1447) An Old Married Couple (part two)

ILYAS, a short story by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

     (…continued)     ‘May I speak to him?’ asked the guest.  ‘I should like to ask him about his life.’

     ‘Why not?’ replied the master, and he called from the kibítka in which they were sitting:  ‘Grandfather, come in and have a cup of kumiss with us, and call your wife here also.’

     Ilyás entered with his wife; and after exchanging greetings with his master and the guests, he repeated a prayer, and seated himself near the door.  His wife passed in behind the curtain and sat down with her mistress.

     A cap of kumiss was handed to Ilyás; he wished the guests and his master good health, bowed, drank a little, and put down the cup.

     ‘Well, Daddy,’ said the guest who had wished to speak to him, ‘I suppose you feel rather sad at the sight of us.  It must remind you of your former prosperity, and of your present sorrows.’

     Ilyás smiled, and said:  ‘If I were to tell you what is happiness and what is misfortune, you would not believe me.  You had better ask my wife.  She is a woman, and what is in her heart is on her tongue.  She will tell you the whole truth.’

     The guest turned towards the curtain.  ‘Well, Granny,’ he cried, ‘tell me how your former happiness compares with your present misfortune.’

     And Sham-Shemagi answered from behind the curtain:  ‘This is what I think about it:  My old man and I lived for fifty years seeking happiness and not finding it; and it is only now, these last two years, since we had nothing left and have lived as laborers, that we have found real happiness, and we wish for nothing better than our present lot.’

     The guests were astonished, and so was the master; he even rose and drew the curtain back, so as to see the old woman’s face.  There she stood with her arms folded, looking at her old husband, and smiling; and he smiled back at her.  The old woman went on:  ‘I speak the truth and do not jest.  For half a century we sought for happiness, and as long as we were rich we never found it.  Now that we have nothing left, and have taken service as laborers, we have found such happiness that we want nothing better.’

     ‘But in what does your happiness consist?’ asked the guest.

     ‘Why, in this,’ she replied, ‘when we were rich my husband and I had so many cares that we had no time to talk to one another, or to think of our souls, or to pray to God.   We had visitors, and had to consider what food to set before them, and what presents to give them, lest they should speak ill of us.  When they left, we had to look after our laborers who were always trying to shirk work and get the best food, while we wanted to get all we could out of them.  So we sinned.  Then we were in fear lest a wolf should kill a foal or a calf, or thieves steal our horses.  We lay awake at night, worrying lest the ewes should overlie their lambs, and we got up again and again to see that all was well.  One thing attended to, another care would spring up:  how, for instance, to get enough fodder for the winter.  And besides that, my old man and I used to disagree.  He would say we must do so and so, and I would differ from him; and then we disputed — sinning again.  So we passed from one trouble to another, from one sin to another, and found no happiness.’

     ‘Well, and now?’

     ‘Now, when my husband and I wake in the morning, we always have a loving word for one another and we live peacefully, having nothing to quarrel about.  We have no care but how best to serve our master.  We work as much as our strength allows and do it with a will, that our master may not lose but profit by us.  When we come in, dinner or supper is ready and there is kumiss to drink.  We have fuel to burn when it is cold and we have our fur cloak.  And we have time to talk, time to think of our souls, and time to pray.  For fifty years we sought happiness, but only now at last have we found it.’

     The guests laughed.  But Ilyás said:  ‘Do not laugh, friends.  It is not a matter for jesting — it is the truth of life.  We also were foolish at first, and wept at the loss of our wealth; but now God has shown us the truth, and we tell it, not for our own consolation, but for your good.’

     And the Mullah said:  ‘That is a wise speech.  Ilyás has spoken the exact truth.  The same is said in Holy Writ.’

     And the guests ceased laughing and became thoughtful.  (1885)

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Proverbs 15:16-17  —  Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.  Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.

Proverbs 11:2  —  When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. 

Ecclesiastes 9:17  —  The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.

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A PRAYER FOR A HAPPY LIFE:
Make my life a happy one, O Lord…  Not by shielding me from sorrow and pain, but by strengthening me to bear it if it comes.
Not by taking hardship from me, but by taking all cowardice and fear from my heart as I meet hardships.
Not by making my path easy, but by making me sturdy enough to tread any path.
Not by granting unbroken sunshine, but by keeping my face bright even in the shadows.
Not by making my life always pleasant, but by showing me where others need me most and by making me zealous to be there and to help…
God, make my life a happy one. Amen.   –source unknown

1446) An Old Married Couple (part one)

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ILYAS, a short story by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

     There once lived in Oufá a man named Ilyás.  His father, who died a year after he had found his son a wife, did not leave him much property.  Ilyás then had only seven mares, two cows, and about a score of sheep.  He was a good manager, however, and soon began to acquire more.  He and his wife worked from morn till night; rising earlier than others and going later to bed; and his possessions increased year by year.  Living in this way, Ilyás little by little acquired great wealth.  At the end of thirty-five years he had 200 horses, 150 head of cattle, and 1,200 sheep.  Hired laborers tended his flocks and herds, and hired women milked his mares and cows, and made kumiss (kumiss is a fermented drink prepared from mare’s milk), butter and cheese.  Ilyás had abundance of everything, and every one in the district envied him.  They said of him: “Ilyás is a fortunate man: he has plenty of everything.  This world must be a pleasant place for him.”

     People of position heard of Ilyás and sought his acquaintance.  Visitors came to him from afar; and he welcomed every one, and gave them food and drink.  Whoever might come, there was always kumiss, tea, sherbet, and mutton to set before them.  Whenever visitors arrived a sheep would be killed, or sometimes two; and if many guests came he would even slaughter a mare for them.

     Ilyás had three children:  two sons and a daughter; and he married them all off.  While he was poor, his sons worked with him, and looked after the flocks and herds themselves; but when he grew rich they got spoiled and one of them took to drink.  The eldest was killed in a brawl; and the younger, who had married a self-willed woman, ceased to obey his father, and they could not live together any more.  So they parted, and Ilyás gave his son a house and some of the cattle; and this diminished his wealth.  Soon after that, a disease broke out among Ilyás’s sheep, and many died.  Then followed a bad harvest, and the hay crop failed; and many cattle died that winter.  Then the Kirghíz captured his best herd of horses; and Ilyás’s property dwindled away.  It became smaller and smaller, while at the same time his strength grew less; till, by the time he was seventy years old, he had begun to sell his furs, carpets, saddles, and tents.  At last he had to part with his remaining cattle, and found himself face to face with poverty.  Before he knew how it had happened, he had lost everything, and in their old age he and his wife had to go into service.  Ilyás had nothing left, except the clothes on his back, a fur cloak, a cup, his indoor shoes and overshoes, and his wife, Sham-Shemagi, who also was old by this time.  The son who had parted from him had gone into a far country, and his daughter was dead, so that there was no one to help the old couple.

     Their neighbor, Muhammad-Shah, took pity on them.  Muhammad-Shah was neither rich nor poor, but lived comfortably, and was a good man.  He remembered Ilyás’s hospitality, and pitying him, said:  “Come and live with me, Ilyás, you and your old woman.  In summer you can work in my melon-garden as much as your strength allows, and in winter feed my cattle; and Sham-Shemagi shall milk my mares and make kumiss.  I will feed and clothe you both.  When you need anything, tell me, and you shall have it.”

     Ilyás thanked his neighbor, and he and his wife took service with Muhammad-Shah as laborers.  At first the position seemed hard to them, but they got used to it, and lived on, working as much as their strength allowed.  Muhammad-Shah found it was to his advantage to keep such people, because, having been masters themselves, they knew how to manage and were not lazy, but did all the work they could.  Yet it grieved Muhammad-Shah to see people brought so low who had been of such high standing.

     It happened once that some of Muhammad-Shah’s relatives came from a great distance to visit him, and a Mullah came too.  Muhammad-Shah told Ilyás to catch a sheep and kill it.  Ilyás skinned the sheep, and boiled it, and sent it in to the guests.  The guests ate the mutton, had some tea, and then began drinking kumiss.  As they were sitting with their host on down cushions on a carpet, conversing and sipping kumiss from their cups, Ilyás, having finished his work passed by the open door.  Muhammad-Shah, seeing him pass, said to one of the guests:  “Did you notice that old man who passed just now?”

     “Yes,” said the visitor, “what is there remarkable about him?”

     “Only this — that he was once the richest man among us,” replied the host.  “His name is Ilyás.  You may have heard of him.”

     ‘Of course I have heard of him,’ the guest answered.   ‘I never saw him before, but his fame has spread far and wide.’

     “Yes, and now he has nothing left,” said Muhammad-Shah, “and he lives with me as my laborer, and his old woman is here too — she milks the mares.”

     The guest was astonished:  he clicked with his tongue, shook his head, and said:  “Fortune turns like a wheel.  One man it lifts, another it sets down!  Does not the old man grieve over all he has lost?”

     “Who can tell?  He lives quietly and peacefully, and works well.”

     “May I speak to him?” asked the guest.   (continued…)

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Ecclesiastes 7:10  —  Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”  For it is not wise to ask such questions. 

Ecclesiastes 2:18-19  —  I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.  This too is meaningless.

Proverbs 10:25  —  When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.

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O God, who by the meek endurance of your Son beat down the pride of the old enemy:  Help us, we pray, rightly to treasure in our hearts what our Lord has, of his goodness, endured for our sakes; that after his example, we may bear with patience whatsoever things are adverse to us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer, (alt.)

1445) Cotton Patch Wisdom

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Farmer, pastor, theologian Clarence Jordan, author of the Cotton Patch New Testament

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From The Sermon on the Mount, by Clarence Jordan (1912-1969), pages 102-3.

      It is not judging, but self-righteous judging against which Jesus warns his disciples.  Honest, sincere judging is good, but hypocritical judging is perilous.  Nothing will destroy a fellowship more quickly than to have within it someone who carries around a folding judgement-seat which makes it possible for him to pass judgment on another person anywhere, any time.   He goes on the theory that he makes himself bigger by making someone else smaller.  He has a high regard for his ability to analyze other people and their motives, and he is utterly incensed if someone seeks to reverse his judicial opinions.

      But usually his judgments reveal his own true nature, for a man’s opinions of his neighbors are a reliable index of his own character.  At no time does his real self become more evident than when he is sitting on his folding judgment-seat giving his opinions of others.  A liar will invariably conclude that most men are like himself– liars; it is the opinion of a thief that they are all thieves; while an honest man is quite certain that until proven otherwise, all others are honest.

      There is an old story about a man looking for a place to settle.  He drove into a rural community and inquired of an old farmer what kind of people lived there.  In reply, the farmer asked, “Stranger, what kind of people live in the community you came from?”

      “They are bad people,” he said. “Gossips, slanderers, and cheapskates.”  

     The old man shook his head.  “You might as well move on,” he said, “because that’s the kind of people who live here, too.”

      Later on, another man came through seeking a place to live, and he asked the same old farmer about the people.  “How were the people where you came from?” inquired the farmer.

      “Wonderful, simply wonderful,” he said.  “They were thoughtful, kind, and loving.  I surely hated to leave them.”

      “Unload,” beamed the farmer, “because that’s just the kind of people you’ll find around here.”

      Not only may others size up a person by the judgment with which he judges others, but a man’s condemnation of others can become his own most severe punishment.  For instance, here is a person who is a slanderous gossip.  His conclusion is that since he gossips, all men gossip.  So when he sees several of his acquaintances together, he is quite sure that they are doing what he would be doing– gossiping.  His guilt and inflated ego combine to make him believe they are gossiping about him, even though they may really be talking about the weather.  He has had this feeling so frequently that he is raw and extremely sensitive and always touchy about everything.  Consequently, nothing is capable of inflicting more torture upon him than gossip– about him.  Whether the gossip is real or imaginary is of no consequence; the punishment is the same.

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Matthew 7:1-5  —  (Jesus said), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

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O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through your Son Jesus.  Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and through our struggle and confusion, work to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg Publishing House, 1978, (prayer #177)

1444) Ben Franklin’s Request for Prayer

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Benjamin Franklin  (1706-1790) (and death mask)

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     The Constitutional Convention of 1787 held its meetings in secret, and its members were expected to keep the details of their discussions and debates confidential.  The official papers of the Convention sat in the State Department offices, untouched, until 1818.  When finally released to the public, it was clear that tempers flared often in the intense debates as the structure of the new nation was being decided upon.  

     It was during one of the most divisive of these debates that the elder statesman, eighty-one year old Benjamin Franklin, offered his famous appeal for harmony and conciliation, including the suggestion to pray for God’s intervention.  The authoritative source concerning the convention is the notes of James Madison.  Included in his notes was a copy of the speech Franklin made, written in Franklin’s own handwriting.  This is that speech Franklin gave on July 28, 1787:

Mr. President:  The small progress we have made after four or five weeks of close attendance and continual reasonings with each other, with our different sentiments on almost every question… is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of the Human Understanding.  We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, so we have been running about in search of it.  We have gone back to ancient history for models of Government, and examined the different forms of those Republics which, having been formed with the seeds of their own dissolution, now no longer exist.  And we have viewed Modern States all round Europe, but find none of their Constitutions suitable to our circumstances.

In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us; how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?  In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for divine protection.  Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.  All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a Superintending providence in our favor.  To that kind providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity.  And have we now forgotten that powerful friend?  I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth– that God governs in the affairs of men.  And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?  We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that “except the Lord build the House they labor in vain that build it.”  I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.  We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and bye word down to future ages.  And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move, that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of the City be requested to officiate in that service.

     Where are the politicians, or the pastors, who can speak like that today?

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Psalm 127:1  —  Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.  Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Matthew 10:29  —  (Jesus said), “ Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will.”

Matthew 12:25  —  Knowing their thoughts, (Jesus) said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.”

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O thou eternal God, who dost rule the affairs of men even as thou rulest nature, inspire the hearts of all citizens of our beloved country by the memory of the blessed heritage of a freedom won through the devotion and loyalty of our forefathers.  We are humbled by the knowledge that thou hast protected us in this freedom throughout the years of our national history.  Grant us grace to acknowledge the responsibility these blessings place upon us to be zealous for righteousness, justice, and equity among men of every nation, that free people may honor and obey thee forever.  AMEN.

–General Synod’s Committee on Liturgics, Evangelical and Reformed Church

1443) Prayers at the Twilight of Life

Arthur O. Roberts

From Prayers at Twilight, by Arthur O. Roberts, (1923-2016), 2003, Barclay Press.  Roberts wrote a book Exploring Heaven to describe what the Bible and great Christian thinkers have said about heaven.  As he was writing that, he was also writing prayers about the end of this life and the anticipation of the life to come in heaven.  Here are some of the poems/prayers from the collection of them published in Prayers at Twilight.

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A REASONABLE REQUIREMENT

My friend says one should be content

with this life, make the most of it,

and not whine for second chances.

I pondered this, and then I thought

about this guy wrongly imprisoned, 

locked up twenty years, on death row

part of the time.  I think of children

blown to bits by terrorists, people 

starved in gulags, gassed by Nazis,

people gunned down by drug dealers,

innocent and helpless civilians sacrificed

as ‘collateral damage’ in political wars,

and it struck me that hope for heaven

is a reasonable requirement for justice,

as well as a gift of your love, Lord.

***

THROUGH THIS TUNNEL

Lord, I’ve got Alzheimer’s

I don’t know my own family

sometimes, and can’t tell the nurse

who our president is.  But I know you!

Lead me through this tunnel, Lord,

and in heaven make me whole again.

***

WHO’S RIGHT, LORD

Lord, yesterday my neighbor and I discussed death.

A heart attack put him in a serious mood.

He’s a retired professor and legislator.

His affluent children support art museums,

his grandkids trek the globe for green causes.

Mac says he’s ready to bow out gracefully, 

content to let his influence live on.

Claims it’s the noble thing to do.

I don’t buy this.

From what I learned in Sunday school

I figured on a more personal afterlife.

Besides, I don’t have kids, bright or otherwise.

Who’s right, Lord?

***

OOPS, GOD!

In my alumni magazine letters writers

argue about religion.  Recently one alumna

claimed human thought has evolved

in every area but religion.  We must not,

said she, let the Bible, or even Jesus,

hinder evolutionary progress

that brings better religious ideas.

Lord, I’m weary of these attacks

on Christian beliefs and believers.

Who does this gal think she is, telling me

in effect, sorry old timer, but we now know

these Bible stories aren’t true.  Well, when

twenty/thirty years later she faces death

as I do now, will she believe the same thing?

Or will she say, oops, God, I guess

my ideas weren’t so good after all.

***

I’D LIKE THAT!

Lord, I don’t travel much anymore.

Went to the Columbia ice fields last year.

But most of the scenes I view now

are inside my head.  Some are vivid,

like seeing that dirty trench near St. Lo,

the red blood spurting from my leg.

and that German boy’s face–

before I blew it away.  I never talk

to anyone about this, except you, Lord.

Maybe I’ll meet that boy in heaven.

That would be okay.  We’ll recognize 

and forgive each other, and maybe you

will give us constructive work to do 

together, somewhere in the cosmos.

Yeah, I’d like that…

***

I WISH THEY WOULD LEARN

When I was young we kids were afraid of hell.

Now, it seems, young folks are afraid of heaven.

They can’t imagine anything more exciting

than their affluent lifestyle.  Skiing every Sunday.

Shopping at the mall.  TV celebrity shows.

Making scads of money, getting stock options.

They don’t fear you, Lord, they ignore you.

Maybe a depression would do them good.

Or a service stint in Somalia.  I know, Lord,

when you’re young  heaven talk is taboo, 

too gloomy, too threatening.  Was for me once.

But I wish they would learn soon that fear

of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

***

WHILE MY LIFE LINGERS

Lord, the last enemy is death, 

that’s for sure.  Well, it’s combat time

for me.  Fight with me.  Oh, crucified Jesus

help me bear the penetrating pain

and this slow, sad phase of parting

from dear ones whom I love.

Share with me, Lord, your triumph

over sin and death while my life lingers,

then walk me through the heavenly door.

***

MOSTLY ABOUT JESUS

Lord, scenarios about heaven make no sense to me.

How can predators live harmoniously with prey?

How can dead bodies, or their ashes, reassemble?

How can there be cycles of life without death?

How can there be both time and eternity?

But then I gaze at the Milky Way on a warm night.

I hear waves crashing rhythmically against the shore,

I ponder the incredible spread of intelligent life

across planet earth, even if not always used wisely.

But mostly I think about Jesus, heaven’s great sign,

about his redeeming death, and his resurrection.

I hear him say: “I go to prepare a place for you.”

Mind then yields to spirit, and my spirit yields to you.

“Yes, Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief.”

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John 14:1-6  —  (Jesus said), “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.  And you know the way where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?”  Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”

Mark 9:24b  —  “I believe; help my unbelief!”

1442) Who Says Murder is Wrong?

MAYBE THAT’S JUST YOUR OPINION!

Another video from Prager University (see yesterday’s Emailmeditation for more information about Prager U.)

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If the above link does not work go to:

https://www.prageru.com/courses/religionphilosophy/if-there-no-god-murder-isnt-wrong

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“IF THERE IS NO GOD, MURDER ISN’T WRONG”  By Dennis Prager (transcript)

Do you believe that good and evil exist?

The answer to this question separates Judeo-Christian values from secular values.

Let me offer the clearest possible example: murder.

Is murder wrong?  Is it evil?  Nearly everyone would answer yes.  But now I’ll pose a much harder question: How do you know?

I am sure that you think that murder is wrong.  But how do you know?

If I asked you how you know that that the earth is round, you would show me photographs from outer space, or offer me measurable data.  But what photographs could you show, what measurements could you provide, that prove that murder or rape or theft is wrong?

The fact is…you can’t.  There are scientific facts, but without God there are no moral facts.

In a secular world, there can only be opinions about morality.  They may be personal opinions or society’s opinion.  But only opinions.  Every atheist philosopher I have read or debated on this subject has acknowledged that if there is no God, there is no objective morality.

Judeo-Christian values are predicated on the existence of a God of morality.  In other words, only if there is a God who says murder is wrong, is murder wrong.  Otherwise, all morality is opinion.

The entire Western world – what we call Western Civilization – is based on this understanding.

Now, let me make two things clear.

First, this doesn’t mean that if you don’t believe in God, you can’t be a good person.  There are plenty of kind and moral individuals who don’t believe in God and Judeo-Christian values.  But the existence of these good people has nothing – nothing – to do with the question of whether good and evil really exist if there is no God.

Second, there have been plenty of people who believed in God who were not good people; indeed, more than a few have been evil – and have even committed evil in God’s name.  The existence of God doesn’t ensure people will do good.  I wish it did.  The existence of God only ensures that good and evil objectively exist and are not merely opinions.

Without God, we therefore end up with what is known as moral relativism – meaning that morality is not absolute, but only relative to the individual or to the society.  Without God, the words “good” and “evil” are just another way of saying “I like” and “I don’t like.”  If there is no God, the statement “Murder is evil” is the same as the statement “I don’t like murder.”

Now, many will argue that you don’t need moral absolutes; people won’t murder because they don’t want to be murdered.  But that argument is just wishful thinking.  Hitler, Stalin, and Mao didn’t want to be murdered, but that hardly stopped them from murdering about a hundred million people.

It is not a coincidence that the rejection of Judeo-Christian values in the Western world – by Nazism and Communism – led to the murder of all these innocent people.

It is also not a coincidence that the first societies in the world to abolish slavery – an institution that existed in every known society in human history – were Western societies rooted in Judeo-Christian values.  And so were the first societies to affirm universal human rights; to emancipate women; and to proclaim the value of liberty.

Today, the rejection of Judeo-Christian values and moral absolutes has led to a world of moral confusion.

In the New York Times, in March 2015, a professor of philosophy confirmed this.

He wrote: “What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun?  Would you be surprised?  I was.”

The professor then added: “The overwhelming majority of college freshmen view moral claims as mere opinions.”

So, then, whatever you believe about God or religion, here is a fact:

Without a God who is the source of morality, morality is just a matter of opinion.  So, if you want a good world, the death of Judeo-Christian values should frighten you.

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German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) has had a profound influence on Western philosophy and modern intellectual history.  He has been admired by atheists the world over for his eloquent and obnoxious disdain for Christianity.  But he was a consistent atheist, following it to its logical conclusions, and correctly observed that rejecting God yet embracing Biblical values is illogical.  He said:

“When you give up Christian faith, you pull the rug out from under your right to Christian morality as well… you smash the whole system.”

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Exodus 20:13  —  You shall not murder.

Deuteronomy 6:17a  —  Be sure to keep the commands of the Lord your God…

Deuteronomy 5:32  —  So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left.

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PRAYER BASED ON THE COMMANDMENT AGAINST MURDER FROM LUTHER’S SMALL CATECHISM:

O God, you have forbidden us to kill:
Lord, grant that we so fear and love you, that we never do our neighbor any bodily harm nor ever cause him any suffering, but rather, that we help and befriend him in every way.

1441) The Benefits of Belief

Prager University, founded by Dennis Prager, is an on-line university consisting of dozens of five minute, clear and concise, video ‘courses.’  Many are political, some are religious, all are thought provoking, and all are free.  You may view them all at:

http://www.prageru.com

This course is by Peter Kreeft, a thinker and writer I have long admired.  Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College and a Roman Catholic.  In this course he describes “The Benefits of Belief.”  Watch the video or read the transcript.

LINK TO THIS VIDEO:

http://www.prageru.com/courses/religionphilosophy/benefits-belief

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In this Prager University course, I want to focus not on the evidence for God’s existence, but on the benefits of belief.

If God exists, then the world didn’t just evolve by chance, but by deliberate design.  There’s an Artist behind this incredible work of art—this big and beautiful world.

If God exists, we’re living in a great story, an epic like “The Lord of the Rings,” with real heroes and heroic tasks.  Ultimately, all the twists and turns of this epic narrative will be paid off, everything will make sense.  It will even have a happy ending, not necessarily, or even likely, in our own lifetime—even Moses didn’t get into the Promised Land—but over the grand course of time in an afterlife, which exists as surely as God exists.

If God exists, the presence of evil, hard as it is to accept, makes sense.  God allows it for a reason—namely, to preserve our free will.  And God will reconcile all injustices in the end.  If there is no God, life is one big crapshoot.

If God does exist, morality is a real, objective feature of the world.  If there is no God, morality is just the rules we make up for this little game of life we play.

If God exists, love is the nature of an eternal reality.  If there is no God, love is just a fleeting feeling, no more than a bunch of chemical and neurological interactions.

If God exists, you are of infinite value.  He knows you as a parent knows his child.  He’s accessible to you.  If there is no God, each of us is as insignificant as a rock on an unknown planet.

If God exists, death is conquered because if there is a God there is a reality outside of space and time.  If there is no God, there is nothing immortal, and all the good things in life are destroyed forever.  You, and everyone you love, and everything you think matters are all consigned to oblivion.  If there is no God, life is pointless.  Everything we’ve done and lived for will ultimately be in vain.

Can I prove with an absolute certainty that God exists?  I can make the case that overwhelming evidence suggests that he does.  But no I can’t prove that He exists with absolute certainty.  That’s likely part of His plan.  God deliberately doesn’t give us absolute proof so that we’re free to choose or not to choose to believe in Him.

So which way do you want to go?

Be honest.  Doesn’t your heart at least hope that there is a good God, a transcendent Validator of love and all the highest human values?  Of course it does.  Why would anyone not wish that life has some ultimate purpose; that good and evil are real; that there is ultimate justice; that our love for others means something?

If you choose to live as if there is a God—even if you are not sure there is a God—you lose nothing and you gain everything.

Religious Christians and Jews are happier, live longer, and are more charitable than their less observant or secular fellow citizens.  These are not my opinions.  These are the findings of a multitude of scientific studies.

If you have been an atheist for a while, it may be difficult for you to change your thinking, even if you find some merit in the many rational arguments for God’s existence.  But you can change your behavior.  You can live as if God’s exists, even if you hold doubts.  Why not?  As I said, you lose nothing and you have everything to gain.

This behavioral approach is far from new.  The Jews have long had a saying, “We will do, and then we will understand,” which acknowledges that action often precedes understanding.  So why not begin with an action?  Why not pray the prayer of the skeptic?

“God, if you exist, you must know that I’m not a believer.  So, please, God, give me the gift of faith, in your time and in your way.  I want to believe whatever is true.  Amen.”

If you say that and mean it, and give it some time, be prepared, because He will not ignore that prayer.

Go on, say it.  Find a private place and say it.  Your Creator is listening.

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Psalm 25:4  —  Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.

Job 6:24  —  Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I have been wrong.

Mark 9:24b  —  I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

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THE PRAYER OF THE SKEPTIC:

God, if you exist, you must know that I’m not a believer.  So, please, God, give me the gift of faith, in your time and in your way.  I want to believe whatever is true.  Amen.

1440) A Verse to Build a Life On

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Adapted from 100 Bible Verses That Changed the World, By William and Randy Peterson, pages 73-4, Revel publishing, 2001.

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     At age 22 William Penn had everything.  He was the son of a respected British admiral, had gone to Oxford, had traveled throughout Europe, and was an expert marksman.  He was also handsome, popular, and on the verge of a bright and lucrative career in law.  In addition, Penn’s family was rich.  His father had sent him to Ireland to manage the family properties there that would someday be his.  There he faced a mutiny, and enjoyed putting down the rebellion so much, that he considered a career in the military.  It seemed every option was available to him.

     What he chose shocked everyone.  He chose to become a Quaker, the least understood, most despised, and most persecuted religious group in England.  They dissented against and refused to take part in the official Church of England.  They also refused to take oaths, and thus, would not swear allegiance to king or country.  The authorities frowned on this, so for William Penn to choose this route would most certainly limit his other options.

     Most Quakers were passive and bore persecution quietly, but not William Penn.  He was used to being in control; he had, after all, put down that rebellion in Ireland.  He  was not quiet about his religious beliefs, and was arrested and imprisoned several times.

     He always spoke in his own defense, challenging the British legal system.  He wrote books, arguing that it was counterproductive for a great nation like Britain to deny religious freedom.  His mighty words would get him out of jail, but he made no impact on the British legal system.  Finally, he grew tired of the conflict.  He, like many others, longed for a new start in America.

     The king owed Penn’s late father a large sum of money and had not yet paid it back.  Instead of payment, Penn asked for a grant of land in the New World.  In the middle of the colonies there was a chunk of land that seemed worthless to King Charles, so it seemed to him to provide an opportunity to not only pay off a debt, but also to get rid of some dissenters.  The land was given to William Penn.  He, along with many more Quakers, went there.  Eventually, the place became known as Pennsylvania.

     Penn planned to establish a “Holy Settlement” in Pennsylvania to show that faith could really create a new society.  Its chief city would be ‘Philadelphia,’ Greek for ‘city of brotherly love.’  Penn would show the world what people of goodwill could do when guided by their Christian faith.

     His settlement had much success in the early years, not the least of which was a perfect relationship with the Native Americans in the area.  While neighboring colonies were constantly raiding and being raided by Indians, not one drop of Quaker blood was shed.  This is because from the beginning, William Penn assured the Native Americans of his good will and respect, and his intention to be fair and honest with them in everything.  He never went back on his word.

     William Penn’s ‘Holy Experiment’ did not last much beyond his lifetime.  Without his leadership, the Quakers started fighting among themselves.  They did not have Penn’s power and goodwill to meet the many challenges of life in the New World.  So while the whole of his dream failed, one part, the promise of religious freedom was catching on.  This New World idea found its fullest expression in Pennsylvania, and because it was working there, the idea was adopted in America’s Bill of Rights, signed a century later in William Penn’s own Philadelphia.

     What was it that changed William Penn from the powerful and skilled young lawyer who seemed to have the world at his fingertips, to a religious dissenter and an outcast among his own people?  It was a Bible verse.  When Penn was 22 years old, he heard a sermon preached on I John 5:4 which says, “And this is what gives us the victory that overcomes the world– it is our faith.”  Penn wrote later that it was that sermon, on that verse, that changed him, setting his life off in a whole new direction.  It was to be a path that would lead to a profound influence on the founding of this new nation.

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I John 5:3-5  —  This is love for God: to keep his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.  This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Matthew 5:14  —  You are the light of the world.  A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

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FUNERAL PRAYER BY WILLIAM PENN (1644-1718):

We give back to you, O God, those whom you gave to us.  You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you.  Your dear Son has taught us that life is eternal and love cannot die.  So death is only an horizon and an horizon is only the limit of our sight.  Open our eyes to see more clearly, and draw us closer to you, so that we may know that we are nearer to our loved ones who are with you.  You have told us that you are preparing a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place, that where you are we may also be always, O dear Lord of life and death.  Amen.

1439) “On My Way to Heaven”

My Brother_s Keeper

We hear much about Christians, who did nothing while the Holocaust was going on all around them.  But not all Christians were passive in the face of this great evil.  Rod Gragg’s My Brother’s Keeper: Christians Who Risked All to Protect Jewish Targets of the Nazi Holocaust (2016) details the extraordinary courage of 30 ordinary people who believed Jewish lives mattered and did extraordinary things to preserve them. Among the heroes: Scottish schoolteacher Jane Haining, who, when the Nazis came, stayed with her students at a predominantly Jewish boarding school in Budapest, Hungary.  The excerpt that follows was taken from chapter 25 of that book.

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     When she heard the wail of approaching sirens, Jane Haining knew what it meant: the Nazis were coming.  The date was April 4, 1944, and Haining was a Scottish schoolteacher in Budapest, Hungary, presiding over a boarding school composed mainly of Jewish children.  Teaching and caring for her Jewish students was Jane Haining’s life work.  It was a call that she had accepted as a Christian more than twelve years earlier.  In 1932, she had been a thirty-four-year-old single woman working as a secretary in a textile factory in Scotland.  She was a member of the Church of Scotland, and one night she attended a life-changing church missions program.  There she learned about a church ministry in Hungary that included a school for Jewish orphans.  Turning to a friend sitting beside her, she stated confidently, “I have found my life-work.”

     Haining had a delicate appearance that belied a strong Scottish personality and a bold faith in Jesus Christ.  She had grown up in a large farming family, had lost her mother when she was only five, and had acquired an independent spirit and a zeal for learning.  A bright student in her village grammar school, she was awarded a scholarship to a highly regarded Scottish academy, and then attended college in Glasgow and Edinburgh.  She had become a Christian as a girl, had taught Sunday school while still a teenager, and was elated at the opportunity to become headmaster of the girls’ elementary program at the Scottish school in Budapest.

     She thrived there.  She already spoke German, quickly learned to speak fluent Hungarian, and—despite a no-nonsense style in the classroom—soon became a beloved figure to her Jewish students, many of whom were orphans.  “She was a very sympathetic person,” a former student later recalled.  “So kind.  So good.  Everyone loved her very much.”

     She returned the affection.  Perhaps because she had lost her mother at an early age, she had a tender heart for children and especially for orphans.  “We have one new little six-year-old, an orphan without a mother or a father,” she wrote in a letter home.  “She is such a pathetic wee soul to look at, and I fear, poor lamb, has not been in good surroundings… She certainly does look as though she needs heaps and heaps of love.”  About another child she wrote, “We have one nice little mite who is an orphan and is coming to school for the first time.  She seems to be a lonely little soul and needs lots of love.  We shall see what we can do to make life happier for her… What a ghastly feeling it must be to know that no one wants you.”

     As Nazism spread through Europe and war erupted, the Scottish boarding school in Budapest became a sanctuary for its Jewish students.  “Anti-Semitism presented itself in many places and forms in those times,” recalled a former student decades later, “but in the Scottish school I never sensed it either from the teachers or another student, either directly or indirectly.  The school was a warm nest.”

     …Hitler ordered German troops to invade Hungary in March of 1944 and installed a fascist puppet government…  Hitler also demanded that Hungary’s eight hundred thousand Jews be deported for annihilation as part of the Nazi Final Solution…  Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest the day the German army invaded, and with a contingent of six hundred troops took command of the Jewish deportations.  Within ten days of his arrival, Hungarian Jews were forbidden to travel, use telephones, do any work besides common labor, or withdraw money from their bank accounts—and they were all ordered to wear a yellow cloth Star of David on their clothing.  Soon thousands of Jews were being assembled in Budapest and herded into railway boxcars for deportation to Auschwitz and other death camps.

     As she sewed the yellow stars on her students’ clothing, Jane Haining wept.  Upon learning that the German army had invaded Hungary, officials in the Church of Scotland ordered Haining and the other Scots who worked at the Budapest mission to immediately return home, but she refused.  To her, the Jewish schoolgirls she taught were her ‘daughters.’  “If these children need me in the days of sunshine,” she explained, “how much more will they need me in the days of darkness?”  It was wrong, Haining declared, “to distinguish one child of one race and the child of another.”  Jesus said, “Let the little children come unto Me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”  As a British citizen, she was viewed as an enemy by the Nazi invaders, and an informer soon reported her opinions to the Gestapo.

     As Budapest’s Jewish families were rounded up for deportation, she tried to reassure the children, and kept up a brave face.  If her Jewish students were going to be deported to some terrible fate, Jane Haining was determined to go with them.  She did—and the Nazis took her first.  When the Gestapo came for her, they came in a car with a blaring siren, arrested her, and took her away… The children cried for her as they stood outside the school and watched her get into the Gestapo car. She was sentenced to deportation, and was loaded into a cattle car with the Jews of Hungary whom she had come to serve and had grown to love.

     Her destination was the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz…  In the early summer of 1944, more than four thousand Hungarian Jews were being killed at Auschwitz every day; and Jane Haining was among them.  German authorities notified the Church of Scotland that Haining had died of illness; other evidence, however, revealed that she was executed with Hungarian Jewish women in a gas chamber at Auschwitz on August 16, 1944.

     By the summer of 1944, most Jews were killed immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz, but as a political prisoner Haining was imprisoned for about two months before she was executed…  Prisoners were fed a starvation diet of meager vegetable broth, were awakened at four thirty a.m. for a grueling twelve-hour workday, and slept on wooden racks in rooms that were crowded far beyond their intended capacity.  For Jews especially, the labor was intentionally so brutal that many prisoners quickly died of exhaustion.

     In the few weeks before her death, Haining was allowed to write a postcard to her superiors at the Church of Scotland.  Her telling observation reflected her understanding of what lay ahead for her—in this life and afterward: “There is not much to report here on my way to heaven.”

     …In January 1945, Soviet forces reached the Polish city of Kraków and liberated Auschwitz…  When Soviet troops captured the giant camp, they found only about seven thousand prisoners still alive. Some of Jane Haining’s Jewish students somehow survived the Holocaust, and they never forgot her. “Those children adored her,” one recalled. “She was a real mother of her ‘daughters.’”

     After Haining’s death, her Bible was discovered at the school. In it was a bookmark, and on it—in her handwriting—was a Bible verse from the New Testament book of Mark: “Be not afraid, only believe.”

Associated Press

Some children that survived Auschwitz and were liberated in January 1945

Photo by Yad Vashem/Center Street

Jane Haining  (1897-1944)

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Mark 5:36b  —  (Jesus said), “Be not afraid, only believe.”

Genesis 4:9b  —   “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Matthew 19:14a  —  Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

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O God, it is your will to hold both heaven and earth in a single peace.  Let the design of your great love shine on the waste of our wraths and sorrows, and give peace to your church, peace among nations, peace in our homes, and peace in our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1978, (prayer #166)

1438) What Hath God Wrought?

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     Have you checked your cell phone lately?  Do you have a computer in your home?  Do you ever look up anything on the internet, watch television, or listen to the radio?  If so, you can thank Samuel Morse (1791-1872), the “Father of American Telecommunications,” a Christian man who wanted to make sure God received all the glory.

     Samuel Morse showed excellent promise as an artist.  A career in art was recommended to him by one of the greatest artists of his day, Gilbert Stuart.  Morse’s father sent him off to Europe where he could receive the very best art education.  He did quite well for a young man, even having some of his work exhibited in London’s Royal Academy.  But when he came back to America he faced a series of tragedies.  His father, his mother, and his young wife all died within a brief period of time.  Along with all that, he was going broke, unable to make a living as a painter in America.  So he got on a ship to return to Europe where he had enjoyed at least some success and profit from his work.

     Aboard ship he heard some men discussing new experiments with something called ‘electromagnetism.’  Morse picked up on the idea quickly and caught on to the principles they were describing.  He said, “If the presence of electricity can be made visible in any part of a circuit, I see no reason why intelligence could not be transmitted instantaneously by electricity.”  Morse was a fast learner and an innovator, and before the ship landed in Europe he had developed a plan to make it work.  In 1837 he applied for a patent on his ideas.  He also created the Morse Code as a way of communicating the letters of the alphabet with dots and dashes.

     Now he needed the money to get his idea from the drawing board to reality, but this was going to be a problem.  People laughed in his face when he told them what he had in mind, and he could not find anyone to give him any money.  For six long years he sought backing in the United States and in Europe.  All the while, he struggled financially.  He was an outstanding artist who could not make enough money at that; and he was an inventor with an invention he believed would change the world, but he could convince no one to back him.

     Finally, in 1843, the US Congress awarded him thirty-thousand dollars to build a telegraphic line from Baltimore to Washington, D.C.  He was done within a year.  His first message was a Bible verse, Numbers 23:23, “What hath God wrought!;” or, see what God has done!

     The verse was a description of how Samuel Morse saw his work.  He saw his invention simply as the discovery of how to use one aspect of God’s wonderful creation.  He said of his first electronically transmitted message: “‘What hath God wrought!  That verse expresses the disposition of my mind at this time.  I wanted to ascribe all the honor to the one to whom it truly belongs.”

     Within months lines were being built and telegraphic communications were sweeping the nation.  Soon, businesses, newspapers, railroads, and governments were all depending on Morse’s invention.

   Today’s modern communications network, including telephones, computers, email, the internet, GPS, and everything else, are all developments of the basic idea Morse had to transmit information electronically.

     In those hopeless years when no one believed in him, Morse said that it was some words of Jesus that sustained him (Matthew 6:28): “If I clothe the lilies of the field, shall I not also cloth you?”  Morse said at that time, “My only gleam of hope is confidence in God.  When I look upward it calms any fear of the future, and I will wait patiently for the Lord.”

     Near the end of his life, he wrote, “The nearer I approach the end of my pilgrimage, the clearer to me is the evidence for the divine origin of the Bible, the more I appreciate God’s remedy for fallen mankind, and the more my future is filled with hope and joy.”

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Education without religion is in danger of substituting wild theories for the simple commonsense rules of Christianity.

–Samuel Morse

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Numbers 23:23b  —  “What hath God wrought!”  King James Version   (“See what God has done.”  New International Version)

Isaiah 24:15a  —  Therefore,…  give glory to the Lord.

Ecclesiastes 7:25a  —  I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things…

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AN EVENING SONG OF PRAISE:

All praise to thee, my God, this night,
for all the blessings of the light!
Keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
beneath thine own almighty wings…

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below;
praise him above, ye heavenly host;
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

–Thomas Ken (1637-1711)