1377) Sunday’s Sermon by Bono and Me (b)

          (…continued)  I realized that the key is in seeing our desires on two levels.  There are day to day desires and needs, and there are eternal desires and needs.  There are many concerns on the surface of life; and those are important and need to be tended to.  But there are also those deeper concerns that are always there, no matter how good or bad things are on the surface. 

            For example, I believe in Jesus as my Savior, and therefore I believe that even if were to I die today, I would be all right because the promises of Jesus are forever.  There was a time, many years ago, I did not know what to believe about life and death, and I was looking for something to believe in.  For many good reasons, I decided to believe in Jesus as the way and the truth and the life, so I am not looking anymore.  I found in Jesus what is true and what I need.  I have already looked at the other options and now, I’m all in with Jesus.  On that level, I have found what I am looking for.

            However, on another level, I am still looking for many things.  If a month ago right now you would have asked me if I had found everything I was looking for, I would have said “No!” because I was desperately looking for someone to fix my water heater at home.  So, that led to some frustration, because I couldn’t find what I was looking for— on that other level. 

            But one wrong move on the highway, and an ambulance ride to the intensive care unit of a hospital, and I would have forgotten all about that water heater.  But I would still be holding on to and taking comfort in that deeper hope.  We’re always going back and forth like that, between the smaller and larger concerns of life.

            I don’t know if Bono had any of that in mind when he wrote those lyrics, but the life of faith is always a challenge.  The song is not only about spiritual seeking and finding, but it is also about the ongoing struggle of faith. 

            I am reminded of that story in Mark chapter nine where a desperate father asks Jesus to heal his troubled son, saying to Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us.”  Jesus replies, “What do you mean if?  Everything is possible for one who believes.”  And the man says, “Lord, I do believe; but help me overcome my unbelief.”  Belief and unbelief are there, in the same person, at the same time.  Isn’t that how it always is?  And the U2 song brilliantly reflects the same struggle, describing a believer who is declaring his faith; but one who is still searching, still wondering, still trying to figure it out, and still looking for more– of something.

            Keep in mind those two levels of need.  Deep down, those who believe in Jesus can indeed possess that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’  But on the surface, we still might be looking for more– a stronger faith, the strength to do the right thing, the ability to forgive someone at work, reconciliation with an estranged family member, a little peace and quiet once in a while, a day off, victory over temptation, a good report from the doctor, a visit from the son just down the street who hasn’t stopped in for weeks, or, a call back from the water heater repairman.  There are many different things we are still ‘looking for’ and have not found.

            Now, of course, we have to be careful.  We do have a tendency to want too much and expect too much on that surface level.  There is no need to be always unhappy about the normal day to day frustrations.  That’s life.  And the desire for a more secure income can become endless and impossible to satisfy.  And the quest for good health can become an obsession, and we are all, one day, going to die of something.  And no two people are always on the same page, so a part of life is learning to live with the differences.  And the Bible does say life is a test, and in this world you will have trouble, and God may not want to answer all your prayers and take away all your afflictions, because it is by those afflictions that we grow stronger in our faith and are reminded of our need for God.  So the Bible teaches us to be content, troubles and all.

            The Bible, in fact, teaches us how to live on both levels.  For those concerns on the surface, II Timothy says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out.  If you have food and clothing be content with that.”  The Bible also warns us about wearing ourselves out seeking that which does not satisfy.

            The Bible has even more to say about our hope and confidence on that deeper level.  Romans 14:8 says, “Whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.”  Philippians 1:21 says, “To live is to be in Christ, and then to die is gain.”  The 23rd Psalm says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou are with me… and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Everything, even life itself, can be taken away, and we are still all right.

            Last Fall several of us gathered here for a few Thursday evenings to learn about Christians who are being persecuted for their faith, especially in the Middle-East.  You have seen these people on the news; Christians being targeted for their faith, driven from their homes, or killed by radical Muslim fanatics.  In the class we read a book and watched several video segments about these people.  We were amazed by the faith, persistence, forgiveness, strength, and joy of these people.  On the surface, they were lacking everything.  If you would have asked them what they were looking for, they could have told you they were looking for peace, safety, a way to feed their families that day, a place to sleep that night, a chance to go home again, and many were looking for missing loved ones.  They had lost so much.  And yet, deep down they were all right.  They were smiling and thanking God for the hope they had within them, for whatever meager blessings they did receive each day, and for the love of and presence of Jesus.  Deep down, they indeed had that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’  They were joyful because they still had what was most important.  They had Jesus and his promise of that place where there would be no more danger, no more grief, no more death or sadness or pain, anymore, for Jesus has said that he would make all things new.

            Bono wrote that song thirty years ago, so I don’t know whether or not he has finally found what he is looking for.  Actually, none of us ever get everything we are looking for.  This life always falls short, and we are always looking for something else, something better, an easier path, or, if nothing else, a little more time.  C. S. Lewis, always one with a brilliant insight into everything, turned such unfulfilled desires into a reason for faith, and even evidence there was something to hope for.  He said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” 

            Right!  The Bible says we were made for God and his home.  That is what we are looking for most of all. 

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1376) Sunday’s Sermon by Bono and Me (a)

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From my sermon on January 15, 2017

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     John 1:29, 32-38  —  The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!…  Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.  And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’  I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

     The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.   When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

     When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.  Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

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            The Gospel of John begins with John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus.  Several verses describe how John is proclaiming to the people about the One who is to come—the ‘true light of the world’ says John 1:9; the ‘Messiah’ says verse 20; the ‘chosen one of God’ says verse 34.  And then in verse 36 Jesus walks by, and John says to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”  The next verse then tells us that when the two men who had been followers of John heard this, they decided to follow Jesus. 

            Today’s sermon will be on the next verse (v. 38) which reads: “Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’”  Other translations have Jesus putting the question like this:  What seek ye? or What are you after? or What are you looking for?

            Well, no matter how you translate it, these are all good questions for a sermon.  What are you after?  What do you want?  Do you have it?  What are you looking for?  Have you found it?  And if not, when do you think you will find it?

            Thirty years ago right about now, the Irish band U2 was working on an interesting song about this very thing.  The name of the song is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and it’s been praised for its unique blend of American Gospel music and Celtic soul music.  It was released in the Spring of 1987 went to the top of the charts in the United States.  Rolling Stone magazine lists it at #93 of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  Hear and see it below on You-tube.  If you don’t catch all the words, don’t worry, I’ll fill you in on them later…

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3-5YC_oHjE

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      This song was written by U2’s lead vocalist Paul Hewson, better known by his nickname, Bono.  His friends gave him that nickname when he was a teenager.  Bono is short for ‘bonovox,’ which is Latin for ‘good voice.’  Bono is an international superstar, famous not only for his music, but also for his humanitarian work all over the world.  He is a one man world relief organization, has given tens of millions of dollars to help others, and is constantly pestering other celebrities to do the same.  Few people have done more than Bono to alleviate poverty, disease, and illiteracy in the world.  He, along with Melinda and Bill Gates were Time magazine’s ‘Persons of the Year’ in 2005 for this incredible work.

            Bono is a Christian.  And his faith is not limited to the water-down, flimsy, ‘God is nice and so we should be nice’ type of Christianity of so many celebrities.  Bono is very outspoken about his faith in Jesus Christ who is the Son of God, Savior of the world, and no one else like him has ever lived; and Jesus Christ died for our sins, because we are all sinners (and not all that ‘nice,’ anyway); and we need Grace, not karma, not some vague spirituality, and not some silly inner voice.  We need Jesus, Bono says, so believe in Jesus and you will be all right, or else, you will not be all right.   Bono is not ashamed or embarrassed to talk that way, and people who interview him usually don’t know how to handle that.  That are not used to that from rock stars.  Like many big rock stars, Bono can also be an arrogant loud mouth, he swears too much on stage (at least he used to), and he has been very critical of the church, sometimes in an unfair and uninformed way.  Criticism is always needed, though sometimes his lack of perspective is annoying.  And Bono would be the first to admit he is still a sinner in need of God’s grace; but he is indeed a Christian and a good man.

            Now to the song.  It starts out like a love song, “I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields, I have crawled, I have scaled walls—only to be with you.”  So, who is ‘you’?  We don’t know yet, but it’s probably some young lady he is pursuing.  That’s what it sounds like so far, and even more so in the next verse when it talks about kissing honey lips and this burning desire. 

            But then comes something unexpected.  The following verse says, “I believe in the Kingdom come.”  Wow!  What does that sound like?  It sounds to me like the Lord’s Prayer.  And then we finally found out who the “you” is that he wants to be with.  Listen to this verse: “You broke the bonds, and you loosed the chains, you carried the cross of my shame… you know I believe it.”  Believing in the cross that breaks my bonds and takes away my shame.  It is sounding like an old Gospel hymn, which is precisely what Bono and the band said influenced the writing of this song.  He is doing everything he can, he says, only to be with Jesus.

            Now, for the confusing part.  After that verse affirming his faith in Jesus, the song goes back to the refrain again, and repeats several more times, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  What?  It sounded like he did.  He believes in the Kingdom come, and believes in the one who loosed his chains and took away his shame on the cross.  So what does he mean he still hasn’t found it? 

            A few years ago I taught a class called “Rock (and Roll) of Ages” in which I looked at what was going on spiritually in some of my old favorite rock and roll, and country songs (google ’emailmeditations rock and roll of ages,’ #290 and the  following meditations) .  I wanted to include this song, but I couldn’t make any sense out of it, so I didn’t use it.

            But this week, when I read these words from Jesus in John 1, it came to me when I asked myself, “Am I still looking for anything?”  Of course I am.  But don’t I, also, already believe in Jesus?  Yes, of course.  So what’s going on?  (continued…)

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You have made me for yourself, O Lord, and my heart is restless until I rest in you.

–St. Augustine  (354-430)

1375) “Do You Think She’ll Remember?”

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By Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, pages 126-127 (adapted).

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     Up near where I live, at Fannin County Hospital, ministers around take turns being chaplain for the week.  I took my turn, and the week I was on watch, there was a baby born.  Not many are born in that small, thirty-bed hospital.  But I went there, it was about nine o’clock in the morning, and I saw all these people gathered, looking through the glass.  There was that little bitty new baby, and it looked like a clan of people gathered around.  I said, “What is it, boy or girl?”           

     “It’s a girl.”    

     “What’s the name?”    

     “Elizabeth.”    

     “Well, is the father over here in this group?” 

     “No.”  I looked back over behind me, and leaning against the wall was a young man.

     He said,” I’m the father.”

     I said, “Baby’s name Elizabeth?”

     “Yeah.”

    “Beautiful baby,” I said.  She was screaming— you couldn’t hear through the glass— but she was crying and screaming and red faced, and all like that.  I thought maybe he might be concerned, and I said, “Now, she’s not sick.  It’s good for babies to scream and do all that.  It clears out their lungs and gets their voices going.  It’s all right.”

     He said, “Oh, I know she’s not sick.  But she is mad as hell.”  And then he said, “Pardon me, Reverend.”

     I said,”That’s all right.  Why is she mad?”

     He said, “Well, wouldn’t you be mad?  One minute you’re with God in heaven and the next minute you’re in Georgia.”

     Well!  I thought, Man, I’ve got myself a real hillbilly theologian here on my hands.  I said, “You believe she was with God before she came here?”

     He said, “Oh, yeah.”

     I said, “You think she’ll remember?”

     He said, “Well, that’s up to her mother and me.  It’s up to the church.  We’ve got to see that she remembers, ’cause if she forgets, she’s a goner.”

      That hillbilly is smart.  He knows what God expects of him as a father.

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Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Ecclesiastes 12:1  —  Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”

Psalm 78:5-7  —  (The Lord) decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.  Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Deuteronomy 4:9  —  Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.

Luke 22:19  —  (Jesus) took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

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PARENTS’ PRAYER AFTER THE BIRTH OF A CHILD:

We thank Thee, O God our Father, for giving us this child to bring up for Thee.  Help us as true disciples to set her a good example in all we think or say or do.  Keep her well in body and mind, and grant that she may grow in grace and in the knowledge of Thy Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

–From Prayers New and Old, ed. by Clement Walsh

1374) Let Them Come

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LUKE 18:15-17:

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them.  When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.   But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

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    One of the best sermons I ever heard from one of my students was by a young woman who didn’t have a church, and no place to preach.  So she went over to Wesley Woods, a little place for elderly people with three levels of care– you know those places.  They let her have a Sunday afternoon service once a month in the sun-room.  People would wheel down there and listen to her.  She was a sprightly young woman, and she said to me, “Would you come and hear me preach and evaluate my preaching?  I want to be a good preacher, and I don’t have a church.”

     I said, “Okay, okay,” and I went one Sunday afternoon.  She read her text from Luke 18, the one about the mothers bringing the babies to Jesus; the one where Jesus says, “Permit the little children to come to me.”  I said to myself, “Good grief!  Of all the texts to read here– the average age is 117– and she reads, ‘Bring the little children’?”

     This is what she did.  She said, “I still can’t get over the fact that Jesus’ helpers, the twelve apostles– you know, ministers– said, ‘Get those children out of here.’   But in a way, I can understand this.  I mean, after all, they make noise.  They have to be cared for.  Sometimes you have to get up and leave with them.  They take everybody else’s time.  Besides that, they can’t give anything.  They can’t teach a class.  They can’t sing in the choir.  They’re just, you know, they’re a burden.  I understand that.”  She went through all that.  But then she told them that Jesus said, “Leave them alone, let them come.  Those are kingdom people.”

     And those old people just nodded– “That’s right, that’s right.”  She never mentioned elderly people, but they perceived; they got it.  And it was marvelous.

–Preaching Professor Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, page 148.

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We commit to your care, O Lord, those who are old and full of years, and can no longer bear the burden and heat of the day.  Grant them to have so trusted and learned of you in years which are gone, that in the loss of their daily work and the world they have long known, they shall not have lost you.  Give them light at evening time, and the assurance that, by serene example, they may also serve who only stand and wait; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Willard Sperry, Dean of Harvard Divinity School,  (1882-1954)

1373) The Bad/Good King James

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     You don’t have to be an expert in English history to be familiar with the main accomplishment of a certain King James.  You probably have a book whose production was authorized by this King– the King James Version of the Bible, first published in 1611.  This may not be the version you read anymore.  It isn’t the one I usually use.  But for three and a half centuries this was the only translation used by nearly everyone in the English speaking world.  Today, there are hundreds of English translations; but for a long time, there was only one.

     One hundred years before King James, there was no Bible in English.  Bibles in England, and everywhere, were read only by scholars in the original Hebrew or Greek, or, Jerome’s Latin translation from the fifth century.  It was thought to be dangerous for the common person to be able to read the Bible, so for many years and in many places, translating the Bible into the language of the people was a crime punishable by death.

     One of the first and most important projects of all the Reformers was to do such a translation.  In the 1520’s, while in hiding from the authorities who wanted to kill him, Martin Luther translated the entire Bible into German.  At that same time, in England, William Tyndale was working on the first translation of the Bible into English.  He completed it only by successfully eluding the authorities who were always after him; and continued, for the rest of his short life, to be on the run or in hiding.  He was captured at the age of 42 and executed, but his translation had already become very popular with the common people.  Despite the threat of death to anyone who would print, transport, or sell those Bibles, everyone wanted one.  Tyndale once told a priest that if his translation was successful, the common plow boy would soon know more about the Bible than the priests.

     When Tyndale was executed in 1536, his final words were a prayer:  “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.”  His prayer was answered the very next year when the king lifted the ban on English translations of the Bible.

     This new freedom led to a new and very different problem.  Now, everyone wanted to sell English Bibles in a business that had gone from being life-threatening to extremely profitable.  In the next sixty years, 130 different translations were produced, most of them hastily done and quite inaccurate.  The common people, unable to judge between translations, bought many bad ones, resulting in much confusion.

     In 1603 James became King.  Not many people thought very highly of James.  He was arrogant, selfish, drank too much, and was eager to use his new authority primarily to serve himself.  He believed strongly in the divine right of Kings, not because he was so interest in the ‘divine’ part, but because he knew that would give him the most power.

     There were many Puritans in England at this time.  These people were serious about their Christian faith, and sought to separate themselves from the cold and hypocritical state church.  The ‘official’ church opposed their every move.

     King James didn’t like the Puritans either, because they had little time for any kind of earthly authority; not of bishops or kings.  God was their king, so they granted little authority or loyalty to James.

     The Puritans went to the king early in his reign with certain requests for freedoms from the Anglican Church of England.  The Anglican bishops opposed this, and told the king that they would adopt his ‘divine right of kings’ business if he would come down hard on Puritans.  So, King James went into the negotiations with the Puritans with the intent of granting them nothing.

     But one of the Puritans’ requests intrigued the king.  For the sake of the truth and integrity of Scripture, the Puritans asked that a new and official translation of the Bible be made, done by all the best scholars, as accurate and true to the original language as possible.  James was not interested in the truth and accuracy of Scripture, but he had his own reasons for not liking all those other translations.  Not only were they carelessly done, but many came with notes to explain things to the common people who were reading these things for the first time.  And oftentimes, the king did not approve of these notes.  He was particularly irritated by explanations like the one attached to Exodus 1:17, a verse which says:  “But the midwives feared God and did not do as the King of Egypt commanded them, but allowed the baby boys to live.”  The notes attached to this verse pointed out that the midwives did the right thing by NOT obeying the king, and that Christians do not always have to obey their king either, because sometimes kings do and require things that are contrary to God’s Word.

     This did not sit well with King James was pushing for the ‘divine right of kings,’ which meant that if the king said it, it was the SAME as if God Himself said it.  So James did not like all the meddlesome side notes in these new translations.  It would be far better for the people to not understand anything.

     Thus, for very different reasons from the Puritans, King James granted their request and gave the command that “a translation of the entire Bible shall be made, as close as can be to the original, and then be printed without any marginal notes.”

     King James celebrated the beginning of the project with a huge banquet and much feasting, drinking, and dancing, along with dog and bull fighting for entertainment.  This offended the Puritans, but they would get their translation.  James was then wise enough to stay out of the way and let the project proceed with integrity and skill.  Fifty-four top translators were employed to do the work.  They were divided up into six groups of nine, each working on a section of the Bible.  The complete texts were then reviewed by still more scholars.  The first edition came off the presses in 1611.  It was an immediate and long-lasting success.

     The result was an excellent translation, not only for its accuracy (for its time), but also for its majestic language.  There were no significant challengers for over 300 years.  Only when the New International Version was published in the 1980’s did another translation begin to sell more copies.

     King James did not go on to become a nice man or a good king.  But as one historian wrote of him: “Despite his arrogance in theology, his incompetence as a king, his profanity, and his drunkenness, we can still be grateful to King James for his part in this noble work.”

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Matthew 4:4  —   Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Psalm 119:105  —  Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

II Timothy 3:16-17  —  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

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

–Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558)

1372) The Big Pygmy (b)

“I Went From Fighting in a Cage to Living in a Hut”

     (…continued)  After Jesus helped me overcome my depression and addiction, my dreams for my life changed.  I wanted more than MMA fame; I wanted to serve God however I could.  I started volunteering at local ministries and prisons, sharing my story with anyone who would listen.

     I also knew I needed a break from MMA (Mixed Martial Arts fighting).  Even though I still loved the sport, the temptations were too great.  But without fighting, I didn’t know what to do with my life.  In desperation, I prayed:  God, I’m yours.  Is there anything you want me to do?  I desire to do your will, not mine.

     That’s when a strange vision flooded my head.  I watched myself weaving through the jungle.  Among the forest’s white noise, I heard the faint sound of lively music, unlike anything I’d heard before.  As I stepped into a clearing, I saw 150 people, living in a cluster of twig-and-leaf huts.

     I took a step forward, and the vision changed.  I was bombarded by flash-fast images of malnourished children and starving old men.  I saw a man dying from a disease eating him alive.  For some reason, I could tell these people were oppressed and outcasts.

     I sobbed so uncontrollably that I left a puddle of tears on my Bible.  I wondered if I was crazy, but I knew I couldn’t have imagined what I saw on my own.  I didn’t know who these people were, but I knew I had to help them.  Turning suddenly to Isaiah 58, my eyes locked onto verses 6–12 (see below), about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed.  The passage started a fire in my heart.

      I shared my vision with my mentor, Caleb, and he immediately knew I was describing a Mbuti (or Pygmy) tribe in the Congo.  He told me he was leading a group there in a month with his high-risk missions ministry, Unusual Soldiers, and he encouraged me to go with him.  Our goal on this trip would be to find the most remote Mbuti villages in the jungle, form relationships with them, and learn more about their needs.

     I saw firsthand that circumstances there were graver than I had seen in my vision.  And after several months back home, I still could not shake my burden.  Caleb connected me with Shalom University, a Congolese Christian school dedicated to serving the Pygmies.  I knew I couldn’t help them unless I understood them first, so I lived with them for a year.  I slept in a twig-and-leaf hut, ate their food, and suffered from the same diseases.  One bout with malaria nearly killed me.  But no matter how tough things got, I felt more at home than I ever had in the gym.

     I was soon adopted into the Pygmy tribe and given a new name:  Eféosa Mbuti MangBO.  “Mbuti MangBO” means “The Big Pygmy,” which is appropriate, since at six foot three I tower over the average (four-foot-seven) Pygmy man.  “Eféosa” means “The Man Who Loves Us.”

     Recently, after a five-year hiatus, I returned to the MMA cage with the goal of raising money for Fight for the Forgotten, the organization I founded to help serve the Pygmies.  The drive to fight is still there, but I’m no longer fighting my inner demons.  I’m fighting to fulfill God’s call on my life.

For more about Justin Wren and Fight for the Forgotten, go to:

http://www.water4.org/fightfortheforgotten

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Justin Wren  (on the left)

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Isaiah 58:6-12:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

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O Lord, our Savior, you have said that you will require much of those to whom much is given.  Grant that we who have been so richly blessed may strive together to extend to others what we so richly enjoy, to the fulfillment of your holy will and the everlasting salvation of all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–St. Augustine  (354-430)

1371) The Big Pygmy (a)

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Justin Wren (on the right)

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“I Went From Fighting in a Cage to Living in a Hut”

Romans 7:24  —  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7:25  —   Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

John 8:36  —  (Jesus said), “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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 CONFESSION OF SINS from the Lutheran liturgy:
Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.  Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.  Amen.

1370) Words from the Spirit

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From the Voice of the Martyrs January 2017 newsletter, (www.persecution.com)

     A pastor from an Islamic country in the Middle East recently shared the story of Shani, one of his church members.  Shani’s husband was the leader of a house church, until one day when he simply disappeared.  For three months, Shani had no idea where he was.  The authorities who had taken him had filed no charges against him, and he wasn’t allowed to see a lawyer or his family.

     Shani was left alone, worrying about her husband and about herself.  She knew her husband was strong and that his faith would endure even if he were tortured.  He would never give up names of other Christians or details about their secret gospel work.

     But Shani was afraid she wasn’t that strong.  “Dear God,” Shani prayed one night, “please don’t allow them to find me.  I can’t handle torture.  I cannot handle a jail cell.  I’m not strong like my husband.  If they torture me I’d probably give up the names of every single Christian.  I might even deny my faith completely.”  She prayed that prayer, then went to sleep.

     Shani was awakened at 6 a.m. the next morning by someone banging on her door.  When she looked out the window, she saw two police cars in front of her home.  “God!  I told you that I can’t handle arrest and torture,” she prayed.  “And this is what happens?  Whatever happens now, God, it’s your fault.”

     The police took Shani to the local jail, which was filthy and smelled like a sewer.  She had grown up in a wealthy family and had never been in a place like this.  

     In the middle of her first night in jail, the guards pulled her out of her cell and took her to an interrogation room.  The interrogator across the table from her looked very angry.

     “Why do you talk about Jesus to Muslims?” he demanded.  “Don’t you know that is illegal here?  You are not permitted to evangelize.”

     The only thing she could think to say was, ‘Dear God … Lord.”  Then she suddenly felt God’s presence and peace.

     Shani looked up at the interrogator.  “I have a right to evangelize,” she said, “and I’m happy that I’m evangelizing.  We’re supposed to evangelize.  This is a commandment from Jesus Christ.  Everyone needs to hear this Good News.  You need to hear this Good News, too.  God sent me here to tell you about Jesus.  You are a poor man.  I feel bad for you.  You don’t have peace, you don’t have joy, you don’t have hope.  You don’t even know why you are alive.  The only way to the truth is Jesus Christ.  You are an interrogator now, but one day you are going to stand before the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ, and He is going to examine you.  Without Him, there is no hope for you.  And Jesus is going to ask you, ‘Why did you do this to My servants?'”

     The interrogator was shocked by her bold words.  “I see,” he replied.  “I know exactly who you are now.  Your punishment has just increased.  Go back to your cell, and I’ll deal with you tomorrow.”

     As Shani was escorted back to her filthy cell, she prayed, “Oh, Lord, what did I do?  How could I have been so stupid?  Why did I even say all of that stuff?”  After further thought, she decided she would apologize to the interrogator and take it all back.  She decided she would say whatever he wanted her to say.

     The following night, the guards again dragged her out of her cell and into the interrogation room.  Despite her plan, she again felt the Holy Spirit’s guidance and began to share the gospel with her interrogator.  The third night, it happened again.  Each night, Shani entered the interrogation room with the intent of apologizing to the interrogator, and each night she instead boldly proclaimed the gospel.

      After the third interrogation, Sham went back to her cell hoping to give her mind a rest and fall asleep.  She hadn’t slept since her arrest and she was exhausted.  In the middle of the night, she heard a knock on her cell door.  To her surprise, it wasn’t a guard.  It was the interrogator.  Shani was terrified.  Was he coming to beat her or even to kill her because of her disrespect toward him?

     “Don’t worry,” the interrogator said calmly.  “I will not harm you.  I want to ask you for a favor.  Would you pray for me tonight?”  The interrogator entered Shani’s cell with tears in his eyes.

     “How did you know that God sent you here at this particular time in my life?” he asked.  “The past three days I’ve been going through hell.  How did you know that my life is so crazy, so messed up?  I tried everything in my religion and I could never find peace.  I learned today that the only Savior is Jesus Christ.  Please help me to be saved.”

     The interrogator stayed in Shani’s cell for three hours, and before he left, he placed his faith in Jesus Christ.  He then ordered the release of both Shani and her husband on the secret condition that they agree to meet privately to disciple him.

     Maybe you have prayed prayers like Shani’s:  Lord, I can’t handle cancer.  Lord, I can’t work for this difficult boss even one more day.  God, I can’t handle this rebellious teenager.  Lord, I can’t endure the betrayal of my unfaithful spouse.

     Shani told God she could not handle arrest, and that under torture she might give up the names of other Christians, or even deny her faith.  And yet this timid, fearful woman boldly shared her faith with her interrogator and everyone else in the room.  A frightened woman who thought she might deny her faith, ended up leading an enemy of the gospel into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

     Pastor Wally Magdangal is a Filipino Christian who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia.  He was arrested for his Christian ministry in Saudi Arabia and sentenced to death.  But God miraculously intervened, and Pastor Wally is still alive and serving the Lord today.

     As he shared his story with us, Pastor Wally said something profound: “Until God is finished with you, you are invincible.”  Until God says your time on earth is over (and He is the only one who can make that determination), you cannot be stopped.  We don’t have to live in fear of persecution, Muslim extremists, medical diagnoses, or anything else.  It’s not about us anyway; it’s about God and His power in us.  Because of God’s power in us, we need not be afraid.

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Luke 12:11-12  —  (Jesus said), “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Luke 12:4  —  (Jesus said), “I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”

Joshua 1:9  —  Have not I commanded you? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

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“Lord, help me.”  –Matthew 15:25b

1369) Knowing What to Want

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From Your New Money Mindset, by Brad Hewitt and James Moline, 2015, Tyndale House Publishers.

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     Contentment and peace can come by managing our expectations.

     I recall a video clip from some years ago telling the story of a wise young woman whose insights into wanting produced a beautiful result.  It showed a young woman sitting with a television documentary host.  She looked to be in her early thirties, blonde and soft-spoken.  Her eyes and facial structure made it apparent that the young woman lived with Down syndrome.

     After a few moments of preparation by the TV personality, the interview began.  This woman had recently married a man who also lived with Down syndrome.  Since marriage among Down’s persons is rare, their lives became a curiosity.

     The interviewer wanted to know how they managed.  Were they happy?  How did they pay their bills?  Since they couldn’t drive, how did they get to work?  They would never produce biological children because of their agreement to be sterilized before the wedding.  They lacked the intellectual capacity to dive into conversations about politics, religion, and global warming.  And the great American dream of home ownership seemed far beyond their reach.  How could they possibly be satisfied?

     The woman paused for a moment after the barrage of inquiries about her happiness.  She looked the interviewer in the eyes and said slowly and confidently, “I am happy because I always get what I want.”

     Dumbfounded, the interviewer went back over the litany of things the woman and her spouse would never have.  With incredible poise, this young woman repeated her point:  “I always get what I want. But I know WHAT to want.”

     The young woman explained that her happiness was rooted in realistic expectations for her life.  She didn’t believe she would be the next Nobel laureate or even a highly skilled white-collar worker.  On the contrary, because she had settled in to her place on the planet rather well, she was able to live in contentment.

     Can you say that you know what to want? Out of her wisdom and joy, this woman shared the secret to living at peace.

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“If this life were heavenly and angelic, nothing bad would ever happen and there would be no injustice.  But this is not the way it is because our sinful nature cannot do anything but sin and be foolish.  Anyone who does not know this has not yet learned about the world.  We should think of this life as though we were in a shipwreck or a fire, laboring to salvage what we can, and with that, be thankful and content.  You are foolish if you despair of everything when it does not go your way.”

–Martin Luther, “Commentary on Ecclesiastes,” Luther’s Works Volume 15, pages 124-125 (paraphrased).

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“When you pursue happiness, you flee contentment.”

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Psalm 23:1  —  The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.

Ecclesiastes 5:10  —  Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.  This too is meaningless.

II Timothy 6:6-8  —  Godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.

Hebrews 13:5  —  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

John 16:33  —  (Jesus said), ““I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.  In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.”

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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; and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

1368) Giving Up Your Life for Jesus

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By Fred Craddock, page 155, Craddock Stories, ed. by Mike Graves and Richard Ward, Chalice Press, 2001.

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     Have you ever listened to a sermon in which the lineup of illustrations were Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, and missionaries who had their feet frozen off in the tundra of the north?  As a young person sitting in church listening to those stories, I just sat there swinging my legs over the pew, saying to myself, It’s a shame you can’t be a real Christian in this little town.  Nobody is chasing or imprisoning or killing Christians here.

     Then I went away to summer camp to Bethany Hills.  It was an inspiring time, with a night of consecration around the lake, and candlelight, and just everything about it so moving.  We sang, “Are Ye Able?”  I went back to the dorm and lay on my bunk and said to God, “I’m able.”  I said, “I’ll give my life for you, Lord,” and I pictured myself running in front of a train and rescuing a child, or, swimming out and getting someone who was drowning.  I pictured myself against a gray wall and some soldier saying, “One last chance to deny Christ and live.”  But I would not deny my Lord and I bravely confessed my faith, and they said, “Ready, aim, fire.”  The body slumped, the flag was at half mast, and widows were weeping in the afternoon.  Later a monument is built, and people come with their cameras.  “Johnny, you stand over there where Fred gave his life.  Let’s get your picture.”

     I was sincere then, as I have been these forty-five years since.  “I give my life,” I said, but nobody warned me that I could not write one big check.  I’ve had to write forty-five years of little checks–  87 cents here, 21 cents there, then a dollar three cents; an endless stream of small sacrifices.  

     I’ve been just nibbled away at this giving of my life for Jesus.

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“It is easy to die for Christ.  It is hard to live for Him.  Dying takes only an hour or two, but to live for Christ means to struggle every day.”

–Sadhu Singh, Indian Christian missionary  (1889-1929)

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Luke 9:23-4  —  Then Jesus said to them all:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.”

II Timothy 2:11  —  It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him.

Luke 16:10  —  (Jesus said), “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.  But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.”

Matthew 25:23  —  (Jesus said), “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.  Come and share your master’s happiness!’”

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Here I am, Lord.  Send me.

–Isaiah 6:8b