50) The Grenade

From Let Me Tell You a Story, by Tony Campolo, page 21, ©2000 by T. Campolo

     A new recruit went into training at Paris Island, hoping to become a marine.  He was one of those young men who seemed to be a bit out of step with the norm, and he easily became the subject of ridicule for those who enjoy picking on off beat people.

     In the particular barracks to which this young marine was assigned, there was an extremely high level of meanness.  The other young men did everything they could to make a joke of the new recruit and to humiliate him.  One day, someone came up with the bright idea that they could scare the daylights out of this young marine by dropping a disarmed hand grenade onto the floor and pretending it was about to go off.  Everyone else knew about this and they were all ready to get a big laugh.

     The hand grenade was thrown into the middle of the floor, and the warning was yelled, “It’s a live grenade, it’s a live grenade!  It’s about to explode!”

     They fully expected that the young man would get hysterical and perhaps jump out a window.  Instead, the young marine fell on the grenade, hugged it to his stomach, and yelled to the other men in the barracks, “Run for your lives!  Run for your lives!  You’ll be killed if you don’t!”

     The other marines froze in stillness and shame.  They realized that the one they had scorned was the one ready to lay down his life for them.

     And so it was with Jesus.

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

Isaiah 53:3 — He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

John 1:10-12 — He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Mark 15:16-20 — The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace and called together the whole company of soldiers.  They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him.  And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!”  Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him.  Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him.  And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him.  Then they led him out to crucify him.

John 15:13 — Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

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Lord God, who blessed Son our Savior gave his body to be whipped and his face to be spit upon:  Give us grace to accept joyfully the sufferings of the present time, confident of the glory that shall be revealed; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

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49) When Harry Met Sally

Cover of "When Harry Met Sally"

     Last summer Nora Ephron died at the age of 71.  Ephron wrote (among other things) movie screenplays, including one of my all-time favorites, the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.  Many people remember that movie for one particular scene that took place in a restaurant.  In case you weren’t going to ‘R’ rated movies yet in 1989, you can ask someone about that scene.  I remember the movie for different reasons, and I still consider it one of the best pro-marriage films ever made.

     The question the movie asks is ‘Can a man and a woman remain ‘just friends’ without sex getting in the way?’  Over the course of the film Harry (Billy Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) become really good friends, and they keep resisting their sexual attraction for each other in order to maintain their friendship.  Harry believes that is the only way they can remain friends.  Over the years they have many sexual relationships with other people, and they each even get married (and then divorced).  But with no one else do they ever form a friendship and a bond like they have with each other.  Eventually Sally realizes this, and she begins to want something more with Harry– and not primarily sex.  Perhaps she wants that too, but most of all she wants to make a commitment to a long term relationship.  Harry, ever the womanizer, wants to keep his options open, and continues to resist making a commitment.

     Interspersed throughout the movie are several cute little clips of elderly couples, sitting together on a couch, talking.  These people are totally unrelated to the story, except that they are talking about their marriage, about their own long term commitment to each other.  For example, in one clip the lady says, “Just think, we grew up on the same block and didn’t even know each other until we were 18, but when we met, we knew we had to be together and we’ve been together for 62 years.”  In another clip the man says with a chuckle, “Ya, she’s old and wrinkly now, but she is still my sweetie-pie.”  Another couple looks at each other lovingly and says, “We have been through some rough times together, like when we had no money and no job, and then when our little boy died; but we held each other up, and now we need each other more than ever.”  It’s just wonderful!

     The difference between a moral film and an immoral film is in what it makes you want for the characters.  Many films make you want the main characters to do the wrong thing– to leave the unattractive wife or the boring husband and find true romance in an adulterous relationship.  That kind of film encourages and promotes immorality.  Other films, films that encourage morality, make you want the main characters to do the right thing.

     What does this movie make you want for Harry and Sally?  It makes you want them to get married!  That would be the right thing to do.  If they were to just jump into bed together it would cheapen the whole thing.  And, it would be wrong.  Even teenage boys can get that message from the movie.  The type of relationship that Harry and Sally have, along with all those old couples talking about their marriage, makes you want to grab Billy Crystal by the shirt and say, “Marry her, you idiot, can’t you see that she loves you and you love her too?  Quit being such a jerk, and make a commitment, and then you can have what those old couples on the couch have, and that’s a whole lot better than all the one night stands that you think you must have but keep finding so unsatisfying!”

     When Harry Met Sally makes you want the characters to do the right thing, and then, it makes you want to do what is right.

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Exodus 20:14  —  “You shall not commit adultery.”

Mark 10:6-8  —  (Jesus said), “…At the beginning of creation God made them male and female.  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”

Hebrews 13:4  —  Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.

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O God, you have forbidden us to commit adultery.  Grant that we so fear and love you, that we lead a chaste and pure life in word and deed, and that husband and wife love and honor each other.  Amen.  –Adapted from the Small Catechism by Martin Luther

48) The Old Man and His Grandson

By The Brothers Grimm (early 1800’s), from a story told as early as 1535

     There was once a very old man, whose eyes had become dim, his ears dull of hearing, his knees trembled, and when he sat at table he could hardly hold the spoon, and spilt the broth upon the tablecloth or let it run out of his mouth.  His son and his son’s wife were disgusted at this, so the old grandfather at last had to sit in the corner behind the stove, and they gave him his food in an earthenware bowl, and not even enough of it.  And he used to look towards the table with his eyes full of tears.  Once, too, his trembling hands could not hold the bowl, and it fell to the ground and broke.  The young wife scolded him, but he said nothing and only sighed.  Then they bought him a wooden bowl for a few half-pence, out of which he had to eat.

     They were once sitting thus when the little grandson of four years old began to gather together some bits of wood upon the ground.  “What are you doing there?” asked the father.  “I am making a little trough,” answered the child, “for father and mother to eat out of when I am big.”

     The man and his wife looked at each other for a while, and presently began to cry.  Then they took the old grandfather to the table, and henceforth always let him eat with them, and likewise said nothing if he did spill a little of anything.

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Exodus 20:12  —  Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Isaiah 11:6  —  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Matthew 7;12  —  (Jesus said), “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 

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Look with mercy, O God our Father, on all whose increasing years bring them weakness, distress or isolation.  Provide for them homes of dignity and peace; give them understanding helpers, and the willingness to accept help; and, as their strength diminishes, increase their faith and their assurance of your love.  This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer

47) Lazarus Laughed

     Two middle-aged men were having their Saturday morning coffee.  After the usual small talk about the weather and the Minnesota Twins, the tone of the conversation turned a bit more serious.

     “How have you been feeling lately, Mike,” asked one of the men.

     “Oh,” replied the other man, “I’m always weak and sick for a few days after I have my chemotherapy treatments, but then I’m okay again for a couple a weeks.”

     “Are the treatments helping?” asked the first man.   “Are you going to be all right?”

     “Well,” replied Mike slowly and thoughtfully, “the doctor says he can slow the cancer down a bit, but he probably can’t get rid of it.  He gives me a year, maybe two if I’m lucky.”

     “Oh…  Sorry to hear that, Mike,” said the first man.   “How are you holding up?”

     “I’m okay so far,” Mike said.  “There is one good thing about it, though.  I’m not as worried about my retirement pension as I used to be.”  There was brief pause, and then Mike started chuckling, and soon, both men were laughing.

     What does it mean to be able to laugh in the face of death like that?  It might only mean that Mike is putting up a good front.  Perhaps he’s not doing very well at all, but he doesn’t want to talk about it, and so he makes light of it.  Perhaps he is in denial.  Or perhaps Mike has a faith that has made him ready to die, and so he can laugh about not needing his pension anymore.  Maybe he believes the Easter story about Christ’s resurrection from the dead, and truly believes in Christ’s promise that we too may rise and live forever.

     During his ministry on earth, Jesus raised three people from the dead.  One of these was his friend Lazarus.  The story is told in John chapter 11 and ends with Lazarus coming out of the tomb.  Jesus had commanded that the stone be rolled away.  Lazarus’ sister objected, saying “Lord, the body has been in there for four days already, and there is sure to be an odor.”  But Jesus insisted and the stone was rolled away.  Jesus said, “Lazarus, come out.”  And instead of the awful smell of a rotting corpse, Mary and Martha got their brother back, alive and well.

      In 1925 Eugene O’Neill wrote a play based on this story called Lazarus Laughed.  The play starts where the Bible story leaves off.  As the curtain goes up, Lazarus is seen stumbling out of the dark tomb, blinking as his eyes adjust to the light.  As his friends and neighbors rush over to see him, he begins to laugh a gentle soft laugh.  It is a joyful laughter, as he embraces Jesus, and then his sisters, and then several of his other old friends.  Everyone is smiling and laughing with Lazarus at this wonderful, incredible miracle.  (Using O’Neill’s basic idea, I’ll tell the story in my words.)  

     Finally, someone gets the courage to ask Lazarus what is on everyone’s mind.  “What was it like, Lazarus,” the man asked, “what was it like to be dead?”

     “Dead?,” said Lazarus with a thoughtful, puzzled look on his face,  “Dead?  Oh yeah, I suppose I was dead as far as what all of you saw of it.  But that is only how it looks from here.  There is no death, really.  For my part, it was just life.  Life here, and then life there.  I remember being sick here, and I suppose I went to sleep, and then died.  But all I remember is just waking up there, in that other place, and it was wonderful.  And the One who met me there was the one who gave me life here in the first place.  Death is only a moment, just a doorway through which we move from here into a greater life.  There is nothing to be afraid of, I tell you.”

     And so in the play Lazarus goes back to his old life, and yet, now there is something different.  He has been dead, and will someday have to die again, but now he knows that there is nothing to fear.  Life here, life there, always life– so no longer does he have to be anxious about missing out on something here, or about the time going so fast, or about something bad happening and life ending too soon.  And so he’s is cheerful, always cheerful and laughing, and he raises everyone’s spirits.  It’s a joy for all to be around him and see how he approaches life, and also, to see how he treats other people.  He doesn’t worry about someone getting ahead of him or taking advantage of him.  He’s got a much bigger view of life now, an eternal perspective.  And his joy and his generosity are infectious. The whole town begins to change for the better.

     But not everyone likes the new Lazarus.  The local Roman authorities knew that their authority and power was based on intimidation and fear.  They could control people who feared death by always keeping that threat over them.  That is why crucifixions were public events.  Emperor Caligula once said, “Crosses are so educational.  Let the scum see their friends and family up on a cross covered with blood and it will so paralyze them in fear that we will rule them with ease.”  But Lazarus no longer had such fear, and the authorities sensed that this could mean trouble.  In the play Lazarus does not provoke the soldiers, but neither is he intimidated by them anymore.  When the soldiers tried to bully Lazarus, he did what he was always doing those days, he laughed at them.  The authorities feared what this kind of attitude might do to the people, so they had him arrested.  But still he would not be afraid.  He said, “There is nothing you can do to me.  There is no death, only life.”  Lazarus, no longer afraid of death, was no longer afraid of anything.

     The great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)  was already an established writer by the time he was 25 years old.  Then he made the mistake of joining a group of political rebels.  He was arrested, convicted, and sent to prison.  Then, when he was only 27, orders was handed down that he should be executed.  He was told that in three weeks he would be shot by a firing squad.  The execution day came, and Dostoyevsky was taken from his cell and tied to the post where he was to be shot.  He was then blindfolded, and there in his darkness, awaited the sound of the guns and the end of his life.  He waited and waited, but the shots were not fired.  He could hear some commotion, but had no idea what was going on.  Finally, the blindfold was removed, and he was told at the last moment, the camp commander had received different orders.  Dostoyevsky was told that he would not be executed, but rather serve a life sentence without parole.  In a few years, the orders changed again, and he was freed.

     Dostoyevsky often wrote about that event.  He said being face to face with death changed him forever, and from that time on he could write profoundly about matters of life and death.  I don’t think facing a firing squad would have changed Lazarus.  He had already been through death and had already been changed.  Lazarus would have laughed.  

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John 11:25  —   Jesus said unto her (the sister of Lazarus), “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

Revelation 1:17-18  —  When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.  Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”

Psalm 118:5-6  —  I called upon the Lord in distress: the Lord answered me, and set me in a large place.  The Lord is on my side; I will not fear: what can man do unto me?

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Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life:  Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

46) Memorial Day Gratitude

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

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

     I can’t help but recall the brilliant film Saving Private Ryan.  James Ryan, now in his seventies, has returned with his family to the military cemetery in Normandy.  He visits the grave of Captain John Miller, the man who a half a century before, led the mission to retrieve– to save– Private Ryan.  At the end of the mission, Miller was fatally wounded.  As he lay dying, his final words to Private Ryan were, “James, earn this… earn it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And then go and remember Whom it is you serve.

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

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

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

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

45) Be Glad God Meddles

From A Touch of His Love, by Al Rogness,  pages 44-5 

     “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord.  Isn’t that fortunate?  And isn’t it fortunate that God sometimes annuls our ways, blocks us from doing something our way, and directs us into his way?

     God expects us to plan.  After all, why has he given us a mind?  But our best plans may not be good enough for him.  In his great love he may deny us the course we have laid out for ourselves.  Only in retrospect, after our best-laid plans lie in rubble and we have turned to something else, only then may we know the mystery of his ways and find them good.

     A bee flies into a room through an open window and buzzes around, frantically trying to escape.  It dashes its little body against the windowpanes.  You take a towel and try to guide it toward the open window, but the bee, thinking you are an enemy, dashes itself against the towel.  At last you maneuver it to the open window.  Suddenly free again, it darts out into the great, open spaces.

     God is sometimes like a man with a towel; and we, like the bee, mistaking the towel for an enemy, keep resisting his gentle push toward freedom and goodness.  What a sorry mankind we would be if God did not bother, if he let us dash ourselves against the bondage of our own limited plans and never nudged us toward the abundant life he has designed for us.

     It could be that the loss of money, the loss of health, the loss of friends, etc., might be God’s greater wisdom becoming the open windows to something much better than we could ever dream.  Many people have been trapped by power and position and wealth and have no longer been free to rely on God, to turn to their brothers, and to know the simple joys of the kingdom.

     Thank God, he does meddle.  He does direct our steps.

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Isaiah 55:8-9 — “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

Proverbs 20:24 — A man’s steps are directed by the Lord.  How then can anyone understand his own way?

Jeremiah 10:23-24 — I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.  Correct me, Lord, but only with justice– not in your anger, lest you reduce me to nothing.

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Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.                                                 —Lutheran Book of Worship

44) At Eternity’s Gate

On the Threshold of Eternity

       At Eternity’s Gate is an oil painting that Vincent van Gogh made in 1890.  The painting was completed in early May at a time when he was convalescing from a severe relapse in his mental health troubles, and just two months before his death, generally accepted as a suicide.  The painting was based on an earlier pencil drawing (1882) which van Gogh called Worn Out, of an old pensioner and war veteran, Adrianus Zuyderland, at a local poorhouse in The Hague.

     In an 1882 letter to his brother, Van Gogh wrote of his drawing:  “It seems to me that a painter has a duty to try to put an idea into his work.  I was trying to say in this print…, that it seems to me that one of the strongest pieces of evidence for the existence of ‘something on high…,’ namely in the existence of a God and an eternity, is the moving quality… in the expression of an old man like that, without his being aware of it perhaps, as he sits so quietly in the corner of his hearth.  (There is) something precious, something noble (in such a man), that can’t be meant for the worms…  This is far from all theology– simply the fact that the poorest woodcutter, farmer, or miner can have moments of emotion and mood that give him a sense of an eternal home that he is close to.”

     Writing about At Eternity’s Gate in 1990 the American theologian Kathleen Powers Erickson remarked:  “Belief in a ‘life beyond the grave’ is central to one of van Gogh’s first accomplished lithographs, At Eternity’s Gate…  Done at The Hague in 1882, it depicts an old man seated by a fire, his head buried in his hands.  Near the end of his life van Gogh recreated this image in oil, while recuperating in the asylum at St. Rémy.  Bent over with his fists clenched against a face hidden in utter frustration, the subject appears engulfed in grief.  Certainly, the work would convey an image of total despair had it not been for the English title van Gogh gave it, At Eternity’s Gate.  It demonstrates that even in his deepest moments of sorrow and pain, van Gogh clung to a faith in God and eternity, which he tried to express in his work…”  (see meditation #43)

     Van Gogh lost his battle for sanity, but did he cling to faith in God as Powers believes?  His faith was certainly conflicted, but was he hanging on by a thread?  Does the painting At Eternity’s Gate reflect only despair at the prospect of death, or does the title and van Gogh’s letter to his brother suggest some kind of faith and hope in the face of death?  The bullet van Gogh shot into his chest was deflected by a rib and did not hit any major organs.  He lived for 29 hours before dying of infection.  What did he think about during that time?

     Van Gogh certainly felt forsaken.  Jesus himself felt that way, crying out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  But then in his very last words, when he was himself at eternity’s gate, Jesus prayed “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  That is the very best prayer for us to remember when we approach that gate.

     The story of Vincent van Gogh’s troubled life and faith reminds me of of many of the Psalms, especially Psalm 73 which reads in part (verses 21-26): 

“When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.  Yet I am always with you;  you hold me by my right hand.  You guide me with your counsel,  and afterward you will take me into glory.  Whom have I in heaven but you?   And earth has nothing I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

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Fourteen years before his death, while still serving as a pastor, Vincent van Gogh had this to say in a sermon preached on October 29, 1876:

“There is sorrow in the hour when a man is born into the world, but also joy– deep and unspeakable– thankfulness so great that it reacheth the highest Heavens…  There is sorrow in the hour of death – but there too is joy unspeakable when it is the death of one who has fought a good fight.  There is One who has said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, if any man believe in me, though he were dead yet shall he live.'” (John 11:25)

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Statenbijbel      This is a photo of van Gogh’s Bible, originally owned by Vincent’s father, the Reverend Theodorus van Gogh.  It is a nineteenth-century reprint of the Dutch Authorized Bible, published in 1714.  The Bible was found in the 1980’s on the premises of the church in Leiden.

Still life with Bible, by Vincent Van Gogh

Still life with Bible, by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

 In 1885 Van Gogh painted this volume in his Still Life with Bible.  A crack in the spine still causes the book to fall open at Isaiah 53, precisely the page at which the Bible lies open in the painting.  Van Gogh would have found much comfort and hope in that chapter, as it foretold the coming life, ministry, and death of Jesus.

Isaiah 53:3  —  He was despised and rejected by mankind,  a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Isaiah 53:4-5  —  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God,  stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

Isaiah 53:6  —  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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A PRAYER OF ONE IN DESPAIR      From Psalm 31:9f

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak…
But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands…
Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love…
How abundant are the good things that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all, on those who take refuge in you….
In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy when I called to you for help…
Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

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The Starry Night, June 1889, The Museum of Mod...

The Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh, June 1889

To hear the 1971 song Vincent (Starry Starry Night) by Don McClean, along with a slide show of van Gogh’s paintings, go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dipFMJckZOM

The song says nothing about van Gogh’s religious beliefs, but it is a beautiful song about his life.

43) Rev. Vincent van Gogh

Self-Portrait, Spring 1887, Oil on pasteboard,...

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait, Spring 1887

     You have probably heard of the painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), but you may not have heard of ‘the Rev.’ Vincent van Gogh.  Actually, before Vincent was a painter he was a pastor.  He followed in the steps of his father, going to seminary and then serving a parish when he was in his middle 20’s.  But young Vincent pursued the Christian life and ministry with such zeal and intensity that he scared his superiors, and they forced him to leave the ministry.  Kathleen Powers Erickson tells the story in a 1990 article in Christian Century:

       “He has sent me to preach the Gospel to the poor,” declared Vincent van Gogh to his brother, Theo, in a letter dated 1876.  For the next three years van Gogh singlemindedly pursued his calling to the ministry, first as a student of theology and then as a missionary to the coal miners in the Belgian Borinage.  Deeply moved by the poverty surrounding him, van Gogh gave all his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners.  An inspector of the Evangelization Council came to the conclusion that the missionary’s excessive zeal bordered on the scandalous, and he reported van Gogh’s behavior to church authorities.  Although van Gogh was successful in his ministry, the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him, and at the end of 1879 he left the church, embittered and impoverished.

       Van Gogh remained in the village after the church withdrew its support, and he began his artistic career by making drawings of the simple life of the Belgian peasants.  He described this as a kind of conversion experience:  “Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive, and I said to myself, in spite of everything I shall rise again:  I will take up my pencil, which I had forsaken in my discouragement, and I will go on with my drawing.  From that moment everything has seemed transformed for me.”  Although most of van Gogh’s biographers view this transition as a rejection of religion, in fact art rather than preaching became van Gogh’s chief form of religious expression.  His faith in God and eternity, as well as his respect for unadorned piety and the word of God remained firm.

For more:   http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=752

       One fourth of the twenty highest priced paintings ever sold were paintings by van Gogh.  The total selling price of just those five paintings is over a half billion dollars in today’s value.  In his lifetime, however, van Gogh made practically no money at all from the work which was his passion.  It has been said that he never sold a single painting, and though that is an exaggeration, he sold very little and had to depend on his brother Theo’s good will and financial support to survive.  But van Gogh believed in his work, believed in making the best use of the gifts God had given him, and he persisted with an intensity that at times drove him mad.  The exact nature of his mental illness is not known, but he spent time in mental institutions and died at the age of 37 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.   Despite the lack of recognition in his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh became one of the most influential painters of the 20th century and his works are among the most valuable and widely recognized in the world.

“His faith was genuine and conflicted.  He had eyes that knew the dark night of the soul. Still, he knew the joy of life intimately.  Van Gogh fought for some kind of personal equilibrium, and lost the battle.”  –from a website, author’s name not given

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QUOTES FROM THE LETTERS OF VINCENT VAN GOGH

“What preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way?”

“What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low.   All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.  That is my ambition, based less on resentment than on love in spite of everything, based more on a feeling of serenity than on passion.  Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me.  I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners.  And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.”

“Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.”

“The victory one would gain after a whole life of work and effort is better than one that is gained sooner.”

“I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognize that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.”

“Your profession is not what brings home your weekly paycheck, your profession is what you’re put here on earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes spiritual in calling.”

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Ecclesiastes 9:10 — Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Proverbs 16:3 — Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.

Colossians 3:23 — Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters…

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A PRAYER FOR MEALTIME:  We thank you, good Lord, for this food which is ours by your goodness.  May the strength that comes through the food you give us enable us to do your will, serving you in such a way that we may show our gratitude.  Amen.

THE PRAYER, 1882, Vincent van Gogh

42) Unwanted

Here is one more page from the book Sometimes Miracles Hide by Bruce Carroll (see meditations #39-41), another letter that Carroll received, this one with a different perspective on the song.

Dear Bruce,

     I am writing this letter to express my grateful appreciation and to affirm how God has used your music in a truly beautiful and somewhat mysterious way.  I assume the purpose of your song is to comfort parents with less-than-perfect babies or even to encourage them to choose life rather than abortion.

     However, it spoke to me in an entirely different way.  The first time I heard it, I was driving in my car and tears began streaming down my face as God spoke to me through the words “sometimes miracles hide.”

    I’m the youngest of six children, the unplanned ‘accident.’  My nearest sibling reminded me many times over the years that I wasn’t ‘wanted’– and I don’t recall either of my parents ever denying that assertion.  I’m forty-two now, and I’ve carried shame and the feeling of being unwanted for many years.  The feeling of being unloved was buried so deep in me that it has taken lots of time and therapy to bring it out and deal with it.

     As I listened to your song that first time, I became the hidden miracle.  It no longer mattered that I was not wanted or that I was an ‘accident.’  God made me, I am His miracle, and He wants me more than I could ever imagine.

    Your song literally changed my outlook on life.  I’ve become a rather busy person– I volunteer at our church’s Mothers’ Day Out program, and I go to college full-time (my love for learning has been reborn).  I am a happier wife and a better mom to my two teenage sons.  I thank God daily for their understanding as I had to spend quite a bit of time getting myself together– and I thank God for Christian music, which is so very powerful.

     We just never know how God will use us to help others in their journey.

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Psalm 139:13-16 — 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.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.

Psalm 8:3-5 — When I look at the sky, which you have made, at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places—  what are human beings, that you think of them; mere mortals, that you care for them?  Yet you made them inferior only to yourself; you crowned them with glory and honor.

Isaiah 41:9 — (God said), “I took you from the ends of the earth, from its farthest corners I called you.  I said, ‘You are my servant’; I have chosen you and have not rejected you.”

John 15:16a — (Jesus said), “You did not choose me, but I chose you…”

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     As you go on your way, may God go with you.  May he go before you to show you the way; may he go behind you to encourage you; beside you to befriend you; above you to watch over you; and within you to give you peace.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      –10th century blessing

41) Liana Rose

Today’s meditation is again from the book “Sometimes Miracles Hide” by Bruce Carroll (see meditations #39 and #40).  It is another of the letters that Carroll received from someone with a handicapped child.

Dear Bruce,
     My life is in your song.  When I first became pregnant, I had no idea what the Lord had in store for me and my beautiful baby girl.  I had never given any thought to the possibility of having a handicapped child.  I had never even been around someone who was handicapped…

     After an emergency C-section, I delivered a precious baby girl.  We named her Liana Rose.  The doctors and nurses calmed my fear about the C-section and told us that Liana was perfectly normal.  She was certainly the most beautiful baby I had ever seen.

     At nine months we began to notice that Liana was not sitting up or trying to crawl.  As naive new parents, we thought it was because her grandma and grandpa (who kept her while I worked) held her all the time.  Just before she turned one, we took her to the pediatrician to see if anything was wrong.  We were stunned when the doctor told us that he thought she had a brain tumor!  His supposition was shortly proven wrong, but that was the beginning of an emotional roller-coaster ride.

     When Liana was just thirteen months old, she was accurately diagnosed with cerebral palsy.  But she was so perfect looking!  How could this happen?  Didn’t God love me?  Didn’t he love my baby girl?  Looking back, it’s a wonder that my marriage and my sanity survived all the extreme ups and downs.  We were told, and willingly believed, that her case was very mild and that with just a bit of therapy she would walk and talk…  During this time I was also dealing with the grief of three miscarriages, and we were having frequent money worries.  But surely, with just a little more therapy, Liana would walk, just a little more time and she would talk…  But no, no, and no.

     Her progress was very slow and painfully gained.  We soon had to accept that she would never walk or run or dance, and her speech was all but impossible to understand.  Our goals were lowered again and again.  Now, we simply hoped to get her out of diapers.

     When Liana was five, I had a healthy baby boy.  About this time, my husband became a Christian, and we prayed and prayed for Liana.  We took her to healing services and had others pray for her and us.  Doesn’t God love innocent little girls?  Was I being punished for something?  How could God be so cruel?  There were times when I was very mad at God for not healing Liana.

     My heart broke every time the neighbor kids came to ask if Liana’s little brother could some out and play, while Liana was ignored.  Then I noticed a lively little girl in a wheelchair who rode the bus that Liana took every day to school and therapy.  The bus driver mentioned that the little girl needed a place to stay while her father was out of the country.  I thought she might be the perfect friend for Liana.  That was how Kelly came into our lives.  Through a series of circumstances, we had Kelly for almost four years.  And so began our career as foster parents.

     Over the next ten years, twenty children came through our home.  We had babies, teenagers, hurt ones, handicapped ones– every kind of challenge you can think of and some you can’t.  God was using us in a miraculous way; we saw healings of every kind.

     We noticed that Liana loved each and every one of these children with her whole heart.  She accepted them just as they were– unconditionally, unreservedly.  She taught them and us that there was no one we couldn’t love, no matter how unlovable they seemed.  She taught me that everyone has something to give and that God can use anyone.  Liana, who has almost no ability to care for herself, showed me how to care for others…  

     My, how God has used her!  I know now that God is not cruel.  He is infinite in love and goodness.  Of all the things that I would not have chosen, having a handicapped child ranks at the top.  Of all the blessings in my life, Liana has been the greatest… 

     The most important thing I’ve learned from Liana is that we are all handicapped and that God loves us just as we are.  He does not need to heal us and make us perfect in order to love us.  If we were all perfect, we would not need Him and we would not need each other…

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II Corinthians 12:7-10  —  …In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Isaiah 41:10  —  So do not fear, for I am with you;  do not be dismayed, for I am your God.  I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

Romans 5:3b-4  —  …We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.

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     Help me, O Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such a way that they may unite my heart more closely with you.  Cause them to separate my affections from worldly things and inspire my soul with more vigor in the pursuit of true happiness.  Amen.   –Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), mother of John and Charles Wesley and 17 other children