223) Play Your Part Well (part two)

     (…continued)  Moses is thus not only saved from certain death, but he is allowed to live in the palace.  His own mother is hired to care for him and will be paid out of the king’s treasury to raise her own son; the same king who had ordered that all such babies should be killed.  And this baby grew up to be God’s chosen leader to deal the nation of Egypt a most crushing defeat, one that would free all the Hebrews from slavery.  It is a wonderful story, filled with miracles, surprises, courage, hope for the future, and, a happy ending– and it was made possible by the courage of one little girl, Miriam, who was faithful to her little brother and played her part well.

     This seems to be God’s favorite kind of story.  The small and insignificant person obeys God and does something of everlasting significance.  The boy David says, “I’ll take on the giant Goliath.”  The young Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me.”  The illiterate fishermen Peter and his brother Andrew hear Jesus say, “Follow me,” and they drop their nets and go.  A widow puts two pennies in the offering, and is praised by Jesus.  A little boy lets Jesus have his picnic basket, and Jesus feeds five thousand people out of it.  An angel appears to the young unmarried teenager Mary to say she is pregnant with the Savior of the whole world, and Mary says, “Let it be to me as you have said.”  And in Matthew 10:42 Jesus praises every act of kindness and service no matter how small with these words, “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones of mine because he is my disciple, truly I tell you, he will not lose his reward.”

     That was Miriam.  She was not the star of the show.  She was not the main character in the story, but there would have been no story if it wasn’t for her.  She would go on to stay by Moses’ side, supporting him in all his troubles and helping him in his many duties; until she died many years later in the wilderness, on the way to the promised land.  She played her part well, served her brother, her God, and her nation.  She was a vital part of God’s plan to free the Hebrews and establish the people of Israel in their new land.

     Miriam and John Parker were similar in that they both were called on to do small acts of service to people in positions of greater authority.  But the way Miriam fulfilled her duty in service to her leader was quite the opposite of how John Parker failed in his duty and service; and, with the opposite result.  Miriam’s service made possible the long career of her brother Moses.  John Parker’s failure ended the career of America’s greatest President at a time when his continued leadership was desperately needed.

     We are all called on by God to serve others– some within their own family, some in a classroom, and some, in leadership positions over an entire county, state, or nation.  But even presidents depend on the service of others.  Jesus taught us that whatever we do for someone else is important and is a way to serve God.  We might see the importance of only the more visible positions.  God sees the value in all.

     David Horowitz was a student radical in the 1960’s.  In his book Radical Son he describes how arrogant and self-righteous he and his friends in the movement were.  They saw themselves as great and wonderful people– after all, weren’t they trying to bring peace and justice to all the earth, overthrowing the powers of oppression, and creating a new and better world?  But Horowitz began to realize that his friends weren’t such wonderful people after all.  They were mean, selfish, arrogant, and petty just like his parents and the rest of the older generation, and so was he.  Today, Horowitz has many regrets about the mistakes he made in those years.

     Horowitz now sees others who are like he was, full of themselves and self-righteous with all their big ideas, and he is not impressed.  He says, “Everybody wants to save the earth, but no one wants to help mom with the dishes.”  Big ideas and the desire to change the world is great, and God calls many people to work for such change.  But God also calls people to smaller acts of service; and the world is made a better place even when a little boy helps his mom with the dishes, or a little girl is nice to her little brother, or some friends get together to help another friend, or an offering is taken for world hunger, or you stop by and see that old friend in the nursing home.  One time Jesus told the story of help given to a stranger by a Good Samaritan, and then he said to the crowd, “Go and do likewise.”

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Matthew 10:42  —  (Jesus said), “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.”

Luke 10:36-37  —  (Jesus said), “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”  The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Matthew 25:37-40 — (Jesus said), “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

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O Almighty and most merciful God, of thy bountiful goodness keep us, we beseech thee, from all things that may hurt us; that we, being ready both in body and soul, may cheerfully accomplish those things thou wouldst have done, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

222) Play Your Part Well (part one)

     John Parker had the worst seat in the theater.  He was attending a popular comedy and could hear the audience roaring with laughter.  He could hear most of the lines being said, so sometimes he knew what everyone was laughing about.  But he could not see the action and was missing out on much of the fun.  Finally, he decided to move, and he was able to find a better seat.  He sat down, and from there enjoyed the rest of the first act of the play.  He stayed in that seat until the intermission, at which time, he went to a tavern across the street for a drink.  It is not known where John Parker was during the second act of the play.  But it is known for sure that he was not back in his original seat.

     It was the evening of April 14, 1865, and John Parker’s change of seats at the play that night resulted in one of the greatest tragedies in American history.  The reason Parker could enjoy the play from his original seat was because he was not there to see the play.  Parker was member of the Metropolitan Police Force.  He was on duty that night at Ford’s Theater, there to guard and protect President Abraham Lincoln.  Parker’s chair was down a balcony hallway, outside the door to the State Box seats where the president and his wife were sitting.  Presidential protection in those days was minimal by today’s standards, but when Parker abandoned his post, there was no protection at all.

     Abraham Lincoln was a man of good will, and a skilled, powerful, and respected leader.  Binding up the nation’s wounds after the long Civil War would have been a challenge even for him.  His successor Andrew Johnson was also a man of good will, but was a weak leader and not respected.  He was not able to contain the rage and bitterness and thirst for revenge in the postwar years, nor was he able to deal effectively with the integration into society of the many freed slaves.  There is no doubt that the following decades would have been much better for this nation had Abraham Lincoln not been killed that night.  The course of American history was changed because one man, John Parker, did not do what he was supposed to do.  He did not play his part well.

     In the second chapter of Exodus we read about Moses’ sister Miriam.  In this story, as in the story of John Parker, we see the importance of lesser known people playing well their part in what might seem like small acts of service.  It was Miriam’s little brother, Moses, that would one day get all the attention and all the fame.  Moses is, in fact, the most important figure in the entire Old Testament.  He is referred to in the New Testament more than anyone else, and it was he that God used to bring the Hebrews together as a nation with a common faith.  But when Moses was an infant, Miriam played a part in saving him from certain death.

     In Exodus chapter one we learn that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt.  Their cheap labor was desirable, but there was getting to be too many of them, thought Pharaoh, king of Egypt.  He reasoned that a large number of Hebrews might decide they could rebel against their masters, so Pharaoh made a law that all boys born to Hebrew mothers were to be thrown into the Nile River and drowned.  The mother of Moses attempted to hide him for three months, but then hiding a noisy little baby became impossible.  Still unwilling to throw the baby into the river to drown, she put Moses into a basket, and then set the basket adrift in the river, leaving Moses in God’s hands.

     At this point, Miriam entered the picture.  Miriam watched to see what would happen to the basket.  It doesn’t say if she did this on her own, or if her mother told her to do it, but either way, she followed and watched; and then came the miracle.  

     The river flowed out of the Hebrew ghetto, and down toward the palace.  Pharaoh’s daughter was at the river bathing, saw the basket, and heard the crying.  It was clear that this was a Hebrew baby boy, and she no doubt knew about her daddy’s rules.  But she felt sorry for this little one, had it brought to her, and her father allowed her to keep the baby.  In the meantime, Miriam was still in the river, watching everything.  It would take courage to come out from hiding among the reeds along the river and approach the king’s daughter.  But this is what Miriam did, saying to the princess, “Do you need someone to nurse that baby for you?”  The princess agreed that would be a good idea, and Miriam went and got her mother, who got the job.  Moses is thus not only saved from certain death, but he is allowed to live in the palace.  His own mother was hired to care for him and would be paid out of the king’s treasury to raise her own son; the same king who had ordered that all such babies should be killed.  And this baby grew up to be God’s chosen leader to deal the nation of Egypt a most crushing defeat, one that would free all the Hebrews from slavery.  It is a wonderful story, filled with miracles, surprises, courage, hope for the future, and, a happy ending– and it was all made possible by the courage of one little girl, Miriam, who was faithful to her little brother and played her part well.  (continued…)

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Exodus 1:22  —  Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people:  “Every boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

Exodus 2:1-4  —  Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son.  When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.  But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch.  Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile.  His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him. 

Micah 6:4  —  “I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery.  I sent Moses to lead you, and also Aaron and Miriam.”

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AN EVENING PRAYER FOR LOVED ONES FAR AWAY (Walter Rauschenbusch):  O God, we yearn for those who belong to us and who are not here with us.  We wish we could be near them to shield them from harm and to touch them with the tenderness of love.  We cast our cares for them on you, and pray that you do better for them that we could do.  May no distance have the power to wean their hearts from us and may no sloth of ours cause us to neglect communication with them.  In due time restore them to us and gladden our souls with their sweet presence.  We remember also the loved ones into whose eyes we cannot look again.  O God, in whom are both the living and the dead, you are still their life and light, as you are ours.  Wherever they may be, lay your hand tenderly upon them and grant that someday we may meet again and hear once more their words of love.  Amen.

221) Christians in Syria (part two)

From The Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) newsletter, November 2013, page 3-5, by P. Todd Nettleton.  See website at  www.persecution.org

    Most Americans have seen the graphic images of bombed-out Syrian cities and citizens killed by chemical weapons.  But amid these stories of chaotic civil war and tragedy is another, less publicized story.  Christian churches in Syria continue to spread hope in the face of hopelessness, holding high not a political or denominational banner but the banner of Jesus Christ– the only path to salvation and peace with God.

     Before the outbreak of war, an evangelical church in one of Syria’s largest cities held several services a week for worship and prayer.  Today, it holds twice as many services, and most are standing room only.  A VOM contact who recently visited a Syrian church told us that his first thought upon entering was that he’d accidentally walked into a mosque.  He saw so many headscarves and long beards that it appeared to be a crowd of Muslims!

     VOM contacts are reporting many encouraging stories of Muslims coming to know Christ in a variety of ways.  More than 70 Muslim families have turned to Christ in an area of Syria where only a dozen or so Christians existed 18 months ago.  A former mullah who watched Muslim radicals from different Islamic sects kill each other while shouting “Allah is great!” began to wonder, “What kind of god are we worshiping?”  Then he visited a church and learned about the God who doesn’t demand killing, but rather sacrificed his own son for our sake.  His heart was moved to follow Jesus.  A woman who had been paralyzed for 10 years from a stroke testified that she was healed after a Christian friend prayed for her in Jesus’ name.  After experiencing his power, she gratefully committed her life to the Jesus who heals.

     Syrian Christians often face persecution from their own families.  A military officer who had converted to Christianity was forced into hiding when members of his family tried to have him killed for bringing shame on the family name.  Despite the threats, he said he would never give up his faith.  These are just a few examples of how the Holy Spirit is working among Syrians who are facing unthinkable hardships.

     “When somebody comes to Christ, individually, it makes a big difference,” said one of VOM’s Syrian contacts.  “When you hear about one Muslim coming to Christ, it’s a great thing, and everybody rejoices.  Today in Syria I’m not talking about one person.  We’re talking about hundreds, and even thousands of Muslims coming to know Christ.”

     Still, our Christian brothers and sisters are no less affected by the horrors and hardships of war than other Syrians.  A Syrian pastor told VOM workers that he has electricity only three hours per day and that many other parts of the country are worse.  Recently, a group of Christians driving along a 37-mile stretch of road encountered 23 checkpoints, manned by armed fighters from different sides of the conflict and even different factions within each side.  Each nerve-wracking checkpoint provides the potential for trouble and death, and the paperwork or dropped name that got you through the last checkpoint might raise eyebrows or gun barrels at the next.

     The civil war in Syria is serving to strengthen the Church and tear down denominational barriers.  Christian groups that five years ago might have questioned each other’s salvation are now gathering for weekly prayer, asking God to move in their nation and in their churches. Through prayer and fellowship, they are becoming true representatives of Christ’s Body in Syria.

     VOM equips, helps and encourages these Christians who continue to minister and reach out even as their country is ripped apart by bombs and hatred.  While VOM provides humanitarian assistance to Christians affected by this crisis, our principal focus will always be to empower and equip the Church to represent Christ even amid suffering.  With the help of our church partners in Syria, VOM distributes New Testaments, Bibles and study Bibles this year.  We are also working to provide material assistance to those who have lost much in the war.

     VOM continues to support and equip evangelists who are sharing the gospel in Syria as well as those reaching out to Syrian refugees outside the country.  We are working with Christians in neighboring countries to provide material assistance and gospel materials to Syrian refugees in those countries.  “They are seeking hope, and they have nothing,” a VOM contact said. “They lost their house.  They lost family members.  They lost some of their children.  And they are holding onto the hope that we have through Jesus Christ.”

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Philippians 1:29-30  —  For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

I Peter 4:12-13  —  Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

I Peter 4:16  —  …If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

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VOM prayer request:  Please pray with us for our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria.  Pray for an end to the violence and bloodshed and for God’s protection and encouragement of Christians and churches.  Pray that many more Muslims will see the true face of Islam and seek the loving face of Christ.

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“You are not far away, my friends.  You are not.  If you are a Christian, you will suffer.  That is the Gospel.  So pray for your persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ, for the suffering around the world; because one day you will need them, you will need their voice.  I know they will be there praying for you when the time comes.”  –VOM contact suffering persecution

220) Christians in Syria (part one)

From The Voice of the Martyrs newsletter, November 2013, page 2, written by James Dau, VOM executive director.  See website at  www.persecution.org

     Christians in Syria today are caught in the crossfire between a ruthless authoritarian regime and jihadist warriors who have swarmed to the region to fight what they consider a holy war to reclaim land.  And the jihadists believe every bit of land they control is sacred Islamic territory.

     Many Christians have fled the violence, but many others have remained in Syria for a variety of reasons.  Some have stayed in the country because they have nowhere else to go, while others have stayed behind to answer a higher calling– a godly calling to reach the lost in Syria, even at the risk of their lives.  Just last week, our staff met with one couple who are working to answer God’s call in Syria.  “Samer” and “Liena” are leaders in a boldly evangelical church that has continued to meet during the civil war; and the church is growing rapidly even as the violence escalates!

     Staying in Syria was not an easy decision for Samer and Liena.  A church offered to sponsor their relocation to Europe and to provide housing all living essentials and even private schooling for their two children.  But after much prayer and fasting, they decided to continue their ministry at home.

     “It was so hard living in a place where terrorists were coming from other countries,” Liena said.  “These men were saying, ‘We will kill everyone who does not believe what we believe as Salafis and strict Muslims.’”  The couple knows, as do all Christians in Syria, that if their country falls into the hands of the radicals, Christians will be given three choices:  convert to Islam, leave the country, or die.

     Samer and Liena threw themselves before God.  They prayed, “God, as Christians, what do you want us to do?”

     “We were crying and praying,” Liena said.  “We fasted for many days.  We put ourselves on the altar.”  They prayed and fasted until they had made a decision.  They would stay in Syria, no matter the cost.

     One night as their neighborhood was heavily shelled by mortars, the family huddled together in the front room of their home.  Liena pointed to the front door and said to her children, “Look at this door.  One day, God may allow someone from those terrorist people to come in this door.  They will have big beards and very threatening faces, maybe they will have swords.  They will put their swords on our necks, and you may see some blood.  They will hurt us.  We will have pain but don’t worry about this pain.  We will close our eyes, and we will open them again in heaven, and we will be with Jesus, singing with the angels.  Just tell these people ‘I forgive you, and Jesus loves you.’”

     God did not call the family home to him that night.  Instead, they continue to be lights for Christ in Syria.  While they still have the option of leaving the country at any time, they feel strongly that God has them there for a purpose.  One of those purposes is bringing attention to how Christians are suffering because of the war.

     This month’s newsletter focuses on the persecuted church in the historically rich nation of Syria, where brutal acts of war have drawn the attention of the world.  The Voice of the Martyrs continues to stand with our brothers and sisters in Syria who boldly proclaim the love of Christ.

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Matthew 5:10-12  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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Acts 9:3-5  —  As he (Saul/Paul) neared Damascus (Syria) on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him,“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

    “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 

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John 15:18-21  —  (Jesus said), “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you:  ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.”

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 A Prayer for Persecuted Christians by Safiyah Fosua  (Based on Luke 21:12, written in honor of the 2013 International Day of Prayer for Persecuted Christians.)

God, you know the plight of people far away, oppressed by governments and vigilantes in places where Christianity is an unpopular choice.  God, you knew that the day would come here when truth-telling would be despised, and siding with the oppressed would be the road less traveled.  Have mercy, O God, upon persecuted Christians there and here who are willing to suffer consequences for speaking your Name in word or in deed, in defiance or in advocacy.  Grant courage and strength to all who would dare to live their convictions out loud.  Amen.

219) Marriage Isn’t For Me, or You

By John Goerke; First published on the Institute of Religion and Democracy’s blog site called Juicy Ecumenism, November 13, 2013 (edited).  John Goerke majors in Philosophy at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

     “How ought I to live as a married man or married woman?”  “What is marriage for me, right now?”  These are questions that have to be answered before a marriage culture can thrive.  Having all the best arguments on your side is important, but they won’t substitute for the best people.  Saints aren’t remembered for being right, they are remembered (and revered) for being good.  Encountering a married couple that is committed to Christ and to each other does more to spread the truths about marriage than all the books in the world ever could.

     In response to the question, “How ought I to live as a married man or married woman?”, I have nothing to offer.  I am not married.  However, on the blogs and on the street, I have encountered three people in the past month who do have something to offer.  What follows amounts to an account of my eavesdropping.

     Seth Adam Smith has been married for a year and a half.  A little over a week ago, he declared on his blog:  “I’ve recently come to the conclusion that marriage isn’t for me.”  He should have seen this revelation coming.  He admits that as his wedding approached, he began to ask questions.  “Was I ready?  Was I making the right choice?  Was Kim the right person to marry?  Would she make me happy?”  Seth then goes on to make the classic mistake of asking his father for advice.  It is uncanny how superficial and silly fathers can be during our high school years.  Then, as if a miracle had occurred, they are filled with wisdom and insight almost overnight.  It is dangerous to ask them questions, because they just might give the right answer.  Seth recounts his father’s words:

     “Seth, you’re being totally selfish.  So I’m going to make this really simple:  marriage isn’t for you.  You don’t marry to make yourself happy, you marry to make someone else happy.  More than that, your marriage isn’t for yourself, you’re marrying for a family.  Not just for the in-laws and all of that nonsense, but for your future children.  Who do you want to help you raise them?  Who do you want to influence them?  Marriage isn’t for you.  It’s not about you.  Marriage is about the person you married.”  

     To all who are reading this article– married, almost married, single, or even the sworn bachelor or bachelorette– I want you to know that marriage isn’t for you.  No true relationship of love is for you.  Love is about the person you love.  And, paradoxically, the more you truly love that person, the more love you receive (usually, but not always in this wicked world).  And not just from your significant other, but from their friends and their family and thousands of others you never would have met had your love remained self-centered.  Truly, love and marriage isn’t for you.  It’s for others.

     This blog spread like wildfire across my Facebook feed.  But like all writing, blogs tend to attract criticism, and it is in the nature of bloggers to disagree with each other.  It wasn’t long before a response was being passed around.  Jeremy, the author, affirms Seth’s point that marriage isn’t about being selfish, but he doesn’t much care for what Seth’s dad had to say.  Jeremy writes:

     “Like the author claims, marriage is definitely not about making yourself happy, but it’s not always about making your spouse happy either.  True love is focused on God, and that sometimes means making people unhappy in order to draw them closer to God.  Marriage is not about making your spouse smile or laugh every day.  Marriage is not about being nice, it’s about loving your spouse as God loves them.  Marriage is not only about making your spouse happy, it’s about making them holy.”

     Now it should be obvious to anybody that Jeremy and Seth are getting at the same point.  Jeremy makes the mistake of thinking of ‘happy’ as a superficial feeling.  To make your spouse happy is to do what is best for them.  What is best for them is to be holy.  Thus, bringing your spouse closer to God will make them holy and happy.  The two are intertwined.

     What is marriage?  Well, “It’s not about you.  Marriage is about the person you married.”  “It’s about loving your spouse as God loves them.  Marriage is not only about making your spouse happy, it’s about making them holy.”  I said at the beginning I had nothing to offer as far as the question of marriage is concerned.  I still don’t.  But the point made by Seth and Jeremy was nicely summed up by (someone I talked to) a few weeks ago, here in Moorhead.  He told me:

 “As a boy, I used to go help out on my grandfather’s farm.  Now, like most men, I look back at my teenage self and wonder how I ever grew out of that stomach-churning individual.  Anyway, one day I got it into my head to ask my grandfather a question.  I had always wondered why my Dad was the only child of the family, despite the fact that most farm families were huge and, after all, you’ve got to do something during those long Minnesota winter nights.  So I asked him this with a cheeky little grin and I’ll never forget what he said:  ‘It’s true that most farm families are pretty big.  Sure I would have liked more kids.  But your Dad almost didn’t survive his birth.  Neither did his mother.  They were both half-dead for days.  I asked the doctor to explain to me what was going on and he made it real simple:  if your grandmother had another baby, she would die.  So, after that, I never touched her again.’  My grandpa walked off and spit in grass, leaving me dumbfounded.  What I later learned is that my father didn’t even know this.  I was the first person my grandfather had told.”

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Matthew 19:4b-6  —  …(Jesus said), “At the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’?  So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

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

I Corinthians 13:4-7  —  Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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From the Marriage Service in the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer 

 O eternal God, Creator and Preserver of all mankind, Giver of all spiritual grace, the Author of everlasting life:  Send thy blessing upon these thy servants, this man and this woman, whom we bless in thy Name; that they may faithfully live together, and may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made, and may ever remain in perfect love and peace together, and live according to thy laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

218) On Temptation and Tribulation

Selected and paraphrased from The Table Talk of Martin Luther, translated by William Hazlitt, 1857, available at:  http://www.ccel.org

     It is better for a Christian to be sorrowful than secure, as worldly people are.  Well is it for him that stands always in fear, yet knows that he has in heaven a gracious God, as the Psalm says: “The Lord’s delight is in them that fear him, and put their trust in his mercy…”  No man ought to seek tribulation; but if a cross or tribulation comes upon him, then let him suffer it patiently, and know that it is good and profitable to him…  It is impossible for a human heart, without crosses and tribulations, to think upon God.  (#631 & 634)

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     The upright and true Christian has to strive not only against flesh and blood, but also against spiritual wickedness. The spiritual combat is most heavy and dangerous; for flesh and blood can take away only body, wife and children, house, land, and what is temporary; but the spiritual evil can take away the soul, everlasting life, and salvation.  (#638)

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     The life of no human is without discontent.  Every one has his own tribulations; and there are many people, who, rather than be without them, will find something to make themselves restless and unhappy.  No man is ever content with that which God gives him. (#642)

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     Ah! how willingly would I now die, for I am faint and diseased, and yet at this time I have a joyful and peaceable heart and conscience.  I know full well that as soon as I am again in health, I shall have neither peace nor rest, but sorrow, weariness, and tribulations.  But even that great man, St Paul, could not be exempt from tribulations. (#643)

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     On the 8th of August, 1529, Luther lay sick with a fever.  Overwhelmed with dysentery and a dozen other maladies, he said:  God has touched me sorely, and I have been impatient.  But God knows better than me what purpose this may serve.  Our Lord God is like a printer who sets the letters backwards, so that here nothing looks right.  But when all is printed off yonder, in the life to come, we shall be able to read everything clearly.  In the meantime, we must have patience.  The Psalms, in almost every verse, speak of nothing but tribulations, perplexities, sorrows, and troubles.  (#645)

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     When I am assailed with heavy tribulations, I rush out to work among my pigs, rather than remain alone by myself.  The human heart is like a millstone in a mill.  When you put wheat under it, it turns and grinds and crushes the wheat to flour.  But if you put in no wheat, it will still grind on, but then it grinds on itself and wears away.  So is the human heart.  Unless it is occupied with some employment, it leaves space for the devil, who wriggles himself in, bringing with him a whole host of evil thoughts, temptations, and tribulations, all of which grind away on the heart.  (#650)

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     My tribulations are more necessary for me than meat and drink; and all who feel tribulations ought to accustom themselves to such things, and learn to bear them…  Tribulations keep us from pride, and so therefore increase in us the acknowledgment of Christ and of God’s gifts and benefits, to the end that God’s strength may be known in our weakness.   (#652)

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     When the devil plagues us with doubts and troubling thoughts, he can be driven away by no better means than by condemning him; as when one condemns a fierce dog by ignoring him in passing by quietly and without fear.  The dog then not only desists from biting, but also from barking.  But if in fear one pays attention, and then throws something at the dog, the dog is enraged and will attack and bite.  Even so, when the devil sees that we fear him, he increases his efforts to torment and plague us.  (#653)

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Psalm 116;7-9  —  Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.  For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.

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

I Peter 5:7  —  Cast all your anxiety upon God, because he cares for you.

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     A prayer for one’s work, especially at the beginning of a new task:
Almighty God, the giver of all things, without whose help all labor is ineffectual, and without whose grace all wisdom is folly, grant, I beseech thee, that in this my undertaking, thy Holy Spirit may not be withheld from me, but that I may promote thy glory, and the salvation both of myself and others…  Enable me to proceed in this labor, and in the whole task of my present state, that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen.  –From two prayers by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

217) Reading What Has Been Written For Us

      The 1995 movie A Walk in the Clouds begins with scenes of a young married couple separated by war.  He is in Europe fighting with the United States Army in World War II.  She is back home going out with other men.  The film shows him in the thick of the fighting but still faithfully taking the time to write home to his dear wife whenever he can. 

     Finally, the war is over and he comes home to New York.  It is a delightful scene, with hundreds of soldiers walking off the ship to meet their excited loved ones running to meet them.  There is much happiness and joy and laughter.  But no one comes to meet this young man who has seen and survived so much and who wrote so many letters.  He searches all through the crowd, but does not see his wife.  Before long the crowd is gone and he is there alone.  He calls a cab to take him home to his apartment.

     When he opens the door his wife runs to him, wraps her arms around him and welcomes him home.  When they’re done hugging and kissing, he asks her, “Honey, why weren’t you at the ship to meet me?”

     “Well,” she replies, “I did not know you were coming today.”

     “But honey,” he says with disbelief, “I have been writing to you for weeks about my coming home on this day.  How could you not know?  Did you not get any of my letters?”

     “Oh, the letters,” she said.  “Yes, I received lots of letters from you, and they are all right here,” she said, handing him a large box.

     He looked into the box, and again with disbelief he says sadly, “Most of these letters are not even opened.”

     “Yes, I know,” she said, “I read some of them, but it was too depressing to read about the war and all that fighting and how lonely you were; so I just quit reading them.  But I saved every single one.  You sure were faithful about writing.”

     These first ten minutes of the movie set the stage for rest of the story by creating in the moviegoer an affection for the faithful young man and a strong dislike for his unloving and uncaring bride; and this one scene certainly does accomplish that.  It almost overdoes it.  Who could be so thoughtless to not even take the time to read the letters from a loved one away at war?  One would think she would want to read every word over and over again in order to be as close as possible to her loved one who is absent, even if that closeness was only through words on a page.

     For a time God is absent from our sight.  He is indeed with us, now and always, but we cannot see him or hear his voice, no more than that young husband and wife could see each other.  But this separation is not what God intended from the beginning.  Genesis chapters two and three describe Adam and Eve talking with God openly.  But their sin, and then our sin, has led to the separation that now exists.  God has made occasional appearances over the years to folks like Abraham, Moses, and Elijah.  And for 33 years God walked this earth in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  And someday, as the New Testament tells us, believers will again live in the visible presence of God.  “I will take you to my Father’s house,” said Jesus in John 14.  “God’s home will be with us,” says Revelation 21, “and we will live with him.”  But not yet.  For now, God is absent from our sight and our hearing.

     But God has not left us completely.  He has left us his Word, words on a page (as in a letter) for us to read so that we can keep in touch while we are separated.  And all the most important things that we need to know for life now and for eternal life are there in that Word of God.  Romans 15:4 says these words were written to teach us and to encourage us so that we may have hope.  We have been created by God.  God gives us our every heartbeat and breath, and in a short time from now when we must die, God will be our only hope.  You would certainly think that any messages he would leave to us about himself would be read with great care, over and over again.  You would think that anyone who believed in this God at all would want to know everything about him and what he says about life and death.  You would think that all Christians everywhere would want to read for themselves, every day, that Word of God.

     The young wife in the movie had her reasons for not reading her husband’s letters.  Many people who never read the Bible also have reasons.  The Bible is a big book and it is in many places very hard to understand.  Reading it poses a daunting challenge to even the most devout and determined believer.  Many folks who have made a serious attempt at it have given up in frustration.

     But just because it is difficult doesn’t mean it cannot be done.  There are ways one can get into this huge difficult book and get something out of it.  Reading or hearing a little bit at a time is one good method.  These brief Emailmeditations set before you at least three Bible verses each day, a few bits of God’s Word for you.  These words of Scripture, said Paul, are to encourage you so that you may have hope.  And we all need hope, so do not ignore what has been written for us.

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Romans 15:4  —  For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

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

Romans 10:17  —  Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

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

–Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558)

216) An Old Preacher’s Plea

From “The Clergy of America: Anecdotes,” p. 91-94,  published 1869 

     A writer in the Christian Review of 1839 gives the following account of a scene he himself witnessed.  Speaking of Dr. Griffin, he says:

     We remember him on one occasion, preaching before a large evening assembly.  As he entered the sanctuary, his majestic form and snow-white head attracted every eye.  He seemed to be pondering awesome subjects as he ascended the sacred pulpit.  His text was Isaiah 1:18; “Come now, let us reason together, saith the Lord.”  After a few remarks, he said:  “My business, at present, is with impenitent sinners.  I have a message from the Lord to deliver to you this evening.  I am sent to reason with you, in His name, about the important concerns of a future world, about your interests a thousand ages from now, about the claims which the Sovereign Lord of the world has upon you, and the long score of uncancelled charges which He has against you.  Let Christians stand by and assist me with their prayers, while I attempt to recall these lost souls from eternal death.”  He seemed to us like a parent speaking, in all the tenderness of his heart, to his wayward children.  His gentle spirit and subdued tones served to complete such an image. 

     “My poor hearers,” he continued, “you may have often considered a sermon from the pulpit to be a routine and unimportant matter, and perhaps never felt any particular interest in it.  But it must not be so now.  I am on a solemn errand from the Lord, sent by Him to speak to each one of you tonight.”  He then proceeded in an easy way, to reason with them.  There was the most breathless attention.  He was short, direct, and overwhelming.  I can see him now, as he stood at the close, referring his hearers to the awful scenes of the judgment.  “My beloved friends,” he said, “I expect soon to meet you at that judgment seat, and give to the Lord an account of my labors among you tonight.”  (It is solemn to reflect that many who heard him that evening are now in eternity, and have met him before the throne of God.)  And then, very solemnly he said with deep feeling, “It is in view of that awful scene that I am speaking thus to you.  I would not want any of you to perish,” and then with great emotion, “but if you do perish, I would be clear of your blood.”

     As though not satisfied, and reluctant to leave them, he leaned forward in the pulpit and said with impassioned tones, “But you must not perish.  The calls for mercy are still out.  I have returned to my text, and I see there written, ‘Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.’  These heavenly words, issuing from the eternal throne, still mingle their sounds about your ears.  There is yet hope.  You need not perish.  The door of mercy is not yet closed.  That Savior who will be on that judgment seat, once died on Calvary.  Though you have so long trifled with these matters, though you have so long made fun of sermons and neglected Sabbaths, though you have a thousand time been against the Sovereign Lord; yet your sins may be forgiven and all your treasons purged.  Only do not now seal your damnation by continuing to reject his mercy.  Fall down now at his feet, and go not from this house till you have bathed them with your tears.  This is an awful moment.  Heaven, earth, and hell, are now opened before you.  From the throne of God which is placed in the center, the invitation is still proceeding.  Not man, but God himself, is now speaking to you.  If you turn away, it will be like those who turned away when their feet touched the borders of the promised land.  They would not be forgiven, and they perished in the wilderness.  Take care what you do.  With those trembling arms, reach out and take hold of Jesus, resolving never to let go.  One look will assure you that your sins are forgiven.

     “Are you afraid to go?  But you are going to the same Being who left the realms of glory to die for you!  Go, with greater confidence than anyone who ever went to an earthly parent.  Go, even with all your sins upon you.  It is not to judge that He comes to you now.  He has come to heal the broken-hearted and to preach deliverance to the captives.  The love of Jesus looks upon you.  His hands, still bearing the prints of the nails, are extended to receive you.  Go, and find your heaven in the sweetness of that embrace.  Go!” he pleaded.

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Matthew 4:17  —  From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Romans 13:11  —  …The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

Hebrews 9:27-28  —  Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.

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A PRAYER ON NEW YEAR’S DAY 1745, by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784): 
Almighty and everlasting God, in whose hands are life and death, by whose will all things were created, and by whose providence they are sustained; I return thee thanks that thou hast given me life, and that thou hast continued it to this time, that thou hast hitherto forborne to snatch me away in the midst of Sin and Folly, and hast permitted me still to enjoy the means of Grace and time to Repent.  Grant, O merciful Lord, that thy Call may not be in vain, that my life may not be continued to the increase of my Guilt, and that thy Gracious Forbearance may not harden my heart in wickedness.  Let me remember, O my God, that as Days and Years pass over me I approach nearer to the Grave, where there is no repentance, and grant, that by the assistance of thy Holy Spirit, I may so pass through this Life, that I may obtain Life everlasting…  Amen.

215) Homo Stuff

By Tony Campolo, Let Me Tell You a Story, © 2000, pp. 44-46

     The love generated by the Holy Spirit extends not only to people we know, but even to people we don’t.  This was made very clear to me some years ago when I was the speaker for an evangelistic crusade held at the Arco Arena in Sacramento, California.  The first night of the evangelistic crusade was a brilliant success.  Thousands of people came to the meeting.  There was good music and the Spirit of God moved among people, leading many of them to make decisions for Christ.

     The following morning there was a meeting of the planning committee.  I was surprised when I realized they were upset.  Not with me or anything I had done; they were upset with the media.  They complained about the fact that even though thousands of people had come to hear the Word of God the night before, the television stations and newspapers paid no attention to what was going on.  I listened for a while, then gave them my opinion.  I pointed out that Mick Jagger had been there the previous week, filled every seat in the place, and had gotten no media coverage.  It wasn’t any big deal to the media, I explained, to fill a stadium or arena with thousands of people.  Then I made a suggestion.  “This is World AIDS Week.  Let’s do something about that.  If you want news coverage, just put out a press release that the offering from tonight’s meeting will go to programs throughout the Sacramento area that minister to people suffering from AIDS.  If you want news coverage, you’ve got to make news!  I want to tell you it’s news when a bunch of evangelicals are willing to express love in a tangible way for people suffering from AIDS.  We say we love those people, but it’s usually a lot of words.  Lets put our money where our mouths are and see what happens.”

     This was several years back, when the fear of AIDS was at a fevered pitch and contempt for those who had this dreaded disease was omnipresent.  Radio preachers constantly told the Christian community that AIDS was sent by God to punish homosexuals.  The rhetoric about people with AIDS was absolutely horrible.  However, the people running this crusade were godly folks and thought that even apart from any news coverage we might get, such an offering would be a good thing.  After all, they reflected, the bills for running the arena had been paid, and most of the other expenses had already been covered.

     That night the media coverage was extensive.  All three major TV stations were there with camera crews, and the two newspapers were represented by reporters. 

     The mass choir sang, but the television cameras were not turned on.  I preached, and they paid no attention.  They were waiting for the offering at the end of the service.  As the buckets were passed to collect the contributions that would go for people with AIDS, television cameras were turned on and newspaper photographers were snapping pictures.  This was what they wanted to see.  Evangelicals sacrificially giving to meet the needs of people with AIDS, most of whom at that time were homosexuals.

     Later that night, I was in my hotel room watching the evening news to see how the whole thing was covered.  They not only showed the offering being taken, but they interviewed people as they were leaving the arena.  One old grandmother was moved to tears as she said, “My grandson has AIDS, and this is the first time that I’ve been able to talk about it, because up until now I was made to feel so ashamed of him.  I feel he was affirmed tonight.”  There were a few other comments that were made, but the best one of the evening was from a tough-looking guy who was grossly overweight.  His hair was a mess and it looked as though he needed a shave, but they stuck a microphone under his mouth and asked him, “Well, what did you think of the offering tonight?”  The guy answered in a gruff voice, “What about it?”  The interviewer said, “Well, people with AIDS are usually homosexuals, and you evangelical Christians haven’t been very kindly disposed to them, have you?  How do you feel about your money going to people who are probably gay?”

     The guy’s answer was splendid.  He said, “I don’t know anything about this homo stuff.  All I know is that when people are sick, we’re supposed to take care of them.  And that’s because Christians love everybody.”

     I stood up in the hotel room, shot my fists into the air, and yelled, “YES!”  In the end, they will know that we are Christians, not because we perform miracles, or demonstrate signs and wonders.  They will know we are Christians by our love.

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I John 3:11…18…23  —  This is the message you heard from the beginning:  We should love one another…  Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth…  And this is his command:  to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us. 

I John 4:7-9…11  —  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us:  He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him…  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

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O God, we who are bound together in the tender ties of love, pray for a day of unclouded love.  May no passing irritation rob us of our joy in one another.  Forgive us if we have often been keen to see the human failings, and slow to feel the preciousness of those who are still the dearest comfort of our life.  May there be no sharp words that wound and scar, and no rift that may grow into estrangement.  Suffer us not to grieve those whom you have sent to us to love and be loved by.  May our eyes not be so blinded by selfishness that we come to appreciate our loved ones only when it is too late and they return to you…  Amen.  –Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918)

214) God’s Use of Power (part two)

     (continued…)  This is the theological problem of Holy Week:  what kind of God do we have, the God of meek humility that goes to the cross on Good Friday, or the God of power who breaks forth from the tomb on Easter Sunday?  The answer is in realizing that this is not a problem at all.  This is not two contradictory pictures of God, but rather two pictures of God choosing to deal with his world in two different ways.  Think about it as the two hands of God.

     When the Bible wants to speak about God’s power, it will sometimes speak of it in terms of the ‘Right hand’  of God.  The Psalmist proclaims his confidence that the Lord will save his people by “the saving power of his RIGHT HAND.”  And in Exodus 15 the Bible says, “Your Right Hand, O Lord, is glorious in power, your Right Hand, O Lord, will shatter the enemy.”  That right hand of God is the hand God wields with power and strength.

     But as I have indicated, God has another way of dealing with the world.  Let’s call this the ‘Left hand’ of God.  The Bible doesn’t use that word, but it does refer figuratively to God’s right hand, and this can be a second figure of speech to speak about this other way God works in the world (for this meditation anyway).

     So let’s consider this ‘left-handed’ work of God.  The one time God visited his creation in person, in the flesh, how did he come?  Jesus came as a baby– as a weak, vulnerable, powerless baby, completely under the care of two human beings who were being hunted by the king’s soldiers that had been ordered to kill him.  The baby escaped, of course, and would grow to be a man who had many opportunities to take hold of power, but always refused.  The devil tempted him with a certain kind of power, and Jesus refused.  The crowds offered to make him king, and he refused.  Peter drew his sword to defend him, and Jesus refused the help, allowing himself to be arrested.  And Jesus talked not of pounding your enemies into submission, but of forgiving them, praying for them, and even turning the other cheek.  And when this Savior was to do his greatest work, the salvation of all people, he did it by meekly submitting to a power far inferior to his own, and going to the cross to die a painful and humiliating death.  And yet this approach, though seemingly weak, was strong enough change hearts and minds, and to win a following and a loyalty that all the power of the entire Roman Empire could not resist.  The Roman Empire is long gone, but Jesus is still believed in by billions.  It turned out that this weakness was in fact powerful in its effect, and even when God in Christ looked the weakest, he was the strongest.  “His strength is made perfect in my weakness,” Paul would later write.  In God’s infinite wisdom, he draws us unto himself in both ways, by both hands, we might say– by the power of his righteous right hand, and by the meek and humble submission of his left hand.

     What we see on Good Friday is that God’s divine power can also be revealed in suffering and death.  Those moments of apparent divine defeat are, in fact, moments of victory.  With his right hand, God rules by his might, but He does not work only by power and might.  With his left hand, God with-holds his might, and works in hidden ways.  For example, he allows us the free will to make our own decisions and use our own power for good or evil.  Then, when our love and obedience is returned, it is not a forced love or an automatic obedience, but it is a real relationship.  So when we, like Habakkuk, are disappointed by God’s seeming inactivity when things are not going well, we can be assured that in His wisdom God is working still, in less obvious, but even more effective, ways.

     Both right and left hand are forms of divine power.  Both are able to get things done.  Right-handed power can insist on obedience and justice, but it cannot change hearts.  Left-handed power cannot overthrow the oppressor and bring justice, but it can move hearts.  Right-handed power brings order.  Left-handed power transforms lives.

     So it is with God, and so it is with our work in the world.  Sometimes force must be used to restore and preserve order, and sometimes mercy and forgiveness will change a heart.  Therefore, as it says in the catechism and the Bible, we should both fear and love God.

     In Holy Week we see God at work with both hands.  All week, by the left hand of God, Jesus submits and suffers, and then he dies, leaving us with a story of suffering service that has inspired and converted millions over the years.  Then, on Easter Sunday, the right hand of God raises Jesus from the dead, defeating forever our worst enemy, death.  In weakness and in power, in bad times and in good times, as Paul wrote, God works all things out for the good of them that love him. 

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Psalm 118:14…16  —  The Lord is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation…  The Lord’s right hand is lifted high.  The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!”

II Corinthians 12:9  —  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

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

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PRAYER FROM PSALM 138:6-8

Though the Lord is exalted, he looks kindly on the lowly;
    though lofty, he sees them from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life.
You stretch out your hand against the anger of my foes;
    with your right hand you save me.
The Lord will vindicate me;
    your love, Lord, endures forever.
    Do not abandon the works of your hands.