699) II. Rules, EXCUSES, Forgiveness

     

    “It wasn’t my fault, my brother made me do it, I was having a bad day, I couldn’t help it, I didn’t have time to think, I’m only a baby, and besides, nobody’s perfect.”

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     (…continued)   Whether or not rules are made to be broken, we do break them; so then what?  Well, then oftentimes come the excuses, and some excuses are better than others.  Sometimes employees do not make it to work on time because of the weather.  That is a good excuse.  But if you get to work late because you stayed up half the night playing cards and drinking beer and you were too tired to get up, that would not be a good excuse, and your boss would not be pleased.  And if your excuse is a lie to cover for your bad behavior, that is even worse.  Ben Franklin once said, “The one who is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else.”

     Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt (1930-2009) wrote Teacher Man about his 30 years of teaching English in New York city high schools.  He had tough kids in his schools, kids who were not interested in learning how to diagram sentences or about the poetry of Walt Whitman or about the finer points of English composition.  Frank McCourt understood that, because he remembered well that as a child, he hated school.  But he kept trying to find creative ways to interest his students in what they were supposed to be doing in English class.

     If he told the class to write an essay, he would have an hour of frustration ahead of him.  The kids would complain, they would ask for passes to the lavatory, they would try to change the subject, they would do anything but write the essay.  If by chance any of them did do any writing, it would be a mess; handwriting that could barely be read, words spelled wrong, incomplete sentences, and displaying a complete lack of imagination.  As soon as the bell rang, they would all be flying out the door.

     But then Frank McCourt began to notice something interesting.  These same kids, who could do nothing right on a writing assignment, could become extremely eloquent on a forged excuse note supposedly written by their mother.  McCourt could always tell the real excuse notes from the forgeries.  The real notes were brief and to the point:  “Antonio was late today because the alarm clock didn’t go off.”  Period.  Mothers don’t have time to write long excuse notes.  But the forgeries were masterpieces of creativity:

Dear Mr. McCourt, I am so very sorry that my son Antonio was late for your class today.  His grandmother, my mother, who lives with us and has been driving us all crazy, tripped over the dog and fell down the steps at our apartment.  We took her to the doctor, and other than the broken leg and seventeen stitches she is going to be okay.  But I had to go to work and Antonio, who is her favorite, had to stay home and take care of her, because did I tell you she is blind too?  Yes she is blind, and how would she ever find her crutches and get to the bathroom if it wasn’t for Antonio?  So please excuse Antonio, he’s a good boy and we don’t know what we would ever do if he flunked English and would flunk out of school and not get a good job and support us when we get old…

     On and on it would go.  He knew those notes were fakes, but he thought to himself, “How can these kids be so creative and write so well on an excuse notes, and be so ignorant and messy on their regular homework?”  So he got an idea.  His next assignment was for each person in the class to write an excuse note for an absence from school.  “The bigger the lie, the better,” he told them, adding, “I know you can do it.”  The response was amazing.  The papers came out, the pencils got busy, the class was silent, and even when the bell rang, nobody moved.  He had to tell them to get out, and the writing that was turned in that day was the best of the year.

     So McCourt kept going with the idea.  The next day he told them to write an excuse note to their parents on why they got home late; then, to write an excuse for their boss on why they missed work and forgot even to call him to tell him they wouldn’t be there; and then, “Write an excuse note to your boyfriend and girlfriend on why you went out with someone else even though you promised you were going steady.”  The students kept quiet and worked hard and the pencils kept going, because now they were doing something practical.  Everyone needs excuses; it’s a part of daily life.  And the writing kept improving.

     Then Mr. McCourt did something a little different.  “Your next assignment,” he said, “is to write an excuse for your best friend who just started dating your boyfriend (or girlfriend), you know, the one you thought you were going steady with…  Then write an excuse for the kid who went to the cops and blamed you for something that you did not do and got you arrested…  Then write an excuse for the father who drinks too much and comes home and beats you up,” etc.  And the kids kept writing, although these assignments required some deeper thought.  There were even some objections to having to do something so stupid.  They wondered why they should have to write an excuse for someone else.

     From there on, McCourt goes on to make a different point than I want to make.  His goal was to get those kids to write.  But along with learning how to write, those kids were learning something about morality; about breaking rules and keeping rules.  Kids are kids, and they want to challenge authority and get away with what they can.  So they enjoyed being able to write excuses for their own bad behavior.  But they learned it was not as easy to excuse the bad behavior of others that had hurt them.

     The requirement to write excuses for others would do two things for those students.  First of all, it would give them at least a bit of an understanding of the reasons for the rules.  When rules are broken, people get hurt.  When you are the one getting hurt, you understand that.  Secondly, it would force them to try and understand the reasons why someone else would do something that would hurt them.  And to try and be understanding is what Jesus would want us to do.  (continued…)

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Proverbs 26:13  —  A sluggard says, “There’s a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets!”  (Excuses, excuses…)

Luke 14:16-18a  —  Jesus replied:  “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests.  At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’  “But they all alike began to make excuses…”

Romans 1:20  —  Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

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Lord, I stand before you, having done wrong in so many ways, and without excuse.  

Have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

698) I. RULES, Excuses, Forgiveness

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EXODUS 20:1-4…7-8…12-17:

God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below...

You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy….

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house… or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

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     These are the Ten Commandments as they were given to Moses by God on Mt. Sinai.  The Ten Commandments are rules, and what do we like to say about rules?  Nobody likes to be boxed in by rules, so we sometimes say, “Rules are made to be broken.”  This is a common expression that is often said by someone who wants to break a rule.  “Rules are made to be broken– ha, ha, ha,” and off we go to break a rule.  But when someone is in charge of enforcing the rules, then you don’t hear them saying, “Rules are made to be broken.”  You don’t hear parents telling their six year old who just told them a big lie, “Oh well, rules are made to be broken.”  And you don’t hear teachers telling their pupils who are standing on their desks and throwing books all over the room, “Oh well, rules are made to be broken.”  And you don’t hear policemen telling the drunken driver who just ran a red light and hit another car, “Oh well, rules are made to be broken.”

     And you don’t hear God telling anyone that either.  In Leviticus 19:37 and many other places you hear God saying, “Keep ALL my decrees and ALL my laws and FOLLOW them, for I am the Lord your God.”  PERIOD.   That’s what we hear from God in the Bible.  And in response to that, also in the Bible, we read expressions of gratitude and praise to God for his laws and commands and decrees.  Imagine that; giving thanks for rules!  On many pages of the Bible there is expressed a deep appreciation for the guidance God gives and the order God brings to the world by the giving of his Law; not only in the written word, but also by the imprinting the law on every human heart in what we know as our conscience.  There are many expressions of praise and thanks to God in the Bible for his laws.  The longest chapter in the whole Bible is Psalm 119.  There are 176 verses in that one chapter, and the theme of that Psalm is giving thanks to God for his law.  One of the best known verses is verse 105 which says, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.”  If it wasn’t for the Word of God’s Law we would have no way to see our way through the darkness of this world.

     Not only that, but verse 45 of that same Psalm says, “I will walk about in FREEDOM, for I have sought out your rules, O Lord.”  That is not what we are used to hearing or thinking.  The Psalmist says he can walk about in freedom because of the rules.  We usually think we are more free when we forget the rules; ‘rules are made to be broken,’ and all that.  But here God’s Word is telling us that we have a better chance of walking around in freedom when the rules are kept.

     But is this so difficult to imagine?  Are you more free to walk around in a quiet neighborhood where most people keep the rules most of the time; or, in a neighborhood where some people feel freed up from the rules enough to shoot guns through windows as they drive by, sell drugs on the corner, and beat up and steal from whoever is weaker than they are?  Where is there more freedom– where rules are kept or where rules are broken?  The answer is obvious, and it is the same in neighborhoods, schools, homes, and businesses.  

     Yes, we all get irritated with stupid rules, and there are plenty of those, and some of those might need to be broken once in a while (see quote at the end of today’s meditation).  But that cannot blind us to the fact that human life together is possible only with rules, and we must be diligent in our obedience of God’s rules.  (continued…)

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PSALM 119:25-31:

I am laid low in the dust;
    preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
    teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
    that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
    be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
    I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
    do not let me be put to shame.

I run in the path of your commands,
    for you have broadened my understanding.

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Amy Grant and Michael Smith sing “Thy Word is a Lamp Unto My Feet” at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ig8dO3VVayw

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Rules are made to be broken– true.  Also true is that breaking rules out of ignorance leads to disaster, while breaking them from knowledge can lead to the truly special.  It can also lead to disaster.  Don’t break rules unless you know them well enough to know when they shouldn’t apply.

–Charles von Rospach

697) Thoughts on Anger

     Many words of wisdom speak of anger as something bad.  “Anger is a bad counselor,” says an old French proverb.  An African proverb says, “Anger is like a stone cast into a wasp’s nest,” and, says another, “Anger punishes itself.”  Yet another says, “A man who acts in anger is angry with himself when he returns to reason.”  The Bible adds to these admonitions against anger, saying in Ecclesiastes, “Anger rests in the heart of a fool,” and, in Proverbs, “An angry man stirs up strife.”

     But some have viewed anger in a more positive light.  Martin Luther said, “I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; for when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane temptations and vexations depart from me.”  Aristotle said, “It is easy to lose one’s temper, anyone can do that– but to be angry with the right person and at the right time and to the right extent and with the right object and in the right way– that is not easy, and not everyone can do it;” but it is sometimes necessary.

     The Bible does not condemn all anger.  Even though some verses express caution about anger, no where does it say one should never get angry.  Rather, says Ephesians 4:26, “In your anger do not sin; let not the sun go down on your anger.”  Get angry, perhaps, if need be, but do not stay angry, do not harbor your anger, do not nurse it, feed it, and keep it alive.  Rather, says God’s Word, get over it by the end of the day.

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A few more words on anger:

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

 –Mark Twain

Speak when you are angry, and you make the best speech you’ll ever regret.  

–Laurence J. Peter

When angry count to ten before you speak.  If very angry, count to one hundred.  

–Thomas Jefferson 

Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.
–Thomas a Kempis
 
Anger is a wind which blows out the lamp of the mind.  
–Robert Green Ingersoll
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Proverbs 15:1  —  A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
 
Psalm 145:8  —  The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.
 
Ecclesiastes 7:9  —  Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools.
 
Ephesians 4:31  —  Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
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 Image result for prayer on anger

696) The Crowded Kindnesses of God

By Randy Alcorn, in the Spring 2015 issue of Eternal Perspectives

     God isn’t just in life’s monumental things.  He’s present in the little things: rain drops, the artistry of spider webs, and the sound of an acoustic guitar.  A child’s laugh, surfing songs, a swing set, sprinklers, and the smell of split cedar.  Colorful birds and fish.  Stars that declare God’s glory.  Little League, skiing, ping pong, a hot shower.  Maple syrup, fresh green beans, buttermilk biscuits, and homemade strawberry jam.  Aspirin, artificial limbs, wheel chairs, and synthetic insulin (I can’t live without it).  Ripe oranges straight off the tree.  Pecan pie a la mode, chocolate chip cookies hot out of the oven and a tall glass of cold milk.  A good recliner, the smell of leather upholstery, and a dog’s wagging tail.

     If we disregard these and thousands of other gifts, we don’t just fail to notice them, we fail to notice God.  God’s goodness is always evident if we look in the right place.  “He is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

     Alexander Maclaren advised, “Seek to cultivate a buoyant, joyous sense of the crowded kindnesses of God in your daily life.”

     One of my Bible college professors often used illustrations of Christ’s presence in the small events of his day.  I asked myself why those things didn’t happen to me.  God showed me they did—I just hadn’t noticed!

     If we fail to see God’s “crowded kindnesses,” it’s not because they’re lacking but because we’re blind.

     In a letter to his wife Elisabeth, Jim Elliot observed, “Amy Carmichael writes of little joys, like flowers springing up by the path unnoticed except by those who are looking for them…  Little things, like a quietly sinking sun, a friendly dog, a ready smile.  We sang a little song in kindergarten which I’ve never forgotten:  ‘The world is so full of a number of things / I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.’  Simple, but such a devastating rebuke to the complaining heart.  I am impressed with the joy that is ours in Christ, so that heaven above and earth below become brighter and fairer.”

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James 1:17  —  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Psalm 9:1  —  I will give thanks to you, Lord, with all my heart; I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 19:1  —  The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

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When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God hath done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

–Johnson Oatman, Jr.  1897

695) Disappointment With Jesus (part two of two)

   Conscience (Judas), Nicolai Ge 

     Conscience, by Nicolai Ge, Russian painter  (1831-1894)

Judas watches as the soldiers lead Jesus away

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     (… continued)  In the same way, Philip Yancey and the couple that lost their son to cancer, in spite of disappointment and confusion, kept looking to God.  And though they were disappointed and heartbroken, sadness and tragedy did not get the last word.  In the Old Testament book that bears his name Habakkuk cries out “How long, O Lord, must I cry out to you and you do not listen to me… and you do not save me?”  Habakkuk has to wait a very long time, but by the end of the book he decides that no matter how long it is and no matter how bad it gets, he will keep crying out to the Lord.  The book ends with Habakkuk still calling out to, “My God and my Savior and my strength.”

     Judas, though misled by Caiaphas, disappointed in Jesus, and overwhelmed by despair, still could have been alright. He just didn’t wait long enough.  He should have kept looking to Jesus, even in his despair and confusion.  Judas saw that things did not go as he had hoped, and he gave up.  He took all his regret and remorse and put it on himself, and he wasn’t big enough to handle all that guilt.  No one is big enough or strong enough to handle all their guilt.  That was why Jesus went to the cross that very day.  But Judas made the mistake of not waiting for Jesus.  When he learned that Jesus was going to be killed, he thought that was the end of hope.  If he would have just kept the faith, he would have found that Jesus was stronger even then death; and strong enough even to forgive Judas– as Jesus forgave Peter for denying him, and the others for deserting him.  But it was too late.

     Think of the difference in the reaction of the women who were with Jesus in his last days.  These women appear often in the story, especially in the last days.  They are there to help Jesus and the others in whatever way they can, and their faithfulness is remarkable.  They are there at the foot of the cross, and, they are the first ones up on Sunday morning, the day after the Jewish Sabbath, to see to the proper anointing of the body for burial.  One can only imagine the depth of their disappointment and despair at the death of Jesus, and how confused and hopeless they must have been.  But even then, they did not give up on Jesus.  They remained faithful and kept doing whatever they could do for Jesus, even if it was nothing more than seeing to a proper burial for him.

    In their faithfulness, they received a great blessing.  They were the first to see the empty tomb, the first to hear the message from the angels that “He is Risen,” and the first to proclaim that Good News that death has been defeated.  It looked to Judas like it was all over, and he gave up.  But even when from the women’s limited perspective it was over, they still did not give up.  How long, O Lord?, asked Habakkuk.   The women with Jesus showed us how long.  They showed us that if need be, we can wait even longer than life itself.  We can wait even until life is over.  We can know that even then, there is the resurrection promise for all who believe in Jesus.

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Matthew 27:3-5  —  When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”  “What is that to us?” they replied.  “That’s your responsibility.”  So Judas threw the money into the temple and left.  Then he went away and hanged himself.

Luke 24:1-6a  —  On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.  In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here; he has risen!”

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How long, O Lord, must I call for help…?

–Habakkuk 1:2a

694) Disappointment With Jesus (part one of two)

     A friend of mine was telling me about some friends of his.  “Years ago they would always go to church,” he said of the friends, “but then their daughter was killed in a car accident, and they have not been back to church since the funeral.  They are upset with God for letting that happen, and they have given up on faith.”

     Someone else I know had been raised in the church, but years later he and his wife had drifted away from the faith.  Then, he told me, their son died of cancer when he was only 21, and that brought them back to God.  Life’s tragedies and afflictions can bring us closer to God, or can drive us away from God.

     Philip Yancey wrote a book called Disappointment with God.  On the dedication page of the book, Yancey wrote, “To my brother, who is still disappointed.”  In other books Yancey has written about the harsh, judgmental church in the South that he and his brother attended as children.  The members of that church were not loving, but were self-righteous, mean, and racist.  He had much to be disappointed about.  But he learned more about God later, and was then able to separate his disappointment with the church from his faith in God.  His brother, however, had not yet been able to do that, and gave up on God.

     Psalm 88 is the most despairing of all the Psalms.  Of the 150 Psalms, this is the only one that does not express a single word of hope.  Many Psalms list the writer’s troubles, describe his despair, and even wonder out loud about God’s faithfulness.  But in every other Psalm, the writer will eventually change his tone and say, “but then I remembered all that God has done for me,” or “but then God lifted me up out of the pit,” or something like that; and then go on to express again his faith and trust and hope in the Lord.  But not Psalm 88.  The tone of this Psalm is complete hopelessness and despair in every verse, from beginning to end.  There is no what a friend we have in Jesus here; rather, the last verse says ‘the darkness is my only companion.’  Other verses describe how all he sees is trouble, terror, God’s anger, and God’s rejection.  “My life is at the brink of the grave,” he says in verse three, and later, “you have hidden your face from me, O Lord.”  This Psalm expresses no hope or trust in God.

     Judas Iscariot is probably the most despised person in the Bible.  It is incredible to think that Jesus, more worshiped and respected and loved than any other person in history, was betrayed by one of his closest friends.  There is much speculation about why Judas did what he did, but all we can do is guess.  The Bible tells us nothing about his inner motives.  Some scholars speculate that perhaps Jesus was not going far enough for Judas, and Judas thought that if arrested, Jesus might be forced into a more radical ministry.  Others have wondered if perhaps Judas was the conservative one, and he thought Jesus was moving too fast, and that an appearance before the authorities would chasten Jesus force him into a more traditional approach.  There are many theories and no way to prove any of them.  But I think it is safe to say that for some reason, Judas was disappointed with Jesus.  Maybe he wanted to change Jesus, and maybe he was giving up on Jesus.  But he was disappointed; disappointed like the couple who quit going to church after their daughter was killed, disappointed like Philip Yancey’s brother– disappointed with God like we all probably are at one time or another.

     Following his disappointment, Judas became hopeless.  Judas did not expect Jesus would be sentenced to death.  Perhaps Judas was naïve, or perhaps he was deceived by the chief priests.  But when Judas heard that Jesus was to be executed, he became desperate and hopeless.  He went back to the chief priests and expressed his remorse, admitting that he had betrayed innocent blood.  But they sent him away saying, “What is that to us?”  Judas, then without hope and filled with guilt, threw the blood money at them, went out from them, and took his own life.  The consequences of his actions left him completely hopeless, like the writer of Psalm 88.

    That was where it ended for Judas.  He died disappointed with Jesus and without hope.  But there is a difference between the hopelessness of Judas and the hopelessness of Psalm 88.  There isn’t a word of hope in the entire Psalm, but there is something of faith in the way it is written.  Filled with despair as it is, the words of the Psalm are still all spoken to God.  It begins with these words, “Lord, you are the God who saves me.”  Down and out as the writer is, he is still speaking to God.  He goes on to say, “your anger weighs heavily upon me… you have rejected me… you have put my friends far from me;” he even blames God for all his troubles.  But he is still speaking to God, and that takes faith.  He is hanging on by a thread, but he is hanging on; and by faith, he is expressing his despair to  God.  (continued…)

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PSALM 88 (portions)

Lord, you are the God who saves me;
    day and night I cry out to you...

I am overwhelmed with troubles
    and my life draws near to death.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
    I am like one without strength...

You have put me in the lowest pit,
    in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me;
    you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
You have taken from me my closest friends
    and have made me repulsive to them.
I am confined and cannot escape;
my eyes are dim with grief.

I call to you, Lord, every day…
   I cry to you for help, Lord; in the morning my prayer comes before you.

Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.
Your wrath has swept over me;
    your terrors have destroyed me...
You have taken from me friend and neighbor—
    darkness is my closest friend.

693) Bruchko and Jesus (part two of two)

     (…continued)  The model for Bruce Olson’s ministry was, of course, Jesus Christ himself.  Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd, and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep, so when he sees a wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  But I am the GOOD shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”

     It was that love of Jesus that inspired Bruce Olson to bring the message of Jesus to that South American tribe.  He was inspired to be like Jesus, and be willing to lay down his life for them.  He was willing to live with them and know them, and he would not, like the hireling, abandon them.  He wasn’t hired.  He was receiving no pay for his work.  Jesus was the inspiration for Bruce Olson’s mission, and in turn, Olson’s work can be seen as an illustration of the ministry of Jesus.  Bruce Olson stayed with that tribe so they could get to know him, learn to trust him, and then, be open to his message.  In the same way, Jesus, the Son of God himself, came to earth and lived a life like us for 33 years.  In that time, Jesus built such trust in those that followed him, that his words were remembered and repeated and taken around to all the world.  And those words have changed the world.  Most importantly, in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, he brought the message of another kingdom and another life on the other side of the grave.  Even now, Jesus is with us still, as he said in his last words to his disciples in Matthew 28, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

     In John chapter 10, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd.  There are two very different sides to that comparison– one, very exalted and the other very humble.  His hearers could choose to hear it however they liked.  Both were true. On the one hand, Jesus is alluding to that familiar and popular 23rd Psalm.  “The Lord is my Shepherd,” says the Psalmist, and a very good one at that, he goes on to say; ‘leading me beside the still waters, making me to lie down in green pastures, guiding me along right pathways, comforting me and protecting me even in the valley of the shadow of death, and so forth.’  Jesus hearers were already familiar with that verse and image.  And then Jesus, who at that time was still just a popular preacher, said HE was the good shepherd.   Some people were starting to wonder if he meant that Psalm 23 Good Shepherd, the Lord God Almighty.  Already by the very next chapter, some are ready to believe that he was that Good Shepherd, and others are ready to kill him for saying such a thing.  Therefore, on the one hand, it was an outrageously arrogant thing to say; unless, of course, he was indeed God.  But they did not all know or believe that yet.

     On the other hand, shepherds, even those who owned their own sheep, were looked down upon at that time.  People didn’t want to be shepherds.  You did that only if you could not find anything else to do.  The hours were long, the work was dangerous, and the pay wasn’t all that good.  And, you were under the obligation to the sheep around the clock.  You were not just on call 24 hours a day, you were on duty all day and all night; for many days at a time.  I’ve known shepherds, African students at the seminary, who could remember well the long days and nights spent alone and far from home.  It was an entry level job, with minimum wage.  It was not the kind of job you would be bragging about, but one you would keep only as long as you had to.  On your days off, you’d be checking the want ads.

      Yet, the Son of God was humble enough to call himself a shepherd, and compare his work to that of a shepherd.  Yes, on the other side of this comparison is the 23rd Psalm, but many people may not have had that in mind yet.  Those who first heard those words could have interpreted them in two very different ways.  But one thing is for sure, the average person would never have applied such a comparison to themselves; not in the spirit of Psalm 23 which would have been blasphemous, and not as that type of lowly worker.

     In that illustration of the good shepherd Jesus revealed who he was: our humble brother and friend who will always be with us, and also, the all-powerful Creator God of the Old Testament, able to defeat the powers of sin and death.  This Jesus calls you to himself, saying, as he said to people long ago, “My sheep hear my voice and they follow me, and I will give them eternal life.”  Who else could we ever find to follow that could make an offer and a promise like that?  As Peter once asked Jesus, “Lord, where else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

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Psalm 23:1a  —  The Lord is my shepherd…

John 10:11-15  —  (Jesus said), “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me;  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

This is one of the earliest known images of Jesus, and it is of him as the Good Shepherd.

Found in the catacombs of Rome, painted in the third century

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Where are you pasturing your flock, O good Shepherd, who carry the whole flock on your shoulders?  Show me the place of peace, lead me to the good grass that will nourish me, call me by name so that I, one of your sheep, may hear your voice, and by your speech give me eternal life.  Amen.

–From the Prayer to the Good Shepherd, Gregory of Nyssa  (335-394)

692) Bruchko and Jesus (part one of two)

          Bruce Olson was born in Minneapolis in 1942.  He grew up in the Lutheran church and learned in Sunday School how much Jesus loved him, that Jesus died for him on the cross, and, how important it was for him to believe in Jesus.  He also learned that God wanted everybody in the whole world to know about Jesus.  He decided that he would do his part to make that happen by becoming a missionary.  He had heard about the fierce Motilone tribe in the jungles of Columbia and Venezuela that had not yet been reached by anyone, so he chose to go to them.

     If you want to become a missionary, the first thing you should do is go to a school that specializes in preparing people for the mission field.  Or, you might go to any college to get some education; and then, at the same time, be in touch with a mission agency about applying with their organization to receive sponsorship, salary, training, and a base to work from.  The mission agencies then would have their own procedures which would include language training, cross-cultural awareness courses, education about the nation and the tribe to which you will be sent, necessary medical precautions and preparations, and so forth.  The mission organization will also help you with all the paperwork and red tape involved in going to do long-term work in another country.  Preparing to be a missionary can take a long time and require a lot of work.

      But Bruce Olson was an energetic 19-year old and anxious to get going.  So he decided to bypass all of the preliminaries.  He did, at first, apply at a few mission agencies, but they rejected him as unfit for service.  So, he decided he would just get a plane ticket to Columbia, South America, arrange for passage on a commercial steam-boat upstream as far as he could go, and then paddle by canoe the rest of the way to get to the Motilones.  

     This tribe had quite a reputation in Columbia.  Up to that time (1961) they had killed every white person who had ever set foot in their territory.  Bruce Olson knew that, but still was determined to go to them.  He had no training, no experience, no sponsorship, no money, and he did not speak the language.  He would just go to them, live with them, and see what happened.  His Norwegian Lutheran parents in Minneapolis were not pleased with this decision, but what can you tell a 19 year old?  He felt God was calling him to the Motilones, so off he went.

     Olson almost died even before he got to his destination.  With no organization to help him prepare medically for the trip, he came down with a very serious illness on the river.  This happened not long after he took off on his own.  He kept going as long as he could, but after a few days, he was too sick to move.  He set up camp on the river bank and just laid there, waiting to either get well or die.

     Olson was found by some men from the tribe that he had gone out to find.  Had he been healthy when they found him, they would have immediately put a spear through his heart.  But fierce as they were, this tribe was too proud to kill an animal or an enemy that was sick.  They would have just left an animal, but they did not want to leave a man who might get well and make trouble for them.  So they carried him back to their village, fully intending to nurse him back to health; and then they would kill him.

     It is a long story, but by the time Olson got well, the people in the tribe had grown fond of him.  They were intrigued by this fair skinned man and by some of the fascinating gadgets that he had brought along.  They could see that he meant them no harm.  So the Motilones let Bruce Olson live there, and called him Bruchko.  He stayed with them for most of his life.  He works with them still, though he no longer lives with them full-time as he did for over 50 years.

     Bruchko went to the Motilones to tell them about Jesus, and almost all of the people of that tribe are now Christians.  They have churches and schools and hospitals.  Many of their children are now university graduates, and they don’t kill white people anymore.  Most of them have remained in their jungle homeland, but they have undergone a tremendous transformation.

      Bruce Olson accomplished all this by giving his life to them; first, by being willing to die in even going there, and then, by living among them from then on.  He did not die, as he might well have, but he did give up whatever life he could have had with his own people.  He has given his whole life to live among this primitive tribe, all so that they might know Christ.  He moved in with them, lived like they did, learned their language, ate what they ate, and, at first, took with him none of the comforts of civilization.  Later, when he began to introduce some pills and medical cures, he did this through the local medicine man who had become his friend, allowing the medicine man to grow in respect, rather than be defeated and humiliated by a more successful cure from this outsider.  Olson fit in wherever and however he could, except where he would have to compromise his faith.  He would not do that, even though he did seek to learn all he could about the present beliefs of the tribe.  After taking years to earn their confidence and trust, he began to tell them about Jesus.  He did so by seeking connections with what they already believed in, and then building on that.  The Motilones did believe in a creator God and in the presence of spirits.  Olson showed them how Jesus completed their faith and their lives in ways their own beliefs never could.  Their beliefs were limited to a fear of unseen forces.  Bruchko showed them that God loved them and came to earth for them.  In time, they came to believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  (continued…)

Bruce Olson/’Bruchko’

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Ruth 1:15-17  —  “Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods.  Go back with her.”  But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.”

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 Oh God, you have created me to do for you some definite service; you have committed to me some work to do which you have not committed to another.  I have my mission.  You have created me a link in a chain, a connection between people.  You have not created me for nothing.  May I do the work you have given me to do and do it well.   Amen.

–John Henry Newman  (1801-1890)

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To read more of this amazing story go to Olson’s website at:

http://www.bruceolson.com/english/english.htm

Listen to him tell his story at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kox54SLxFk

Or, read his book:

691) Believing and Trusting

          The most important question of your life has to do with your relationship with God.  It is God who created you, God who daily provides for you and sustains your life, and it is only in God that you have any hope at all in the face of death.  So yes, the most important question of life has to do with God.  And one way to put that question is, “What does God want from us?”  What is it that God wants from us, expects of us, demands of us?  God has given us everything, and it is only by his grace that we are even here; so we want to be very clear about the way we answer this question:  “What does God want from us?”

      One of the most common answers to that question is that God wants us to be good.  And yes, there is no doubt about that.  God gave the Ten Commandments for a reason.  He expects that we will hear his word and obey it, or, as Luther says in the Catechism, “We should fear and love God so that we do not lie… do not kill… do not steal…,” and whatever else each commandment says.  God does want us to obey Him and be good.  But that is not what God wants most of all.

     Another common answer would be that God wants us to believe in Him.  And yes, there is no doubt about this being a correct answer.  From beginning to end the Bible talks about the importance of belief.  That most famous of all Bible verses John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and whosoever BELIEVES in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  But God doesn’t just want us to simply believe He exists and leave it at that.  He expects that our belief will consist of more than an opinion about whether or not there is a powerful force behind the universe.  There is even a Bible verse that talks about such inadequate belief.   James 2:19 says, “So you believe in one God.  That’s good.  But even the demons believe, and tremble.”  The devil certainly believes there is a God, but that doesn’t make him a Christian.

     What then is it that God wants from us?  To be sure, God wants us to believe in Him, but God wants that belief to also include TRUST.  God wants us to trust in him.  Of course, you have to believe in God before you can trust in Him; and when the Bible talks about belief, it always means belief that leads to and includes trusting in God.

     There is indeed a difference between simply believing in something, and, believing and trusting.  I am reminded of a jeep ride I had one time in the mountains of southwest Colorado.  We were staying in Ouray, Colorado, and a big attraction there was the all-day jeep ride you could take from Ouray across and over the steep mountains to the town of Telluride.  The ride was mostly on old mining trails that were already narrow and sometimes half washed out.  Sometimes, we weren’t on any road or trail at all, just going cross country or down a dried up creek bed.  Much of the time we were inches away from a cliff with a two thousand foot drop.  On frequent hairpin turns the driver would have to go out over the cliff, and then back and forth as he worked his way around the narrow turn.  One wrong move and there would have been no chance of survival.  My eyes were telling me, get out of this jeep and get down on your hands and knees, and crawl back to safety.  But my head was telling me, “This driver does this every day.  I’m sure he doesn’t want to die.  It must be okay.”  We did get across the mountain to Telluride safely.  We had lunch there, and then we would be going back across the mountains to Ouray by another mountain trail.  “How is that road?,” we all asked nervously.  “Ah, it’s worse,” said the driver calmly, “more washouts and the road isn‘t nearly as wide; but we’ll be all right.”  Did I believe he could make it back safely?  Yes.  He was a good driver and he did this every day.  But could I trust him to get me back safely?  That raises the question to another level.  And I did also trust him, so I continued the trip.  By that time, I was quite used to trusting him for the ride and was able to relax and enjoy the view.  But believing he could do it, and trusting him enough to get back into that jeep were two different things.

     Telluride, straight ahead

     “Cast all your cares on the Lord, for he cares about you,” says the Bible.  Believing that there is a supreme being of some sort up there somewhere is one thing.  But to believe that God speaks to you in the Bible, knows you by name, loves you, is concerned about you, and will take care of you; adds trust to mere belief.  Just like I learned to trust that jeep driver and became more relaxed as the day went on, we can learn to trust God as we continue to experience his grace and blessings throughout our lives.  This does not mean everything will always go well.  That did not happen for anyone in the Bible and it doesn’t happen for anyone today.  Troubles come to us for a variety of reasons, and it is God’s promise in Romans 8 that he will work out all things for our good.  We might not see that right away, and we might not ever see it in this life; but that is a promise we can learn to trust in.

     The cloud that hangs over all of this is the threat of death.  What about those who die too young?  What about the threat of our own death?  There are no guarantees, as we all well know.  And that inevitable end of everything seems to cancel out anything we might learn by the experience.  How can God work out any good from that?  Someone once said, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”  I have always liked that line.  But what if it does kill me?  Then what?

     Then, says the Lord, I raise you from the dead and give you new life again.  “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord,” says the Bible.  Trusting God means looking at all of life, not just the next 24 hours, and not even just the next 24 years.  Trusting God means looking at life from the perspective of eternity.  God will work out all things for our good, but the Bible doesn’t say how fast he will work it out.  Trusting God means also trusting in His timing.  And God has lots of time and, God says, so do we.

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

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

Psalm 112:7  —  They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.

Psalm 116:10  —  I trusted in the Lord when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”

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Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.

–Psalm 84:12

On the ‘road’ from Ouray to Telluride

690) The Drop Box

Pastor Lee and Baby

Mostly from John Stonestreet’s blog, February 10, 2015 at:  http://www.breakpoint.org

     In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, hundreds of infants are abandoned on the streets every year.  The problem became so severe that one Korean pastor decided to take unprecedented action.

     It’s a story that’s now the subject of an award-winning documentary by film maker Brian Ivie.  Stirred several years ago by a report in the Los Angeles Times about Pastor Lee Jong-rak’s unique solution to infant abandonment, Ivie (then a film student at the University of Southern California) raised enough money to lead a team to Seoul to capture this tiny but inspirational ministry.

     Pastor Lee Jong-rak calls it his “Drop Box.”  The concept is simple.  Instead of aborting or abandoning their infants, mothers who either can’t keep or don’t want their babies bring them to the wooden box affixed to Pastor Lee’s house; they say goodbye, and they shut the door.  The box, which is equipped with lights and heat, has a sign in Korean, “Please don’t throw away unwanted or disabled babies, or babies of single mothers.  Please bring them here instead.”

     When the box opens a bell rings, and Pastor Lee, his wife, or a volunteer, comes and takes the child inside.  Since Pastor Lee installed the Drop Box in 2009, as many as 18 babies a month have arrived at his home, which doubles as an orphanage.  He and his wife have even adopted ten as their own—that’s the maximum number local authorities will allow.

     Sometimes he speaks to mothers face-to-face.  One told him she intended to poison herself and her newborn before hearing about the Drop Box.  Another simply left a note, which read:

My baby!  Mom is so sorry.  I am so sorry to make this decision…  I hope you meet great parents…  Mom loves you more than anything else.  I leave you here because I don’t know who your father is.  I used to think about something bad, but I guess this box is safer for you…  Please forgive me.

     Brian Ivie’s movie, aptly entitled The Drop Box, has already won awards at the Jubilee and Independent Christian Film festivals.  And now, Focus on the Family, Pine Creek Entertainment, Kindred Image and Fathom Events will present the movie in selected cinemas for three nights only, March 3-5.

     The Drop Box is the kind of story that changes lives.  Forever.  Just ask Brian Ivie.  When accepting one of the awards for the film, he said:

I became a Christian while making this movie.  When I started to make it and I saw all these kids come through the drop box; it was like a flash from heaven– just like these kids with disabilities had crooked bodies, I have a crooked soul.  And God loves me still.

     The fight for life is more than just political.  In so many ways, it’s decided in the cultural imagination.  And that’s why it’s critical that Christians support films like this:  high-quality films that don’t preach, but show how precious life truly is, and how otherwise ordinary individuals will go to extraordinary lengths to save and protect the most vulnerable among us.

     You can watch the three minute movie trailer at the below web-page, along with more information about Pastor Lee, and where to see the move.  Even the trailer is tremendous–  do take the three minutes to view it.

 http://www.thedropboxfilm.com/

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Pastor Lee's Son Smiling
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As a journalist I’ve been telling people’s stories for some 40 years, and Pastor Lee’s is one of the most inspiring I’ve encountered.  Without fanfare, one ordinary man in a poor neighborhood of Seoul, Korea, has now saved almost 600 babies from certain death.  He embodies the grace that I write about.
–Author Philip Yancey
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When the church reaches out to rescue and embrace the weakest and most vulnerable in society, it can’t help but push culture in a better, wiser direction.  The story of Pastor Lee and his love for ‘discarded’ children – especially children with disabilities – displays the power and influence of true Christian character.  
–Joni Eareckson Tada
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Matthew  25:40  —  (Jesus said),  “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Matthew 10:42  —  (Jesus said),  “If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Psalm 139:13  —  For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
James 1:27  —  Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
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 Blessed Lord, who for our sake was content to bear sorrow, and want, and death; grant to us such a measure of your Spirit that we may follow you in all self-denial and tenderness of soul.  Help us, by your great love, to support the afflicted, to relieve the needy and destitute, to comfort the feeble-minded, to share the burdens of the heavy laden, and always to see you in all who are poor and destitute.  Amen.
–B. F. Westcott, British Bishop  (1825-1901)