775) I Wish…

      Brad was a young man just out of college, looking for work.  He lived in a dumpy little apartment in a bad part of town, but he did not plan to be there very long.  As soon as he found a good job and had some money, he’d be out of there.  He was talented, his prospects were very good, and he knew that he would only go up from there.  In the apartment next door to Brad lived Frank, a guy not much older than Brad.  But while Brad was on his way up in life, Frank was on his way down.  A variety of health problems had prevented Frank from getting good, steady work, and the jobs he did get hardly paid for his rent and food.  Getting a car was out of the question, and that made it even more difficult to get a good job.  And his health was getting worse, not better.  Frank did not have much to look forward to.  It looked like he would be stuck in that dumpy apartment forever.

     One day Brad saw Frank pull up in a brand new car.  When he got out, Frank told Brad he was moving out.  He had a brand new house on a lake out in the suburbs waiting for him.  He was back to load up a few things, and the rest of the junk would go into the dumpster.  His new place was fully furnished.

     “What happened?” asked Brad.  “Last month you had to borrow money from me to pay the rent, and all of a sudden you are living like a millionaire.  Did you win the lottery?”

     “No,” said Frank, “I could never afford lottery tickets.”

     “How can you afford this?,” asked an astonished Brad.

     “I can’t,” Frank said, “but my brother is doing all this for me.”

     “Your brother?” said Brad, “I didn’t even know you had a brother.”

     “I hadn’t seen him for a long time,” Frank said.  “He’s much older than I am, so we were never close, and we lost touch after our parents died.  But just last week, out of the blue, he called me.  When he found out about my troubles, he said he wanted to help.  I guess he made big money in some computer business, and he can afford to do all this for me.  I can hardly believe my good fortune.”

     “Wow,” said Brad, “I wish I …..”

     I wish I what?  How do you think Brad finished that sentence?  What did he wish for?  What would you be wishing for in that situation?  Most people would probably answer that in the same way I answered it when I first read this story and was imagining how it would go.  The obvious answer is “I wish I HAD A BROTHER LIKE THAT.”  What a brother!  Wouldn’t it be great to have a brother like that who would be able to give you whatever you’d ever need or want?

     But that isn’t what Brad said in this true story.  What he said was, “I wish I COULD BE a brother like that.”  And he did not mean that in the sense of being rich like the brother and having all that money to spend on himself.  He meant it in the sense of I wish I would be able to help someone out like that.

     That reply reflects a completely different approach.  His first thought was not how such an arrangement might benefit himself:  “If I could only have such a brother.”  His first thought is what he might do for someone else, if only wishes could come true.  You see, Brad also had a brother who was in need, and Brad felt bad that he could not help him, being barely able to take care of himself at the time.  He was hoping that he would be able to help him someday.

     Who do you identify with in the story?  Perhaps you feel like Frank at the beginning of the story– down and out and going nowhere, barely surviving, and needing a helping hand.  Or maybe you feel like Brad, only able to take care of yourself right now, but hoping someday to be doing better, and then willing to be generous with what you have.  Or, perhaps you are like Frank’s brother who hit it big and could now afford to be very generous?

     Actually, if you look at the big picture, most of us are, most of all, like Frank’s wealthy brother.  When Brad saw Frank pull up with the new car, Brad asked him if he had won the lottery.  But think about it.  Just by being born in this country we are all, already, the winners in life’s lottery.  I once heard that even if you are living at the United States government designated poverty level, you are still living better than 89% of the rest of the people in the world.  By living in this country and in this century, we enjoy comforts and conveniences that not even kings and presidents enjoyed less than a hundred years ago.  We are like Frank’s older brother.  That is who most of us are in the story.

     Everything we are and have is from God.  Most of us have been so richly blessed that we can afford to be generous.  Will you use what the Lord has given you in such a way that you will one day hear the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:21, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”?

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Matthew 25:21  —  (Jesus said), ““His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!’”

Luke 3:10-11  —   “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

I Peter 4:10  —  Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.

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 Almighty God, judge of us all, you have placed in our hands the wealth we call our own.  Give us such wisdom by your Spirit that our possessions may not be a curse in our lives, but an instrument for blessing.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship (91)

Image result for generosity quotes

774) Memorial Day Meditation

By Charles Colson for Breakpoint; aired 5-28-10 (www.breakpoint.org)

     Memorial Day is when we honor the men and women of our Armed Services who have made ‘the supreme sacrifice,’ giving their lives for their country.  Especially these days, when Memorial Day seems nothing more than a time for cookouts and swim parties, we cannot be reminded often enough about how great a debt we owe our war dead.  They gave up their hopes and dreams, families and friends.  They submitted themselves to rigorous discipline– something I understand as a former Marine– 24-hour a day duty, and placed their lives in great peril.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  Their sacrifice should inspire in us a profound sense of gratitude– gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy, bought with a price.  And that gratitude should compel us to lives of service as well; serving Christ, our neighbor, and yes, our nation.

     I can’t help but recall the ending of the brilliant film Saving Private Ryan (1998).  James Ryan, now in his seventies, has returned with his family to the military cemetery in Normandy.  He visits the grave of Captain John Miller, the man who a half a century before, led the mission to retrieve– to save– Private Ryan.  At the end of the mission, Miller was fatally wounded.  As he lay dying, his final words to Private Ryan were, “James, earn this.  Live a good life.  Earn this.”  In other words, men have died for you, now live a life worthy of such a sacrifice.

     We then see Ryan kneeling at Captain Miller’s grave, marked by a cross.  Ryan, his voice trembling with emotion, says, “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge.  I tried to live my life the best that I could.  I hope that was enough.  I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.”

     Red-eyed, Ryan turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life… tell me I am a good man.”

     With great dignity, she says, “You are.”

     With that, James Ryan salutes the grave of Captain Miller.  You see, Private Ryan, out of gratitude for Captain Miller’s sacrifice, did all in his power to live a good life.

     And Memorial Day is a great time for each of us to look into the mirror… to examine our own lives. Columnist George Will called the film “a summons to gratitude.”  Are we living good lives in gratitude for all those who have sacrificed for us– including our men and women in the military, our families, our friends, and most of all Christ?  Are we, like Ryan, kneeling before the cross?  Spielberg, a master cinematographer, had to realize the power of this imagery.  Are we, out of gratitude, doing our duty for Christ in whatever field to which the Lord has called us?

     Examine your life.  And this Memorial Day, at the very least, thank those who have sacrificed for you and those you know who have served in our nation’s armed forces.  Maybe you’ll do what I do when you see someone in uniform… at the airport, at the store, wherever… walk up to them and thank them for their service.  

     And then go and remember Whom it is you serve.

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John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Joshua 24:14-15 — (Joshua said), “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.  Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

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A prayer for soldiers and sailors from an old Army and Navy Service Book:

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

773) The Tower of Babel and Pentecost

The Confusion of Tongues, Gustav Gore, 1865

Genesis 11:1-9  —  Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  They said to each other, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building.  The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.  That is why it was called Babel–because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.  From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

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     The curse of Genesis 11 is reversed in Acts 2.  Jerusalem in the first century was an international city, a crossroads at the center-point of three continents:  Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Merchants and traders were always passing through, and the city was always filled with a wide variety of people.  It was also the center of Jewish life and worship.  The Jews by this time had spread all over the world, but would often make pilgrimages, returning to the Holy City.

     One the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), there were people from all over the known world in Jerusalem–  from Libya to Arabia, from Rome to Asia, from Egypt to Judea.  None of them were worshiping in the temple with the Christians, but they all heard the sound like a violent wind.  And “they were all utterly amazed, because each one heard them speaking in their own language.”  “Are these not Galileans?” they asked, “So how is it that we all can understand whatever they are saying? ‘  It was a complete reversal of what happened at the tower of Babel.

Pentecost, from the JESUS MAFA collection of 63 paintings (1970’s) depicting New Testament stories as if they had taken place in a village in Cameroon

Acts 2:1-9  —  When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.  Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.  They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.  Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.  Utterly amazed, they asked:  “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?  Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?  Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontusand Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”  Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

     That was only the beginning.  What happened miraculously on Pentecost day became the task and the challenge of the Christian church ever since.  Jesus had told his own disciples to go and make disciples of all nations, and Pentecost showed them how to do it.  The great commission was to be fulfilled and obeyed by bringing to all people the Gospel in their own language.

      This has not been the emphasis in any of the other major religions of the world.  For example, the holy book of Islam is the Koran, written in Arabic, the language of its author Mohammed.  Muslims insist that the only way to really read the Koran is by learning Arabic and reading it in the original language.  The Koran has been translated, and you can purchase an English version of it.  But a serious Muslim would want to read it in Arabic.

     Christianity, on the other hand, has always endeavored to put the Scriptures into the language of the people.  After all, Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, but the New Testament was written first in Greek, the most widely used language in the Roman Empire at the time.  From the beginning, the church endeavored to speak in a language that could be easily understood.  The miracle of Pentecost showed the way.

     The church lost its way on this for a while.  In the middle ages, when the church had lost its way on so many things, it was even against the law to translate the Bible into the language of the people.  Martin Luther was the first to do this for the Germans, and John Wycliffe was executed for trying to get the Bible into English.  The Reformation changed things all over Europe, and eventually, the King of England himself ordered an official translation.  That king was King James, and the translation he ordered became the King James version of 1611, the most widely used English translation for over 300 years.  

      The great missionary movement of the 1700’s revitalized the original commitment to taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  William Carey, a self-taught English shoemaker, has been called the father of modern missions.  He went to India, a nation with hundreds of different languages, and spent his life learning the language and customs of the people.  He taught himself 17 languages, and prepared dictionaries and translations of at least parts of the Bible into several of those languages.  And he was only the first of thousands.

     Today, it is not uncommon for missionaries not yet 25 years old, to leave their homelands, and make their home with a small tribe in a remote area, on some forsaken river bank.  There, they will stay their entire lives, learning the language, creating an alphabet, and then a dictionary; because many of these languages are not yet written.  They then teach the people how to read and write their own language, and all the while, they are working on translating the Bible into that language.  It is a lifetime task, and they will do this for a group of people of whom less than a thousand speak the language.  It would be far easier to teach everyone English, but the commitment is to bring the Bible to the people in their language.  There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of missionaries engaged in this right now.  The by-products of this work are the opportunities it brings for an overall education, increased medical care, and an entrance to the modern world.  This too can bring its problems, but unless the newly converted have gone to a place like Harvard and have learned about how angry they should be about all this, they are happy to not be killing and eating each other anymore, as in some tribes, or, at the very least as in most others, no longer living their lives in constant fear and superstition and illness.

     One of the gifts of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is to bring understanding out of confusion.  The spirit also brings community out of disunity.  The church remains a human institution, and has failed over the years in many different ways, and it never perfectly fulfills the goodness that the Holy Spirit intends for it.  But it has been God’s chosen method to do his work in the world through imperfect human beings, and much has been accomplished.  The church that began with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost Sunday has blessed the world in countless ways.  One can easily list the shortcomings of the church, but to list the blessings is to describe the progress of civilization since the first century, because the life and message of Jesus Christ has had its impact on every aspect of life.

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To learn what is involved in Bible translation see this video from Wycliffe Bible Translators at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQ4nzEpfBQs

https://vimeo.com/123227410

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772) Prayers of Confession

Psalm 32:1-5: 

Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

I John 1:8-9

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Prayers of Confession from several worship books, old and new:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be,
so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

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Holy and merciful God, we confess our sinfulness, our shortcomings, and our offenses against you.
You alone know how often we have sinned in wandering from your ways,
in wasting your gifts, in forgetting your love.
Have mercy on us, O Lord, for we are ashamed and sorry for all we have done to displease you.
Forgive our sins, and help us to live in your light, and walk in your ways. Amen.

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Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo.
Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear.
Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed;
and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image;
through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

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Almighty and merciful God, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done;
and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.
O Lord, have mercy upon us.
Restore us according to your promises in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And grant, O merciful God, for his sake,
that we may live a holy, just, and humble life to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

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Merciful God, we confess to you now that we have sinned.
We confess the sins that no one knows and the sins that everyone knows.
We confess the sins that are a burden to us and the sins that do not bother us because we have grown used to them.
Father, forgive us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

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Lord, please forgive our sins, and set us free from them.

We confess to the sin of pride:
We have been sure of our own goodness and importance
and have looked down on others.
Help us to appreciate the true worth of other people.

We confess to the sin of envy:
We have been displeased when others have been more successful
or more sought after than we have been.
Help us to be glad when others prosper.

We confess to the sin of self-indulgence:
We have had enough and more.
Yet we have neglected the needs of others.
Help us to deny ourselves so that others may not be in want.

We confess to the sin of unchastity:
In one way or another we have used sex wrongly.
Help us to create and uphold right relations between men and women,
both in and out of marriage.

We confess to the sin of anxiety:
We have worried about many things.
Help us to trust you to see us through.

We confess to the sin of laziness:
We have been lukewarm Christians.
Make us eager to do your will.

We confess to you our sins and we ask for your forgiveness.
In the name of Jesus we pray.  Amen.

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Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12:

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…

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.

771) Leaning on Grandma’s Faith

     

Geoffrey Canada is an African-American man who grew up on the streets of Bronx.  He is the author of the book Reaching Up for Manhood:  Transforming the Lives of Boys in America.  In it, he shares some of his personal experiences and tells how he overcame many adverse circumstances.  He gives great credit to his grandmother, who eventually turned him around and gave him a moral compass.  He relates a story about her final days while dying of cancer.  It was during a terribly difficult period in his own life.  Both his brother and his infant son had recently died.  This is what he wrote (quoted in Bringing Up Boys by James Dobson):

     I might have been able to accept one of these deaths, but not all three.  Why had God taken my infant son, my brother whom I worshiped, and now was going to take my grandmother whom I cherished?  The answer to me was that there simply was no God.  Not only did I doubt the existence of God, but my own life lost meaning.  Why was I working so hard in college, away from my family and friends, sacrificing so much, when death could come at any instant, making all my hard work folly?

     When I went home to see my grandmother she was bedridden.  The cancer had robbed her of her strength and would soon take her life.  Right before I went back to school I went into her room and I asked her the question that was tearing me apart.  I know it was selfish to ask her this while she was dying, but I had to know.

     “Grandma, do you still believe in God?”

     “Of course I do.  Why do you ask me that?”

     “Because you are sick.  You have cancer.”

     “Being sick doesn’t have anything to do with faith.”

     “But how can you have faith when God has done this to you?  Made you suffer.  And for what?  What did you do offend God so much that you have to be in pain like this?”

     “Geoffrey, listen to me.  I know you’ve been through so much with the loss of your son and your brother.  But don’t lose faith in God or yourself.  God has a plan and you’re part of it, so you can’t give up.  Faith is not something you believe in until things don’t go your way.  It’s not like rooting for a football team, and then when they start losing, changing sides and rooting for another team.  Faith means you believe no matter what.

     “Do you hear me?  It’s easy to have faith when you have a million dollars and you’re in perfect health.  Do you think that proves anything to God?  Your problem is that you think if you study your books had enough you will find all the answers.  All the answers aren’t in books.  They never will be.  So do I believe in God?  Yes.  More now that ever before.”

     I reluctantly went back to college after spending a week with my grandmother, not knowing that this was to be the last time I would ever talk to her or see her.  She died within weeks of my leaving.  I spent the rest of my sophomore year in a daze, the combined losses too much for me to comprehend.  But I knew I had to keep trying, and not lose my faith, because that’s what my grandmother wanted.  And when I became suddenly frightened or depressed, and found that my faith was weak and could not sustain me, I felt that I could borrow my grandmother’s faith.  Even though she was no longer alive, her faith was real and tangible to me.  Many nights I leaned on her faith when I felt my own could not support me.   

     Every child needs a grandmother like mine in their lives– a person who is older, and wiser, and is willing to fight for as long as it takes for that child’s soul; a person who is willing to hold his or her life up as an example of faith; a person who both forgives and teaches forgiveness; a person whose abundance of faith will be there in sufficient supply when children need it.  Because sooner or later children need more faith than they possess.  That is where we grandparents come in.

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Psalm 71:17-18  —  Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.  Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

Job 12:12  —  Is not wisdom found among the aged?  Does not long life bring understanding?

II Timothy 1:5  —  I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

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 A PRAYER FOR PARENTS by John Cosin:

 Almighty God and heavenly Father, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us also grace to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace, and may hereafter be found in the number of your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

770) On Interruptions and Real Life

From a letter by C. S. Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves, December 20, 1943; From The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II.

     Things are pretty bad here.  Minto’s varicose ulcer gets worse and worse, domestic help harder and harder to come by.  Sometimes I am very unhappy, but less so than I have often been in what were (by external standards) better times.

     The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life.  The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day.  What one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.  This at least is what I see at moments of insight.  But it’s hard to remember it all the time.  I know your problems must be much the same as mine…

     Isn’t it hard to go on being patient, to go on supplying sympathy?  One’s stock of love turns out, when the testing time comes, to be so very inadequate.  I suppose it is well that one should be forced to discover the fact!

     I find too (do you?) that hard days drive one back on Nature.  I don’t mean walks… but little sights and sounds seen at windows in odd moments.

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Galatians 5:22-23  —  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Colossians 3:12-13  —  Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

I Corinthians 13:4-7  —  Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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Grant us, O Lord, grace to follow you wherever you lead.  

In little daily duties to which you call us, bow down our wills to simple obedience, patience under pain or provocation, strict truthfulness of word or manner, humility, and kindness.

In great acts of duty, if you call us to them, uplift us to sacrifice and heroic courage, that in all things, both small and great, we may be imitators of your dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Christina Rossetti  (1830-1894), British poet

769) An Old Story Still Speaks

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac.  He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only Son.

–Hebrews 11:17

Sacrifice of Isaac, Carraviggio, 1603

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By William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pages 80-83, 1984, Abingdon Press (adapted)

     It arose out of a frantic, last minute search for something to do for an inter-generational church school session in a moderately affluent, suburban church we were members of in Durham, North Carolina.  What would appeal to all ages?  Show a movie, I thought.  So I rummaged through the media center and selected a video cassette from “The Genesis Project” series.

     Even though my wife wondered if the subject matter might be inappropriate for the young children, we decided to show the dramatization of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  After the film, my wife would lead the children in a discussion of the story while I would discuss its meaning with the adults.  Patsy still had some misgivings about showing so ancient and strange a tale to the children.

     “It’s only a little Bible story,” I said.  “What harm can there be in that?”

     The group watched silently as the story unfolded.  What an austere sight it was to see old Abraham struggle up the windswept, raw, dusty Mount Moriah, knife under his coat, with his son trudging silently behind him.  Finally the blade is raised, the boy’s eyes flash with horror; and then the voice, and the knife is stopped just in time.

     I stopped the projector, divided the group in half by age, and the learning began– began for me, that is.

     “Boys and girls, who knows what the word sacrifice means?” asked Patsy.  A few hands went up, a definition was attempted here and there.

     “But what does sacrifice mean to you?” she continued.  That’s when the trouble started.

     “My Daddy and Mommy are doctors,” said one third-grader.  “And they help sick people get better.  Every day they do operations to help people.”

     “And how is that a sacrifice?” Patsy asked.  The little girl was not finished.

     “And I go to Day Care Center after school.  Sometimes on Saturdays too.  Mommy and Daddy want to take me home but they are busy helping sick people, so lots of times I stay at the center.  Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, we have pancakes, though.”

     And everyone, from six to eleven, everyone nodded in agreement.  They knew.

     Meanwhile, among the adults, the discussion was getting off to a slow start.  I was talking too much, giving them some historical background on Abraham, and filling them in on child sacrifice among the Canaanites.  They listened in awkward silence.

     “But what does this story mean to us?” I asked.  “That’s the question.  I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that anybody would think that God wanted him to sacrifice his child like this.  Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”

     “God still does,” interrupted an older woman, her hair graying, wearing a flowered dress, hands twitching nervously on her lap.  “He still does.”

     “How?” I asked.

     Quietly, with tears forming in her eyes, she said, “We sent our son to college.  He got an engineering degree.  But he got involved in some fundamentalist church.  He married a girl in the church.  Then they had a baby, our only grandchild.  Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to the Mideast.  And take our baby, too.”  She began to rock to and fro, sobbing.

     The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man.  “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me.  I’ve decided my family and I are looking for another church.”

     “What?” I asked in astonishment.  “Why?”

     “Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I am near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, country club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings.  Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more.  I want to know that God.”

     Someone else was crying now, a young woman whom I had never met, a new member of the congregation.  

     “Gloria want me to tell you,” said the woman sitting next to her with her arm around her, “that her husband left her and the two children last week.  She wants us to pray for her.”

     After the bell had rung and the group had filed out of the room, Patsy and I sat quietly.

     “What on earth was that all about?” I finally asked.

     She knew no more than I.  By then, the wind had died down, and the courageous, trusting Abraham had gone back down the wild mountain.  Trailing along far behind him and Isaac were a group of twentieth-century, well-educated, well-heeled, suburbanites with our middle-of-the-road, reasonable and tame religion.

     This strange old story can still speak into the hearts of people in our vastly different world.  How odd that we should think we can look condescendingly on such a story, we who make our own sacrifices to much lesser gods than Yahweh.  No stranger to God or to the facts of real life, Abraham would at least know that a mad, disordered, barbaric world needs more than a faith that pretends its God can be served without cost.  How puny is our safe, orderly, comfortable religion before the hard facts of life.  

     The sky darkens, the wind howls, and a different young man walks up another hill, this one called Golgotha, driven by a God who demands everything and stops at nothing.  Unlike Abraham, he carries a cross on his back rather than sticks for a fire.  Like Abraham, he is obedient to a wild and restless God who is determined to have his way with us, no matter what the cost.

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Keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our callings that we may sleep in your peace and wake in your glory.

–John Donne

768) It is Not For You to Know

     This is the time of year for graduations.  In the church, this is the time of year that Ascension Day is observed (40 days after Easter).  Ascension Day commemorates the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven.  The story of the ascension is told only by Luke– at the end of his Gospel, and, at the beginning of the book of Acts, also written by Luke.  It is interesting that Ascension Day always comes at graduation time, because what is described in Acts chapter one was a sort of graduation day for the disciples.  Verse nine says, “After Jesus said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”  Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples, so that meant the disciples were left alone with the work Jesus had given them to do.

     For the previous three years, Jesus had been with them day and night, preparing them, or we might say, educating them, for the task he was giving them to do.  Now, in verses four and eight, Jesus gave them these instructions: “Wait here in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit; and after his power comes upon you, then, go out into the world and be my witnesses, telling everyone about me to the very ends of the earth.”

     Are the disciples ready for duty?  Have they been adequately prepared?  Do they deserve to graduate?  Well, if verse six is any indication, they failed their final exam and were not ready for anything.  Their question in verse six indicates that they missed the whole point of Jesus even being here.  They ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Restore the kingdom?  Where did they get that idea?  Jesus never said anything about restoring the earthly kingdom to Israel.  That was what many people had hoped the Messiah would do, but Jesus made it clear from the start that he was not here for anything so trivial as that.  Jesus was Creator and king of the whole universe.  He did not come to earth to be a mere king over a tiny nation for a few years.  Weren’t the disciples listening when he said, “My kingdom IS NOT of this world”?  These men were with Jesus for three years, and then, just before Jesus goes away, leaving them in charge, they ask a question that shows they missed the whole point.  They were not at all ready for graduation.  It is a good thing Jesus had added that part about sending the Holy Spirit to guide them in all things and give them power, or nothing would have happened.

     Jesus replies by saying, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.”  That was the full answer of Jesus to that particular question on that day, but it is the first seven words of that answer that applies to many of our own questions.  Jesus said simply, “It is not for you to know.”

     Is there anything in the Bible you do not completely understand?  Have you ever come up against a brick wall with any of your questions about God or Jesus or the Bible or life in general?  This is a good verse for those times: “It is not for you to know.”

     Sometimes, when discussions of religious matters get too deep, someone will say, “We are not supposed to ask such questions.”  I would not put it that way.  Faith will always ask questions, and the Bible itself asks many questions and even encourages such searching and asking.  And, of course, the Bible gives many answers.  But sometimes the answer is, “It is not for you to know.”  And as we see in this story, we are not the only ones with unanswered questions.  It is interesting that in this very last conversation between Jesus and his disciples, the focus is on what the disciples don’t know and can’t know.  

     However, even with incomplete knowledge, and even with many yet unanswered questions, the disciples and those that followed them did go to the ends of the earth with the knowledge that they did have.  They went out and proclaimed to all the world that in Jesus Christ, God had visited this earth in person, and had shown us all the way to forgiveness and eternal life.  That message was enough for them, and they did take it from there, living and dying to proclaim it, fulfilling the work Jesus had given them to do.  They had heard Jesus teach and preach, they saw him heal the sick and give sight to the blind, they saw Jesus feed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, they saw him calm the power of a storm at sea, and most of all, they saw him dead, and then alive again.  

     The disciples had seen and heard more than enough.  Now they could believe and proclaim that message, even without all the answers.  We are, after all, talking about God here, and God is a whole lot bigger than we are.  We don’t even understand each other.  How can we expect to be able to have a full and complete understanding of God and his ways?

     In the Christian faith, questions are encouraged, but answers are not guaranteed.  What the Bible does tell us, however, gives us plenty to work on in this life, and all we need to know to follow Jesus and inherit the life to come that he has promised.  Even the most brilliant theologians are only scratching the surface of God’s truth, but the faith that will save us is simple enough for a child to comprehend.

     So, if there is something you do not yet understand, maybe “it is not for you to know.”

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Acts 1:6-9  —  Then they gathered around Jesus and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them:  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  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.”  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

John 18:36  —  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

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O Lord, you know what is best for me.  Let this or that be done, as you wish.  Give what you will, how much you will, and when you will.

–Thomas a Kempis

767) “Look for a Building with a Cross on Top; There You Will Find Help”

How I Escaped from North Korea

By Joseph Kim, in the May 2015 issue of Christianity Today, pages 79-80 (adapted).  Kim is the author of Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

     At first, growing up in North Korea was like growing up anywhere else.  I had a father and mother who rarely failed to show me love, and my older sister looked after me constantly.  I caught dragonflies with friends and waited with excitement for cartoons to come on TV.

     Then, in 1995, the worst of the Great Famine descended on the land, and the privileges of my childhood were stripped away.

     When I was 12 years old, my father died of starvation.  Our house was taken away to repay a debt we owed a family friend.  That year, my mother fled to China with my sister in search of food and money.  She returned a few months later, alone.  She had sold my sister into bride slavery, a common fate for young North Korean refugees.  My mother believed it would be a better life for my sister than the one waiting back home.

     I don’t know that she even knew what sex trafficking is; most brokers highlight the benefits of being married to a Chinese man.  She was hardly the only North Korean who had to make these kinds of impossible decisions.  She continued to secretly travel to and from China until she was caught by the North Korean government and put in prison.

     With my whole family gone, I lived on the streets.  The possibility of ever being loved started to fade for me.  Before I had a chance to decide who I was on my own terms, my identity was defined by others:  homeless, orphan, beggar.  When I approached people in the food courts in the city markets, they would swat me away like a fly.  No one said, “I see how weary and hopeless you must be.”

     At age 15, I faced a choice:  I could either starve like my father, or flee the country and hope to secure a better life outside its fortified borders.  Between the certainty of death and the chance of survival, I chose survival.

     I made my escape in February 2006.  I slipped down the banks of the Tumen River, coated my shoes in sandy silt for traction, and raced across the river’s icy surface to the far shore.  It was a miracle that I made it.

     I fled full of hope.  I was sure I would have no difficulty finding food.  I imagined Chinese families handing me their leftovers, as a bowl of rice was nothing for them.  But once in China, reality hit.  Almost no one wanted to share with me.  They were irritated simply by my request for leftovers.  I was so confused.  This was not what I believed people were like.

     For a few weeks, I was barely able to beg enough to survive.  Then an elderly Chinese Korean woman approached me.  “I am so sorry— there is nothing I can offer,” she said.  “But you should go to a church.”  She told me to look for a building with a cross, and there I would find help.

     I had seen a red cross on the gates of a hospital in North Korea.  I had no idea what a cross had to do with church, but I followed her directions to a corner.  I saw a few buildings, but none bore a red cross.

     I stopped a man walking by.  “Where can I find a cross?” I asked.  “Look up,” he said.   And there it was.

     This was my first time inside a church.  It was late in the evening, and a few men lingered in the modest building.  “I am from North Korea,” I said.  “I don’t know anyone here and need help.”  One of the men gave me 20 yuan (about $3) and told me that was all they could spare.

     From that town in the northernmost part of China, I made my way to Yanji, then to Tumen City.  I wandered around until I found another church.  On the wall were written these words:  Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

     It was as if someone was talking directly to me.  I thought I heard a voice saying, I understand how exhausted you are and what a hopeless situation you are in.  Give me your hands and I will take care of you.

     A neatly dressed woman greeted me with a smile— despite the fact that I had not showered for weeks.  “How may I help you?” she asked.  I felt I needed to add urgency, so instead of giving her my usual speech, I lied.  I told her I was on my way to meet my sister in another town and needed means to get there.  The woman asked me to wait in the lobby.  She came back with 50 yuan ($8) and wished me luck.  It was the most cash I had ever held in my hands.

     A few days later, I returned to the church, imagining I would receive another 50 yuan.  This time, church members offered to let me stay temporarily.  This was better than what I expected.  I had been sleeping in a windowless abandoned house during winter; sleeping in an actual room with a blanket was enticing.  I stayed.

     A week later, I ran into the woman who had given me 50 yuan.  It turned out that she was the pastor’s wife.  I was scared that she would scold me for lying and kick me out, but she let me stay.  One afternoon, I heard members of the congregation discussing how the pastor had bad teeth but couldn’t afford dental treatment.  I thought that the lady had given me the yuan because she had money to spare.  In that moment, I realized how much 50 yuan was for her family.

     Her generous act sparked my curiosity about God.  She looked so similar to all those who had refused to give me leftover rice, yet she was different.  I started to read a Bible to know what she believed.  Despite my sincere desire to learn, I couldn’t understand it.  The vocabulary, the concept of heaven and hell— none of these made sense to me.  Still, I kept wondering about her faith.

     In China, hosting a North Korean refugee is illegal, and this church had already sheltered me for more than two weeks.  I couldn’t stay forever.  One of the members located an elderly Korean Chinese woman living in another city who was willing to take me in.  She was a devoted Christian who let me call her “Grandma.”  I didn’t know how to pray, but she encouraged me to read the Bible and taught me hymns to sing.  She gave me a new name:  Joseph.

     My first prayer to God was said in China, the night Grandma introduced me to a hymn:

Father, I stretch my hands to thee,

No other help I know;

If thou withdraw thyself from me,

Ah! Whither shall I go?

     That night I prayed, God, I don’t know who you are or whether you exist as the Bible and Christians claim.  But I need your help.

     A few months after I moved into Grandma’s home, I met a South Korean missionary who runs an underground shelter for North Koreans.  Later that year, an activist helped me relocate to the United States.  I arrived in 2007 as a refugee and began attending high school in Richmond.  Different obstacles overshadowed me there.  I couldn’t understand a single word of my classes or classmates and I could barely keep up with the stream of cultural differences.  But I learned English, graduated in four years, and am now attending college in New York City.  I attend a church in Manhattan to learn more about God and his world.

     The hymn Grandma taught me put into words what my heart needed to say.  I had been alone in the world.  At any moment, the authorities could have arrested me and sent me back to North Korea to starve.  I felt there was no one to look after me, no one who could help.  What would happen if God withdrew himself from me too?

     But I found God’s help in the churches that sheltered me, the woman who gave me the 50 yuan she couldn’t spare, and the elderly Christian who gave me my new name.  Fleeing to China, I had lost hope in human goodness.  Finding Christians there, I found that hope again.  Caring for strangers, acting compassionately without expecting anything in return:  That is the beauty of humankind.  That is the beauty of the gospel.

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Matthew 11:28  —  (Jesus said), “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Mark 9:41  —  (Jesus said), “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

I Peter 2:12  —  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

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Relieve and comfort, O Lord, all the persecuted and afflicted; speak peace to trouble consciences; strengthen the weak; instruct the ignorant; deliver the oppressed; relieve the needy; and bring us all, by the waters of comfort and in the ways of righteousness, to your kingdom of rest and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Anglican Bishop

766) Should We Take Down All the Fences?

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By Eric Metaxas at http://www.breakpoint.org , May 15, 2015 blog entitled How Christianity Made Children

     So many of the ideas and values we take for granted today are historical innovations, brought about by the rise of Christianity.  Take the common rules of engagement that add a measure of “fairness” to warfare, or the idea that men and women are equally valuable in the sight of God.

     These days, of course, Christianity takes the fall for things that cramp peoples’ style:  monogamous marriage, chastity, the sanctity of life, and the nuclear family, to name but a few.  But in their rush to dismantle these irksome rules, modern secularists would do well to heed G. K. Chesterton’s warning about knocking down a fence before knowing why the fence was put there in the first place.

     You see, the early Christians’ insistence on sexual restraint proved enormously beneficial to the ancient world— especially to society’s most vulnerable members. 

     Take the case of children.  Writing at The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains, “Today it is simply taken for granted that the innocence and vulnerability of children makes them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care…[but] this view of children is a historical oddity.”

     Gobry points to the work of historian O. M. Bakke, whose book “When Children Became People” documents how radically Christianity altered the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, and what the world before Christ looked like.

     Children, he says, were considered nonpersons.  In the cultures of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Pliny the Elder, society was organized in “concentric circles,” with the most valuable (freeborn, adult males) in the center, and the least valuable (women, slaves, and children) on the fringes.

     From the moment of birth, a child in ancient Rome was as likely as not to die.  If disease or injury didn’t end a young life, very frequently the parents themselves did, “exposing” (abandoning them out in the woods) any infants deemed inconvenient.  Such children usually fell prey to wild animals or the elements.  But as Gobry points out, a few were rescued only to be raised in one of the ancient world’s most lucrative industries: sex slavery.

     Today, sexually abusing a child is a serious crime.  Not so in the pre-Christian world, writes Gobry.  During that time it was legal, and even considered good form, for a married Patrician to keep children— particularly young boys— to exploit sexually in his free time.  “Most sexual acts were permissible,” Gobry explains, “as long as they involved a person of higher status being active against or dominating a person of lower status.  This meant that, according to all the evidence we have, the sexual abuse of children…was rife.”

     Into this world came Christianity, with its condemnation of abortion, infanticide and child abuse, its glorification of faithful marriage, and its teaching that children come first in the Kingdom of Heaven.  “Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble,” said Jesus, “it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.”

     This ethic, which the Western world takes for granted today, is a direct heritage of Christianity.  It rests on the very same beliefs as traditional marriage, chastity, and the sanctity of all life.  And secularists who want nothing more than a world free from these constraints of Christian morality, warns Gobry, had better consider— or rather remember— what that world looks like.

      You may read Gobry’s article at:  

http://theweek.com/articles/551027/how-christianity-invented-children

      Let me warn you, it gets graphic.  But it’s important we understand what a civilization truly free of irksome Christian rules looks like— especially if we hope to make the case for why some fences need to stay put.

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Jeremiah 6:15-19  —  Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?  No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.  So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the Lord.  This is what the Lord says:  “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.  But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’  I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’  But you said, ‘We will not listen.’  Therefore hear, you nations; you who are witnesses, observe what will happen to them.  Hear, you earth:  I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law.”

Matthew 18:6  —  (Jesus said), “If anyone causes one of these little ones— those who believe in me— to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Psalm 11:3  —  When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Proverbs 3:5-7  —  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.  Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.

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O eternal God, who has taught us in you holy Word that our bodies are temples of your Holy Spirit:  Keep us, we pray, temperate and holy in thought, word, and deed; that at the last we may see you and be made like you in your heavenly kingdom; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–B. F. Westcott, British Bishop and Bible scholar,  (1825-1901)

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