415) Judgment and Punishment for Sin

From The Imitation of Christ (chapter 24) by Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471)

     In all things look to the end.  How you shall stand before the strict Judge from whom nothing is hidden and who will pronounce judgment in all justice, accepting neither bribes nor excuses (Hebrews 10:31)?  Oh, wretched and foolish sinner, who fears even the wrath of an angry man, what answer will you make to the God who knows all your sins?  Why do you not provide for yourself against the day of judgment, when no man can be excused or defended by another, because each will have enough to do to answer for himself?  It is in this life that your work is profitable, your tears acceptable, your groaning audible, your sorrow satisfying and purifying.

     You must, therefore, take care and repent of your sins now so that on the day of judgment you may rest secure.  For on that day the just will stand firm against those who tortured and oppressed them.  The poor and humble will have great confidence, while the proud will be struck with fear.  He who learned to be a fool in this world and to be scorned for Christ will then appear to have been wise (I Corinthians 4:10).

     In that day every trial borne in patience will be pleasing, and the voice of iniquity will be stilled (Psalm 107:42).  Then, the devout will be glad; the irreligious will mourn; and the disciplined body will rejoice far more than if it had been pampered with every pleasure.  Then the cheap garment will shine with splendor and the rich one will have become faded and worn; and the poor cottage will be more praised than the gilded palace.  In that day persevering patience will count more than all the power in this world; simple obedience will be exalted above all worldly cleverness; a good and clean conscience will gladden the heart of man far more than the philosophy of the learned; and contempt for riches will be of more weight than every treasure on earth.

     Then you will find more consolation in having prayed devoutly than in having fared daintily; you will be happy that you preferred silence to prolonged gossip.  Then holy works will be of greater value than many fair words.  Then, a strict life and severe discipline will be more pleasing than all earthly delights.  Learn, then, to suffer little things now, so that you may not have to suffer greater ones in eternity.  If you can suffer only a little now, and that makes you impatient, how will you be able to endure eternal torment?

     If your life to this moment has been full of honors and pleasures, what good would all that do if at this instant you should die?  All is vanity, therefore, except to love God and to serve Him alone (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:13,14).  He who loves God with all his heart does not fear death or punishment or judgment or hell, because perfect love assures access to God.  It is no wonder that he who still delights in sin, fears death and judgment.  It is good, however, that even if love does not as yet restrain you from evil, at least the fear of hell does.  The man who casts aside the fear of God cannot continue long in goodness but will quickly fall into the snares of the devil.

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Hebrews 10:31  —  It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Psalm 107:42-43  —  The upright see and rejoice, but all the wicked shut their mouths.  Whoever is wise, let him heed these things and consider the great love of the Lord.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14  —  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

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O Merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity, who sparest when we deserve punishment, and in thy wrath thinkest upon mercy; make me earnestly repent, and heartily to be sorry for all my misdoings.  Make the remembrance of my sins so burdensome and painful, that I may flee to Thee with a troubled spirit and a contrite heart.  And, O merciful Lord, visit, comfort, and relieve me; cast me not out of thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me, but excite in me true repentance.  Give me in this world knowledge of thy truth, and confidence in thy mercy; and in the world to come life everlasting, for the sake of our Lord and Savior, thy Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.  –Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

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414) Memorial Day Remembrance and Gratitude

For many years (until 1971) Memorial Day was observed on this day, May 30th.  Today’s meditation is on the theme of gratitude to God for our nation and the freedoms we have here, and for those who have served and died to protect and preserve that nation and freedom.  The reading is by Devin Foley, from:  www.intellectualtakeout.org  May 26, 2014

“The American people ought to be able to see their own boys as they fall in battle; to come directly and without words into the presence of their own dead.”

   That sentence was LIFE magazine’s justification for publishing this photo by George Strock that documents the carnage at the Battle of Buna-Gona in the South Pacific during World War II.  The publication occurred after many months of censorship and only after receiving President Roosevelt’s consent.  It is most likely the first photo of dead American soldiers published during World War II.

     As a boy I was mesmerized by the photo and even by its censorship, both of which I learned of in a book my grandfather gave me.  He was a World War II vet who was stationed in the South Pacific.

     The photo and its censorship, as well as Audie Murphy’s book To Hell and Back, helped me see that war is not the grand adventure that little boys often imagine it to be.  No, war is something awful.  Men die in faraway and lonely places in unimaginably cruel ways.  War may be necessary, but it should not be sought.

     Now that I am a father I also see that, behind those boys on the beach, there are mothers and fathers, probably sisters and brothers, and maybe even wives and children.  Those three bodies represent not just the loss of three American boys, but also an unknown number of wounded and grieving souls.  The sacrifice was great and it was shared by many.

     I have been blessed beyond measure to inherit a free country because others have fought and many have died.  I wonder if I live a life worthy of such an inheritance since it is so easy to take for granted.  It is easy too, to think back only to past wars and particularly to the “good war” on Memorial Day.

     But even now, young Americans are giving their lives.  While we have been shopping and going about our daily lives for the past decade, young Americans have been dying.

     Though we the living may have disagreements about the justice or wisdom of the current or past wars, let us not use them as excuses to forget the dead who gave their lives, hoping to do right by protecting their families, friends, brothers-in-arms, communities, and country.  Let us also not forget our wounded and those who still grieve.

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Isaiah 2:3-4  —  Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
    so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
    the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.”

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Gracious, Sovereign God, Lord of all nations,

On this Memorial Day, we pause to reflect upon our blessings as a nation and the high cost of those blessings.  We offer our prayers of thanks and intercession.

Thank you for the freedom we enjoy in this country, for opportunities to flourish, and for the security of our land.

Thank you for those who have served in the armed services of our country, risking their lives for our liberty.

Thank you for those who have given their lives in service to our country, sacrificing in such a costly way for the sake of others, including me.  Thank you for those who have given their lives so that those who live in other countries might experience freedom from tyranny.

Thank you for a day set apart, not just for celebration, but also for solemn remembrance as we consider the sacrifices of so many in our military.

O Lord, may we be more aware of just how blessed we are as a nation.  May we be more grateful for our blessings, more faithful in stewarding them well, more eager to share them with others.

We pray today for the families and friends of those who have given their lives in service to our nation.  May they be comforted in their sadness.  May they be reassured that the sacrifice of their loved ones contributes to a worthy cause.  May they be proud of those they have lost, entrusting their ultimate fate into your gracious hands.

Even as we remember those who have given their lives in the past, we also think of those whose lives are on the line today.  Protect them.  Encourage them.  Bring them home safely… and soon.

Give wisdom to the leaders of our armed services, that they might know how best to deploy the troops in the cause of freedom.  May their efforts be successful, so that peace with justice might be established in our world.

Guide those who lead our nation in international affairs.  Help them to pursue diplomatic paths that prevent needless conflict.  May they have your wisdom about when and how to use the military might you have entrusted to us.

God of peace, stir in the hearts of the leaders of all nations and in all who would use violence to further their cause.  Change their hearts and minds.  Give them a passion for peace.  Bring an end to the pain, suffering, injustice, and violence in our world.

We know, dear Lord, that ultimate peace will not come until your kingdom is here in all of its fullness.  Nevertheless, we pray for a foretaste of the future.  We ask for the growth of peace throughout our world today, so that fewer and fewer men and women will have to risk and even to sacrifice their lives.  We long for the day when people will “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

May your kingdom come, Lord, and your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven!

All praise be to you, God of grace, God of mercy, God of justice, God of peace, King of kings, and Lord of lords!  Amen.

–Mark D. Roberts at http://www.highcalling.org  May 26, 2014

413) The Creation

by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938); From God’s Trombones, 1927;

based on 19th century African-American preaching

For a great video of this poem by Wintley go to:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-h4_VPXdoY

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely–
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down–
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas–
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed–
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled–
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down–
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.  Amen.

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Genesis 1:1-3  —  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 

Genesis 1:31a  —  God saw all that he had made, and it was very good…

Genesis 2:7  —  The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. 

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A PRAYER OF THANKFULNESS FOR CREATION  by Walter Rauschenbusch:
O God, we thank you for this universe, our great home; for its vastness and its riches, and for the abundance of the life which teems upon it and of which we are part.  We praise thee for the arching sky and the blessed winds, for the driving clouds and the stars on high.  We praise thee for the salt sea and the running water, for the everlasting hills, for the trees, and for the grass under our feet.  We thank you for our senses by which we can see the splendor of the morning, hear the jubilant songs of love, and smell the breath of the springtime.  Grant us, we pray, a heart wide open to all this joy and beauty.  Save our souls from being so steeped in care or so darkened by passion that we pass heedless and unseeing when even the thorn bush by the wayside is aflame with the glory of God.  AMEN.

412) What is the Purpose of a Dog?

          It has long been said that a dog is man’s best friend.  It is also said that if you live and work in Washington D.C., and you want to have a friend, buy a dog.  What that means is that if you want a loyal and true friend in that city which is so filled with human greed, ambition, disloyalty, and lies, you will have to find such friendship in a dog.  I don’t know what it is like to live in Washington DC, but isn’t that the truth about dogs?  Dogs are great!  As columnist Dave Barry wrote, our dogs love us and look up to us; you can say any foolish thing to your dog, and still, your dog will look up into your eyes with an admiring look that seems to say, “Wow, you are right, I never would have thought of that!”  If you google ‘dog quotes’ you will find all sorts of grateful tributes to these wonderful animals.  Here are a few I found.  Andy Rooney says, ‘The average dog is a nicer person than the average person.’  Ben Williams says, ‘There is no psychiatrist in the world like a puppy licking your face.’  Another writes this tribute:  ‘We give dogs time we can spare, space we can spare, and love we can spare; and in return, dogs give us their all— it is the best deal man has ever made.’  Finally, this one from Will Rogers– ‘If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die, I want to go where they went.’  I still want to go to heaven, but I understand what he is saying.

     Most of you have no doubt gotten to know a dog or two in your lifetime, and so you can probably relate to this well-deserved praise of these ‘best friends.’  The whole country would agree.  There are 75 million pet dogs in the United States.

     However, different cultures have had different views on dogs.  I don’t know a single person of my acquaintance who would consider eating a dog, but in China that is very acceptable.  In Bible times, while dogs were never on the menu, neither were they considered man’s best friend.  There are many references in the Bible to dogs, but not ever in the sense of any kind of warm relationship between people and dogs.  Dogs are around, but usually spoken of negatively.  There are only two passages that even hint at them being around the house.  In one passage they are eating the crumbs that fall from the table, and in another passage they are licking the wounds of a man,– but even in those places it doesn’t say they are wanted or appreciated.  In all other places, dogs are just referred to as we might refer to a raccoon or a coyote– an animal we are familiar with, but not as a friend or companion or pet.  When used figuratively in the Bible, the word dog is always used in a negative sense– enemies and wicked people are called dogs.

     With these differences in mind, we might wonder What is the purpose of a dog?  The purpose of cows and chickens and pigs is to give us something to eat.  If they did not serve that purpose, there would not be nearly as many of them bred and raised.  In this country, we certainly do not see that as the purpose of dogs– but what purpose do they serve?  They used to help on the farm, but most dogs now are not farm dogs.  They might help out as a watch dog and some use them for hunting; but I would guess most of the well fed and pampered dogs in America do none of that.  I know that our dog Morgan did absolutely nothing around the house, and she was often times a bit of a bother.  She contributed nothing to the finances, she did not do her fair share of household chores, and she did not even take care of herself– we had to feed her, bathe her, and let her outside.  All she did was sleep and eat and beg for treats.  Nancy and I survived just fine without her in the years before we had her, and now, since she died.  She was not at all essential to our physical life or well being.

     However, Morgan was a loving companion, and it was a joy to come home and be greeted by her at the door; to have her sit on our lap while watching TV; to see how excited she would get when we say ‘let’s go for a walk’; and, to see how much she appreciated the cheerios or carrots she would get for snacks.  Morgan had lots of love to give, appreciated everything, and was always a good friend– and that is purpose enough for a dog.  And now we miss her presence.  She added so much to our lives.

     I said all that about dogs to get you in mind for a bigger question, a question about people.  In the same way as we might ask about the purpose of a dog, on another level we could just as well ask, what is the purpose of a person?  What is your purpose?  You were created by God, but what for?  Just like I didn’t need a dog, God doesn’t need you or me to do anything for him.  God is self-sufficient and does not need anything. We serve no practical purpose for God, and God could get along quite nicely without any of us.

     And, just like a dog can be a bother, the human race has been a huge burden and bother for God.  The whole Bible can be read as the story of God’s frustration with the people he created.  Again and again God attempts to call his people back to the goodness he created them for, and again and again those attempts are resisted.

     The first chapter of Genesis tells the story of God creating the world, and in so doing, God created a home for us.  In a sense, that is what we do for our pets.  If we were not willing to create a home and a place for our pets, most would not be born.  If millions of people were not making the decision to have pet dogs, many dogs would not be bred for sale– or in other words, they would not exist.  In Genesis God is creating a home for the people that he will create next.  He would not call us his pets, but his children.  In many ways, the purpose is much the same.  God is not creating us out of need, no more than most pets are purchased for basic needs.  But God created us because of a desire to give us the gift of life, and then, to be in a good relationship with us.  It is to God’s great disappointment, anger, and grief that we so often ignore the relationship and are not loyal,– just as it would disappoint us if our dog would do nothing but growl at us, ignore us, or run away from us.  God sent His son Jesus Christ to earth to restore the relationship, and Jesus was put on a cross.  And while we do not put Jesus on a cross in person, we too cause Jesus to suffer when we disobey him, fail to put our faith and trust in Him, or forget to pay him the attention he deserves and demands.  In all of this, we could learn a great deal from our dogs.

     Many years ago a man named William Doane wrote a poem about his dog Cluny.

I am quite sure Cluny thinks that I am God,
Since it is God on whom each one depends
For life and all things that his bounty sends,
And it is I who does all that for Cluny.
My dear old dog is the most steady of all friends
Not always quick to mind me, but quicker far than I
Am to mind the God that I know.
His eye, deep and brown, watches for my nod
And he is patient when I must punish with the rod
More patient than I am, when God,
his wise correction sends.
He looks with love at me, as deep as if he spake
And never from my hand even a crumb does he take
Without wagging his thanks, with his most vocal tail.
And if some crashing sound awakes his fear
He is content and quiet if I am near,
Trusting in my protection.
So, faithful, mindful, thankful, trustful, he
Tells me what I unto my God should be.

     If we could only be as loyal and faithful thankful to God as our dogs are to us, says Doane.  We are beings far above our dogs in intellect and ability and spirit, and yet we do connect with our dogs.  We are able build a relationship that can still bring tears to our eyes for years after the old dog is gone.  God is a being far above us, but God says we can know and love him, and create and maintain a relationship that will last unto all eternity; if we but give Him the opportunity.

     We are probably a bit of a mystery to our dogs; speaking a language they don’t understand, coming and going but they know not where or for how long, and sometimes returning with the smell of another dog on our clothes.  I am sure they wonder about all of that, just like we wonder and question many things about God.  But even without complete understanding, dogs are faithful, they trust us, they love us, and they show that love with enthusiasm.

     Let us love God as our dogs love us; or, best of all, in the words of John in the Bible, “We love, because God first loved us” (I John 4:19).

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Genesis 1:1…26…27  —  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…  Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…  So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

The culture in Bible times did not have much love or respect for dogs, but God is not opposed to us learning a thing or two from lesser creatures.  After all, the Proverbs tells us that we can learn a thing or two from the ants.  It says, “Go to the ant, you lazy fool,– consider its ways and be wise– for even the ants work to store up provisions for the winter” (paraphrased from Proverbs 6:6-11).  If we can learn from watching the ants, we can certainly learn from watching our dogs.

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Mechtild of Magdeburg was a Catholic nun who lived 800 years ago.  Only a few scraps of her writings survive, including this brief prayer that she prayed during a time of profound loss and affliction.  She prayed, “Lord, you have taken from me all that I had received from you; but now, of your grace, I pray that you leave me the gift which every dog has by nature; that of being true to their Master in their distress.  Let me, O Lord, be true to you, even though I am now deprived of all consolation.”

411) Do Our Pets Go to Heaven?

SO I WONDER

My old dog died yesterday.  Broke me up.

Blubbered to my kids on the phone.

You know, Lord, that dog loved me. 

Never thought I was a failure, like some folks.

So I wonder, do dogs go to heaven?

–Arthur O. Roberts in Prayers at Twilight.

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Heaven goes by favor (grace).  If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.

–Mark Twain

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     The Bible says nothing about any sort of animal going to heaven, so the Christian can have no false hopes about a guaranteed reunion with their beloved pets.  There is, however, that interesting little detail in the Old Testament book of Jonah in which even the beasts, herds, and flocks are a part of the repentant fasting of the Ninevites as they seek to avoid God’s judgment (3:7-8); and then, along with the people, the cattle also receive the grace of God and are spared by His mercy, which God himself points out to Jonah (4:11).  Granted, this is not much to go on, since it is only the earthly lives of the people and cattle which are extended.  But we can say, as the king says in Jonah 3:9, “Who knows?”  And we certainly can, with W. M. Letts in the poem below, commend our beloved pets’ spirit to the care of the God who gave them life in the first place.

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TO SCOTT ( a collie, for nine years our friend)

by W. M. Letts

Old friend, your place is empty now.  No more
Shall we obey the imperious deep-mouthed call
That begged the instant freedom of our hall.
We shall not trace your foot-fall on the floor
Nor hear your urgent paws upon the door.
The loud-thumped tail that welcomed one and all,
The volleyed bark that nightly would appall
Our tim’rous errand boys– these things are oe’r.
But always yours shall be a household name,
And other dogs must list’ your storied fame;
So gallant and so courteous, Scott, you were,
Mighty abroad, at home most debonair.
Now God Who made you will not count it blame
That we commend your spirit to His care.

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TIM, AN IRISH TERRIER

by W. M. Letts

It’s wonderful dogs they’re breeding now:
Small as a flea or large as a cow;
But my old lad Tim he’ll never be bet
By any dog that ever he met.
“Come on,” says he, “for I’m not kilt yet…”
But he’d stick to me till his last breath;
An’ he’d go with me to the gates of death.
He’d wait for a thousand years, maybe,
Scratching the door an’ whining for me
If myself were inside in Purgatory.
So I laugh when I hear them make it plain
That dogs and men never meet again.
For all their talk who’d listen to them,
With the soul in the shining eyes of him?
Would God be wasting a dog like Tim?

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MY DOG

by Anna Hadley Middlemas in The Boston Evening Transcript

He’s just plain yellow: no “blue-ribbon” breed.
In disposition– well, a trifle gruff
Outside his “tried and true.”  His coat is rough.
To bark at night and sleep by day, his creed.
Yet, when his soft brown eyes so dumbly plead
For one caress from my too-busy hand,
I wonder from what far and unknown land
Came the true soul, which in his gaze I read.
Whence all his loyalty and faithful zeal?
Why does he share my joyous mood, and gay?
Why mourn with me, when I perchance to mourn?
When hunger-pressed, why scorn a bounteous meal
That by my side he may pursue his way?
Whence came his noble soul, and where its bourn?

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AN OLD DOG

by Celia Duffin in The London Spectator

Now that no shrill hunting horn
Can arouse me at the morn,
Deaf I lie the long day through,
Dreaming firelight dreams of you;
Waiting, patient through it all,
Till the greater Huntsman call.
If we are, as people say,
But the creatures of a day,
Let me live, when we must part,
A little longer in your heart.
You were the God I knew,
I was faithful unto you.
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     Coco was a Chocolate Labrador Retriever.  She was the runt of her litter, the last one to find a home, which she shared with us for seven and a half years.  Her death, which resulted from an apparent heart attack in our living room, was a shock to all of us.  “Go out and get another puppy right now,” a friend advised.  He may be right, but somehow that doesn’t seem fair to Coco.  Even in death, she is entitled to dominate our memories for a decent period of mourning.  So far as I know that is the only immortality she will ever have.  Someday, I would be happy to discover otherwise.   –Rev. Dave Johnson, Prairie Parables, p. 47

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Luke 12:6  —  (Jesus said), “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.”

Genesis 9:16  —  Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.

Mark 16:15  —  And Jesus said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.

Revelation 5:13  —  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:  “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

1 Corinthians 2:9  —  …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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Almighty God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our little brothers, to whom you have given this earth as their home in common with us.  May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for thee, and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve thee in their place.  AMEN.  –Walter Rauschenbusch
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O God, my Master, should I gain the grace

To see you face to face, when life is ended, 

Grant that a little dog, who once pretended

That I was God, may see me face to face.

–Francis Jammes  (1868-1938), French poet and novelist, prayer translated by B. C. Boulter

—–

 Morgan

October 2000 – November 2009

410) “In Chains for Christ”

     A previous meditation (#395) described the tremendous growth of the Christian church in China.  Under Mao ZeDong persecution of the church was widespread and brutal, and today Christians in many areas are far freer to practice their faith than 30 years ago.  But many restrictions continue to exist, and persecution, even severe, is quite common.  It is sporadic and it may be at the whim of local leaders, but it is a reality for many Chinese believers.  The following reports tell of just one of these instances of persecution, and what it describes is typical of the faith, courage, and resilience of the Chinese Christians.  These men were arrested and imprisoned for attempting to open a Christian bookstore for which they had already received the required license.  Yet their reaction is not to despair, but to see it as an opportunity for evangelism, as are proclaiming the Gospel to their fellow prisoners.  

     These stories are from the Voice of the Martyrs website at http://www.persecution.com .  VOM is an organization that helps to support and aid persecuted Christians around the world, along with working to make their plight known.  For a good report on the persecution of Christians in China to go:

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/february-web-only/persecution-in-china-is-very-real.html?paging=off

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Photo - Wenxi Li

     A Christian bookstore employee, Wenxi Li, and another man associated with the bookstore, Lacheng Ren, were arrested and sentenced to prison terms for their role in the Enyu Bookstore in Taiyuan.  On June 17, 2013, Wenxi Li was sentenced to two years in prison by the court of Xiaodian district of Taiyuan in central China.

     In 2012, Wenxi Li, a book store worker in Beijing, traveled to Shanxi province to help local Christians there open a new book store in the capital city of Taiyuan.  But police raided the new business and confiscated hundreds of books that Wenxi had brought with him from Beijing.

     According to the South China Morning Post, one security worker allegedly shouted at Wenxi and his co-workers, “Don’t you dare bring Christian culture here.  This is our turf.”

     On Dec. 19, 2012, Wenxi was asked to come to a police station to retrieve the $6,000 worth of books that police had seized.  But when he arrived at the police station, he was immediately arrested and sent to prison.  Police were quoted as saying Wenxi was denied bail because of the seriousness of his “crime.”

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     Wenxi Li’s wife, Cai Hong Li, said police told her that her husband was arrested because he was involved in an “illegal business.”  However, Cai Hong said the bookstore had a legal license to operate and that her husband was not involved with managing the business.  He was “just sent to find a rental place for a new store,” Cai Hong said.

     Since her husband’s arrest, Cai Hong’s only visit with her husband occurred in January 2014.  She said, “He is doing well and is able to read the Bible in jail, which is amazing.”

China

     Although he is in prison, Wenxi is still able to do the very thing authorities tried to prevent him from doing — share the Gospel.  While awaiting trial, he led three prisoners to Christ.  When Cai Hong visited in January, he excitedly told the family that several more prisoners had committed their lives to the Lord as a result of his prison evangelism.

     Cai Hong told our partners that she is content that God is using a bad situation for His good purposes, even though the family has faced a lot of hardship as a result of her husband’s imprisonment.  “I don’t think my husband being in prison is a miserable thing,” she said, “I have already come through the hardest time.”

     Last year, the couple’s daughter was in an accident and had to be hospitalized.  “At that time, I cried out to God and ask him why all these things were happening to our family.  He spoke to me through the verse:  ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ (2 Corinthians 12:9).”

     When VOM partners asked if she had specific practical needs, Cai Hong said that her church is providing an allowance that meets the family’s requirements.  The support not only relieves worry about meeting her daily needs, but it also reassures her children about their father.  “My children know that their father is in prison, but I tell them that he has done nothing wrong.  The church takes good care of us.”

     “We have never lacked anything,” she said, because God’s grace has been sufficient.  The one thing Cai Hong desires most is that her Christian brothers and sisters support her family through prayer.  “Prayer is the most precious thing.”

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Photo - Lacheng Ren

     Lacheng Ren is the other man jailed in connection with the opening of a Christian bookstore in Taiyuan.  Shortly after Wenxi was arrested, Lancheng Ren was arrested at his home.  Lancheng Ren is not an employee of the bookstore, but is one of the founders.   On June 17, 2013, Lacheng Ren was sentenced to five years in prison.

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Philippians 1:12-14…29-30  —  (Paul, writing from a prison cell):  Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.  As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.  And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear…  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.

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

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We beg you, Lord, to help and defend us.  Deliver the oppressed, have compassion on the despised, raise the fallen, reveal yourself to the needy, heal the sick, bring back those who have strayed from you, feed the hungry, lift up the weak, remove the prisoners’ chains.  May every nation come to know that you are God alone, that Jesus is your Son, that we are your people, the sheep of your pasture.

–Clement of Rome (??-99 A. D.)

409) The Black Mass… and the Rest of the Story

 Adapted from The Furious Love of God: A Story Behind the Black Mass by Eric Metaxas, May 23, 2014, at:

 www.breakpoint.org May 23, 2014

      As you may have heard, a club at Harvard had planned to reenact a “black mass” at the university’s Memorial Hall.

     For those of you unfamiliar with the idea of a “black mass,” my friend Timothy George, writing in First Things, sums it up nicely:  “A black mass is a grotesque, sacrilegious ceremony in which the most sacred rite of the Catholic Church is deliberately mocked.  Satan and his pomp are invoked, often in Latin, and a consecrated Eucharistic host is desecrated, often in vulgar, revolting ways.”

      The reenactment was the idea of the Cultural Studies Club of Harvard Extension School.  Naturally, the people sponsoring the event denied any intent to denigrate anyone’s religious beliefs but, instead to “learn and experience the history of different cultural practices.”  The goal of the “performance,” they said, was to “explore religious facets that continue to influence contemporary culture.”

      Right.  That prompted Father Francis X. Clooney, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, to ask “What’s next?”

     Given the precedent set by the proposed black mass, Clooney wondered if we could look forward to “a public burning of the Qu’ran,” for example, or “a group of hooded Kluxers reenacting a mock lynching next to the statue of John Harvard,” or “a ceremony mocking gay marriage,” or “a group of neo-Nazis proposing to summon the spirit of Adolf Hitler from the dead.”

     The answer is of course not.  Christian beliefs are fair game in ways that other people’s beliefs aren’t.

     And let’s be clear, while the proposed reenactment parodied a specifically Catholic form of the receiving the sacrament, all orthodox Christian beliefs and practices are potential targets for parody and desecration.  Christians may differ on what happens during the words of institution, but we agree that Holy Communion was instituted by our Lord and that, as Paul told the Corinthians, “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  Sobering words, indeed.

     In the end, the reaction of Christians and non-believers alike led to the cancellation of the proposed reenactment.  However, there were plenty of people who thought that allowing the reenactment to take place was a test of Harvard’s commitment to freedom of speech and thought.

     That the intended target was the object of what Philip Jenkins of Baylor once called the “last acceptable prejudice” in American life no doubt contributed to their commitment to freedom of speech in this instance.

     If that makes you angry, however, hold on.  Let me tell you a story about the man whose writings were to serve as the basis for the black mass being reenacted.

     The French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans was one of the most controversial writers of the late 19th century.  His book, Against Nature, was seen by many of his contemporaries as “decadent, pornographic, and vulgar.”  His subsequent book, The Damned, dealt with the subject of Satanism and served as the basis for the rite cooked up by the Satanic Temple that was going to hold the black mass at Harvard.

     Guess what happened after Huysmans wrote The Damned.  Well, he experienced a conversion, returned to the Catholic Church of his childhood, and died as a lay member of the Benedictine order!

     It’s a reminder that no one is beyond what G.K. Chesterton called the “furious love of God.”  It’s a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.

     The story of Joris-Karl Huysmans is a great example of why we Christians should extend that love even to those who denigrate us.

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Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907)

The young Huysmans once wrote:  “Worshiping the Devil is no more insane than worshiping God.”  Around 1895 his writing changed from what was called the ‘decadent’ literature of 19th century France, to books describing his conversion back to the Catholic faith of his childhood, and, a powerful defense of the Christian faith.  In his last days his eyes became diseased and it became necessary to sew his eyelids shut.  He considered this affliction to be a just punishment for the sins of his earlier years.

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Ephesians 2:13…17-18  — …In Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Colossians 1:21-23  —  Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.  But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.  This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

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Psalm 73:21-26  —  

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,

I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.  

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?  And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

408) Martin Luther’s Prayers for Pastors

martin luthers grave, martin luther biography

Martin Luther’s Pulpit in the Castle Church, Wittenberg, Germany

Luther’s tomb is at the base of the pulpit

O Lord, you see  how unworthy I am to fill so great and important an office.  Were it not for your counsel, I would have utterly failed in it long ago.  Therefore, I call upon you for guidance.  Gladly indeed will I give my heart and my voice to this service.  I want to teach the people.  I myself want constantly to seek and study your Word, and eagerly meditate upon it.  Use me as your instrument.  Only, dear Lord, do not forsake me; for if I am left alone, I will most certainly ruin everything.  Amen.

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Dear Lord God, grant me your grace so that I may rightly understand your Word, and more importantly, also do it.  Blessed Lord Jesus Christ, if my quest after knowledge does not glorify you alone, let me not know a single letter.  Give me only so much as I, a poor sinner, need to know to proclaim and glorify you.  Amen.

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Dear God, I have begun to preach and teach your people.  It is a difficult task.  If it offends here and there, may there be no harm done.  Since you have commanded me to preach your Word, I will not cease to do so.  If it fails, it fails for you.  If it succeeds, it succeeds for you.  Amen.

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O most precious God and Father, you have given me many valuable gifts…  If it be your will, I would gladly use these gifts to serve your little flock.  Let your divine and fatherly will be done, that your name may be praised, whether I live or die.  Amen.

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Lord, what you do not do remains undone.  If you will not help, I will gladly give it up.  The cause is not mine.  Therefore, I seek no glory in it.  I will cheerfully be your mask and disguise if only you will do the work.  Amen.

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LUTHER’S PRAYER BEFORE FACING THE EMPEROR AND CHURCH AUTHORITIES TO DEFEND HIMSELF IN 1521:  …O my God, stand by me against the wisdom and reason of all the world.  You alone must do it.  This is indeed not my affair, but yours.  I myself want nothing to do with these great lords of the world.  I would rather have quiet and peaceful days and be left undisturbed, out of this turmoil…  But this is indeed a righteous cause…, and you have called me to this.  O God, stand by me in the name of your dear Son, Jesus Christ who shall be my protector and defender.  Come, come.  I am ready like a patient lamb to lay down my life for this cause.  The world cannot force me to act against my conscience…  So help me God.  Amen.

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Ephesians 4:7…11-12  —  But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it…  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

I Corinthians 2:1-5  —  When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.  For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.

I Peter 5:1-3  —  To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed:  Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers– not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. 

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A PRAYER FOR ALL IN THE CHURCH:
Almighty and everlasting God, we pray first for the spiritual kingdom and the blessed Gospel ministry.  Give us devout and faithful preachers who will bring forth the treasure of your divine Word in its truth and purity.  Graciously guard us against heresies and divisions.  Look not upon our great ingratitude, for which we have long ago deserved that you should withdraw your Word from us.  Do not chastise us as severely as we deserve.  Let other calamities befall us, rather than deprive us of your precious Word.  Give to us thankful hearts that we may love your Word, prize it highly, hear it with reverence, and improve our lives accordingly.  May we not only understand your Word, but also meet its requirements by our deeds, live in accordance with it, and daily increase in faith and good works.  Amen.  –Martin Luther

407) Confirmation? Bah, Humbug!

     

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 From a confirmation sermon I gave a few years ago.

     What did Martin Luther (1483-1546) have to say about confirmation?  Confirmation is what we are here for today and our  congregation traces it roots to Martin Luther.  So what did Luther have to say about the Rite of Confirmation?

     Well, for the most part, he ignored it.  In all the 120 volumes of his writings, Luther says very little about it.

     However, when Luther does speak about the Rite of Confirmation, he has three very special words for it.  He calls it ‘gaukelwerk,’ which is German for ‘mumbo-jumbo’; he calls it ‘lugenstand,’ which is German for ‘fanciful deception’; and he calls it “affenspiel’–which is German for ‘monkey-business.’  Confirmation, according to Martin Luther is mumbo-jumbo, fanciful deception, and monkey business.  This is perhaps not what you expected.  But maybe Luther was having a bad day when he said those things and perhaps he did not really mean it.

     So let’s look instead at what the Book of Concord says.  The Book of Concord is the defining book of Lutheran doctrinal writings that came out of the Reformation.   It is understood by Lutherans of all brands to be an accurate interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, and, as an ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church, I am required to pledge my allegiance to this Book of Concord.   The various sections are written either by Luther himself or by his colleagues and successors, and it is, to this day, the widely accepted and respected book of basic Lutheran teachings.  It is the book that defines who we are as Lutherans and what we believe.  In 715 pages, the Book of Concord mentions confirmation only twice; once to say it is not necessary, and the other time to call it ‘humbug.’  Well then, what are we doing here?  I’ll get to that later.

     First of all, I have to tell you what else Martin Luther says.   You see, we use the same word, ‘confirmation,’ for two different things.  First of all, there is the ‘confirmation instruction,’ which our confirmands have been attending for the past three years; and then, there is the ‘Rite of Confirmation,’ which we are here for this morning.  The two are related, of course, but they are not the same thing.  Martin Luther and the Book of Concord had some problems with the Rite of Confirmation as it had come to be practiced in the Middle Ages.  But Martin Luther was very concerned about and in favor of confirmation instruction.  After all, he wrote the book for it, didn’t he?  He wrote the Small Catechism in 1529, and for the last five centuries young people have been studying those words, with their pastors and parents, in Lutheran churches around the world.  Martin Luther was primarily a teacher, and it was out of his classroom preparation that he began to develop the thoughts that led to the Reformation.  He was a teacher throughout his life, and his lectures and sermons now fill those 120 volumes of his collected works.  And at the heart of that tremendous output of Christian teaching is this one small piece that was most treasured by Luther himself and most widely used by Lutherans ever since; this Small Catechism which was written for the instruction of the young.

     So when Luther called confirmation ‘monkey business’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’ he was not referring to confirmation instruction, but to the Rite of Confirmation, a rite that in the Middle Ages had become for many people an empty ritual.  Luther wanted to emphasize the instruction, and he did so to such an extent that he chose to ignore, and even denounce the rite.  Those following Luther, a couple generations later, restored the use of the ritual, and it is for that ‘ritual’ that we gather here today.

     However, we do need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake that was made in the Middle Ages.  We have to be careful that we do not put the main emphasis HERE, on this day.  Sometimes, the confirmation instruction is seen by some as nothing more than a necessary evil one must endure in order to get to this day, and then be done with it all.  But that certainly does make it all monkey business and a fanciful deception.  If that is your approach, then it would be better to be honest about it and leave it alone entirely.  But for Luther, and for us too, this day must not be a graduation, but merely a step along the way, the continuing way of walking with Jesus.  It is a milestone, perhaps, but still just one step in a lifelong process of learning and living the faith.

     Now, to return to the question I asked earlier:  what are we doing here today?  The rite of confirmation, as we know it, is not mentioned by Jesus, it is not commanded anywhere in the Bible, and it was intentionally ignored and discarded by Martin Luther. As I said, it was later rediscovered by the Lutheran Church, polished off a bit and reinterpreted, and is now a part of a long and cherished tradition.  But now it has a different meaning than it had in the Middle Ages and it would be good for us to briefly review that meaning.

     The meaning of Confirmation has to do first of all with Baptism, Baptism which is a main event in the life of Lutheran Christians.  Baptism, unlike confirmation, is spoken of quite extensively in the New Testament, it IS specifically commanded by Jesus, and it receives a great deal of emphasis by Luther.  It is in Baptism, Luther says in the Small Catechism, that God “forgives sins, delivers from death and the devil , and gives eternal life to all who believe, as the word and promise of God declares.”  Confirmation adds nothing to that.  What more can be added?  We receive the entire promise of God right from the start.  So what is confirmation and what part does it have?

     The answer is in the name now given to confirmation in the Lutheran hymnal.  It is now called ‘Affirmation of Baptism.’  That is a good name to call it, because the name itself includes a proper definition of confirmation.  To affirm is to agree to or with something, to say YES to something.  In confirmation you say YES to what happened to you in your baptism.

     Each of this year’s confirmands was baptized as an infant.  Most Lutherans are.  And they did not know 14 years ago when they were baptized what was happening to them.  They understood no part of it.  But their parents and sponsors were there, and they spoke in the infant’s place.  For this reason, some people say Lutherans have it all wrong and we should not baptize infants who do not understand what is going on.  But is God’s ability to love and make promises any less than that of human parents?  Human parents love and care for and commit themselves to their baby long before that baby understands anything about what parents are or even calls them mommy and daddy.  In the same way, God gives his promises and love and care right from the start; and then God gives to parents and sponsors the job of making sure that the little one hears about God and hears about God’s promised future for him or her.  This takes place in bed-time prayers and Bible stories, in Sunday Schools lessons and church services, and then in confirmation instruction.  And then, after 14 years, you, the confirmand are ready to speak for yourself.  At the center of the confirmation service are the same four questions that are at the center of the baptism service.  At baptism, your parents and sponsors were asked, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?,” and they said, “I do.”  They were asked “Do you believe in God the Father?,” and they said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”  They were asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?… and.. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?”   They said, “I Believe… in Jesus Christ… I Believe…in the Holy Spirit” and so forth.  Now, at confirmation, instead of God giving you the promise as he already did in Baptism, now, in confirmation, YOU make a promise to continue to live in the promise God has given you, to continue in the faith that you were instructed in.

     Today the confirmands will answer the same four questions asked of their parents and sponsors 14 years ago, this time speaking for themselves, saying what amounts to, “Yes, I understand now what I did not understand before; and I realize that for a long time already I have been God’s child; and now I make my promise to remain faithful, never leaving or abandoning this faith given to me.”  Confirmation is not in any way a graduation from, or an end to, anything.  It is just the opposite.  It is a promise to continue.  When properly understood and honestly undertaken, confirmation is a wonderful opportunity to publicly thank God and affirm your faith in Him.  

     But if confirmation is in any way understood to be an end of anything, and if the promises are made without any intention of carrying through on them, then it is certainly a ‘fanciful deception’ and ‘monkey business.’  It is up to you which it will be.

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Proverbs 3:5,6 —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.

Colossians 2:6-7  —  So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in himrooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

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Lord God of our ancestors, we thank you for what you have done and will continue to do with our sons and daughters.  Walk with them in life, and keep the evil one from obstructing their path.  You see all; you know where the water is deep.  Keep them from danger.  Order their steps and guide their feet while they run the race of faith.  May the good work that you have begun in them be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.  (ELW, page 83)

406) Soft or Hard Words? (part two of two)

          (…continued)  Michael Barone was a writer for US News and World Report for eighteen years and is now the senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.  He has written numerous articles and a book about what he calls ‘Hard America and Soft America.’   He says ‘Hard America’ is the dog-eat-dog real world that is ruled by competition and accountability and performance.  Life is tough out there in America’s work place and economy; there are winners and losers, moments of brilliant success, and times of crushing failure.  Even good people get beat up and knocked down, and they have to just up get up and keep going.  There are many opportunities in America, but there are no guarantees.  That is what Barone calls Hard America.

     But, says Barone, there is also ‘Soft America.’  Soft America tries to protect people from such realities.  In education, for example, he says, there are many who are more concerned about self-esteem than about competence, more concerned that no one ever has to feel bad about anything than about whether or not anyone learns anything.  And so there are efforts to downplay and even avoid the rigors of testing.  Therefore, the numbers of A’s received keeps going up and up, but the abilities of students keeps going down.  Standards continue to be lowered in what has been called the ‘dumbing down’ of everything.  And still, everyone who shows up gets promoted, and then receives a diploma.  Many ‘experts’ on parenting also proclaim this softness, encouraging parents to be positive and supportive of the child’s every spontaneous whim.  Parents are told to be careful to avoid too much discipline, too many restrictions, even, some say, one should avoid the use of the word ‘no.’  This, says Barone, is Soft America.

      Barone then goes on the argue that even though Soft America coddles and spoils, Hard America plays for keeps.  Students might get automatically promoted through 12 grades of doing nothing, but on the job if they do nothing, they will get fired, not promoted.  Average students may in high school be “A” students, but they find in the competition for jobs they are no longer on the top of the heap.  The private sector lays off people when profits fall, the military trains under live fire, and young people who never before heard the word ‘no,’ will now hear it from the banker and the boss.

     Then, says Barone, an interesting thing happens.  The kids will often grow up when they reach Hard America.  America, he says, produces very incompetent 18-year olds, but remarkably competent 30-year olds.  By way of contrast, he points to Europe.  In Europe, education is competitive and demanding, and students in practically every European nation beat the pants off American students in test scores.  But, he says, in Europe, adult life is often soft, and many workers are protected from the rigors of competition and the marketplace.  There, it is the adult workers that are coddled and spoiled with short work weeks, long vacations, and incredible benefits and job security.  So what happens?  Even though European students do better than their American counterparts, the adult American workers do better on the job, keeping American dominant in the world, economically, scientifically, technologically, and militarily.  It is Hard America, says Barone, that leads to our competence, productivity, creativity, and unparalleled success in the world.  (NOTE:  Hard America, Soft America was written in 2004.)

     Of course, this is all greatly oversimplified, and much more needs to be said– and Barone does say much more in his book.  For example, Barone argues that these competing visions of hard America and soft America affect every aspect of our lives; not only our education and our jobs, but also what we pay in taxes and how government benefits are designated, how our military’s effectiveness is maintained, and how our courts are run.  And yes, Barone would say, there is a place for the soft touch in every aspect of society.  But we can afford to be soft, he says, only when we also maintain the aspects of Hard America.  The soft touch is sometimes what is needed, but we cannot only be soft, all the time, with everyone.

     I found that article by Barone in my file, read it, said to myself ‘that’s interesting,’ and threw it away.  Then I read Jesus’ parable in Luke 12:32-40 (see previous blog), and I went digging through the garbage to retrieve the article.  Michael Barone writes about ‘hard and soft America,’ and I think he is on to something.  We also see in Luke 12, and in other parables and sayings of Jesus, both hard and soft words.  God’s grace offers to us the kind and soft word of love and forgiveness and mercy.  Sinful human nature turns away and rebels, and that brings forth from God the hard word of command and threat and judgment.  You see both the hard word and the soft word in every book of the Bible.

     Martin Luther said that all of the Bible, all of theology, indeed, all of life can be divided into two parts, the Law and the Gospel, his words for the hard word and the soft word of God.  In the Law, Luther says, God commands and forbids, he thunders and he threatens, he judges and condemns.  That is not how God wanted to deal with the people he created to love and to cherish.  But from the beginning, people have turned away from God, disobeyed him, mistrusted him, and went their own way.  God could allow everyone do this, live out their years, and then return to the dust without hope.  God could do that; but still God wants us, he wants our attention, he wants a relationship with us, and he wants us to be with him for all eternity.  And God wants us to treat each other with kindness and dignity.  So in the Law God tells us what we do not want to hear but need most of all.  The Law, that hard word, is spoken only so that we may hear and return to him and then receive the Gospel, that soft word of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness, and, his promise of an eternal home for us.  

     So, the simple pleasant and soft word from Jesus to you in Luke 12 is simply to ‘be ready,’ because then, if you are ready, when he returns, ‘it will be good for you.’

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Hebrews 4:12  — For the Word of God is alive and active.  Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

1 Peter 5:6  —  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 

Matthew 24:42  —  Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.

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O gracious God and most merciful Father, you have given us the rich and precious jewel of your holy Word.  Assist us with your Spirit, that it may be written in our hearts to our everlasting comfort, to reform us, to renew us according to your image, to build us up into the perfect building of Christ, and to increase us in all heavenly virtues.  Grant this, O heavenly Father, for the same Jesus Christ’s sake.  Amen.  –Geneva Bible, 1560