354) Don’t Be A Fool

LUKE 12:16-21:

     Jesus told them this parable:  “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do?  I have no place to store my crops.’
     “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do.  I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
     “But God said to him, ‘You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’  This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

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     Sidney is an expert on the Civil War.  Ever since junior high school he has been fascinated by those four years of American history, and it has been his lifelong passion to read about it, study it, and become completely absorbed in the spirit of that period of time.  His career was teaching Civil War History in college, and now, in his retirement, he spends every vacation traveling around the country to Civil War battlefields.  He loves to spend hours walking the old battle grounds, imagining, and reliving in his mind all what happened there.  There is so much he knows. 

     Sidney knows all about not only the events of the war, but also all about the political background of the conflict, and the personalities of all the major players, and the long term repercussions of everything related to that war.  He can tell you about General Lee’s hesitation to fight for the South, he can tell you about President Lincoln’s frustration in finding a capable general, and about the weaknesses and failures of each one until the great General Grant finally took over.  Sidney can tell you about Abraham Lincoln’s faith, which was tested and then deepened by the war that took up almost his entire presidency.  He can tell you about dishonest contractors that cheated the government out of millions of dollars, while the army had a hard time supplying the union soldiers with blankets.  He can tell you about the terrible conditions of the prisoners of war kept in overcrowded camps, and how soldiers had a better chance of surviving the fiercest battles than making it to the end of the war in some of those camps.

     Sidney knows more than almost anyone about the Civil War, but like anyone else, Sidney does not know everything about everything.  He knows how to drive a car, but don’t ask him to check the oil.  He can buy a can of soup and put it in the microwave, but he can’t cook much else.  He had children and now he has grandchildren, but he still doesn’t know how to change a diaper.  Not everyone can be an expert in every area, and Sidney has made his choices.  He has chosen to focus all his energy and attention on acquiring knowledge of the Civil War.  His knowledge of the war is impressive, but he is lacking in some other areas and attributes.

     We all have our areas of expertise, and there are those many other things of which we are quite ignorant.  What Jesus is saying in this parable from Luke 12 is don’t be a fool and be ignorant about God and your eternal soul.  “There is one thing needed,” said Jesus to the busy Martha and her sister Mary two chapters earlier, and whatever your interests and skills and obligations, you must not ignore that one thing that is needed above all other things.  Only God is worthy of our fullest devotion.  Money, pleasure, prestige, career, hobbies, travel, or Civil War knowledge are all things that can consume our fullest devotion and dedication.  While there is nothing wrong with giving those kinds of things some attention, we must not be a fool like the man in the parable and pay no attention to the God who created us.

     Sidney knows all about the Civil War, but not much about anything else, including God.  In Luke 12:21 Jesus points out our need to be concerned about eternal things, being ‘rich toward God’ as he puts it there.  We all need a place to live, and we put considerable time and money into providing a home for ourselves.  It would only seem reasonable that we should be concerned also about our eternal dwelling.  Our lives here will be over in a very short time, and we will then be in our next home (whatever that might be), and we will be there for all the rest of time.  It would only make sense that we would want to know something about that next destination, and make any necessary preparations for it.

     The Bible has a great deal to say about all this, but Sidney has had very little time for the Bible.  He could tell you how the Bible was quoted during the Civil War by both the North and the South, both in defense of and in opposition to slavery.  But as for what the Bible says about his own eternal soul, Sidney could tell you very little. 

     If you asked Sidney if there is life after death, he would say, “Yes, I think so; that seems to be a commonly held belief.”  But if asked whether or not such a belief was reasonable, scientifically speaking, he would be hard pressed to say anything definite.  If you asked him whether or not he believed Jesus really rose from the dead, he would say, “Yes, I know the Bible says he did, but I never really looked into it for myself.”  If you asked him what Jesus said about eternal life and about heaven and how to get there, he would quickly admit that he doesn’t know what Jesus said about any of that.  At this point, he may wonder why the questions are all only about Jesus, and he might say that all religions talk about heaven, and they all seem to believe in that same thing, and so there must be something to it.  But he would be quite incorrect about that.  The various religions of the world say very different things about what happens after you die– but Sidney would be very uninformed about any of that.  Finally, if asked what will happen to him after he dies, Sidney would be honest enough to admit that he does not really know, nor does he have any strong beliefs on the subject.

     Sidney is an imaginary person I invented to illustrate the approach that many people take to this whole subject.  Countless surveys of people’s beliefs show that most people believe in some kind of life after death, but many will readily admit to being completely ignorant of reasons for that belief and what that might mean.  They might have some vague beliefs, picked up here and there from a variety of sources, mostly unreliable, oftentimes from people as uniformed as themselves.  Yet, these same people will take great pains to know all there is to know about other matters that are mere trifles by comparison.

     Why would someone not want to know all about a matter of such eternal personal consequences, and instead be content to know all about the Civil War, or the Minnesota Vikings, or NASCAR racing, or house decorating, or gardening, or, as the man in Jesus’ parable, making money?  All of that might be useful, enjoyable, and even necessary knowledge, but it all is useful only for a little while, and must not be pursued to the exclusion of what one needs to know for eternity.

     Sidney would tell you that his interest in the Civil War has given him a full and interesting life, but according to this parable, God would consider him a fool.  Sidney has achieved much for himself, but he is certainly not rich towards God.  In fact, he clearly pays no attention to God.  This neglect of God is typical, and many people live their whole life with that same foolish and careless indifference to that which is most important.

     Many Bible verses tell us what God has done for us.  This parable of Jesus tells us something that we need to do in response.  We need to pay attention enough to know what God says about something so vital to our own interests.  God said to the man in the parable,“This very night your life will be required of you.”  One day God will say that to Sidney, and, to you– and what then?  God then said to the rich man, “You fool.”  What will God say to you?  Have you been indifferent, uninterested, and careless?  If you do not want anything to do with God, God will, when that time comes, let you have your way, and you will enter eternity without Him, and without hope.  

     As Jesus said so clearly and simply in Mark 4:9, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”

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Luke 10:38-42  —  Now it came to pass, as they went, that Jesus entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.  But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, “Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone?  Bid her therefore that she help me.  And Jesus answered and said unto her, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things:  But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.

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Grant to us, O Lord, to know that which is worth knowing, to love that which is worth loving, to praise that which pleases you most, to esteem that which is most precious to you, and to dislike whatsoever is evil in your eyes; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

–Thomas a Kempis (15th century)

353) More Prayers for When You Are Old and Tired

 

From LIVING WITH PURPOSE IN A WORN-OUT BODY: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults, © 2008 Missy Buchanan, Upper Room Books,  available at http://www.upperroom.org

       There’s a slow, steady rhythm to ordinary days.  Uneventful kind of days that follow a simple routine of meals, medications, and favorite TV shows.  During this time, empty squares march across the calendar.  One day feels like the next.  In truth, I like days that are uninterrupted by crisis or sudden change.  I am thankful for the repetition.  But Lord, it’s easy to get lost in the monotony.  Save me from the emptiness that comes with too much time to think and too little to do.  It is fertile soil for negative thoughts to grow.  And if I hold too tightly to rigid routine, remind me that I may miss out on a wonderful surprise.  Help me to rediscover the abundant blessings in my life.  Today I will turn the pages of an old photo album, and I will give you thanks for my life stories.  I will pray for my loved ones, calling each by name.  O Lord, show me the extraordinary joy in ordinary days.   (page 39)

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    Some days I am wrought with fear.  A private battle with what-ifs and what-thens.  O Lord, I admit I am terrified of ambulances and medical tests.  Of bad news, broken bones, and drawn-out illness.  Here I am at this late date, and I’m afraid I don’t even know the Bible as I should.  I feel so vulnerable, Lord.  Lift me out of this pit of despair and draw me close.  You who stilled the waters, please still my anxious heart.  Protect me from my deepest fears.  You alone are my refuge and strength.  Your grace supplies all that I need to endure, for I have a divine mission to fulfill.   (page 82)

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    Forgiveness:   For all these years, I’ve kept it buried like a hot coal.  Burning resentment.  A business associate betrayed me decades ago.  A neighbor said unkind things about my child.  A family member left me wounded by the roadside of life.  And ever since, I’ve pushed down the hurt until I couldn’t see it anymore.  I thought over time the coal would die out into a cold lump of nothingness, but it didn’t.  It still glows hot in the deepest crevice of my heart.  For years, I longed to hear an apology, but I never got it.  Most likely, I never will.  But I’ve let the hurt smolder far too long.  Forgiveness is not easy, even when you are old.  Lord, I cannot do this alone.  Let the cool water of your grace flow over me until the burning coal is finally doused.  You have forgiven me again and again.  How can I not do the same?  (page 78)

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    I confess there are days when pain suffocates my passion for living.  There are dark nights when fear chokes out hope.  Sometimes I wonder why you have left me on this earth.  I have outlived so many family and friends.  Why do I linger?  What purpose could you have for me now?  Look at my hands.  Once strong and sure, they are unsteady and frail.  My mind, once quick and incisive, now falters under the weight of names and faces.  What real purpose do I serve knitting away the hours, surfing the channels, dozing through the afternoon?  Then your Spirit stirs my heart and convicts my soul.  You are not a wasteful God!  The length of my earthly days is a mystery to me, but one thing I know for sure.  You have created me with an eternal purpose.  How can I be more like Christ today?  Whose life can I touch with kindness?  Lord, give me an extra measure of grace when I feel that I am too old to be useful.  Help me take my limitations in stride as I search for opportunities to serve you.  My purpose has not withered away with another birthday.  It is rooted in eternity.  (pages 11-12)

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Psalm 27:1  —  The Lord is my light and my salvation– whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life– of whom shall I be afraid?  

Romans 12:11-12  —   Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  

Colossians 3:13  —   Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

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A PRAYER FOR EASTER DAY, 1771,  by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784):  Almighty and merciful Father, I am now about to commemorate once more in thy presence, the redemption of the world by our Lord and Savior, thy Son Jesus Christ.  Grant, O God, that the benefit of his sufferings may be extended to me.  Grant me faith, grant me repentance, and illuminate me with thy Holy Spirit.  Enable me to form good purposes, and to bring these purposes to good effect.  Let me so dispose my time, that I may discharge the duties to which you have called me, and let that degree of health, to which thy mercy has restored me, be employed to thy glory.  O God, invigorate my understanding, compose my anxieties, recall my wanderings, and calm my thoughts, that having lived while thou shalt grant me life, to do good and to praise thee, I may, when thy call shall summon me to another state, receive mercy from thee, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

 

352) Abraham Lincoln’s Favorite Poem

The earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln from the mid-1840’s

William Knox was a Scottish farmer and poet.  He is not very well known except for this poem, and this piece is remembered primarily because it was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite.  Lincoln first read it when he was a young man.  He liked it so much he memorized it.  He would often quote it in conversation, repeating “the lines so often that people suspected they were his own.”  Lincoln assured them that he was not the author, but said, “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”  (Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk, 2005, p. 121)

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MORTALITY

   By William Knox (1789-1825)

Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
Man passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
 
The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high
Shall molder to dust and together shall lie.
 
The infant a mother attended and loved;
The mother that infant’s affection who proved;
The husband that mother and infant who blessed,–
Each, all, are away to their dwellings of rest.
 
The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,
Shone beauty and pleasure,–her triumphs are by;
And the memory of those who loved her and praised
Are alike from the minds of the living erased.
 
The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne;
The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn;
The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,
Are hidden and lost in the depth of the grave.
 
The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap;
The herdsman who climbed with his goats up the steep;
The beggar who wandered in search of his bread,
Have faded away like the grass that we tread.
 
The saint who enjoyed the communion of heaven;
The sinner who dared to remain unforgiven;
The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,
Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.
 
So the multitude goes, like the flowers or the weed
That withers away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that has often been told.
 
For we are the same our fathers have been;
We see the same sights our fathers have seen;
We drink the same stream, and view the same sun,
And run the same course our fathers have run.
 
The thoughts we are thinking our fathers would think;
From the death we are shrinking our fathers would shrink;
To the life we are clinging they also would cling;
But it speeds for us all, like a bird on the wing.
 
They loved, but the story we cannot unfold;
The scorned, but the heart of the haughty is cold;
They grieved, but no wail from their slumbers will come;
They joyed, but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.
 
They died, aye! they died; and we things that are now,
Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow,
Who make in their dwelling a transient abode,
Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.
 
Yea! hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
We mingle together in sunshine and rain;
And the smiles and the tears, the song and the dirge,
Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.
 
‘Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,
From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud,–
Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
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Job 20:11  —  The youthful vigor that fills his bones will lie with him in the dust.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-11  ––  What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one can say, “Look!  This is something new”?  It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.  No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Ecclesiastes 3:20  —  All go to the same place; all come from the dust, and to dust all return.
James 4:14b  —  What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  
Isaiah 40:6-8  —  A voice says, “Cry out.” 
    And I said, “What shall I cry?” 
   “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”
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AN EVENING PRAYER:  Watch over us, O Lord, our heavenly Father.  Preserve us from all evil and grant that we may this night rest secure beneath thy care.  Bless thy Church and our government.  Remember the sick and those who are in need or in peril.  Have mercy upon all people.  And when our last evening shall come, grant us to fall asleep in thy peace and to awake in thy glory; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.    
Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, 1958, Augsburg Publishing House

 

351) Staying Alive

This story was forwarded to me recently:

     A church-goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday.  “I’ve gone for 30 years now,” he wrote, “and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons.  But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them.  So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.”

     This started a real controversy in the ‘Letters to the Editor’ column, much to the delight of the editor.  It went on for weeks until someone wrote this:

     “I’ve been married for 30 years now.  In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals, and for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals.  But I do know this.  They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work.  If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today.  Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today.”

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This is C. S. Lewis on the Christian life from Mere Christianity:

     There are three things that spread the Christ life to us:  baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names—Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper.

     If you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day.  That is why daily prayers and religious reading and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life.  We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.  Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind.  It must be fed.

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Luke 4:16  —  Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. 

Romans 10:17  —  …Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

Hebrews 10:24-25  —  And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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Living God, help us to hear your holy Word with open hearts so that we may truly understand; and, understanding, that we may believe; and, believing, that we may follow in all faithfulness and obedience, seeking your honor and glory in all that we do; through Christ, our Lord.  Amen.  –Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)

350) Divorce and Remarriage (part two of two)

      (continued…)   It is often said by those in Alcoholics Anonymous, “You may not be able to save the alcoholic, but you can try and save yourself.”  They say that when it comes to alcohol addiction, you cannot expect, or allow, the alcoholic to define the limits.  You must set your own limits.  And we all have limits.  We may love someone and be willing to do almost anything to help them; but sometimes for your sake, or for the sake of others that you love, or even for the alcoholic’s own sake, you simply have to set the limits.  You would do almost anything, but not quite everything, even for love.  You have your limits.
 
     Yet, the Bible says God is different.  There appears to be no limit to the love of God.  The entire Old Testament is the story of God trying everything– kindness, firmness, grace, judgment, blessings, and punishments– God will try everything, but he will not give up on his people.
 
     Then in the New Testament there is yet another attempt by God to win us over, and this is His most astonishing attempt.  God sent his own Son, Jesus Christ, and then even allowed that Son to die on the cross, for us.  Jim was right to fear for the safety of his children.  That was a reasonable limit on his patience with Sue.  But Jesus put no such limits upon himself, making it clear time and again that he had no concern for his own safety.  He would do whatever was necessary to win our salvation, even going to the cross and to the grave for us.  Our behavior angers God and tries God’s patience, just like Sue’s behavior tried the patience of her husband Jim and made him angry.  But with God, as long as life endures, there is no limit to his grace.  God will not turn away anyone who turns to him.  The time for repentance is now, says the Bible, and God’s limitless offer of grace is made for us in this earthly life only.  We have no basis in God’s Word to presume upon any more.  But to all who look to God now, there is no limit on his love and forgiveness and grace.
 
     At the same time, the God who loves and forgives, also has commands and expectations, and Matthew 5:29-32 is one of the most harshly demanding.  In verse 32 Jesus says, “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”  In verses 29-30 Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. ”  These are tough verses.  What are we to make of these words?  If you divorced and remarried, or married to someone who had been married before, what do these words of Jesus say to you?  Should Jim stay with Sue until in a drunken stupor she leaves the stove on and burns the house down with her and the kids in it?  And if we were to take Jesus’ words on gouging out eyes and cutting off hands literally, would there be any Christian anywhere with their eyes and hands intact?
 
    Christians have always read these words in the larger context of God’s forgiveness, and the new beginnings granted with such forgiveness.  This does not bless the sin, it does not remove the challenge, and it leaves in place the high mark toward which we must always strive.  But despite even our best intentions and most diligent efforts, people get overwhelmed, people mess up, our loved ones disappoint us, we disappoint them, we have our weaknesses, we get trapped, addicted, distant, and estranged– and we sin.  We sin with our minds, with our tongues, with our eyes, with our hands, and in our relationships.  And Jesus says to us what he said to the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8.  He said to her first of all, “I do not condemn you.”  Then he said, “Go and sin no more.”  Forgiveness, and no condemnation, — but then again, the command and the challenge.
 
    The harsh words and commands of Jesus, and in the rest of the Bible, must be read in the context of God’s grace; but then, they must still be read and obeyed.  The law and the gospel, the grace and command, the love and the expectations, all go back and forth in our lives as long as we live.  We cannot let go of either side of the relationship.
 
    The words of Jesus on divorce and remarriage seem clear and final.  But the God of the Bible grants forgiveness and new beginnings even after some of the biggest sins by some of the Bible’s greatest men and women of faith.  David, for example, after his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, was harshly condemned by the prophet Nathan, punished severely by God, and came to a sincere repentance; but was then granted a new beginning.  No eyes were gouged out, no hands were cut off, and no one was stoned to death.  David and Bathsheba got married, and their son, Solomon was God’s choice to be the next king of Israel.  And while today’s attitudes toward God’s law regarding sex and marriage and divorce have become far too casual, we must still, always and every day, hear both parts of God’s Word.  Again, as Jesus said to the sinful woman in John chapter eight; first of all he said, “I do not condemn you;” and then he said, “Go and sin no more.”
     We must never ignore or take lightly God’s clear commands and warnings.  This is, after all, God we are talking about here, and God will not be mocked.  But at the same time we can, in faith, look to Him, and rest in his grace and forgiveness, that amazing grace which, in this life, has no limit, and is always granting us a fresh start and a new beginning.
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John 8:3-11   —   Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to (Jesus) a woman caught in adultery.  And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in  adultery, in the very act.   Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned.   But what do You say?”   This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him.  But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.
     So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.”   And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.  And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.  When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours?  Has no one condemned you?” 
     She said, “No one, Lord.”
     And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  
Galatians 6:6-8  —  Do not be deceived:  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 
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  A PRAYER OF CONFESSION by Martin Luther:  Dear Lord God, I cannot count the sins that I have done and am still doing.  I have forgotten most of them and no longer feel any guilt.  Whatever is in me apart from your grace, is sin and condemned.  Thus, I must altogether despair of myself, my works, and my powers.  I know not what else to do but to pray for your mercy…   My joy and comfort is that you grant this poor sinner the forgiveness of all my sins out of your pure grace.   I give you thanks.   Amen.

349) Divorce and Remarriage? (part one of two)

     Part one of this two-part meditation is a story from a book by Methodist pastor William Willimon.  But anyone could probably tell similar stories about someone they have known, or perhaps even from their own life.  It is a story about family troubles, and we all know what that can be like.  This story is a little worse than most, though not as bad as some.  The details are always different in the many stories of troubled families, but the heartache is the same.
     Here is Willimon’s story:  Jim came home late that March evening.  The traffic from the city had been terrible.  As he made his way up the sidewalk from the driveway into the house, he was rather surprised to see only one light on, the light shining from the kitchen.  He opened the door and as soon as he did so, one of the children yelled, “Daddy!  Daddy’s home!”
     He hugged his two small children, and then, glancing into the kitchen, he could see bags and bottles opened, and everything in disarray.  Things were a mess.  “Where’s your mom?” he asked the kids.
     “Oh, she’s upstairs taking a nap,” little Sarah said, adding, “and we got hungry, so we decided to fix supper for ourselves.  But we couldn’t figure everything out.”
     “Taking a nap?,” he asked, filled with anxiety.
     Tommy added, “Sarah put water into the mix, when the recipe said milk.  I told her it wouldn’t work.”
     Jim said, “Here are some cookies.  Go watch some TV, and I’ll go up and check on Mom.”  They grabbed the cookies and ran for the TV; and then, with dread, Jim headed up the stairs.  He called out Sue’s name.  No answer.  He entered the bedroom, and there she was, laying on the bed, the pillow pulled up over her head.  He moved toward her, and could smell the alcohol as he bent down to her.  ‘Here we go again,’ he thought.
     “What are you doing here?” he asked.
     Looking out from under the pillow, she replied, “I was just worn out after the day that we’ve had, and I needed to take a little nap.”
    “A little nap?” Jim said, “it is seven o’clock at night and the kids are starved.  Sue, how could you do this again?”
     “You mean I’m not allowed to take a little nap when I’m sleepy?” she said groggily, pulling the pillow over her head again.  But Jim didn’t answer.  He went back downstairs, quite sure that she was out for the night.  He made some sandwiches for supper, sat down with the two kids, and asked them about their day.
    After they ate, they cleaned up the kitchen together.  Just as they were finishing with that, Sue stumbled in.  “Why didn’t you call me?,” she yelled, “Why didn’t you wake me when you got home?  I suppose now I am going to get another lecture,” she said angrily.  He told the children it was time for bed, and he walked past Sue to go upstairs with them.
    After the kids were in bed, Sue said, “I know you don’t believe me, but I haven’t been feeling very well.”  Her speech was slurred.
      Jim said firmly, “You aren’t feeling well, because you are drunk again.  Sue, how could you?  This can’t go on.”  Then she began to cry and apologize and promise that it would never happen again.  It was the same routine every time.  Jim was both angry and sad.  He knew the move to the new city for his job had not gone well for Sue.  She missed her old friends, and had not made many new ones yet.  She went into a bit of a depression, and then her drinking started.  They drank socially, and so they always had liquor in the house, but it had never been a problem.
     Jim had first become gradually aware that Sue had seemed groggy in the evenings.  Exhaustion, he thought.  But then he started to smell the alcohol on her breath.  He tried to say something a couple times, but she would get defensive and angry.  So he said nothing for a while.  Then, she stumbled and fell while carrying one of the children.  He got very angry with her, she felt terrible, and she promised it would never happen again.  But it did.  He confronted her again, and she denied it was a problem.  Whenever he suggested counseling or treatment, she would respond angrily, and the next day’s drinking would be even worse.  He tried kindness, he tried firmness, he told her family about it, he talked to a friend who was in AA, but Sue resisted everything.  He was getting used to being miserable at home, but he worried about the safety and well-being of the children.  Jim took seriously his marriage vows, but he was confused, and did not know what would be the right thing to do.  But one thing was sure– he was reaching his limit.  He knew that alcoholism was a sickness, and he pitied Sue’s situation and condition, but he had his limits.
     Pastor Willimon went on to say how when Jim came to see him, it was not to ask him what to do, but to tell him that he was leaving Sue.  He was planning to seek custody of the kids, and if Sue fought him, he would expose her alcoholism and fight her in court.  The drinking made her unfit to care for the children.  He said he had tried everything and that he had reached his limit.     (continued…)
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Matthew 5:29-32  —  (Jesus said), “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.  It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” 
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    Almighty God, who sets the solitary in families:  We commend to thy continual care the homes in which your people dwell.  We pray that you put far from them every root of bitterness, all desire for vainglory, and the pride of life.  Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, and godliness.  Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh.  Turn the hearts of parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another.  —Book of Common Prayer

 

348) The Good Shepherd

     

   The Good Shepherd   Warner Sallman (1892-1968)

     In Bible times there were lots of shepherds.  Now, where I live, there aren’t any.  Around here there are fences.  Farmers harvest and store large amounts of feed so that the animals can be kept within the fences and fed there.  In Bible times shepherds were needed to watch over their flocks at all times, leading them all over the countryside to green pastures so they could eat and to still waters so they could drink.  Shepherds led the flocks on the right paths and protected them from all evil, even death, so the sheep did not need to be afraid.  The ignorant and vulnerable sheep were completely dependent on the shepherd for their every need.  They had to trust the shepherd for their safety and survival, just as we have to depend on and trust in God for everything.  In Bible times people understood this all very well.  Everyone would see shepherds at work.  Shepherds then were as common then as telemarketers are now.

     Today, however, we do not see shepherds every day and we have to be told about them– in our earliest Sunday School lessons, by Scripture readings and sermons, and by pictures.  One of my earliest memories of church is that familiar painting of Jesus the Good Shepherd (see above).  It hung on the wall in my first Sunday School room.  Jesus is standing in a beautiful and peaceful green valley.  He is surrounded by sheep and he is holding in his arms one little lamb.

     Even as a 4 year old I knew what that picture meant.  It meant that Jesus holds and protects me, just like he was holding and protecting that little lamb, and it told me that in those strong arms I would always be safe.  The painting illustrates the message of Psalm 23, and other passages, such as Isaiah 40:11, “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  Even as a child I knew that I needed such protection and care.  Already as a child I knew about death and how that could end everything, everything except this love and care and protection of Jesus.  I learned in Sunday School that not even death could change that.  “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…”  And in the meantime, “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,” and then, “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  I did not know any shepherds back then, but from memorized Bible verses and from that picture I knew that I belonged to the Good Shepherd, and I was in good hands.

     The words of Psalm 23 and Isaiah 40 were written hundreds of years before the earthly life of Jesus.  For centuries the Jews had in their minds this image of God as their shepherd.  Then Jesus made a startling claim.  He said in John 10, “I am the good shepherd,” and then later on in that same chapter he said, “My sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.”  We have heard that voice.  We hear it in John 10 and in Psalm 23 and in all the words of the Bible, and what a blessing it is to know such care and such love.  The sheep were always within sight and sound of the Good Shepherd, and they knew that in him was their safety and security.  They knew that in all times of stress or danger or storm, if the sheep could just hear the shepherd’s voice they would be comforted.  God’s Word works for us like the voice of the shepherd.  As we keep ourselves within hearing distance of that Word, we will find hope, comfort, and security.

    “Even to your old age and gray hairs, I will be with you,” that voice says.  “Even when troubled waters threaten to sweep you away, I will be with you,” says that voice.  “Whether you live or die, you belong to me,” it says.  “Come to me all who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest,” says that voice of the Good Shepherd.  “Cast all your cares on me, for I care about you, and I will uplift, strengthen, and restore you,” says that saving voice.

    The Good Shepherd said, “I will lay down my life for my sheep and they will hear my voice.”  This is the only solid ground we have.  All else can be taken from us at any time, except for the one who says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Someday, of course, we will be taken from everything that we know and love in this life; but even then, Jesus has another place prepared for us.  Until then, as James says, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father.”  The Good Shepherd provides for our every need now; blessing upon blessing in the good times, and a strong and certain comfort and hope for the bad times.  And when death comes, we have a promise that the end of our time here is not the end of everything, but that we will live again.  Only a foolish lamb would ever want to wander away from the security and protection of that voice and the presence of that Good Shepherd.  Even then, says the parable, the Good Shepherd goes looking for the lost.  Best of all, of course, is to stay close to where that voice can be heard.  Why would any little lamb want to wander away from that?

The Lost Sheep by Alfred Soord (1868-1915)

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Psalm 23  —  The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. 

Isaiah 40:11  —  He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. 

John 10:11  —   Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

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My Lord Jesus Christ, you are indeed the only Good Shepherd, and I, alas, am a lost and straying sheep.  I have fear and anxiety.  I would gladly belong to your flock and be with you and have peace in my heart.  I hear from your Word that you are as anxious for me as I am for you.  I am eager to know how I can come to you to be helped.  Come to me, O Lord.  Seek me and find me.  Help me also to come to you and I will praise you and honor you forever.  Amen.  

 –Martin Luther

347) Eaten by Cannibals? No Problem.

     

     In 1606 a chain of eighty islands in the South Pacific was discovered by Fernandez de Quiros of Spain.  In 1773, the islands were explored by Captain James Cook who named them ‘New Hebrides’ because of the similarities with the Hebrides Islands off the Northwest coast of Scotland.  In 1980, the New Hebrides gained its independence from Britain and France and was named Vanuatu.  The population today is about 190,000.

     To the best of our knowledge, the New Hebrides had no Christian influence before John Williams and James Harris from the London Missionary Society landed in 1839.  Both of these missionaries were killed and eaten by cannibals on the island of Erromanga on November 20 of that year, only minutes after going ashore, and in full view of the crew of the ship that had just dropped them off.

    Nineteen years later Scottish pastor John G. Paton (1824-1907), then 33 years old, expressed to family and friends his desire to go to these same New Hebrides islands as a missionary.  The tragic fate of Williams and Harris was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and all thought he was crazy to consider such a mission.  A certain Mr. Dickson said to him angrily, “The cannibals!  You will be eaten by cannibals!”  But to this Paton responded:

“Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is to die soon, be laid in the grave, and there to be eaten by worms.  I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by cannibals or by worms; and on the Great Day, my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.”  (The Autobiography of J0hn G. Paton, p. 56)

     On April 16, 1858, John Paton and his wife Mary sailed for the New Hebrides, arriving at the island of Tanna on November 5.  In March of the next year both Mary and their newborn son died of ‘the fever.’  Paton then served alone on the island for the next four years under incredible circumstances of constant danger, until he was driven off the island in February, 1862.

     For the next four years Paton did mobilization work for the Presbyterian mission to the New Hebrides, travelling around Australia and Great Britain.  He married again in 1864.  In 1866 he and his wife Margaret went back to New Hebrides, this time to the smaller island of Aniwa.  They labored together for 41 years, until Margaret died in 1905.

     When they came to Aniwa they saw the destitution of the islanders.  Paton wrote:

“The natives were cannibals and occasionally ate the flesh of their defeated foes.  They practiced infanticide and widow sacrifice, killing the widows of deceased men so that they could serve their husbands in the next world…  Their worship was entirely a service of fear, its aim being to propitiate this or that Evil spirit, to prevent calamity, or to secure revenge.  They deified their chiefs, and so almost every village or tribe had its own Sacred Man.  They exercised an extraordinary influence for evil, these priests, and were believed to have the disposal of life and death through their sacred ceremonies…  Their whole worship was one of slavish fear; and, so far as ever I could learn, they had no idea of a God of mercy or grace.”  (Autobiography, p. 69, 72, 334)

     Paton admitted that at times his heart wavered as he wondered whether these people could be brought to the point of weaving Christian ideas into their lives.  But he took heart from the power of the gospel and from the fact that thousands on the island of Aneityum had come to Christ.

     Paton learned the language and reduced it to writing.  He built orphanages and schools.  They “trained teachers, translated and printed and expounded the Scriptures, ministered to the sick and dying, dispensed medicines every day, and taught them the use of tools.”  They held worship services every Lord’s Day and sent native teachers to all the villages to preach the gospel.

     In the next fifteen years, John and Margaret Paton saw the entire island of Aniwa turn to Christ.  Paton published the New Testament in the Aniwan Language in 1897.   Even to his death he was translating hymns and catechisms and creating a dictionary for his people for when he could not be with them any more.

     In 1887 Paton wrote:  “On our New Hebrides, more than 12,000 Cannibals have been brought to sit at the feet of Christ, though I mean not to say that they are all model Christians; and 133 of the Natives have been trained and sent forth as teachers and preachers of the Gospel.”

     Today, about 85% of the population of Vanuatu identifies itself as Christian.

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Psalm 65:5  —  You answer us with awesome and righteous deeds, God our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

Isaiah 42:10  —  Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you islands, and all who live in them.

Isaiah 45:22  —  Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.

Matthew 9:36-38  —  When (Jesus) saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.  Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

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God of truth and love; Father Son and Holy Spirit, hear our prayer for those who do not know you; that they may come to a saving knowledge of the truth and that your name may be praised among all peoples of the world.  Sustain, inspire and enlighten your servants who bring them the Gospel.  Bring fresh vigor to wavering faith; sustain our faith when it is still fragile.  Continually renew missionary zeal in ourselves and in the Church; raise up new missionaries who will follow You to the ends of the world.  Make us witnesses to Your goodness; full of love, strength and faith; for Your glory and the salvation of the entire world.   Amen

–Orthodox Christian Mission Center

346) Prayers for When You are Old and Tired

From LIVING WITH PURPOSE IN A WORN-OUT BODY: Spiritual Encouragement for Older Adults;  © 2008 Missy Buchanan, Upper Room Books, available at  www.upperroom.org

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     ‘Just here.’  That’s how I feel today.  I’m just here.  Stalled out.  Little more than taking up space.  It seems I’m just marking time until you are ready to take me home, God.  Going through the motions of living without really being alive.  Marching in the same place over and over, day after day.  Going nowhere.  Just here.  Lord, help me wrestle with this sluggish depression.  Sweep away my gloomy spirit.  Change the way I see life.  Let me find the tiny ray of sunlight that pierces the darkest clouds.  I will glorify you one day at a time, one hour at a time.  Blessed be the name of the Lord who lifts me from the abyss of ‘Just Here.’  (p. 47)

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     Sometimes I wonder if long life is really a gift.  Bone-tired and weak, I can’t even open a jar of jelly.  I feel so useless.  Then I begin to think of the many blessings long life has provided.  I have watched children and grandchildren grow from chubby-cheeked toddlers to remarkable adults.  Tears of joy have filled my eyes at countless graduations and weddings.  My life has been chockful of Christmas mornings and summer vacations.  These are the special gifts of a long life.  Tender memories that make me rich beyond measure.  It’s true I have known heights and depths, both joy and heartache.  But through it all, you have been faithful.  May the footprints I leave behind my long life guide others to you.  I accept today as yet another gift.  I will open it with a grateful heart knowing I have purpose in this day.  To thine be the glory!  (p. 61)

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    Homesick at ninety-two?  Being homesick makes sense for a seven-year old child leaving for camp.  But I am very old.  Why am I so restless for home?  I believe it’s because you made me that way, God.  You created me with an earthly body but a heavenly spirit that yearns to be with you.   This world is not my home.  Not really.  I can recall every nook and cranny of the old home place.  It’s where I raised my family and stood at the kitchen sink.  Those vivid memories bring comfort and joy.  But as wonderful as it was, heaven is better.  You promise it is beyond my imagination, a place where pain and worry do not exist.  On some days I wonder how much longer, God.  It seems I’m taking the long way home.  But it’s been quite a journey…  And it’s not over yet.  Let there be praise on my lips and worship in my heart.  (p. 88)

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     When you get to be my age, you’re supposed to have it all figured out, or at least that’s what I used to think.  I don’t think that anymore.  There are moments when I believe and doubt at the same time.  I suppose some of us old folks are just too proud to admit we have doubts, especially about the hard questions of life.  Why do innocent babies die and wicked people get rich?  If you love me so much, why have you brought me to this painful season?  There were times in my life when I thought you would work in a certain way, but you didn’t.  A loved one was not cured.  A career was never realized.  A dream was not fulfilled.  Sometimes I hear people spew all the right answers about you, but they frighten me more than occasional doubts.  O Lord, give me authentic faith.  Real, nitty-gritty faith for moments when I doubt.  I believe.  Help thou my unbelief.  (p. 90)

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     They say every good story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end…  For my own life story, the beginning and middle were written years ago, but not the final chapters.  So far, it’s been an interesting story with twist and turns in the plot.  And if I look carefully, I see evidence of your faithfulness written on every page.  Lord, I still don’t know how the last few paragraphs will unfold.  I’m not sure when I will draw my final breath.  But I do know for certain, the story won’t end there.  Your promise of eternal life gives real meaning to the fairy-tale ending:  “And they lived happily ever after.”  (p. 69)

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Psalm 42:11   —   Why are you downcast, O my soul?  Why so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. 

Philippians 1:3-6   —   I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  

I Corinthians 2:9   —   However, as it is written:  “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” 

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Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.   Abide with us, for the days are hastening on, and we hasten with them, and our life is short and transient as a dream.   Abide with us, for we are weak and helpless, and if thou abide not with us, we perish by the way.   Abide with us, until the morning light of our resurrection day, when we shall abide forever with thee.   Amen.     –James Burns

345) Jesus Carried Our Sorrows (part two of two)

     (continued…)  Genesis 6:5-6:  “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time, and the Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”  Already, a mere five chapters after the story of the creation of the world, God was suffering over his creation.  So God decided to end it all with a flood, but, the story goes on to say, ‘Noah had found favor with the Lord.’  So God decided to try again.  But again, it was a disappointment, as God’s children continued to sin and turn away from God and hurt each other.  And like any earthly parent, God grieved over the suffering of his children.

     In Hosea chapter 11 we are told that God’s anger was again aroused:  “My people are determined to turn away from me, and I am ready to put an end to all their plans.”  But then God said, “How can I do that?  How can I give them up?  My heart is changed within me and my compassion is aroused.”  And so God decided that he will not carry out his fierce anger against them, but would let them survive.  But God would continue to suffer on account of them.  And to illustrate his suffering love, God told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute and to love her and to stay with her no matter what.  Hosea did marry the prostitute and she continued to do what prostitutes do.  Nevertheless, Hosea remained faithful to her, and as you can imagine, he suffered on account of her unfaithfulness.  She abandoned her family, wrecked her life, and ended up as a slave.  Even then Hosea was faithful, and he bought her from the slave market and took her home.  Again she left.  It was an ongoing soap opera and public scandal for that man whom God had called to be a preacher.  Hosea’s suffering love in the face of his wife’s unfaithfulness became a living illustration of God’s suffering love in the face of his people’s unfaithfulness.

     Perhaps you know how painful it is to watch someone you love ruin their life with reckless behavior as they reject your love and concern.  The verses from Hosea and Genesis are just two of many from the Old Testament, and the same theme carries on into the New Testament.  In Matthew 23:37 Jesus said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who God sends to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks, but you were not willing.”

      What does all this have to do with Jesus on the cross?  Jesus was the eternal Son of God who had come to earth as a person.  He, with the Father in heaven, had suffered through all the centuries of man’s disobedience and rebellion.  When he suffered and died for us on the cross, those physical sufferings were simply making visible and clear the pain and anguish that had always been going on in the heart of God since he first created Adam and Eve.  Yes, that anguish of body and those physical wounds on Good Friday were only for a day for Jesus, but they bore witness to a suffering in the heart of God that continues to this day.  What does it mean that Jesus died on the cross for our sins?  It means that he carried our sorrows, says Isaiah 53:4.

     Every once in a while we see on the news the story of yet another college student who died after a night of drinking.  We see on the television the anguish of the parents who lost a son or a daughter for whom they had such high hopes.  ‘He was so talented,’ they say, ‘so gifted;’ or, ‘she had such a bright future ahead of her.’  They probably had reason to worry even before their child’s death, perhaps already having had dozens of sleepless nights, or even years of anguish.  The child was out having fun.  The parents were carrying the sorrows that he or she had caused.  They were suffering over the loss of the child’s potential and future.  The child did not even know enough yet to know what they were throwing away.  This is the story of many parents and their children, and so it is when we disobey God.  God does forgive our sins, but not without carrying our sorrow in his own heart.

     The priest in the story I began with was right about only one aspect of his suffering.  He had suffered more days of physical pain that Jesus; but he had not, like Jesus, suffered in his heart for thousands of years over the sin and sufferings of billions of his children.

     The cross shows us what has always been going on in the heart of God.

Crucifixion, Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross 1633

Rembrandt painted himself in the center of the painting (with beret) illustrating that he, like all sinners, was responsible for Christ’s suffering and death.

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Hosea 1:2-3  —  When the Lord began to speak through Hosea, the Lord said to him, “Go, take to yourself an adulterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord.”  So he married Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

Hosea 3:1-5  —  The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress.  Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods…”  So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver…  Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.”  For the Israelites will live many days without king or prince, without sacrifice or sacred stones, without ephod or idol.  Afterward the Israelites will return and seek the Lord their God and David their king.  They will come trembling to the Lord and to his blessings in the last days. 

Hosea 11:8-9  —  (God said), “How can I give you up, Ephraim?  How can I hand you over, Israel?…  My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused.  I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. “

Isaiah 53:4a  —  Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows… 

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Dear God, you have overwhelmed me with many adversities and have enabled me to clearly see your wrath.  But cease now in afflicting me, O Lord, for you have troubled me enough, and have sufficiently pressed, burdened and humiliated me.  Graciously turn to me again in mercy, and show me how gentle you are, so that you may bring comfort to my troubled heart.  Amen.  –Martin Luther