203) Ilyas and His Wife (part one)

ILYAS, a short story by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

     There once lived, in the Government of Oufá a Bashkír named Ilyás.  His father, who died a year after he had found his son a wife, did not leave him much property.  Ilyás then had only seven mares, two cows, and about a score of sheep.  He was a good manager, however, and soon began to acquire more.  He and his wife worked from morn till night; rising earlier than others and going later to bed; and his possessions increased year by year.  Living in this way, Ilyás little by little acquired great wealth.  At the end of thirty-five years he had 200 horses, 150 head of cattle, and 1,200 sheep.  Hired laborers tended his flocks and herds, and hired women milked his mares and cows, and made kumiss (Kumiss is a fermented drink prepared from mare’s milk), butter and cheese.  Ilyás had abundance of everything, and every one in the district envied him.  They said of him: ‘Ilyás is a fortunate man: he has plenty of everything.  This world must be a pleasant place for him.’

     People of position heard of Ilyás and sought his acquaintance.  Visitors came to him from afar; and he welcomed every one, and gave them food and drink.  Whoever might come, there was always kumiss, tea, sherbet, and mutton to set before them.  Whenever visitors arrived a sheep would be killed, or sometimes two; and if many guests came he would even slaughter a mare for them.

     Ilyás had three children:  two sons and a daughter; and he married them all off.  While he was poor, his sons worked with him, and looked after the flocks and herds themselves; but when he grew rich they got spoiled and one of them took to drink.  The eldest was killed in a brawl; and the younger, who had married a self-willed woman, ceased to obey his father, and they could not live together any more.  So they parted, and Ilyás gave his son a house and some of the cattle; and this diminished his wealth.  Soon after that, a disease broke out among Ilyás’s sheep, and many died.  Then followed a bad harvest, and the hay crop failed; and many cattle died that winter.  Then the Kirghíz captured his best herd of horses; and Ilyás’s property dwindled away.  It became smaller and smaller, while at the same time his strength grew less; till, by the time he was seventy years old, he had begun to sell his furs, carpets, saddles, and tents.  At last he had to part with his remaining cattle, and found himself face to face with want.  Before he knew how it had happened, he had lost everything, and in their old age he and his wife had to go into service.  Ilyás had nothing left, except the clothes on his back, a fur cloak, a cup, his indoor shoes and overshoes, and his wife, Sham-Shemagi, who also was old by this time.  The son who had parted from him had gone into a far country, and his daughter was dead, so that there was no one to help the old couple.

     Their neighbor, Muhammad-Shah, took pity on them.  Muhammad-Shah was neither rich nor poor, but lived comfortably, and was a good man.  He remembered Ilyás’s hospitality, and pitying him, said:  ‘Come and live with me, Ilyás, you and your old woman.  In summer you can work in my melon-garden as much as your strength allows, and in winter feed my cattle; and Sham-Shemagi shall milk my mares and make kumiss.  I will feed and clothe you both.  When you need anything, tell me, and you shall have it.’

     Ilyás thanked his neighbor, and he and his wife took service with Muhammad-Shah as laborers.  At first the position seemed hard to them, but they got used to it, and lived on, working as much as their strength allowed.  Muhammad-Shah found it was to his advantage to keep such people, because, having been masters themselves, they knew how to manage and were not lazy, but did all the work they could.  Yet it grieved Muhammad-Shah to see people brought so low who had been of such high standing.

     It happened once that some of Muhammad-Shah’s relatives came from a great distance to visit him, and a Mullah came too.  Muhammad-Shah told Ilyás to catch a sheep and kill it.  Ilyás skinned the sheep, and boiled it, and sent it in to the guests.  The guests ate the mutton, had some tea, and then began drinking kumiss.  As they were sitting with their host on down cushions on a carpet, conversing and sipping kumiss from their cups, Ilyás, having finished his work passed by the open door.  Muhammad-Shah, seeing him pass, said to one of the guests:  ‘Did you notice that old man who passed just now?’

     ‘Yes,’ said the visitor, ‘what is there remarkable about him?’

     ‘Only this — that he was once the richest man among us,’ replied the host.  ‘His name is Ilyás.  You may have heard of him.’

     ‘Of course I have heard of him,’ the guest answered.   ‘I never saw him before, but his fame has spread far and wide.’

     ‘Yes, and now he has nothing left,’ said Muhammad-Shah, ‘and he lives with me as my laborer, and his old woman is here too — she milks the mares.’

     The guest was astonished:  he clicked with his tongue, shook his head, and said:  ‘Fortune turns like a wheel.  One man it lifts, another it sets down!  Does not the old man grieve over all he has lost?’

     ‘Who can tell.  He lives quietly and peacefully, and works well.’

     ‘May I speak to him?’ asked the guest.   (to be concluded in tomorrow’s meditation…)

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Ecclesiastes 7:10  —  Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”  For it is not wise to ask such questions. 

Ecclesiastes 2:18-19  —  I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun.  This too is meaningless.

Proverbs 10:25  —  When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever.

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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.)

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202) He Became Like Us

By Max Dunnam, from his book This Is Christianity

     One day a woman came to see the famous plastic surgeon Dr. Maxwell Maltz about her husband.  She told the doctor that her husband had been injured while attempting to save his parents from a burning house.  He could not rescue them.  They both were killed, and his face was burned and disfigured.  He had given up on life and gone into hiding.  He wouldn’t let anyone see him.

     Dr. Maltz told the woman not to worry.  “With the great advances we’ve made in plastic surgery in recent years,” he said, “I can restore his face.”  She explained that he wouldn’t let anyone help him because he believed God disfigured his face to punish him for not saving his parents.

     Then she made a shocking request:  “I want you to disfigure my face so I can be like him.  If I can share in his pain, then maybe he will let me back into his life.  I love him so much; I want to be with him.  And if that is what it takes, then that is what I want to do.”

     Of course, Dr. Maltz would not agree, but he was moved deeply by that wife’s determined and total love.  He got her permission to try talk to her husband.  He went to the man’s room and knocked, but there was no answer.  He called loudly through the door, “I know you are in there, and I know you can hear me, so I’ve come to tell you that my name is Dr. Maltz.  I am a plastic surgeon, and I want you to know I can restore your face.”

     Again there was no response.  Again he called loudly, “Please come out and let me help restore your face.” But again, there was no answer.  Still speaking through the door, Dr. Maltz told the man what his wife was asking him to do.  “She wants me to disfigure her face, to make her face like yours in the hope that you will let her back into your life.  That’s how much she loves you.  That’s how much she wants to help you.”

     There was silence, and then ever so slowly, the doorknob began to turn.  The disfigured man came out to make a new beginning and to find a new life.  He was set free, brought out of hiding, given a new start by his wife’s love and willingness to sacrifice for him.

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     That woman was willing to become like her husband, if by doing so she could open his heart to receive her love again and renew their relationship.  This powerful story illustrates the love of Jesus, who, though he was living as God in heaven, gave that up to become like us, and live a life of suffering like we live in this sad world.  This he did so that we might open our hearts to him, and would return to him, so that our relationship could be restored and renewed, now and forever.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - The F...

William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905); The Flogging of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1880)

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Philippians 2:5-7  —  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

Hebrews 2:11-17 (parts)  —  Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family.  So Jesus is not ashamed to call them (us) brothers and sisters…  Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their (our) humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death– that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death…  For this reason he had to be made like them (us), fully human in every way…

Hebrews 4:15  —  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet he did not sin.

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Lord Jesus Christ, you said that you are the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Help us not to stray from you, for you are the Way; nor distrust you, for you are the Truth; nor to rest on any other than you, for you are the Life.  You have taught us what to believe, what to do, what to hope, and where to take our rest.  Give us grace to follow you, the Way, to learn from you, the Truth, and live in you, the Life.  Amen.   —Erasmus

201) Obedience

By Luis Palau, The Only Hope for America, p. 153-4, 1996

     Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).  At first glance, his statement seems out of place.  Unlike the preceding three verses, this one isn’t a promise.  Or is it?

     The context of this passage gives us a clue.  In verse 21 we read, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”  In other words, we experience God’s love when we obey His commands.  That’s a promise worth remembering.  

     The value of doing what we’ve been told– for our own good— was illustrated vividly for me in early 1983 when more than 90 people conducted an all night search for an eight year old boy named Dominic.  While on a skiing trip with his father, this little boy apparently had ridden a new lift and skied off the run without realizing it.  They hoped to find Dominic somewhere on the snowy mountain slope before it was too late.  

     As each hour passed, the search party and the boy’s family became more and more concerned.  By dawn, they still had found no trace of him.  Two helicopters joined the search, and within fifteen minutes they spotted ski tracks.  A ground team followed the tracks, which changed to small footprints.  The footprints led to a tree where they found the boy at last.

     “He’s in super shape,” the rescue coordinator announced to the anxious family and press, adding, “In fact, he’s in better shape than we are right now. ”  A hospital spokesman said the boy was in fine condition and wasn’t even admitted.

     Officials explained why the boy did so well despite spending a night in freezing elements.  His father had enough forethought to tell the boy what to do if he became lost, and his son had enough trust to do exactly what his father said.  Dominic protected himself from frostbite and hypothermia by snuggling up to a tree and covering himself with branches.  As a young child he never would have thought of doing this on his own.  He was simply obeying his wise and loving father.

     Dominic reminds me of what we should do as children of our loving and wise heavenly Father.  We are not to walk according to the course of this world that is passing away.  Instead, we are to walk in obedience to the Lord’s commands.  After all, He knows what is best for us.

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John 14:15  —  Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.”

John 14:21  Jesus said, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

I Peter 1:13-16  —  Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed.  As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance.  But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written:  “Be holy, because I am holy.”

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O Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech thee to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that through thy most mighty protection, both here and forever, we may be preserved in body and soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

200) A Few Comments by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

     The neglect of religion and indifference about eternity can be found anywhere, even in the most regular parts of the community, on the farm or in the shop, where one year glides uniformly after another, and nothing new or important is either expected or dreaded.  There is no interest so small, no engagement so slight, but that it is sufficient to keep religion out of the thoughts.  There are many people who are not depraved by any great degrees of wickedness; folks who are honest dealers, faithful friends, and inoffensive neighbors; but who have no interest whatsoever in religion; who live wholly without self-examination; and indulge any desire that happens to arise; with very little resistance, or compunction; who hardly know what it is to combat a temptation, or to repent of a fault; but go on, neither self-approved nor self-condemned; not endeavoring after any excellence, nor reforming any wrong practice.  But let them not be deceived, they cannot suppose that God will accept one who never wished to be accepted by God.    –Sermon X (alt.)

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     The prevailing spirit of the present age seems to be a spirit of skepticism, of suspicion and distrust, a contempt of all authority, a presumptuous confidence in private judgment, and a dislike of all established forms merely because they are established, and of old paths because they are old.   –Sermon VII 

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     Cicero remarks that to not know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always as a child.  If no use is made of the labors of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge.  The discoveries of every man would then terminate in his own advantage, and the studies of every age would have to be employed again on questions which the past generations had discussed and determined.  This is how many approach religion and morality.  But if we took the same approach to the sciences, we would have to reject all previous study of architecture and live in caves until we ourselves could step by step discover all necessary knowledge.  –Rambler #154 (paraphrased)

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     To hear complaints with patience, even when complaints are vain, is one of the duties of friendship.  And though it must be allowed that he suffers most like a hero that hides his grief in silence,… yet, it cannot be denied that he who complains acts like a man, like a social being who looks for help from his fellow creatures.  –Attributed

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It is a most mortifying reflection for any man to consider, what he had done, compared with what he might have done.   –Attributed

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He who praises everybody praises nobody.   –Attributed

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Matthew 22:34-39  —  Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.  One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
     Jesus replied:  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Colossians 3:1-2  —  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

II Thessalonians 3:16  —  Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.  The Lord be with all of you.

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A MORNING PRAYER by Walter Rauschenbusch:  

O great Companion of our souls, go with us today and comfort us by the sense of your presence…  May we take heed of all the judgments of others and gather patiently whatever truth they hold, but teach us still to test them by the words and spirit of the one who alone is our Master.  May we not be so conformed to this world that all people fully approve of us, but may we speak the higher truth and live the purer righteousness which you have revealed to us.  If others speak well of us, may we not be puffed up; if they slight us, may we not be cast down; remembering the words of our Master who encouraged us to rejoice when men speak evil of us and tremble if all speak well, that so we may have evidence that we are still soldiers of God…  If any slight or wrong still rankles in our souls, help us to pluck it out so that we may be healed by you.  Suffer us not to turn in anger on him who has wronged us and seek his hurt, lest we increase the sorrows of the world and taint our own souls with the poisoned sweetness of revenge.  Grant that by the insight of love, we may understand our brother in his wrong, and if his soul is sick, to bear with him in pity, and pray that he be healed by the gentle spirit of our Master.  Make us determined to love even at cost to our pride, that so we may be soldiers of your peace on earth…  Amen.

199) All Are Invited

     The following welcome is printed each week in the bulletin of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Community in Daytona Beach, Florida.  It reflects the kind of welcoming community every congregation should be.  It does not say that all the choices reflected in the welcome are good choices, and it says nothing about what is and is not sinful.  It just says that all are welcome to worship at Our Lady of Lourdes, along with the rest of the sinners that gather there each week.  What is right and what is wrong will most certainly be a part of any church’s message, and certainly a part of being a child of God– but that is not where we begin.  We begin with an invitation, and this ‘welcome’ has it right– ALL ARE INVITED!

 

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Welcome…

     We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, filthy rich, dirt poor, y no habla Ingles.  We extend a special welcome to those who are crying new-borns, skinny as a rail, or could afford to lose a few pounds.

     We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli, or like our pastor who can’t carry a note in a bucket.  You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woke up, or just got out of jail.  We don’t care if you’re more Catholic than the Pope, or haven’t been in church since little Joey’s Baptism.

     We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast.  We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians junk-food eaters.  We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted.  We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion.”  We’ve been there too.

     If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here.  We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

     We welcome those who are inked, pierced, or both.  We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid, or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake.  We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts… and you!

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     The Gospels of Luke and Matthew record parables of Jesus in which he compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast.  In both parables there are those who refuse the invitation, but in both ALL ARE INVITED.

Luke 14:15-24  —  When one of those at the table with Jesus heard this, he said to him, “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God.”
     Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.  At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, `Come, for everything is now ready.’
     “But they all alike began to make excuses.  The first said, `I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it.  Please excuse me.’
     “Another said, `I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out.  Please excuse me.’
     “Still another said, `I just got married, so I can’t come.’
     “The servant came back and reported this to his master.  Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, `Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’
     “`Sir,’ the servant said, `what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’
     “Then the master told his servant, `Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.  I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’ “

From a similar parable as recorded in Matthew 22:8-10  —  “Then he said to his servants, `The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

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Lord God of our salvation, it is your will that all people might come to you through your Son Jesus Christ.  Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection.  Amen.  –-Lutheran Book of Worship

198) A Prayer for Self-examination and Confession

     Today’s meditation is brief, but it requires a slow and prayerful reading.  It is taken from the book A Diary of Private Prayer by John Baillie (1949).  This book contains 62 prayers, one for every morning and evening of the month.  It is one of the resources I use every day in my own personal prayer time.

     I John 1:8 says “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”  Praying this prayer makes us very aware of our sin, and makes such self-deception impossible.  The next verse says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins…”  By the end of the fourteen items for self-examination in the prayer, we are more than ready for the confession at the end, and having confessed our sins, we can be assured of God’s forgiveness.

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     Holy God, to whose service I long ago dedicated my soul and life, I grieve and lament before Thee that I am still so prone to sin and so little inclined to obedience:

So much attached to the pleasures of sense, so negligent of things spiritual:

So prompt to gratify my body, so slow to nourish my soul:

So greedy for present delight, so indifferent to lasting blessedness:

So fond of idleness, so indisposed for labor:

So soon at play, so late at prayer:

So brisk in the service of self, so slack in the service of others:

So eager to get, so reluctant to give:

So lofty in my profession, so low in my practice:

So full of good intentions, so backward to fulfill them:

So severe with my neighbors, so good at justifying myself:

So eager to find fault, so resentful at being found fault with:

So little able for great tasks, so discontented with small ones:

So weak in adversity, so swollen and self-satisfied in prosperity:

So helpless apart from Thee, and yet so unwilling to be bound to Thee.

     O merciful heart of God, grant me yet again Thy forgiveness.  Hear my sorrowful tale and in Thy great mercy blot it out from the book of Thy remembrance.  Give me faith so to lay hold of Thine own holiness and so to rejoice in the righteousness of Christ my Savior that, resting on His merits rather than on my own, I may more and more become conformed to His likeness, my will becoming one with His in obedience to Thine.  All this I ask for His holy name’s sake.  Amen.

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I John 1:8-10  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.  If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

Luke 18:13  —  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.’

Psalm 130:1-4a  —  Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord; Lord, hear my voice.  Let your ears be attentive  to my cry for mercy.  If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness…

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John Stott’s morning prayer:

Good morning, heavenly Father; good morning, Lord Jesus; good morning Holy Spirit.  Heavenly Father, I worship you as the creator and sustainer of the universe.  Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world.  Holy Spirit, I worship you, Sanctifier of the people of God.  Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.  Amen.

Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.  Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.  Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three person in One God, have mercy upon me.  Amen.

197) “But We’re Christians…”

By Rev. William Willimon, Christian Century magazine, March 2, 1983, page 174.

     I sat with them in silence as they awaited the arrival of the pediatrician.  It had been an easy delivery, but all was not well with the newborn.

     The doctor spared few words.  “Your child is afflicted with Down’s Syndrome.  I had expected this, but things were too far along before I could say for sure.”

     “Is the baby healthy?” the young mother asked.

     “That’s what I wanted to discuss with you,” the doctor said.  “The baby is healthy– except for that problem.  However, your baby does have a slight, rather common respiratory ailment.  My advice is that you let me take it off the respirator– that might solve things.  At least it’s a possibility.”

     “It’s not a possibility for us,” they said together.

     “I know how you feel,” responded the doctor.  “But you need to think about what you are doing.  You already have two beautiful kids.  Statistics show that people who keep these babies risk a higher incidence of marital stress and family problems.  Is it fair to do this to the children you already have?  Is it right to bring this suffering into your family?”

     At the mention of ‘suffering’ I saw her face brighten, as if the doctor were finally making sense.

     “Suffering?” she said quietly.  “We appreciate your concern, but we’re Christians.  God suffered for us, and we will suffer for the baby, if we must.”

     “Pastor, I hope you can do something with them,” the doctor whispered to me outside their door as he continued his rounds. 

     Two days later, the doctor and I watched the couple leave the hospital.  They walked slowly, carrying a small bundle; but it seemed a heavy burden to us, a weight on their shoulders.  They went down the front steps of the hospital, moving slowly but deliberately in a cold, gray March morning.

     “It will be too much for them,” the doctor said.  “You ought to have talked them out of it.  You should have helped them to understand.”

     But as they left, I noticed a curious look on their faces; they looked as if the burden were not too heavy at all, as if it were a privilege and a sign.  They seemed borne up, as if on another’s shoulders, being carried toward some high place the doctor and I would not be going, following a way we did not understand.

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I Peter 2:21  —   To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

Ephesians 5:1-2  —  Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Galatians 6:2  —  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-7  — Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.  For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.  If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer.  And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

I Peter 5:7  —  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Isaiah 40:30-31  —  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

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     O Lord, renew our spirits and draw our hearts to yourself, that our service may not be to us a burden but a delight.  Let us not serve you with the spirit of bondage like slaves, but with freedom and gladness, delighting in you and rejoicing in your work, for Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen.  

–Benjamin Jenks    

196) “He Ascended into Heaven”

     Each time we recite the Apostle’s Creed we say we believe that Jesus ‘ascended into heaven.’  Acts chapter one tells us that in the forty days after his resurrection Jesus appeared several times to the apostles he had chosen, and, ‘gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.’  Then he went up to heaven, as we are told in verse nine where it says, “After he said this he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”

     This story of Jesus’ ascent into heaven presents us with a bit of a problem.  Jesus was taken up it says.  Up?  Up where?  How high?  Are we to imagine Jesus continuing to zoom up like a rocket through the clouds, out of the earth’s orbit, past the planets, on past the stars, the galaxies, and then on to heaven?  How did that work?

     This is difficult for us to imagine today, but it was not difficult for someone to imagine in the first century.  Then, it was simple.  You had the flat earth you were standing on, and the place of the dead was somewhere down below you, and heaven somewhere up above you— and probably not too high up.  Do you remember the Old Testament story of the tower of Babel?  Those people even thought they could reach heaven by building a tower.  God got them to give up on that plan, but the very idea is an indication of how the ancient world saw the universe.  The stars and the blue sky above did not represent to them a vast and infinite outer space, as we now see it.  Rather, it was like a canopy, a ‘tent for the sun,’ as it says in Psalm 19:4.  The disciples, then, would have had no problem with seeing Jesus ascend upwards into the clouds.  A little bit farther, just up out of their sight, and he would simply slip through the top of the canopy and find himself in heaven; sort of like Jack climbing the beanstalk– just up past the clouds for Jack was another whole kingdom, complete with castle and giant.  The ascension of Jesus is easy to understand if that is your view the universe.

     But now, of course, we know more about what is up there.  We know, for example, that even after going up 93 million miles, Jesus would have gotten only as far as the sun, with a whole lot farther to go.  We have planted in our minds far different images of heaven, earth, and sky; of what is up and what is down.  And so, some Bible scholars years back began to teach that what we have in this story of the ascension of Jesus is just a myth and we need not take it very seriously at all.  How can we believe in it?  But that kind of casual dismissal of important Biblical texts has led to all sorts of other problems.  Soon, scholars began to dismiss and discard freely anything and everything that did not appeal to anyone for any reason, and soon, for many folks, there was not much left.

     However, even if we do not want to go that route, the image still does present a problem for our modern understanding of the solar system and universe.  After all, it is a round earth we are sitting on, and even what is up and what is down from planet earth changes to its complete opposite every 12 hours as the round earth rotates.

     There are better ways to speak to this problem, say some other Biblical scholars who are more inclined to respect the integrity of God’s Word and take the story as it is told.  They argue that just because the disciples saw Jesus going up from them, does NOT mean we have to envision him continuing to zoom upwards and onwards at the speed of light past clouds, asteroids, planets, and stars.  Let’s assume, they suggest, that the disciples really did see what they tell us they saw; and then, as Jesus vanished into the clouds, he did indeed go on to heaven– perhaps not necessarily continuing up from there, but on to heaven, wherever it is, in whatever way that happens.  We do not have to be able comprehend this, for we are now, indeed, beyond the realm of scientific investigation.  Jesus came to earth in the form of a person in the first place for our sake, so that we could see him.  Is it unreasonable to think that he would begin his return to heaven in a way that little, earth-bound humans might see and experience?

     As we try to imagine the heavenly realms we are far beyond what we can see or investigate or, as Paul says, even imagine.  We will not find a soul or a spirit by dissecting a dead body, and neither will we find heaven by going up high enough.  The more scientists study the mind, the more elusive the spirit becomes, and the more astronomers and physicists study matter and energy and the nature of the universe, the more mysterious that all becomes.

     So there need not be any logistical problems here at all.  We can believe this story as it is written.  Jesus, it says, “was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”  That’s simple enough.  We are not told, nor do we need, any more details about how it worked after Jesus left their sight.

English: Jesus ascending to heaven

Jesus ascending to heaven

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Luke 24:50-51  —  When (Jesus) had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.

Acts 1:1-3…7-11  —  In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.  After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God…
(Jesus) said to them:  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.  “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?  This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

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O Almighty God, who by thy holy apostle hast taught us to set our affection on things above:  grant us so to labor in this life as ever to be mindful of our citizenship in heavenly places where our Savior Jesus Christ is gone before; to whom with thee O Father, and thee O Holy Ghost, be all honor and glory, world without end. Amen.  

South African Book of Common Prayer (prayer for Ascension Day)

195) A “Measured Sorrow”

From a letter by Martin Luther to Doctor Benedict Paul, whose son had lately been killed by a fall from the top of a house.  (Paraphrased from The Table Talk of Martin Luther, translated by William Hazlitt, 1857; available at <www.ccel.org> )

     Although it is nowhere forbidden in Holy Scripture to mourn and grieve for the death of a godly child or friend– indeed, we have many examples of the godly who have bewailed the death of their children and friends– yet there ought to be a measure in sorrowing and mourning.  Therefore, loving doctor, while you do well to mourn and lament the death of your son, let not your grief exceed the measure of a Christian in refusing to be comforted.  First, I would have you consider that it was God who gave that son unto you, and God who received him back again; and secondly, I would wish you to follow the example of that just and godly man, Job, who, when he had lost all his children and all his wealth, said:  “Have we received good at the hand of the Lord, and shall we not receive evil?  The hand of the Lord giveth and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21 & 2:10).

      …You have much greater gifts and benefits of God left to you than the evil you now feel.  But you look now only upon the evil that your son is dead; and, in the meantime, you forget the glorious treasure God has given you in the true knowledge of his Word, and a good and peaceable conscience, and the promise of eternal life, which should outweigh all evil which may happen unto you…

     Therefore know, loving brother, that God’s mercy is greater than our tribulations.  You indeed have cause to mourn, as you think, but it is nothing else than sugar mingled with vinegar.  Your son is very well provided for.  He lives now with Christ, and oh! would to God that I, too, had finished my course.  If I were gone, I would not wish myself here again.

     Your suffering is only a temporary cross.  You are a good logician, and you teach others that art.  Make use of that logic now and put it in practice.  Define, divide, conclude, distinguish that which is spiritual and eternal, and separate it from that which is of the body and only temporary.  

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II Samuel 18:33  —  The king was shaken.  He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went, he said:  “O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you– O Absalom, my son, my son!”

John 16:22  —  (Jesus said), “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.”

I Thessalonians 4:13-14  —  Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

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Dear Lord Jesus, I am hemmed in by Satan, grievously tormented by my sins, and constantly surrounded by death.  You came to earth to destroy the works of the devil.  You have abolished death and have brought to light the promise of eternal life.  Come to me now, for you bring forgiveness and life.  Help me to withstand the works of the devil by which he would cast me from life into death.  O Christ, who has overcome the devil, help me also to overcome him.  Amen.  

–Martin Luther

194) Avoiding the Trap of Self-Reliance

NOTE TO READERS:  It does not work to REPLY to these Emailmeditations.  You may contact me at llstier@frontiernet.net    Thank you.

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By Mark D. Roberts, Daily Reflections from http://www.thehighcalling.org (2-6-11 meditation; adapted)

     Self-reliance is quintessentially American.  Our heroes are those who found strength in themselves to accomplish greatness.  They didn’t depend on others…  In 1841, the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson published his seminal essay on “Self-Reliance.”  He wrote:  “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string…  It is easy to see that a greater self-reliance– a new respect for the divinity in man– must work a revolution in all the offices and relations of men; in their religion; in their education; in their pursuits; their modes of living; their association; in their property; in their speculative views.”  Rather than relying on anything external, even God, we are to depend on ourselves and the divinity that resides in us.

     David was snared by the trap of self-reliance.  In Psalm 30, he writes, “When I was prosperous, I said, ‘Nothing can stop me now!’  Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.  Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered” (Psalm 30:6-7).  When things were going well for David, he began to believe in his ability to control his own life, to accomplish anything he sought.  But, in fact, it was the Lord who had made him “secure as a mountain.”  So when God hid his face from David, his life fell apart.  He realized that his prosperity was not a result of his own cleverness.  Rather, it was a gift from God.

     Have you ever experienced anything like this before?  I know dozens, probably hundreds, of people who have lived David’s story.  When things were going well in their lives, when their businesses were thriving, when their children were “good kids,” when their health was excellent, they began to think of all of this as a result of their own doing.  But then reality came crashing down like a tidal wave, washing away the fiction of their self-reliance.  Like David, they came to realize that they were meant to live in daily dependence upon God, honoring him in all they do.  Self-reliance is good and necessary, but only in the context of an awareness of our greater dependence on God.

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Psalm 30:6-7  —  When I was prosperous, I said, “Nothing can stop me now!”  Your favor, O Lord, made me as secure as a mountain.  Then you turned away from me, and I was shattered.

Deuteronomy 8:10-14…17-19  —  When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.  Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery…  You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today.  If you ever forget the Lord your God and follow other gods and worship and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you will surely be destroyed.

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Dear Lord, you know how much I am like David.  Though I might try to blame others for my failures, I certainly claim my successes as my own.  I can easily fool myself into thinking that I can and should rely upon myself.  Forgive me for such arrogance!  Lord, in this day, other powers would seek to take your unique role.  “Rely on yourself,” we’re told.  Or, “Rely on the government.”  Or, “Rely on your financial security.”  Or, “Rely on your family.”  Indeed, you have made us as relational people, and there is a measure of reliance in many relationships.  But I will only be the person you have created me to be when I learn to rely fully on you each day, seeking your will, strengthened by your Spirit, committed to your kingdom and glory.  In you, Lord, I am strong and free to live life to the fullest, serving you in all I do.  I pray in the name of Jesus.  Amen.

–Mark D. Roberts