) to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Acts 4:8-12  –  Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them:  “Rulers and elders of the people!  If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel:  It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  Jesus is “‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Colossians 1:15-17  –  The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.   He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Matthew 28:18-20  –  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Revelation 22:13  –  (Jesus said), “I am the Alpha and the Omega,the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

*****************************************

PSALM 2:1-2…4-6…10-11

Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed…

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain…”

10 Therefore, you kings, be wise;
    be warned, you rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear
    and celebrate his rule with trembling.

582) The Problem With “Having it All”

     It is instructive to look at the lives of people who have received everything to see if ‘having it all’ makes one happy.  The Bible itself tells the story of one such man.  Solomon was the son of King David and heir to the throne.  Shortly after becoming king (See I Kings 3), God appeared to Solomon in a dream and said, “Ask me for whatever you want me to give you.”  Solomon asked for wisdom in order to rule wisely.  God said that since Solomon asked for wisdom and not wealth, power, and honor, God would give him all that, too; and God did.  Solomon became the wealthiest king Israel ever had, the most powerful, and the most honored.  For 40 years he had it all.  Did that make him happy?  It does not appear to have even kept him from despair.  As is often the case, God’s blessings can become a curse in our lives.  In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes you can read about how Solomon had it all, did it all, and experienced it all in life; but it left him bored, frustrated, and disgusted with himself and life.  So after all of that, he came to this simple conclusion in the last words of Ecclesiastes:  “Fear God and keep his commandments.”  It is as simple as that.  That’s the key to life.  Discovered, finally, by a man who had and tried everything else, and it all brought him nothing but despair and trouble.

     Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a man in our time who lived such a life.  His father was a successful artist, and the family had plenty of money.  His father painted landscapes, and they traveled to all the most beautiful places in the world, and would live there for several months while the father worked.  They would then go to London or Paris or New York, where his father knew all sorts of important people who would buy his art, and in those places they lived with those of the very highest class.  When Thomas wanted to go to school for a while, he could have his pick of any of the best boarding schools in Europe.  Thomas’s parents both died when he was still a boy, but his grandfather, who was also very wealthy, saw to it that Thomas was taken care of financially.  In 1929 Thomas was 14 years old and the economy of the whole world was entering a depression.  But Thomas had all the money he needed, and his grandfather left him pretty much free to do as he pleased.  Imagine that!; fourteen years old, free to do as you pleased, and with all the money you needed.  He had the kind of freedom and financial independence that most people never get; and he had it at in his early teens.

     Thomas was a fairly responsible kid (though not always), and was wise enough to accept the occasional guidance of his godfather.  And, Thomas liked to read and learn, so he stayed in school.  This all prevented him from going completely crazy, as would many kids that age with that kind of money and freedom.  But he did do whatever he wanted to do and buy whatever he wanted to buy.  If he wanted to go to school at Oxford in England, he did.  When he got sick of that and wanted to go to school at Columbia in New York, he did that.  If he wanted to quit school and live in the Bahamas for a while, he would do that.  If he wanted to live in the mountains of Switzerland, he went there.  If he ever worked, it was only because he wanted to work, and then only doing what he wanted to do, which was write; and sometimes he did, and sometimes he didn’t.  If he wanted to drink and carouse and stay out all night every night and wander the streets with his friends, he would do that, and, he later admitted that he did way too much of it.  He had done it all– and, by the time he was 21 years old, he was sick of it all.  All of his freedom, and everything that his grandfather’s money could buy him, began to bring him less and less satisfaction.  Thomas eventually found himself in the midst of a depression that was so severe it making him seriously ill physically.

     It was at this time that Thomas started to go to church to see if there was anything there that might calm his restless spirit and speak to his despairing soul.  There had not been much religion in his home, and the few Protestant churches he had attended seemed to him like nothing more than social clubs– and lack of an active social life was not his problem.  Years before, when he was 17, Thomas had made a trip to Rome.  He remembered being inspired by the many grand Catholic churches and cathedrals there.  So one day he went into a Catholic church for worship, and he again found himself moved by the reverence of the service.   To make a long story short, he kept going to church, asked for instruction, and eventually became a Catholic.  Then, in the biggest surprise of all to his friends, he decided to become a monk.  His spiritual autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, was written after 10 years in the monastery.  It is a spiritual classic and is filled with expressions of gratitude to God.

     Without God in his life, the young Thomas Merton found no contentment, no peace, and no satisfaction, even though he had all the freedom and all the money anyone could want.  But with his new found faith in God his life overflowed with gratitude and peace.  He had no reason to resent anyone who had more.  He once had it all.  And he had learned from experience what most people never have the opportunity to learn– that having it all is not the answer.  Many people spend their lives in hopes of getting a little bit more, believing that will make life happen for them.  Merton had everything as a teenager, and it left him in despair.  And since he already had it all, there was nothing more to hope for.  Something else was needed.  He needed to know the God, and learned that only in God can the soul be at peace.

     Now Merton was free to receive everything with gratitude, and he did.  When he was 20, he had everything, and took pleasure in nothing.  When he was 30, he owned absolutely nothing, but his writings are filled with gratitude for all the simple things that surrounded him– the warmth of the sun, the beauty of a flower, the laughter of friends, the enjoyment of a meal (meager as they were in the monastery), and the inner peace and strength that came from reading God’s word and spending time in quiet prayer.  Thomas Merton’s life is instructive, but one does not have to become a monk to find one’s peace and contentment in God.

—————————

Jim Carrey did not become a monk, but life has taught him the same lesson about the futility of ‘having it all:’

****************************************

Jeremiah 6:16  –  This is what the Lord says:  “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.  But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

Psalm 62:5  –  Yes, my soul, find rest in God; my hope comes from him.

John 14:27  –  (Jesus said), “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

Matthew 11:28-29  –  (Jesus said), “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

****************************************

581) The Seven Wonders of the World

 

The Taj Mahal, India, Built 1632-1653

     A teacher once told her students to list what they considered to be the Seven Wonders of the World.  Most of the students took the assignment to mean ‘man-made’ wonders, so these students listed things like the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the Panama Canal, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  A few students took the assignment to mean the great natural wonders of the world, so those students listed things like the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains, and Niagara Falls.  One little girl, however, took the assignment in an entirely different way, and ended up with a very different kind of list.  Here are the seven things she listed as the greatest wonders of the world:  #1) to see; #2) to hear; #3 ) to touch; #4 ) to taste; #5 ) to feel; #6) to laugh; and, #7) to love.

     I like that little girl’s list best of all.  The other wonders are truly great because of their uniqueness or their great size.  But the wonders the little girl listed are even greater precisely because they are so common.  Almost every one of us, even the poorest and lowliest, can see and hear.  Even those who cannot see or hear, can laugh and love.  Those wonders, though common, are truly miraculous, and can fill us with wonder and awe.  I marvel at the amazing technology of a camera, but just think how much more the human eye can do– taking in images, constantly focusing and adjusting for light and distance; then instantly recording that image in our memory, there to be retrieved in a few moments, or, in 70 years, and then, if the need arises, be recalled, thought about, and turned into words to describe the image to another.  It took a lot of labor and a long time to build the pyramids.  But no amount of labor or time can build and install even one little human eyeball, and everyone of us has not one, but two!  And that is but one of the seven items on that little girls list.  That girl knew how to appreciate the simple things in life.

     In Deuteronomy chapter eight the people of Israel are on the verge of entering a new land, the land God promised to bring them to when he freed from slavery in Egypt.  As slaves in Egypt they were perhaps working on those pyramids listed by several of the students as one of the great ‘wonders of the world.’  Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses speaks to the people for the last time, after leading them for forty years.  Within days, Moses will be dead, and the people will move on into the promised land without him.  Among the many things he has to tell them, in this chapter he tells them to remember to be grateful.  In verses 10 and 11 he says, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord…” or else, Moses says in verses 14 and 17, “or else, you will forget the Lord and say to yourself, ‘my power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.’”

     Moses then mentions some of the great miracles that God had done for the people in the past, for example, freeing them from slavery and sustaining them in the wilderness.  Then, looking ahead, he reminds them to be thankful and praise God for the simplest things– food and water.  That is what makes up most of blessings they will receive in the new land, as listed in verses seven, eight, and nine,– food and water.  Remember to be thankful, Moses implies, every time you take a drink of water or eat a bite of food.

     The problem is we oftentimes forget to be thankful for the many simple blessings that we already have because we already have our eyes on something else, something we do not have, but what someone else does.  Everyone in this life gets a different bag of blessings, and we find it all too tempting to forget to be grateful for everything that is in our bag, and be constantly looking around at what someone else has received in their bag, anxious to see if there is anything we are missing out on.  Sometimes we are reminded of those who have less than we do, and that reminder can inspire in us feelings of gratitude.  But all too often, we are looking at those who seem to have more than we do, and then we are tempted to have feelings of resentment and ingratitude, and perhaps even jealousy and anger.  For many people, the receiving of more things makes them not more content, but fills them with an even greater craving for still more.

***********************************************

Deuteronomy 8:10-14  –  When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.  Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

1 Chronicles 29:13  –  Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.

Psalm 107:21  –  Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

***********************************************

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

–Psalm 136:1

580) Gratitude Even in the Worst Circumstances

Andersonville Prison, August 16, 1864

——————————

     In 1860 Andersonville, Georgia was a little town of less than 20 people.  It would have long ago disappeared and been forgotten, had it not been for one thing.  In 1863 the Confederate States of America built near Andersonville their main prisoner of war camp for captured Union soldiers in the American Civil War.  The 26 acre camp was built to hold 10,000 prisoners, and even at that the prison would have been crowded.  But as the war dragged on, the prison’s population more than tripled to over 33,000.  Unable to adequately feed even their own troops, the South had little to spare for the prisoners.  Thus, starvation, along with widespread disease caused by overcrowding, led to an astounding number of deaths at the Andersonville camp. The prisoners were often treated with cruelty by the guards.  The summer heat was extreme, and then, without adequate clothing or blankets the men suffered from the winter cold.  There was a constant stench of excrement and death.  Twenty-five percent of all soldiers sent to Andersonville died there.  The Camp commander, Captain Henry Wirz, was the only Civil War soldier to be executed after the war for war crimes.

     Soldiers who survived Andersonville called it a living hell.  It has been called the ‘American Auschwitz.’  It is not the sort of place one would expect to find anything for a meditation on gratitude.  But a spirit of gratitude does not depend so much on what one has or does not have, but on what one chooses to focus on.  John Ransom was a prisoner at Andersonville for two years, and very nearly died there.  Through it all he was able to remain positive, hopeful, and even thankful.  Ransom kept a diary of his day to day life in the prison camp, and after the war published it with the title Andersonville Diary.  It is considered a Civil War classic.  His entry for October 15, 1864 is an example of his cheerful gratitude (paraphrased): 

 It doesn’t take much to satisfy me as to improvements in health or condition.  Some would think to look at me, almost helpless as a POW, as one who did not have much to be thankful about.  Well, let them look at what I all have, and then they will see.  One might look at me with pity when I should be congratulated.  I am probably the happiest mortal hereabouts, and if I ever get out of here, I will most surely appreciate whatever life, health, and food I get from then on.  I am anxious for only one thing– and that is to get news home to Michigan that I am all right, because I have heard that it was reported that I was dead.

     That sounds very much like some words of St. Paul, also written from a prison, one probably no less filthy and unpleasant as Andersonville; and, with the threat of execution hanging over his head.  Yet Paul was able to write:

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again, Rejoice!  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God…  For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.  (Philippians 4:4-6…11b-13)

*********************************************************

Thou hast given so much to me,

give one thing more, a grateful heart.

–George Herbert  (1593-1633)