70) Only in This Life (part two)

     (continued…)  How did the young couple with the child born blind respond to Pastor John’s letter?  They quit coming to church.  This reaction was not to the letter in particular, but to the God of whom the letter spoke.  The father said later that he still believed in God, and believed that God was all-powerful.  But, he said, if this is what God does with all that power, he no longer wanted to have anything to do with such a God.  He wrote an angry letter back to the pastor, and then spent several years in bitterness and unbelief.

     On July 4th of 2009, this father wrote a letter to his teenage son, the one born blind, on his fourteenth birthday.  In that letter he describes how, after his initial bitterness and anger, he was able to return to faith in God.  His wife had reconciled with God much sooner, and through her influence, the influence of his father and his pastor, and by an ongoing openness to God’s Word, he returned to faith and trust in God.  He has even reached the point where he can thank God for how his faith has grown by this challenge.  And now, with that deeper faith he is better able to handle another sadness and challenge– his wife’s ongoing battle with cancer.  He has learned to live with that larger perspective that the pastor had years ago encouraged him to see.

     In the letter from that pastor, this larger eternal perspective was first of all proclaimed by several promises from the Bible, but then it was summarized in one little phrase, one little word.  The word is ONLY, the phrase is ‘only in this life.’  Only in this life, said the pastor, will you have the sadness and the extra burden of a son who was born without eyes.  Only in this life will that son not be able to see.

     Keep in mind that word ONLY and that phrase, ‘only in this life.’  You can probably think of ways to finish the sentence for your own life.

     Only in this life will I have to endure this ongoing back pain, only in this life will I have to live with chronic illness, only in this life will I have these migraine headaches, only in this life will I be stuck in this wheelchair, only in this life will I be so alone, only in this life will I have this ongoing battle with depression, only in this life will I live with the uncertainty of cancer, only in this life will I have to go again and again to the cemetery to say good-bye to beloved family members, friends, and neighbors…

     Only in this life, — and then, as it says in Revelation 21, then we will live with God, and His home will be our home, and there will be no more tears, no more grief, no more illness, or sadness, or death, because as it says, all those former things will have passed away.  ‘Only’ is the word to remember– ONLY.  Only in this life.

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I Corinthians 15:19 — If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

1 Peter 5:10-11 — And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.  To him be the power for ever and ever.  Amen.

Revelation 21:3-5 — I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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Lord, teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.  Lighten, if it is your will, the pressures of this world’s cares.  Above all, reconcile us to your will, and give us a peace which the world cannot take away; through our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.   –Thomas Chalmers

69) Only in This Life (part one)

      I will never forget February 13, 2005, the day our first grandchild was born.  Our daughter and son-in-law invited us to the hospital to await the birth of their daughter.  It seemed like a long wait, though it was probably no longer than usual.  Finally the door we were watching opened and our son-in-law came out and said, “Everything went fine.  Courtney has arrived, and she and her mother are doing well.”  That is what you want to hear when a baby is born.  Prayers requesting that outcome were answered, prayers of thanks were then said.  A new life had begun, another miracle of God was here.

     On July 4th, 1995, a baby boy was born to John and Diane Knight in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  They had prayed that their baby would be healthy and strong, and he was; except for one problem.  He was born blind and would never see even one ray of light in his entire life.  There was no doubt about this, because he was born without eyes.

     John and Diane were solid Christians and active in their church.  The day after their baby was born they received a letter from their pastor, Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist church in downtown Minneapolis.  Here is a shortened version of what the pastor wrote to these new parents of a child born without eyes:

Dear John and Diane, 

     Last night, as I said my prayers, you were heavy on my mind.  I said, “O Lord, please let me be a pastor who preaches and leads and loves in a way that makes the impossibilities of life possible for your people by the miracle of your sustaining grace.  Help me to know the weight and pain of this life, and help me to be sympathetic with others when their world is turned upside-down.  O Lord, make me and my people a burden bearing people.”

John and Diane, my heart is so heavy with your child’s sightlessness!  God is visiting our congregation with such pain these days in the birth of broken children.  Randy and Ann with their baby’s heart problems; Jan and Rob with their baby‘s ongoing illness; and now your precious little one!  Is the Lord saying, “I have a gift for your community.”  This is not one or two or three couples’ burden.  This is a gift and call to the whole church.  This is a word concerning the brokenness of this fallen world.  This is an invitation for you all to believe that “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14).  This is an invitation for you to “count every gain as loss for the sake of Christ” (Philippians 3:7).  This is a shocking test to see if you will “lose heart” when in fact God’s purpose is to show that his grace is sufficient to renew our inner person every day to deal with the “slight momentary affliction which is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17-18). 

     O Lord, open our eyes to your love in this pain.  Open our eyes. “Then Elisha prayed, and said, ‘O Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” to protect and sustain him (2 Kings 6:17).  John and Diane, the mountains surrounding your lives are filled with the horses and chariots of God.  Only to the eyes of unbelief does the devil have the upper hand here.  God is at work in ways that may turn this pain into blessings that we cannot now imagine, for others who we may never know.  This is ours to believe and to bear, no matter the cost.  This is ours for this short life.

It seems to me that this life is a proving ground for the kingdom to come.  Some are asked to devote forty or fifty years to caring for a handicapped child instead of breezing through life without pain.  Others are asked to be blind all their lives…

     But only in this life – ONLY in this life.  I want to be the kind person who makes that “ONLY” what it really is– very short, and a prelude to the infinity of joy, joy, joy.  But not yet.  Not entirely.

     How will we ever cope with the burdens of this life if we believe this is all there is?  O Lord, give us your view of things.

     May God fill you with hope in the knowledge that you will be joyful again, for as Paul said, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

–Pastor John  

John Piper (theologian)

John Piper

     What Pastor John does in this letter is he takes that very huge problem, that very big sadness, of a child born blind, and he places it all in the much larger context of a much greater happiness.  By including several Bible promises, he encourages the couple to bear this burden as a gift of God, that may turn out to be a blessing in ways they will never see.  He tries to express his deep sadness and sympathy, along with an even deeper faith in and confidence in God.  (continued…)

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I Corinthians 15:19 — If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 

Romans 8:28 — And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 

II Kings 6:15-17 — When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city.  “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” the servant asked.
     “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered.  “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
     And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.”  Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

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We pray, O Lord, as Elisha prayed; “Open our eyes so that we may see.”  May we see our lives in the light of all eternity, for you have promised an eternity in which to work out all things for the good of those who believe in you.  AMEN.  (II Kings 6:17)

68) Will You Forgive Me?

From Tramp for the Lord, by Corrie ten Boom, 1974, pages 55-57. 

     It was in a church in Munich that I saw him– a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands.  People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.  It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.  (Corrie ten Boom, a Christian, had spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp, sentenced there for hiding Jews in her home in Holland.  All the rest of her family died in the camps.)

English: Betsie, Nollie, Casper, Willem, Corne...

Betsie, Nollie, Casper, Willem, Cornelia, Corrie ten Boom in 1900.

     It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture.  Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.  “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.  And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, “NO FISHING ALLOWED.”

     The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe.  There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947.  People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

     And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others.  One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next moment, (in my mind), I saw a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.  It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man.  I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.  Betsie, how thin you were!  The place was Ravensbruck and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard– one of the most cruel guards.  Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out:  “A fine message, Fraulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

     And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.  He would not remember me, of course– how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?  But I remembered him.  I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.  “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying.  “I was a guard there.”  No, he did not remember me.  “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fraulein,” — again the hand came out — “will you forgive me?”

     And I stood there– I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven– and could not forgive.  Betsie had died in that place– could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?  It could not have been many seconds that he stood there– hand held out– but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.  For I had to do it– I knew that.  The message that God forgives has a prior condition:  that we forgive those who have injured us.  “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

     I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience.  Since the end of the war I had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.  Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars.  Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids.  It was as simple and as horrible as that.

     And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.  But forgiveness is not an emotion– I knew that too.  Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.  “Jesus help me!” I prayed silently.  “I can lift my hand.  I can do that much.  You supply the feeling.”

     And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.  And as I did, an incredible thing took place.  The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, and sprang into our joined hands.  And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.  “I forgive you, brother!” I cried.  “With all my heart.”

     For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner.  I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.  But even so, I realized it was not my love.  I had tried, and did not have the power.  It was the power of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Romans 5:5, “. . . because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Living Bible).

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Romans 5:5 — And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.  (NIV)

Matthew 5:7 — (Jesus said), “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Romans 8:26b — …The Spirit helps us in our weakness… 

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Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  

–Jesus

67) A Prayer for Mercy

From the novel Jubilee (1966), by Margaret W. Alexander (1915-98); (Quoted in Conversations With God: Two Centuries of African-American Prayers, ed. by James M. Washington, pp. 213, HarperCollins).

     Before she realized where she was going she found herself deep in the woods… where there was a chapel-hush.  She heard birds softly and sweetly singing, but most of all she felt the silence of the thickly soft carpet of pine needles under her feet, and looking up she could faintly see the blue sky in thin scraps of light through the interlacing of tender young leaves and green pine needles.  She found herself a rock, and instead of sitting down she dropped to her knees.  Instinctively she began to pray, the words forming on her lips at first in a halting, faltering, and half-hesitant fashion, and then rushing out:

     “Lawd, God-a-mighty, I come down here this morning to tell you I done reached the end of my rope, and I wants you to take a-hold.  I done come to the bottom of the well, Lord, and my well full of water done run clean dry.

     “I come down here, Lord, cause I ain’t got no where else to go.  I come down here knowing I ain’t got no right, but I got a heavy need.  I’m suffering so, Lord, my body is heavy like I’m carrying a stone.  I come to ask you to move the stone, Jesus.  Please move the stone!  I come down here, Lord, to ask you to come by here, Lord.  Please come by here!

     “We can’t go on like this no longer, Lord.  We can’t keep on a-fighting, and a-fussing, and a-cussing, and a-hating like this, Lord.  You done been too good to us.  We done wrong, Lord, I knows we done wrong.  I ain’t gonna say we ain’t done wrong, and I ain’t gonna promise we might not do wrong again cause, Lord, we ain’t nothing but sinful human flesh, we ain’t nothing but dust.  We is evil peoples in a wicked world, but I’m asking you to let your forgiving love cover our sin, Lord.

      “Let your peace come in our hearts again, Lord, and we’s gonna try to stay on our knees and follow the road You is laid before us, if You only will.  Come by here, Lord, come by here, if you please.  And Lord, I wants to thank You, Jesus, for moving the stone!”

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Isaiah 55:6-7  —  Seek the Lord while he may be found;  call on him while he is near.  Let the wicked forsake their ways  and the unrighteous their thoughts.  Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

Psalm 41:4  —  I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord; heal me, for I have sinned against you.”

Psalm 6:2-4…6  —  Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.  My soul is in deep anguish.  How long, Lord, how long?  Turn, Lord, and deliver me;  save me because of your unfailing love…  I am worn out from my groaning.

Matthew 20:29-31  —  As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, a large crowd followed him.  Two blind men were sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was going by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”  The crowd rebuked them and told them to be quiet, but they shouted all the louder, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!”

Luke 18:9-14  —  To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:   “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed:  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’  “But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’  “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.  For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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THE JESUS PRAYER (an ancient prayer, widely used, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church:  

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

66) Brother Zeke Asks God to Take Sis Hetta Home

From the novel Jubilee (1966), by Margaret W. Alexander (1915-98); (Quoted in Conversations With God: Two Centuries of African-American Prayers, ed. by James M. Washington, pp. 211-212, HarperCollins).

     Brother Ezekiel held the (two year old) child down close to her mother’s face and said soothingly, “It’s your mama, Vyry, say hello to you maw.”  The child spoke, “Mama,” and then she whimpered.  Hetta fell back on her pillows and Ezekiel handed the child back to Mama Sukey, who quickly took her outside into the night air.

     After a moment Brother Ezekiel spoke again to the dying and exhausted woman. “Sis Hetta, I’m here, Brother Zeke, it’s me.  Can I do something for you?”

     “Pray,” she responded, “pray.”

     He fell on his knees beside the bed and took her hand in his.  The night was growing darker.  Despite the full moon outside, spilling light through the great oak and magnolia trees, Granny Ticey had lighted a large tallow candle.  It flared up suddenly, and eerie shadows searched the corners and crowded the room.  Brother Ezekiel began to pray: 

     “Lord, God-a-mighty, you done told us in your Word to seek and we shall find; knock and the door be open; ask, and it shall be given when your love come twinklin down.  And Lord, tonight we is a-seekin.  Way down here in this rain-washed world, kneelin here by this bed of affliction pain, your humble servant is a-knockin, and askin for your lovin mercy, and your tender love.  This here sister is tired of a-sufferin, Lord, and she wants to come home.  We ask you to roll down that sweet chariot right here by her bed, just like you done for Elijah, so she can step in kinda easy like and ride on home to glory.  Gather her in your bosom like you done Father Abraham and give her rest.  She weak, Lord, and she weary, but her eyes is a-fixin for to light on them golden streets of glory and them pearly gates of God.  She beggin for to set at your welcome table and feast on milk and honey.  She wants to put on them angel wings and wear that crown and them pretty golden slippers.  She done been broke like a straw in the wind and she ain’t got no strength, but she got the faith, Lord, and she got the promise of your Almighty Word.  Lead her through this wilderness of sin and tribulation.  Give her grace to stand by the river of Jordan and cross her over to hear Gabe (colloquial for archangel Gabriel) blow that horn.  Take her home, Lord God, take her home.”

     And the sobbing woman listening to him pray breathed fervent amens.  When Brother Ezekiel got up from his knees he put the hand of Sis Hetta on her cover.  But she no longer seemed to hear what he was saying.

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2 Kings 2:11 — As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.

John 14:1-3 — (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Psalms 34:17-19 — The righteous cry out and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.

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Two prayers by Martin Luther for when death draws near:

O Lord Jesus Christ, will not this misery finally come to an end, and the glory of the children of God soon begin?  You have promised us the day in which you will deliver us from all manner of evil; let it come, even in this hour, it if be your will, and make an end of all misery.  Amen.

Luther’s prayer on the day of his death, Feb. 18, 1546:  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  You have redeemed me, faithful God.

65) Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling

     One hundred years before Billy Graham’s world-wide evangelistic ministry, there was Dwight L. Moody.  Moody was the best known evangelist of the late 1800’s, and like Billy Graham’s Just As I Am, Moody also had a favorite song that he would use as he ended his message and invited the crowds to come forward.  His favorite song was written by a friend of his, Will Thompson.  The title was Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.  Hundreds of thousands of people came forward to give their lives to Jesus Christ as the gentle words of this hymn were being sung by the choir:  “Come home, come home,” goes the refrain; “You who are weary come home; earnestly, tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner, come home.”  This has been called the greatest soul-winning hymn of all time.  If coming to faith is a matter of the head and the heart, these words about ‘coming home’ certainly do speak to the heart.

     Will Thompson was born in 1847 in East Liverpool, Ohio.  His dad was a wealthy businessman and was able to afford to send Will to the very best music schools, both in the United States and in Europe.  When still a young man, Thompson wrote several patriotic songs and some lively dance tunes.  A publisher in Cleveland offered him the measly sum of $25.00 for the whole works.  Thompson thought he could do better on his own, so published the songs himself.  His songs became very popular and he became a millionaire.

     The young man credited God with his success, and then dedicated his life to writing Christian songs.  Some of them became popular, but none caught on like “Softly and Tenderly.”  When Moody picked it up for his crusades, it went international.

     Despite his wealth and success, Thompson was known as a simple and sincere man.  He returned to the small town of his youth, and ran his publishing business from there.  He was concerned that while famous musicians traveled to great cities to perform before large crowds, people in rural areas and small towns seldom had anyone to perform for and minister to them.  So he loaded up an upright piano on his two horse wagon and drove all over the Midwest, playing his religious songs in churches, city parks, and even at farm homes.  Will Thompson was a millionaire and did not have to do that, but he wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the Gospel in song.

     In the 1985 movie Trip to Bountiful actress Geraldine Page won an Academy award for her portrayal of a little old lady who just wants to go back home to her small town of Bountiful, Texas one last time before she dies.  She lives with her son and daughter-in-law, but they are mean and don’t even let her out of the house.  So she has to devise a scheme to get away, get over to the bus station, and get out of town.  She manages to escape, and then, on the way, she cheers up everyone she meets with her simple faith and her Gospel hymn singing; and her favorite song is Softly and Tenderly.  The song has a double meaning for her.  She wants to go home to her childhood earthly home just one more time before she goes on to her heavenly home.  It’s a nice movie and a beautiful use of this song.  Here’s what one lady wrote about seeing the movie:  

I turned on the TV and here were these two women on a bus talking.  Nothing about the scene was very dramatic, but the conversation was compelling.  And then the older lady started singing, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me, see on the portals he’s waiting and watching, watching for you and for me.”  All of a sudden I had this vision of Jesus, standing on a rock, motioning with his hand to come to him, and I could see in his eyes that he was saddened by me not coming.  I started crying, and then, for days after I was humming that tune and trying to recall the words.  Then one day my husband heard me humming and started to sing all the words.  “‘How do you know that song?,” I said.  He said, “We always sung it when I went to church as a kid.”  There was not a bit of faith left in either of us at that time, but that song in that movie was the beginning of our journey back to God.  It was to me the most beautiful music in the world, and it evoked a personal call from Jesus to me:  “O for the wonderful love he has promised, promised for you and for me, though we have sinned he has mercy and pardon, pardon for you and for me.  Come home, come home, come home….”  

     That song has had a similar effect on countless people over the years.  But why do these words ‘come home, come home,’ have such a powerful emotional appeal for us?  Think of that lady, sitting on her couch, getting all choked up over a song about going home.  She was at home!  She was sitting in her own house.  What is going on there?

     Deep inside of us all there is a longing for something or someplace else.  We can feel in our bones the truth of what the Bible teaches when it says that this world is not our home, that we are but strangers and pilgrims here, and that we are just passing through on our way to someplace else.  This world, even in the best of times, is not our home.  In bad times and in good, our hearts are set to longing for something more.  That, says the Bible, is because we were created for more than the sadness and the confines of this sad world.  We were created for God and for life, with him, in his home.  And so even a person of no faith at all, when hearing a song about going home, can get a lump in their throat and begin to long for that eternal and heavenly home.

    Jesus is always saying to everyone of us, “Come home.”

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Matthew 11:28-30  —  Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

John 14:23  —  Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.  My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

Revelation 3:20  —  Jesus said, “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.”

Revelation 20:3, 4  —  I heard a loud voice speaking from the throne:  “Now God’s home is with people!  He will live with them, and they shall be his people.  God himself will be with them, and he will be their God.  He will wipe away all tears from their eyes.  There will be no more death, no more grief or crying or pain.  The old things have disappeared.”

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May the eternal God bless us and keep us, guard our bodies, save our souls, direct our thoughts, and bring us safe to the heavenly country, our eternal home, where Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ever reign, one God for ever and ever.  Amen.  –Sarum Breviary

64) Take Up Your Cross

     Jesus said (Mark 8:34):  “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”  Take up your cross, Jesus said.  Those words have led to an expression Christians often use when speaking of their troubles.  “It is my cross to bear,” many will say when speaking of their bad back or constant headaches or financial loss or difficult loved ones or whatever.  This is a good and helpful way to look at these things.  Seeing your trouble as your cross to bear links your suffering to the suffering of Christ, and that can dignify your pain and give it some meaning.  There is needed comfort in that, because that is what we get in this world– suffering.  That is what Jesus got when he was here on this earth, and so he said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” and he could have added, “I had to suffer too, you know.”  Jesus might have even said, “What kind of king or queen do you think you are that you should not have to suffer?  Everyone suffers, so is why is everyone always saying ‘why me, why me?’”  Why not me?, we should ask.  After all, unimaginable suffering came even to the Son of God, Savior of the world himself, so why not me?  So Jesus says, ‘take up your cross,’ that is, whatever form of suffering it is that you have to bear, ‘and follow me.’

     Elizabeth Clephane was one who did just that.  She was born in 1830 and in her short life had more than her share of crosses to bear.  Her parents died when she was just a child, and Elizabeth herself was always frail and in poor health.  She died when she was only 39.  Yet, she bore her many crosses with dignity, and used what energy she had to follow Jesus.  Elizabeth and her sister used their time and their wealth to serve the poor, the sick, and those otherwise in need in their community of Melrose, Scotland.  In time, they had given away everything they had, living little better than the poor they were serving.  The people of the town loved the two sisters, remembering their cheerful disposition in spite of everything.

     Not only did Elizabeth take up her cross and follow Jesus, she also wrote a song about it.  She had written many poems and several were put to music after her death, but just one of them became a favorite, Beneath the Cross of Jesus.  Every verse speaks of the cross of Jesus: taking a stand beneath it, looking to it, abiding in it, and resting in it.  Knowing how she literally wore herself out in serving Jesus make some of the lines even more meaningful.  The cross, she wrote, is ‘a mighty rock within a weary land, a home along the way, a place to rest from the burdens of the day,’ and so forth.  Elizabeth knew her Bible well.  These three brief verses contain images and phrases from Jeremiah, Matthew, the Psalms, and three from Isaiah.  This is a wonderful hymn, filled with faith in and devotion to the one who died on that cross.  It is a reminder of what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

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Mark 8:34-37  —  Then (Jesus) called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said:  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

I Peter 4:12, 13  —  Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

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BENEATH THE CROSS OF JESUS

Beneath the cross of Jesus I long to take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.

Upon that cross of Jesus my eye at times can see
The very dying form of One Who suffered there for me;
And from my stricken heart with tears two wonders I confess;
The wonder of His glorious love, and my unworthiness.

I take, O cross, your shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain or loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.

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

63) On Wanting to Be Somewhere Else

TWO PICTURES  

–By Annie Douglas Robinson  (1842-1913)

An old farmhouse with meadows wide,
And sweet with clover on each side;
A bright-eyed boy, who looks from out
The door with woodbine wreathed about,
And wishes his one thought all day:
”Oh, if I could only fly away
From this dull spot, the world to see,
How happy, happy, happy,
How happy I should be!”

Amid the city’s constant din,
A man who round the world has been,
Who, mid the tumult and the throng,
Is thinking, thinking all day long:
“Oh! could I only tread once more
The field-path to the farmhouse door,
The old, green meadow could I see,
How happy, happy, happy,
How happy I should be!”

–From Harper’s Fourth Reader, page 365, Copyright 1888, Harper & Brothers

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“A man travels the world over in search of what he
needs, and he returns home to find it.”  –George Moore

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Jeremiah 50:6  —  They have wandered over mountain and hill and forgot their own resting place.

Philippians 4:11b-12b  —  I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in every situation.  

I 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 13:5-6a  —  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.”  So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid…”

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THE SERENITY PRAYER

(original version, later adapted and popularized by AA)

God,
Give me grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Living one day at a time, 
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace, 
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is, 
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.  Amen.

–Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian, (1892-1971)

62) Do You Want to Be a Star?

     For several years Ben Stein wrote a biweekly column called “Monday Night at Morton’s.”  Morton’s is a famous chain of steakhouses known to be frequented by movie stars and famous people from around the world.  Ben Stein knew many of them and would write about his visits with them at Morton’s.  In July of 2004 Stein wrote his final ‘Morton’s’ column.  Today’s meditation is taken from that column. 

     I no longer think Hollywood stars are terribly important.  They are uniformly pleasant, friendly people, and they treat me better than I deserve to be treated.  But a man or woman who makes a huge wage for memorizing lines and reciting them in front of a camera is no longer my idea of a shining star we should all look up to.  How can a man or woman who makes an eight-figure wage and lives in insane luxury really be a star in today’s world, if by a “star” we mean someone bright and powerful and attractive as a role model?  Real stars are not riding around in the backs of limousines or in Porsches or getting trained in yoga and eating only raw fruit while they have Vietnamese girls do their nails.  They can be interesting, nice people, but they are not heroes to me any longer.

     A real star is the soldier of the 4th Infantry Division who poked his head into a hole on a farm near Tikrit, Iraq.  He could have been met by a bomb or a hail of AK-47 bullets.  Instead, he faced an abject Saddam Hussein and the gratitude of all of the decent people of the world.  A real star is the U.S. soldier who was sent to disarm a bomb next to a road north of Baghdad.  He approached it, and the bomb went off and killed him.  A real star, the kind who haunts my memory night and day, is the U.S. soldier in Baghdad who saw a little girl playing with a piece of unexploded ordinance on a street near where he was guarding a station.  He pushed her aside and threw himself on it just as it exploded.  He left a family desolate in California and a little girl alive in Baghdad.

     The stars who deserve media attention are not the ones who have lavish weddings on TV but the ones who patrol the streets of Mosul even after two of their buddies were murdered and their bodies battered and stripped for the sin of trying to protect Iraqis from terrorists.  We put couples with incomes of $100 million a year on the covers of our magazines.  The noncoms and officers who barely scrape by on military pay but stand on guard in Afghanistan and Iraq and on ships and in submarines and near the Arctic Circle are anonymous as they live and die.  I am no longer comfortable being a part of the system that has such poor values, and I do not want to perpetuate those values by pretending that who is eating at Morton’s is a big subject.

     There are plenty of other stars in the American firmament.  The policemen and women who go off on patrol in South Central and have no idea if they will return alive.  The orderlies and paramedics who bring in people who have been in terrible accidents and prepare them for surgery.  The teachers and nurses who throw their whole spirits into caring for autistic children.  The kind men and women who work in hospices and in cancer wards.  Think of each and every fireman who was running up the stairs at the World Trade Center as the towers began to collapse.  Now you have my idea of a real hero.

     In my previous column, I told you a few of the rules I have learned to keep my sanity.  Well, here is a final one to help you keep your sanity and keep you in the running for stardom:  We are puny, insignificant creatures.  We are not responsible for the operation of the universe, and what happens to us is not terribly important.  God is real, not a fiction, and when we turn over our lives to Him, he takes far better care of us than we could ever do for ourselves.  In a word, we make ourselves sane when we fire ourselves as the directors of the movie of our lives and turn the power over to Him.

     I can put it another way.  Years ago, I realized I could never be as great an actor as Olivier or as good a comic as Steve Martin or as good an economist as Samuelson or Friedman or as good a writer as Fitzgerald.  Or even remotely close to any of them.

     But I could be a devoted father to my son, husband to my wife and, above all, a good son to the parents who had done so much for me.  This came to be my main task in life.  I did it moderately well with my son, pretty well with my wife and well indeed with my parents (with my sister’s help).  I cared for and paid attention to them in their declining years.  I stayed with my father as he got sick, went into extremis and then into a coma, and then entered immortality with my sister and me reading him the Psalms.

     This was the only point at which my life touched the type of heroism of the soldiers in Iraq or the firefighters in New York.  I came to realize that life lived to help others is the only one that matters, and that it is my duty, in return for the lavish life God has devolved upon me, to help others He has placed in my path.  This is my highest and best use as a human.

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     There is the old story of the man stood before God, his heart breaking from the pain and injustice in the world.  “Dear God,” he cried out, “look at all the suffering, the anguish, and the distress in your world.  Why don’t you send help?” God responded, “I did send help.  I sent you.”

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Luke 22:24-27 — Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.  Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”

Acts 20:35 — In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said:  ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”

I Peter 4:10 — Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.

Revelation 14:13 — Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write:  Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”
     “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

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You are never tired, O Lord, of doing us good; let us never be weary of doing you service.  But as you have pleasure in the well-being of your servants, let us take pleasure in the service of our Lord, and abound in your work and in your love and praise evermore.  Amen.   –John Wesley

61) Believing Without Seeing

     Around the world there have been many different rites of passage by which boys would become men.  In one Native American tribe the young braves were given a test of courage.  A 13-year-old boy, on the verge of manhood, would be awakened during the night and led blindfolded out of the camp.  When he was several miles away from home, the blindfold would be removed and he was left in the forest.  He did not know where he was, but he was told to stay there until morning.  All alone he faced the dark night.  Every sound would fill his imagination with threats of danger.  Shadows in the unfamiliar surroundings made him imagine wild animals or enemies ready to attack.

     After a sleepless night filled with tension and fear the sun would rise, and the young brave could finally begin to see clearly what was around him.  Much to his surprise, he would see a man armed with a bow and arrow standing just a few feet away.  The man would be his father; and he would then tell his son that he had been there throughout the night to protect him.

     This is a wonderful illustration of the Christian’s life in the world.  In Jesus’ last words to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, he said, “Surely, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”  However, just like the young brave in the dark night could not see his father who was always by his side, we cannot see our heavenly Father, who has promised to be always with us.  But we can take comfort in Jesus words to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

     Not only can we not see God, but there are times when it is difficult even to see any signs of His care or goodness, and we can become discouraged.  But in that ‘dark night of the soul’ God can give us faith and strength.  In the Old Testament, Habakkuk lived at a time of violence and injustice and evil in his nation.  Worse yet, they were threatened from the outside by approaching Babylonian invaders.  God seemed silent to Habakkuk, who cried out at the beginning of the book that bears his name, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?”  And yet, it seems things had to get worse before they would get better.  Even at the book’s end,  Habakkuk was still waiting for help to come, but still he could pray this great prayer of confident faith (3:16-19):  “I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.  Yet, I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.  And even though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength.”  Habakkuk could not yet see God’s hand in the trouble all around him, but still he believed and trusted.

     A similar testimony of faith was found on a cellar wall in Cologne, Germany after World War II.  It was apparently left by someone who had been hiding from the Nazis.  Workers found this inscription while clearing away the debris from a destroyed home.  It read: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining.  I believe in love, even when I do not feel it.  I believe in God, even when he is silent.”

     In that same war, Corrie ten Boom also seemed abandoned by God.  She was a Christian and her family had courageously hidden several Jews in their home.  When the Nazis discovered this, the ten Boom family was sent to a concentration camp.  Several members of Corrie’s family died there, and Corrie endured much suffering.  Later, when talking about trusting God even in such difficult circumstances, she would say:  “When the train goes through a tunnel and the world gets dark, do you jump out?  Of course not.  You sit still and you trust the engineer to get you through.”

     During those same years, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in a Nazi prison for his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  He was executed on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies liberated the prison in which he was held.  He too could have felt like God had abandoned him.  But instead he trusted in God, even though he could not see much of his care and goodness at the time.  From his prison cell, Bonhoeffer wrote: “By good powers, wonderfully hidden, we wait cheerfully, come what may.”

     One final example:  After 16 difficult years as a missionary and explorer in Africa, David Livingstone returned to his native Scotland where addressed the students at Glasgow University.  His body was emaciated by the ravages of some twenty-seven fevers, which he had endured in his years of service.  One arm hung useless at his side, the result of being chewed on by an attacking lion.  He said to the students:  “Shall I tell you what sustained me amidst the toil, the hardship, and the loneliness of my exile?  It was Christ’s promise, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end.’” 

     These people show us that we do not have to see God or his benefits to be strengthened by his presence.  Like the young brave in the forest, we can be assured that our Father is right by us, even when all is darkness.  As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”

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Matthew 28:20b — (Jesus said), “…Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

John 20:29 — Jesus said to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you believed; blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

2 Corinthians 5:7 — We live by faith, not by sight.

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Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night, for the love of thy only Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer