1629) What’s the Deal? (b)

La Vigne rouge

The Red Vineyards, 1888, Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), (believed to be the only painting he ever sold).

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     (…continued)  The story of Alan Tucker in yesterday’s meditation is not a true story, though it is based on what many people have experienced after winning the lottery

      There are several things going on in this little illustration.  First of all, there is the amazing generosity of Al.  Then, there is the initial gratitude of those he helped after receiving such an unexpected and undeserved gift.  So far, so good.  But the happy story turns into a sad story when everyone started comparing their good fortune to the good fortune of other people.  Then everyone forgot about the good will of Alan, and their gratitude turned to resentment when they came to believe that they had been treated unfairly and deserved more.

     This is exactly what is going on in the parable of Jesus in Matthew 20:1-15.  A landowner hired workers for his vineyard.  In the early hours of the morning he found his first workers, and they agreed to work for the usual daily wage.  Throughout the day, the farmer hired more workers, some, even at the end of the day for just one hour of work.  Then, when the work day was over, the workers were paid.  Those hired last were paid first; and they were paid a full day’s wage.  This farmer is generous like Alan.  The workers who worked all day began to get excited.  They were doing the math, and at that rate they would really get a lot of money.  But then everyone received the same wage.  The all-day workers objected.  Why should those who worked only one hour get the same pay as those who worked all day?  But the farmer replied, “I am not being unfair.  I paid you what we agreed on.  It is up to me if I want to give that same amount to those who came last.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”

     This does seem unfair, but perhaps the farmer had his reasons.  Maybe a day’s wage was what it took to feed a family for a day, and the farmer didn’t want any hungry families.  But why weren’t the other workers out there earlier?  Had they been sleeping all day?  The farmer asked about that, and they replied they had been out looking for work and had no luck until he found them at the end of the day.  Maybe there were other factors.  But for whatever reason the man had for paying as he did, he did nothing wrong.  He chose to be more generous with some than with others, but all received at least what was agreed on.

     Both stories have much to say about our own lives, and how we receive and accept the blessing we are given.  God has given us enough to live contented and grateful lives, and everything we have been given is a free and undeserved gift from God.  Our negative feelings come when we start looking around at what someone else has.  No matter who you are, you can find other people who you are sure have more and deserve it less; or at least that is how it looks to you.  Without a doubt, you could also find those who probably deserve more than you and have less—but that is not our usual way of looking around.  It is just like Al’s friends.  They did not even look at those who were maybe better friends of Al and received less.  They just saw those who were not as close and got more.

     In many areas of life, it is entirely appropriate to talk about what you deserve.  If in school, you answer every single question on a test correctly, you deserve an “A” from the teacher—that’s how it is set up.  And if you agree to work at a job for $10.00 an hour, after ten hours, you deserve to be paid $100.00 from the person who hired you—that’s the deal.

     But what’s the deal you have with God, and when did you make it?  How should you decide what you deserve from God?  And on what basis do you decide if someone else is getting a better deal from God, and whether or not you are begin treated unfairly?  That is one of the things this parable is about.

     If we want to do some comparing in this realm, the only reasonable comparison to make would be to compare what we have now, with what we would have if God had not given us anything.  This is the only comparison we have any right to make before God.  How else would you decide what you deserve from the Almighty?  From our very first breath, everything we are and everything we have is a free and undeserved gift from God.  And yet God, like Al, probably receives more grumbling and resentment than gratitude.  (continued…)

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“Comparison is the death of joy.”  –Mark Twain

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

Matthew 20:15  —  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?  Or do you begrudge my generosity?

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

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Thou that hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more, a grateful heart.

–George Herbert (1593- 1633)

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1628) What’s the Deal? (a)

Matthew 20:1-15:

   (Jesus said), “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.  He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.  About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.  He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’  So they went.  He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing.  About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around.  He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’  ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.  He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’  The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius.  So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more.  But each one of them also received a denarius.  When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner.  ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’  But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go.  I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money?  Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

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Powerball Lottery Reaches Third Highest Jackpot

            It was Alan Tucker’s lucky day– the luckiest day he could have ever imagined.  Actually, he had imagined such a lucky day many times.  Every time he bought a lottery ticket, he imagined to himself that this time he might be the big winner.  Each week, Alan quietly bought a few tickets, eagerly awaited the winning numbers, carefully checked and rechecked each of his losing tickets, and then threw the worthless pieces of paper away.  

            But this time, there was one ticket he did not throw away.  It was the winner, the big winner of one of the largest jackpots ever.  The next day, Alan heard on the news that across the whole nation, there was only one winner.  He checked his numbers one more time, and it was him.  It was all his– 643 million dollars— and even after taxes, that would be a lot of money.

            Alan was a good man with a big heart.  In all those years of buying lottery tickets and imagining himself a wealthy man, he always thought about how much fun it would be to help other people.  Sure, he would first quit his job, build a nice house, and do some traveling.  But he also looked forward to helping other people; not only his family and friends, but also other people he heard about.  He wasn’t married and there was no way he could spend all that money on himself, so he would use much of it to help those in need.  He had recently heard about a family in town whose son had been paralyzed in a bad accident, and they were trying to raise money for a new van for his wheelchair.  They had already had some fundraisers, and were receiving a few hundred bucks here and there.  But they needed $45,000.  Alan hardly knew these people, but he felt sorry for them, and knew that now he would be able to help them.  As soon as he got the money in his account, he would go over and write them the check.  He was just as excited about that as he was about getting his own brand new vehicle.

            Then Alan made a big mistake.  It was at the news conference when he was given his check and interviewed by the media.  “What are you going to do with all that money?’” they asked, as they always do.  

            “Well,” said Alan, “I’ve already given my two week notice at work.  Then I have some plans for myself; but I’d also like to use the money to help people.  I know some people that are having a rough time, and now I can do more than just feel sorry for them.”

            When Alan got home after a big meal at the best restaurant in town, the phone was ringing.  He ran to answer it, and sure enough, it was one of his friends from work.  “Hey Al, this is Mick.  Congratulations on your good luck.  We’re going to miss you at work.  But hey, that’s great how you said in the interview that you wanted to help out all your friends.  Well, you know how much I have been wanting a new boat.  So I know I can count on you, right?  You are a great guy Al.  We’ll be in touch.  Bye.”

           Alan couldn’t believe it.  That wasn’t what he had in mind when he talked about helping people.  Mick was doing all right, and already had a pretty nice boat.  Alan looked down and saw that he had seventeen messages on his answering machine.  As he listened through all seventeen, he was shocked to find they were all like Mick.  They all wanted something, and none of them needed the kind of help Alan had in mind.  At the news conference he was thinking about helping out people like his Aunt Alice, who lived on a fixed income and couldn’t afford the medicine she needed.  Or his sister’s family: she and her husband had both just lost their jobs and were struggling.  Or that family that needed the van.  But all the messages, some from people he hardly knew, were asking for help with things like boats and snowmobiles and new cars, along with four that needed help with credit card troubles they had foolishly gotten themselves into.

            Alan was overwhelmed, but he was an easy-going guy.  After he thought about it for a few days, he realized that a million dollars is probably all it would take to make everyone happy, and what was a million dollars to him now?  So he started writing out the checks to everyone who had asked.  After two weeks he had helped out 38 people and it only cost him two million dollars.  And it did make him happy to see how he could so easily make other people happy.

            But then the real trouble started.  Some of the people he had helped started calling him back, and they were disappointed, even angry.  A typical call went like this: “Hey Al, thanks for the paying off my credit card debt and all that, but I just ran into Mick and he said you bought him a new boat.  Who’s Mick to you?  You only met him last year at work, but we’ve been friends since high school.  Yes, I know I was $11,000 in debt, but that boat must have cost twice that much.  I know it’s your money, and I’m not going to beg.  But I hope you think about all those times I helped you out.”  A bewildered Alan would then reply something like, “Gee, I guess I never stopped to figure out a system of who would get how much; maybe I should have.  But I don’t even know how I would do that.  I’ve just been saying yes, but now I guess I’ll have to think about it.  I didn’t mean to offend you.  You’re right, we have been good friends.”

            And that’s how it went for Al from then on.  Phone call after phone call, and everyone knew of someone who for some reason, deserved less but received more.  Alan, who just wanted to be a good guy and generous to everyone, was accused by almost everyone of being unfair, and not as good a friend as they thought.  Most people were a little bit thankful, but also hurt and disappointed, and some were even downright mad.   (continued…)

1627) The Core of Christianity

Image result for Helen Voorhees Brach images

Helen Vorhees Brach  (1911-1977)

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By Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ,  Zondervan,1998.

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     Brach Candy heiress Helen Vorhees Brach flew into O’Hare International Airport on a crisp autumn afternoon, stepped into a crowd, and promptly disappeared without a trace.  For more than twenty years the mystery of what happened to this red-haired, animal-loving philanthropist has baffled police and journalists alike.

     While investigators are convinced she was murdered, they haven’t been able to determine the specific circumstances, largely because they’ve never found her body.  Police have floated some speculation, leaked tantalizing possibilities to the press, and even got a judge to declare that a con man was responsible for her disappearance.  But absent a corpse, her murder officially remains unsolved.  Nobody has ever been charged with her slaying.

     The Brach case is one of those frustrating enigmas that keep me awake from time to time as I mentally sift through the sparse evidence and try to piece together what happened.  Ultimately it’s an unsatisfying exercise; I want to know what happened, and there just aren’t enough facts to chase away the conjecture.

     Occasionally bodies turn up missing in pulp fiction and real life, but rarely do you encounter an empty tomb.  Unlike the case of Helen Brach, the issue with Jesus isn’t that he was nowhere to be seen.  It’s that he was seen, alive; he was seen, dead; and he was seen, alive once more.  If we believe the gospel accounts, this isn’t a matter of a missing body.  No, it’s a matter of Jesus still being alive, even to this day, even after publicly succumbing to the horrors of crucifixion.

     Skeptics claim that what happened to Jesus’ body is a mystery akin to Helen Brach’s disappearance— there’s not enough evidence, they say, to reach a firm conclusion.  But others assert that the case is effectively closed.  This wasn’t a missing persons case.  Jesus had risen again.

     The empty tomb, as an enduring symbol of the resurrection, is the ultimate representation of Jesus’ claim to being God. The apostle Paul said in I Corinthians 15:17 that the resurrection is at the very core of the Christian faith: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”

     Theologian Gerald O’Collins put it this way:  “In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter.  It is not Christianity at all.”

     The resurrection is the supreme vindication of Jesus’ divine identity and his inspired teaching.  It’s the proof of his triumph over sin and death.  It’s the foreshadowing of the resurrection of his followers.  It’s the basis of Christian hope.  It’s the miracle of all miracles.

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I Corinthians 15:17  —  If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 

I Corinthians 15:19  —  If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

I Corinthians 15:1-6  —  I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.

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O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light:  Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

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1626) Dealing With Difficult People (b)

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By Rick Warren at http://www.pastorrick.com, April 2017.

     (…continued)  #4) And then, hold your tongue.  When somebody angers you or does something that frustrates you, it’s really tempting to call someone else or send a text and say, “You won’t believe what they just did!” It may feel good to do that.  But it’s not what God wants you to do.

     Proverbs 17:9 says, “You will keep your friends if you forgive them, but you will lose your friends if you keep talking about what they did wrong” (CEV).  If you gossip about that other person, you’re just adding fuel to the fire of any frustrations you feel.

     What is gossip?  One definition of gossip is “sharing information with somebody who is not part of the problem or part of the solution.”  The person might not have had anything to do with it, but you bring them into it so you can feel better about yourself.

     Let’s just be honest about it.  Gossip, in its essence, is a form of retaliation.  You’re trying to get back at the person who offended you by talking about them behind their back.

     God hates it.  Gossip is incredibly destructive.  It’s destructive to churches.  It is destructive to families.  It’s destructive to businesses.  And gossip just perpetuates the pain.

     That’s why God says we should “encourage one another and build each other up,” looking for “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” in others (1 Thessalonians 5:11; Philippians 4:8 NIV).

     #5)  Stay out of the mud.  Retaliation never works with EGRs (Extra Grace Required people).  It tends to escalate whatever problem you’re encountering.  You need to refuse to play their game.

     EGRs love to argue and debate.  They use conflict to get your attention.  When people try to get your attention through conflict, they’re just trying to hook you.  They don’t really care what you think.  They’re just trying to pull you into their game.

     Somebody once said, “If you wrestle in the mud with a pig, both of you will get dirty, but only one of you will enjoy it.”  Stay out of the mud.  Don’t get sucked into the argument.  Just walk on by.

   Proverbs 26:21 says, “Just as charcoal and wood keep a fire going, a quarrelsome person keeps an argument going” (NCV).  EGRs love to keep the argument going.  They find their meaning, their purpose, and their value by getting you upset.  Don’t play their game.  Don’t get drawn into it.  They’re not looking for answers.  They’re just looking for an argument.

     How many people does it take to argue?  It takes two, right?  If one of them walks away, what happens to the argument?  It ends.  The fire goes out.  Sometimes the most merciful thing you can do is walk away from the argument.

     #6)  The final step is to always take the high road.  We all have EGRs in our lives.  They annoy us, anger us, frustrate us, and test us.  But they also help us grow.  God calls us to demonstrate mercy to all people — even those who cause us the most trouble.

     Do what’s right, no matter what the EGRs in your life do.  If they insult you, treat them with kindness.  If they wear on your nerves or they’re too slow for your pace, treat them with patience.  You cannot control what other people think about you.  You cannot control what other people say about you.  You cannot control what other people do to you.  But you do have 100 percent control over how you respond.

     The high road gives you clear perspective.  When you take the high road, you can see past that person’s behavior to their pain.  When you take the high road, you rise above the irritation and the conflict and choose to live in peace.  You might be completely within your rights to retaliate, but the Bible says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13b NIV).  You might have the perfect comeback, but the Bible says, “Do not repay . . . insult with insult” (1 Peter 3:9a NIV).

     The classic chapter on this is Romans 12.  Verse 14 says this: “Ask God to bless those who persecute you — yes, ask him to bless, not to curse” (GNT).  This verse is the definition of mercy.  You say, “Rick, I don’t have anybody persecuting me.”  Then let’s cross out the word “persecute” and write in the word “irritate.”  Ask God to bless the people who irritate you.  Instead of asking God to judge them, ask him to bless them.  This is what real love looks like.  Real love doesn’t just love someone who’s lovable.  That’s easy.  Real love loves the unlovable.  Real love is patient with the irritable people in your life.  God empowers us to love even those we find hard to love.

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Have mercy on me, O Lord, as I muddle my way through this sad world, on my way to you and your perfect home.  I make myself miserable and my life difficult by my many sins.  I create problems for others, and they create problems for me.   We all have so much trouble getting along, always sinning and being sinned against.  Give me the grace to forgive others and I have been forgiven by you, and may they receive the grace to forgive me as they have been forgiven by you.  I pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for the forgiveness of all our sins.  Amen.

–Source lost

1625) Dealing With Difficult People (a)

Image result for difficult people images

By Rick Warren at http://www.pastorrick.com, April 2017.

     We all have people in our lives that drive us nuts.  I call them EGRs, which stands for Extra Grace Required.  But have you ever thought that God puts them in your life to be heavenly sandpaper.  They may irritate us, but God uses them to take off our rough edges and shape our character.

     Some EGRs are minor irritations.  They may drive too slow in the fast lane.  Some of them may be more challenging.  They sit in the backseat and tell you how to drive.

     Other EGRs may be just plain mean.  They never say “thank you.”  They can be rude and negative, demanding, demeaning, and disapproving.  You just cannot make them happy, no matter how hard you try.  Whatever you do, it’s not good enough.

     So what do you do with people like that?  How can you show them mercy when you’d rather show them the door?  Here are six steps to demonstrating mercy to the EGRs in your life.

     #1)  First, look behind their behavior.  When you’re dealing with people who are offensive and irritating, you need to look past their behavior to their pain.  When people are hurting others, it’s because they’re hurting on the inside.  Hurt people hurt people.  They’re full of fear and insecurity.  They may have a painful past, or be dealing with some pressure that you don’t know about.

     You need to ask yourself why they are acting the way they are.  Why are they being short with you?  Did they have a fight with their husband or wife today?  Is everything okay with their kids?  Are they in financial trouble?  Is something going on with their health?  What’s the thorn in their foot that’s causing them to be mean to everybody else around them?  You look past the behavior and look at the pain and try to understand.

     The Bible says, “When a fool is annoyed, he quickly lets it be known.  Smart people will ignore an insult” (Proverbs 12:16 GNT).  Why do wise people ignore an insult?  Because they look behind the behavior to the pain.  When you understand a person’s pain, it helps you respond with patience.

     #2)  Second, refuse to be offended.  Your emotional and spiritual maturity is largely measured by how you treat people who mistreat you.  Do you try to get even when somebody does you wrong?  If they hit you, do you hit back?  If they insult you, do you insult back?  If you do, then you are no better than they are.

     The Bible says, “Watch your words and hold your tongue; you’ll save yourself a lot of grief” (Proverbs 21:23 MSG).  When it comes to personal relationships, God says, “Don’t be so easily offended.  Learn to get over it.”

     You need to pray, “God, give me a tender heart and a tough hide.”  Most of us are just the opposite.  We’re thin-skinned and tough-hearted.  When somebody looks cross-eyed at you on the freeway, somebody cuts you off, or somebody is rude to you, don’t let it bother you.  Don’t get upset about it.  You need to get thicker skin.

     The Bible says, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11 NIV).  Wisdom gives you patience to overlook an offense.

     #3) Next, be willing to cut people some slack.  Everybody has bad days.  My wife Kay knows that I have two touchy times every week.  I’m touchy on Saturday afternoon because I’m focused on the message I am about to preach.  And the other time I’m touchy is Monday morning, because I’m drained from preaching all weekend and talking to people between services.  So Kay makes allowances for that.  She cuts me some slack.

     That’s a key part of how you deal with EGRs (people with Extra Grace Required).   I’ve mentioned that in dealing with EGRs we need to look behind the behavior and refuse to be offended.  But we also must cut them some slack.

     The Bible says, “Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (Ephesians 4:2b TLB).  Not everyone who bugs you or hurts you realizes what they’re doing.  Oftentimes they’re responding to their own hidden pain, and they don’t even know that they’re hurting all these people around them.

     When I have a hard time overlooking an offense, I remember the great gift of God’s forgiveness.  I remember Colossians 3:13: “Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you.  Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others” (NLT, second edition).    (continued…)

1624) A Reminder

In John 14:26, Jesus promised that after he went away, he would send the Holy Spirit to “remind you of everything I have said to you.”   One of the ways the Holy Spirit reminds us of Jesus is by the lives of people who have been inspired by the example of Jesus’ life, as in this story by William Willimon.

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     In my last congregation, there was a woman who had lived a very difficult life.  She had been in pain much of her adult life due to a terrible degenerative bone disease.  Her young son had died of luekemia.  Her husband left her shortly after that.  She had had a tough life.

     And yet she was always smiling.  Anyone in that congregation would tell you that she always seemed to put the most positive face on everything.  Through all congregational crises, she kept reminding us of the bright side of the matter.  She always seemed to have just the right word of encouragement at the right time amidst our periodic discouragements.

     “Jane is a reminder to me,” said one person in the congregation, “of what this faith is all about.  She reminds me that, if you trust in the love of Jesus, the world can be different.”

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John 14:25-27  —  (Jesus said), “All this I have spoken while still with you.  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.  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.”

I Corinthians 4:14-17  —  I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.  Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.  Therefore I urge you to imitate me.  For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord.  He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

Matthew 5:14-16  —  (Jesus said), “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hid.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

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 O Lord, uphold me, that I may uplift you.  Increase in me the knowledge of your truth.  In the truth which I know, establish me; whatever I ought to know, teach me; in truths in which I waver, strengthen me; in things in which I am deceived, correct me; in things hard to understand, guide me; and from untruths, deliver me.  Send your light and truth, and let them lead me.  Amen.  –Author unknown

1623) This Explains Very Little

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From “A Tale of Two Families” by Philip Yancey, posted August 19, 2017 at: http://www.philipyancey.com

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     I have been reflecting on the families of two sisters.  The first, Joyce, ruled with the iron hand of legalism.  Her five kids obeyed a lengthy set of strict rules—“Because I say so, that’s why!”  Now grown, they tell me they acquiesced mainly out of fear of punishment.

     Joyce’s family devotions often centered on the Old Testament: Honor your parents, Fear the Lord, Stop grumbling.  The word grace rarely came up.  When her children got married, Joyce told them, “If your marriage fails, don’t bother coming back here.  You made a vow to God, so keep it.”

     All of Joyce’s children have struggled with self-image problems.  They admit it has taken many years for them to think of God as loving, and even now that concept seems more intellectual than experiential.  Joyce and her husband have softened into grandparents, but affection still does not come easily to anyone in the family.

     Yet here is a striking fact: defying an overwhelming national trend, all five of those children remain married to their original partners.  They’ve chosen jobs in the helping professions.  All but one are raising their own children in the faith.  At some level, strictness and legalism in this family produced results.

     In contrast to Joyce, her sister Annette determined to break out of the rigidity of their own upbringing.  She vowed not to punish her children, rather to love them, comfort them, and calmly explain when they did something wrong.  Her family devotions skipped right past the Old Testament and focused on Jesus’ astonishing parables of grace and forgiveness.

     Annette especially loved the story of the Prodigal Son.  “We are those parents,” she would tell her children.  “No matter what you do, no matter what happens, we’ll be here waiting to welcome you back.”

     Unfortunately, Annette and her husband would have many opportunities to role-play the parents of the prodigal.  One daughter contracted AIDS through sexual promiscuity.  Another is on her fourth marriage.  A son alternates between prison and a drug rehab center.

     Annette has kept her promise, though, always welcoming her children home.  She looks after the grandchildren, posts bail, covers mortgage payments—whatever it takes to live out her commitment of long-suffering love.  I marvel at her spirit of grace and acceptance.  “What do you expect?” she shrugs.  “They’re my children.  You don’t stop loving your own children.”

     I grew up in a home and church more like Joyce’s.  After a period of rejection and rebellion, I discovered a God of love and forgiveness.  (More accurately, God found me).  I ended up as a Christian writer, piping the tune of grace.  My brother, raised in the same environment, tossed faith aside.  He now attends what he calls an “atheist church”—a Sunday gathering of humanists who spend much time talking about and opposing a God they don’t believe in—and stocks his bookshelf with works by noted atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins.

     “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun,” concluded the Teacher of Ecclesiastes.  “Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning.  Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.”

     A friend of mine, a wise counselor, says that human behavior can be explained by three things: nature (or heredity), nurture (including family upbringing), and free will.  Which, he quickly admits, explains very little, for those ingredients combine in different ways in all of us.  Loving, supportive families sometimes produce wounded and rebellious children; harsh or dysfunctional families sometimes produce the opposite.  In between lies mystery—and God’s grace.

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Ecclesiastes 8:17b  —  No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun.  Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning.  Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14  —  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

Proverbs 13:24  —  If you refuse to discipline your son, it proves you don’t love him; for if you love him, you will be prompt to punish him. (Living Bible Translation)

Luke 15:21-24  —  (Jesus said), “The son said to him,‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’  So they began to celebrate.

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A PRAYER FOR THE FAMILY:

Almighty God, according to thy mercy relieve our distress and sorrow.  In thy goodness, spare us and our children.  Grant that in our homes we may keep and foster thy heavenly Word.  O thou who art good, kind, and bountiful, have compassion on us.  Grant us the necessities of daily life and keep our families securely in thy care, so that we may honor you forever and ever.  Amen.

–Philip Melancthon, reformer (1497-1560)

1622) First Be Reconciled

Retold from “The Deacon and My Uncle” by Glen Stone in Lutheran Forum magazine.

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     This story took place several decades ago in Denmark.  Glen Stone’s Uncle Soren was an outgoing, friendly, and jolly man, but not at all religious.  His neighbor was a deacon in the village church, and was in every way the opposite of Soren.  The deacon was a stern and harsh man, not friendly, and not likable at all.  But no one could doubt that he was deeply religious.

     Soren and the deacon were neighbors.  One day they got into a quarrel about the property line.  The argued frequently over it, speaking many unkind things to each other, and threatening legal action.  Finally, they quit talking to each other at all.

     This continued for many months.  Every Sunday, the sour faced deacon would trudge by Soren’s house on his way to church.  Every Sunday, Soren would sit at home, watching the deacon go by and laughing to himself about what a useless thing Christianity must be to produce such a crabby hypocrite.

     In Lutheran churches in Denmark at that time it was customary to go to communion only once a year, on Maundy Thursday.  On Wednesday evening of that week, the deacon came to Soren’s door, humbly asking if he could come in for a talk.  Soren couldn’t believe what he was seeing and stood there speechless for a moment.  Finally, with a bit of effort, he invited the deacon in and offered him a chair.

     The deacon told Soren that the next day there would be Holy Communion at the church, and it was his duty as a Christian and a deacon to faithfully receive the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The deacon went on to tell Soren that the Bible commands that if there is any trouble between you and your neighbor, you should first be reconciled before you come to the altar.  “Therefore,” said the deacon, “it would be against my conscience to go to Holy Communion with the hatred for you that I have in my heart.  So, I am here to tell you that you can have the property line as you claim it should be, and there will be no more trouble from me about it and no more bitterness in my heart toward you.”

     That brief word of reconciliation was all that was necessary.  The two men shook hands and were friends from that day on for the rest of their lives.  Not only that, but Soren said afterwards, “If that is what the Christian faith can do for a man, it is not to be ridiculed.”  True to his word, no more did Soren make fun of the church and all its hypocrites.  Rather, in time, he received Jesus as his Savior, joined the deacon’s church, and died a believing man.

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Matthew 5:21-22b…23-24  —  (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…  Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar.  First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

Mark 11:25  —  (Jesus said), “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Matthew 6:12  —  (Jesus said) “Forgive us as we forgive others.”

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Dear God, I have been wronged by my neighbor.  I did not deserve this of him.  But I must remember and consider how I stand with you.  Before you, I find a long account against me which convinces me that I have sinned a thousand times more against you, than my neighbor has done to me. Therefore, I must do as you say, by sincerely praying, “O Lord, forgive, and I will also forgive.”  Amen.     

–Martin Luther

1621) “I’ll Get By With a Little Help From My (Christian) Friends”

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Many in our society are worried about the negative impact of religion on society.  Recent appointees for government positions have been opposed because some senators worry about the influence of their “religious dogma” on their decisions.  One best-seller describes How Religion Poisons Everything (by Christopher Hitchens, 2007).  

But if your life was turned upside-down by Hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma you are not worried about, but grateful for the influence of ‘religious dogma’ on millions of people.  Once again, it is faith-based organizations that are providing most of the help in these areas devastated by storms– that’s right, not ‘some help,’ but most of the help, as described in this September 14, 2017 post at http://www.breakpoint.org (by John Stonestreet with Roberto Rivera).

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     “Florida Staggers Towards Long Recovery.”  That was among the headlines describing the impact Hurricane Irma had on the Sunshine State.

     Much of the same thing has been said about areas afflicted by Hurricane Harvey.  Though our national attention has been riveted on South Texas and Florida these past few weeks, soon the television crews will pack up and leave and will take our attention with them.

     So what will be left— or should we say, who will be left?  Only those who are committed to the long, difficult, and mostly anonymous work of helping and rebuilding.  In other words, people of faith.

     And not just a few.  The headline of a recent story in USA Today reads “Faith groups provide the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA.”

     The paper’s Washington correspondent, Paul Singer, begins by telling readers something they may not know:  “If you donate bottles of water, diapers, clothing or any other materials to hurricane victims in Texas or Florida, your donation will likely pass through the hands of the Seventh Day Adventists before it gets to a storm victim.”

     Who knew?  And Singer continues, “the Adventists, over several decades, have established a unique expertise in disaster ‘warehousing,’ collecting, logging, organizing and distributing relief supplies, in cooperation with government disaster response agencies.”

     As Singer tells readers, “In a disaster, churches don’t just hold bake sales to raise money or collect clothes to send to victims; faith-based organizations are integral partners in state and federal disaster relief efforts.  They have specific roles and a sophisticated communication and coordination network to make sure their efforts don’t overlap or get in each other’s way.”

     Singer went on to mention The Convoy of Hope and Samaritan’s Purse, while clarifying that these groups don’t “merely” supplement government relief efforts.  In many instances, they are the government response.  Not in the sense that their actions are directed by government but, instead, that government recognizes their integral role and seeks to facilitate their actions.

    Federal agencies such as FEMA and their state counterparts rely on these groups.  So much so that, as Singer tell us, FEMA ran interference for Samaritan’s Purse with other agencies such as U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

   And there’s a lot more where that came from.  According to the CEO of National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an umbrella group, “About 80% of all recovery happens because of non-profits, and the majority of them are faith-based.”

     Let the implications of that number sink in.  And yet, as I have told you several times, an increasing percentage of Americans— nearly half— think “that the government could replace religious organizations and the charitable services they offer with no problems and nothing lost.”

     To see just how wrong this is, we only need to look at South Texas and Florida.

     But just as important as the efforts offered by people of faith is the reason why they do what they do.   The answer of course is, if I may paraphrase Senator Diane Feinstein’s anti-religious questioning of a judicial nominee last week, that the “dogma lives loudly in them.”

     They believe deeply in God, and that people are made in His image.  That God has been very kind and generous to them, and asks of His people, if I might use the summary of all Christian dogma offered by Jesus Christ Himself, that they love God with all they have and love their neighbors as themselves.

     If such dogma were at the volume that Feinstein and others found more acceptable, i.e., only hearable in the privacy of our own thoughts and houses of worship, well, Florida’s road to recovery would be a lot longer.

     But thank God that His people are everywhere, and for their deeply held dogmas that drive them to offer their time, their money, their talent and their treasure to those in need around them.

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See also:

Houston After Harvey: ‘Please Don’t Forget About Us’
Samaritan’s Purse | September 13, 2017
 
Faith-Based Groups Step Up Big-Time for Hurricane Victims
Steffani Marie Jacobs | Lifezette.com | September 11, 2017
 
Convoy of Hope Responds to Hurricane Irma
Program update | Convoy of Hope
 
Christian Organizations Are Doing More for Hurricane Relief than FEMA
Chris Queen | PJMedia.com | September 11, 2017

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James 2:14-17  —  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?  Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Galatians 6:2  —  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

Hebrews 13:16  —  Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Matthew 10:8b  —  (Jesus said), “Freely you have received; freely give.”

Proverbs 3:27  —  Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.

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O Lord our heavenly Father, whose Son came not to be served but to serve: Bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others; that with wisdom, patience, and courage, they may minister in His name to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the love of him who laid down his life for us, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

1620) Is God Good? (b)

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     (…continued)  “We know that moral character gets formed through hardship, through overcoming obstacles, through enduring despite difficulties.  Courage, for example, would be impossible in a world without pain.  The apostle Paul testified to this refining quality of suffering when he wrote that ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’

     “Let’s face it:  we learn from the mistakes we make and the suffering they bring.  The universe is a soul-making machine, and part of that process is learning, maturing, and growing through difficult and challenging and painful experiences.  The point of our lives in this world isn’t comfort, but training and preparation for eternity.  Scripture tells us that even Jesus ‘learned obedience through suffering’ — and if that was true for him, why wouldn’t it be even more true for us?”

     Kreeft let the question hang in the air for a moment while his mental gears whirred.  Then he continued.  “Suppose we didn’t have any suffering at all,” he added.  “Suppose we had drugs for every pain, free entertainment, free love — everything but pain.  No Shakespeare, no Beethoven, no Boston Red Sox, no death — no meaning.  Impossibly spoiled little brats — that’s what we’d become.

     “It’s like that old Twilight Zone television show where a bank robber gets shot and wakes up walking on fluffy clouds at the golden gate of a celestial city.  A kindly white robed man offers him everything he wants.  But soon he’s bored with the gold, since everything’s free, and with the beautiful girls, who only even laugh when he tries to hurt them.

     “So he summons the ‘St. Peter’ figure.  ‘There must be some mistake,’ he says.  ‘No, we make no mistakes here,’ he is told.  ‘Can’t you send me back to earth?’ the man asks.  ‘Of course not, you’re dead,’ the man in white replies.  ‘Well, then,’ the former bank robber says, ‘I must belong with my friends in the Other Place; send me there.’  ‘Oh, no, we can’t do that– rules, you know.’ is the firm reply.   ‘What is this place, anyway?’ the man asks.   ‘This is the place where you get everything you want,’ he is told.  ‘But I thought I was supposed to like heaven,’ he says.   And the man in white says:  ‘Heaven?  Who said anything about heaven?  This is the Other Place.’  

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     “The point is that a world without suffering appears more like hell than heaven.”

     “Do you really believe that?” I asked.

     “Yes, I do.  In fact, if you don’t, then pretend you’re God and try to create a better world in your imagination.  Try to create utopia.  But you have to think through the consequences of everything you try to improve.  Every time you use force to prevent evil, you take away freedom.  To prevent all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose love.

     “You may end up creating a world of precision that an engineer might like — maybe.  But one thing’s for sure: you’ll lose the kind of world that a Father would want.”

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“Whatsoever is good for God’s children they shall have it, for all is theirs to further them to heaven.  Therefore, if poverty be good to serve that greater purpose, they shall have it; if disgrace be good, they shall have it; if crosses by good, they shall have them; if misery be good, they shall have it– for all is ours, to serve for our greatest good.”

–Richard Sibbes, Anglican theologian  (1577-1635)

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Genesis 1:31a  —   God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. 

Romans 5:1-5  —  Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

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Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

–Jesus, Matthew 6:10