790) The Imitation of Christ (d)

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

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Seek a suitable time for quiet devotion and meditate often on the blessings and loving-kindness of God.  If you withdraw yourself from unnecessary talking and idle running about, and also from listening to gossip and rumors, you will find time enough for meditation.

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Never rest secure in this life, even though you seem to be a good and devout person.  It happens very often that those who are highly esteemed are more seriously endangered by their own excessive confidence.  Hence, for many it is better not to be too free from afflictions, but often to be tried, lest they become too secure, too filled with pride, or too eager to yield to worldly comforts.

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It is better for a man to be obscure and to attend to his salvation, than to neglect it and be successful and famous.

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If you would think more often of death (Ecclesiastes 7:2) than of living a long life, there is no question that you would more diligently amend your way of life.  And if you pondered in your heart the pains that are to be in hell, I believe you would willingly endure any labor or trouble, and would not be afraid of even the greatest hardship.  But if these thoughts never pierce your heart, and if you remain so in love with pleasure, you will remain very cold and indifferent.  Our wretched body complains so easily because our soul is altogether too weak.

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Take care, lest you be guilty of doing those things which, in others, you consider displeasing.  And, if you have ever been guilty of doing such things, try to correct yourself as soon as possible.  As you see others, so they see you (Matt. 7:3).

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How great is the frailty of human nature which is ever prone to evil (Genesis 6:5)!  Today you confess your sins and tomorrow you again commit the very sins which you confessed.  One moment you resolve to be careful, and yet after an hour you act as though you had made no resolution at all.  We have good cause, therefore, to humble ourselves and never think anything great of ourselves since we are so frail and inconsistent.  

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‘Thoughts on the Misery of Man’

Miserable you are, wherever you be, or whither you turn, unless you turn to God.  So why be dismayed when things do not happen as you wish and desire?  Is there anyone who has everything as he wishes?  No, there is no one in the world, be he Pope or king, who does not suffer trial and anguish.  Who, then, is the better off?  Surely, it is the man who will suffer something for God.

Many weak-minded people say with envy:  “See how well that man lives, how rich, how great he is, how powerful and mighty.”  But you must lift up your eyes to the riches of heaven and then you will realize that such temporal things are nothing.  Wealth and fame and pleasure are all very uncertain, and in fact, rather burdensome, because they are never possessed without anxiety and fear (Luke 12:19-21).  Man’s happiness does not consist in the possession of abundant goods.  A moderate portion is sufficient.

Living on earth is a misery (Job 14:1; Eccl. 2:17).  Woe to those who know not their own misery, and greater woe to those who love only this miserable and corruptible life.  How foolish and faithless are those who are so engrossed in earthly things that they pay no attention to anything spiritual, but only to what gives them physical pleasure! (Romans 8:5)  Miserable they are indeed, for in the end they will be sorrowful to see how cheap and worthless were the things that they loved.  The friends of Christ do not look to what pleases the body nor to the things that are popular in this present time.  Their whole hope and aim longs for that which is eternal (Hebrews 11:13-16; I Peter 1:3-5), lest the love of what is visible drag them down to those things below which will soon perish.

Do not lose heart, then, in pursuing your spiritual life.  You still have time, and your hour is not yet past (Romans 13:11).  Why delay your good purpose from day to day?  Begin at once and say: “Now is the time to act, now is the time to amend my ways.”  When you are troubled and afflicted, that is the best time to gain a blessing.  You must pass through the fire before coming to rest.  Unless you are hard on yourself, you will never gain the victory over wickedness and unbelief.

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Ecclesiastes 7:2b — …Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.

I John 2:17 — The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.

Matthew 7:1-3 — (Jesus said), “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.  Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”

Job 14:1 — Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.

Romans 13:11b — The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.

Psalm 57:1 — Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.

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Be present with me, O Lord, in every time and every place.  Let this be my consolation, to be cheerfully willing to do without all human comfort.  And, if Thy consolation be lacking, let Thy will and just trial of me be unto me as the greatest comfort.  Amen.

–Thomas a Kempis

789) The Imitation of Christ (c)

Monument on Mount Saint Agnes in Zwolle:  “Here lived Thomas van Kempen in the service of the Lord and wrote On the Imitation of Christ, 1406-1471″

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

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The Value of Adversity

It is good for us to have trials and troubles at times, for they often remind us that we are on probation and ought not put all our hope in any worldly thing.  It is good for us sometimes to suffer contradictions, and that men think ill of us, even though we do well and mean well.  These things help us to be humble and shield us from pride.  When to all outward appearances men give us no credit, and when they do not think well of us, then we are more inclined to seek God who sees our hearts.  Therefore, a man ought to root himself so firmly in God that he will not need the consolations of men.  When a man of good will is afflicted, tempted, and tormented by evil thoughts, then he understands better the great need he has of God, without whom he can do no good.  Saddened by his miseries and sufferings, he laments and prays.  Then he understands that perfect security and complete peace cannot be found in this world.

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Resisting Temptation

So long as we live in this world we cannot escape suffering and temptation.  It is written in Job: “The life of man upon earth is a hard service” (Job 7:1).  Everyone, therefore, must guard against temptation and must watch in prayer lest the devil find occasion to deceive him.  The devil never sleeps, but goes about “seeking whom he may devour” (I Peter 5:8).  No one is so perfect and holy, but that he sometimes has temptations.  Yet temptations, though troublesome and grievous, are often profitable to a man, for in them he is humbled, purified, and instructed…

There is no one that is altogether safe from temptations while he lives on earth; for the root of temptation is in ourselves, in that we were born in sin and with evil desires (James 1:13,14).  When one temptation or trial goes away, another comes.  We shall always have something to suffer, because we have lost the state of original blessedness (Genesis 3).  Deal not roughly with others who are tempted, but comfort them as you yourself would wish to be comforted.  The beginning of all temptation lies in a wavering mind and little trust in God, for as a rudderless ship is driven to and fro by the waves, so a careless and irresolute person is tempted in many ways (James 1:6; 3:4,5).  Fire tempers iron, and temptation steels the just.  Often we do not know what we can stand, but temptation shows us what we are.

Above all, we must be especially alert against the beginnings of temptation, for the enemy is more easily conquered if he is refused admittance to the mind and is met at the gate when he knocks.  Someone has said very aptly: “Resist the beginnings; remedies often come too late, when by long delay the evil has gained strength.”  First, a mere thought comes to mind, then strong imagination, followed by pleasure, evil delight, and consent.  And so little by little our wicked enemy gains complete entrance, because he was not resisted in the beginning.  The longer one delays in resisting, so much the weaker does he become each day, while the strength of the enemy grows against him.  In temptations and trials the progress of a man is measured.  It is no great thing for a man to be fervent and devout when he feels no affliction; but if he bears up patiently in time of adversity, there is hope for great progress.

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I Peter 5:8-10  —  Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.  And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.
 
James 1:12-15  —  Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.  When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.”  For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death. 
 
1 Corinthians 10:12-13  —   …If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.  No temptation has seized you except what is common to man.  And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. 

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Forgive me my sins, O Lord: the sins of my present and the sins of my past; the sins of my soul and the sins of my body; the sins I have done to please myself and the sins which I have done to please others.  Forgive me my casual sins and my deliberate sins, and those which I have labored so to hide that I have hidden them even from myself.  Forgive me them, O Lord, forgive them all; for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.   

–Thomas Wilson (d. 1775)

788) The Imitation of Christ (b)

Thomas à Kempis - De Imitatione Christi.gif

The manuscript of De Imitatione Christi  (Wikipedia)

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

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“Blessed…O Lord, is the man you teach from your Law” (Psalm 94:12).  Happy is the one who learns the truth, not in words that pass away, but as it actually is.  Our opinions and our own senses often deceive us, and we discern very little…  It is great folly to neglect the things that are profitable and necessary, and to give our minds to things that are irrelevant and harmful.

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Every perfection in this life has some imperfection mixed with it; and no knowledge of ours is without some darkness.  Humble knowledge of self is a surer path to God than the ardent pursuit of learning.  Not that learning is to be considered evil; or knowledge, which is good in itself and so ordained by God; but a clean conscience and virtuous life ought always to be preferred.  Many err and accomplish little or nothing because they try to become learned rather than to live well.  Oh, if men only bestowed as much labor in the rooting out of vices and the planting of virtues as they do in proposing questions, there would not be so much evil and scandal in the world, nor so much looseness among us, nor such laxity in religious devotion.  Surely, when the day of judgment comes, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done (Matthew 25); not how well we have spoken, but how well we have lived.

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Tell me, where now are all the masters and teachers whom you knew so well in life and who were famous for their learning?  Others have already taken their places; others who do not even think of their predecessors.  During life they seemed to be something; but now they are seldom remembered.  How quickly the glory of the world passes away! (Eccl. 2:11)…  How many there are who perish because of vain worldly knowledge and too little care for serving God.

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Do not yield to every impulse and suggestion, but consider things carefully and patiently in the light of God’s will.  For very often, sad to say, we are so weak that we believe and speak evil of others rather than good.  Good men, however, do not readily believe every talebearer, for they know that human frailty is prone to evil, and will likely sin in speaking.  It is great wisdom to not act rashly (Proverbs 19:2), or to cling obstinately to one’s opinion; and to not believe everything people say, or to spread abroad the gossip one has heard.  

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    When a man desires something too much, he is immediately disquieted within himself.  The proud and covetous are never at rest; whereas he who is poor and humble of heart lives in a world of peace (Psalm 37:11).  A man that cannot deny himself is quickly tempted and can be overcome by small afflictions.  His spirit is weak and he cannot abstain from earthly desires.  Hence, it makes him sad to go without them; and he is quickly angered if reproved.  Yet, even when he attains that which he had desired, he is burdened with remorse of conscience; because he followed his sinful passions, and they did not lead to the peace he sought.  True peace of heart, then, is found by resisting our passions, not by obeying them.  There is no peace in the heart of one given to outward things and to vain attractions.
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If you have wealth, do not glory in it, nor in friends because they are powerful, but in God who gives all things, and who desires above all to give you Himself.  Do not boast of personal stature or of physical beauty, qualities which can be disfigured and destroyed by a little sickness.  Do not take pride in your talent or ability, lest you displease God to whom belongs all the natural gifts that you have.
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    If there be any good in you, see more good in others, so that you may remain humble.  It does no harm to esteem yourself lower than all others, but it is very harmful to think yourself better than even one.  The humble live in continuous peace, while in the hearts of the proud are envy, indignation, and frequent anger.
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John 8:12  —  When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jeremiah 17:5  —  This is what the Lord says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” 
 
I Corinthians 2:4-5  —  My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
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O God, you who are the truth, make me one with you.  I am often wearied by the many things I hear and read, but in you is all that I desire.  Let the learned be still.  You alone speak to me.  AMEN.   

–Thomas a Kempis

787) The Imitation of Christ (a)

The meditations for the next few days will be from The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a Kempis.

     Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) was a priest, monk, and writer.  His family name was Hammercken, and he was born in the town of Kempen near Düsseldorf in Germany.  He attended a school at nearby Deventer in Holland, and was taught by the ‘Brothers of the Common Life.’  These were men devoted to prayer, simplicity, and union with God.  Thomas ‘of Kempen,’ as he was known at school, was so impressed by his teachers that he decided to live his life according to their ideals.  When he was 19, he entered the monastery of Mount St. Agnes in Holland, and spent the rest of his long life behind the walls of that monastery.

     The pattern of Thomas’s life remained the same over the years.  He devoted his time to prayer, study, copying manuscripts, teaching novices, offering Mass, and hearing the confessions of people who came to the monastery church.  From time to time Thomas was given a position of authority in the community of monks, but he consistently preferred the quiet of his cell to the challenge of administration.  The other monks eventually recognized Thomas’s talent for deep thought and stopped troubling him with practical affairs.

     Thomas wrote a number of sermons, letters, and hymns.  The most famous of his works by far is The Imitation of Christ.  This small book, free from intellectual pretensions, has had great appeal to anyone interested in probing beneath the surface of life.  Thomas died in the same monastic obscurity in which he had lived on August 8, 1471.

     The Imitation of Christ has been for five hundred years the most widely read book of Christian devotion in the world.  Many regard it as second only to the Bible in its simplicity of expression and the depth of its meaning.  Thomas’s approach to the Christian life is challenging and his admonitions are often severe.  But Thomas would probably tell us that it is a lack of such firmness with ourselves that results in our fragile spirits, and such weakness leads to much of our misery.  “You must be hard on yourself,” he wrote, ” or you will never gain the victory over wickedness and unbelief.”

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FROM THE IMITATION OF CHRIST:

“He who follows Me, shall not walk in darkness,” says the Lord (John 8:12).  By these words of Christ we are advised to imitate His life and habits, if we wish to be truly enlightened and free from all blindness of heart.  Let our chief endeavor, therefore, be to meditate upon the life of Jesus Christ…  Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his life on that of Christ.  

The greatest wisdom is to seek the kingdom of heaven.  It is useless to seek and trust in riches that perish.  It is useless to follow the desires of the flesh, and to long after that for which you must afterward suffer grievous punishment.  It is useless to wish for a long life and to care little about a well-spent life.  It is useless to be concerned with the present life only, and to not make provision for things to come.  It is useless to love what passes quickly and to not look ahead where eternal joy abides.

A humble laborer who serves God is better than a proud intellectual who neglects his soul to study the course of the stars.

If you see another sin openly or commit a serious offense, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good standing.  All of us are frail, and you ought not think anyone more frail than yourself.

Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be, since you cannot make yourself as you wish to be.

First keep peace with yourself, then you can also bring peace to others.

How quickly passes away the glory of this world.

How seldom we weigh our neighbor in the same balance with ourselves.

The cross is always ready and waits for you everywhere.  You cannot escape it no matter where you run, for wherever you go you are burdened with yourself.  Wherever you go, there you are.

All men commend patience, although few are willing to practice it.

Who has a harder fight than he who is striving to overcome himself?

So fixed are our spirits in slothfulness and cold indifference that we seldom overcome so much as one evil habit.

Constantly choose to want less, rather than to have more.

He that does not avoid small faults, little by little falls into greater ones.

Let not your peace rest in the utterances of men, for whether they speak good or bad of your conduct does not make you other than you are.

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Proverbs 28:6  —  Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse.

Job 16:22  —  (Job said), “Only a few years will pass before I go on the journey of no return.”
Proverbs 3:11-12 — My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in.

Hebrews 12:11 — No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

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Help me, O Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such a way that they may unite my heart more closely with you.  Cause them to separate my affections from worldly things and inspire my soul with more vigor in the pursuit of true happiness.  Amen.
–Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), mother of John and Charles Wesley and 17 other children

786) Life Together

     There was never any Golden Age for the church.  From the beginning there have been problems galore.  You’ll get that in any organization that is made up of sinful human beings.  Groucho Marx once said, “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”  Well, that’s the church.  We’ll let anyone in because that’s what Jesus told us to do, going out to the street corners, inviting in all who will come.

     A Christian congregation is like no other human organization on earth.  We do many of the same things that are done in other organizations; elect leaders, meet to talk over the business of the organization, agree and disagree, serve those in need, get together for meals or coffee, maintain a building, hire staff, raise funds, and manage a budget.  But the main reason that we exist is to simply meet together at least once a week in God’s name, and to hear a Word for us from that God.  Think about that.  We are given the opportunity to keep in touch with God:  you know, God, who created this whole universe, the One who holds in his hand your next heartbeat.  That God has something he wants you to hear, and he invites you to bring your thoughts and needs to Him in worship and prayer.  Even that can become routine and boring, but our faith is the only thing in our lives that expands our possibilities beyond this brief life in this temporary little world.  Therefore, once a week we gather together to remind ourselves of God and of eternity. As a pastor, I am privileged to be the one up front week after week to speak that Word.  It is not my Word, but the Word of the Almighty Creator God; explained, expanded upon, and illustrated by me, yes, but it is God’s Word, and we depend on the Holy Spirit to work in and through that Word.

     A while back I saw a little girl wearing a pink shirt which said, “It’s all about me.”  Wow!  Aren’t you already feeling sorry for her future husband?  That is not a very good attitude to implant in a child’s mind, and it is the complete opposite of what the church is all about.  Church is not all about me or you, and it’s not all about the old folks who are the foundation and financial backbone of the church, and it’s not about the youth who are the future of the church, and it’s not even all about the budget or the building.  Rather, church is all about God and what God has to say to you.

     Many years ago, on my first Sunday in a congregation, an elderly lady came over to greet me.  After introducing herself, she said with a sneer, “I’ve been a member of this church for a long time, and I’ve seen a lot of you pastors come and go, and I know what you are like, and you are all the same.  Welcome to ____ Lutheran.”  I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, and the way she said it was a little scary.  But I have to admit, part of what she said was true.  Pastors are different in many ways, so she was wrong about that; but we do come and go.  And we are all the same in that we are sinners like the rest of you; and we do come with our own mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses, gifts and quirks, skills and short-comings.  But hopefully, along with all of those secondary, organizational things we have to do, we will, by the grace of God, also faithfully bring you a bit of God’s Word each week.  It is indeed all about God.

     That lady turned out to be a difficult one, but she was, at the same time, a faithful servant.  She had a common trait found in many church members– she was difficult because she cared.  She cared about her church and wanted things done right, and that’s a good thing.  But right for her meant doing everything her way, and that’s not a good thing.  But I learned from working with people like her to appreciate the care and the hard work behind their rough edges; and people like her need to learn to care and work in less difficult ways.  And none of us ever get it completely right.  

     That is why we come to church, and that is why we begin each service with the confession of our sins and by hearing God’s word of forgiveness.

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Matthew 22:1-3…8-10  —  Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying:  “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.  He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come…  Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come.  So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’  So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

1 Peter 2:9-10  —  You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

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Petition from the Book of Common Prayer, Sunday morning ‘Prayers of the People’:

For this congregation, for those who are present, and for
those who are absent, that we may be delivered from
hardness of heart, and show forth your glory in all that we
do, we pray to you, O Lord.

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The church is not the only sinful human institution with problems.  With next year’s elections already dominating the news, here is one more Groucho Marx quote:

785) True Greatness

     The 2007 movie The Ultimate Gift begins with the funeral of a wealthy Texas oilman.  The scene then shifts to an attorney’s office where the man’s will is being read.  It is clear this family does not get along, they do not care about each other, and they obviously did not love their father and grandfather.  They are gathered together only because they are eager to get their share of the money.  And they all do receive the expected huge inheritances, far more money than any of them would ever need.  Even so, they all leave upset and bitter because they think it should have been done differently.  Finally, only one person remains in the room, a grandson named Jason.  Jason is the classic spoiled rich kid.  He has a bad attitude and seems to have hated his grandfather more than anyone, even blaming him for his father’s death.  The attorney clearly does not like Jason, and Jason does not like anybody.  

     Grandpa’s wish was for Jason to be given the contents of a sealed box.  The box is opened, and it contains nothing but a DVD disc.  The attorney plays the disc for Jason, and it is Jason’s grandpa talking to him.  Grandpa expresses his affection for Jason, and his desire to have Jason do some things before he hears about his inheritance, which may or may not be very much.  No guarantees are given, except that if Jason refuses to do what he is told, there would be absolutely nothing for him.

     Jason is irritated by the whole thing, but decides to do what he is told.  He does not yet know that what he was told to do was only the first step of what would be a very long process.  And though quite rebellious at first, Jason is drawn in toward an interest in and appreciation of what his dead grandfather is trying to tell him and do for him on this video-taped message, made in the grandfather’s dying days.

     I will describe just one of the steps the grandfather had Jason accomplish.  In one of the first video clips, grandpa’s task for Jason is that he must, within the next 30 days, find and return with one true friend, someone who will stick with him through anything.  “Well,” thinks Jason, “that will be easy– I have lots of friends.”  What Jason was not told was that the grandfather had pre-arranged that all of Jason’s credit cards would be cancelled and all his possessions taken away.  

     Jason had never worked and had never bought anything on his own, so he had no legal right to anything.  Therefore, Jason gradually found out he was penniless.  His car was towed away, he was locked out of his apartment, and his cell phone service was cancelled.  His own mother was forbidden to help him or she would lose her trust account.  In just a few days, Jason went from being a spoiled rich kid with lots of money and many friends, to being  homeless with… guess what?  No friends!  Jason can no longer support all his former ‘friends,’ but now needs them; and they are unwilling to help in any way.  No one will even give him a couch to sleep on, and Jason is out on the street.  At the end of the 30 days, and just in time, Jason does meet someone who is willing to befriend what he has now become– a scruffy looking street person.  And in that friendship with someone who is also having some troubles, Jason begins to learn some of what his grandfather was hoping to teach him.

     Jason’s uncles and aunts, his mother, and his cousins all received millions of dollars at the reading of the will.  Jason received a few videotaped words from his dead grandfather.  But what Jason received turned out to be the best gift of all; or, as the movie title says, The Ultimate Gift.

     Jesus often talked about what it means to be honored and exalted and distinguished, and, what it means to be humiliated and humbled and put in the very lowest place.  Jesus was always turning our notions of greatness upside-down, as when he said, “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  There was also the time when the disciples were arguing about who among them would be the greatest, and Jesus quietly began to wash their feet, the job of slaves and servants.  Jesus then said to them, “Which of you is greater than your master?– look at me, I am among you as one who serves, and the greatest among you is the one who serves others.”

     At the beginning of the movie, the viewer might be tempted to think, “Wouldn’t it be great to inherit all that money?”  But then the viewer sees how Jason begins to grow into true greatness when he is left with nothing.  Jesus often spoke of the greatness of sharing what you have been given.  When Jason carried credit cards without limits, he lived only for himself.  But when he was left with nothing, he learned humility and how to share.

     Jesus told many parables.  These stories of everyday people would illustrate the truths he was teaching.  The Ultimate Gift is a similar ‘parable’ on the kind of life Jesus would want us to live, and it is clear that the principles being taught by grandpa are from Jesus.  Jesus even makes two or three appearances in the movie in the form of a statue in a chapel where three of the characters go for prayer.  The religious message of the movie is worked in quietly and gently, but in such a way that it cannot be missed.  The people go into the chapel and look to Jesus for guidance and wisdom and strength and hope.  The ‘ultimate gift’ is learning to live as Jesus would have us live.

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Matthew 20:16  —  (Jesus said), “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Luke 22:24-27  —  A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.  Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.”

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O God, grant your people to love what you command and desire what you promise, so that, amidst the uncertainties of this world, our hearts may be fixed on that place where true joy is found.  Amen.  

–From an ancient prayer

784) Not the Answer

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Job 8:8-15  —  Ask the former generation and find out what their ancestors learned, for we were born only yesterday and know nothing, and our days on earth are but a shadow.  Will they not instruct you and tell you?  Will they not bring forth words from their understanding?

Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh?  Can reeds thrive without water?
While still growing and uncut, they wither more quickly than grass.
Such is the destiny of all who forget God; so perishes the hope of the godless.
What they trust in is fragile; what they rely on is a spider’s web.
They lean on the web, but it gives way; they cling to it, but it does not hold.

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Ecclesiastes 2:1-11  —    I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.”  But that also proved to be meaningless.  “Laughter,” I said, “is madness.  And what does pleasure accomplish?”  I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly– my mind still guiding me with wisdom.  I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.  I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.  I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house.  I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.  I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well– the delights of a man’s heart.  I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.  In all this my wisdom stayed with me.  I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.  Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

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Mark 12:29-31  —  Jesus said, “The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God is the only Lord.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  The second is this:  Love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no greater commandment than these.”

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Matthew 6:19-21…24-34  —  (Jesus said), “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…  No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.

     “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

   “And why do you worry about clothes?  See how the flowers of the field grow.  They do not labor or spin.  Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.  If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you– you of little faith?  So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

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Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you, all things are passing; patient endurance attains all things. 

One whom God possesses lacks nothing, for God alone suffices.    

–Teresa of Avila

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Eternal God, you ask that I rely on you alone with all my heart in all things.  It is your earnest desire to be my God, and I must believe in you as my Lord, or, suffer the loss of eternal salvation.  My heart shall neither build on nor rely on anything else, whether it be property, honor, wisdom, power, purity, or any person.   Amen.  

 –Prayer on the 1st commandment by Martin Luther

783) Seeing Others as Jesus Sees Them (part two)

The Widow's Mite by James Tissot

(continued…)

Mark 12:41-44:  Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.  Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.  Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything– all she had to live on.”

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     In this story Jesus invites his disciples to look at, and to really see, this poor widow.  They were sitting in the temple, and they were all looking at something else.  They were looking at the huge gifts that the wealthy members were putting into the temple treasury.  But Jesus invited them to look at someone they had not noticed.  It was a woman who came and put only two very small copper coins.  What is there to notice about that?  The temple would never meet its budget with little gifts like that.  But Jesus doesn’t look at budgets so much as he looks at hearts, and here in this woman’s heart he saw a greater generosity than what was behind all of the far larger gifts.  Along with that, Jesus reminded the disciples to be understanding of the plight of others.  He told them in verse 44 of the woman’s poverty, and that she gave “all she had to live on.”  We usually see this part of the text as a lesson in total devotion, but can also be seen as a reminder to the disciples to have a sympathetic eye and ear to the trouble of others.  And those troubles are not always financial.  There is an old saying that is very much in line with the teachings of Jesus that says, “Be kind, be kind; everyone you meet is facing a hard struggle.”

     This story is usually used to encourage generosity in our giving to the Lord’s work, and it certainly has that message.  In fact, that is perhaps the main message.  And no synagogue or congregation can survive without those larger gifts, and the smaller gifts, from all of its members.  But even at that, Jesus is here, as always, emphasizing not the outward and visible act, but the inner heart.  And while Jesus does not condemn the larger givers, he does praise the heart and devotion of the poor widow.  And while doing so, he teaches the disciples to see her in a different way, and that is, I believe another message in the text.

     Being a follower of Jesus means believing in Jesus, it means obeying Jesus, it means thinking like Jesus would want us to think, and it means acting like Jesus would want us to act.  And to all of that we can add another characteristic– a follower of Jesus is someone who looks at people like Jesus looks at people.  And Jesus looks at people as children of the same heavenly Father, brothers and sisters in Him, made in his image, all with their troubles and burdens, and all with their many sins, but also with the capacity to be forgiven and changed by the Father.  Jesus sees the sin in our hearts, but he also sees there a child of God that needs to be loved and forgiven.  Jesus encourages us to see each other as he sees us.  That is really ‘getting to know each other better,’ and while there is still plenty in everyone to not like, we can, in faith, know enough to love them for the Father’s sake.  We, after all, deserve that love no less, but also no more, than anyone else.  It all depends on how we choose to look at other people.  

     Methodist bishop Ken Carder illustrates this with a story of hiking in the North Carolina hills.  He loves to walk the trail around a certain Lake Junaluska near his home.  It is beautiful, he writes, it is serene and quiet, and he frequently walks that trail early in the morning.  And those walks had always brought peace to his soul and spirit.

   One morning, he said, he was irritated to find a discarded pop can right in the middle of the trail.  This piece of junk looked so out of place in the beauty of nature all around him, and he picked it up and carried it out to the parking lot trash can.  The next day, he did not see any pop cans, but he did, for the first time, notice other, smaller bits of trash– gum wrappers, a candy bar wrapper, and a few cigarette butts.  He picked them up, amazed at how much litter was laying around, marring the beauty of the place.

     The next morning, he brought a small plastic bag in case he would see any more trash.  Again, he found more.  He was surprised at how much he missed the day before, and even found another pop can.  He could not believe the carelessness of such people.  Thus began his practice of removing the trash and cleaning up the trail.  Every time he would go for a walk, he would bring a plastic bag, finding ever smaller bits of trash to retrieve, and becoming ever more disgusted with the slobs who put it there.

     One early morning, while starting out the trail, bag in hand, he was greeted by a friendly voice which said, “Have you ever seen such a sunrise as this morning?”  Startled, he looked up and yes, it was indeed a beautiful sunrise; but until then, he hadn’t yet noticed.  He was too busy looking down at the trail for the next bit of trash.  “And look at those roses,” said the other man.  ‘Well,’ Ken thought, ‘I just worked that rose bush yesterday,’ but he was looking under the bush for trash and hadn’t noticed the beauty.  

     Ken then realized what had happened to him.  Where he used to see the beauty, now he was seeing trash.  Whereas the walks used to bring him peace and pleasure, now they brought him anger and disgust.  He said, “I have learned this, that it is easy to spot trash when you are looking for it.  If you look for it, you’ll find it.  But it is difficult to see even a sunrise when you are only looking for trash on the trail.”  Jesus was not blind to the trash in people’s hearts and souls and he could be quick to point it out.  But he also saw there so much more, and he could have compassion on them.  We can all be grateful that Jesus chooses to look beyond the trash and look upon us with love and grace, and he teaches us to do the same.  If we insist on looking for the trash in people, we will always see it.  We are all sinners.  But if we look at people like Jesus looks at us, we will see so much more.

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I John 4:7-8 — Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

I John 4:11 — Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

I John 4:19 — We love because he first loved us.

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O Lord, you have taught us that without love whatever we do is worth nothing:  Send your Holy Spirit and pour into our hearts your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you.  Grant this for the sake of your only Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

 —Book of Common Prayer

782) Seeing Others as Jesus Sees Them (part one)

Abraham Lincoln in 1858, age 49

     Abraham Lincoln and a friend were talking about a third person that both knew, but neither was fond of.  Lincoln said, with his usual wisdom and kindness, “I do not like that man.  I must get to know him better.”  That is a profound and thought-provoking statement; but what did Lincoln mean by it?  I do not think he meant that people are, deep down, really nice and likable and good, and all we have to do is get to know them better.  Lincoln was far too acquainted with human nature to be so naive.  There are many people who can be good friends until they have to work together or spend a lot of time together, and then, as they do get to know each other better, they get to like each other less.  It happens all the time, and it most certainly happened to Lincoln.  He did not, after all, say, “I do not like that man– I must get to know him better and then I will like him.”  He just said “I must get to know him better.”

    Getting to know a person better may not necessarily mean getting to like him, but it may mean learning to understand him; or it might mean coming to respect him despite their differences; or it could mean being able to sympathize with him as you become familiar with his struggles and pain and then feel a kind of kinship with him in that way.  All of that can happen between two people even if they are not fond of each other.  A relationship can have many more levels besides one’s personal likes and dislikes, and getting to know a person better gives that relationship a broader basis.  I think that is what Lincoln meant.

    Jesus knows us better than anyone ever could.  He knows us even better than we know ourselves.  When he was here on earth he could see into people’s hearts and souls, he knew their motives, he knew their inner goodness, and he was aware of their hidden sins.  Lincoln had said, “I must get to know him better,” but Jesus already knew everyone in every way.  And what he knew most of all about them was that despite their sinfulness, they were all children of the same heavenly Father, each made in the image of God, and loved by God.  No matter what they had done and no matter how wicked they were, and even if they were nailing him to a cross, Jesus could look past that and see in them the child of God they were created to be, and pray for them.  Jesus would see them as they were meant to be and what they could be, and not only what they had become and were at that moment.  The Bible says that God is not impressed with the outward features of a person, but that God sees into our hearts, and He sees there in each of us one of his own.

    Helmut Thielicke, the great German preacher of a few decades ago, illustrated this by telling about a boy he knew in grade school.  The boy seemed to everyone to be an obnoxious snob, and he was not very well liked.  He had no close friends, and was called names by many of the boys, including Thielicke.  Thielicke saw this other boy on only one level, and on that level he did not like him, and so felt quite justified in despising him and picking on him.  But then one day the boy’s father came to school to pick him up.  The man was friendly to the other boys and spoke to them kindly.  He was obviously a good man and the boys liked him; and the boys noticed that he obviously loved his son, annoying brat that he was.  And in the father’s presence the boy also acted differently.  He acted better than he did otherwise.  Thielicke describes how he then saw this boy on another level.  The boy was not just this unlikable kid, but he was someone’s son, the child of this good man, and loved by him; and for that reason alone, Thielicke did not want to be mean to him any more.  He still did not like the boy, but now he knew the boy’s father, and he knew that it would cause that father pain to know that his son was being tormented at school, and Theilicke no longer wanted to cause him pain.

    One time a woman with a bad reputation came to Jesus and washed his feet with her tears and with perfume.  Those around saw her only in light of her sin, and they objected to Jesus that he did not object to her.  And Jesus said to them, “Do you see this woman?,” meaning, ’do you really see her?’  Not, do you see her sin?  That was all they did see, that was all they considered.  But Jesus said, look at her, and see also how she is grateful for the forgiveness of her sins.  They saw her sin. Jesus saw her repentance and her regret for her sin and the possibilities of a new life for her. (continued…)

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I Samuel 16:7   —   …The Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height… The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Luke 7:36-38…44-48  —  Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.  When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears.  Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.  When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is– that she is a sinner…”
    …(Jesus) said to Simon, “Do you see this woman?  I came into your house.  You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven– for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
     Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 
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A PRAYER OF JESUS

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.  (Luke 23:34)

781) It is the Lord You Are Serving

By Edna Hong, Bright Valley of Love,  copyright 1976, Augsburg Publishing House, pages 98-9.
    In his next (confirmation) class Pastor Wilm picked up the subject of what’s a guy to do with himself when he’s no longer just a boy.             
    “Tell me,” he asked, “what do you think is the best work, the truest calling?”
    “To be a minister or a missionary,” several answered at once.
    Pastor Wilm chuckled.  “Many people think so, especially ministers and missionaries.  But God has different ideas, and I suspect that sweeping streets and mopping floors is just as good and true.”
     “A soldier,” said Wolfgang.
     “A mother,” said Minna.
     “No,” answered Pastor Wilm.  “You may name all the jobs under the sun, and I will still say No.  I believe with Paul and with Martin Luther that the true calling for us human beings is to glorify God, to glorify him in spirit, mind, and body.  Whatever we do with our lives, our first and foremost task is to glorify God.  On every piece of music Johann Sebastian Bach composed he wrote, ‘To God alone the glory.’  Tell me now, what do you think of our friend Fränzchen?”
     They all thought of Fränzchen, who drove a donkey cart up and down the streets of Bethel and collected garbage and swill for the pigs.  Just about all he could say was “Pig swill!  Pig swill!”  And yet Fränzchen was always happy and cheerful.  It made you feel good inside when he passed by.
      “Fränzchen glorifies God,” came a voice from the back of the room.
     “You bet he does!” said Pastor Wilm.  “Fränzchen could go around feeling that life has cheated him, that he has an inferior, worthless body and mind, not even good enough for the scrap heap.  But Fränzchen’s spirit knows that even with his afflicted mind and body he can glorify God.  And because he does, brings joy to everyone he meets.  To see Fränzchen makes me love Jesus Christ all the more.”
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    The work of a Beethoven and the work of a charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord.”  This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies.  A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow.  We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation.  
–C. S. Lewis, page 26, Weight of Glory
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    A man can be as truly a saint in a factory as in a monastery, and there is as much need of him in the one as in the other.   
–Robert McCracken
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No race can prosper until it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem.   
–Booker T. Washington
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If everybody contemplates theology instead of fixing the drains, many of us will die of cholera.
–John Rich
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I Thessalonians 4:11  —  Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you. 
 
Galatians 6:9-10  —  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. 
 
Colossians 3:23-24  —  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 
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Those things, good Lord, that we pray for, give us thy grace to labor for.  Amen.   

–Sir Thomas More (d. 1535)