770) On Interruptions and Real Life

From a letter by C. S. Lewis to his friend Arthur Greeves, December 20, 1943; From The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II.

     Things are pretty bad here.  Minto’s varicose ulcer gets worse and worse, domestic help harder and harder to come by.  Sometimes I am very unhappy, but less so than I have often been in what were (by external standards) better times.

     The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life.  The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day.  What one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.  This at least is what I see at moments of insight.  But it’s hard to remember it all the time.  I know your problems must be much the same as mine…

     Isn’t it hard to go on being patient, to go on supplying sympathy?  One’s stock of love turns out, when the testing time comes, to be so very inadequate.  I suppose it is well that one should be forced to discover the fact!

     I find too (do you?) that hard days drive one back on Nature.  I don’t mean walks… but little sights and sounds seen at windows in odd moments.


Galatians 5:22-23  —  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

Colossians 3:12-13  —  Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

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


Grant us, O Lord, grace to follow you wherever you lead.  

In little daily duties to which you call us, bow down our wills to simple obedience, patience under pain or provocation, strict truthfulness of word or manner, humility, and kindness.

In great acts of duty, if you call us to them, uplift us to sacrifice and heroic courage, that in all things, both small and great, we may be imitators of your dear Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Christina Rossetti  (1830-1894), British poet

769) An Old Story Still Speaks

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac.  He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only Son.

–Hebrews 11:17

Sacrifice of Isaac, Carraviggio, 1603


By William Willimon, On a Wild and Windy Mountain, pages 80-83, 1984, Abingdon Press (adapted)

     It arose out of a frantic, last minute search for something to do for an inter-generational church school session in a moderately affluent, suburban church we were members of in Durham, North Carolina.  What would appeal to all ages?  Show a movie, I thought.  So I rummaged through the media center and selected a video cassette from “The Genesis Project” series.

     Even though my wife wondered if the subject matter might be inappropriate for the young children, we decided to show the dramatization of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac.  After the film, my wife would lead the children in a discussion of the story while I would discuss its meaning with the adults.  Patsy still had some misgivings about showing so ancient and strange a tale to the children.

     “It’s only a little Bible story,” I said.  “What harm can there be in that?”

     The group watched silently as the story unfolded.  What an austere sight it was to see old Abraham struggle up the windswept, raw, dusty Mount Moriah, knife under his coat, with his son trudging silently behind him.  Finally the blade is raised, the boy’s eyes flash with horror; and then the voice, and the knife is stopped just in time.

     I stopped the projector, divided the group in half by age, and the learning began– began for me, that is.

     “Boys and girls, who knows what the word sacrifice means?” asked Patsy.  A few hands went up, a definition was attempted here and there.

     “But what does sacrifice mean to you?” she continued.  That’s when the trouble started.

     “My Daddy and Mommy are doctors,” said one third-grader.  “And they help sick people get better.  Every day they do operations to help people.”

     “And how is that a sacrifice?” Patsy asked.  The little girl was not finished.

     “And I go to Day Care Center after school.  Sometimes on Saturdays too.  Mommy and Daddy want to take me home but they are busy helping sick people, so lots of times I stay at the center.  Sometimes, on Sunday mornings, we have pancakes, though.”

     And everyone, from six to eleven, everyone nodded in agreement.  They knew.

     Meanwhile, among the adults, the discussion was getting off to a slow start.  I was talking too much, giving them some historical background on Abraham, and filling them in on child sacrifice among the Canaanites.  They listened in awkward silence.

     “But what does this story mean to us?” I asked.  “That’s the question.  I daresay we moderns are a bit put off by the primitive notion that anybody would think that God wanted him to sacrifice his child like this.  Can this ancient story have any significance for us?”

     “God still does,” interrupted an older woman, her hair graying, wearing a flowered dress, hands twitching nervously on her lap.  “He still does.”

     “How?” I asked.

     Quietly, with tears forming in her eyes, she said, “We sent our son to college.  He got an engineering degree.  But he got involved in some fundamentalist church.  He married a girl in the church.  Then they had a baby, our only grandchild.  Now he says God wants him to be a missionary and go to the Mideast.  And take our baby, too.”  She began to rock to and fro, sobbing.

     The silence was broken again, this time by a middle-aged man.  “I’ll tell you the meaning this story has for me.  I’ve decided my family and I are looking for another church.”

     “What?” I asked in astonishment.  “Why?”

     “Because when I look at that God, the God of Abraham, I feel I am near a real God, not the sort of dignified, businesslike, country club god we chatter about here on Sunday mornings.  Abraham’s God could blow a man to bits, give and then take a child, ask for everything from a person and then want more.  I want to know that God.”

     Someone else was crying now, a young woman whom I had never met, a new member of the congregation.  

     “Gloria want me to tell you,” said the woman sitting next to her with her arm around her, “that her husband left her and the two children last week.  She wants us to pray for her.”

     After the bell had rung and the group had filed out of the room, Patsy and I sat quietly.

     “What on earth was that all about?” I finally asked.

     She knew no more than I.  By then, the wind had died down, and the courageous, trusting Abraham had gone back down the wild mountain.  Trailing along far behind him and Isaac were a group of twentieth-century, well-educated, well-heeled, suburbanites with our middle-of-the-road, reasonable and tame religion.

     This strange old story can still speak into the hearts of people in our vastly different world.  How odd that we should think we can look condescendingly on such a story, we who make our own sacrifices to much lesser gods than Yahweh.  No stranger to God or to the facts of real life, Abraham would at least know that a mad, disordered, barbaric world needs more than a faith that pretends its God can be served without cost.  How puny is our safe, orderly, comfortable religion before the hard facts of life.  

     The sky darkens, the wind howls, and a different young man walks up another hill, this one called Golgotha, driven by a God who demands everything and stops at nothing.  Unlike Abraham, he carries a cross on his back rather than sticks for a fire.  Like Abraham, he is obedient to a wild and restless God who is determined to have his way with us, no matter what the cost.

Keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our callings that we may sleep in your peace and wake in your glory.

–John Donne

768) It is Not For You to Know

     This is the time of year for graduations.  In the church, this is the time of year that Ascension Day is observed (40 days after Easter).  Ascension Day commemorates the bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven.  The story of the ascension is told only by Luke– at the end of his Gospel, and, at the beginning of the book of Acts, also written by Luke.  It is interesting that Ascension Day always comes at graduation time, because what is described in Acts chapter one was a sort of graduation day for the disciples.  Verse nine says, “After Jesus said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”  Jesus was no longer physically present with the disciples, so that meant the disciples were left alone with the work Jesus had given them to do.

     For the previous three years, Jesus had been with them day and night, preparing them, or we might say, educating them, for the task he was giving them to do.  Now, in verses four and eight, Jesus gave them these instructions: “Wait here in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit; and after his power comes upon you, then, go out into the world and be my witnesses, telling everyone about me to the very ends of the earth.”

     Are the disciples ready for duty?  Have they been adequately prepared?  Do they deserve to graduate?  Well, if verse six is any indication, they failed their final exam and were not ready for anything.  Their question in verse six indicates that they missed the whole point of Jesus even being here.  They ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Restore the kingdom?  Where did they get that idea?  Jesus never said anything about restoring the earthly kingdom to Israel.  That was what many people had hoped the Messiah would do, but Jesus made it clear from the start that he was not here for anything so trivial as that.  Jesus was Creator and king of the whole universe.  He did not come to earth to be a mere king over a tiny nation for a few years.  Weren’t the disciples listening when he said, “My kingdom IS NOT of this world”?  These men were with Jesus for three years, and then, just before Jesus goes away, leaving them in charge, they ask a question that shows they missed the whole point.  They were not at all ready for graduation.  It is a good thing Jesus had added that part about sending the Holy Spirit to guide them in all things and give them power, or nothing would have happened.

     Jesus replies by saying, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.”  That was the full answer of Jesus to that particular question on that day, but it is the first seven words of that answer that applies to many of our own questions.  Jesus said simply, “It is not for you to know.”

     Is there anything in the Bible you do not completely understand?  Have you ever come up against a brick wall with any of your questions about God or Jesus or the Bible or life in general?  This is a good verse for those times: “It is not for you to know.”

     Sometimes, when discussions of religious matters get too deep, someone will say, “We are not supposed to ask such questions.”  I would not put it that way.  Faith will always ask questions, and the Bible itself asks many questions and even encourages such searching and asking.  And, of course, the Bible gives many answers.  But sometimes the answer is, “It is not for you to know.”  And as we see in this story, we are not the only ones with unanswered questions.  It is interesting that in this very last conversation between Jesus and his disciples, the focus is on what the disciples don’t know and can’t know.  

     However, even with incomplete knowledge, and even with many yet unanswered questions, the disciples and those that followed them did go to the ends of the earth with the knowledge that they did have.  They went out and proclaimed to all the world that in Jesus Christ, God had visited this earth in person, and had shown us all the way to forgiveness and eternal life.  That message was enough for them, and they did take it from there, living and dying to proclaim it, fulfilling the work Jesus had given them to do.  They had heard Jesus teach and preach, they saw him heal the sick and give sight to the blind, they saw Jesus feed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes, they saw him calm the power of a storm at sea, and most of all, they saw him dead, and then alive again.  

     The disciples had seen and heard more than enough.  Now they could believe and proclaim that message, even without all the answers.  We are, after all, talking about God here, and God is a whole lot bigger than we are.  We don’t even understand each other.  How can we expect to be able to have a full and complete understanding of God and his ways?

     In the Christian faith, questions are encouraged, but answers are not guaranteed.  What the Bible does tell us, however, gives us plenty to work on in this life, and all we need to know to follow Jesus and inherit the life to come that he has promised.  Even the most brilliant theologians are only scratching the surface of God’s truth, but the faith that will save us is simple enough for a child to comprehend.

     So, if there is something you do not yet understand, maybe “it is not for you to know.”



Acts 1:6-9  —  Then they gathered around Jesus and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them:  “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

John 18:36  —  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”


O Lord, you know what is best for me.  Let this or that be done, as you wish.  Give what you will, how much you will, and when you will.

–Thomas a Kempis

767) “Look for a Building with a Cross on Top; There You Will Find Help”

How I Escaped from North Korea

By Joseph Kim, in the May 2015 issue of Christianity Today, pages 79-80 (adapted).  Kim is the author of Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

     At first, growing up in North Korea was like growing up anywhere else.  I had a father and mother who rarely failed to show me love, and my older sister looked after me constantly.  I caught dragonflies with friends and waited with excitement for cartoons to come on TV.

     Then, in 1995, the worst of the Great Famine descended on the land, and the privileges of my childhood were stripped away.

     When I was 12 years old, my father died of starvation.  Our house was taken away to repay a debt we owed a family friend.  That year, my mother fled to China with my sister in search of food and money.  She returned a few months later, alone.  She had sold my sister into bride slavery, a common fate for young North Korean refugees.  My mother believed it would be a better life for my sister than the one waiting back home.

     I don’t know that she even knew what sex trafficking is; most brokers highlight the benefits of being married to a Chinese man.  She was hardly the only North Korean who had to make these kinds of impossible decisions.  She continued to secretly travel to and from China until she was caught by the North Korean government and put in prison.

     With my whole family gone, I lived on the streets.  The possibility of ever being loved started to fade for me.  Before I had a chance to decide who I was on my own terms, my identity was defined by others:  homeless, orphan, beggar.  When I approached people in the food courts in the city markets, they would swat me away like a fly.  No one said, “I see how weary and hopeless you must be.”

     At age 15, I faced a choice:  I could either starve like my father, or flee the country and hope to secure a better life outside its fortified borders.  Between the certainty of death and the chance of survival, I chose survival.

     I made my escape in February 2006.  I slipped down the banks of the Tumen River, coated my shoes in sandy silt for traction, and raced across the river’s icy surface to the far shore.  It was a miracle that I made it.

     I fled full of hope.  I was sure I would have no difficulty finding food.  I imagined Chinese families handing me their leftovers, as a bowl of rice was nothing for them.  But once in China, reality hit.  Almost no one wanted to share with me.  They were irritated simply by my request for leftovers.  I was so confused.  This was not what I believed people were like.

     For a few weeks, I was barely able to beg enough to survive.  Then an elderly Chinese Korean woman approached me.  “I am so sorry— there is nothing I can offer,” she said.  “But you should go to a church.”  She told me to look for a building with a cross, and there I would find help.

     I had seen a red cross on the gates of a hospital in North Korea.  I had no idea what a cross had to do with church, but I followed her directions to a corner.  I saw a few buildings, but none bore a red cross.

     I stopped a man walking by.  “Where can I find a cross?” I asked.  “Look up,” he said.   And there it was.

     This was my first time inside a church.  It was late in the evening, and a few men lingered in the modest building.  “I am from North Korea,” I said.  “I don’t know anyone here and need help.”  One of the men gave me 20 yuan (about $3) and told me that was all they could spare.

     From that town in the northernmost part of China, I made my way to Yanji, then to Tumen City.  I wandered around until I found another church.  On the wall were written these words:  Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

     It was as if someone was talking directly to me.  I thought I heard a voice saying, I understand how exhausted you are and what a hopeless situation you are in.  Give me your hands and I will take care of you.

     A neatly dressed woman greeted me with a smile— despite the fact that I had not showered for weeks.  “How may I help you?” she asked.  I felt I needed to add urgency, so instead of giving her my usual speech, I lied.  I told her I was on my way to meet my sister in another town and needed means to get there.  The woman asked me to wait in the lobby.  She came back with 50 yuan ($8) and wished me luck.  It was the most cash I had ever held in my hands.

     A few days later, I returned to the church, imagining I would receive another 50 yuan.  This time, church members offered to let me stay temporarily.  This was better than what I expected.  I had been sleeping in a windowless abandoned house during winter; sleeping in an actual room with a blanket was enticing.  I stayed.

     A week later, I ran into the woman who had given me 50 yuan.  It turned out that she was the pastor’s wife.  I was scared that she would scold me for lying and kick me out, but she let me stay.  One afternoon, I heard members of the congregation discussing how the pastor had bad teeth but couldn’t afford dental treatment.  I thought that the lady had given me the yuan because she had money to spare.  In that moment, I realized how much 50 yuan was for her family.

     Her generous act sparked my curiosity about God.  She looked so similar to all those who had refused to give me leftover rice, yet she was different.  I started to read a Bible to know what she believed.  Despite my sincere desire to learn, I couldn’t understand it.  The vocabulary, the concept of heaven and hell— none of these made sense to me.  Still, I kept wondering about her faith.

     In China, hosting a North Korean refugee is illegal, and this church had already sheltered me for more than two weeks.  I couldn’t stay forever.  One of the members located an elderly Korean Chinese woman living in another city who was willing to take me in.  She was a devoted Christian who let me call her “Grandma.”  I didn’t know how to pray, but she encouraged me to read the Bible and taught me hymns to sing.  She gave me a new name:  Joseph.

     My first prayer to God was said in China, the night Grandma introduced me to a hymn:

Father, I stretch my hands to thee,

No other help I know;

If thou withdraw thyself from me,

Ah! Whither shall I go?

     That night I prayed, God, I don’t know who you are or whether you exist as the Bible and Christians claim.  But I need your help.

     A few months after I moved into Grandma’s home, I met a South Korean missionary who runs an underground shelter for North Koreans.  Later that year, an activist helped me relocate to the United States.  I arrived in 2007 as a refugee and began attending high school in Richmond.  Different obstacles overshadowed me there.  I couldn’t understand a single word of my classes or classmates and I could barely keep up with the stream of cultural differences.  But I learned English, graduated in four years, and am now attending college in New York City.  I attend a church in Manhattan to learn more about God and his world.

     The hymn Grandma taught me put into words what my heart needed to say.  I had been alone in the world.  At any moment, the authorities could have arrested me and sent me back to North Korea to starve.  I felt there was no one to look after me, no one who could help.  What would happen if God withdrew himself from me too?

     But I found God’s help in the churches that sheltered me, the woman who gave me the 50 yuan she couldn’t spare, and the elderly Christian who gave me my new name.  Fleeing to China, I had lost hope in human goodness.  Finding Christians there, I found that hope again.  Caring for strangers, acting compassionately without expecting anything in return:  That is the beauty of humankind.  That is the beauty of the gospel.


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

Mark 9:41  —  (Jesus said), “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”

I Peter 2:12  —  Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.


Relieve and comfort, O Lord, all the persecuted and afflicted; speak peace to trouble consciences; strengthen the weak; instruct the ignorant; deliver the oppressed; relieve the needy; and bring us all, by the waters of comfort and in the ways of righteousness, to your kingdom of rest and glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667), Anglican Bishop

766) Should We Take Down All the Fences?


By Eric Metaxas at http://www.breakpoint.org , May 15, 2015 blog entitled How Christianity Made Children

     So many of the ideas and values we take for granted today are historical innovations, brought about by the rise of Christianity.  Take the common rules of engagement that add a measure of “fairness” to warfare, or the idea that men and women are equally valuable in the sight of God.

     These days, of course, Christianity takes the fall for things that cramp peoples’ style:  monogamous marriage, chastity, the sanctity of life, and the nuclear family, to name but a few.  But in their rush to dismantle these irksome rules, modern secularists would do well to heed G. K. Chesterton’s warning about knocking down a fence before knowing why the fence was put there in the first place.

     You see, the early Christians’ insistence on sexual restraint proved enormously beneficial to the ancient world— especially to society’s most vulnerable members. 

     Take the case of children.  Writing at The Week, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry explains, “Today it is simply taken for granted that the innocence and vulnerability of children makes them beings of particular value, and entitled to particular care…[but] this view of children is a historical oddity.”

     Gobry points to the work of historian O. M. Bakke, whose book “When Children Became People” documents how radically Christianity altered the practices of ancient Greece and Rome, and what the world before Christ looked like.

     Children, he says, were considered nonpersons.  In the cultures of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Pliny the Elder, society was organized in “concentric circles,” with the most valuable (freeborn, adult males) in the center, and the least valuable (women, slaves, and children) on the fringes.

     From the moment of birth, a child in ancient Rome was as likely as not to die.  If disease or injury didn’t end a young life, very frequently the parents themselves did, “exposing” (abandoning them out in the woods) any infants deemed inconvenient.  Such children usually fell prey to wild animals or the elements.  But as Gobry points out, a few were rescued only to be raised in one of the ancient world’s most lucrative industries: sex slavery.

     Today, sexually abusing a child is a serious crime.  Not so in the pre-Christian world, writes Gobry.  During that time it was legal, and even considered good form, for a married Patrician to keep children— particularly young boys— to exploit sexually in his free time.  “Most sexual acts were permissible,” Gobry explains, “as long as they involved a person of higher status being active against or dominating a person of lower status.  This meant that, according to all the evidence we have, the sexual abuse of children…was rife.”

     Into this world came Christianity, with its condemnation of abortion, infanticide and child abuse, its glorification of faithful marriage, and its teaching that children come first in the Kingdom of Heaven.  “Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble,” said Jesus, “it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.”

     This ethic, which the Western world takes for granted today, is a direct heritage of Christianity.  It rests on the very same beliefs as traditional marriage, chastity, and the sanctity of all life.  And secularists who want nothing more than a world free from these constraints of Christian morality, warns Gobry, had better consider— or rather remember— what that world looks like.

      You may read Gobry’s article at:  


      Let me warn you, it gets graphic.  But it’s important we understand what a civilization truly free of irksome Christian rules looks like— especially if we hope to make the case for why some fences need to stay put.


Jeremiah 6:15-19  —  Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct?  No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush.  So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the Lord.  This is what the Lord says:  “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.  But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’  I appointed watchmen over you and said, ‘Listen to the sound of the trumpet!’  But you said, ‘We will not listen.’  Therefore hear, you nations; you who are witnesses, observe what will happen to them.  Hear, you earth:  I am bringing disaster on this people, the fruit of their schemes, because they have not listened to my words and have rejected my law.”

Matthew 18:6  —  (Jesus said), “If anyone causes one of these little ones— those who believe in me— to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Psalm 11:3  —  When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Proverbs 3:5-7  —  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.  Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil.


O eternal God, who has taught us in you holy Word that our bodies are temples of your Holy Spirit:  Keep us, we pray, temperate and holy in thought, word, and deed; that at the last we may see you and be made like you in your heavenly kingdom; through Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–B. F. Westcott, British Bishop and Bible scholar,  (1825-1901)


765) Bringing Sinners to God (part two of two)

     (…continued)  Sinners home from college come to church, too.  They are beginning to break away, but not yet completely.  They are thinking new thoughts now, thoughts beyond youthful hormones– doubting thoughts, thoughts calling into question everything they at one time might have believed in.  Maybe all this religion business is a sham, they wonder, and if it is, why waste time in church?  But if they do keep going to church, they will hear there that Jesus welcomes all kinds of sinners, including doubters.  

     The next age group of sinners in church is the young adults, many of them now married.  No longer is sin simply an inner struggle.  Now you have someone else, right there beside you, all the time; someone who might be more than willing to point out your sins, your shortcomings, faults, weaknesses, immaturity, inconsistencies, foolishness, and stupid mistakes.  And you are more than happy to return the favor.  Not everything pointed out by one’s partner would be a sin, but much of it would be.  And one’s spouse is not always right; but many times they are.  They might even know you better than you know yourself.  In marriage, and then in child-raising, one gets a lot of opportunities to think about what is right and what is wrong, and how often you fall short.  Sinners we are, all right.  But then, in a good marriage, one gets the opportunity to forgive and be forgiven, and so understand a little bit of how it can be that Jesus still loves sinners and calls them to himself.

     And there are lots of middle-aged and elderly sinners in church each week.  Most of these are past the rebellious stage of sin, but they are now spending some time looking back over their shoulder; looking back at mistakes, regrets, things that should have been done differently, things that should or should not have been said, times and ways one could have been more faithful, more loving, and more caring.  Faith begins to matter more to one as they get older, morality is more understood and valued, and seeing the foolishness of the young may, for many, bring back memories of one’s own wrongdoings.  Gone now is that crazy confidence of youth, and looking back over a lifetime of many mistakes and regrets can make one thankful that Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners.

     A century ago G. K. Chesterton was one of the world’s top writers.  He wrote about everything and argued with everyone.  His collected works fill over a hundred volumes.  Chesterton once entered a writing contest in which the contestants were to write an essay answering the question, “What is wrong with the world?”  Chesterton could write entire books in a single week, and he often wrote about the world situation.  Therefore, one would expect that his biggest problem on such a wide open question would be how to confine all he would have to say to the one-thousand word limit of the contest.  But Chesterton had no trouble at all coming up with a brief and concise answer.  In fact, his whole essay consisted of one sentence containing only seven words.  Chesterton wrote:  “The trouble with the world is me.”  

     Chesterton was a devout Christian, well acquainted with the Biblical message of sin and grace.  He knew very well that when the Bible talked about what was wrong with the world, it talked about sin.  And he knew that God’s Word first of all confronts each and every individual with their own sin.  After all, didn’t Jesus say we should not so much worry about the speck in someone else’s eye when there is a whole log stuck in our own eye?  There certainly is a lot wrong in the world, and with 24-hour news stations, we can hear about it all day, every day.  And most of the problems can be traced back to the sinful decisions of individuals, including each one of us.  Therefore, to begin to change the world, we must first of all change ourselves.  An old German proverb says, “If each person swept in front of his own door, the whole world would be clean.”  

     G. K. Chesterton was merely stating the Biblical message when he wrote, “The trouble with the world is me.”  The trouble with the world is the combined sins of each individual.  Jesus said he came to save sinners, and to make all things new.

     Whatever our conscious reasons for being in church this morning, we are indeed here because Jesus has called us here for the forgiveness of our sins.  And his intent is to not only to forgive our sins now, and then give us eternal life when we die.  That too, of course, but in the meantime Jesus wants to change us, and through us, change the world.  Every time we sin we make things a little worse, but each time we obey God’s word, an improvement is made.  If each person swept in front of his own door, the whole world would be clean.


Mark 2:16-17  —  When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw (Jesus) eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples:  “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”  On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 7:3  —  (Jesus said), “Why do you look at the speck in the eye of your brother, but do not consider the log in your own eye?”

Revelation 3:19b-20a  —   (Jesus said), “Be earnest and repent.  Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.”


God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  –Luke 18:13

764) Bringing Sinners to God (part one of two)

The Seven Deadly Sins




I Peter 3:18a  —  For Christ died for sins once and for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.


     Jesus died so that he could bring sinners to God.  We have come here this morning to respond to that call to be brought back to God.  Those who come to church are sinners, for whom Christ died.  SINNERS.  It is a word that is used less and less these days, but it is what the Bible calls us, and that is what we are.

     Even the littlest among us are sinners.  When those little babies are brought up front to be baptized, we pray that God would “wash away their sin.”  Sin?  What sin?  What can a baby do wrong?  But think about it.  Though outwardly they are cuddly and cute, is there anything more self-centered and ill-mannered than a baby?  Every once in a while the peace and quiet of our worship service is interrupted by the cries and squawking of a baby.  It is great to have the babies here, and they are cute, and they are important to the future of a congregation.  But they don’t care if we are trying to have a church service.  If they want to make a racket, they will make a racket.  And when they are at home want to be fed, they don’t care if you are busy with something else, or if you are trying to sleep; they will demand your attention NOW.  All babies think about is themselves.  Sinners, they are, even if they don’t know it yet.  So even if they are only two weeks old when they are come to church, they are coming to the right place, because Jesus calls all sinners unto himself.

     But babies can’t help it, can they?  They are babies.  They don’t know what is going on.  Are we really ‘sinners from our mother’s womb,’ as the Bible says?  Well, what happens as soon as those cute little babies do know what is going on?  Immediately, they begin to resist you, and they continue to be demanding, even when they know they are irritating you, and sometimes, especially then.  Rebellion and selfishness, two of the central characteristics of our sinfulness as described in the Bible, are there right from the beginning.  Two of the first words every child learns are NO, which comes from a sinful rebellious spirit, and MINE, which shows a sinful selfish spirit.  Does anyone ever have to teach their children to fight over the same toy?  Did any of you ever have to teach your children to defy you and stomp their little foot on the floor and say, “No, I won’t do it!?”  You don’t have to teach them any of that.  Rather, you have to teach them to obey and how to share.  Where do they get that defiance, selfishness, and disobedience?  They are “sinners from their mother’s womb,” just like the Bible says.  There is something wrong with us right from the beginning.

     So these little sinners are carried to church; and then in a couple years are led by the hand, perhaps even pulled along a bit.  An hour ago, they might have been putting up a fight, but a rule is a rule, and here they are.  As they get older, some of them might have even, at times, said they hate church.  So they sit here, sullen, determined not to get anything out of it, muttering to themselves that when they are parents, they for sure aren’t going to put their kids through this.  Ten, twelve years old, they are, and they lack experience and expertise in so many areas of life.  But in one area of life, they are already masters.  They are expert sinners; defiant, rebellious, selfish sinners.  They know how to defy you and irritate you and wear you down, and it is their parents’ job to teach them how to resist the sin that is in them and do what is right.

     When they get to be a few years older they are still sinners.  But now they are more aware of their sin than any time previously in their lives.  Perhaps they have been out with their friends the night before, and the contrast between the conversation and the activities of the night before, and the Sunday morning worship is striking, and they know it.  And they know about the sin within themselves; deep dark sin, dirty thoughts, mean thoughts, defiant thoughts, thoughts about things you aren’t supposed to be thinking about at all.  They are looking at things on their computer that they know they shouldn’t be looking at.  Conversations with friends grow more crude, and they might even be ashamed of themselves at times, but they would not admit that to anyone.  Sin?  Yes, they know about sin.  They could even tell you that Jesus forgives sinners.  They remember the formula from Sunday School.  But they don’t want any part of that now, and that is the very worst part of their sin.  They want to turn away from what they need most of all, and in that crazy confidence of youth, they think they can manage just fine without God.  They are sinners, through and through.  But Jesus keeps the door open for them, too.  That door that is always open– to all sinners.  (continued…)


Lord, in your mercy, do not hold my sins against me, but forgive what is in the past and give me grace to amend my life; so that I may decline from sin and incline to virtue, and walk before you with a pure heart, now and forevermore.  Amen.

–16th century

763) What’s Next?


“It is likely that I will die in my bed.  My successor will die in prison.  His successor will die executed in the public square.  His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

–Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who died April 17, 2015


I John 3:13  —  Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.

John 15:17-  —  (Jesus said), “This is my command:  Love each other.  If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember what I told you:  A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me.  If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.  Whoever hates me hates my Father as well.  If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin.  As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father.  But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law:  ‘They hated me without reason.’”



Sovereign Lord, you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.  You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’ …Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.


762) Life Getting Easier

By Garrison Keillor, Life Among the Lutherans, pp. 82-3

     …It’s bad luck, but nonetheless she was thinking it:  there does come a point in life where a great deal that used to be worrisome simply becomes easier.  It’s surprising how easy life can get.  I associate this with winter, when the weather gets cold and sometimes ferocious, and life inside becomes simpler and lovelier.  A man and woman look at each other across the breakfast table and realize it’s been a long time since they’ve had bad feelings about each other, these two who’ve gone through rough patches when big arguments could come up suddenly out of nowhere that left them emotionally drained and sorrowful for days, and now it feels as if they’ve turned a corner and found something easy, a simple pleasure in each other, in their domestic arrangements, in their mutual life, in lying in bed and rubbing her back.  It’s so easy when it’s easy.  You come to this time unaware of it, and gradually it dawns on you that you don’t covet anything anymore, you’re not ambitious for yourself anymore, you enjoy the success of other people and are happy for them, and you see so often how unable they are to be happy about their own success, but that’s not your problem.  You’ve come to this sweet time in life.

     She put the spaghetti in the boiling water.  She hummed:  “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…”  It’s Grandma’s Spaghetti.  A wonderful dish for people who’ve had too much cuisine and been eating in restaurants where the waiter recites the recipe of each special dish, who’ve tried too hard to make their own noodles and do the sauce from the recipe that starts out, “Two days before, marinade the chopped livers in a half  cup of salt-free soy sauce– I prefer the kind from the northern islands, which is available in most Asian food specialty stores.”  For people who’ve been trying too hard, Grandma’s Spagetthi is a great treat.  The chopped tomatoes simmer in the chopped onion and butter– you can add garlic if you like, or not.  Or basil.  Or not.  And the spaghetti cooks.  And you take the spaghetti out of the water and put it in the sauce and moosh it around and serve it up with grated Parmesan on top and it’s good.  And easy.  “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear…. In His arms He’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.”


Proverbs 5:18  —  May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.

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.”

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


O Lord, whose way is perfect, help us always to trust in thy goodness; that walking with thee and following thee in all simplicity, we may possess quiet and contented minds, and may cast all our care on thee who carest for us; for Jesus’s sake.  Amen.

–Christina Rossetti  (1830-1894), British poet

761) It Could Be Worse

By Garrison Keillor, in Life Among the Lutherans, pages 5-7.

     I am a cheerful man, and it’s all thanks to a good Lutheran mother.  When I was a boy, if I came around looking glum or mopey, she said, “What’s the matter?  Did the dog pee on your cinnamon toast?” and the thought of our old black mutt raising his hind leg and peeing on toast made me giggle.  My dad, Byron, was a little edgy, expecting the worst, saving glass jars and paper clips, turning off lights and cranking down the thermostat to keep our family out of the poorhouse; but mother was well-composed, a true Lutheran, and taught me to Cheer up, Make yourself useful, Mind your manners, and, above all, Don’t feel sorry for yourself.  In Minnesota, you learn to avoid self-pity as if it were poison ivy in the woods.  Winter is not a personal experience; everyone else is as cold as you are, so don’t complain about it too much.  Even if your cinnamon toast gets peed on.  It could be worse.

     Being Lutheran, Mother believed that self-pity is a deadly sin and so is nostalgia, and she had no time for either.  She’d sat at the bedside of her beloved sister, Dotty, dying of scarlet fever in the summer of 1934; she held Dotty’s hand as the sky turned dark from their father’s fields blowing away in the drought; she cleaned Dotty, wiped her, told her stories, changed the sheets; and out of the nightmare summer she emerged stronger, confident that life would be wondrous, or at least bearable.

     It was a good place to grow up, Lake Wobegon.  Kids migrated around town as free as birds and did their stuff, put on coronations and executions in the long, dim train shed and the deserted depot, fought the Indian wars, made ice forts and lobbed grenades at each other, dammed up the spring melt in the gutters, swam at the beach, raced bikes in the alley.  You were free, but you knew how to behave.  You didn’t smart off to your elders, and if a lady you didn’t know came by and told you to blow your nose, you blew it.  Your parents sent you off to school with lunch money and told you to be polite and do what the teacher said, and if there was a problem at school, it was most likely your fault and not the school’s.  Your parents were large and slow afoot and they did not read books about parenting, and when they gathered with other adults, at Lutheran church suppers or family get-togethers, they didn’t talk about schools or about prevailing theories of child development.  They did not weave their lives around yours.  They had their own lives, which were mysterious to you. 

     I remember the day I graduated from tricyle to shiney new two-wheeler, a big day.  I wobbled down Green Street and made a U-turn and waved to Mother on the front porch, and she wasn’t there.  She had tired of watching me and gone in.  I was shocked at her lack of interest.  I went racing around the corner onto McKinley Street, riding very fast so I would have big tales to tell her, and I raced down the hill past the Catholic church and the old black mutt ran out to greet me and I swerved and skidded on loose gravel and tumbled off the bike onto the pavement and skinned myself and lay on the tar, weeping, hoping for someone to come pick me up, but nobody came.  The dog barked at me to get up.  I limped three blocks home with the skin scraped off my forearm and knee, my eyes brimming with tears, and when I came into the kitchen, my mother looked down at me and said, “It’s only a scrape.  Go wash it off.  You’re okay.”

     And when I washed, she sat me down with a toasted cheese sandwich and told me to remember not to ride my bike so fast.  She gave me a fresh, soft peanut butter cookie.  She wiped the last remaining tears from my cheek.  She said, “Go outside and play.  You’re all right.”

     In Lake Wobegon, you learned about being All Right.  Life is complicated, so think small.  You can’t live life in raging torrents; you have to take it one day at a time.  And if you need drama, read Dickens.  My dad said, “You can’t plant corn and date women at the same time.  It doesn’t work.”  One thing at a time.  The lust for world domination does not make for the good life.  That’s the life of the raccoon, a swashbuckling animal who goes screaming into battle one spring night, races around, wins a mate, carries on a heroic raccoon career, only to be driven from the creek bed the next spring by a young stud who leaves teeth marks in your butt and takes away your girlfriend, and you lie weeping and wounded in the ditch.  Later that night, you crawl out of the sumac and hurl yourself into the path of oncoming headlights.  Your gruesome carcass lies on the asphalt to be picked at by crows.  Nobody misses you much.  Your babies grow up and do the same thing.  Nothing is learned.  This is a life for bank robbers.  It is not a life for sensible people.

     The urge to be top dog is a bad urge.  Inevitable tragedy.  A sensible person seeks to be at peace, to read books, to know the neighbors, take walks, enjoy his portion, live to be eighty, and wind up fat and happy, although a little wistful when the first coronary walks up and slugs him in the chest.  Nobody is meant to be a star.  Charisma is pure fiction, and so is brilliance.  It’s the dummies who want to sit front and center, and it’s the smart people who sit in the dark near the exits.  That is the Lake Wobegon view of life.


Romans 12:3  —  Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

Proverbs 17:1  —  Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.

1 Timothy 6:7-9  —  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.


Give us, O Lord, a true humility, a meek and quiet spirit; a loving and friendly, holy and useful conversation; bearing the burdens of our neighbors, denying ourselves, looking for opportunities to benefit others, and to please thee in all things.  Amen.

–John Cosin  (1594-1672), Bishop of Durham