1414) The Real Stars

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Ben Stein (1944- )

For several years Ben Stein wrote a biweekly column called “Monday Night at Morton’s.”  Morton’s is a famous chain of steakhouses known to be frequented by movie stars and famous people from around the world.  Ben Stein knew many of them and would write about his visits with them at Morton’s.  In July of 2004 Stein wrote his final ‘Morton’s’ column.  Today’s meditation is taken from that column. 


     I no longer think Hollywood stars are terribly important.  They are uniformly pleasant, friendly people, and they treat me better than I deserve to be treated.  But a man or woman who makes a huge wage for memorizing lines and reciting them in front of a camera is no longer my idea of a shining star we should all look up to.  How can a man or woman who makes an eight-figure wage and lives in insane luxury really be a star in today’s world, if by a “star” we mean someone bright and powerful and attractive as a role model?  Real stars are not riding around in the backs of limousines or in Porsches or getting trained in yoga and eating only raw fruit while they have Vietnamese girls do their nails.  They can be interesting, nice people, but they are not heroes to me any longer.

     A real star is the soldier of the 4th Infantry Division who poked his head into a hole on a farm near Tikrit, Iraq.  He could have been met by a bomb or a hail of AK-47 bullets.  Instead, he faced an abject Saddam Hussein and the gratitude of all of the decent people of the world.  A real star is the U.S. soldier who was sent to disarm a bomb next to a road north of Baghdad.  He approached it, and the bomb went off and killed him.  A real star, the kind who haunts my memory night and day, is the U.S. soldier in Baghdad who saw a little girl playing with a piece of unexploded ordinance on a street near where he was guarding a station.  He pushed her aside and threw himself on it just as it exploded.  He left a family desolate in California and a little girl alive in Baghdad.

     The stars who deserve media attention are not the ones who have lavish weddings on television, but the ones who patrol the streets of Mosul even after two of their buddies were murdered and their bodies battered and stripped for the sin of trying to protect Iraqis from terrorists.  We put couples with incomes of $100 million a year on the covers of our magazines.  The noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay but stand on guard in Afghanistan and Iraq and on ships and in submarines and near the Arctic Circle are anonymous as they live and die.  I am no longer comfortable being a part of the system that has such poor values, and I do not want to perpetuate those values by pretending that who is eating at Morton’s is a big subject.

     There are plenty of other stars in the American firmament.  The policemen and women who go off on patrol in South Central and have no idea if they will return alive.  The orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery.  The teachers and nurses who throw their whole spirits into caring for autistic children.  The kind men and women who work in hospices and in cancer wards.  Think of each and every fireman who was running up the stairs at the World Trade Center as the towers began to collapse.  Now you have my idea of a real hero.

      In my previous column, I told you a few of the rules I have learned to keep my sanity.  Well, here is a final one to help you keep your sanity and keep you in the running for stardom:  We are puny, insignificant creatures.  We are not responsible for the operation of the universe, and what happens to us is not terribly important.  God is real, not a fiction, and when we turn over our lives to Him, he takes far better care of us than we could ever do for ourselves.  In a word, we make ourselves sane when we fire ourselves as the directors of the movie of our lives and turn the power over to Him.

      I can put it another way.  Years ago, I realized I could never be as great an actor as Olivier or as good a comic as Steve Martin or as good an economist as Samuelson or Friedman or as good a writer as Fitzgerald.  Or even remotely close to any of them.

    But I could be a devoted father to my son, husband to my wife and, above all, a good son to the parents who had done so much for me.  This came to be my main task in life.  I did it moderately well with my son, pretty well with my wife, and well indeed with my parents (with my sister’s help).  I cared for and paid attention to them in their declining years.  I stayed with my father as he got sick, went into extremis and then into a coma, and then entered immortality with my sister and me reading him the Psalms.

     This was the only point at which my life touched the type of heroism of the soldiers in Iraq or the firefighters in New York.  I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters, and that it is my duty, in return for the lavish life God has devolved upon me, to help others He has placed in my path.  This is my highest and best use as a human.


There is the old story of the man stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world.  “Dear God,” he cried out, “look at all the suffering, the anguish, and the distress in your world.  Why don’t you send help?” God responded, “I did send help.  I sent you.”


Luke 22:24-27 — Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.  Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”

Acts 20:35 — In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said:  ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

I Peter 4:10 — Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.

Revelation 14:13 — Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write:  Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
     “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”


You are never tired, O Lord, of doing us good; let us never be weary of doing you service.  But as you have pleasure in the well-being of your servants, let us take pleasure in the service of our Lord, and abound in your work and in your love and praise evermore.  Amen.   –John Wesley

1413) Meditations of My Heart

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Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

–Psalm 19:14


     In his Daily Hope blog yesterday, Rick Warren suggested nine questions to help in our meditations while reading God’s Word.  Here are those questions, along with an example of a Bible verse that would apply to each one.  You may want to print these questions and put them with your Bible to use in your daily reading, and/or, to use with the verses in each day’s Emailmeditation.


  1. Is there a SIN to confess?  Does God’s Word make you aware of something you need to make right with God?

Proverbs 28:13  —  Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper, but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

  1. Is there a PROMISE to claim? There are more than 7,000 promises in God’s Word.  Ask yourself if the passage you’ve read contains any promises.

John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

  1. Is there an ATTITUDE to change?  Is there something about which you need to think differently?  Do you need to work on a negative attitude, worry, guilt, fear, loneliness, bitterness, pride, apathy, or ego?

Philippians 24-5  —  Don’t be concerned only about your own interests, but also be concerned about the interests of others.  Have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

  1. Is there a COMMAND to obey? Is there a command you need to obey, no matter how you feel?

Matthew 22:37-39  —  (Jesus said), “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and most important commandment.  The second is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

  1. Is there an EXAMPLE to follow? Are there positive examples to follow or negative examples to avoid?

James 5:10-11  —  Brothers and sisters, follow the example of the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. They were patient when they suffered unjustly.  We consider those who endure to be blessed. You have heard about Job’s endurance. You saw that the Lord ended Job’s suffering because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

  1. Is there a PRAYER to pray? Paul, David, Solomon, Elijah, and Isaiah, among others, pray in the Bible.  You can use their prayers and know that they’ll be answered because they’re in the Bible and in God’s will.

Luke 18:38  —  He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

  1. Is there an ERROR to avoid?  It’s wise to learn from experience, and it’s even wiser to learn from the experience of others.  We don’t have time to make all the mistakes ourselves.  So what can you learn from the mistakes of those in Scripture?

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

  1. Is there a TRUTH to believe? Often, we’ll read something in Scripture that we can’t do anything about.  We simply have to believe what it says.

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

  1. Is there SOMETHING for which to praise God?  You can always find something in a passage you can be grateful to God for, like something God has protected you from or something God has done.

Psalm 103:1-4  —  Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.  Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits; who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion.


Almighty, everlasting God, heavenly Father, whose Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our way:  Open and enlighten my mind that I may understand your Word purely, clearly, devoutly, and then, having understood it aright, fashion my life in accord with it, in order that I may never displease you; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our dear Lord.  Amen.  

–Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558)

1412) Nails in the Fence

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     There once was a little boy who had a bad temper.  His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.

     The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence.  Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down.  He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

     Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all.  He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper.  The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

     The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.  He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence.  The fence will never be the same.  When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one.  You can put a knife in a man and draw it out.  It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”

     The little boy then understood how powerful his words were.  He looked up at his father and said, “I hope you can forgive me father for the holes I put in you.”

     “Of course I can,” said the father.     –Author unknown

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Ephesians 4:26-27  —  In your anger do not sin.  Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.

Proverbs 29:22  —  An angry person stirs up conflict, and a hot-tempered person commits many sins .

James 1:19-20  —  My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.


Heavenly Father, I know that You examine my heart.  Search the inner depths of my heart and expose anything that is not pleasing to You, so that I can be set free.  I know that I have directed anger toward others and that I still have anger inside of me.  I confess this sin to you and ask you to forgive me and to take my anger away.  Heal any wounds that I have inflicted through my words and actions.  Help me to speak words of forgiveness and healing.  I pray in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

–Author unknown

1411) Gather the Fragments

     The same year Catherine Booth was dying of cancer in London (see yesterday’s meditation), Methodist pastor Edgar Helms (1863-1942) was beginning his ministry at Morgan Chapel in the slums of Boston’s South End.  Poor people often came to his church office looking for food and clothes.  They were literally starving and freezing, and he could not refuse them.  But he did not know what to do.  He could not take care of all the needs out of his small income; neither could his congregation, because most of them were poor themselves.

     Helms took the matter to the Lord in prayer, and he was reminded of the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000.  After everyone had eaten, Jesus sent the disciples out into the crowd saying, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing will be lost” (John 6:12).  “Gather the fragments” Helms kept saying to himself, and he thought about how all the people lived in the wealthier parts of town with all their extra clothes and food.  He knew what they had, because that is where he used to live. 

     Helms decided on a plan.  Every day he took a couple of gunny sacks and rode the streetcar out into the fancier parts of town.  There he would go door to door and tell people about the needy people at his door every day, and about what Jesus said to his disciples in John 6:12.  He found that most people had something they could give, and so each day he would get his sacks full and then take the streetcar back to his church.  There, he would spread the clothes and food out on tables in the auditorium and invite the people in to help themselves.

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     This, however, created another problem.  Helms was disappointed to see how the poor people acted, greedily grabbing all they could, pushing and shoving like wild animals.  He learned that for the sake of order and for self-respect, the poor needed to pay something for what they got.  And, if they had no money, Helms would put them to work to earn some.

     Donated items often needed to be refurbished before they could be sold, so women could mend clothes, men could fix furniture, and all could work at stocking and managing the growing inventory.  They were then paid (if there was not enough cash, they were given vouchers), and they could use what they earned to buy what they needed.  

     Thus began what is now known as Goodwill Industries.  Helms expanded his vision to stores throughout the United States, and then around the world.  Today, along with the distribution of used clothing, Goodwill provides disabled and socially disadvantaged people with employment, job training, job placement, and vocational evaluation and counseling.

     In one of his last letters before he died in 1942, Edgar Helms wrote: “I have often been referred to as the founder of Goodwill Industries.  This is not strictly true.  The originator of Goodwill Industries was Jesus, who spoke long ago on a Galilean hillside and commanded his disciples to ‘Gather up the fragments so that nothing will be lost.’”

     Edgar Helms died in Boston on December 23. 1942.  At his funeral, Bishop Oxnam spoke these words in his eulogy: “Helms was blessed with a fine mind, a great heart and a strong will.  His unusual business ability, passionate devotion, and physical strength enabled him to serve his fellow man, who were uninterested in charity, but yearned for a chance.”

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John 6:11-13  —  Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted.  He did the same with the fish.  When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing will be lost.”  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

James 2:15-17  —  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.

Matthew 25:40  —  (Jesus said), “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”


Almighty God, look upon those who are in need but cannot work, or who lack employment and search for it in vain; on those who struggle to meet exacting claims with inadequate resources; on all who move in insecurity attended by worry or despair.  Stand by them, O God in their deprivations and dilemmas, and guide them as they try to solve their problems; let them come to open doors of opportunity or refuge; and so quicken and extend the world’s concern for all those people that everyone maybe ensured a livelihood and safety from the bitterness of want, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Miles Lowell Yates (1890-1956) American Anglican clergyman

1410) A Match Made in Heaven

     Twenty-three year old Catherine Mumford was attracted to the new young minister of her church, Pastor William Booth; and he was attracted to her.  But Catherine was not so sure it would be a good match.  It was obvious to her from the young preacher’s sermons that he was not as well educated as she was, nor did he know his Bible as well as she did.  She had been sick often in her childhood and youth, and so she had spent almost all her life reading.  It was said that she read the Bible from cover to cover eight times before she was twelve years old.

     Catherine was therefore bound to be more educated than most people, and she knew she must not let that stand in the way of getting a husband, or she would never find one.  So she did agree to the young minister’s invitations to spend time together, and before long he asked her to marry him.  She said she wasn’t sure yet if it was God’s will, but she agreed to put it to a test.

     Catherine suggested using a method that the great John Wesley sometimes used (a method few would recommend).  They would set a Bible on a table on its spine and let it fall open; and then be guided by the first passage they would see.  They did that and the Bible fell open to Ezekiel 37, a chapter best known for its description of Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones.  At first it looked like the passage would not apply to the question of their marriage, but then their eyes were drawn to these words of the Lord in verse 19:  “The two shall be as one in my hand.” Though their method was an unreliable one, they believed that it was indeed God’s Word for them, and in 1855 they were married.

     They worked as a team in their ministry, with Catherine even beginning to do some of the preaching.  They later moved to London, and there started to work among the poor.  Her preaching and their unorthodox style of working with the poor of the city led to too many disagreements with the Methodist church headquarters.  They were  soon forced to go out on their own.

     Catherine’s intelligence and William’s energy made them a good team, and soon their work was expanding.  Others joined them, and before long they had several churches and their own new denomination.

     They began to call themselves the Salvation Army, and in a few decades their work expanded to all around the world.  Today yet they are among the most efficient and effective relief and service organizations anywhere.  

     And they became a team after their Bible just happen to fall open to a single verse through which God spoke to them.  God can sometimes use even our most questionable methods.

Catherine and William on their wedding day, June 16, 1855

William at Catherine’s (1829-1890) side as she was dying in 1890.  He lived another 22 years (1829-1912).


“The Salvation Army is by far the most effective organization in the United States.  No one even comes close is respect to clarity of mission, ability to innovate, measurable results, dedication, and putting money to maximum use.”

–Peter Drucker, Management expert and author, as quoted in Forbes Magazine.


Ezekiel 37:19b  —  “…They will become one in my hand.”

Psalm 37:23  —  The Lord makes firm the steps of the one who delights in him.

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


Show me your ways, Lord, teach 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.

–Psalm 25:4-5

1409) A Wooden Bowl for the Old Man

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By The Brothers Grimm (early 1800’s), from a story told as early as 1535

     There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the tablecloth or let it run out of his mouth.  His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather at last had to sit in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and not even enough of it.  And he used to look towards the table with his eyes full of tears.  Once, too, his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke.  The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing and only sighed.  Then they bought him a wooden bowl for a few half-pence, out of which he had to eat.

     They were once sitting thus when the little grandson of four years old began to gather together some bits of wood upon the ground.  “What are you doing there?” asked the father.  “I am making a little trough,” answered the child, “for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.”

     The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry.  Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.


Exodus 20:12  —  Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Isaiah 11:6  —  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Matthew 7;12  —  (Jesus said), “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 


Look with mercy, O God our Father, on all whose increasing years bring them weakness, distress or isolation.  Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give them understanding helpers, and the willingness to accept help; and, as their strength diminishes, increase their faith and their assurance of your love.  This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer

1408) Believing Too Little; Believing Too Much

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By Lutheran pastor C. Jack Eichhrost  (Fall 1987 LBI newsletter)

     Most of us have thought that believing too little might be a spiritual flaw, but believing too much can also be a problem.  How so?  Shouldn’t we have faith — and if a little faith is good, why not a lot more; in fact why not more and more and more?

     Actually, believing too little and believing too much may both be forms of unbelief.  Believing too little is the habit of the secularist, the one who lives without relating daily life to God’s action.  The secularist is inclined to live within a closed world of nature; he is content to give natural explanations for almost everything and does not believe in supernatural interventions.  For him, God does not do miracles, because in this world view, miracles are impossible.

     If the secularist is an example of believing too little, what would it look like to see someone believing too much?  Such a person is overly fascinated with miracles and the supernatural.  In the Bible God did indeed perform miracles; he did extraordinary signs and wonders.  But God also acted through ordinary ways.  Because miracles are possible does not mean they are God’s standard operating procedure.

     When God fed the Israelites with manna and quail he gave them a supernatural sign; yet he fed them other ways as well.  Was the food of other times any less a gift from God?  For a time, God fed Elijah in a miraculous way by having birds bring him bread and meat every morning and evening (I Kings 17:6).  But when Elijah had food on a daily basis by other means through the rest of his life, that too was a gift of God and should be seen as such by the eyes of faith.

     Those people who expect God to perform special miracles for them as God did for Elijah are guilty of over-belief.  It sounds like faith, but it is unbelief.  Such people want God acting in spectacular ways just for them.  To say such extraordinary action is impossible or that God used to act that way but now does not, would be wrong.  But to expect God to do miracles for you, is to ask for signs God does not guarantee.  Such an expectation is not what faith should be, because it is not according to what God has made known to us.  Over-belief is living and acting according to our designs for God.  It sounds spiritual, faith-filled, and good.  But it is a wrong belief.

     Under-believing and over-believing feed each other.  Over-believing people are always talking about God’s miracles, giving the impression that God always works that way for people who really believe.  Under-believing people react and are turned off.  They do not want to sound like that or make any claims about God lest they appear to be the same.  Over-believing people thus are encouraged all the more to talk about God in exaggerated ways because their counter-parts do not talk about God at all.  Thus, one reaction feeds the other.

     The early church struggled in a world of unbelief, but it also had to cope with over-belief.  When it was deciding what scriptures were true (for it did have to decide that question) it rejected stories which were falsely filled with the supernatural.  It rejected the story of Jesus stretching a board that his carpenter father had sawed too short.  It rejected the story of how he made birds of mud and then commanded his birds to fly away while his playmates settled for just mud.  Those were stories of unbelief and not of faith because they showed a people that believed too much, and kept adding to the story as it was retold.  But the church did include the feeding of five thousand and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus did perform miracles as signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in.

     Never yet have I been fed by ravens who carried food to my table, like Elijah.  But always I give thanks for food prepared by loving hands, first by my mother during those years of childhood and in these years by my wife.  That food I receive as coming through an order of nature, but is still from the hand of God.

     Believing too much about God can get us into problems as severe as believing too little.  Those who have believed too much and think they have God in their control, often become cynical when some great jolt shakes the foundations.  Then they crumble.  Those who believe too little are in danger of a God who is only the divine emergency squad to get them out of tight scrapes.

     Blessed are those who struggle to keep true faith, who see God’s hand in all that is good, who have hearts open to all miracles, but who believe in God only as he has made himself known.


Mark 8:11-12  —  The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus.  To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.  He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

John 20:29  —  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”


Lord, do with us as seems best in your own eyes; only give us, we ask, a humble and a patient spirit to wait expectantly for you.  Make our service acceptable to you while we live, and ourselves ready for you when we die; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship/Occasional Services (#467)

1407) I’m Not Perfect, You Know

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     In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  How are you doing with that?  In the piece that follows, Philip Yancey describes the efforts toward perfection made by some religious groups in American history.  Believing they could do away with sin and create Utopian communities of perfect peace and harmony, the leaders of these groups made a noble attempt to get everyone to keep all the rules, all the time.  It did not work.  Every one of them failed.  Are you surprised?  While Yancey sees no hope for such projects, he does admire the effort. 


By Philip Yancey in, A Guided Tour of the Bible, 1989, pages 657-658.

     A few years ago I attended a conference at a place called New Harmony, the restored site of a century old Utopian community.  As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of these ‘true believers,’ I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of the dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.

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Rockers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

     Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the Victorious Life movement, the Shakers, and the communes of the Jesus movement.  It struck me, though, that in recent times the urge to achieve perfection has nearly disappeared.  Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-Utopianism. The recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.

     I prefer this modern trend.  I find it much easier to believe in human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace.  Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians:  all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament.  The names they left behind tug at the heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.

     Yet most Utopian communities— like the one I was standing in— survive only as museums.  Perfectionism keeps running aground on the barrier reef of original sin.  High ideals paradoxically lead to despair and defeatism.  Despite all good efforts, human beings don’t achieve a state of sinlessness, and in the end they often blame themselves, a blame often encouraged by their leaders (“If it’s not working there must be something wrong with you”).

      Still, I admit that I sometimes feel a nostalgia, even longing, for the quest itself.  How can we uphold the ideal of holiness, the proper striving for life on the highest plane, while avoiding the consequences of disillusionment, pettiness, abuse of authority, spiritual pride, and exclusivism?

     Or, to ask the opposite question, how can we moderns who emphasize community support (never judgment), honesty, and introspection keep from aiming too low?   An individualistic society, America stands in constant danger of freedom abuse, and its churches are in danger of grace abuse.

     It was with these questions in mind that I read through the Epistles, charting the motives they appealed to.  I read them in a different order than usual.  First I read Galatians, with its magnificent charter of Christian liberty and its fiery pronouncements against petty legalism.  Next I turned to James, that “right strawy epistle” that stuck in Martin Luther’s throat (too much law and not enough grace for Luther).  I read Ephesians and then I Corinthians, Romans and then I Timothy, Colossians and then I Peter.  In every epistle, without exception, I found both messages:  the high ideals of holiness, and also the safety net of grace reminding us that salvation does not depend on our meeting those ideals.  I will not attempt to resolve the tension between grace and works because the New Testament does not.   We must not try to solve the contradiction by reducing the force of either grace or morality.

     Ephesians pulls the two strands neatly together: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8-10).  Philippians expresses the same dialectic: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13).  First Peter adds, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (2:16).

     I take some comfort in the fact that the church in the first century was already on a seesaw, sometimes tilting toward perfectionist legalism, and at other times toward raucous freedom.  James wrote to one extreme; Paul often addressed the other.  Each letter has a strong correcting emphasis; but all stress the dual message of the gospel.  The church should be both:  a people who strive toward holiness and yet relax in grace, a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves.


Grant me, O Lord, to fervently desire, wisely search out, and perfectly to fulfill all that is pleasing unto Thee.  Order my worldly condition to the glory of your name; and grant me the knowledge, desire, and ability to do what is required of me.  I pray that my path to Thee be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downward; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; and give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness to the end that may finally embrace Thee.  Amen.

–Thomas Aquinas  (1225-1274)

1406) Admiring Judas

Image result for don richardson peace child images

     I completed my seminary education in December of 1979 and was ready for my first congregation.  I was called to Christ Lutheran Church in Lignite, North Dakota.  Lignite is in the far northwest corner of that wind-blown, barren state.  On a windy, 30 degree below zero day in January, my wife and I and two small children moved into a crooked old parsonage that would be torn down a few years later.  I remember we felt a little bit sorry for ourselves way out there in the middle of nowhere.  But it turned out that the people were wonderful, and pretty soon we felt very much at home.

     Several years earlier, in 1962, Don Richardson began his ministry in a place even more remote than North Dakota.  Don was called to serve as a missionary to the Sawi tribe whose home was far up river from civilization, deep in the jungles of Dutch New Guinea.  The Sawis had not yet advanced beyond the Stone Age, and, they were cannibals and headhunters.  But still Don went there, taking along his wife Carol and their seven month old son.  The Sawis did not eat the Richardson family, but they did continue to make war on their neighboring enemy tribes, feasting on their slain foes and lining their huts with enemy skulls.

     Don and Carol worked hard to learn the complex language of the tribe, and they began to teach them about salvation in Christ Jesus.  There are always barriers to communicating the Gospel to cultures very different from one’s own, but the Sawi presented some particularly challenging problems.  For example, the Sawi culture placed a high value on treachery and deception.  It was a mark of distinction for a warrior to be able to deceive an enemy into thinking he was a friend, and then, when they least expected it, betray and kill and eat them.  So when the Sawi heard the story of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus they were impressed, especially by the part about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.  But it was Judas, not Jesus, who was their hero.  To them, Judas was a clever deceiver to be admired, and Jesus was a fool to be laughed at.

     It appeared this would be an impossible barrier to overcome.  But one day Richardson learned of the Sawi concept of the ‘Peace Child.’  Even the Sawis and their enemies would at times get tired of killing each other, and for those times they had a ritual for making peace.  War had broken out while the Richardsons were living with them, and after weeks of fighting, the Richardsons began to talk about leaving.  The missionaries had been helpful to the Sawis in many ways, and the Sawis did not want to see them go.  Thus motivated to stop the fighting, the chief of the Sawi tribe agreed to pay the traditional price for peace.  In a generations old ceremony, the chief took his own infant son and placed him in the arms his enemies.  The child would live with the enemy tribe for the rest of his life, and as long as he lived, there would be peace between the tribes.  The chiefs of other tribes then also did the same, giving up a Peace Child of their own to their enemies.

     Don wrote: “If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted.”  Through this analogy of Jesus being the ultimate Peace Child who will never die, Don was able to reach the Sawi with the truth of the gospel.  They came to believe that this God and this Jesus could be trusted.  Eventually the New Testament was published in their language, and many villagers placed their trust in Christ.

     Don Richardson wrote of his family’s work with the Sawi’s in a book called Peace Child.   The story has also been made into a 25 minute movie, which is a tremendous testimony to the transforming power of God’s grace.  You may view Peace Child here:



     In 2012, Don Richardson, then 77, and his three sons, returned to the tribe that he and his wife went to over 50 years before.  An incredible 15 minute film of this visit titled Never the Same can be viewed at:



An interview with Don Richardson:



Romans 5:10 —  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!

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

Acts 1:8  —  (Jesus said), “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”


Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us.  Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you.  In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.  (Lutheran Book of Worship, p.45)

1405) Reduced to Nothing

Image result for luther quotes created the world out of nothing images

By William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, January 31,1999, p. 19.

            It is a sad sight to see someone who seemed to be something reduced to nothing…

            When I first visited him, he was a successful businessman, with a fine home, a beautiful family, and three cars in the custom-built garage.  The last time I saw him, after the trial, he was peering at me through the bars of a state prison and he looked like a scared, helpless, little boy.  It is something to see someone who has been something reduced to nothing.  Something sad.

            Yet, when those who seemed to be something are reduced to nothing, it becomes possible for their lives to be reconstituted into a new something, some new reality outside of themselves and their devising.  Those who once sustained their lives on their own, by their accumulation of success, power, prestige, and glory, in their foolish nothingness, are now free to see a reality greater than themselves, namely, the wisdom of God, in Christ, which is now the word of the cross.  On the cross, Jesus committed his Spirit into the hands of his Father.  When you have been stripped, beaten down, and picked clean, there is nowhere else to go.

            And after the experience of the cross in our life pulls open, stirs up, demolishes our wisdom and power, we are free to encounter a different reality.

            I don’t know wherein your source of self-security lies; that thing on which you lean for support, that security which needs to be ripped from you and brought to nothing by the word of the cross.  Our world has many ways of denying the power of God in the cross and depending on our own power.  I’ve got my diplomas on the wall, my position at the university, my professional titles, my investments and my insurance policies; and you’ve got yours.  And I also know that life has many ways of stripping you down to nothing…

            I pulled up a chair close to her bed.  She was in great pain, flung down by a serious illness that had kept her in the hospital for weeks.

            “I keep asking myself,” she said, “Is this God’s will?  Is God trying to tell me something?”

            “Oh, no,” I said, “God didn’t will this; this isn’t some message from God.  It’s a virus.”

            “How can you be so sure, preacher?” she replied.  “I’m an awfully proud person.  It takes a lot to get my attention.  And think about it—after what God allowed to happen to his Son on that cross, who can be sure what God might do to get through to us?”


What greater motive could there be to a religious life than the vanity and the poorness of all worldly enjoyments?  What greater call could there be to look toward God than the pains, the sickness, the crosses, and the vexations of this life?  What miracles could more strongly appeal to our senses, or what message from heaven speak louder to us than the daily dying and departure of our fellow creatures?  The one thing needful and the great end of life need not be discovered by fine reasoning and deep reflections.  It is pressed upon us in the plainest manner by the experience of all our senses, by everything that we meet with in life.

–William Law (1686-1761), A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.


Sickness is the everyday, in-life experience of vulnerability, finitude, and death.  Sickness, at its worse, is a foretaste of what it is like to have the world go on without you, to be nothing.  Sickness is a reminder that life is fragile, limited, vulnerable– in short, terminal.  Sickness is a brush with death.

Roman Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 after a twelve year battle with lupus.  She once wrote in a letter:  “I have never been anywhere but sick.  In a sense, sickness is a place, more instructive than a long trip to Europe, and it’s always a place where there’s no company, where nobody can follow.  Sickness before death is a very appropriate thing, and I think those who don’t have it miss one of God’s mercies.”  —Habit of Being, page 163.

A petition from ‘The Great Litany’ in The Book of Common Prayer:

“From a sudden and unprepared death, Good Lord, deliver us.”


Psalm 31:5  —  Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

I Corinthians 1:18  —  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I Corinthians 1:27-29  —  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.


Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

–Jesus, Luke 23:46