678) Worship (part one of four)

     My wife and I were visiting with some old friends a while ago.  We had a nice time talking, laughing, joking, and reminiscing.  On the way home, Nancy said, “Karen told me that her and Bill have not spoken to each other for six weeks; not since they had a big fight after their son’s graduation.”  I couldn’t believe it.  I said, “How can that be?  We just had a great time with them.  Everything seemed fine.”  Nancy replied, “Karen said they are able to put on a show like that whenever they are around other people; but at home, there is not one word to each other.”

     I was shocked and saddened, and then, very worried for them.  How long can a marriage last when there is no communication?  Would we ever get together with them as couples again?

     Such refusal to communicate will kill any relationship.  Words spoken in anger can be very bad, and much regretted later, but that is not the worst one can do.  Sarcasm doesn’t help much in the communication process, but that also is not the worst.  Making fun of another person is not very nice, but one can do worse even than that.  The worst way one can treat another person, or we might say, the most powerful way to show contempt for them, is to ignore them, to treat them as if they are not even there, refusing to hear what they say or to respond.  This is, in effect, treating them as if they were dead, and one can’t do much worse than that.  In its milder forms, this has been called the ‘silent treatment,’ and we’ve all probably done that a time or two, hopefully for only a little while.  It is sometimes even a good idea to remain silent for a while, especially if everyone needs to cool down a bit.  But when that goes on for six weeks, it is a sign of real trouble.  The Bible doesn’t say ‘don’t ever get mad,’ but it does say, ‘don’t let the sun go down on your anger.’  A relationship will die if there is no communication, whether that is due to anger, revenge, or even just plain lack of interest.

     This is also true of our relationship with God.  God has chosen to create us and communicate with us; and, he has given us the opportunity to communicate with him.  He has invited us to do so anytime.  We should not neglect so great a privilege.  We should not ignore God.  We should not by our silence, or by refusing to listen or respond, show contempt for God.

     But how does one talk to God?  I have never seen God, and you probably have not either.  We have all prayed, but most people do not hear God talk back in an audible voice.  I never have.  God does not very often speak to anyone that way.  He has spoken like that, says the Bible.  But even in the Bible God did not speak directly to very many people.  So what do we do?

     Worship is, at its most basic level, communication with God.  During the worship hour God speaks to us in a variety of ways, and we respond to God in a variety of ways.  This communication is not exactly the same as the conversations over a cup of coffee with others after the service, but worship is most definitely communication.  We might wish for something more personal, and in heaven we will have again have the open communication we were created for.  But because of our sin, God is hidden from our sight, and to worship in some form is the Biblical way to still keep in touch.  Again, because of sin, worship will always be inadequate and will always disappoint us.  But in worship we still do hear God’s Word and speak our word to God.  We communicate, and we need to do that to keep the relationship alive.

     God has spoken directly to a few people over the years.  He has even appeared to a few in various forms.  And, God was here on this earth in person in Jesus Christ for 33 years.  God has, in these ways, chosen to speak to this world in visible and audible ways.  We may not have seen or heard him ourselves; but we have, in the Bible, a full account of what God had to say to us.  The Bible is the primary way that God communicates with us now.  It is, as we say, God’s Word to us.  Some folks read the Bible every day, and some folks don’t read it at all.  But the worship service proclaims God’s Word, and we respond to that word with our hymns and our prayers.  Worship is one of the primary opportunities we have to communicate with God.  

(continued…)

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In the Bible, God speaks to us.  In prayer, we speak to God.

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Hebrews 1:1-2a  —  In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.

Jeremiah 22:29  —  O land, land, land, hear the word of the Lord!

Hosea 4:1  —  Hear the word of the Lord, you Israelites, because the Lord has a charge to bring against you who live in the land:  “There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land.”

Zechariah 7:12  —  They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets.  So the Lord Almighty was very angry.

Psalm 68:26  —  Praise God in the great congregation; praise the Lord in the assembly of Israel.

Luke 4:8  —  Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

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PRAYER BEFORE WORSHIP:

Almighty God, you pour out your grace upon all who desire it.  Deliver us, we pray, as we come into your presence, from cold hearts and wandering thoughts, that with steady minds and burning zeal we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship  (#205)

677) Can’t Get Enough

Funeral Sermon for Anna

     I read in the obituary that Anna died at the age of ninety-seven years, one month, and thirteen days.  Hearing the length of life figured out to the day like that is a reminder that while our time on earth is usually measured in years, our lives are lived day by day.  Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days aright, O Lord, and so apply our hearts to wisdom.”  Your life is given to you one day at a time, and someday there will be for you also, a final tally.  And everyone, even the very oldest, says the same thing.  They say “Those days go by fast;” even if, like Anna, they get 35,472 days.

     In the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (chapter 3) it says, There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:  a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…;” and so on for several more verses.  In that same book, two chapters earlier, the old philosopher said:  “Whatever has been, will be again, and what has been done, will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  That is where the old saying comes from, ‘nothing new under the sun.’  It was being said 3,000 years ago already.  Of course, there are a few more gadgets around now then were back then; but in all the big ways, life is pretty much the same.  We are born, we struggle to get by and get along, we get old, we get sick, and we die.  Like he said, there is a time for everything, and you are all know the routine.  Nothing new under the sun.

     But then right after that section on ‘a time for everything,’ the writer does throw in at least the possibility of something new and different.  Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “God has made everything beautiful in its time, and he has set eternity in the hearts of men.”  Eternity.  There’s something new.  That is something outside of the usual routine.  It is certainly outside of anything we’ve ever seen.  Everyone dies, no one lasts for much more than a hundred years, and only a few make that.  Where does he get this talk about eternity?  

     Well, eternity is in our hearts like the verse says, isn’t it?  That wish for something more is indeed within each of us.  You feel it in your frustration with the swift passage of time; you feel it in your fear of death; you feel it in your desire to see your loved ones again; and you feel it in your reaching out for and wanting something more than what you can ever get in the confines of the few short years of this life.  There is something in us that is not satisfied with even 97 years, which is far more than the average.  It wasn’t enough for Anna.  Anna wanted to live.  She often talked of wanting to get to be 100 years old, and more.  Even with the increasing challenges of old age, she didn’t want this adventure to end.  That desire is a testimony to the goodness of God’s gift of life.  If we, like Anna, have the health to enjoy life, we can’t ever get enough of it.  And even if we get really sick, there is something in us that keeps wishing we could get better, and be here just a little longer.  The long ago writer of Ecclesiastes felt the same way, and he expressed it like this:  “God has put eternity into our hearts.”  Our bodies come with a time limit and wear out and die.  But in our heart and in our spirit, we wish for far more than our bodies allow us.

     The Bible not only describes that wish, but it also provides the answer to our heart’s deepest desire.  Martha said to Jesus after the death of her brother, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died;” and Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again.”  Jesus then went over to the tomb of Lazarus and raised him from the dead, bringing him back so that he could live out the rest of his natural days.  Not long after that, Jesus himself died and rose from the dead.  But Jesus was raised never to die again, promising to also raise from the dead all who died believing in him.  Contrary to what it says in Ecclesiastes, that will indeed be something new under the sun.

     One day, Jesus said something that offended his hearers.  Several people who had been following him, left him.  Jesus then turned to the twelve disciples and said, “Are you going to leave, too?”

     Peter made a wonderful reply, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  Jesus, and no one else, has the words of eternal life.  Where else would you go to receive such a promise, made by one who was able to make good on his words by showing everyone that he could raise the dead?  Who else has managed that?  There are no other offers on the table.

     Every funeral is a reminder to us of the importance of that promise and the importance of looking to Jesus for that hope.  There are other reminders.  Each birthday tells us another year has gone by, and every New Year’s Eve brings the same message; and the generations come and go.  Nothing new under the sun.  Except one thing:  “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

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FUNERAL PRAYER:  We give back to you, O Lord, those whom you gave to us.  You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you.  Your Son taught us that if we believe in Him, life is eternal, so death is only an horizon and an horizon is only the limit of our sight.  Open our eyes to see more clearly and draw us closer to you, so that we may be closer to our loved ones who are with you.  You have told us that you are preparing a place for us.  Prepare us also for that happy place, so that where you are, we may be also.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  AMEN.

676) “Imposing” Church on Children?

By Rev. William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, First Quarter, 2009, page. 12

     I have met a number of parents who have gotten the notion that, while parents should train their children in academic and vocational skills, they should not “impose” ethical or religious values upon their children.  “We simply tell our children what we believe, but we also tell them that they are free to make up their own minds,” some of these people will say.  There was also the father who told me, when asked why his twelve-year old son was not in church one Sunday, “Well, he doesn’t seem to care too much for church, and after all, you can’t force him to go, can you?”  This same father, I noted, had no problems with forcing his child to go to baseball practice, junior high school, piano lessons, and Boy Scouts.  I assume he “imposes” these activities upon his son because he, as a parent, is sincerely convinced that participation will make for a richer and more satisfying life for his son in the future.  Why not feel the same way about church?

     Of course, we’ve all seen the victims of the parental approach that forced children into patterns of belief and behavior which were unrealistic for the child’s needs and abilities.  And we all know that, in spite of a parent’s best efforts, a child may not follow a parentally chosen path.  But there is a difference between saying, “This is our faith, our family’s faith, and the faith that we have promised to give to you, and therefore we want you to participate in this faith;” and saying, “As far as your faith is concerned, that’s a matter we leave completely up to you.  We have nothing to pass on to you, no experience of our own to share with you, no vision for your future.”

     While we do not mean to “impose” unrealistic or unnatural expectations upon them, neither do we mean to be dishonest with them about who we are and under what commitments we have chosen to live our lives.  We intend to live our lives in such a way as to say, “This is who we are and are trying to be.  Therefore, this is who you are.  This is our family’s way of doing things.  This is the witness to the truth which we have received and which we now, with God’s help, pass on to you.”

     I believe that many of us parents suffer from a failure of nerve in regard to the nurturing of our children’s faith.  We are certain that we will send them to school because we are confident of the value of education.  We are certain that they will take piano lessons because we are sure that enriches a person’s life.  We insist that they do household chores because we know that the ability to work is basic to adult happiness.  But we lack confidence that in matters of religion we have anything special to offer them.  We are going through a period in which everything is up for grabs, in which all values are being questioned, and many are being abandoned.  So who am I to pass on to my young who they are and what they should be?  

     In other words, we suffer, as parents, not so much from a lack of know-how but from a lack of faith in ourselves, our values, our traditions, and even our own religious beliefs.  

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Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Ephesians 6:4  —  Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Psalms 34:11  —  Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 4:9  —  Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live.  Teach them to your children and to their children after them.

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Almighty God, we thank you for the children which you have given us; give us grace also to train them in your faith, fear, and love; that as they advance in years they may grow in grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–John Cosin

675) How Missionaries Have Changed the World

John Stonestreet blog at < http://www.breakpoint.org >  February 3, 2014, “The Truth About Missionaries”

Missionary teaching African children to read, 1964

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     For the last several generations, missionaries have gotten a lot of bad press.  They’re called cultural imperialists or tools of colonial oppression, and in the pages of books such as The Poisonwood Bible, or, for an earlier generation, James Michener’s Hawaii, they’re presented as paternalistic, ignorant enemies of glorious indigenous cultures.

     Even many supporters of so-called “native missionaries” in Asia, Africa, and Latin America suggest that Western missionaries should just “stay home” and “let the nationals do it.”  But a funny thing happened on the way to missionary irrelevance:  Ground-breaking, peer-reviewed research reveals that the presence of Protestant missionaries is the greatest predictor of whether a nation develops into a stable representative democracy with robust levels of literacy, political freedom, and women’s rights.
     Yes, you heard that right, and you can read all about it in the painstaking work of Robert Woodberry, whose work on the global spread of democracy has turned scholarship on its head.  Woodberry discovered that you can trace a direct link between the presence of 19th century Protestant missionaries and a country’s economic and social development.
     Why, for instance, does a seminary in the West African nation of Togo have almost no books for its students, while in neighboring Ghana the schools are full of reading material, including much that is written locally?  As summarized by in a Christianity Today article by author Andrea Palpant Dilley (see below), “British missionaries in Ghana had established a whole system of schools and printing presses.  But France, the colonial power in Togo, severely restricted missionaries.”
     This contrast is replicated across the world, from Botswana to India.  Woodberry’s conclusion is sweeping:  
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations.
     
     And these aren’t just any missionaries, but the ones labeled as “conversionist”—that is, those who call others to faith in Jesus Christ—in other words, the very ones who have been decried for so long as cultural imperialists.  Loving Jesus and the people to whom they were sent, they fought injustice, stood with the local people, planted seeds of political freedom and economic growth around the world.
 
     A key part of this was teaching local people to read so they could read the Bible.  As Dana Robert of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission at Boston University says, “If you look worldwide at poverty, literacy is the main thing that helps you rise out of poverty.  Unless you have broad-based literacy, you can’t have democratic movements.”
     Protestant missionaries may have gone to “the field” to point people to heaven, but it turns out that they did a pretty good job being salt and light for the here and now too.  As Woodberry says, “I feel confident saying none of those movements would have happened without non-state missionaries mobilizing them.”
     
     This truth about missionaries is not what many academics were expecting, of course.  “I’m not religious,” says Robin Grier, professor of economics and international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma.  “I never felt really comfortable with the idea of [mission work]; it seemed cringe-worthy.  Then I read Bob’s work.  I thought, Wow, that’s amazing.  They left a long legacy.  It changed my views and caused me to rethink.”
     
     The work of Robert Woodberry is changing a lot of minds.  It’s also a powerful reminder that when a people’s worldview changes toward the Kingdom of God, so does their life, for the better.  Hillary Clinton said it takes a village to raise a child.  Well, to change a culture, maybe all it takes is a missionary.
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Based on:  Christianity Today, January 8, 2014, The Surprising Discovery About Those Colonialist, Proselytizing Missionaries, by Andrea Palpant Dilley.

For an article summarizing Woodberry’s work see:

http://www.academia.edu/2128659/The_Missionary_Roots_of_Liberal_Democracy

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If the Gospel is just the way of understanding religion which is meaningful for me, which helps me and comforts just me, then I have no right to interfere with others who have their own versions of reality, their own ways to such peace and security as men can hope for.  But the Gospel is the TRUTH, and therefore, it is true for all people.  It is the unveiling of the face of Him who made all things, from whom every person comes, and to whom every person goes.  It is the revealing of the meaning of human history, of the origin and destiny of all people.  Jesus is not only my Savior, He is the Lord of all things, the cause and cornerstone of the universe.  If I believe that, then to bear witness to that is the very stuff of existence.  If I think I can keep it to myself, then I do not in any real sense believe it.  Foreign missions are not an extra; they are the acid test of whether or not the Church believes the Gospel.

–Lesslie Newbingen, Is Christ Divided?, 1961

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A missionary is a person who leaves their family for a while, so others can be with their families forever.

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Matthew 28:16-20  —  Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations,baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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O almighty God, we ask You to guide and bless all who have gone forth to preach the gospel.  Endow them with the gifts of generosity and concern.  Send your Holy Spirit on them, that He may strengthen them in weakness, comfort them in trials and direct their efforts.  May He open the hearts of their hearers to receive Your message.  Let Your revelation enlighten all minds for the salvation of souls, and let Your love heal every heart and body for the happiness of each person.  May all people consciously acknowledge You and serve You by living the teachings of Your Son.  We ask this through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

674) Seeing Jesus in India

     On November 2, 1845 four German Lutheran missionaries arrived in the province of Chotanagpur in the jungles of northern India.  They were sent there from Berlin by their professor and superior, Rev. Johannes Gossner.  They settled in the city of Ranchi and began their work among the Oraons and other area tribes.

     Hinduism was the religion of most of India’s population, but the indigenous tribal people of the jungle people have their own primitive religions.  These tribes had, for the most part, resisted many centuries of attempts at conversion by both Hindus and Muslims, and were quite set in their traditional ways.

     The Oraons also resisted the work of these four missionaries.  Years of preaching fell on deaf ears, and eventually the Germans were convinced that their continued presence would be a waste of time.  Not only were there no conversions, but there was no response of any kind.  Certainly, they felt the time and energy of four eager and willing missionaries could be put to better use in some other area.

     Finally, they wrote to their old teacher, Rev. Gossner, and asked permission to either reassigned or return home.  They did not get the answer they wanted.  “No,” replied Rev. Gossner, “you do not have permission to leave Chotanagpur.  You were sent to preach the Gospel and you are to stay there and continue preaching the Gospel.  Leave the results to God.  You may or may not succeed, but if you leave, there will be no Gospel proclamation at all among those people.”  So they stayed and continued their work.

     In their preaching they described the man Jesus who lived long ago, was killed, rose from the dead, and is still alive.  Eventually, they received a response.  Four men of the Oraon tribe came to them and said, “We want to hear more about this man Jesus.  Did you say he rose from the dead and is still alive?”

     “Yes,” said the missionaries, excited about this new interest in their message, “Jesus is alive, and you can know him as your Savior and friend.”

     “Good,” said the Oraons.  “We would like to meet this Jesus.  Take us to him so we can see for ourselves.”

     “Well,” stammered the missionaries, “you can’t meet him in person.  He is in heaven.”

      “How then can we know he is alive?,” the tribesmen asked.

     “We believe in Jesus by faith,” replied the missionaries.  “We don’t see him either.  Someday we will see him in heaven, but not until we die and we too are raised from the dead.”

     “We don’t understand these things you are telling us,” said the seekers.  “But if Jesus is alive, and if we could see him, then we would understand and could believe.”  The discussion went on like that, with the Oraons continuing their diligent seeking, and the missionaries doing their best to explain their faith in things unseen.”

     The tribesmen knew that the missionaries worshiped each Sunday.  They thought that this could perhaps be where the white men saw Jesus, but for some reason they were unwilling to let anyone else see him.  So they showed up unannounced at worship one Sunday to see for themselves.  They were invited to stay, but were disappointed again when they did not see Jesus.

     One day, the four frustrated tribesmen came to the four frustrated missionaries and said, “We have done enough talking.  Today is the last day for talk.  If we do not see Jesus today, we will not return.”

     The missionaries were sad to hear this and said, “We have told you all that we know.  We don’t know what else to tell you to help you understand.  But if this is your last day with us, let us at least pray together.  We believe Jesus hears us even if we can’t see him.”

     They all knelt in prayer.  The missionaries prayed earnestly that these seekers with such open hearts might somehow come to faith.

     At the end of the prayer, as soon as the missionaries said, “Amen,” all four tribesmen jumped up excitedly and said, “We have seen Jesus!”  The missionaries saw nothing, but the four tribesmen did, and they immediately believed in Jesus who had appeared to them.  On June 9, 1850, they were baptized.  They were the first converts after almost five years of work.

     The church began to grow, and in a short time it was growing rapidly.  The believers faced persecution almost immediately, and after some violence in 1857 the missionaries were forced to leave.  But the church was already firmly established, and it continued to grow even without the missionaries, and, in the face of continued persecution.  Its steady growth has continued to this day.  

     This church among the Chotanagpur tribes has grown not by mass conversions, as is sometimes the case among tribal peoples.  Rather, it has grown one by one, as believers share the Gospel with their families and friends.  The church has received much praise, even from unbelievers, for enriching the local cultures and not destroying or replacing them.  

     The spiritual descendants of those first four converts in 1850 now make up the Northwestern Gossner Evangelical Lutheran Churches in northern India, with over 400,000 members.

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     Nijhar Ekka is a fourth generation Christian from the Oraon tribe.  Nijhar and her husband Neeraj are both ordained Lutheran pastors.  I met them in 2005 while they were studying at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.  As they told me this story, I thought the name Johannes Gossner sounded familiar.  I was then serving Redeemer Lutheran Church in rural Henderson, Minnesota, which was started in 1855 (referred to in yesterday’s meditation).  I reread the history of the church and learned that its first pastor, August Wolf, had been trained in Germany by that same Johannes Gossner.  In the same decade that Gossner sent the four missionaries to the remote jungles of India, he sent August Wolf as a missionary to the remote American frontier.  Our two churches, on opposite sides of the world, were started by men sent “to the ends of the earth” by the same mission-minded pastor and professor in Berlin 160 years ago.

The Ekka family in India

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John 12:21  —  They came… with a request.  “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.”

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

Acts 1:8  —  Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.”

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Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.

–From the 1971 musical Godspell; by Stephen Schwartz, based on a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

673) Going to Faraway Lands… Then, and Now

     My family has been Christian for many generations.  For a time I was the pastor of a small rural congregation that my ancestors were members of after immigrating to Minnesota from Germany in 1875.  My great-great-great grandfather, Johann Christian Frederick Stier is buried on the hillside east of the present church building.  He had been baptized in Roebel, Germany in 1808.  There, my ancestors worshiped at St. Marian’s Lutheran Church, which was built in the 12th century– four centuries before the Reformation.  My roots in the Christian faith go back a long way.

     But my roots in the faith do not go back all the way.  There was a time when a missionary had to leave his homeland and bring the Gospel to my ancestors, the wild Germanic tribes, those who had defeated the great Roman Empire and destroyed ‘the eternal city’ Rome in 410 AD.

     Boniface was an English monk who, until the age of 42 lived in a monastery near Winchester.  Then he went to Rome, where on November 30, 722 AD, he received a promotion from Pope Gregory II.  Boniface was consecrated as a bishop; but he was given authority over no priests or existing congregations.  Rather, he was declared “Bishop of the German Frontier,” and sent north as a missionary to the pagan German barbarians.  He was told to proclaim Christ as Lord, start congregations, and build churches.

     So off he went, and before long Boniface had the opportunity to become very well known.  

     He learned of a sacred area in Geismar, west of what is now Berlin.  In that place was the Sacred Oak of Thor, the chief object of faith for the religion of the people in that region.  One night Boniface cut down that revered tree.  He then waited for the deed to be discovered, after which Boniface cheerfully admitted to being the culprit.  The angry worshipers of Thor were ready to kill Boniface on the spot.  But Boniface reminded the people of their own firm belief that if anyone tampered with that tree, Thor himself would kill the evil-doer.  

     “So,” Boniface said, “if Thor is such a great and powerful god, let him kill me himself.  That should be easy enough for the mighty Thor.  But I am here to tell you,” continued Boniface, “that there is no Thor; and that my God, Jesus Christ, is the one true God, and He will protect me from all harm.”

     The people listened; and then watched, and then waited.  No harm came to Boniface.  The people came to be convinced that Boniface was right, that the God they came to tell them about was indeed stronger than the god of their fathers, and they were converted to faith in Jesus.  Then, with wood from the Sacred Tree of Thor, Boniface built a Christian chapel in honor of St. Peter.

     Boniface’s work in Germany continued for many years, and God blessed his efforts with much success.  Boniface worked tirelessly to organize the many new converts into established congregations and dioceses.  

     Many years later, when Boniface was in his 70’s, he was on the missions frontier again, even farther into Germany, proclaiming the Gospel where the name of Christ was not yet known.  He was again very successful, but this time there was violent opposition.  On June 5, 754, Boniface and some companions were awaiting the arrival of several newly converted Christians who were to be confirmed.  They were suddenly attacked by an angry mob, and Boniface and all who were with him were killed.  Boniface’s earthly life was thus ended by those to whom he was attempting to bring the hope of eternal life.

     Boniface was not a German.  Like missionaries today, he was called to a distant and dangerous land to proclaim Christ.  Boniface has been called the “Apostle to the Germans,” and is considered by some to be the greatest missionary of the Dark Ages.

     I know Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior because Boniface and others like him gave their lives to bring the Gospel to the land of my ancestors.  In my family I have a long heritage of faith; but when I trace it back far enough, I find a missionary telling my people about Jesus.

     In my years as a pastor I have tried to encourage and inspire my congregations to be obedient to Christ’s command to bring the Gospel to all the nations of the earth.  Almost all of the members of my congregations have been of Northern European descent– Germans, Norwegians, Swedes, and a few Danes.  One of the things I have often reminded them of is that Jesus was not born in Germany, Norway, Sweden, or Denmark.  In fact, Jesus did not even visit any of those places.  Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose from the dead in Israel– and that is a long way from Northern Europe.  We all must remember that somewhere back in our family tree, a missionary sought out our ancestors, told them about Jesus, and they were converted.

     For Germans like myself, it has been a long time– almost thirteen centuries.  But that long heritage is a reason to give thanks, and must not ever be taken for granted.  Today, Christians of northern European descent have the hope and promise of eternal life because years ago some missionaries were sent out, and some people back home supported them. 

     May we be ever grateful for that mission work; and may we continue with that work, committing ourselves to doing our part to fulfill the Great Commission in our brief time on earth.

shutterstock_135958526

St. Boniface  (675-754)

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The story of Boniface was adapted from A History of Christian Missions, 1964, by Stephen Neill, pages 74-77.

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Matthew 28:19-20  —  (Jesus said), “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”   –THE GREAT COMMISSION

Acts 1:8  —  Jesus said to them, “You will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.”

Romans 10:13-15a  —  “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in?  And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?  And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?

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Merciful Father, your kindness caused the light of the Gospel to shine among us.  Extend your mercy now, we pray, to all the people of the world who do not have hope in Jesus Christ, that your salvation may be made known to them also and that all hearts would turn to you; through Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, page 45

672) The Incomparable Christ

<i>Head of Christ</i>

Head of Christ, Rembrandt, 1606-1669

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More than two thousand years ago, there was a Man born contrary to the laws of life.  This Man lived in poverty and was reared in obscurity.  He did not travel extensively.  Only once did He cross the boundary of the country in which He lived; that was during His exile in childhood.

He possessed neither wealth nor influence.  His relatives were inconspicuous and had neither training nor formal education.

In infancy He startled a king; in childhood He puzzled doctors; in manhood He ruled the course of nature, walked upon the waves as pavement, and hushed the sea to sleep.

He healed the multitudes without medicine and made no charge for His service.

He never wrote a book, and yet perhaps all the libraries of the world could not hold the books that have been written about Him.

He never wrote a song, and yet He has furnished the theme for more songs than all the songwriters combined.

He never founded a college, but all the schools put together cannot boast of having as many students.

He never marshaled an army, nor drafted a soldier, nor fired a gun; and yet no leader ever had more volunteers who have, under His orders, made more rebels stack arms and surrender without a shot fired.

He never practiced psychiatry, and yet He has healed more broken hearts than all the doctors far and near.

Once each week multitudes congregate at worshiping assemblies to pay homage and respect to Him.

The names of the past, proud statesmen of Greece and Rome have come and gone.  The names of the past scientists, philosophers, and theologians have come and gone.  But the name of this Man multiplies more and more.  Though time has spread almost two thousand years between the people of this generation and the mockers at His crucifixion, He still lives.  His enemies could not destroy Him, and the grave could not hold Him.

He stands forth upon the highest pinnacle of heavenly glory, proclaimed of God, acknowledged by angels, adored by saints, and feared by devils, as the risen, personal Christ, our Lord and Savior.

We are either going to be forever with Him, or forever without Him.

–Robert Bayer

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Matthew 11:28  —  (Jesus said), “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

John 14:6  —  (Jesus said), “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by Me.”

Acts 4:12  —  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.

I Timothy 2:5  —  There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.

Acts 16:31  —  Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.

Romans 10:9  —  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

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

–The ancient Jesus prayer

671) “The World Needs Handicapped People”

 From Our Journey Home, by Gary Bauer, 1992, pages 164-166.

    Judy Squier by anyone’s definition would be considered a winner.  She has a happy marriage and is raising three well-adjusted children.  She is active in her church and in community affairs in her hometown in California.  Many people can boast of having these same accomplishments, of course, but what makes Judy extraordinary is that she has done all this even though she was born with no legs.  After her birth a heartless obstetrician left the delivery room and informed her waiting father, “You daughter is going to live, I’m sorry to say.”  That medical professional was very aware of Judy’s obvious outward deformities.  But with all his knowledge of the human body he had no way to take the measurement of character, of her heart and soul.  In those areas Judy benefited from a surplus.

Judy Squier today ( http://www.judysquier.com )

     With the guidance of her father and the support of her family, Judy’s life has turned the obstetrician’s observation into a lie.  Early on she resolved herself to working harder and longer than “normal” people for what she wanted.  Her life was a series of setbacks followed by eventual triumphs.  Today she drives a specially designed car and is a regular Mom to her children and wife to her husband.  

     When Judy was in Washington (to receive an award) she had an opportunity to talk to many members of the United States Senate, all of whom praised her for the example she has set.  Judy was grateful for the praise and adulation.  But she shocked the senators, many of whom described themselves as pro-choice, when she remarked that if they had their way there would be no Judy Squiers in the future.  Abortion would eliminate the “deformed” and “abnormal” children like herself long before they had a chance to see the light of the world and long before we could experience the light of their lives.  (For example, by 2012, twenty years after this story, 90% of the unborn children who tested positive for Down’s syndrome were being aborted).

     Judy told the audience the night she received her reward, “I am convinced that this world needs handicapped people.  God designed it that way.  Handicapped people make a unique contribution that cannot be artificially created.”  There wasn’t one person in the audience, most of them in tears, who would disagree…

     Congressman Henry Hyde has written and spoken about Greg Wittine, who became an Eagle Scout when he was twenty-three years old.  In his excellent book For Every Idle Silence, Hyde says this of Wittine:

Cerebral paralytic.  Sits in a wheelchair.  Can’t talk.  You’d think he was also mentally disabled.  He has little control over his muscles.  He points to the letters on an alphabet board to communicate.  I watched him on television become an Eagle Scout.  His chest was covered with merit badges.  Hike ten miles?  He crawled it on his hands and knees.  If you deny the existence of the human soul, then you have to define the celestial fire in Greg Wittine who says: ‘I won’t surrender to my handicaps.  I’m going to achieve.  I’m going to do the best with what God has given me.’

     Our children need to know such people.  They also must be taught that the measure of a man or woman is not found in the shape or form of their body, nor in the outward quality of their life.  In each of us there is a celestial fire, a divine spark that marks us as a special creation of God.  

Wheelchair Boy Scout with Disability

Greg Wittine

His accomplishment in 1978 led the Boy Scouts to drop the age limit for handicapped scouts to become Eagle Scouts.

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Philippians 4:13  —   Christ gives me the strength to face anything.

II Corinthians 12:7b-9  —  …In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

Psalm 46:1  —  God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.

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I asked God to take away my habit.  God said, “No.  It is not for me to take it away, but for you to give it up.”

I asked God to make my handicapped child whole.  God said, “No.  His spirit is whole, his body is only temporary.”

I asked God to grant me patience.  God said, “No.  Patience is a byproduct of tribulations; it is not granted, it is learned.”

I asked God to give me happiness.  God said, “No.  I give you blessings; happiness is up to you.”

I asked God to spare me pain.  God said, “No.  Suffering draws you apart from worldly cares and brings you closer to me.”

I asked God for all things that I might enjoy life.  God said, “No.  I will give you life, so that you may enjoy all things.”

I asked God to help me love others, as much as He loves me.  God said, “Ah, finally you have the idea.”

670) Sherry Moves Home for a While

A short story by Rev. Michael Lindvall, The Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town, 1991, page 102-109

     …It was hot this past Sunday in church.  Attendance was thin, as it usually is in the heat…  The building is not air-conditioned, but we have woven wicker hand fans donated and placed in the pew racks by the Howe Funeral Home some forty years ago.  As the congregation fans itself through the sermon, they look like troubled water—restless, agitated, and eager to go.

     Sitting with Angus and Minnie MacDowell in the third pew, on the pulpit side was their son, Larry, from Spokane.  On either side of Larry sat his four-year-old and his three-year-old.  They were all fanning vigorously.  Not sitting or fanning anywhere was their wife and mother, Sherry…

     Sherry’s absence ached for an explanation, but something about the family mood induced congregational discretion.  All through coffee hour, nobody asked what everybody was thinking: “Well, where is Sherry, anyway?”

     As everybody drifted to the parking lot and that sweet taste of air-conditioning on the ride home, Minnie sneaked up on me, tugged at my sleeve, and said in a near-whisper:  “Pastor, could I see you in your study?”

     Minnie sat on the front six inches of the vinyl chair in my office, her back straight as she held the bulletin from the worship service, which she had managed to roll up into a tight little tube.  As she talked, she worked at rolling it even tighter.  She and Angus were just back from Spokane, she said, where they had gone to visit Larry and Sherry and the grandchildren.  They had planned on staying for two and a half weeks, but came home after one.  “You see, Pastor,” she said, “there was a problem.”

     The bulletin in her hands was now about the diameter of a pencil.  These, I knew, were very large words for Minnie MacDowell, who, in general, had simply not permitted problems in her family.  And if there were problems, they were certainly not called such and were never talked about to others…  The problem, of course, was that Sherry, seven months pregnant, and mother of two, had not been in the third pew on the pulpit side that morning.  Sherry was, Minnie revealed in a cathartic burst, “in Mankato, staying with her folks.”

     “Could you talk to her, Pastor?  Ask her to call Larry.”  And then, looking at her bulletin-tube, she went on, “Tell her I’m sorry if I said anything.”

     Words had been spoken, and Minnie had spoken them.  “What happened?” I asked.  “Well,” Minnie said, “it was really hot in Spokane, too, and Angus and I were there only five days when the baby got the chicken pox.  Angus and Larry thought that it would be helpful if they just sort of got out of the way, so they went bowling on Thursday, and while they were gone the water heater quit and when they got back Larry went to fix it and we were watching him go into the crawl space to look at it, and we were talking about how good Larry has always been with mechanical matters, and I think I said something that may have hurt Sherry’s feelings a little.  Well, when Larry emerged from the crawl space, she handed him the baby, went upstairs to the bedroom, locked the door, called the airlines, and bought a one-way ticket to Mankato.  All she said to Larry was ‘Don’t call me, I’ll call you.'”

     “What was it you said, Minnie?” I asked.

     “Well, I don’t remember exactly,” she answered.  “Something about fixing the water heater.”  The failure of her, memory at this point stood in intriguing contrast to her precise memory of Sherry’s last words.

     “I’ve got to go to Mankato on Tuesday,” I said.  “I’ll stop and see Sherry.”

     She was happy to see me.  Seven months pregnant, she negotiated her way onto the plastic-covered couch in her parents’ living room, took a sip of iced tea, and asked if I had seen Larry and the kids and how were they?  How was Jered’s chicken pox?  Had the pox crusted over yet?  Was he sleeping through the night?

     “How are you?” I asked.  There were a few tears as she told her tale, which was commonplace enough:  how she stopped working when Jessica was born, not because she had to but because she really wanted to be home with the kids whom she loved as life itself.  “But there are days when I think I might forget how to talk in complete sentences.  Diapers, ear infections, reading The Cat in the Hat fourteen times in one afternoon, who hit whom first.  You don’t even get to go to the bathroom alone.  I love them so, but I can hardly wait till they go to sleep at night, and then I’m so tired I can’t move.”

     She pulled her pregnant self up a bit.  “And now number three.  I don’t know if I’ll make it.”  She paused for a second, took another sip of iced tea, and went on:  “What I didn’t need was two weeks with Larry’s folks.  It was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  They’re so, well, THERE!  No salt in the food.  Angus patrols the house with a screwdriver and a hammer fixing things.  The kids get to them.  And then Minnie!”

     With that she looked away and her eyes reddened.  “Oh, I don’t know, maybe I’m overreacting.  No sooner does their plane land than Jered gets the chicken pox.  He’s up all night.  I’m up all night.  Larry sleeps like a brick.  Has to work the next morning, you know.  Things were edgy by Thursday.  Larry says that it might help if he got Dad out of the house, so they go bowling— in air-conditioning.  Did I tell you how hot it was?  Anyway, I go to give the baby another oatmeal bath and the water comes out like ice.  The hot-water heater picks this particular moment to die.  I’m ready to call the plumber, but Minnie says, ‘Wait till Larry gets back, I’m sure he’ll be able to repair it without such an expense.  You know what a talent he has for these things.’

     “So no oatmeal bath and we wait for Larry and Angus to finish a third game.  Larry comes home and says, ‘If I’d known that the thing was going to bust, we would have never gone, honey.’  Somehow that didn’t help.  The hot-water heater is in a crawl space under the kitchen.  It’s hard to get to.  You have to go in about twenty feet on your hands and knees.  Anyway, Angus and Minnie and I are watching Larry’s rear end as he makes his way to the water heater.  Jered is in my arms whining and Jessica is wiping Oreo off her face with my skirt.  There’s a moment of quiet as Larry gets up to the hot-water, heater, and then Minnie says to me— I still can’t believe she said it, she says, ‘Sherry, it’s really a good thing that you didn’t lose that weight, or Larry might have had you crawl in there.’

     “Something snapped, Dave.  It had never crossed my mind to walk out on them.  Family deserters are scum you read about in the Star.  But it was just too much.”

     We talked another hour.  I didn’t have to talk her into coming down to North Haven to make peace.  She had already called Larry that afternoon.  Nothing I said was needed to persuade her to go home with them to Spokane.  That was always what she was going to do.

     I think Minnie’s tongue was tamed in all of this, which it needed.  I think Larry and maybe even Angus have seen something of Sherry’s world from her vantage point, which they needed.  And of course, Sherry got a break, which she needed.

     Life together is hard.  There are no perfect husbands, no perfect wives, no perfect children, no perfect mothers-in-law.  Life in family—life in any community—is both our sorest test and our sweetest joy.  Life together stretches us, pulls us, strains us, but in it we are nourished by the struggle itself.

     It is the best chance God gives most of us to grow out of ourselves and into something more like what we were meant to be.  Life together is the welcome tether that kindly but relentlessly binds our ravenous egos.  Life together is where most people get their only chance to be heroes.  Families can breed heroes—local heroes, yes, but giants of spirit nevertheless:  courageous and well-tempered souls who return again and again to brave the rigors and savor the delicacies of loving the same people for a long time.  For the only thing harder than getting along with other people is getting along without them.

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

Galatians 5:13b  —  …Serve one another humbly in love.

I Thessalonians 5:11  —  Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.

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669) Peace at Last

“Merciful Snow”

A short story from Rev. Michael Lindvall’s book The Good News from North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town, 1991, pages 26-33.  Lindvall is a Presbyterian pastor who grew up in Minnesota, and has served parishes in Michigan and New York.

        …Priscilla Atterby died at eighty-four years:  “fourscore if by reason of strength,” as the Psalmist has it.  Priscilla was a world-class worrier.  She worried most about her three children, who are themselves now grandparents.  Each of them moved out of town right after marriage, partly, I suspect, to distance themselves from the immediate clutches of their mother’s unrelenting concern.  Two of them moved out to California, and Priscilla worried about earthquakes.  One moved to Chicago, and Priscilla worried about crime and fire.  “Fire?” I asked when she shared her anxiety with me during a pastoral call.

     “What happened once can happen again,” she answered.

     Her face was deeply lined.  People who knew her longer than I said that the worrying was something that had animated her only for the last twenty years or so.  When she was younger it was something a bit different that drove her.  “Agitation,” somebody called it.  “Priscilla always looked agitated,” this friend had said.  I think the image was meant to be taken literally, like the agitator of an old Maytag wringer-washer, never sitting still, never letting anything be.  It was, I suspect, Priscilla’s agitated love that chased her daughters to California and her son to Chicago.  It was this agitated love that slid into worry in old age.

     During the funeral it started to snow, gently at first, and then very hard.  The television had said that if this storm “swooped south, we might really get walloped.”  Newscasters everywhere seem bent on talking about winter weather in apocalyptic terms as if the same thing didn’t happen every winter.  On the other hand, folks here, being quite accustomed to it, try to outdo each other in being blasé about blizzards.

     I, however, am possessed by an outlander’s agitation about snow.  My readiness to cancel everything at the sight of the first snowflake has become something of a standing joke in town.  True to form, I had told a half-dozen people how worried I was that we wouldn’t get Priscilla in the ground before the latest blizzard immobilized southwestern Minnesota.

     I was reading the New Testament lessons when I first noticed the thick, heavy flakes through the funeral home window.  The storm had “swooped south,” I thought to myself.  My minister’s calendar-brain began to race ahead to everything in my life that the weather was going to foul up for the next couple of days: a meeting about the church’s budget deficit, a Presbytery meeting over in Mankato where I was doing a big report, and the annual meeting of the congregation on Sunday after church.  A worry lump began to congeal in my stomach.  I was reading through the funeral service on automatic pilot when I realized the words from the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel were bouncing from my eyes, out of my mouth, and into the ears of Priscilla Atterby’s crowd of mourners:  “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I it unto you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

      Priscilla, I thought, you never knew peace in this world.  Yours was a troubled heart, anxious, thumping, rising to a start at every little threat.  But in funeral meditations you don’t say everything that’s on your mind.  In prayer, we remembered Priscilla, for whom “the fever of life is over” and who now knew “peace at last,” as Newman had prayed.  Death, after eighty-four years, had stilled her troubled heart.  Last night Minnie MacDowell had peered into the casket at Priscilla and said, predictably, “She looks so peaceful.”  That old mourner’s euphemism appeared to be true in this case.  Priscilla really did look to be at peace.  The worry lines were relaxed from her face, her anxious eyes now peacefully closed.  With a word, God was able to convince her of the simple truth that a lifetime of cajoling by her late husband and three children had never brought her to, namely that “everything is gonna be all right, Priscilla; everything is gonna be all right, Mom.”

     We sang Abide with Me, got in our cars, and drove very slowly to the cemetery.  We walked up a long, shallow hillside to the open grave, a warm black cave in the blinding white of the snow, and there we laid Priscilla Atterby.  I went straight home afterward, somehow feeling good for her, but in a dither about how the snow might foul up the next few days of my life.  

     It snowed all that day and night and most of the next day.  Then for two more days the wind howled and screamed.  The old manse we live in trembled before the power of it.  When the storm was over…  we were snowbound—literally bound by the snow for four days.  Everything stopped:  school, meetings, work for most everybody except the plow operators and the mailmen following in their swath.  

     My agitation built and then crested on the second day when it became obvious that more than half of a week was going to be plucked right out of my calendar.  I canceled meetings and fretted over what was not going to get done, all of it seeming so essential.  Everybody agreed that we’d had a “decent little storm” and that I had not been an alarmist…

     When I informed a fellow clergyman over the phone that I could not make the committee meeting in Mankato, I heard a set of half-forgotten words tumble out of my mouth and onto the phone.  “Milt,” I said, “look at it this way, in a hundred years we’ll all be dead.”  That piece of folk wisdom belonged to my late Uncle Paul, my mother’s gangly bachelor brother, who could be counted on to say it every time something didn’t go just the way he or somebody else had planned, which I recall as being fairly often.

     After that remark there was, of course, nothing else to say, so I hung up and looked out the window at this white act of God that was in all its lumbering and relentless might foiling the plans and plottings of thousands of His creatures.  “Be still.”  The words whispered invitingly to me.  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  It is often so hard to hear such whispers in this life.  Priscilla Atterby had known God, but had never been still, not until four days ago when God’s love finally held her agitated soul in a quiet embrace.

     This cold, irresistible embrace held us so tenaciously that we had to drop our armful of doings and makings and plannings and yield to stillness.  It was a mandatory stillness that insisted we listen as it told us what we know but forget again and again.  In tandem, the blizzard and Priscilla’s death… were a manifestation of simple truth;… all our mortal effort, all our ambitions, all our worries, all our dreams, whether noble or vain, are little before God, not so much because we are so small, but because God is so great.  The blizzard was barely a whisper, as divine utterances go, but it was enough to still me and put before me again who God is and who I am.

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Psalm 46:10a  —  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

John 14:27  —  (Jesus said),  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over and our work is done.  Then, Lord, in your mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–John Henry Newman