193) Cain and Abel (part two)

     (continued…)  We do not know much about Cain, but you do know quite a bit about yourself, and so now apply this lesson to your own life.  Do you think you would be qualified to make such a comparison between you and any other person on earth, no matter how well you know them, and decide who was more favored by God and more blessed?  You might see somebody with more money, but you may know nothing of their battle with depression.  You might see somebody with all kinds of friends, but you may know nothing of their family troubles.  You might see somebody that is younger than you are and already retired, but you may know nothing of the health problems they are facing.  You might see someone that really does have it all, but having it all is sometimes the very worst thing that can happen to a person.  Jealousy is such an foolish position to take on anything because one never has enough information to make a valid comparison.  Never.  You might be glad to trade places with someone’s savings account, but you would not want to have to take their bad heart along in on the deal.  You might want to have the athletic ability of your friend at school, but you would not want their home life with their abusive parents.  You might envy someone down the street who has a house in Florida and a cabin on Lake Superior, but you might not know that they have a grandchild dying of cancer.  If you could bag up all of your troubles and all of your blessings, and could trade the whole bag with anyone else’s bag of everything, you may very well look far and wide before giving up and being content with your own bag woes and joys. 

     In the story of Cain and Abel we have to pay close attention to what the Bible doesn’t say, because if we look only at what it does say, we might be tempted to accuse God of favoritism.  But we don’t have nearly enough information about Cain and Abel, just as we don’t have enough information to judge even our own lives, or make a valid comparison with anyone else’s.

     Cain did not have the wisdom to do that.  Cain quickly jumped to some ignorant conclusions about God’s fairness and became jealous.  God warned Cain to not let his anger get the best of him, even promising future favor and acceptance.  But Cain was too angry to hear God, and in a jealous rage went out and killed his brother.  Usually jealousy does not lead to murder; but it never does us any good, and it can lead to the loss of joy and even faith.  Jealousy can be defined as looking at someone else’s blessings instead of your own, and if you do that too much, you will begin to forget the many ways that God has blessed you, and then, perhaps, even forget all about God.

     There is one more thing that the Bible doesn’t say in this story that we need to consider.  God speaks to Cain with a warning and with a promise.  But God never does explain anything to Cain.  God says nothing about why his offering was not accepted.  And God isn’t going to tell you either why you have the troubles that you have, and why someone else seems to always have it better.  We never get such explanations.  But isn’t it interesting that we wonder about these things only in the negative?  We often ask during our troubles, ‘why is this happening to me?,’ but we seldom ask that question when all is well.  For example, you may well ask why someone else is able to afford more nice things than you, but you are far less likely to ask why you are in better health than most people your age.  And either way, we are never given the answer.  There is much in life that we are not told, but in this as in all areas, we are told enough, and we are then expected to trust in God for the rest.  That is what it means to have faith.  We can ask the unanswerable questions like ‘why do I have all these health troubles, family troubles, and financial troubles?,’ and ‘why can’t I have enough money and the good health to do what I want to do?’  Or, instead asking the unanswerable questions, we can go with what the Bible has told us and what we do know– God has given us this life with whatever blessings we have, and he has promised us an eternal life without any of the afflictions that we have here, and he has done this all freely and without any earning or deserving on our part.  There is so much more to be grateful for than to be jealous over.  Sometimes, in order to understand what a story means, we have to pay attention to what the Bible doesn’t say.  But even then, it is still most important to hear what the Bible does say, and the Bible says to give thanks unto the Lord, for the Lord is good, and his mercy endures forever (Psalm 106:1). 

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Proverbs 14:30  —  A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

Exodus 20:17  —  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Psalm 25:4, 5 —  Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.  Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.

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Almighty God, give us a measure of true religion and thereby set us free from vain and disappointing hopes, from lawless and excessive appetites, from frothy and empty joys, from anxious, self-devouring cares, from an eating envy and swelling pride; so that we may possess that peace which passeth all understanding, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

–Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), English philosopher

192) Cain and Abel (part one)

     It is always a good idea to pay close attention to what the Bible says.  Sometimes, however, you have to pay attention to what the Bible does not say.  Take for example the story of Cain and Abel.  We will first consider what the story says, and then we will look at what it doesn’t say.  The story of Cain and Abel is told in Genesis 4:2-12:

     Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.  In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.  But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock.  The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor.  So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

     Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry?  Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?  But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.”

     Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”  And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

     Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

     “I don’t know,” he replied.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

     The Lord said, “What have you done?  Listen!  Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.  Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.  When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you.  You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

"Cain kills Abel", a fratricide illu...

“Cain kills Abel” illustrated by Gustave Doré

     First of all look at what the story says.  Both boys were farmers.  Abel went into livestock and Cain was a cash cropper.  Both young men brought what they had for a sacrifice to the Lord.  Cain probably brought some of his best corn and soy beans.  Abel brings the best portions of the firstborn of his flock.  So far, so good.  But then things go wrong.  The Lord looks with favor upon Abel’s offering, but does not receive Cain’s offering with favor.  We are not told how this favor or lack of favor is shown, but the Bible does make it clear that one was favored and one was not.  Cain got angry about this, so angry that the Lord had a talk with him and warned him against doing something wrong.  Cain ignored the warning and went out and killed his brother.  And so, the first child born in this newly created world became the murderer of his own brother.  The Lord then questioned Cain on the whereabouts of his brother, and Cain said he did not know anything.  But the Lord, who knows everything, punished Cain, making him a restless wanderer on the earth for the remainder of his days.

     There is something very disturbing about this text.  Certainly Cain responded wickedly to the situation, but why did God create the situation?  Why in the first place did God not accept Cain’s sacrifice?  Both boys were performing their religious duties.  Both boys brought the best of what they had.  And there was no word of Cain doing anything wrong before this.  Why then did God respond the way he did, favoring one and not the other?  Doesn’t God share at least a bit of the blame by creating the opportunity for this jealousy?

     What the Bible says gives us no help in answering this question, so it is here that we have to begin to look at what the Bible doesn’t say.  And first of all, the Bible doesn’t say anything about any other sacrifices.  People in the Old Testament were often making such sacrifices, and so why should Cain get all upset about how just one of those sacrifices is received?  As I said, we know very little about this particular sacrifice and what was required by God, and how God showed his favor or disfavor– but we do know that it concerned only this one sacrifice.  And figuring out what God is or is not doing in this world is a hard enough business without trying to figure it out on the basis of just one event.  The Spirit moves when and where it pleases, said Jesus in the Gospel of John, and you cannot force or insist on God’s favor and blessings on your terms.  In fact, God even guaranteed Cain such future blessings, saying, “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?”  The story tells us about only one sacrifice, and that is not nearly enough to go on, not for us and not for Cain himself, either.

     Furthermore, there are many aspects to life, many ways that God blesses us (or does not bless us); so how can God’s favor be judged on the basis of just one event in one area?  Here again, the Bible tells us nothing about the other aspects of the lives of Cain and Abel; but if they were like any other two random human beings who ever lived, we can well imagine that both had their own mixed bag of blessings and woes.  Certainly there would have been areas where Cain had the edge over Abel.  Perhaps Cain was healthier than Abel, perhaps he had better eyesight.  Perhaps the weather was good that year and he had a bumper crop; and maybe livestock prices were down, so Abel had to borrow some cash from Cain.  Perhaps Cain was more intelligent, stronger, better looking, more articulate, or whatever.  Even if the story was fifty pages long, and we knew much more about Cain and Abel, even then we would not be able to say which one was more favored.  The Bible doesn’t tell us any of this, and so here we have to pay close attention to what the Bible does not say and what we do not know.  All we know is about one sacrifice, and from that it may seem like God favored Abel.  But there is too much we don’t know, and too much that Cain didn’t know– so who are we, or Cain, to be sitting in judgment of God?  (continued…)

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Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have won for us, and for all the pains and insults which you have endured for us.  O most merciful Redeemer, Friend, and Brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day.  Amen.  –Richard, bishop of Chichester  (13th century)

191) Last Letter to Sarah

July the 14th, 1861

Washington DC

My very dear Sarah:

     The indications are very strong that we shall move in a few days– perhaps tomorrow.  Lest I should not be able to write you again, I feel impelled to write lines that may fall under your eye when I shall be no more.

     Our movement may be one of a few days duration, or it may be one of severe conflict and death to me.  “Not my will, but Thine O God, be done.”  If it is necessary that I should fall on the battlefield for my country, I am ready.  I have no misgivings about, or lack of confidence in, the cause in which I am engaged, and my courage does not halt or falter.  I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution.  And I am willing– perfectly willing– to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this government, and to pay that debt.

     But, my dear wife, when I know that with my own joys I lay down nearly all of yours, and replace them in this life with cares and sorrows, is it weak or dishonorable that my unbounded love for you, my darling wife and children, should struggle with my love of country?

     I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm summer night, when two thousand men are sleeping around me, many of them enjoying the last sleep, perhaps, before that of death.  And I am suspicious that Death is creeping behind me with his fatal dart.

     I have sought most closely and diligently for a wrong motive in thus hazarding the happiness of those I love, and I could not find one.  A pure love of my country and of the principles I have often advocated have called upon me, and I have obeyed.

     Sarah, my love for you is deathless; it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.

     The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long.  And hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when God willing, we might still have lived and loved together and seen our sons grow up to honorable manhood around us.  I have but few and small claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed.  If I do not, my dear Sarah, never forget how much I love you, and when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.

     Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you.  How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been!  How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune of this world to shield you and my children from harm.  But I cannot.  I must watch you from the spirit land and hover near you, while you buffet the storms with your precious little freight, and wait with sad patience till we meet to part no more…

     Sarah, do not mourn me dead; think I am gone and wait for thee, for we shall meet again.

     As for my little boys, they will grow as I have done, and never know a father’s love and care.  Little Willie is too young to remember me long, and my blue eyed Edgar will keep my frolics with him among the dimmest memories of his childhood.  Sarah, I have unlimited confidence in your maternal care and your development of their characters.

     O Sarah, I wait for you there!  Come to me, and lead thither my children.

Sullivan

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Sullivan Ballou (March 28, 1829 – July 29, 1861) was a lawyer and politician from Rhode Island, and an officer in the Union Army during the American Civil War.  He was mortally wounded in the first Battle of Bull Run and died a week later.

This letter was never mailed.  It was found in Ballou’s trunk after he died, and then delivered to Ballou’s widow.  Sarah never remarried.  She later moved to New Jersey to live with her son, William. She died at age 80 in 1917 and is buried next to her husband.

The letter is a wonderful expression so many things:  faith in God, love of family, love of country, courage, honor, duty, gratitude to God, and trust and hope in God’s promise of eternal life.

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I Corinthians 13:4-8a  —  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends…

John 16;19-22  —  Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’?  Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.  You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.  A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world.  So with you:  Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

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My dear God, if you so desire that this be my last hour, then let thy will be done… and I shall gladly die. Only let your holy name be praised and glorified by my sufferings and death.  If it were possible, dear Lord, I would live longer for the sake of your blessed people.  But if the hour has come, then do as you please, for you are the Lord of life and death.  Amen.  –Martin Luther

190) She Doesn’t Have a Prayer (Funeral Sermon)

          When we know the situation is hopeless for someone we say, “They don’t have a prayer.”  When someone jumps out of an airplane and the parachute doesn’t open; when the brakes go out on a big truck going down a steep mountain road; when the doctor comes in with the test results and says that the chemotherapy isn’t working anymore; when an earthquake hits an old city and thousands of people are trapped inside poorly built concrete buildings; it is at those kinds of times that we say, “They don’t have a prayer.”

     Last Thursday afternoon I was with Jeanette just a few hours before she died.  I have been with many people at that stage of life, and I knew that the end was probably near.  Someone looking at Jeanette at that time could have said, “She doesn’t have a prayer.”

     But I did have a prayer with and for Jeanette.  I do not know if at that time she could hear or understand anything anymore, but even if not, the prayer was for her because I believe that even in that situation, we do have a prayer.  And the prayer I had for Jeanette was right out of the pages of the Bible, from Luke chapter two.  It was the prayer of an old man, Simeon who, like Jeanette, was near the end of his life.  And old Simeon, with the baby Jesus in his arms, prayed, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your promise; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all people.”  That old man, his life nearly over, with nothing to look forward to but the grave, still had a prayer, a prayer that has been repeated millions of times over the years by others who, from all outward appearances, didn’t have a prayer.  “Let me depart in peace, Lord,” he prayed, “for I have seen your salvation.”  By that Simeon meant that in the baby in his arms was the fulfillment of all God’s promises, and Simon was blessed to be able to see him.  And so Simeon prayed, “You can take me now Lord. I have seen Jesus and I am ready to die.”  And so by Jeanette’s deathbed, I prayed that Scripture, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your promise.”  It might have looked like Jeanette didn’t have a prayer, but with faith in our Lord Jesus, we always have a prayer.

     Christians actually have quite a few prayers for those times when it looks like we ‘don’t have a prayer.’  There are, for example, those familiar words of the 23rd Psalm; “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil– for you are with me, Lord, and you comfort me.”  And think back to one of the first prayers you ever learned:  “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  ‘If I die?’– isn’t that a much too scary thought to plant in a little child’s mind just before going to sleep?  Some children’s prayer books have now changed the wording, leaving out that part about the possibility of dying overnight, and that may seem to make some sense.  But thinking back to my childhood, I do not remember anything scary about that prayer.  I do recall, even as a child, thinking about death as I said those words.  But I don’t remember being disturbed by that thought coming in the context of that prayer.  Rather, I remember it as something that gave me a bit of comfort.  Kids know that even kids can die, but even ‘if I die before I wake,’ I will be all right.  Someone will be there to receive me, and to take care of me, even then.  As Jesus said to his disciples in John 14, “I will come back, and I will take you to myself, so that where I am you may be also.”  And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.  Awake or asleep, living or dying, we always have a prayer.

     Think about the Lord’s Prayer itself.  Even though the prayer does not specifically mention death, Martin Luther said that the seventh petition has to do most of all with death.  “Deliver us from evil,” we pray, and even though we would like to be delivered from the all the troubles that we face right now, life is still, as Mark Twain said, ‘just one darn thing after another.’  Have you ever, at any time, been ‘delivered’ from all the trouble, all the evil, in your life?  Of course not.  So Luther said that our prayer for God to ‘deliver us from evil,’ will be finally, and fully answered only when we die.  Luther’s catechism says that it is “at our last hour that God mercifully takes us from the troubles of this world unto himself in heaven.”  Without faith in God we look at someone near death and say, “she doesn’t have a prayer.”  But God looks at the believer near death and says, “Child, I am about to answer all your prayers.”

     If ever it could be said that someone didn’t have a prayer, it could be said about a man hanging on a cross.  In all my reading about crucifixions in the ancient world, I never once heard of anyone being taken down off a cross and allowed to live and go free.  After being scourged and then beaten and then nailed to the cross, it appeared to all onlookers that Jesus was finished and without a prayer.  But Jesus did, right at the end, still have a prayer.  He said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”  What a prayer!  What a perfect prayer for when it looks like you no longer have a prayer.  May we have the faith to live like Jesus lived, and then die like Jesus died, with a prayer like that on our lips.

     If you believe in Jesus, you are never without a prayer.  This life will often seem to leave you helpless and hopeless.  But in Jesus we have someone who will be our helper in time of need and give us hope in life and in death.

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Luke 2:29-32  —  Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Matthew 6:13a  —  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil… 

Luke 23:46  —  And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and having said thus, he gave up the ghost. 

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O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light:  Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

189) Was Jesus Only a Great Teacher?

From Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis

     …Among the Jews there suddenly turns up a man who goes about talking as if He was God.  He claims to forgive sins.  He says He has always existed.  He says He is coming to judge the world at the end of time.  Now let us get this clear.  Among Pantheists, like the Indians, anyone might say that he was a part of God, or one with God: there would be nothing very odd about it.  But this man, since He was a Jew, could not mean that kind of God.  God, in their language, meant the Being outside the world who had made it and was infinitely different from anything else.  And when you have grasped that, you will see that what this man said was, quite simply, the most shocking thing that has ever been uttered by human lips. 

     One part of the claim tends to slip past us unnoticed because we have heard it so often that we no longer see what it amounts to.  I mean the claim to forgive sins: any sins.  Now unless the speaker is God, this is really so preposterous as to be comic.  We can all understand how a man forgives offenses against himself.  You tread on my toe and I forgive you, you steal my money and I forgive you.  But what should we make of a man, himself unrobbed and untrodden on, who announced that he forgave you for treading on other men’s toes and stealing other men’s money?  Asinine fatuity is the kindest description we should give of his conduct.  Yet this is what Jesus did.  He told people that their sins were forgiven, and never waited to consult all the other people whom their sins had undoubtedly injured.  He unhesitatingly behaved as if He was the party chiefly concerned; the person chiefly offended in all offenses.  This makes sense only if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.  In the mouth of any speaker who is not God, these words would imply what I can only regard as a silliness and conceit unrivalled by any other character in history.  

     Yet (and this is the strange, significant thing) even His enemies, when they read the Gospels, do not usually get the impression of silliness and conceit.  Still less do unprejudiced readers.  Christ says that He is ‘humble and meek’ and we believe Him; not noticing that, if He were merely a man, humility and meekness are the very last characteristics we could attribute to some of His sayings.

     I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him:  ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’  That is the one thing we must not say.  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher.  He would either be a lunatic– on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg– or else he would be the Devil of Hell.  You must make your choice.  Either this man was, and is, the Son of God or else a madman or something worse.  You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.  But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher.  He has not left that open to us.  He did not intend to…   Now it seems to me obvious that He was neither a lunatic nor a fiend: and consequently, however strange or terrifying or unlikely it may seem, I have to accept the view that He was and is God.

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Matthew 9:2-3  —  Some men brought to Jesus a paralyzed man, lying on a mat.  When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”  At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Luke 7:48-49  —  Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”  The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

John 1:29  —  The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

II Corinthians 5:19  —  …God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

II Peter 1:16  —  We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

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Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of the godly life:  Give to us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.
Book of Common Prayer

188) The Death of Polycarp

From The Early Christians: In Their Own Words, (Ch. 2; #13); Selected and Edited by Eberhard Arnold (1883-1935); Copyright 2003 by The Bruderhof Foundation, Inc.  Used with permission.  View this book and many others from Plough Publishing at:  http://www.plough.com/

Polycarp (69 – 155), was an early church leader known as a kindly pastor and a defender of orthodox doctrine.  He later served as Bishop of Smyrna.  During a festival in Smyrna in 155 AD, Christians who refused to worship the emperor were threatened with execution.  Officials particularly wanted to arrest the revered Polycarp, hoping he would deny the faith and disgrace the Christian community.  Polycarp’s friends provided a hiding place, but a boy reported his whereabouts to authorities.  Soon the hunt was on, and the old man was discovered, shackled, and brought before authorities.

     We write to you, brothers, concerning that which took place to those of us who gave witness unto death, in particular the blessed Polycarp.  Cut by scourges until the anatomy of the body was visible, even to the veins and arteries, they endured everything.  They proved to all of us that in the hour of their torture the Lord himself stood by them.

     In the same way they endured fearful torment when they were condemned to the wild beasts and were subjected to all kinds of other tortures.  The tyrant hoped to induce them to deny their faith by the prolonged torture, but thanks be to God he was powerless against them all.  The noble Germanicus strengthened the weakness of others by his steadfastness.  He wrestled gallantly with the wild beasts.  When the proconsul tried to persuade him, saying that he had pity on his youth, he forcibly pulled the wild beast towards himself, wishing to be freed more quickly from this godless and unjust life.  Only one man, Quintus, turned coward when he saw the wild beasts; after earnest entreaty the proconsul persuaded him to take the oath and to sacrifice to the gods.  But Polycarp, in contrast, when he first heard of all this, acted admirably by showing no fear.  When they at first did not find Polycarp, they arrested two young slaves, one of whom became a traitor under torture.

     Taking the young slave with them, the constables set out against Polycarp with a squadron of mounted men.  Late in the evening they found him in an upper room of a small cottage.  They were amazed at his great age and his calm dignity.  He immediately ordered food and drink to be served them, as much as they wanted, and he asked them to give him an hour for undisturbed prayer.  When the moment of departure came, they seated him on a donkey and brought him into the city.  When he entered the arena there was such a tremendous uproar that nobody could be understood.

     When he was led forward, the proconsul asked him if he was Polycarp.  This he affirmed.  The proconsul wanted to persuade him to deny his faith, urging him, “Consider your great age.  Swear by the genius of Caesar; change your mind.  Swear and I will release you!  Curse Christ!”

     And Polycarp answered, “86 years have I served Jesus, and he has never done me any harm.  How could I blaspheme my King and Savior?”

     When the proconsul pressed him further, Polycarp replied, “Hear now my frank confession:  I am a Christian.  If you are willing to learn what Christianity is, set a time at which you can hear me.”

     Thereupon the proconsul declared, “I have wild beasts.  I shall have you thrown before them if you do not change your mind.”  “Let them come,” Polycarp replied.  “It is out of the question for us to change from the better to the worse, but the opposite is worthy of honor:  for you to turn round from evil to justice.”

     The proconsul continued, “If you belittle the beasts and do not change your mind, I shall have you thrown into the fire.”  Polycarp answered him, “You threaten me with a fire that burns but for an hour and goes out after a short time; but you do not know the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment for the godless.  Why do you wait?  Bring on whatever you will.”  As Polycarp spoke these words, he was full of courage and joy.  His face shone with inward light.  He was not in the least disconcerted by all these threats.  The proconsul was astounded.  He sent his herald to announce in the arena, “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian!”

     No sooner was this announced by the herald, than the whole multitude yelled with uncontrolled anger at the top of their voices, “He is the father of the Christians!  The destroyer of our gods!  He has persuaded many not to sacrifice and not to worship.”  This they shouted, and they demanded that a lion be let loose upon Polycarp.  He explained that he was not allowed to do this.  Then there arose a shout that Polycarp should be burned alive.

     Now everything happened much faster than it can be told.  The mob rushed to collect logs and brushwood.  When the woodpile was ready, Polycarp took off all his outer clothes and opened his belt.  The fuel for the pyre was very quickly piled around him.  When they wanted to fasten him with nails, he refused. “Let me be.  He who gives me the strength to endure the fire will also give me the strength to remain at the stake unflinching, without the security of your nails.”  When he had spoken the Amen and finished his prayer, the executioners lit the fire.

     Afterwards we were able to take up his bones and lay them to rest in our burying place.  There we will celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom in memory of those who have fought and won the fight before, and for the strengthening and preparation of those who still have to face it.  Such is our report about the blessed Polycarp.  

The Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, recorded Feb. 22, A.D. 156.

English: Saint Polycarp

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Revelation 2:10  —  Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer…  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.

John 15:20  —  (Jesus said), “Remember the words I spoke to you:  No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

Matthew 5:10 — (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Romans 8:18 — I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

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Dear God, I am your child.  You have sent me a cross and suffering and have said to me:  ‘Suffer a little for my sake and I will reward you well.’  Dear God, if it is your will, I shall gladly suffer.  Amen.      –Martin Luther

187) Grandpa, Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days

The song Grandpa, Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days went to Number One on the Country Music charts in 1986.  It was written by Jamie O’Hara and recorded by The Judds:

Grandpa, Tell me ’bout the good old days.

Sometimes it feels like
This world’s gone crazy.
Grandpa, take me back to yesterday,
Where the line between right and wrong
Didn’t seem so hazy.

Did lovers really fall in love to stay
Stand beside each other come what may
was a promise really something people kept,
Not just something they would say and then forget
Did families really bow their heads to pray
Did daddies really never go away
Whoa oh Grandpa,
Tell me ’bout the good old days.

Grandpa
Everything is changing fast.
We call it progress,
But I just don’t know.
And Grandpa, let’s wander back into the past,
And paint me a picture of long ago…

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     Yesterday’s meditation encouraged you to enjoy the blessings God gives you each and every day, without looking back and wishing for an earlier time and place that was better, or as we say, “the ‘good old days.”  But this does not mean we should not look back and see if there is anything of value we can learn from those old days; values and beliefs and behaviors that are worth preserving.  This song by The Judds does a good job of getting that message across, as do the following quotes and verses. 

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Two quotes by Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) on the importance of religious tradition:

Tradition is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving a vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.  Tradition is the democracy of the dead.  Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant tyranny of those who are walking about.”

“I freely confess to all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century.  I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age.  Like them, I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth.  And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it…  I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before.”  (He was writing about the unbelief of his youth, and then, as a young adult, his rediscovery of the truth of the Christian faith.)

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“Out of every hundred new ideas, ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace.  No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for those are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.”

–Will and Ariel Durant, authors of the 11-volume classic The Story of Civilization

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“Reading on wise and virtuous subjects is, next to prayer, the best improvement of our hearts.  It enlightens us, calms us, collects our thoughts, and prompts us to better efforts.  We say
that a man is known by the friends he keeps; but a man is known even better by his books.”
–William Law (1686-1761), Christian Perfection

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“If we cannot live at once and alone with Him, we may at least live with those who have lived with Him; and learn much from their purity, their truth, and their goodness.  To study the lives, to meditate on the sorrows, and to commune with the thoughts of the great and holy men and women of this rich world, is a sacred discipline…  We forfeit a chief source of dignity and sweetness in life, next to the direct communion with God, if we do not seek converse with the greater minds that have left their mark on the world.”   –J. Martineau (paraphrased)

(These emailmeditations are an attempt to put you in touch with some of those great minds and lives.)

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“There is divine beauty in learning.  To learn means to accept the fact that life did not begin at my birth.  Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps.  The books I have read were composed by generations of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, teachers and disciples.  I am the sum total of their experiences, and so are you.”    –Elie Wiesel

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Jeremiah 6:16  —  Thus saith the Lord, “Stand at the crossroads and look.  Ask for the old paths, and where the good way is.  Walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Job 8:8-10  —  (Bildad the Shuhite said),  “Ask the former generations and find out what their fathers learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow.  Will they not instruct you and tell you?  Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?”

Matthew 13:52  —  (Jesus said), “Every teacher of the Law who has been instructed about the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

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As we grow older it becomes our task to pass on this wisdom, and especially our faith, to the next generation.  That is the prayer of the Psalmist in Psalm 71:14-18:

As for me, I will always have hope; I will praise you more and more.
My mouth will tell of your righteous deeds, of your saving acts all day long—
   though I know not how to relate them all.
I will come and proclaim your mighty acts, Sovereign Lord; I will proclaim your righteous deeds, yours alone.
Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God,
till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

186) Wisdom from “The Office”

   

     Last Spring marked the end of the ninth and final season of the popular television series The Office.  The Office was well written and funny, always off the wall and entertaining, sometimes way too crude and vulgar, often heartwarming, and had occasional bits of wisdom.  Andy’s last words in the closing minutes of the last program was an example of the wisdom.  In a previous program he had quit his office job at the Dunder-Mifflin Paper Company, and in the series finale the old gang is together again for a wedding.  Sitting in his old office, Andy reflects on the reunion with old friends and his life since he left them:

     I spent so much of my time here at Dunder-Mifflin thinking about all my old college pals at Cornell.  The thing is, now I am exactly where I want to be– I’ve got my dream job back at Cornell– and I’m still just thinking about my old pals.  Only now I am thinking about the ones I made here, at Dunder-Mifflin.  I wish there was a way to know you were in ‘the good old days’ before you’ve actually left them.

     There is, of course, a way to do that, and that is to remember that each and every day, past, present, and future, is a gift of God, and to live in gratitude for each day as it comes, thankful for the blessings in it.

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Psalm 118:24  —  This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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

Psalm 95:6-7  —  O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!  For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.  O that today you would hearken to his voice!

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Give us this day our daily bread.  –Jesus, Matthew 6:11

185) Reaping What You Sow

From The Scarlet Thread, by Gardener C. Taylor (1918- ), p. 100f. Preaching on Galatians 6:7-9

     We are willing and ready to admit to the presence of law, governing law, in every area of our existence except in the part we call moral and spiritual.  It would take a prize fool, indeed, to argue that there is no law of gravity.  “What goes up, must come down” is a common way of putting it.  Now, you would  consider somebody really off their rocker who would argue that there ‘might’ be a law of gravity, or that it does work ‘sometimes,’ or that certain people do not have to obey the law of gravity.  

     The law of gravity works everywhere and for everyone all of the time.  Let anybody, without regard to station or position, go to the top of an eighty foot building.  Such a person is free to jump or not to jump.  But if that person chooses to jump, then that person’s freedom is gone.  Then the law of gravity is in effect.  There is no use for that person once he or she has jumped to file any petitions.  It makes no difference who the person is, where he or she was born, who are the parents, what is the social status, or how many honors the jumper possesses.  The law of gravity is in effect and the mangled body on the sidewalk on the street below will give the evidence that the law of gravity cannot be avoided, appealed, suspended, seduced, or discounted…

     We accept this law.  But when we move into the moral and spiritual realm, we act as if we are on our own.  So many of us seem to think that we have things exclusively in our hand.  What we do is our business, and nobody has anything to do with it.  This is the philosophy of our generation– and our neuroses and psychoses run away with us, and our nerves crack, and our jails are full, and our marriages are hardly more in number than our divorces, and our liquor and drug bills soar.  Everywhere people are wringing their hands.  Thugs mug, legislators steal and rob, business executives plunder– and we wonder why.  What has happened?  What has gone wrong?

     Well, Paul tells us in Galatians that what we have forgotten is that there is a law governing the moral and spiritual affairs of life.  Indeed, it would make no sense if the God who put the physical world under the governance of regulations would leave the moral and spiritual life lawless and loose.  Could this be the case when the attributes, the qualities, of God are moral and spiritual?  Not at all, says Paul to the Galatian Christians.  Let nobody fool you.  “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, he shall also reap.”  This is the law.  It is written into the structure of things.  It is inscribed in the stuff of life, the makeup of the universe.  This is God’s Law.

     “Be not deceived.  God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  This is a warning to those who need to be warned.  Live for your flesh, invest only in your flesh, and at the end you will have nothing but your flesh— fat, diseased, inflamed, corrupt, fevered, dead, and decayed.  Sow corn and you get corn, sow tomatoes and you get tomatoes.  When we invest lavishly in our physical comforts and luxuries, and starve our spirits, do not think that the Lord will understand and will see to it that we are not hurt.  Mark my words, not even God can save us from the consequences of His law.  We are not so much punished for our sins as we are punished by our sins.

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Galatians 6:7-9  —  Do not be deceived:  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Jeremiah 2:17  —  Have you not brought this on yourselves by forsaking the Lord your God when he led you in the way?

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Forgive me my sins, O Lord:  the sins of my present and the sins of my past; the sins of my soul and the sins of my body; the sins I have done to please myself and the sins which I have done to please others.  Forgive me my casual sins and my deliberate sins, and those which I have labored so to hide that I have hidden them even from myself.  Forgive me them, O Lord, forgive them all; for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.  –Thomas Wilson (d. 1775)

184) Be Merciful

By James Mulholland, Praying Like Jesus: The Lord’s Prayer in a Culture of Prosperity© 2001

     “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” is a call to mercy.  Forgiveness is not optional.  It is the foundation of a healthy relationship with God and with others.  To love mercy is to be like God and to love others as God loves them.

     I do not love mercy.  Too often, I approach mercy as a requirement rather than a joy.  I don’t like it, but if God insists, I’ll try.  It seems so unnatural.  I love judgment.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  What goes around comes around.  Someday they’ll get what they deserve.  Those are the phrases that trip so easily off my tongue.  “I forgive you” sticks to the roof of my mouth.

     I love revenge fantasies.  Someone cuts me off in traffic and has the audacity to glare at me.  Immediately, my imagination kicks in.  I fantasize that a few blocks later I see them getting pulled over by the police.  I salute them as I slowly drive by.  I can only imagine my struggle if someone really sinned against me.

     Bud Welch’s daughter, Julie, was killed in the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.  When he heard of Timothy McVeigh’s arrest, he felt only rage and a desire for vengeance.  McVeigh’s lack of repentance only made his anger hotter.  He said, “I just wanted him fried.”

     Bud’s hate took him on a journey of sleepless nights and drunken binges to numb the pain.  It is also lead him to visit the bombing site.  On that visit, he vowed to change.  He remembered watching Bill McVeigh, the bomber’s father, on television and suddenly recognizing his pain and grief in that father’s eyes.

     He arranged to meet Bill McVeigh.  They sat together and talked about their children, one who was dead and one who soon would be.  Forgiveness and mercy overwhelmed Bud Welch.  He said, “I never felt closer to God than I did at that moment.”

     …What displeases God is when his children fight.  He is disappointed when we carefully draw dividing lines and refuse to touch or be touched by those on the other side.  He grows weary of our selfish complaints.  He is discouraged by our demands to have more than our brothers and sisters.  When we begin to scream our hate for one another at the slightest offense, we try God’s patience and rebel against his will.  We sadden our Father in heaven.

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Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun.  To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back– in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.  The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.  The skeleton at the feast is you.”     –Frederick Buechner

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Micah 6:8  —  He has showed you, O man, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Luke 6:36  —  (Jesus said), “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

James 2:12-13  —  Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful.  Mercy triumphs over judgment!

Matthew 6:12  —  Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Matthew 5:7  —  Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

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The ancient Jesus prayer:

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