953) Guaranteed to Last (a)

Wells Fargo Center construction, Minneapolis, 1988

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     Whenever I see the downtown Minneapolis skyline I think of my brother Larry.  When I was in college and he was in grade school, he would tell me of his dream of becoming an electrician.  Ten years later, he was an apprentice electrician, learning the trade by assisting in the wiring of houses.  In those days Larry would tell me of his dream of being a master electrician and working on skyscrapers.  A few years later, he had achieved that goal, and worked on some of the Twin Cities’ largest buildings.

     One day when Larry was working downtown I met him for lunch.  I arrived at the corner where he told me to meet him, and I looked up and saw the cranes and the half-finished building already reaching far up into the sky.  I also saw Larry waving as he was coming down the side of the building in an open-sided construction elevator.  When he got down, he was very excited to tell me about the construction of a skyscraper; about all the work, all the materials, and all the steps that went into it.  He was proud to be a part of it, and eager to talk about it.  I was impressed by the planning and knowledge and precision that went into such a massive structure, and, I was impressed by the strength of the end result.  Not even a tornado could move it, he said.  Windows might break, but the building would stand firm.

     In the first verse of Mark 13 the disciples were enthusiastically pointing out the wonders of the Jerusalem skyline to Jesus.  “Look Teacher,” they said, “what massive stones and what magnificent buildings!”  The main building they were admiring was the Temple, which was indeed a wonder of the ancient world.  Scholars today still do not fully understand how such a massive structure was built with the technology then available.  Huge stones were brought in from great distances and then lifted to incredible heights.  It would be a huge undertaking even today.  Therefore, the disciples were walking around in amazement and admiration.

Model of Herod’s Temple

     But Jesus did not seem to be impressed.  After all, it was he who, with the God the Father and God the Holy Spirit created the Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.  Was he going to be impressed by a little pile of building blocks like that?  That was like child’s play to him.  He could have put that whole temple into one small side valley in the Grand Canyon.  And not only was he not impressed, he told the disciples that it was not going to last.  In the very next verse Jesus said to them, “The time will come when not one stone will be left on another.”  And that great temple which so impressed the disciples that day, was within 35 years, almost completely leveled by the Romans.

     I will never again read this text without thinking about the 9-11 attack on America.  The Twin Towers of the New York World Trade Center were indeed among the most impressive structures of the modern world, each more than twice as high as the huge and strong buildings Larry worked on in Minneapolis.  Yet, in less than 90 minutes they were reduced to a pile of rubble.  And on that day many people were thinking about the very thing that Jesus went on to talk about in the rest of this chapter– the end of the world.  “Teacher,” the disciples asked, understanding for once what Jesus was getting at, “When will these things happen, and what sign will there be that they are about to take place?”

     Then followed Jesus’ famous and often misunderstood sayings about nation against nation and wars and earthquakes and famines and all kinds of other fearful and great signs from heaven.  Every age since Jesus has had all of those things, and every age since Jesus, including our own, has had many people saying, “See, the end of the world is just around the corner.”  Someday, somebody will be right, but in the meantime, I’m hoping those in Washington will keep working to keep the Social Security system solvent, because a lot of people might need to be drawing on it before the end comes.  (continued…)

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Mark 13:1  —  As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher!  What massive stones!  What magnificent buildings!”

Mark 13:2  —  “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus.  “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Mark 13:32  —  (Jesus said), “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

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O Christ, you are the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, all time belongs to you, and all ages; to you be the glory and the power, through every age, forever and ever.  Amen.

952) A Good Kid?

Tedashii: How I Went from Called-Out Chump to Christian Rapper

Tedashii Lavoy Anderson is a Christian hip-hop artist living in Atlanta.  His newest album, Below Paradise, reached No. 17 on the Billboard Top 200.  This testimony appeared in the November 2015 issue of Christianity Today, pages 103-4 (www.christianity.com)

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     I grew up thinking I was the good kid.  I believed that most of my life.  I never got into a lot of trouble, and never saw myself going down a wrong path.

     As a kid who attended church occasionally while growing up near Houston, everyone looked at me and said as much.  My family and I sat in pews on certain Sundays throughout the year, so I quickly learned the church’s traditions, but I didn’t know much about the God spoken of there.  I knew how to obey during Sunday services, and eagerly awaited their conclusion.

     My main teachers in how to view myself, relationships, and money were movies and music.  I took my cues from them and lived accordingly.  And I was applauded.  I knew how to follow the rules and do my work in school so I could get good grades.  I knew how to attract the ladies.  I knew how to physically intimidate people, so they knew not to mess with me.  And all those around me applauded me.  I was a good kid.

     I thought that all the way to college.

     I got the chance to go to Baylor University in Waco.  By the grace of God, I got a scholarship and walked onto the football and track teams.  My dreams were coming true.  I get to play sports, my grades are looking good, I’m looking good, I remember thinking.  I’m living my dream.

     Halfway through my first semester, a student walks up to me and tells me that he knows me.  I deny it.

     “You were in the Student Center, hanging out with some of my friends, and I was there,” he says.

     “Okay, I guess you’ve seen me,” I say.

     “I heard the way you speak about girls, how you talk about your life.  I heard the jokes you told and how you interact with other guys.  And I gotta be honest, I think the Bible would call that sin.”

     What?

     “Sin is disobedience to a holy God.  Sinning against a holy God makes you his enemy.  If you break his commandments and do something he tells you not to do, you become his enemy.”

     I’m shocked.  “What?”

     “You become an enemy, and this is what happens,” he says.  “There’s a place called heaven and a place called hell, and God’s enemies don’t go to heaven.  So listen, I want to tell you about Jesus.”

     I’m still shocked— and now I’m angry.  I get in his face, yelling over and over, “You don’t know me!”  I shove him and go on to class.

     I don’t even know if what he said is true.  I just know that, for the first time in my life, someone is telling me that I’m not a good kid.  And it’s not just him.  He is saying that God is saying that— and I don’t know what to do with it.  So, like many when they hear gospel truth spoken plainly for the first time, I get offended.

     I go on to class, then to the weight room.  It’s leg day, so I prep the bar to do squats.  I had 675 pounds on the squat bar.  The school record was 810, and I wanted to break it as a freshman.

     Down, then up— one squat.  Easy.

     I put 700 on the bar.  Down, then up— another squat.

     Next, I put 725 on the bar, thinking that if I can do this now, next semester I’ll be able to break the school record.  Down— and I don’t come back up.

     I hear some kind of snap and, not sure if it was inside my head or coming from my body, I scream out.

     The guys in the weight room quickly help me up and drive me to a hospital.  Once there, a doctor tells me that my back is curved in three places.  He says that if I get hit the wrong way in a game, I may never play football again— and might not ever walk again.  He tells me I have a choice:  I can continue playing football and risk permanent injury, or I can stop playing football and keep my ability to walk.

     I choose walking.  But I leave the doctor defeated.

     Two days later I’m sitting on campus, sulking.  The same guy who approached me days before comes up to me again.  He starts telling me the gospel again.

     He says that, even though I am an enemy of God, Jesus came to this world and lived the perfect life that I couldn’t live.  He died innocently on the cross, dying the death that we, that I, should have died.  Three days later, because he loves this world, God raised his Son from the dead and in so doing, proved that Jesus is God and that he is Lord over sin, death, and the grave.

     I had never heard any of this before.  I knew little of the full truth of what Christ’s death on the cross meant.  For me, the cross had simply been a backdrop to my ability to live a supposedly good life.  This time I hear him.

     This guy continues to explain the gospel.  Jesus, who did all this even when I didn’t love him, loved me enough to do that.  He doesn’t just want my good behavior.  No, he wants relationship.

     He goes on to explain that, at the end of the day, every person on this planet is created in the image of God.  And our being created in the image of God comes with purpose— not so we can stand in the mirror and brag to ourselves.  We are made in his image so that we can reflect him.  When people see us, made in God’s image and made a new creation in Christ, they should ask, “How are you that way?  Why do you live like that?”  And we can tell them, “When I was a sinner, the very God whose image I was created in died for me.”

     Hearing this rocks my world.

     Later that week, I break down in my dorm room.  I see with fresh eyes that I am not a good person— as far as God is concerned.  I come face to face with my sin and neediness, and it grieves me to the point of tears.

     I fall to my knees and cry out to God.  I kneel down feeling helpless, unable, and disgusting.  And then what comes to my mind is that God has already dealt with my sin and my inability to be good.  For the first time, I have faith to believe that the gospel is true.

     My life circumstances weren’t instantaneously different after that night.  But I had a new way of seeing and understanding.  I had this new relationship with Christ that I was eager to deepen.  I was hungry for truth.  I felt like I had been lied to most of my life, and I wanted to know what was actually true.

     So I got connected to other believers by joining a local church.  I was taught how to read and study the Bible and how to grow in intimacy with God.

     Over time, how I viewed and responded to life began to change.  I no longer saw myself as the good kid, but as a sinner saved by grace, through no effort of my own.  I began to view romantic relationships not as a means to gratify selfish desires, but as a purposeful means to one day obtain the good gift of a wife.  Physical intimidation, anger, and pride didn’t fuel me like they once had.  A heart of service started to grow in me.

     The guy who called me out and shared the gospel with me is to this day a close friend.  He influenced many young men and women during our time at Baylor.  He was not ashamed to communicate the life-changing truth he believed.  I am beyond grateful for his boldness that day on campus.

     He was ultimately the one to encourage me to put a Christian message in the rap lyrics I was practicing in my dorm room.  After Baylor, I got connected with Lecrae and trip Lee and Reach Records, based in Atlanta, and have recorded four solo albums with them.  Making and performing music have allowed me to process both hope and tragedy, including the sudden death of my wife’s and my one-year-old son due to natural causes.  The Lord has allowed me room to wrestle within his grace, but he’s kept me.

     And because I have a treasure so good, I can’t just keep it to myself.

     The good news of the gospel has radically transformed this good kid.

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Romans 5:10  —  For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life.

Romans 3:22-24  —  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.  There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

Romans 3:27a  —  Where, then, is boasting?  It is excluded.

II Corinthians 5:7  —  If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.

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

–Ancient Jesus prayer

951) Trust

By Lutheran pastor David G. Johnson, The Road Once Traveled, 1991, pages 6-8

     My father, the Rev. Clarence Johnson, served Oldham Lutheran Church for 13 years, and so came to know the people in his congregation well, including Roy Hemmel, fortunately.  Roy was a member of dad’s church and farmed a few miles east of Oldham (South Dakota).  He was a grand person with a good sense of humor, a quality which endeared him to my father, particularly after he caught dad butchering one of his chickens.

     Dusk was settling on the countryside as dad completed an afternoon of calling on members of the church.  He was traveling south on the gravel road in front of the Roy Hemmel farm, following a truck.  As the truck passed the Hemmel driveway it struck one of Roy’s errant chickens and sent it catapulting into the ditch.  The truck drove on.  Dad observed what had happened and, not wishing to see a perfectly healthy, now dead, chicken go to waste, he stopped and retrieved the unfortunate fowl.  He brought the bird to the Hemmel house, but no one was home.  Knowing that farmers often decapitated chickens near the chicken house, he looked for a stump and knife in order to dress the bird.  He found both.

     Darkness had settled over the Hemmel place by then, and when Roy turned his car into the driveway his lights picked up the unusual sight of a man in a dress shirt and tie, looking somewhat sheepish, butchering a chicken.  There is a gap in the story at this point, for I do not know what went through Roy’s mind when he saw it was the local preacher.  Did he feel guilty?  “Did I forget to get him a Christmas present last year?”  Did he feel sad, “Is Clarence that desperate to feed his family?”  Was he angry? “Maybe I should give the Methodist Church a try!”

     My father explained.  Apparently Roy believed the story, even about the truck.  It really wouldn’t have made any difference though.  Whatever happened, as far as Roy was concerned, it was worth it just to have a story as good as this.

     The story outlived both Roy and dad, surviving for 40 years.  Two years ago someone who has roots in Oldham told it to me again.  After one appreciates and savors the comedy of the situation there may linger yet a deeper meaning.

     There is something here about the kind of trust which is a part of a comfortable relationship between two friends.  I’m inclined to think that both my father and Roy Hemmel were laughing before Roy got out of the car.  That is the way with trust.  You know the trusted friend will not try to pull something on you.  You know the trusted friend will not come to an angry conclusion, based on a first impression.

     I think I would rather be trusted than loved, though I’ll take both if you have them to give.  And not only do I like to be trusted; I like to trust people too.

     I am sure there have been times when I have been naive, when I took people at their word and should not have done so.  I would like to see all business conducted with a handshake, for example.  However, those wiser in the ways of the world tell me to get it in writing.  I grudgingly concede they are right.  But in all personal, nonlegal matters I’ll start with trust until it becomes clear that won’t work.  Sometimes I think you lift people up to a higher level of performance by trusting them.

     Twenty four years ago I came to a Sioux Falls church as the youth pastor.  Someone warned me about one of the high school boys who had elevated mischief making to a craft.  The word was out that he was the local master of mayhem.  His name was Steve and, at the first meeting of the youth, he gave every indication of being able to live up to the expectations people had for him.  I can still see him, circling the group like a predator waiting to strike.  And, being new, I was definitely the prey.

     Shortly thereafter, we had a Junior High retreat and I asked Steve to come along as a counselor.  That raised some eyebrows among those who knew of his reputation, and I, too, had some doubts.  Junior High students present a stiff enough challenge by themselves without being infiltrated by a Senior High student who could easily become a loose cannon on the deck.  But Steve rose to the level of trust I had in him.  He was a terrific counselor and he baffled the young pranksters by knowing what they were up to before they even thought of it themselves.  He also became a responsible member of the Senior High group and, years later, was elected president of the congregation.

     My experience with Steve encouraged me to begin with trust when working with young people and then, if necessary, work down from there.  If I have to develop a suspicious approach to someone it will have to be because they have asked for it, not because I have started with a suspicious disposition towards them.

     “I trust you,” is a heady phrase, good to hear and equally good to say.  These are the foundation words for all meaningful relationships.  Without trust, we live on the edge of suspicion, only a few steps away from the chasm of paranoia.  To trust another is to pay a high compliment to that person and to experience the relaxation of letting down one’s guard.  Trust produces a harmony which our spirits crave.

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Proverbs 12:22  —  The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy.

I Timothy 3:11  —  In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.

Isaiah 12:2  —  Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.  The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.

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O Christ Jesus, when all is darkness and we feel our weakness and helplessness, give us the sense of your presence, your love, and your strength.  Help us to have perfect trust in your protecting love and strengthening power, so that nothing may frighten or worry us, for, living close to you, we shall see your hand, your purpose, your will through all things.

–St. Ignatius of Loyola, (1491-1556)

950) Precious Memories

By Lutheran pastor David G. Johnson, Prairie Parables, 1989, pages 14-17

     For at least seven summers I worshiped at Norway Lutheran Church.  Seven summers of church going did not make me a son of that congregation, but it came close.  My grandparents, with whom I lived, never missed a Sunday.  Count them, thirteen summer Sundays times seven years.  Ninety-one in all, to say nothing of the Sunday evening events.  I’ve known folks who would settle for 91 Sundays of church as a grand total for a lifetime.

     Most of the sermons were preached by Rev. F.W. Rossing.  I do not remember a word he said, only that he was a kind and soft-spoken man, whom my grandparents dearly loved.  Rossing may not have known that, but I did and it may have been that kind of deep respect and admiration which my grandparents displayed which left an impact on me.  For whatever reason, memories of Norway Lutheran Church are still vivid to me.  

     My grandfather faithfully fell asleep every Sunday during the sermon.  It was really not Pastor’s fault.  Pa worked hard and long out-of-doors all week.  Hence, whenever he came to the house, it seemed to me that instead of sitting in a chair he fell into it.  Only the news and “Mr. District Attorney” on the radio kept him awake.  Certainly Grandma’s chatter did not, nor did Pastor Rossing’s sermons.

     The church was warm and the air was close those summer Sundays.  I sat between Pa and Grandma about two-thirds of the way back, always on the right side of the sanctuary.  Grandma grew more alert as the service progressed, watching Pa nervously for signs of slumber.  Fortunately, he had a kind of early warning system which alerted Grandma to impending unconsciousness.  A couple of little jerks of his head sent her into action.  She would whisper to me, “Kick him!”  But those were not the days when you kicked your elders, especially a much admired and respected grandfather.  So, with as little commotion as possible, she would stretch her stubby leg across me and belt Pa on the shins.  And he would straighten up, tilt forward with a studied expression, as though he was considerably impressed with a thoughtful point in the sermon, rearrange himself and prepare to sink into slumber once more.

     One of the members, perhaps in his late twenties, had some developmental disabilities.  He was forever showing off his watch to anybody who was interested.  While he could not talk, it was evident that he appreciated compliments about his timepiece.  Sunday after Sunday the same good people would praise his watch and him.  His other joy was to come up behind the women and flatten their hats.  Without batting an eye or even turning around to glare at him, the women would take off their hats, fluff them up and put them back on their heads.  As a kid, I steered pretty clear of him, but it was a powerful lesson to see how everybody accepted him and allowed him some space to pursue his pleasure.

     The cemetery enfolded the church on the west and north sides.  Pa’s parents and other family members slept there, as he and Grandma do now.  He would take me from stone to stone and tell stories that became a part of my roots.  Sunday evenings the kids would head for the cemetery to play some sort of tag.  Pa took a dim view of that and gave me strict instructions not to run in the cemetery.  I could see his point, but on the other hand that was where the action was.  Reasonableness prevailed however; the other kids accepted my limitations, Pa rarely looked our way, and I developed the fastest walk anybody could remember seeing.  Nonetheless the lesson that some places are special and sacred because of human associations and feelings was not lost on me.

     Carl Hermanson was in charge of ringing the bell.  A church bell could be considered a form of extravagance.  During World War II the gas rationing stamps which were placed on the car window confronted the driver with the ominous question, “Is this trip really necessary?”  That question governed much of life.  A lot of wants had to be submitted to the necessity test.  A church bell was not an absolute necessity.  Everybody had clocks and watches.  Everybody knew when church started.  But the beginning of church, the event of worship, called for an additional, even unnecessary, bit of elegance.  What gave the bell a special impact was that it issued a call.  It summoned people into a larger world than putting up hay or picking eggs.  It sounded an invitation to prayer and discipleship.  My mother recalled how, as a little girl, she used to listen for the Norway bell to ring on Christmas Eve.  The church was three miles away but the sound of the bell carried well on a sharp, still winter night.  The message of the bell was, as always, “This is a special time, reach for the meaning.”

     My grandparents did not wear their religion on their lapels, but they left no doubt in my mind about the importance to them of their church.  Ole Rolvaag spoke for them and many others when he wrote, in The Third Life of Per Smevik:  “It is impossible for one who hasn’t seen it to imagine how the church has followed in the footsteps of the pioneer– followed him through struggle and suffering into the wilderness, into the forest, and out over the endless prairie; how the church, like a mother, has taken him by the hand, asked him to straighten his back, rest a moment, and look upward.  The back was straightened, the head became more erect too, and the eye received visions of glory from above.  For the early pioneers, there was no force other than the church which could draw mind and thought away from the struggle for survival.  It is miraculous how it has been able to open the hearts of the people.”

     Several years ago the Norway congregation disbanded and those members who still remained joined other congregations.  I returned for an auction of the contents of the building and succeeded in buying a coffee pot and a communion chalice.

     Those two items may be as representative of the old church as anything sold on the auction.  I look at the coffee pot and I see a kitchen full of women preparing a lunch.  I see the basement full of people, eating sandwiches and cake, drinking coffee and enjoying being together.  The church was the only social life my grandparents had, aside from an occasional visit to or from a neighbor.  Whatever else Norway church was, it was people.

     And the chalice takes me to the sanctuary and reminds me of how grace-filled Norway Lutheran was– grace proclaimed through the promise of the Word and experienced through the touch of the sacrament.  For farmers who had to make hay when the sun shined, it was pure grace to return weekly to church to be reminded that the Son would always shine for them out of God’s inexhaustible love.

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Psalm 133:1…3b  —  How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!…  For there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life forevermore.

Matthew 18:20  —  (Jesus said),  “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Hebrews 10:24-25a  —   Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another.

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Listen to Alan Jackson sing Precious Memories at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dhGOFC3kPDc

949) Lost

By Lutheran pastor David G. Johnson in The Road Once Traveled, 1991, pages 67-71

     The three of us, Bob, John, and I, were so intent on following a turkey that we neglected to pay much attention to where we were going.  The car was not far away and we thought we knew the area in the Black Hills where we were hunting.  We followed the resonant gobbles of a turkey, eager to get close enough so we could ‘work’ him with our calls.  We pursued him, up one hill and down another.  When it became clear to us we had lost the turkey, we turned and headed back to the car.

     It is always exciting when you go back to the car and there is no car.  After each of us had taken a turn in saying, “But I’m sure it was right here,” we began to make circles, each one, we thought, wider than before.  No car.  “I think we’re lost,” one of us finally had nerve to say.

     The extent to which we were lost was not totally clear until we began a debate on which direction to go.  Three opinions on where north was surfaced.  Nor could we agree on whether to plunge ourselves into a deeper state of lostness by continuing to look for the car, or to strike out in one direction and hold the course until we came to a road.  We heard the sound of what seemed like a stationary motor a very long ways away.  At the moment that distant sound was the only sure thing we had.  Our wits, our sense of direction and our memory had all failed.

     We struck out for the motor, which could have been miles away for all we knew.  Much later we came upon a trail, which we decided to follow.  Then a better trail.  Then a road.  Then a discovery.  “I remember this road,” said John.  By now we were a little on the other side of nervous and a little on this side of panic.  Our walking pace had quickened and hinted of deep concern.  It didn’t help, either, that the weather forecast called for a snow storm that night.  We were vulnerable.  The slightest suggestion that someone actually knew where he was caused us to fall in line.  Fortunately, John was right.  This was the road we had taken in, at the end of which was our car.

     Lost is a terrible word.  When one is lost, his whole world is dominated by that lostness.  It controls his life.  He has no other goal, no other purpose, no other need than to escape his lostness.  Had a turkey wandered into our path we might have ignored it.  Once we were lost, we weren’t hunting turkeys anymore.  We were surviving.

     To be lost assumes we have a place where we belong, which for us was back at our car.  Dr. Arndt Halverson, professor at Luther Seminary, once told of how he had picked up a hitchhiker.  He asked his passenger where he was from.  “Baltimore,” he replied.  “Well, you’re a long ways from home,” said “are you lost?”  “No, sir,” said the young fellow, “I’m not lost, because I don’t belong anywhere.”  Chances are, there was no one looking for him either.

     To speak as Jesus did of persons being lost, is to regard them with pity and concern.  One doesn’t scold those who are lost; one helps them find their way.  While some, in Jesus’ day, chose the pejorative word “sinner,” Jesus chose the compassionate word “lost” to describe those who lived apart from God.  God wants everyone to find a home in Him, but some have dashed off on their own, in another direction.  Luke 15 contains three of the most wonderful stories Jesus ever told:  the parables of the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep and the Lost Son.  Jesus conveys, in these stories, how intensely the owner of the coin, the shepherd of the sheep, and the father of the son wish to have the lost ones back.

     It is easy to lose one’s way in life.  We may, like sheep, nonchalantly put our heads down, moving from one tuft of grass to another, and in the process, eat our way away from the shepherd.  That was not our intent; we were simply preoccupied with day to day interests.  It was not meant to be a revolt.  On the other hand, our journey away from God may also be an act of overt rebellion, like the lost son who decided to head for the “far country” where he could be on his own.

     In either case, we are lost.  At first it may be interesting, even exhilarating.  But the time will come when it will catch up to us.  The darkness will set in, our own resources will grow thin and we will be alone.

     Years ago the poet W.H. Auden was in a 52nd St. nightclub in New York City.  He sat and watched the people around him, and then turned over a napkin and recorded his impressions.  The result was his poem September 1, 1939, from which these lines were taken:

Faces along the bar,
Cling to their average day.
The lights must never go out,
And the music must always play…
Lest we see who we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night,
Who have never been happy or good.

     When the lights go out and the music stops, being lost is not so pleasant.

     But there is more.  God has already begun the search.  Even before we size up our situation, even before we admit we are lost, God is on the prowl, pursuing us.  With a flash of light, emanating from the One who is called the Light of the World, he shows us the way home.  That is why John Newton, former slave ship captain, could write in his thankful hymn, Amazing Grace, “I once was lost, but now am found.”

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Isaiah 53:6  —  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Luke 15:31a…32  —  “‘My son,” the father said,  “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Luke 19:10  —  (Jesus said), “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Psalm 119:176  —  I have strayed like a lost sheep.  Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands.

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Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

–John Newton  (1725-1807)

948) Too Busy in Africa

By John Gathuku, director of Timazi Magazine for high schoolers in Kenya.   “Timazi” is the Swahili word for Plumbline.

(From: http://www.littworldonline.org)

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NO ONE CRIED AT MY FRIEND’S FUNERAL

     Yesterday we lay to rest the man who literally took me to church.  No one cried at the funeral; his wife and children didn’t shed a tear.

     He was our neighbor and a faithful choir member at a church in our hometown.  He brought me along when he went for choir practice.  We had a unique father-like friendship.  On Sundays he dropped me off at children’s Sunday School.  That was 30 years ago!  I am now a grown man with three children.  We kept in touch once in a while over the years and were always joyful to meet.

     My friend was a super achiever.  He pursued a bachelor’s degree at age 45 and was about to finish a doctorate at 63.  His determination and tenacity was admirable.  He uplifted his extended family economically and financially assisted many other people.

     However something was amiss…  

     A line in the eulogy confirmed my fears:  “Throughout his life he maintained a very busy schedule.”

     He went abroad for further studies, leaving his young family for more than 10 years.  They got used to living without him.  When he returned, he was a part-time lecturer at a whopping six universities spread throughout the country, meaning a very hectic travel schedule for a man over 60 years old!  He died alone in a car accident at 1 a.m. returning from one of his many engagements.

     My friend was a loner.  It’s clear he didn’t spend quality time with those closest to him.  It’s clear he spent his resources and himself serving the church selflessly.  Hundreds attended the burial.  Cars thronged the small village and had to be parked at a playfield.  He had so many acquaintances but none was intimate.

     I felt deeply rebuked.  I did some retrospection on my own schedule and realized I am particularly prone to the same trap.  I kept postponing visiting with his family until it was too late.  My schedule was busy!

     My heart broke at the thought that I could be neglecting my own friends and family at the excuse of ministry demands.  I spent the weekend in Eldoret and on Monday morning my son started crying in class, saying he was missing Dad.  Some friends have complained it’s hard to get me on phone.  Yesterday, for the first time in more than five years, I spent the whole day with my mum alone as we drove to the funeral service.  She was so happy.  I didn’t realize how much she missed my fellowship.  I also lost the ritual of taking my wife out for dinner each fortnight.  God help me re-organize and prioritize my life around what is eternal and matters most.

     While we abhor idleness, busyness is not an option.  While we esteem sacrifice, hard work and putting bread on the table, staying away from family is not an option.  My employer will replace me when am gone but my children will never have another dad.  Since I don’t know how many days are left, I want to spend them first intimately loving my family, and then ministering to God’s people.

     It would be a sad thing if no one cried at my funeral.

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Three quotes by Mother Theresa:

“Love begins by taking care of the closest ones– the ones at home.”

“What can you do to promote world peace?  Go home and love your family.”

“Never worry about numbers.  Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

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Psalm 46:10a  —  Be still, and know that I am God…

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

Mark 6:31  —  The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.  Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”  So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.

I Timothy 5:8  —  Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

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God help me re-organize and prioritize my life around what is eternal and matters most.  Amen.  –John Gathuku  (above)

947) Thirty Magnificent Churches

Today’s meditation is made up primarily of pictures, not words.  Below are thirty beautiful photographs of some of the most extraordinary churches in the world.

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Father, we pray for your Church throughout the world, that it may share in the work of your Son, revealing you to all people and reconciling them to you and to one another; that we and all Christian people may learn to love one another as you have loved us, and your Church may more and more reflect the unity which is your will and your gift, in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Chapel of Unity, Coventry Cathedral

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Psalm 5:7a  —  I, by your great love, can come into your house…

Psalm 122:1  —  I was glad when they said unto me, “Let us go into the house of the Lord.”

Psalm 84:1…10b  —  How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord Almighty!…  I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

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THIRTY MAGNIFICENT CHURCHES

Lake Bled,  Slovenia
Las Laras Sanctuary, Columbia
Notre-Dame Basillica,  Montreal, Canada
Cadet Chapel, US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona
Borgund Stave Church, Norway
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Washington Island, Wisconsin
Duoma, Milan, Italy
Church of Holy Cross, Santorini, Greece
St. Vinzenz Church, Heiligenblut, Austria
St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome, Italy
St. Michaels Cathedral,  Kiev, Ukraine
Church of Assumption, Bled Lake, Slovenia
Church of Our Savior, St. Petersburg, Russia
 Heddal Stave Church, Norway
St. Bartholoma, Lake Konigssee, Germany
Metropolitan Cathedral of Our Lady Aparecida,  Brasilia,Brazil
St. Basil’s, Moscow, Russia
Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame, Dinant, Belgium
Lutheran Church of Hallgrimur, Iceland
Our Lady of Covadonga Cathedral, Spain
Salisbury Cathedral, Great Britain
Nuestra Nenora de Gracia, Cuenca, Spain
Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, Jerusalem
St. Charles Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
Sacre-Coeur Basilica, Paris, France
Basilica of the National Vow, Quito, Ecuador
Church of Dmitry on Blood,  Uglich, Russia
Memorial Temple of the Birth of Christ, Shipka, Bulgaria
Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, Puy-en-Velay, France

946) We Had Hoped…

The Road to Emmaus, 1877, Robert Zund, Swiss painter, (1826-1909)

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     Luke 24 tells the story of Jesus joining two men walking on the road to Emmaus, a little town about seven miles from Jerusalem.  It was the afternoon of the day Jesus rose from the dead.  These men had known Jesus but they thought he was dead, and the Bible says that for a while on this walk they were kept from recognizing him (verse 16).  Luke records a casual conversation between the three men about the events of the past few days (v. 17f):

Jesus asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast.  One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.  The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

     In the rest of the story Jesus explained to them from the Scriptures the meaning of those events.  Then, at just the right moment, the Bible says their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, their friend, back from the dead (verse 31).  And suddenly, Jesus disappeared, and the two men ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

     In verse twenty-one the men said:  “They crucified Jesus, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped.  That is a very sad little phrase.  Hope there is in the past tense.  Hope is a wonderful thing, but in order for hope to work, it has to be in the future tense; you have to be hoping for something yet to come.  But here, hope is in the past tense.  So this sad little phrase is really not talking about hope at all, rather, it is talking about the DEATH of a hope.  “We had hoped he was the one,” they said; but “they crucified him,” and now he was dead, so now, there is no hope.

     We have to have hope to live.  We can be in the most desperate and miserable of situations, but if we have hope, we can go on.  Prisoners of war, living under horrible conditions, tell how they were able to survive because they kept hope alive.  On the other hand, many survivors report that those who lost hope, would die.  We must have hope.  So it is a depressing little phrase that says, we HAD hoped he was the one.  Perhaps you know the feeling.

     I had hoped, she said, that he’d give up drinking after we got married, but he didn’t and now my life is ruined…  I had hoped, he said, that the treatments were going to work and I would get better, but that didn’t happen and I’m not going to see my kids grow up…  I had hoped, she said, that our son would at least call us someday, but we never hear from him…  I had hoped, he said, that I could keep my job, but I got laid off, and I’m 55 years old, so now what will I do?…  I had hoped, she said, that my prayers would be answered, and he would have returned to me, and I would not be alone.  But the praying did no good, so where is God anyway?  If this faith thing can’t get me the help I need when I need it, then I’m not interested.

     We had hoped that he was the one, said the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  We all know what it is to have hoped for something, and we all know what it is to have those hopes disappointed.

     And hopes and dreams, even when met, can, after a while, still be disappointed.  There are a lot of little boys and girls right now who are just hoping for the time to go fast so Christmas can arrive, with days off from school and presents galore.  That hope will be met, the time will go by fast and Christmas will arrive; but so also then will the vacation time go by fast, and the gifts will be opened and stuffed in the closet, and it will be back to school.

     As we get older and learn how this goes, our hopes deepen and mature, as we have more long term goals and dreams.  But still, whatever we hope for, even if achieved, will not last.  Even life-time hopes like for a career and marriage and family will come and go like a Christmas vacation. “I had a good life,” said the old lady in the care center; “I got pretty much everything I wanted and worked for, and it was nice, but now it’s over.”  Even if we get everything we want, our hopes will still soon be disappointed, because the most basic fact of life is that time runs out.

     I Corinthians 15:19 says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  We need a deeper hope, a more profound hope, a more long lasting hope than anything we are able to manage on our own.  We need a hope that will transcend all of our other hopes.  Even if God’s way would be to give us everything we wanted, when we wanted it, we would in the end, says the verse, still be sad and pitiful.  Death ends even the very best lives.

     But, says the very next verse (verse 20), “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead”– and that changes everything.  As the Bible says, “the last enemy to be defeated is death.”  Now, all who believe in Christ will be made alive again.  Alive again.  There is a hope worth having.  There is a hope that grants a whole different perspective on whatever you get or do not get in this life.  We will be alive again, says Jesus, and all that is lost will be restored, all that went wrong will be made right, and everything all so confused now, will be made clear and good in that perfect home prepared for us.  “We had hoped,” they said on the road to Emmaus, but they thought that hope died with Jesus on the cross.  But then, after seeing Jesus again, they had their hope restored, and they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us to hear him speak.”

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Romans 5:1-5  —  Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Isaiah 49:23b  —  (The Lord says), “…Then you will know that I am the Lord, and those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”

Revelation 21:5  —  And He that sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

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

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Show me your ways, Lordteach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior,
    and my hope is in you all day long.

–Psalm 25:4-5

945) Life, Death, and the Task of Preaching

By Rev. David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary, St.Paul, Minnesota; posted 10-23-2009 at:  www.workingpreacher.org

The following letter was posted on a website designed to assist in the weekly task of preaching.  It was written as a word of encouragement to the pastors who prepare and preach sermons, but it also, I believe, has a word of encouragement to those who listen to sermons week after week.  God has chosen the spoken word to create and sustain saving faith in our hearts, the effects of which will last for all eternity.

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Dear Working Preacher,

     What you do matters!  I know I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again.  Let me share with you one small, if personal, example.

     Recently a close friend of mine died.  And when I say “close,” I mean really close.  Blanche and her husband Art welcomed me to my first congregation and encouraged me as I learned the ropes of ministry and preaching.  Over time, they became close friends, throwing the bridal shower for my then-fiancée, participating in our wedding, celebrating the birth of our children, and remembering all of our birthdays no matter where we moved.

     So Blanche’s death to cancer was, needless to say, hard.  She had lived a long and rich life, yet it was still too soon.  We – her family and friends – miss her terribly.  But amid the sadness that attends such a loss there was also great thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving for her life and the impact she’d had on so many, of course, but also thanksgiving for the way she had faced her death.  For though she was also sad at the thought of leaving us too soon, Blanche nevertheless was not afraid.

     In a phone call a week before she died, she expressed again her great confidence that God was with her and would bring her safely through this life and death to life eternal.  “I admire your faith,” I said simply.  “I got it from you,” she replied.  Stunned, I started to protest, my Midwestern sensibilities about humility needlessly agitated.  “From you and all the other preachers in my life,” she continued.  “You all preached to me the gospel, and I believed it.”

     “It was like a deal we all had,” she said a moment later.  “You all kept preaching, and I kept believing.”  And there it is.  Our reason for being; your reason for being.  Over her lifetime, Blanche had probably heard thousands of sermons.  I don’t know if any one or two stood out to her, but I do know that, cumulatively, they kept her in faith, gave her hope and purpose, and enabled her to face all the challenges of her life – including drawing close to the end of it – with courage and confidence.

     That’s what we do.  We preach the Christian story, and by preaching it we invite our hearers into it so that it becomes their story; so that the promises the Christian story revolves around become promises they hear and believe, and through believing discover hope, meaning, and courage.

     I know preaching is difficult – wrestling with the biblical witness week in and week out, searching for words and images that help bridge the gap between these millennia-old confessions of faith and our present lives, issues and struggles.  It can get exhausting.  And I know you don’t always sense the impact of your words.

     But what you do matters.  Because there are a lot of us out here that have tacitly struck the same deal that Blanche named aloud:  you keep preaching, and we’ll keep believing.  On a day-in and day-out basis, that may not seem like much.  But to those of us who have been there, walking through the valley of the shadow of death – or illness, or depression, or joblessness, or whatever – it makes the difference between hope and despair, courage and fear, life and death.  So on behalf of all those who listen to your sermons – but on this day especially on behalf of Blanche and all of us who loved her – let me say thank you.  Even more, thank God for you!

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Romans 10:17  —  So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through preaching Christ.

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

Isaiah 55:11  —  “So is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (declares the Lord).

II Timothy 4:1-2  —   In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge:  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.

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Give us grace, O Lord, not only to hear your Word with our ears, but also to receive it into our hearts, and then to show it in our lives; for the glory of your name.  Amen.

944) The Unanswered Prayers of Jesus (b)

By author Philip Yancey, posted on his blog site on October 18, 2015.

     (…continued)  I sense a partial clue into the mystery of unanswered prayer in what I call boomerang prayers.  Often when we pray, we want God to intervene in spectacular fashion:  to heal miraculously, to change evil hearts, to quash injustice.  More commonly, God works through us. Like a boomerang, the prayers we toss at God come swishing back toward us, testing our response.

     I think back to Jesus’ unanswered prayers.  The disciples?  Eventually, except for Judas, the twelve submitted to a slow but steady transformation, providing a kind of long-term answer to Jesus’ petition.  John, a Son of Thunder, softened into “the apostle of Love.”  Peter, who earned Jesus’ rebuke by recoiling from the idea of Messiah suffering, later urged his followers to “follow in his steps” by suffering as Christ did.

     In Gethsemane, Jesus did not receive what he requested, removal of the cup of suffering.  His plea for intervention looped back like a boomerang.  Hebrews affirms that, though Jesus was not saved from death, nevertheless “he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”  It was God’s will that Jesus had come to do, after all, and his plea resolved into these words:  “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Not many hours later he would cry out, in profound summation, “It is finished.”

     How many times have I prayed for one thing only to receive another?  I long for the sense of detachment, of trust, that I see in Gethsemane.  God and God alone is qualified to answer my prayers, even if it means transmuting them from my own self-protective will into God’s perfect will.  When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; he got instead the salvation of the world.

     The final two prayers, for unity and for seeing God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, put Jesus’ followers in the spotlight.  “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus assured the disciples.  “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  He turned over the mission to us, as ill-equipped and undependable as that original band of twelve.

     In Vanishing Grace I wrote about hearing the musician Bono of the band U2 describe his short-term mission to an orphanage in Ethiopia.  For a month he and his wife Ali held babies, helped nurse them back to health, and then donated money to equip the orphanage.  Bono said that after his return to Ireland his prayers changed, taking on an angry, defiant tone.  “God, don’t you care about those children in Africa?  They did nothing wrong and yet because of AIDS there may soon be fifteen million parentless babies on that continent.  Don’t you care?!”

     Gradually Bono heard in reply that, yes, God cares.  Where did he think his idea of a mission trip to Africa came from?  The questions he had hurled at God came sailing back to him, boomerang-like, as a prod to action.  Get moving.  Do something.  The role of leading a global campaign against AIDS held little appeal for Bono at first— “I’m a rock star, not a social worker!”— but eventually he could not ignore what felt unmistakably like a calling.

     Over the next years politicians as varied as President Bill Clinton and Senator Strom Thurmond, and then Tony Blair and Kofi Annan and George W. Bush, found a musician dressed all in black and wearing his signature sunglasses camped outside their offices waiting to see them.  In a time of economic cutbacks, somehow Bono managed to persuade those leaders to ante up fifteen billion dollars to combat AIDS.

     With government support assured, Bono went on a bus tour of the United States, speaking to large churches and Christian colleges because he believed that Christians were key to addressing the global problem of AIDS.  He invited others to participate in what God wanted accomplished in the world, and many did.

     My understanding of prayer has changed.  I now see it less as trying to convince God to do what I want done and more as a way of discerning what God wants done in the world, and how I can be a part of it.  Mystery endures, but a different kind of mystery:  What tiny role can I play in answering Jesus’ prayer for unity, and in doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven?  The boomerang circles back.

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Exodus 2:23a-25  —  The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.  So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

Exodus 3:9-10  —  (The Lord said to Moses), “The cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.  So now, go.  I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

John 20:21  —  Jesus said, “Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

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God, give me patience in tribulation and grace in everything, to conform my will to Thine, that I may truly say: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  

The things, good Lord, that I pray for, give me the grace to labor for.  Amen.

–Thomas More (1478-1535)