747) Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust

 

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Funeral sermon for Albert, who died a few years ago at the age of 88.

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     Last evening at the funeral home I had the opportunity to meet several of you, and everyone I met was from a different state.  Welcome to Minnesota.  Grandson Ryan and I talked a bit about Garrison Keillor who has introduced our state to those who, like many of you, were not fortunate enough to have been born and raised here.  His writings, I have heard, have made many people wish they could be from Minnesota.  Keillor was for a long time my favorite writer of childhood memories– but not anymore.

     Now my favorite is Frank McCourt who grew up in Limerick, Ireland.  McCourt is a brilliant writer, winning the Pulitzer prize for his book Angela’s Ashes.  But I don’t think he makes anyone wish they had grown up in the lanes of Limerick.  He had a miserable childhood which he barely survived.  Half of his siblings died of disease or hunger in childhood, and so they did not live long enough to write hilarious stories about it.  But Frank did, and much of what he writes is just wonderful.  He writes well, he is funny, and his stories contain much wisdom.  Along with that, he is also at times way too crude and immoral for this old-fashioned preacher.  But I put up with that because he has such an incredible story to tell, and he tells it with such brilliance, wit, and humor.

      Frank McCourt has abandoned the Roman Catholic faith of his childhood, and so now as an old man, he approaches death not believing in the hope for the hereafter that the church proclaims.  This is what he says about that:  “My hereafter is here.  I am as far as I am going, for I am mulch.  It is my comfort to know that in my future mulch-hood I might nourish a row of parsnips.”  I don’t agree with McCourt on that, and I don’t see much comfort in it, but he is half right.  After all, in a little while when we go to the cemetery to lay Albert to rest, we will hear the words, ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust… Out of the dust you are taken and unto the dust you shall return.’

     That pleasant and cheerful face we looked upon this morning for the last time, those bright and sharp eyes now closed, those old wrinkled hands that worked so hard at so many different jobs, are now going back to the earth.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

     Near the end of Frank McCourt’s second book, he tells the story of the death of his mother Angela.  Frank was by that time the father of a daughter, and he describes the scene at the wake when the two of them approach the casket.  He writes: “Maggie kneels beside me, looking on her grandmother, the first dead body in her ten years.  She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, no prayer; and that’s another sadness.  She looks up at me and she says, ‘Where is grandma now, Dad?’”  Being the great writer that he is, McCourt has an excellent sense of timing, and so he did not choose that time to talk about mulch.  Rather, he said, “Well Maggie, if there is a heaven, she is there,” admitting in the book he was just babbling.

     Words have always been at the center of Frank McCourt’s life.  He was a quick-witted kid who talked himself out of many jams, he was a creative teacher in a tough high school, he was a stand-up comedian, and he has written three best-sellers.  But he admitted that did not have any words for his daughter at a time like that.

     As a pastor, my livelihood is also dependent on words.  At 3:30 this morning I was wide awake, thinking about the words I would say to you in this sermon.  I envy Frank McCourt for his skill at using the language.  Any preacher would love to be able to write and speak like he can, minus the vulgarity, of course.  But I can’t.

     However, I am fortunate to have something to fall back on, something else other than my own inadequate words.  You see, it isn’t only Frank McCourt that has no words for a time like this; none of us do.  ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust;’ there is not much any of us can do or say about that.

     But I do have other words to fall back on, words that make all the difference in the world.  Words like “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord;” and, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again;” and, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  Jesus said, “Trust me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms, and I go there to prepare a place for you, and I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also may be where I am.”  And, “Therefore we do not lose heart; though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is only temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  And finally, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Wonderful words of sure and certain promises.

     As a pastor, I am privileged to be able to be with people in the most important times of their lives.  I visited Albert several times in these last weeks, and then even in the last hours of his life.  I had no words of my own to give him, but I did have those words from God’s Word to read to him.

     A couple weeks ago, when Albert was still very much alert, he had a visit from the doctor that was not very encouraging.  I said, “Albert, you’ve bounced back many times, but it is not looking very good this time.  Are you ready for this to go either way?”

     “Yes,” he said, “I am ready.  I have had a good life, and I have no complaints.  But now I am tired.”  That was Albert– realistic, content, and ready to take life, or death, as it comes.

     My last visit with Albert was at the hospital the night before he died, and he was about as tired as a man could be and still be awake.  He knew I was there, he could hear what I was saying, and he could even respond with a very weak “Yes.”  It is a profoundly moving experience to be with a man in the last hours of his life like that.

     After reading some words from the Bible and praying the Lord’s prayer, I added one last prayer.  I prayed the old bedtime prayer for Albert who could no longer say the words:  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  I am sure that he fell asleep not long after that, and he did not wake up.  That is to say Albert did not wake up here, but as the prayer says, we believe that even if we die here, that is not the end.  “I pray the Lord my soul to take;” or as Jesus said, “I will come back for you and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.” Frank McCourt was only part right about the mulch. Our bodies do return to the earth.  But our soul goes to God and we will one day receive a new body.  Thanks be to God.

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–Book of Common Prayer

746) The Will of God

     The problem of evil has troubled people throughout the ages.  The quote above is how the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B. C.) put the question.  Why is there so much suffering in a world supposedly created and ruled by an all-powerful and all-loving God?  How can “this state of affairs be in accordance with God’s will?,” C. S. Lewis asked in his book Mere Christianity, adding “How can anything happen contrary to the will of a being with absolute power?”  Would not a loving God want to use his infinite power to put an end to all suffering?  The answer has to do with the fact that God has used his will to choose to give us a will of our own.  Lewis went on to say (paraphrased):

Anyone who has been in authority knows how a thing can be in accordance with your will in one way and not in another.  It may be quite sensible for a mother to say to the children, “I’m not going to go and make you clean your room every night.  You’ve got to learn to keep it tidy on your own.”  Then she goes up one night and finds the toys and the schoolbooks and the clothes lying all over the place.  That is against her will.  She would prefer the children to be tidy.  But on the other hand, it is her will which has left the children free to be untidy.  The same thing arises in any regiment, or trade union, or school.  You make a thing voluntary and then half of the people do not do it.  That is not what you willed, but your will has made it possible.

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Romans 1:18-22  —  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities– his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.  For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.

Romans 1:28-32  —  Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.  They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.  They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.  Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Joshua 24:15  —  (Joshua said), “If it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…  But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

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We beseech you, O Lord, to enlighten our minds and to strengthen our wills, that we may know what we ought to do, and be enabled to do it, through the grace of your Holy Spirit, in the name of your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

–William Bright  (1824-1901), British historian

745) Something To Be Afraid Of

From “Another Chance to Be Afraid– and Trust God,” By Rachel Pieh Jones, April 13, 2015, at:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2015/april/another-chance-to-be-afraid-and-trust-god.html

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Another Chance to Be Afraid—and Trust God

Kenyans gathered to remember those who were killed in the Garissa University College attack.

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     On this past Maundy Thursday, students at a university in Garissa, Kenya gathered to pray before class.  Others crammed for exams or finished dressing for the day or scarfed down breakfast.  While they went about the spiritual and the mundane, gunman murdered two guards at the entrance to the school then headed for the chapel.

     After separating Muslim students, the gunman forced the Christians to the ground and shot them in the back of their heads.  During the attack, one Christian student hid in her closet and stayed there for two days.  She ate hand lotion to stay hydrated in this hot, dusty rural region of northern Kenya.  Another student was later pulled, alive, from beneath a pile of her dead peers, the image gruesomely reminiscent of survivor stories from Rwanda.  148 dead.

     The attackers were members of al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based Muslim militant group.  In Garissa, the majority of their victims were Kenyan, but inside their home country, Somalis themselves have suffered violence, brutality, and death at the hands of al-Shabaab.

     I felt sick and angry.  I felt the fringes of a grief and the cold, now familiar prickle of fear.  I don’t live in Kenya or Somalia, but I used to.  My teenage twins currently attend a boarding school in Kenya, while I live in Djibouti, a small country bordering Somalia, currently swelling with refugees from the violence in Yemen.  I am from Minneapolis, home to one of the largest populations of diaspora Somalis in the world.

     Anything related to Kenya or Somalia hits close to home.  Just a week earlier my teens’ school experienced an emergency security lockdown.  It was a false alarm, but it might not always be a false alarm.  There it is again, fear.

     After the Westgate shopping mall attack in Kenya in 2013, I can barely go to the grocery store without wondering if this is when I die, while buying apples and Corn Flakes.  After a suicide bomb in downtown Djibouti in last year, I can’t eat at the gelato shop without the flashing question, Is this where I die?, with a pink plastic spoon of coffee-flavored gelato in my mouth.

     Jesus’ command, “Do not be afraid,” is one of the hardest for me to obey.  I find great comfort in Psalm 56:3, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.”  David didn’t say, “I put my trust in you and never felt afraid again.”  He didn’t say, “I never feel afraid because my trust in you is so perfect.”  He didn’t deny his fear or ignore it.  He faced it, called it fear, and turned back to trust in God.

     I fear a lot of things.  Malaria.  Loneliness.  Physical pain.  I can’t sleep the nights my kids are flying between Djibouti and Kenya for school.  Easter Sunday after the Garissa attacks I noticed that our church hadn’t placed any armed guards outside like they often do on holidays.  During the service, my body was tense and my eyes constantly flicked to the doorway.

     If forced to choose between “brave” and “coward” to describe myself, I have to say coward.  I am the woman cowering behind Jesus, clinging to the edges of his robes, trembling.  I’m the one saying, “I want to be with you.  I want to go with you.  But are you sure you want to go there?  You really want to do that?

     Still, I love this brave Jesus that I’m following.  I love the sharp rebuke to the leaders who wanted to stone an adulterous woman, the serenity that slept through the storm, the face set resolutely toward Jerusalem, the desperate and submissive plea in Gethsemane.  I love the hope of resurrection.

     I would rather go with this Jesus into my fear than be left behind, safe and on my own.  And right there, I see all the motivation I need to cling to him:  ‘Safe’ is an illusion, and my lust for it can do nothing to guarantee it.  When the disease comes, when the plane crashes, when bombs burst, when loved ones grow old, right there in the middle of brokenness, fear, and the utter destruction of any illusion of safety, I need Jesus.  This need doesn’t cancel out my fears.  It teaches me trust.  And the way God teaches me trust comes in unexpected ways.

     Days after the Garissa attack, the cashier at the grocery story asked about my kids in school in Kenya, worried after watching the news.  She is a Djiboutian Muslim with family from Somalia.  Her thoughtfulness almost made me cry.  My kids were safe, they weren’t anywhere near Garissa, but the fear was real, the ‘what-ifs’ hovering.

     When I concentrate on what I’m afraid of, it inhibits my relationship and impedes worship.  But her concern at that moment counteracted the weight of my fear.  Her words were a gift from God, helping me take my eyes off my fear and instead focus on this friendship.  It may not take away my fear, but it helps me to pray more fervently with David, “When I am afraid, I will put my trust in you.”

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Psalm 56:3-4  —  When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.  In God, whose word I praise– in God I trust and am not afraid.  What can mere mortals do to me?

Matthew 10:28  —  (Jesus said), “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

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.”

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Psalm 23:4:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

744) A Few Good Prayers

Steer the ship of my life, good Lord, to your quiet harbor, where I can be safe from the storms of sin and conflict.  Show me the course I should take.  Renew in me the gift of discernment, so that I can always see the right direction in which I should go.  And give me the strength and the courage to choose the right course, even when the sea is rough and the waves are high, knowing that through enduring hardship and danger in your name we shall find comfort and peace.  Amen.

O Lord and Master, I am unworthy of both heaven and earth, because I have surrendered myself to sin, and become the slave of worldly pleasures.  Yet, since you created me, and since you can shape me as you want, I do not despair of salvation; but made bold by your compassionate love, I come before you.  Receive me, dear Lord, as you received the harlot, the thief, the tax collector, and even the prodigal son.  Lift from me the heavy burden of sin.  Amen.

–Basil of Caesarea, Greek Bishop  (330-379)

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EVENING PRAYER:

Now that the sun has set,

I sit and rest and think of you, Lord.

Give my weary body peace.

Let my legs and arms stop aching, 

Let my nose stop sneeezing,

Let my head stop thinking.

Let me rest in your arms.

DYING PRAYER:

There are men who hate me; let me love them.

There are men I have wronged; let them forgive me.

–Dinka people, South Sudan, Africa

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GOING TO BED PRAYER:

As my head rests on my pillow, let me soul rest in your mercy.

As my limbs relax on my mattress, let my soul relax in your peace.

As my body finds warmth beneath the blankets, let my soul find warmth in your love.

As my mind is filled with dreams, let my soul be filled with visions of heaven.

–Johann Freylinghausen, German theologian  (1670-1739)

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Heavenly Father, after the turbulence of the day, thank you for sending the peacefulness of the night.  Let me not dwell on the disagreeable scenes of the day.  Let me not rehearse the injustices, bitterness, hard words, or coarse actions.  Being mindful of your infinite patience with us, and goodness, we pray that you help us never to harbor a drop of hatred, or resentment, or bitterness against anyone.  Fill us with your mercy.

–Helder Camara, Brazilian archbishop  (1909-1999)

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Shepherds search for their lost sheep, but for their own profit.  Men seek their lost property, but out of self-interest.  Politicians visit foreign countries, but only out of political calculation.  But why have you searched for me, O Lord?  Why have you sought me out?  Why have you visited this hostile world where I live?  Why have you ransomed me with your blood?  I am not worthy of such effort.  Indeed, in my sin I have willfully tried to escape from you, so you would not find me.  I have wanted to become a god unto myself, deciding for myself what is good and bad according to my own whims and lusts.  I have provoked you and insulted you.  Why do you bother with me?

–Tychon of Zadonsk, Russian peasant monk  (1724-1783)

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Psalm 26:1-7:

In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.

I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame,
    nor let my enemies triumph over me.
No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame,
but shame will come on those who are treacherous without cause.

Show me your ways, Lordteach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.
Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways;
according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good.

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Acts 22:10a:

 What am I to do, Lord?

743) Wisdom from Blaise Pascal

In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.

There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.

Kind words do not cost much.  Yet they accomplish much.

Noble deeds that are concealed are the most esteemed.

Do you wish people to think well of you? Don’t speak well of yourself.

Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.

The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.

It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason.  That is what faith is:  God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.

It is not good to be too free.  It is not good to have everything one wants.

Time heals griefs and quarrels, for we change and are no longer the same persons.  Neither the offender nor the offended are any more themselves.

The only shame is to have none.

Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see.  It is above them and not contrary to them.

The sensitivity of men to small matters, and their indifference to great ones, indicates a strange inversion.

Between us and heaven or hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world.

Men despise religion.  They hate it and are afraid it may be true.

The knowledge of God is very far from the love of him.

All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.

The last act is bloody, however pleasant all the rest of the play is:  a little earth is thrown at last upon our head, and that is the end forever.

As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all.

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Psalm 111:10a  —  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

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

Proverbs 3:13  —  Blessed are those who find wisdom, and who gain understanding.

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

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Oh Lord, You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

–Psalm 51:6

742) Meditation on the Good Use of Sickness

By Blaise Pascal  (1663-1662)  (Adapted)

     Lord, you are good and gentle in all your ways; and your mercy is so great that not only the blessings but also the misfortunes of your people are channels of your compassion.  Grant that I may turn to you as a Father in my present condition, since the change in my own state from health to sickness brings no change to you.  You are always the same, and you are my loving Father in times of trouble and in times of joy alike.

     You gave me health that I might serve you; and so often I failed to use my good health in your service.  Now you send me sickness in order to correct me.  I pray that I may not use this sickness to irritate you by impatience.  I made bad use of my health, and you have justly punished me for it; O, that I may not make bad use of my punishment.  In my sinfulness, your favors to me became snares to my spiritual life; grant, O Lord, that your chastisements may be beneficial to my spirit.  My health was full of pride and selfish ambition when I was well.  Now please let sickness destroy that pride and ambition.  Render me incapable of enjoying any worldly pleasures, if that is what is necessary for me to learn to depend on you alone.  Grant that I may learn to trust in you, now in the lonely silence of my sick bed.  Grant that, having ignored the things of the spirit when my body was vigorous, I may now enjoy spiritual blessings while my body groans with pain.

     How happy is the heart, O God, that can love you and find its peace in you.  How secure and durable is the happiness that is found in you since you endure forever.  Neither life nor death can separate such happiness from its source.  Move my heart, O God, to repentance for all my faults, and for all the many times I looked elsewhere for fulfillment and hope.  Let this disorder in my body be the means by which my soul is put in order.  I can now find no happiness in physical things; let me find happiness only in you.

     You can see me, Lord, as I truly am; and surely you can find nothing pleasing.  I can see in myself, Lord, nothing but my sufferings.  Yet I find comfort in the knowledge that, in a small way, my sufferings resemble your sufferings.  You became a man and suffered in order to save all people.  In your own body you embraced all bodily suffering.  Look down, Lord, on the pains that I suffer, and on this illness that afflicts me.  Let my sorrows become my invitation to you to visit me.  

     Uproot in me, Lord, the self-pity on which self-love feeds.  Let me not dwell with self-pity on my own sufferings.  Let me not regret the loss of worldly pleasures, but remind me that such pleasures can never satisfy my heart.  Let me henceforth ask for neither health nor life, but rather let me be content with your will for me.  Let health and sickness, life and death, be equal in my sight.  Let me joyfully acknowledge you as king, able to give or take away your blessings as you wish.  Let me trust in your eternal providence, receiving with equal reverence all that comes to me from you.

      And finally, as I share in your sufferings, let me one day share in the joy of your risen life.

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Death mask of Blaise Pascal.

Pascal, a mathematical genius and inventor, died at the age of 39, suffering from many ailments.  His last words were, “May God never abandon me.”

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Romans 5:1-5  —  Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

1 Peter 4:12-13  —  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.

Philippians 4:11b-12  —  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.

741) If We Say We Have No Sin…

A modern way of dealing with guilt:

JOLLY OLD SIGMUND FREUD  By Anna Russel

I went to my psychiatrist to be psychoanalyzed
To find out why I killed the cat and blacked my husband’s eyes.
He laid me on a downy couch to see what he could find
And here’s what he dredged up from my subconscious mind.

When I was one, my mommy hid my dolly in a trunk,
And so it follows naturally that I am always drunk.
When I was two, I saw my father kiss the maid one day,
And that is why I suffer now from kleptomania.

At three I had the feeling of ambivalence toward my brothers
And so it follows naturally I poison all my lovers.
But I am happy now I’ve learned a lesson this has taught
That everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.

Refrain:
Hey, libido,
Bats in the belfry,
Jolly Old Sigmund Freud.

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The Biblical way of dealing with guilt:

I John 1:8-10  —   If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

I Corinthians 15:3-4  —  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.

Acts 10:43  —  All the prophets testify about him (Jesus) that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Psalm 51:1-4…7-12…15-17  —  

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict and justified when you judge…

Cleanse me, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity.

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

Open my lips, Lord, and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.

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

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Forgive me my sins, O Lord; the sins of my present and the sins of my past, the sins of my soul and the sins of my body, the sins which I have done to please myself and the sins which I have done to please others.  Forgive me my casual sins and my deliberate sins, and those which I have tried to hide so that I have even hidden them from myself.  Forgive me them, O Lord, forgive them all.  For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

–Bishop Thomas Wilson  (1663-1755)

740) Whatever Works– Right?

     What if God’s commandments are not just arbitrary rules from which we can pick and choose as we, in our infinite wisdom, think best?  What if God’s Law really is the key to how life is best lived?  What if the traditional family really does work best?  But it is science, and not the Bible anymore, to which many people look for answers today.  So what does the scientific evidence reveal?  (Adapted from “More Evidence for the Traditional Family,” by John Stonestreet, January 29, 2015, at:  www.breakpoint.org )

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     When I was growing up, no one ever asked what a “family” was.  It was assumed that everyone knew the answer.  But things have changed, and changed fast.  Dennis Prager summed it up well when he said, “In one generation we’ve gone from ‘father knows best’ to ‘father doesn’t matter.’”  Christians and other traditionalists on this issue will say a family consists of a married man and woman and any kids who come along.  Others will say that definition is too restrictive, that a family can be an unmarried man and woman, or a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.  Others wonder why we restrict the family unit to two adults at all and advocate a kind of model known as polyamory.

     “Who are you,” they pointedly ask us, “to tell people who they can love?”

     In the old days, we could point to the Bible as well as the thousands of years of history to support our answer.  But what do we do when people either reject the witness of Scripture and history, or willfully change its clear message?

     Well, there is yet another source of authority that most of our neighbors still respect.  It’s called “science.”  And while empirical data are limited in what they can tell us about moral questions such as what makes a marriage, they can tell us a lot about what works in the real world.

     And that’s why the findings of Mexican sociologist Fernando Pliego are so interesting.  Pliego, a researcher at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, looked at 351 academic studies in thirteen countries on five continents.

     According to one summary of Pliego’s research, “The members of traditional families enjoy better physical health, less mental illness, higher incomes, and steadier employment.  They and their children live in better housing, enjoy more loving and cooperative relationships, and report less physical or sexual violence.”

     It goes on:  “Moreover, when the bonds between parents and children are more positive, drug, alcohol and tobacco use is lower, children are better socialized and cooperative, they commit fewer crimes, and they perform better in school.”

     Now this would be old news to Chuck Colson, of course, who worked in prisons for thirty-four years with Prison Fellowship.  In fact, every person I’ve ever talked with who works in prison points to the devastation wrought when young men don’t have a father at home.  Chuck once said, “Every time I set a foot inside a prison, I see the results of splintered families.  So many of the prisoners I talk to tell me about growing up without dad.”  Intact families matter.

     “Professor Pliego,” according to an English-language summary of his work, “found that 89.4 percent of the studies concluded that intact families produced a higher level of well-being than other family types.  Only one in ten claimed that all family structures produced similar outcomes.  And only a negligible fraction of the studies—around 1 percent—claimed that other ‘family’ structures produced a better outcome.”

     So based on a huge sampling of the social science data, it is fair to say that the family as defined by Scripture has been proven to be best, if we judge it by its effects on the people involved, based on the many measures of social well-being…

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Matthew 19:3-6  —  Some Pharisees came to him to test Jesus.  They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”  “Haven’t you read,” Jesus replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Exodus 20:14  —   You shall not commit adultery.

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PRAYER FOR ONE IN A TROUBLED MARRIAGE:
Heavenly Father, I come before you today with a heavy heart.  My marriage is in trouble, and I need your help.  Make changes in my heart and in my spouse’s heart.  Make us compatible again, and bring us closer together.  Fill us with your love and give us the strength to love one another, care for one another, and fulfill your destiny for us.  Show us the harm caused by careless words, and the pain caused by emotional distance.  Bring us together, like we once were.  Show us how to love one another again.  Heal the division between us.  Make us one again.  In Jesus’ name I pray.  Amen.  –Source lost

739) Longing to Be Free

 From The Strong-willed Child, by Dr. James Dobson, 1978, pages 181-182.

     My daughter has a pet hamster (uncreatively named ‘Hammy’) who has a passion for freedom.  He spends a portion of every night gnawing on the metal bars of his cage and forcing his head through the trap door.  Recently I sat watching Hammy busily trying to escape.  But I was not the only one observing the furry little creature.  Sitting in the shadows a few feet away was old Sigmund, our dog.  His erect ears, squinted eyes, and panting tongue betrayed his sinister thoughts.  Sigmund was thinking, “Come on, Hammy, break through to freedom!  Bite those bars and get away, and I’ll give you a thrill like you’ve never experienced.”

     How interesting, I thought, that the hamster’s greatest desire would bring him instant and violent death if he should be so unfortunate to achieve it.  Hammy simply lacked the perspective to realize the folly of his wishes.  The application to human experience was too striking to be missed and I shook my head silently as the animal drama spoke to me.  There are occasions when the longings and desires of our children would be harmful or disastrous if granted.  They would choose midnight bedtime hours and no schoolwork and endless cartoons on television and chocolate sundaes by the dozen.  And in later years, they might not see the harm of drug abuse and premarital sex and a life of uninterrupted fun and games.  Like Hammy, they lack the perspective to observe the dangers which lurk in the shadows.  Alas, many young people are ‘devoured’ before they even know that they have made a fatal mistake.

     Then my thoughts meandered a bit farther, to my own relationship with God and the requests I submit to Him in personal prayer.  I wondered how many times I had asked Him to open the door on my ‘cage,’ not appreciating the security it was providing.  I resolved to accept His negative answers with greater submission in the future.

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Psalm 119:44-45  —  I will always obey your law, for ever and ever.  I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.

Galatians 5:13  —  You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

II Peter 2:19  —  They promise them freedom, while they themselves are slaves of depravity; for “people are slaves to whatever has mastered them.”

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Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wandering from the throne of God
He to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let that grace now, like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, 1758, Robert Robertson

738) C. S. Lewis on Happiness and Comfort and Security

     What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods”—could set up on their own as if they had created themselves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God.  And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

     God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.  There is no such thing.

–Mere Christianity

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     God is the only comfort.  He is also the supreme terror:  the thing we most need and the thing we most want to hide from.  He is our only possible ally, and we have made ourselves His enemies.  Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun.  They need to think again.  They are still only playing with religion.  Goodness is either the great safety or the great danger—according to the way you react to it.  And we have reacted the wrong way…  

     Of course, I quite agree that the Christian religion is, in the long run, a thing of unspeakable comfort.  But it does not begin in comfort; it begins in the dismay I have been describing, and it is no use at all trying to go on to that comfort without first going through that dismay.  In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it.  If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end:  if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth—only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.

Mere Christianity

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     I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.  I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.  If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.  –C. S. Lewis  (He believed in Christianity not because it made him happy, but because he believed it was true.)

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     It is a dreadful truth that the state of  ‘having to depend solely on God’ is what we all dread most.  And of course that just shows how very much, how almost exclusively, we have been depending on things.  That trouble goes so far back in our lives and is now so deeply ingrained, we will not turn to Him as long as He leaves us anything else to turn to.  I suppose all one can say is that it was bound to come.  In the hour of death and the day of judgement, what else shall we have?  Perhaps when those moments come, they will feel happiest who have been forced (however unwillingly) to begin practicing it here on earth.  It is good of Him to force us: but dear me, how hard to feel that it is good at the time.

–From a letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, December 6, 1955

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Genesis 3:1-4  —  Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”  The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman, “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

John 8:31, 32  —   To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

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