1681) Broken-Hearted

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     Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  Behind the writing of many of our best-loved hymns are stories of trouble:  personal tragedy, ill health, early death, or conflict.  And when we are in trouble, it seems, we are more likely to look to the Lord than when all is going well.  As the verse says, “the Lord is close to those who are broken-hearted.”  And for some who were able to express their thoughts in words, the result has been some of our greatest hymns of comfort and hope.  The hymn What a Friend We Have in Jesus was written by a man who twice lost his own best friend to an early and tragic death.

      Joseph Scriven was a young man who seemed to have it all.  He had wealth, a devoted family, education, and a pleasant life in his native Ireland;  and, he was in love and about to be married.  But the night before the wedding, there was an accident.  Scriven’s fiance was thrown from her horse into a river, and she drowned.  Those who knew him say that he never recovered from the loss.  It soon came clear to him that he could not stay in Ireland.  There were too many memories and he had to get himself out of his despair.  So he immigrated to Canada where he worked as a tutor in Port Hope, Ontario.  There, he did come out of his despair enough to fall in love again.  And then tragedy struck again.

     Not long before the wedding, his fiance became very ill, and then, quite suddenly, died.  Again he was left alone.  Scriven never did marry.  In fact, he became somewhat of a loner, even a bit odd, some thought.  At first, people who didn’t know better picked on him because he was different.  He could not keep a steady job, but just worked here and there as he was able.  And he was never able to afford to own his own home. He just lived with whatever friends would let him stay for a while.  And, this man who had so tragically lost his best friends, became a helpful friend to anyone in town who was in need.

     It was said he was the handyman for anyone who couldn’t afford to pay him– the poor, the elderly, the handicapped.  For anyone who needed help he would fix things, cut wood, or run errands.  If they needed money, he would give them money (if he had it), and he would give them food if he had any on hand.  He would even give away the winter clothes off his back.  Even though he was odd, he gained the respect of all who knew him.  After his death, one of the local townspeople said, “If ever there was a saint on earth, it was Joe Scriven.”  He became know as the ‘good Samaritan of Port Hope.’  Along with his good deeds, he would tell everyone who listened about the love of Jesus.

     Scriven had left Ireland in 1845 when he was 25 years old.  He never returned.  In 1855, ten years after he left, his mother became ill and was dying.  Scriven was not able to afford the trip back to see her, but he wrote a poem to comfort her and sent it along in a letter.  After her death, the poem was found in her papers.  The poem had been separated from the letter, so no one knew who wrote it.  The poem was copied and passed around, and eventually found its way to Richmond, Virginia where it was put to music and became the popular hymn, What a Friend We Have in Jesus.  Famous evangelist Dwight L. Moody started using this hymn in his crusades, and soon people all over the world were singing it.  But still, no one knew who wrote it.

     Thirty one years after his mother’s death, and sixteen years after his poem was put to music for all the world to sing, Joseph Scriven himself was ill and on his deathbed.  Friends took turns caring for him, and in one of the long night watches, one of the friends started paging through an old scrap-book.  There, he found an old handwritten copy of the popular song.  He looked at the dates on some of the other items on those pages, and he started thinking about it and putting two and two together.  Finally, he asked Scriven about the poem.  “Did you write this?,” he asked.  “Yes I did,” admitted the modest man, “I wrote it many years ago for my mother.  I didn’t intend anyone else to see it.”

    This hymn, which is now among the most popular, was written for the comfort of one person only, and kept hidden for years by its author.  And yet, its appeal is so broad that it crosses all denominational lines and appears in almost every hymnal.  It makes it in the top ten of every survey of best-loved hymns, and it has been recorded by dozens of singers.  Many missionaries have said that this is the first hymn that they teach new converts, so simple is its message, and so profound in its deep dependence on Jesus in prayer.

     Scriven wrote; “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear,” and he had some huge ‘griefs’ to bear in his own life.  Yet through it all, he maintained his friendship with that greatest friend of all, Jesus Christ, his Lord and Savior.  “Can we find a friend so faithful,” he wrote, “who will all our sorrows share.  Jesus knows our every weakness, take it to the Lord in prayer.”

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John 15:13-15 — (Jesus said), “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends, if you do what I command.  I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my father, I have made known to you.”

Psalm 34:18 — The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

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What a Friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.   –Joseph Scriven

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1680) “Go See Joe”

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The Meeting With Joe, by Gary S.  (source lost)

     One cold winter morning as I looked out my bedroom window at the gray, bleak landscape I wondered, What is my life worth?  Where do I fit into the scheme of things?  I felt completely overwhelmed by rejection.  I couldn’t see any hope in my future.  And when I considered my past, I didn’t like anything I saw.

     I was 45 years old, and had recently lost my job.  I was getting no response to the dozens of resumés I sent out.  The idea of taking a drink occurred to me, but I had already been down that road.  Alcohol had wreaked havoc on my life, but I’d been sober now for eight years.  For what? part of me sneered.  Alone in my house, I sank deeper and deeper into despair.  My head ached as I fought one black thought after another.  Am I losing my mind?

     I kept picturing the 12-gauge shotgun in the attic.  Over and over my mind took me back to that loaded gun.

     Suddenly a new thought came out of nowhere:  Go see Joe.

     I had met Joe at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  A straight-talking trucker and farmer who was as opinionated as people come, he was as different from me as could be.  But I admired his frankness and eventually asked him to be my sponsor, another recovering alcoholic I could always talk to one-on-one.

     “Sure,” he had agreed.  “Helping you helps, me.”  I had no idea what I could possibly offer him.

     Afraid of what I might do if I stayed alone, I forced myself to get into my car.  I drove the three miles to Joe’s and found him in his barnlike garage, standing near his wood-burning stove.  He acted as though I was just the person he wanted to see.  Soon he was telling me about things that were hurting him, trying to sort them out.  He must have gone on for two hours, with me just listening, both of us sitting by the stove, tossing in a log every once in a while.  Finally we said good-bye.

     On my drive home I realized I had made it through the day.  My troubles weren’t over, but hearing about Joe’s struggles had really helped me.  I almost had to smile.  Joe, you don’t know it, but you saved my life today.

    At an AA meeting about a week later, I nodded to Joe across the room.   The group recited the ‘Serenity Prayer,’ then we took turns talking.  Joe said, “A week ago my life seemed hopeless.  In fact, I had decided to end it.  I picked out a rope and the beam I was going to throw it over.  But then, unexpectedly, another recovering alcoholic came by.”

     I almost fell out of my chair.  I had no idea!

     Joe looked at me. “God used that alcoholic to save my life.”

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Galatians 6:2  —  Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-4  —  Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.

Proverbs 11:25  —  Be generous, and you will be prosperous. Help others, and you will be helped.  (Good News Translation)

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The AA Prayer of Serenity

God, give us grace to accept with serenity
The things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Amen.

1679) Looking for Miracles (part three of three)

     (…continued)  Sometimes, when very ill, we will pray for a miracle of healing.  The greatest miracle, however, is that every single second of our lives, the body is healing itself, renewing itself, defending itself from infections, and strengthening itself.  This great miracle of continuous healing is going on in each of us, all the time, even as we sleep; and, ‘even without our prayer,’ as Luther says in the catechism.  Once, at the end of every life, the body does lose its battle to heal itself, and death comes.  But this is usually in old age, after years of all these countless incredible bodily functions working together to preserve life.  And even then, sometimes when the body is about to lose its battle for life, God does grant an extra miracle and a special healing.

     Next week is Thanksgiving.  Lewis Smedes told the story of his stroke in an article about gratitude (see yesterday’s meditation).  He said that from that stroke, and the healing that took place in the weeks and months that followed, he learned to be grateful to God for the everyday miracles; those gifts of God that are ordinary; all those things that just keep working so well that we don’t even notice.  That is why he said in that little conversation with his wife, “An amazing thing happened to me today; I told my left leg to move, and it did.”  Smedes knew how helpless he was when that did not happen.  Now, he has learned to be grateful, and not take for granted even such a little thing as moving his leg.

     Such gratitude is the source of joy and contentment in life.  We all too often think that happiness will come in getting the next thing or reaching our next goal.  But if one does not have any gratitude for that which is already given, they will never find life satisfying no matter what else is received or accomplished.

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Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted. 

–Aldous Huxley

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Image result for take with gratitude not for granted chesterton images

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Genesis 1:27  —  God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Deuteronomy 8:17-18a  —   You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.”  (and the ability to move your leg)

II Corinthians 4:16  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

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O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: and his mercy endureth for ever.

–Psalm 118:1

1678) Looking for Miracles (part two of three)

Image result for there are only two ways to live your life images

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     (…continued)  We usually look to God only for the big miracles, the big interventions in our lives, at those times when we are really in trouble.  It is when there is an accident or a serious illness or a major crisis that we look to God and pray to God for a miracle.  And of course, the Bible tells us we should look to God in our time of need.

     But we must not forget to also see God’s hand in the miracles that we experience every day.  Life itself is an incredible miracle.  A million miracles have been going on in your own body this very day, keeping you alive and thinking and moving.  The process of my writing these words and you reading them, by which thoughts from my mind are transported through my fingers to the page, and then from the page through your eyes and into your mind, is the result of a million little miracles.

     University professor Lewis Smedes illustrated this fact with the following little conversation.  He said to his wife one evening, “An amazing thing happened to me today.”

     “Oh,” she replied, “what was that?”

     “Well,” Lewis said, “I told my left leg to move, and it actually moved.”

     “Well yes, honey,” she agreed, “that is truly amazing.”

     That doesn’t sound like much.  Moving your left leg is not usually considered very miraculous.  You could probably do that right now if you wanted to.  Go ahead, try it.  Wiggle your left leg, right now.  Were you able to manage that?  Great!

     But as simple and common as that little wiggle was, you just performed a neurological miracle that has still not been fully explained.  My words to you became a thought in your brain that then told the muscles in your leg to move, and they did.  How a notion in your brain becomes a motion in your body is a miracle far beyond even today’s extensive knowledge of the human body.  Scientists understand much of the mechanics of it, but still more mystery remains.  We call it a miracle when a tumor disappears overnight and we don’t know why.  But we can’t even explain how we can wiggle our left leg.

     Lewis Smedes had a very special reason for appreciating that movement in his left leg.  In the article I was reading, he went on to tell the rest of his story.  One day, several months earlier, he had been a guest lecturer at a nearby University.  The lecture hall was filled with students, and Smedes was sitting on a chair on the stage while he was being introduced.  When the introduction was complete and the students were welcoming him with their applause, Smedes leaned forward in his chair to get up.  But he couldn’t do it.  He could not stand up.  His mind was telling his left leg to join his right leg in moving to stand up, but his left leg was not responding.  For 65 years, every time his mind told his leg to do something, his leg did as it was told.  But not this time.  He was unable to make it work, and there he sat– until the ambulance arrived.

     Lewis Smedes had a minor stroke that day.  A tiny blood clot had formed, moved through his system, and became clogged in a small blood vessel in the motor area of his brain.  This closed off the blood supply for a time, damaging a part of  his brain.  That happens sometimes.  Most of the time that doesn’t happen because the blood has a way of keeping itself clean and of the proper density.  Sometimes, the body loses the ability to regulate this perfectly, and then the doctor will prescribe a blood thinner.

     But oftentimes, people don’t know they need to do that until they have a stroke.  Most of the time, we do not need to medically thin our blood.  Somehow, the body knows how to regulate that itself.  That, and everything else, just keeps on working, allowing the brain to continue with its own miracle of somehow sending messages to the left leg and to every other part of the body.  (continued…)

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Psalm 50:15  —  “Call upon me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you, and you will honor me,” (says the Lord).

Psalm 139:13-14  —  For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

Job 5:9  —  He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted.

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Martin Luther’s Small Catechism explanation to the First Article of the Apostle’s Creed:

I believe that God created me and all that exists; that he gave me my body and soul, eyes, ears and all my members, my mind and all my abilities.  And I believe that God still preserves me by richly and daily providing clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, spouse and children, land, cattle, and all I own, and all I need to keep my body and life.  God also preserves me by defending me against all danger, guarding and protecting me from all evil.  All this God does only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserved it.  For all this I ought to thank, praise, serve and obey him.  This is most certainly true.

1677) Looking for Miracles (part one of three)

     Not long ago I read yet another article about scientific research into the power of prayer in medical treatment.  There are all kinds of Christians, myself included, who will say, “Of course there is healing power in prayer; I’ve seen it myself many times, so I don’t need a scientific study to tell me that.”  But there are also many Christians, again, myself included, who will say, “I do pray, but I’m not sure how it works. Some of my best prayers for some of the best people I’ve known have gone unanswered, and they died.  So, yes, I pray, but I don’t know how or when or why it works.”

     This article took a comprehensive approach to the question, interviewing hospital chaplains whose job it is to pray with patients, doctors who believe in the power of prayer and even pray with their patients, and, doctors who think the whole idea is nonsense.  Along with the interviews, there were the results of various studies that examined the rates of cure among those with similar conditions, some of which prayed and some of which did not.

     The results were clear.  A higher percentage of those who prayed got better than those who did not pray.  Skeptics say that can be explained without reference to God.  They will argue that if people believe in prayer, they maintain a more positive attitude than those who do not have that confidence, and a positive attitude always helps in healing.  So yes, the skeptics will agree, prayer might help, but not because there is a God answering prayer.  Any results, they say, can be explained psychologically and biologically.  However, say others, there have been documented cases of deadly tumors disappearing overnight in a way that has no known medical explanation.  

     This objection to the skeptics’ argument about the power prayer being nothing more than the power of positive thinking has led to other studies.  These studies have divided up patients with similar conditions and prognoses into two groups, group A and group B.  Without telling the patients, a third group of people did the praying, but only for those in group A.  No one was told to pray for those in group B.  

The research showed that more people got better in group A, after being prayed for by many people, than in group B, for whom no one was praying.  In this study, the higher percentage of healings was not the result of positive thinking, because they did not know anyone was praying for them.  But the sample groups were small and the results were inconclusive, and the skeptics were not convinced.  I also would not consider those studies as proof of healing, because there are always so many other variables that it is impossible to get two identical test groups.

     So, even after all that research, we are back where we started from.  Prayer, like everything else in our walk with God, is a matter of faith.  We pray because God invites us to prays commands us to pray and promises to hear us.  But then as we pray, we must leave the results to God, praying as Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”  God may have some larger purpose in mind than what we can see from our limited perspectives, and so God may or may not choose to intervene, even if that is what we desperately want.  And then as we pray, we should also pray that other petition Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”  As we pray that petition, we remember that God has not just this brief life, but a whole eternity to work things out for our good.  Life may end here sooner than we had hoped, but then God promises that we go on to another life, in a better place, that will never end.  No scientific discovery or medical procedure can offer such a hope as that.  

      I do believe in prayer, and I will keep praying.  But I believe in prayer because I believe in God, so as I pray my main focus will be on God, and I will trust in Him to do what is best.  If God decides to reverse the whole natural order of things in a diseased and ravaged body and grant healing, we can receive such a miracle with gratitude.  But if not, and death comes, we may still look to God with gratitude; though now it will be gratitude for the promise of that final and complete healing of the resurrection.  (continued…)

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Matthew 14:14  —  When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

Luke 4:40  —  At sunset, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.

Matthew 8:5-8  —  When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.  “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”  Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”  The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

jesus and centurion

 The Centurion Kneeling at the Feet of Christ, Joseph-Marie Vien, 1752

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Psalm 103:1-4 (changed to first person):

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all my sins
    and heals all my diseases,
who redeems my life from the pit
    and crowns me with love and compassion.

1676) Noeh Goes Home

Watch as twelve year old Iraqi Christian Noeh goes back to a home to a home destroyed by ISIS:

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by Joshua Pease, posted September 5, 2017 at: http://www.opendoorsusa.org

      For almost three years Noeh’s family lived as displaced people in the city of Erbil, 40 miles east of their home in Karamles.  When Islamic State came in 2014, they had to run for their lives.  There they stayed with other Karamles refugees, receiving food, trauma training, attending church events, as well as doing some income generating projects through Open Doors’ partners in the area.

     Now, for the first time since ISIS invaded, Noeh is back home.  He sits on the corner of his charred bedframe, trying to remember what his room used to look like, kicking away the burned rubble lining the floor.

     “This is my bedroom, this is where I slept,” Noeh says, pointing to the mess around him.  “These were my toys, all of them are now burned.  Now I have nothing.”

     Noeh trods through the deserted streets and strewn wreckage of Karamles, a city 30 kilometers away from Mosul.  The city was liberated from Islamic extremists six months ago, but the damage was already done.  The city’s visage is a wasteland: a deserted shopping street, a door standing on its own because the house it served has been destroyed.  Broken windows framed with black burning spots.  There is no one living here.  It still isn’t safe.

     Noeh slowly works his way toward his former school.  It is the first time he has been back since he had to flee from ISIS.  This is a familiar place for him, but his steps are doubtful, his eyes dark, the colorful walls haunting echoes of happier times now gone.  Where Noeh once learned and played with his friends there are now weeds breaking through the concrete.

     In the corner of the schoolyard, Noeh stops in front of an open door. He stares inside at his old classroom.  The white, wooden desks are still there, the chairs behind them waiting for students who aren’t there to sit in them.  “I can’t go inside any further,” the boy says. “ISIS has been here and they might have hidden bombs.”

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     In the 5th Century BC a man named Nehemiah living in the Persian Empire was grieved over the destruction of his home, Jerusalem.  Nehemiah believed he was called by God to go back to Jerusalem and help it rebuild.

     Father Thabet lives 2500 years after Nehemiah, but both in mission and proximity, Thabet shares a close bond with the prophet.  He lives less than 500 kilometers from Babylon, the ancient capital of the Persian Empire where Nehemiah once lived.  And Father Thabet too feels called by God to go rebuild the city.

     “It is our mission to live here in this place as Christians, the place of the root of Christianity,” Father Thabet says.  “Without faith, I do not have a reason to stay here.  But I have faith, so I am here.”

     Much like for those rebuilding the city of Jerusalem though, the mission is dangerous.  The bombs of Mosul thunder in the distance, a reminder that the invaders who destroyed their city aren’t far away.  For those who feel called to rebuild Karamles, fear is constant.

     “Yes, of course, this fear is normal” Father Thabet says.  “But the situation for Christians in Iraq has always been unstable.  I think safety is increasing and it will only increase more when people will start living here again.  All I can do is trust in God.”

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     One thing is clear after visiting Karamles: the villagers are proud to be part of it.  They can close their eyes and dream of what it will like one day.  Standing in his room, Noeh is already dreaming of the time his own house will be rebuilt.  “I want my bedroom to be colorful—red, blue and green with pictures of the soccer club FC Barcelona and Jesus on the wall.”  Noeh’s second-floor room window is nothing but wood beams and broken glass right now, but between the beams, Noeh can peer out over the Nineveh Plain and think about the future.  “My dream is to live in Karamles one day.  I want to be a teacher here, and teach children about life.  I know there are others from our village who don’t want to return, but I do want to return.  This is our land.”

     Noeh’s family is one of 250  who have signed up to return.  Father Thabet is visibly happy about it.  “The church encourages the people, but the people also encourage the church leaders to restore the houses.”  The villagers have to have patience, a lot of patience, but one day they will live here like before.  That’s what Father Thabet is convinced of.  “And when the first people start returning, even more will be encouraged to follow.”

     In the meantime, the streets ring with the sounds of patient, determined hope: hammers and drills … and songs.

     Noeh and his family always sing.  They sing in their church at the refugee camp.  They sing in their home.  And here in the city the sing a psalm they have written themselves.  A psalm befitting refugees, longing for God to bring them home.  The deserted streets of Karamles echo with their words:

“We will go back no matter what we lost. 

In the air of winter we get cold, but if we leave our town our hearts are burning. 

The sound of church bells still in our ears.” 

     Nehemiah would be proud.

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Nehemiah 2:2-5  —  The king asked me, “Why does your face look so sad when you are not ill?  This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”  I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, “…Why should my face not look sad when the city where my ancestors are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?”  The king said to me, “What is it you want?”  Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”

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Heavenly Father, I thank you that you have counted me worthy to suffer for the sake of my Lord Jesus Christ, and I give you thanks that I may partake in the promise of eternal life.  Amen.

–Polycarp  (born, 69 A. D. – burned at the stake, 155 A. D.)

1675) What Shall I Give? (part four of four)

            (…continued)  The other story comes from the Japanese prisoner of war camp made famous in the 1957 movie The Bridge over the River Kwai; which won the Academy Award for the Best Picture of the Year (and six other Oscars).  It is a great movie, but was based on a novel that varied much from the real story.  The story that follows is true, but is not told in that movie (see EmailMeditation #1542).

     The prisoners in this camp were American and British soldiers.  They were forced to work like slaves building a railroad through Southeast Asia.  Labor was extremely difficult, weather was unbearably hot, disease was common, and workers would often faint from exhaustion, and oftentimes then beaten to death by guards.  80,000 allied soldiers died building that railroad, their bodies left lying in the jungle where they fell.  Men lived like animals, and life was reduced to the survival of the fittest. There was no generosity, no sharing, and very little companionship.  The strong stole food from the weak because one could hardly live on the daily ration, let alone work all day.  Self-interest and hatred were the main keys to staying alive.  It seemed obvious that no one could not afford the energy to care for anyone else.

      One time, at the end of the work-day, the guard, as always, counted the shovels.  He shouted out that one was missing, and angrily demanded to know who was responsible. When no one confessed, he screamed, “All die, all die,” and aimed his rifle at the first man in line.  At that moment, an enlisted man stepped forward and said, “I did it.”  The guard went at him with a savage fury, hitting him again and again with the butt of his rifle.  Even when the soldier was down and obviously dead, the guard kept on hitting the man until he was a bloody pulp.  When the beating finally stopped, the other prisoners picked up the corpse and they all marched back to camp.

     Back at camp, the shovels were counted again.  It was then discovered that a mistake had been made, and no shovel was missing.  The man who was beaten to death was innocent, but had confessed in order to save the lives of the others.  They all stood around, still in shock, but now in awed respect for their fallen comrade.  One of the soldiers recalled a Bible verse, reciting John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

     That very day, inspired by this man’s sacrifice, attitudes in the whole camp began to change.  The strong started caring for the weak, not abandoning them and stealing from them.  Prisoners started looking out for each other, rather than only for themselves.  Selfishness, hatred, and pride, started giving way to self-sacrifice, mercy, sympathy, faith, and heroism.  Surprisingly, the overall well-being of the camp began to improve.  Still, there was much disease and death, but the men found strength in caring for each other, rather than destroying each other.

     What had disappeared after the greedy act of a few at the Shangtung Compound, began to appear at this POW camp, after this heroic self-sacrifice of one man.  Prisoners organized themselves to care for each other, share tasks, settle disputes peacefully, and even organize entertainment and education for each other in the evenings.  Life was still harsh and there were still men who behaved badly, but the whole spirit of camp life was changed.

     Just like there are no easy and direct applications of the stories in the Bible stories of those two poor, but generous widows, there are no easy or direct applications to these prisoner of war stories.  In the previous meditations, two women generously give all what they had to live on.  In the second prison camp story, an innocent man gives his life for his friends.  No specific instructions come with any of the stories, but an attitude is shown and a way is pointed– a way that looks very much like the way of Christ, who himself went to the cross, giving his all for others.

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

Psalm 37:27  —  Turn from evil and do good; then you will dwell in the land forever.

Romans 5:17-19  —  For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.  Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.  For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

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Lord, teach me to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not count the cost,
to fight and not heed the wounds,
to toil and not seek for rest,
to labor and not look for reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.

–Prayer of St. Ignatius

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1674) What Shall I Give? (part three of four)

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     (continued…) Many Chinese people were massacred when the Japanese invaded China in World War II.  Europeans and Americans living in China at the time were not massacred, but were herded into prison camps where they were kept for the duration of the war.  These were not soldiers, but professional people– government workers, doctors, missionaries, relief organization workers, and the like.

     One of these prisoners, Langdon Gilkey (1919-2004), wrote about his experiences in a book titled with the name of his particular prison camp, the Shangtung Compound.  Gilkey describes how these professional people immediately became organized to make the best possible use of their meager resources, and, to find ways to get along with each other in the difficult closeness of their living conditions.  They all suffered, but they made the best of it; organizing to share food, care for the sick, divide up the work fairly, and judge disputes.  They even organized a night school for something to do, with people teaching the others about their area of expertise, be it agriculture, language, medicine, theology, government, or whatever.  Everyone got along pretty well– until the American Red Cross sent 150 boxes of food and supplies.  The Japanese allowed its distribution, and it should have been a huge blessing for the prisoners in the camp.

     In this particular compound, each person would receive two full boxes.  The Japanese were beginning to hand out the boxes when a few of the Americans began to object loudly to their method of distribution.  They said that since the boxes were from the American Red Cross, the Americans should get all the boxes.  This would have meant that each American in the camp would get seven boxes, and all the others, mostly Europeans, would get nothing.  Legally, the Americans did have the right to all the supplies.  But the Japanese just assumed that in such a well ordered group, they would want the supplies to be evenly distributed to all.  That would certainly be best for continued good morale among the prisoners.

     But the strong objections continued, and finally a compromise was reached.  Everyone in the camp would get some supplies, but the Americans would get more.  Most of the other Americans, horrified at the behavior of a few, still shared all that they had.  But several did end keep their larger share, and from then on things were different.  Peace, good will, and order were replaced by national divisions, greed, complaining, competition, disorder, and an overall spirit of ill will.  Never again did the camp return to its original harmony.   The damage had been done, and long after everyone’s Red Cross supplies were long gone, the bad feelings continued.  Everything good that had been built up was destroyed by this one act of greed by a few people.

     It is more blessed to give than to receive.  (continued…)

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Hebrews 13:16  —  Do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Proverbs 22:9  —  The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.

Acts 20:34-35  —  (Paul said), You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions.  In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

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All I am, and all I have,
I offer, Lord, to you.
I offer you these hands,
that you might use them
in and through my daily work.
I offer you these feet,
that you might lead them
to someone who needs my help.
I offer you these shoulders
if you should need them
to help lighten another’s load.
I offer you this voice
that you might use it
to speak up for those in need.
All I am, and all I have,
I offer, Lord, to you.

–www.faithandworship.com

1673) What Shall I Give? (part two of four)

I Kings 17:1-16  —  Now Elijah… said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”

 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan.  You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”

So he did what the Lord had told him.  He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there.  The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.  Then the word of the Lord came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there.  I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.”  So he went to Zarephath.  When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks.  He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?”  As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”

“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she replied, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug.  I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid.  Go home and do as you have said.  But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.  For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”

She went away and did as Elijah had told her.  So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family.  For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

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     (…continued)  This story is similar to the story in yesterday’s meditation.  Both tell the story of a poor widow who is generous with all that she has left in the world.  And this story, like the story from Mark 12, is difficult to apply to our own lives in any direct way.  But we don’t have to feel the need to squeeze some kind of stewardship principle out of them.  We should simply hear these stories and remember them, and perhaps the Holy Spirit will use the examples of these two women to inspire us to be more generous and more trusting in our own very different situations.

     This poor widow of Zarephath is in a desperate situation.  There is a famine in the land and she’s in down to her last bit of food.  She is about to go home and make a last meal for her and her son, and then they would starve to death.  Then, Elijah appears out of nowhere and asks her for something to eat.  She politely tells him that she has nothing, and is on the brink of starvation.

     “Don’t be afraid,” said Elijah, “go home and make that bread; but then split it three ways, and bring me some.”  He then tells her to trust God, and everything will be all right.  And the woman, who has never seen Elijah before, does as he says because he speaks in the name of the Lord.  She shares her last bit of food– and then the miracle begins to happen.  From then on the flour jar never goes empty and the jar of oil never runs dry, and they all have plenty to eat.

     So what does that mean for us?  Does it mean that if you take a chance and serve the Lord you will never be disappointed and you will always be provided for?  It can’t mean that.  There has been too much evidence to the contrary over the years.  There have been many missionaries who have trusted God and left everything to obey the Lord’s command to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth, only to find themselves starving to death, dying from disease, or killed.  Our trust in God will not be disappointed in eternity, but here on earth it is a more complicated matter to figure out how it is that God takes care of us.

     So again, there are no easy applications of this Bible story.  It is just another incredible story of serving God with everything, and then trusting themselves to God’s care.

     In both stories, there is only a small gift– two small coins in one, a small cake of bread in the other.  But both stories were recorded in the pages of God’s Word, and are thus remembered and retold for all time as examples of giving of one’s all to the Lord and trusting Him for the future, come what may. 

     These two stories reminded me of two other stories– one is another story of great generosity and self-sacrifice, and, the other a story of a lack of generosity.  Both stones take place during World War II in Japanese prison camps.  (continued…)

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

Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Augsburg Publishing House

1672) What Shall I Give? (part one of four)

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Mark 12:41-44  —  Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.  Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

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     Sometimes I wish the Bible would take a little bit different approach to the stories it tells; as in this story from Mark 12.  Jesus is watching the people bring their offerings in to the temple treasury.  They did not write checks in those days, nor did they even have paper money.  It was all coins.  So, the bigger the offering, the more coins you had to put into the collection plate.  Therefore, anyone watching could pretty much tell what kind of giver you were.  Jesus first saw rich people throw in large amounts of money– coins, coins, and more coins—with lots of noise for all to hear.  It was meant to be an impressive show, and it was.  But then, says verse 42, a poor widow comes up and throws in just two small copper coins, “worth only a few cents.”  Even though she was poor, she also contributed.  This makes the story a very nice lesson on generosity.  But then in the last line of the text it goes from being a good story to an outrageous story.  It says in verse 44 that those two coins was everything that poor lady had; “all she had to live on.”

      What can we do with a story like that?  She just gave everything she had, so now what was she supposed to do?  The story already had a good point, why did Jesus have to push it to the point of being ridiculous?  Who, after all, would give their last penny to church, and then go home to nothing to eat?  No one is expected to do that.  Pushing the point this far makes the story lose some of its credibility.  No one is going to do that, and it becomes easy to dismiss the whole story and not get anything out of it at all.

     I would not have told the story that way.  I would have quit while I was ahead and omitted that last half of verse 44.  Even then, it would still be a nice story of sacrificial generosity.  But it would be more believable, and not so easily dismissed as unrealistic.

     But as much as we might want to edit the Bible here and there, we don’t get to do that.  We must take the story as it is and deal with it.  And the first thing we see is that this isn’t just a sermon illustration.  It is not a parable that Jesus is making up as he goes.  No, this is something that Jesus and the disciples were observing.  Jesus actually saw the wealthy folks noisily putting in their many coins, and then he saw this widow quietly putting in her two coins.  And, in his divine wisdom, he knew that was all she had.  So it is not a matter of Jesus,or Mark, carefully crafting a story for its greatest possible effect.  No, it is Jesus doing just like the baseball umpire, and “calling ’em as he sees ’em.”  And what he is seeing and what he is telling us about is a poor widow, giving an incredibly sacrificial gift to the Lord’s work.

     I don’t know how to apply this story and make it relevant for you.  But why should I try?  Jesus doesn’t even apply it.  He doesn’t turn this into some universal principle of stewardship.  He doesn’t make a sermon out of it.  Jesus doesn’t say, “Therefore, ALL of you should give ALL that you have to live on.”  He doesn’t even say what I have usually said about this text, that the amount you give isn’t what matters, it’s what you have left after you give that matters, therefore, we should all consider “percentage giving.”  That is a true lesson we can take from this story and from the rest of the Bible; but Jesus doesn’t go into any of that here.  Nor does he explain away the difficulty and say, “Now, that woman ought not have done that, she should have kept a little lunch money back.”

     Jesus doesn’t do any of that.  He simply commends the woman for her tremendous gift, saying, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on.”  Period.  End of story.  And then Jesus leaves it to his disciples and you and me, to make our own applications and think about our own giving in the context of this poor woman’s gift.

    I too will leave it at that.  (continued..)

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O merciful Creator, your hand is open wide to satisfy the needs of every living creature.  All that we possess is from your hand.  Make us always thankful for your loving providence.  Give us grace that we may honor you with all we own, always remembering the account we must one day give to Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, (from prayers #157 and #183)