1991) Birth and Death

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By Rebecca McLaughlin, “Giving Birth Taught Me How to Die,” September 20, 2018, at:  http://www.desiringgod.org .  Rebecca holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill Seminary in London.  Formerly Vice President of content at The Veritas Forum, Rebecca is now co-founder of Vocable Communications.  She is the author of the forthcoming book, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Worldview (Crossway, 2019).

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     Last month I gave birth to my third child.  It was the painful peeling back of twenty-first century comforts that labor always is.  Agonizing, and undignified: my life was suddenly interrupted by invasive procedures, and my body was writhing from the shock of natural processes.

     Labor in the West today is an odd coupling.  Our most ancient, primal processes stitched awkwardly together with state-of-the-art technology.  I was not having a “natural birth,” and yet much of what happened was unavoidably natural.

     As I lay on the hospital bed, waiting to meet my son, two windows opened in my mind.

     The first was a window onto birth: real birth, as experienced by billions of women before me.  Delivering a child was hard for me, despite every help and convenience, every nurse and doctor who attended me, every soothing drug that seeped into my veins to numb the pain.  My body was ravaged.  But I had help in every form and a faithful husband by my side — that day and for the many days to come.  What would it be like without all this?

     My mind flipped through scenes of other women giving birth — scenes I have only accessed through words on a page or images on a screen.  Women who give birth alone.  Women who have no medical help and confront the harshness of birth without relief.  Women who know their child may die — or that they themselves may die — in the process.  We in the West have stretched ourselves away from these realities, but lying in a labor and delivery ward, the specter of what birth has meant to billions hovered around me and I could not shake it.

     Then came the questions: how could God allow this much pain to this many?  The stark suffering written into the script of human beginnings.   The lonely lament of women who give birth on the margins, hiding in shadows or exposed by circumstance.  And yet God is — as the slave-girl mother Hagar named him — “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13).

     He is the God who tenderly witnesses this suffering, who meets us in it if we turn to him.  And he is the God who alone can truly help, whether we lie on a dirt floor or a hospital bed.  Indeed, he is the God who relates to us like a woman giving birth.  He is the Rock who bore us, the God who gave us birth (Deuteronomy 32:18).  Though a mother may forget the baby at her breast, he will not forget us (Isaiah 49:15).  There are no tidy answers from this God.  But there is the broken body of his Son, naked and humiliated, dying so that we might live.

     And then my mind wandered forward.  I will never endure the harshness of an unhelped birth.  But one day, I will face the harshness of death.  One day, my visit to a hospital will not end with a new life in my arms, but with my cold dead body covered by a sheet.  The doctors will attempt to help.  They will bring their machines, but they will be running for a train that is gaining speed.  In the end, my hands will slip through their fingers.  It may be an undignified farewell.  The best I can hope for is that my children will be there.  My husband, if we follow statistical norms, will have already paved the way.  What then will be my hope, as lights flicker and monitors blink?

     The story of Lazarus raised from the dead has been on my mind for many years.  Not because Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!” and the man who was dead comes out (John 11:43–44) — though the scene is marvelous.  But because of the quiet conversation Jesus has with Martha first.

     Jesus forced this crisis.  Martha called for him when her brother was sick, and Jesus did not come.  He deliberately let Lazarus die, waiting until he had been dead four days.  And then he came.  “I am the resurrection and the life,” he told this woman through her tears.  “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25).

     Jesus does not just give us resurrection.  He is the resurrection and the life.  Without him, there is only death.  With him, there is a life no lonely death can take away.  Giving birth was, for me, a trial run — a window onto the vista of death.  The modern-day blinds were drawn back for a moment.

     Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

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Genesis 16:13  —  (Hagar) gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”

Deuteronomy 32:18  —  You deserted the Rock, who fathered you; you forgot the God who gave you birth.

Isaiah 49:15  —  (God said), “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?  Though she may forget, I will not forget you.”

John 11:25  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

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Lord Jesus, when our brief time on earth is ended, take us unto Thee, for we are Thine and Thou art ours, and we long to be with Thee.  Here on earth let our small service be a part of Thy great work in this world; and then, at the last, receive us into Thy Kingdom.  Amen.

–Philip Melancthon  (1497-1560), German reformer

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1990) Choose NOT to Be Offended

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Posted September 21, 2018, at:  http://www.dwellingintheword.wordpress.com

     Once when visiting with a friend, I was relating an incident which had caused friction and ill will between a mutual friend, “Jack,” and another person.  Jack was quite hurt and discouraged by what had happened, and frankly, the other person was clearly at fault. 

     My friend said, “I know a way to prevent such things from ever happening.”  I was astonished at his remark — what inside information did he have?

      “It is really quite simple,” my friend said.  “Choose NOT to be offended.”

     Choose NOT to be offended.  It has become a motto for me!  When people say the wrong thing, whether unthinkingly or deliberately, I say to myself, “If they are unaware, oh well, it is not my problem.  If they are trying to hurt me, I will sweetly deny them that satisfaction.  I choose NOT to be offended.”  And I let it go.  If someone does something which makes my life more difficult and I find myself getting knotted up about it, I remind myself, “Life is full of ups and downs.  Choose NOT to be offended and just get on with it.”  And I stop the pity party.

     1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”  In my youth I thought it meant that my love covered other people’s sins, particularly the people I liked and could be generous and forgiving towards.  Now I know it is God’s love that covers all our sins.  Only with Christ’s forgiveness can I live at all.  With that clearly in mind, then, I have found it easier and easier to take my friend’s advice and choose NOT to be offended.

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Proverbs 19:11  —  A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.

I Peter 4:8  —  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Ephesians 4:2  —  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Colossians 3:12-13  —  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

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FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US.  As we are forgiven by you, may we forgive all who wrong and offend us.  Help us remember that no one can harm us without doing himself a far greater injury in your sight, so that we may be moved to compassion for them instead of anger, moved to pity rather than a desire for revenge.  May we not be tempted to rejoice when they are troubled, nor be grieved when they prosper.  We will not benefit from the downfall of our enemies, so we pray that you have mercy on them, and then also give us the grace to forgive them from our heart.  Amen.

–Martin Luther

1989) “If You Hear I’m Dead…”

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“Some day you will read in the newspaper that D. L. Moody of East Northfield, Massachusetts is dead.  Don’t you believe a word of it.  At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now.  I will have gone up higher, that’s all; out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal, eternal in the heavens; a body that death cannot touch; that sin cannot taint.  I was born  of the flesh in 1837.  I was born of the spirit in 1856.  That which is born of the flesh may die.  That which is born of the spirit will live forever.”

–Dwight L. Moody, the greatest evangelist of the 19th century  (1837-1899)

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A young Benjamin Franklin wrote this little verse in 1728 to serve as his epitaph.  Franklin made copies of this verse for friends at various times in his life.  This plaque appears on a wall near Franklin’s grave.

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     “Good morning, and how is John Quincy Adams today?” asked an old friend as he shook the former president’s trembling hand.

     The retired chief executive looked at him for a moment and then replied, “John Quincy Adams is quite well, sir, quite well.  But the house in which he lives at the present is becoming dilapidated.  It is tottering upon its foundation.  Time and the seasons have almost destroyed it.  Its roof is pretty well worn out.  Its walls are much shattered and it crumbles a little bit with every wind.  The old tenement is becoming almost uninhabitable, and I think John Quincy will have to move out of it soon.  But he himself is quite well, sir, quite well.”

     It was not long after that he suffered his second and fatal stroke.

John Quincy Adams (1767 – 1848)

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John 11:25-26  —  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”

John 14:18-19  —  (Jesus said), “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.  Yet a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also.”

2 Corinthians 5:1-9 (Contemporary English Version)  —  Our bodies are like tents that we live in here on earth.  But when these tents are destroyed, we know that God will give each of us a place to live.  These homes will not be buildings that someone has made, but they are in heaven and will last forever.  While we are here on earth, we sigh because we want to live in that heavenly home.  We want to put it on like clothes and not be naked.  These tents we now live in are like a heavy burden, and we groan.  But we don’t do this just because we want to leave these bodies that will die.  It is because we want to change them for bodies that will never die.  God is the one who makes all of this possible.  He has given us his Spirit to make us certain that he will do it.  So always be cheerful!  As long as we are in these bodies, we are away from the Lord.  But we live by faith, not by what we see.  We should be cheerful, because we would rather leave these bodies and be at home with the Lord.  But whether we are at home with the Lord or away from him, we still try our best to please him.

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Father in heaven, draw our hearts to you, that our hearts may be where our true treasure is found, and that our minds and thoughts may look to your kingdom, whose citizens we are.  Thus, when you shall call us hence, our departure may not be a painful separation from this world, but a joyous meeting with you.  

Perhaps a long road still lies before us.  Sometimes our strength is gone, and a faintness overcomes us, and we are in darkness; we become restless and impatient and our heart groans in anxiety about what is to come.  O Lord our God, do then teach us, and strengthen in our hearts the conviction that in life, as well as in death, we belong to you.  Amen.

–Soren Kierkegaard  (1813-1855)  Danish philosopher and theologian

1988) Why, or What?

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“God Wants You to Grow Up,” by Rick Warren, Daily Hope meditation, September 19, 2018, at http://www.pastorrick.org:

     God created you to become like Christ.  He wants you to grow up spiritually.

     The Bible says, “From the very beginning God decided that those who came to him—and all along he knew who would—should become like his Son” (Romans 8:29 TLB).  God’s goal has always been to make you like himself—not to become a god but to become godly, with godly character.

     The number one question I’m asked as a pastor is, “Why is this happening to me?”  I’ll tell you why: It’s to help you grow up spiritually.  Everything in life is designed to help you grow up spiritually—the good, the bad, the ugly, the stuff you bring on yourself, and the stuff that other people do to you.  God is not the author of evil.  But God can bring good out of bad things.

     Instead of asking, “God, why is this happening to me?” ask, “God, what do you want me to learn from this?”  Every situation in life will either make you bitter or better.  You choose how you will respond to it.

     Every problem has a purpose, and the purpose is to help you grow up spiritually to be more like Jesus Christ.

     So if one of the purposes of your life is to grow up spiritually and to become like Jesus, what is Jesus like?  When you look at him, you see what the Bible calls the fruit of the Spirit.  It says, “He will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 TLB).  These are the qualities God wants to build in your life.

     How does God produce those qualities in your life?  How does God grow character and help you grow up spiritually?  God teaches you these qualities by putting you in the exact opposite situation.

     He teaches you love by putting you around unlovely people.  He teaches you joy in the middle of grief.  God teaches you peace in the middle of chaos.  He teaches you patience in the Department of Motor Vehicles!

     God will teach you all of these qualities throughout your life—and it will take the rest of your life.  It’s a process.  He will use all kinds of situations in your life to help you develop spiritual depth and become more like Christ.

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Ephesians 4:15  —  Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

Romans 8:29  —  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Philippians 2:1-5  —  If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

Galatians 5:22-23a  —  The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

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Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.

–From the 1971 musical Godspell,

Based on a prayer by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

1987) What If…? Even If…!

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By Vaneetha Rendall Risner, September 15, 2018, at:  http://www.desiringgod.org

     I found myself growing fearful.  Not a heart-stopping, all-encompassing fear, but the kind of constant gnawing that occurs when you look at the discouraging trends of the present and assume things will never change.  When you think about the future and wonder, “What if the worst happens?”

     What if?

     I’ve spent a lifetime considering the “what ifs.”  Those questions have a way of unsettling me, destroying my peace, leaving me insecure.

     People in the Bible were uneasy about “what if” questions, too.  When told to lead the Israelites, Moses asked God, “What if they don’t believe me?”  Abraham’s servant asked about Isaac’s future wife, “What if the young woman refuses to come with me?”  Joseph’s brothers asked, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us?”  All of them wondered what would happen if circumstances went awry.  Just like we do.

     We all face a staggering array of “what ifs.”  Some are minor issues while others have life-altering repercussions.  What if my child dies?  What if I get cancer?  What if my spouse leaves me?

     The uncomfortable truth is, any of those things could happen.  No one is free from tragedy or pain.  There are no guarantees of an easy life.  For any of us.  Ever.

     I was considering this sobering reality a few months ago.  Over the course of several days, I had brought numerous longings and requests before the Lord.  I wanted them fulfilled.  But the unthinkable question haunted me: What if my inmost longings are never met and my nightmares come true?

Is God Enough?

   As I sat poring over my Bible, I was reminded of the questions I had wrestled with for decades.  “Is God enough?  If my deepest fears are realized, will he still be sufficient?”  Each time those questions had come up in the past, I’d pushed them out of my mind.  But this time, I knew I needed to face them.

     I wondered: If my health spirals downward and I end up in an institution, will God be enough?  If my children rebel and never walk closely with the Lord, will God be enough?  If I never remarry and never feel loved by a man again, will God be enough?  If my ministry doesn’t flourish and I never see fruit from it, will God be enough?  If my suffering continues and I never see the purpose in it, will God be enough?  I wish I could have automatically said, “Yes, of course God will be sufficient.”  But I struggled.  I didn’t want to give up my dreams, surrender those things that were dear to me, relinquish what I felt entitled to.

     I reflected on my unilateral unwritten contract with God, where I promise to do my part if he fulfills my longings.  I reluctantly admitted that part of my desire to be faithful was rooted in my expectation of a payback.  Didn’t God owe me something?

     Reluctantly, I opened my hands, filled with my dreams, and surrendered them to him.  I didn’t want to love God for what he could do for me.  I wanted to love God for who he is.  To worship him because he is worthy.

     God’s presence overwhelmed me as I relinquished my expectations.  He reminded me that I have something far better than a reassurance that my dreaded “what ifs” won’t happen.  I have the assurance that even if they do happen, he will be there in the midst of them.  He will carry me.  He will comfort me.  He will tenderly care for me.  God doesn’t promise us a trouble-free life.  But he does promise that he will be there in the midst of our sorrows.

Even If

   In the Bible, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not guaranteed deliverance.  Just before Nebuchadnezzar delivered them to the fire, they offered some of the most courageous words ever spoken.  “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it . . . But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods . . . ”

     Even if.

     Even if the worst happens, God’s grace is sufficient.  Those three young men faced the fire without fear because they knew that whatever the outcome, it would ultimately be for their good and for God’s glory.  They did not ask “what if” the worst happened.  They were satisfied knowing that “even if” the worst happened, God would take care of them.

     Even if.

     Those two simple words have taken the fear out of life.  Replacing “what if” with “even if” is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make.  We trade our irrational fears of an uncertain future for the loving assurance of an unchanging God.  We see that even if the worst happens, God will carry us.  He will still be good.  And he will never leave us, and we will forever be with him.

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Daniel 3:17-18  —   (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) said), “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it . . . But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods.”

Habakkuk 3:17-18  —  Even if the fig tree does not bloom and the vines have no grapes, even if the olive tree fails to produce and the fields yield no food, even if the sheep pen is empty and the stalls have no cattle—(even then), I will be happy with the Lord.  I will truly find joy in God, who saves me. 

I Peter 3:14  —  Even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.  Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.

Numbers 24:13  —  (Balaam said), “Even if Balak gave me all the silver and gold in his palace, I could not do anything of my own accord, good or bad, to go beyond the command of the Lord…”

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–John Henry Newman

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1986) A ‘Patron Saint’ for Sex Offenders?

By Chloe Langr, posted July 6, 2017, at: http://www.epicpew.com

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     On June 24, 1950, Pope Pius XII stood before 500,000 people gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for the canonization of a new saint, the youngest ever.

     “Young people,” the Pope asked the crowd, “are you determined to resist any attack on your chastity with the help and grace of God?”

     “Yes!” echoed the response of thousands of young Catholics.

     Despite the celebration and joy, sixty-six year old Alessandro Serenelli stood crying in the middle of the crowd.  He may have stuck out in the crowd of young people promising, but he played a part in the life of the young woman whose canonization the Church was celebrating.

     He had murdered St. Maria Goretti in 1902.  (See yesterday’s Emailmeditation, #1985)

     On a hot day in July, Maria was home watching her little sister Teresa and repairing one of Alessandro’s shirts.  Their families lived in the same house as poor Italian tenant farmers.  Alessandro returned from threshing beans and attempted to rape Maria.

     Maria fought back, telling Alessandro that what he wanted to do with her was a mortal sin, and she didn’t want his soul to go to Hell.  “No! It is a sin!” she screamed. “God does not want it!”

     He tried choking her, but when she said she would rather die than let him commit a mortal sin, he stabbed her fourteen times and ran away.

     Maria lived for 24 more hours before dying at a local hospital.  Before she entered into Heaven, she said she wanted Alessandro to join her in Heaven and she forgave him.

     Alessandro couldn’t have cared less about Maria’s forgiveness.  During the trial he was unrepentant, and admitted to attempting to rape Maria several times before killing her because of her refusal.  He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, escaping a life sentence only because he was a minor when he committed the crime.

     For three years, Alessandro said nothing to the outside world from his prison cell.  But when a local bishop, Monsignor Giovanni Blandini visited him in jail, Alessandro told him of a strange dream he had.  He was in a garden, and so was Maria.  She handed him a bouquet of lilies, which burned his hands.

     He woke up a changed man.  He was released from prison 27 years after Maria’s death and his first visit was to Maria’s mother, Assunta.  He begged her for forgiveness and she told him, “If my daughter can forgive you, who am I to withhold forgiveness?”  The two went to Mass together the next day and received Holy Communion side by side at the altar rail.

     Alessandro repented of the murder and later became a lay brother with the Capuchin Franciscans and worked in the monastery as a gardener.  He died in 1970.  In a written testimony, Alessandro reflected on his past and his encounter with Maria Goretti:

My behavior was influenced by print, mass-media, and bad examples which are followed by the majority of young people without even thinking.  And I did the same.  I was not worried.  There were a lot of generous and devoted people who surrounded me, but I paid no attention to them because a violent force blinded me and pushed me toward a wrong way of life.”

     In the early 1900s, pornographic photos were sold near the train stations.  Pornography was readily available to Alessandro, and it twisted his ideas of the sexuality and chastity. 

     Although the Catholic Church has not opened a case for the canonization of Alessandro, his story of overcoming the effects of pornography is inspiring in today’s world.  Our modern, hyper-sexualized culture encourages sexual immorality, yet Alessandro’s life stands as an example of the power of forgiveness and repentance.

     This is the entire text of Alessandro’s testimony, found among his personal belongings after  his death:

I am now almost 80 years old.  I am close to the end of my days.

Looking back at my past, I recognize that in my early youth I followed a false road—an evil path that led to my ruin.

Through the content of printed magazines, immoral shows, and bad examples in the media, I saw the majority of the young people of my day following evil without even thinking twice.  Unworried, I did the same thing.

There were faithful and practicing Christian believers around me, but I paid no attention to them.  I was blinded by a brute impulse that pushed me down the wrong way of living.

At the age of 20, I committed a crime of passion, the memory of which still horrifies me today.  Maria Goretti, now a saint, was my good angel whom God placed in my path to save me.  Her words both of rebuke and forgiveness are still imprinted in my heart.  She prayed for me, interceding for her killer.  Thirty years in prison followed.

 If I had not been a minor, in Italian law I would have been sentenced to life in prison.  Nevertheless, I accepted the sentence I received as something I deserved.

Resigned, I atoned for my sin.  Little Maria was truly my light, my protectress.  With her help, I served those 27 years in prison well.  When society accepted me back among its members, I tried to live honestly.  With angelic charity, the sons of St. Francis, the minor Capuchins of the Marches, welcomed me among them not as a servant, but as a brother.  I have lived with them for 24 years.  Now I look serenely to the time in which I will be admitted to the vision of God, to embrace my dear ones once again, and to be close to my guardian angel, Maria Goretti, and her dear mother, Assunta.

May all who read this letter of mine desire to follow the blessed teaching of avoiding evil and following the good.  May all believe with the faith of little children that religion with its precepts is not something one can do without.  Rather, it is true comfort, and the only sure way in all of life’s circumstances—even in the most painful.

Peace and all good.

Alessandro Serenelli
Macerata, Italy
5 May 1961

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Alessandro Serenelli  (1882-1970)

Maria’s forgiveness of Alessandro was felt personally by him.  He knew his salvation in Christ was due to her.  In his words, “Maria’s forgiveness saved me.”  Rather than living the rest of his life in self-hatred, he relished in the joy that comes from being forgiven.  Even when he was over 80 years old, such as in this picture, his face radiated this joy.

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I Timothy 1:12-16  —   (The Apostle Paul wrote), I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service.  Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.  The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.  But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.

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God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

–Luke 18:13

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.

–Psalm 51:10

1985) The ‘Patron Saint’ of #MeToo Movement

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     Maria Teresa Goretti was born in Corinaldo, Italy, on October 16, 1890.  Her father Luigi was a farmer, but when Maria was six the family fell on hard times.  Luigi was forced to give up his farm and work for other farmers.  The family moved to Ferrier di Conca, near Anzio.  When Maria was only nine, her father died of malaria and her mother had to struggle to feed her children.  While her mother, brothers, and older sister worked in the fields, Maria would cook, sew, watch her infant sister, and keep the house clean.  Life was hard, but the family was very close.  They shared a deep faith in God.

     The family lived in a large building along with other farm worker families, including Giovanni Serenelli and his eighteen year old son, Alessandro.  On July 5, 1902 Alessandro came into the room where the eleven year old Maria was alone sewing.  He had persistently been seeking  sexual favors from Maria and she was always able to resist him, but this time he threatened her with a knife if she did not do as he said.  Maria would not submit to the intended rape, protesting that what he wanted to do was a mortal sin and warning Alessandro that he would go to hell.  She fought desperately to stop him.  Alessandro started choking Maria, but when she said she would rather die than submit he stabbed her several times with his knife, and then ran away.

     The violence awoke the infant.  When Maria’s mother came to check on the crying child, she found the bleeding Maria and took her to the nearest hospital.  Surgery was unsuccessful and Maria died less than 24 hours after the attack.  Before she died, Maria expressed forgiveness for her murderer, stating that she hoped that he could one day be in heaven with her.

     Alessandro was captured and sentenced to thirty years in prison.  For three years he was unrepentant and had no communication with the outside world.  Then one day the local bishop visited him.  Some time later, Alessandro wrote a thank you note to the bishop, asking for his prayers and telling him about a dream he had in which “Maria Goretti gave him lilies which burned immediately in his hands.”  When he woke, he repented of his crime and vowed to live a reformed life.

     When Alessandro was released 27 years later he went directly to Maria’s still-living mother Assunta to beg her forgiveness.  She forgave him saying, “If my daughter could forgive him, who am I to withhold forgiveness?”  The next day they attended Mass together, receiving communion side by side.

     On June 24, 1950, Pope Pius XII canonized Maria as a saint.  Assunta was there, the first mother ever to attend the canonization of her child.  Alessandro was also there.  He later became a lay brother of an Order of Friars, living in a monastery and working as its receptionist and gardener until he died in 1970. 

     Maria Goretti’s feast day is celebrated on July 6th. She is the patron saint for youth and victims of rape.

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I Peter 3:9  —  Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.  On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.

Matthew 5:43-46  —   (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor  and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?”

Colossians 3:13  —  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

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A PRAYER FOR THE ABILITY TO FORGIVE by Martin Luther:
     My Lord Jesus, look at how my neighbor has injured me, slandered my honor with his talk, and interfered with my rights.  I cannot tolerate this, and so I wish he were out of my way.  O God, hear my complaint.  I cannot feel kindly toward him, even though I know I should.  See how cold and insensible I am.  O Lord, I can’t help it, and so I stand forsaken.  If you change me, I will be devout and have better thoughts.  Otherwise, I must remain as I am.  O dear God, change me by your grace.  Amen.

1984) God and Bad Weather

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From Daddy, Where is God During the Hurricane?, by Bruce Riley Ashford at http://www.foxnews.com, September 15, 2018.  Bruce Ashford is the Provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.  His latest book is “Letters to an American Christian.”

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     “Daddy, where is God during the hurricane?”

     This is the question my five-year-old son asked me yesterday.  We were huddled together on the porch with my wife Lauren and our two daughters, watching the pine trees in our back yard being whipped around by the wind.

     It’s a good question.

     If God is as good and as powerful as the Bible says he is, then why would he allow a hurricane like Florence to devastate the Carolina coast, where it has taken the lives of at least seven people already and made thousands of other people homeless?  Where is God during the hurricane?

     Lauren and I struggled to give a response that would satisfy the curiosity of a five-year-old.  But as difficult as it is to grapple with the existence of natural evils, there are some lessons we can all learn in the midst of their devastation.

     The first is that God does not delight in disaster.  When God created the world, he ordered it in such a way that human beings could flourish.  The Bible’s creation account repeatedly refers to the world as “good” and “very good.”  And at the time of creation, human beings had a perfect relationship with God, with each other, and with the world around them.

     It was not God who broke this perfect paradise, but humans.  Through the sin of Adam and Eve—a sin in which we all share—evil unthinkable was unleashed upon our world.  Even the natural world was poisoned by this first rebellion, transforming from a place of peace into a realm of danger.

     A second lesson Florence may teach us is of the greatness of God.  Even as we stand in awe of the overwhelming power of hurricane-force winds and deluges of water, we should remember that there is nothing more powerful than God and his words.  God created the wind and the waves.

     As Jesus demonstrated when he lived among us, the wind and waves still obey his voice.  The disciples of Jesus were not warmed and comforted by this fact.  They saw in Jesus a power more astounding than a hurricane, and it led them to a more profound fear (cf. Mark 4:41).  When we stand before the power of the storm, we should let our feelings of fear and awe remind us of our dependence on God.

     Third, while natural disasters bring tragedy, they also can bring out the best in humanity.  We’ve already heard several stories of heroism and sacrifice during Hurricane Florence.  On Saturday morning, we learned of rescuers who risked their lives to trying to save a family trapped underneath a fallen tree and collapsed roof.  On Saturday afternoon, there were reports that thousands of volunteers—through organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse and North Carolina Baptist Disaster Relief—have joined emergency teams to provide medical assistance, makeshift shelters, and hot meals for victims of the disaster.  Thousands of other stories of bravery and compassion will be written in the days to come.

   Fourth, in light of such acts of love and courage, a hurricane such as Florence could be a catalyst to bring some healing to our deeply divided nation.  In the midst of the gale-force winds and surging water, Americans of every political stripe are working together to rescue the trapped, heal the wounded, and feed the hungry.  As a country, we are never greater than when we respond to disaster with unity.  And we can only hope that, once the wind and rain have ceased, we can find a way to reach across the aisle to bring some healing to our social, cultural, and political wounds.

     In the end, the most powerful answer to, “Where is God in the midst of Hurricane Florence?” is, “He is right here with us.”  As I tried to explain to my small children, God entered the suffering of our world on a mission to end it.  Not only is he familiar with tragedy and loss, but he willingly laid down his life to put evil to death forever.  Jesus’ death on the cross proves the lengths he will go to identify with us in our suffering.  And his resurrection provides a down payment on his promise to return one day to put an end to suffering once-and-for all.

     In the meantime, before he returns, these evils offer us an opportunity to respond to the needs of our world with courage, faith, and love.  And that is something that even a five-year-old can understand.

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Genesis 3:17  —  To Adam God said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it;’ cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.”

Romans 8:22  —  We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

Mark 4:37-41  —  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.  Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.  The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet!  Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.  He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid?  Do you still have no faith?”  They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this?  Even the wind and the waves obey him!”

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From The Great Litany, as adapted for the 1930 American Lutheran Hymnal:

Pastor: Lord, have mercy upon us. 
Congregation: LORD, HAVE MERCY UPON US… 
Be gracious unto us. 
SPARE US, GOOD LORD. 
From all sin; from all error; from all evil;
From the crafts and assaults of the devil; 
From sudden and evil death; from pestilence and famine; 
From war and bloodshed; from sedition and rebellion; 
From lightning and tempest; from all calamity by fire and water; 
And from everlasting death: 
GOOD LORD, DELIVER US… 
In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; 
In the hour of our death; and in the day of judgment: 
HELP US, GOOD LORD. 

1983) Returning Good for Evil

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Kennedy and Khrushchev, June, 1961

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By Lee Strobel in  “God’s Outrageous Claims: Thirteen Discoveries that can Transform Your Life” 

     At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, as the tension was building toward what could have been the outbreak of World War III, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sent an urgent message to President John F. Kennedy.  In part, the message said:

You and I should not now pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied a knot of war, because the harder you and I pull, the tighter the knot will become.  And a time may come when this knot is tied so tight that the person who tied it is no longer capable of untying it, and then the knot will have to be cut.  What that would mean I need not explain to you, because you yourself understand perfectly what dread forces our two countries possess.

     In effect, when you make the decision to return good for evil, you’re choosing to stop yanking on the rope of conflict and making the knot in your relationship so tight that it can never be untied.  By simply dropping your end of the cord, you’re loosening the tension and preserving the possibility that the still-loose knot might somehow be untangled by the two of you.  This maintains the hope — however faint — that reconciliation might someday occur.  As you think of the adversary whose face you’ve brought into your mind, you might be tempted to rule out any likelihood of ever having a civil relationship with him or her.  But don’t write off anything too quickly.

     There were probably some Christians who hated Saul when he was filled with malice and breathing threats and murder against the church.  Who would have guessed that he would become the apostle Paul, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord, and preaching love and forgiveness?  The one who treats us as our enemy today may become our brother or sister tomorrow.  Jesus says to treat them today as our brother and sister.

     Hatred writes people off; love holds out hope.

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I Peter 3:8-9  —  Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind.  Do not return evil for evil or reviling for reviling; but on the contrary bless, for to this you have been called, that you may obtain a blessing.

Proverbs 20:22  —  Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and he will help you.

Romans 12:14-21  —  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.  Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I Peter 3:17  —  For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil.

I Corinthians 13:4a…7b —  Love… always hopes, always perseveres.

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FORGIVE US OUR TRESPASSES AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO TRESPASS AGAINST US.  As we are forgiven by you, may we forgive all who wrong and offend us.  Help us remember that no one can harm us without doing himself a far greater injury in your sight, so that we may be moved to compassion for them instead of anger, moved to pity rather than a desire for revenge.  May we not be tempted to rejoice when they are troubled, nor be grieved when they prosper.  We will not benefit from the downfall of our enemies, so we pray that you have mercy on them, and then also give us the grace to forgive them from our heart.  Amen.

–Martin Luther

1982) Remembered… For the Rest of Their Life

By Joshua Rogers, September 8, 2018, at:  http://www.joshuarogers.com

     When I was in third grade, I had problems behaving.  My heart was in the right place, but my good intentions didn’t make it to the surface a lot of the time.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t seem to follow the rules.

     I had a number of infractions on my record, none of which I told my parents about.

     There was the time on the bus I pulled a girl’s hair to get her attention (it worked).

     I also wrote an insulting poem about a chubby kid “whose name was Matt, and he looked really, really fat.”

     Then there was the time I called my classmate a “jackass” and the time I called my ex-girlfriend a — well, it’s not really appropriate to repeat here.

     When I got called to Mr. Radcliff’s office for the sixth time, I had no idea what I had done and I felt dejected as I walked down the hallway.  I came into his office, sat down and looked at the floor.  Then he said the last thing I expected to hear:

     “Josh, I’ve heard you’ve been behaving really well lately.  I want you to know how proud I am of you, and I just called you to my office so I could give you a peppermint.”

     I was stunned.

     “Really?

     “Yep, now you can take that peppermint and go back to class.”

     I took the peppermint with me and carried it down the hallway like it was a gold coin.

     Then I went to class and bragged to my classmates about my turnaround.  My third-grade year of misbehaving was redeemed, thanks to Mr. Ratcliff.  What a relief.  I wasn’t so bad after all.

     I look back at that conversation and a lot of questions come to mind that I haven’t even thought about until recently:  Who told Mr. Ratcliff to do that?  Was my teacher involved in it?  Did he do it on his own?  What did I do to get his attention?

     I have no idea.

     I do know this: There’s a trouble-making kid at your local school.  Perhaps he or she is your student — maybe the kid is your child.  Unfortunately, that child thinks they’re bad, instead of realizing that they’re just a kid who has a problem with bad behavior.  Help that kid out.

     Go buy a cheap bag of peppermints and take the time to notice that child when they get something — anything — right.  Then take them aside, tell them you need to talk to them, and do what Mr. Radcliff did:  Give them some hope by giving them some love.  They might just remember you for the rest of their life.

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I John 4:7a…11… 19  —  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God…  Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…  We love because he first loved us.

Romans 5:6-8  —  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

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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Almighty and most merciful God, who hast given us a new commandment that we should love one another, give us also grace that we may fulfill it.  Make us gentle, courteous, and patient.  Direct our lives so that we may each look to the good of others in word and deed; for the sake of him who loved us and gave himself for us, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. 

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