984) The Gift of the Magi (part one of two)

The Christmas story has inspired a million more stories.  One of my favorites is The Gift of the Magi, a 1905 short story by O. Henry.  The story of the birth of Jesus is a story of God’s love and sacrifice.  O. Henry tells this wonderful story of love and sacrifice in a marriage.  Most of you probably read this story in high school English class, but perhaps have not read it since then.  Take the time to do so now in these next two meditations.  One of the things good literature can do is to make you want to be a better person.  This story does that.

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     One dollar and eighty-seven cents.  That was all.  And sixty cents of it was in pennies.  Pennies saved one and two at a time…  Three times Della counted it.  One dollar and eighty-seven cents.  And the next day would be Christmas.

     There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl.  So Della did it.  Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

     While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home.  A furnished flat at $8 per week…  In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring…  But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della.  Which is all very good.

     Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag.  She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard.  Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present.  She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result.  Twenty dollars a week doesn’t go far.  Expenses had been greater than she had calculated.  They always are.  Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim.  Her Jim.  Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him.  Something fine and rare and sterling— something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

     There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room.  Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat.  A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks.  Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

     Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass.  Her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds.  Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

    Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride.  One was Jim’s gold watch that had been his father’s and his grandfather’s.  The other was Della’s hair.  Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty’s jewels and gifts.  Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

     So now Della’s beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters.  It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her.  And then she did it up again nervously and quickly.  Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

     On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat.  With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

     Where she stopped the sign read:  “Madame Sofronie.  Hair Goods of All Kinds.”  One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting.  Madame, large, too white, chilly…

     “Will you buy my hair?” asked Della.

     “I buy hair,” said Madame.  “Take yer hat off and let’s have a sight at the looks of it.”

     Down rippled the brown cascade.  “Twenty dollars,” said Madame, lifting the mass with a practiced hand.

     “Give it to me quick,” said Della.

     Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings…  She was ransacking the stores for Jim’s present.

     She found it at last.  It surely had been made for Jim and no one else.  There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out.  It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation— as all good things should do.  It was even worthy of The Watch.  As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim’s.  It was like him.  Quietness and value— the description applied to both.  Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents.  With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company.  Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

     When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason.  She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love.  Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends— a mammoth task.

     Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look like a truant schoolboy.  She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

     “If Jim doesn’t kill me,” she said to herself, “before he takes a second look at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl.  But what could I do— oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty-seven cents?”   (continued…)

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Proverbs 31:10-12  —  A wife of noble character who can find?  She is worth far more than rubies.  Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.  She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

Ephesians 5:25  —  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

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 Make us always eager, Lord, to share the good things that we have.  Grant us such a measure of your Spirit that we may find more joy in giving than in getting.  Make us ready to give cheerfully without grudging, secretly without praise, and in sincerity without looking for gratitude, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.  

–John Hunter, Scottish pastor  (1849-1917)

983) Advice From the Devil

One of the great Christian classics of the 20th century is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942).  Published over seventy years ago, it continues to sell well and has even been turned into an off-Broadway play.  The book consists of thirty-one letters from a veteran demon, Screwtape, to his nephew, Wormwood, on learning the art of temptation.  Screwtape is trying to help Wormwood who has been given the task of securing the damnation of a British man referred to as “the Patient.”  Everything is written from the perspective of hell, so the “Enemy” is God, and the devil is referred to in the letters as “Our Father.”  Many Christian theological issues are addressed in this creative format, primarily focusing on temptation and resistance to it.  In the brief sample below, Screwtape instructs Wormwood in the art of twisting “the Enemy’s” good gift of pleasure into an opportunity for sin.

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     Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s ground.  I know we have won many a soul through pleasure.  All the same, it is His invention, not ours.  He made the pleasures; all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one.  All we can do is to encourage the humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden.  Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable.  An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.  It is more certain; and it’s better style.  To get the man’s soul and give him nothing in return—that is what really gladdens Our Father’s heart.

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

I Peter 5:8-9  —  Be alert and of sober mind.  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 the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Ephesians 6:10-12  —  Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

I Corinthians 10:12-13  —  So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!  No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind.  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 endure it.

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O heavenly Father, subdue in me whatever is contrary to your will and command.  Grant that I may ever know your will, so that I may know how to please you.  Grant, O God, that I may never yield to those temptations which, in my prayers, I desire to avoid.  Lord, never permit my trials to be above my strength.  Amen.

–Thomas Wilson, Anglican Bishop  (1663-1755)

982) Too Ordinary? (2/2)

     (…continued)  We see in the Bible that God chooses to do his most extra-ordinary work in very ordinary ways…  

     There are a couple things to be said about that.  First of all, there can be a problem with this method of working through the commonplace and ordinary.  But secondly, there is a great blessing for us in this remarkable way that God works.

     First, the problem.  The problem with God working in such ordinary ways is the danger of people missing the whole point by seeing only the ordinary.  The innkeeper did not know that by turning away that ordinary looking young couple he was playing a part in the greatest story ever told.  If he could have seen that it was the Savior of the world who would be born that night he would have given them his own home and bed.  But it was all so ordinary.  How could he have known?  Or take for instance Jesus’ first sermon in his home town of Nazareth 30 years later.  He read from the prophet Isaiah about the coming Messiah and then said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing;” or in other words, “The Messiah is here, and it’s me.”  But the people were angered by such arrogance, and ran him out of town.  “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?,” they asked.  He was too ordinary for them.  People often missed the point like that when they saw Jesus.

     Despite that risk, God still chooses to do great things by ordinary means.  Baptism, for example, on the surface seems like such an ordinary procedure– a few words said, a little water on the head, and on to the next hymn.  But in that ordinary ritual, says the Bible, God is giving that child an eternal promise.  In the Sacrament of Holy Communion also, there are just a few words, a little wafer, and a sip of wine.  It is all so ordinary.  But, says Jesus, in those few words you receive the forgiveness of all your sins and the promise of eternal life.  And there is the worship service itself.  It is a weekly ritual, always pretty much the same, with an ordinary sermon by an ordinary minister, a few hymns, a few prayers, and a few mistakes.  There is nothing extraordinary about any of it.  But that is how God speaks to us, and how faith is nurtured and sustained over a lifetime.  It is no ordinary meeting, God says, but what goes on when we worship is holy and is of eternal value, even though carried out by ordinary people doing ordinary things like talking and singing.

     For us also then, there is a danger in God’s use of ordinary methods.  We might despise such means and miss the whole point, just as when Jesus was right ahead of people and they turned away saying, “Nope, it can’t be him; too ordinary.  He’s not the one we are looking for.”

     But there are also great blessings in the ordinary ways that God works.  We may not always appreciate the common blessings in our lives or the ordinary ways God works, but it is with the common-place and ordinary that we feel most familiar and most comfortable.  Family life, for example, can be difficult and frustrating, but it is within the family that most people experience the most love and acceptance of their lives.  Underneath the day to day tensions and disagreements, there is love and concern.  It is there in the ordinary and the familiar that we experience some of the best life has to offer.  

     And as God offers his companionship to us, he comes in the ordinary and the familiar.  In fact, most of the Biblical images having to do with our relationship with God come from the ordinary images of family life:  father, son, children, bride, bridegroom, a mother’s love, a father’s care, and so forth.  In the same way, at the very center of this central story of the birth of Jesus is a holy family.

     So it is that the very ordinary and down to earth simplicity of the Christmas story has always had a great appeal to all kinds of people.  In that story of a little baby born to poor parents in a stable there is a wonder and a beauty that can charm us all.  God could have come to us in anger and judgment, but instead came as a baby.  Even those who have stopped believing in the extraordinary aspects of the story, still find themselves each year drawn back to the story itself.  And that attraction keeps them in touch at least a little bit, and the old, old story may again, one day, lead them back to the belief that it was indeed God in that manger.

     That is the appeal of the Christmas story– God comes as a baby.  And that baby grows into a man– a man who works, who laughs, who cries, who prays, who was once a teenager, who has friends; a man who goes to worship each week, who gives advice on fishing, and who suffers and dies.  In Jesus, God lived a life like us, and now knows what we go through because he himself experienced it all.  This is not only the omnipotent, almighty God.  This is Jesus we pray to, a human like us, and a friend we can talk to.  He is certainly much more than human, otherwise he would not be able to save us.   That other perspective is still always there, woven in a through the story just as in relationship with him.  But this is a God we can get close to.  We can be grateful God chose to work in such ordinary and familiar ways.

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John 6:41-42  —  At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”  They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph,whose father and mother we know?  How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

Acts 4:13  —  When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.

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Gracious Lord, you created a real world as a place for us to dwell, and ourselves as physical creatures. We thank you that you come to us through earthly, natural means, to confirm your Word and accomplish your will. We ask that you would help us appreciate and honor the Sacraments as the tangible evidence of your promise, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–Steven King for:  www.solapublishing.org

981) Too Ordinary? (1/2)

Joseph-and-Mary

     There are two perspectives from which we can view the Christmas story.  Both are presented in the Bible.  From one perspective, we see the greatest, most unexpected, most wonderful miracle of all time– the Almighty God of heaven and earth, Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe, decides to visit planet earth– and he does so as a human being. The Gospel of John speaks most powerfully and eloquently from this perspective of the divine and the miraculous.  John chapter one says, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made.  In Him was life, and the light that shines in the darkness.  That Word has become flesh and dwelt among us.  In Jesus we have seen the glory of God.”  And in Luke we read that the angel told Mary that her Son would sit on the throne of David and that his kingdom would last forever.  In these places and many more, the Bible makes no mistake about it– this birth would be the focal point of all history.  It had been predicted for centuries, and now, it was even more miraculous than ever expected– God himself was in the one born.  God himself lay in that manger.  That is one perspective on the story.

     From the other perspective, this was just another birth to a young couple in a small town– all very ordinary.   It was perhaps not completely ordinary.  Mary, of course, became pregnant out of wedlock, no doubt to the embarrassment of her parents and the disappointment of Joseph, who knew he was not the father.  But that sort of thing happened in those days, too.  Mary, and then later, Joseph, were told about the miraculous circumstances of this pregnancy.  But to everyone who knew them this was just another unplanned pregnancy and birth.  Mary and Joseph probably did not have much success in explaining to the neighbors about the angel’s announcement of a virgin birth.

     Behind the scenes there are a few miracles going on, but the Bible goes on with this ordinary perspective to tell of the normal engagement of Mary and Joseph, which would have meant the usual one year waiting period before marriage.  It tells of the government decree that a census should be taken, and the inconvenience of Mary and Joseph having to travel all the way to Bethlehem to register.  Then there is the frustration of no room in the inn, and the baby being born that very night in the only place they could get– a stable, of all places.  From this perspective, it does indeed look like nothing more than day to day life as we know it, just one darned thing after another going wrong.  There are no miracles.  They can’t even get a place to stay.  This is that second perspective, and it is a very different way to see the story.

     The same event, and told from these two very different perspectives– one so very ordinary, and in the other, an extraordinary miracle; and BOTH are true.

     Once in a while, we see the two perspectives come together.  For example, there is a group of plain old shepherds, out doing their ordinary work on an ordinary night.  Suddenly, the entire sky was lit up in a very extraordinary way, and a host of heavenly angels were singing “Glory to God in the highest.”  Then one of the angels told them to go to Bethlehem to see this baby who is born to be the Savior of the whole world, and when they go, they see the most ordinary of situations.  But, says the Gospels, behind the scenes the destiny of the world was being worked out, as the Lord God was entering his creation in person to make all things new and right again.

     So we see in the Bible a God who chooses to do his most extra-ordinary work in very ordinary ways.  We might wish for something more spectacular– an unmistakable miracle perhaps, even now, for us to see; something that would provide a clear and convincing proof that God is there and loves us.  But God prefers to work in and through the ordinary, and call us to faith on that basis.  (continued…)

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II Corinthians 5:19a  —  …God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself…

Acts 2:22  —  (Peter said),  “Fellow Israelites, listen to this:  Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.”

Luke 2:8-12  —  And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.  Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign to you:  You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

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Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men.  Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world.  Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.  Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.  May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

–Robert Louis Stevenson  
(1850-1894)

980) Bodies and Spirits (2/2)

     (…continued)  It is no wonder that down through the ages one of the main items on the agenda for philosophy and religion has been this whole area of the relationship between the spirit and the flesh.  Plato gave birth to the whole study of philosophy with the thought that you could think your way out of your body, transcending all the limits of the flesh by high and lofty thoughts.  Buddha followed a similar path, adding a religious flavor to the whole thing.  For Buddha, nirvana became a heaven in your mind, a mind lifted far above the concerns and needs of the weak flesh.  However, I would still bet that when Plato or Buddha stubbed their toe real hard, it was back to thinking about the body and nothing else.  Injuries and illnesses can turn the body into a prison.  But in some religions and philosophies the body is nothing but a prison, and only the spirit matters.

     The Bible itself has much to say about this.  For example, Galatians, 5:17 says, “The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is contrary to the flesh; they are in conflict with each other, and so you end up not doing what you want to do.”  This may even be one reason why people come to church.  We want to be controlled less by our lower nature and desires, and more receptive to and motivated by our higher, spiritual nature.

     Oddly enough, this all has something to do with Christmas.  In fact, it goes to the very heart of the Christmas message.  After all, when John in his Gospel wanted to describe what it means that Jesus came to earth, he began by referring to Jesus as ‘the Word.’  He began his Gospel by saying ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.’  That is some deep theology, expressing some highly spiritual concerns.  When you think of God, you are thinking in primarily spiritual terms, right?  John would agree, saying that God is a Spirit and Jesus was God in this mysterious, profound, spiritual Word, — that was there with God from the beginning, and was God.

     But then John goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  Became flesh!  Plato, Buddha, the New Agers, and the Scientologists all want to escape the flesh and get into something new and better and different.  But God becomes flesh, born in the usual messy way, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a manger.  God, while fully aware of all the problems and pains we get into because of our flesh, still likes the stuff.   He created it, after all, and in Jesus, God himself took on that frail, frail flesh.  And Jesus was tempted by that flesh; ‘Turn these stones into bread,’ the devil said to him when his body was hungry.  But Jesus resisted all temptation and remained sinless.  Jesus, however, did not escape that other curse upon flesh, the curse of pain and death.  As you well know, he suffered and endured that to its fullest measure.  God, in Jesus, sanctifies the flesh, makes holy the body, and proclaims the message that salvation is not attained by escaping the body, but in rising from the dead with a new and glorified body for all eternity.  Plato and Buddha didn’t think of that, and if they had, they would not have been able to pull it off.  But God could, and chose to do so by first of all, taking on this body, this flesh; and in then, in himself, suffering all that would involve.  That is what it means to say that God was in that manger.  God in human flesh.

     Then on the night before he died, and just a few weeks before he would return to his heavenly home, Jesus gave the disciples something to remember him by.  It would be a specific ritual with specific words to say:  “This is my Body, given for you– do this in remembrance of me…’’  And why?  “For the forgiveness of sins,” he said.  In this world our bodies will tempt us, torment us, and grieve us to no end.  But the body is not the problem.  This flesh is God’s good gift.  Sin is the problem, and in looking to Jesus, we receive both the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection of the body; a new, solid, and no longer frail body, perfected and eternal, made to live forever in God’s home.

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Listen to Where We’ll Never Grow Old, sung by Johnny Cash on the album My Mother’s Hymn Book:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OinMWY7IymA

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Lyrics to Where We’ll Never Grow Old; words and music by James C. Moore (1888-1962):

I have heard of a land on the far away strand,
’Tis a beautiful home of the soul;
Built by Jesus on high, where we never shall die,
’Tis a land where we’ll never grow old.

Refrain

Never grow old, never grow old,
In a land where we’ll never grow old;
Never grow old, never grow old,
In a land where we’ll never grow old.

In that beautiful home where we’ll never more roam,
We shall be in the sweet by and by;
Happy praise to the King through eternity ring,
’Tis a land where we never shall die.  Refrain

When our work here is done and the life crown is won,
And our troubles and trials are o’er;
All our sorrow will end, and our voices will blend,
With the loved ones who’ve gone on before.  Refrain

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John 1:1-5…14  —  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it….  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Galatians 5:13  —   You… were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.

Galatians 5:16-17  —  So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

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THE THIRD ARTICLE OF THE APOSTLE’S CREED:

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

979) Bodies and Spirits (1/2)

The idea for this meditation came from a sermon by Methodist pastor, bishop, and author William Willimon (source lost). 

     A while back a friend of mine overheard someone say, “I don’t think Christmas is as much fun as it was when I was a kid.”  There is nothing unusual about a remark like that.  Most adults have probably said or thought that same thing.  But my friend went on to say that what was remarkable about this comment was that the person who said it was an eleven-year old boy!  How fast the childhood fun of Christmas passes.

     The boy was looking back on the ‘good old days,’ and Christmas is indeed a time for memories.  And the older you get, the more years you have to remember.  This will be my 62nd Christmas, so there are quite a few to look back on:  Christmases as a child eager for presents, as a college student eager to come home and see family, as a husband and father having fun watching the children enjoy Christmas, and now, as a grandfather watching the next generation of small children tear through the presents and sing their songs for the Christmas program.  I could, like that eleven-year old boy, look back with regret and sadness on all that which is in the past and gone forever.

     But I don’t.  I’d rather look forward on life than back, and, I don’t really mind being 61 years old.  Every stage of life has its ups and downs, its joys and frustrations, and this stage seems to be about as good and as bad as any other.  So I am grateful and content to enjoy this Christmas without any sadness about all the years gone by.  After all, Christmas is the time to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus; and when all our years have gone by and we go on to our heavenly home, we will then be with that Lord Jesus in person.  What is there to regret about the passage of years when we are promised a future that will never end?

     If, however, I were to register a complaint, I would say that the main thing wrong with being this age is my body.  I’ve read that women experience growing older mostly as a frustrating change of appearance, and men experience growing older mostly as a frustrating loss of strength and ability.  That may or may not be true, but I know I have a list of things I’ve lost, the list is growing, and it does get frustrating.

     It started with my eyes.  Now my glasses also have to have prisms and bi-focals and I still can’t see as good as I used to.  Then, some ongoing dental problems got worse, and the dentist says there’s more trouble ahead.  And then a few years ago I had to have a hip replaced, so now I have to be very careful that I do not slip on the ice, because if I were to fall just right, I could pop the new one out of place and have to go through that whole ordeal again.  I could go on, but you don’t need me to tell you how this goes.  I am sure many of you could put together a much longer, more interesting list.  I am grateful for the good health I have, and as things start to go wrong, I know it is all a part of being 61.  It’s just not my favorite part.

     “All flesh is like grass,” complained the writer of Psalm 90, and grass is a pretty thin and flimsy form of life.  Human beings are a bit more sturdy, but just like the grass, we are finite, mortal, and of limited endurance, having only what Shakespeare called this “frail, frail flesh.”

     We are body and spirit, says the Bible.  Our spirits seek understanding, love, happiness, achievement, purpose, and eternity.  In our spirit we can even know God, and God seeks to know us.  But the spirit comes packaged in and is dependent upon a body.  This body can serve the spirit well, but it can take over and dominate all other concerns, even spiritual.  No matter who you are, how intelligent, how driven, how insightful, how wise, how ambitious, or how pious you are in spirit, something as simple as a toothache can make you forget everything else, except the pain in that tooth, until you get it fixed.

     The body can even destroy the spirit.  A while back I heard about a young woman, a good mother, life of the party type, and a friend to everyone, who in her late 20’s was in a terrible car accident.  She survived, but was left with ongoing, severe back pain.  The pain medication helped, but then she became addicted to the medication.  That led to a downward spiral, which led to severe depression; and that broken spirit then led to other problems with her body.  In time, she gave up and died, not yet 40 years old.  Our bodies, this ‘frail flesh,’ can cause tremendous grief.  Our body will certainly fail when it gets old, and even before that, it may get injured or diseased; and then, the physical problems can dominate all else.

     What’s more, it is the spirit that needs to tell the body what to do and how to take care of itself, but the body is not always very obedient.  For example, did any of you make a decision a while back to not eat too much this holiday season?  How is that going for you?  Did you ever in years past make any New Year’s resolutions about exercise and diet?  Have you been keeping them all?  Perhaps sometimes some of us are able to manage this.  But even the most disciplined know what a struggle it is to get your body to do what it is told, even if you are telling it such a simple thing as to not take that second piece of banana cream pie.  (continued…)

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Malachi 2:15a  —  Has not the one God made you?  You belong to him in body and spirit.

Psalm 90:5-6  —  You sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning.  In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered.

Matthew 26:41  —  (Jesus said), “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.  The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

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Psalm 90:12…17a:

Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom….

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us.

978) Make Room

     One of the best-loved Christmas carols is Joy to the World.  The song begins with “Joy to the world, the Lord has come; let earth receive its King;” and then we sing, “Let every heart prepare him room.”  Prepare him room, it says, or, make room for Jesus.  The phrase brings to mind that very first Christmas when there was no room in the inn– no room, not even for a woman about to give birth.  Imagine that, the Son of God, here to visit his own creation, and there is not even room for him to be born.

     How about for you?  The hymn seems to ask, “Is there any room in your heart and in your life for this Lord?”  He came for you– do you have any room for him?  “Joy to the world,” we sing, “the Lord has come; let every heart prepare him room.”  No room in the inn for a pregnant woman about to give birth to the Son of God?  How outrageous!  But is it any less outrageous that God himself wants to be with little you, has come to earth to live a life like you, has died for you to forgive you of all your sins, has risen from the dead for you so that you too may live forever– all that for us, and we have to be told to see if we can make a little room for him in our busy lives!

     Every detail of this story as it is told in the Gospels is significant, and the fact that there was no room for Jesus in the inn is also symbolic of the many people in the world who still have no room for him.  And the fact that Jesus was born in the poorest and humblest of circumstances is also symbolic of the fact that throughout history it has been the poorest and humblest people who have been most willing to make room for Jesus.  It was among the slaves and lower classes that the early church took root and grew most of all.  Today it is among the poor of the Southern hemisphere that the church grows by leaps and bounds, while in the wealthier countries of Europe and the United States the church is in rapid decline.  There was room for Jesus in Bethlehem on that first Christmas, but not in the busy comfort of the inn.  Rather, it was out among the cattle in the stable, where many necessities were lacking, and there were many dangers for a newborn.  

     The same is true in our lives.  The more comfortable we are, the less likely we are to make room for Jesus.  It is when we are in discomfort or despair or anxiety or hopelessness that we are most likely to remember Jesus, and remember to make room for him in our hearts.  Best of all, of course, is if we do not forget Jesus in our good times; then when hardships do come, Jesus can be there for us like an old friend.

     When I was in college in the 1970’s I was assigned to read the book Future Shock, by Alvin Toffler.  The book has a chapter on what Toffler called “over-choice,” in which he predicted that in the future there would be so many choices for pleasure, communication, entertainment, travel, education, television, leisure, fitness, sports, and so on, that all these many opportunities would become no longer something positive, but a source of frustration.  People would have so much and do so much, and still feel like they were missing out on something, because there would be still so much more to be had.

     Well, that future is here.  Our lives are incredibly full compared with even a couple generations ago, and we are still frustrated and anxious.  There are even words now for this condition– FOMO– Fear Of Missing Out; or if you are older, FOHMO– Fear Of Having Missed Out.

     Now, with all these wonderful choices available, fewer and fewer people have the time or energy for what Jesus called that “one thing needed.”  Jesus said that to Martha who was so very busy with so many things that she did not have room in her schedule for Jesus, even though Jesus was making a personal visit in her home that day.

     Jesus will probably not be coming to your home in person like that, so what would it look like for you to ‘make room for Jesus’ in your daily life?  You do have to keep your mind on what you are doing and you can’t be just thinking about Jesus all the time.  But you can probably keep him in mind more than you do.  When something goes well for you or you get some unexpected good news, you can say in a one sentence prayer, “Thank you, Lord.”  If something goes wrong, or you get some unexpected bad news, you can in a one sentence prayer, ‘Lord, be with me,” or, “Lord, be with them,” or simply, “Lord, have mercy.”  If you have a decision to make, you can pray, “Lord, what would you have me do?;” and when you are tempted to do something wrong, you can pray, “Lord, give me the wisdom and the strength to do what is right.”

     With practice, such simple prayers can become a habit, and then you will be, in fact, preparing room in your heart for Jesus; and you will grow in faith, and then experience more and more that joy that has come into the world in Jesus.

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Luke 2:7  —  She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 10:38b-42  —  …(Jesus) came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.  She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

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Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room…

–Isaac Watts  (1674-1748)

977) Tookie, Mickey, Santa, and Jesus (2/2)

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     (…continued)  The old Christmas song says Santa Claus “knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good; so be good, for goodness sake!”

     Well, maybe Santa isn’t watching, but we know there really is someone who knows when we are sleeping and when we are awake.  There is someone who does know when you’ve been bad or good, and that someone cares very deeply about what you do, and does indeed even say, be good for goodness sake!

     God does see everything, and God does love you and does forgive you.  But God also wants you to be good!  The Bible is filled with his commands for you.  I Thessalonians 5:21-22 says:  “Test everything.  Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil.”  Why?  Because someone is coming.  The very next verse says we should keep our whole spirit, soul, and body blameless because our Lord Jesus Christ is coming.  Someone should have told Mickey Cohen that.  They should have said, “Mickey, if you want to believe in Jesus, you should know something about what he expects of you; and that means no more killing, no more embezzling, no more prostitution, no more drugs.  You are going to have to quit all that and get a regular job and BE GOOD.”

     It isn’t only Mickey Cohen who needs to hear this.  You and I also need to be told to be good— unless perhaps you think you are good enough?  Jesus had many disagreements with the Pharisees, those who thought they were already ‘good enough,’ and who objected to an obviously good man like Jesus spending all his time with known ‘sinners.’  Jesus said, “I came not to heal the healthy, but the sick.”

     Where are you at in your moral life?  How are things with your soul?  You are perhaps not a sinner in the category of Mickey Cohen or Tookie Williams.  But what category would you put yourself in if you had only two to choose from– healthy or sick?  Are you healthy, doing fine, with no need of Jesus’ forgiveness or command or power to change your life?  Or, are you a sinner, sick and in need of Jesus to heal you?

     There is a reminder here that we all, always need to hear.  We have to keep working at being good.  That is our command and our calling, to obey God in all things, little and big, because we are all very far from what God would want us to be.

     Jesus is coming again at the end of the world, and then we will see him in person.  But he is also already with us.  “I will be with you always,” he said in his last words to his disciples.  He is already, always here; always seeing and always knowing.  

     Keeping that image in mind will help us remember to be good.  Remembering that Jesus is present at every conversation would have an influence on what we say.  Remembering that Jesus is with us when we are watching TV or at the movies would have an influence on what we watch.  Remembering that Jesus knows everything about your personal finances would have an impact on how you spend your money.  Remembering that God is the giver of every good gift would have an impact on how much you complain and how much you give thanks.

     Jesus is with us all the time, and that constant presence of Jesus is not only an incentive to do good and to be good.  To know that Jesus is always with us is also the source of our greatest hope and comfort.  Jesus is also with us in our sorrow and in our pain, in our fear and in our anxiety, in our loneliness, and in our worry.  Jesus is with us by that hospital bed, in that waiting room, and by that grave.  He is even there with those on death row, and there are many amazing stories of what the presence of Jesus has done even in that hopeless place.  No matter what any of us must endure, we have the promise that there is a better day coming.  Even those who will breathe their last breath today can have that hope and promise.

     When Jesus came to earth as that baby born in Bethlehem, he came to stay.

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Isaiah 29:15  —  Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lordwho do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us?  Who will know?”

Psalm 33:13-14  —  From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth.

I Thessalonians 5:15-23  —  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.  Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.  May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mark 2:17  —  …Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 28:20b  —  (Jesus said), “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Galatians 6:7-10  —  Do not be deceived:  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  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.

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Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

Away in a Manger, verse 3

976) Tookie, Mickey, Santa, and Jesus (1/2)

Stanley Williams  (1953-2005)

     Ten years ago today, Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams was executed by the state of California for the 1979 murder of four people.  Williams was the founder of the notorious Crips gang, one of the largest and most violent of the many inner city gangs around the country that has caused so much death and chaos in many urban areas.  Tookie Williams had been a bad boy and his actions have resulted in many ruined lives.

     But, said his defenders who opposed his execution, Tookie was a changed man.  He had become kinder and gentler.  He even wrote books for children warning of the dangers of gangs.  Others disagreed, saying he had not changed.  He never expressed any remorse over the four murders, and some believe he continued to direct gang activities even from prison.  Also, they said, he never cooperated in any way with the authorities by giving information to help in curtailing criminal gang activity.  Who is right?  It would be difficult for anyone not directly involved to make a judgment on how much he had changed.

     But if a man like Tookie Williams really had changed, that would be of interest, especially to Christians.  We believe in the power of God to change lives.  After all, three of our biggest Bible heroes were involved in murder.  Moses killed two Egyptians who were mistreating a slave.  King David had an officer in his army killed after David committed adultery with the officer’s wife.  And the Apostle Paul, before he was converted, stood by approvingly as a mob stoned to death Stephen, a leader in the early Church.  But all three repented, all were forgiven, and all had their lives changed in dramatic ways.

     We believe in the possibility of such change, but we do not want to be naïve.  Anyone who has ever worked in prison ministry knows that jailhouse conversions are often phoney.  But many times they are authentic, and as Jesus once said, there is great joy in heaven whenever a lost lamb is found or a prodigal son returns home.  As Christians we pray for and rejoice in changed lives.

    Sixty years ago there was another highly publicized change in a known criminal.  Mickey Cohen was a major player in the world of organized crime in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He spent several years in prison, but other times moved about freely and became a celebrity.  Cohen was a charming guy and loved being in the spotlight.

Mickey Cohen  (1913-1976)

     One day Mickey Cohen announced to the world that he had become a Christian.  Many people were thrilled.  This big-time mobster was talking like a Sunday School boy, saying all the right things about how Jesus died for him and has now forgiven him all his sins.  Mickey Cohen even had a highly publicized meeting with Billy Graham, though Graham wisely kept the contents of that conversation to himself.  This kind of publicity went on until it started to become clear that even though Mickey Cohen was saying he was a firm believer in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, he continued to run his organized crime ring as before.  Finally, his pastor had a talk with him. “Mickey,” he said, “what are you doing?  You are a Christian now.  You can’t continue with your criminal behavior– robbing, killing, illegal gambling, prostitution, and all that.  You have to obey Jesus now.  You have to change your life.  You have to live like a Christian.”

     Mickey became very irritated with his pastor.  He said, “What do you mean I have to change my life?  Everyone kept telling me all I had to do was believe in Jesus, so now I do.  And you said Jesus forgives me of whatever I do, right?  So that’s that.  I’m not going to stop what I’m doing.  Are you crazy?  This is my business.  There are Christian football players, Christian cowboys, and Christian politicians– why not a Christian gangster?”

      Everyone can see there is something wrong with that.  We must not only enjoy hearing about changed lives, we must expect, even demand, such change; not only of others, but also of ourselves.  Is Mickey Cohen the only one who has ever disregarded God’s clear commands, thinking to themselves, ‘Oh well, I know I will be forgiven’?  Yes, Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, and yes, God loves us with an everlasting love.  But if we believe that at all, we will certainly want to know what God expects of us and then be determined to do it.  Remember, this is God we are talking about here, and God is big and eternal and powerful, and we are so little and weak and temporary.  God does wondrously give his love and forgiveness freely to all sinners, including murderers.  But the Bible says God will not be mocked.  He will not stand for us abusing, ignoring, or despising his word and command.  (continued…)

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Luke 15:7  —  (Jesus said), “…There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Galatians 6:7-8  —  Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Leviticus 18:4  —  “You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees.  I am the Lord your God.”

Luke 11:28  —  (Jesus said),  “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

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Save me Lord, you who have the power to save us all.  Grant that I may long for and do those things that are pleasing to you and profitable for me.  Lord, give me comfort in my anxiety, help in time of trial, solace when persecuted, and strength against every temptation.  Grant me pardon, Lord, for my past sins, corrections of my present ones, and protect me against those in the future.  In Jesus name I pray.  Amen.

–Latin, 11th century

975) “This is Not a Day Care; This is a University”

Everett Piper

Everett Piper

The following is an open letter posted on the website of Oklahoma Wesleyan University, a Christian school, by the college’s president Dr. Everett Piper.  It addresses the growing problem of college students being ‘offended’ by everything, and college officials caving in to their increasingly ridiculous demands.  This is having a chilling effect on free speech in higher education, a part of our society that used to pride itself on being a setting which welcomed a free and open exchange of ideas in the pursuit of truth.  I include it here because it addresses the problem in the context of our Christian faith.

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     This past week, I actually had a student come forward after a university chapel service and complain because he felt “victimized” by a sermon on the topic of 1 Corinthians 13.  It appears this young scholar felt offended because a homily on love made him feel bad for not showing love.  In his mind, the speaker was wrong for making him, and his peers, feel uncomfortable.

     I’m not making this up.  Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic.  Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims.  Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”

     I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen.  That feeling of discomfort you have after listening to a sermon is called a conscience.  An altar call is supposed to make you feel bad.  It is supposed to make you feel guilty.  The goal of many a good sermon is to get you to confess your sins—not coddle you in your selfishness.  The primary objective of the Church and the Christian faith is your confession, not your self-actualization.

     So here’s my advice:

     If you want the chaplain to tell you you’re a victim rather than tell you that you need virtue, this may not be the university you’re looking for.  If you want to complain about a sermon that makes you feel less than loving for not showing love, this might be the wrong place.

     If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn; if you don’t want to feel guilt in your soul when you are guilty of sin; if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them.

     At OKWU, we teach you to be selfless rather than self-centered.  We are more interested in you practicing personal forgiveness than political revenge.  We want you to model interpersonal reconciliation rather than foment personal conflict.  We believe the content of your character is more important than the color of your skin.  We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” before altar calls.

     Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn:  to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others; that the bad feeling you have while listening to a sermon is called guilt; that the way to address it is to repent of everything that’s wrong with you rather than blame others for everything that’s wrong with them.  This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up.

     This is not a day care.  This is a university.

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“If we dumb down the academic conversation to nothing but what is acceptable by the powerful and what is policed by those in control, then we’ve lost the very heart and soul of the liberal arts academy.” –Everett Piper

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     Piper is not alone in his frustration.  A week before he posted his letter, three students of The Claremont Colleges in Southern California published an editorial voicing similar concerns.  A dean at the school resigned after sending an email referencing students who didn’t fit the “CMC mold,” which some interpreted as a racist remark.  But upperclass students Hannah Oh, Steven Glick, and Taylor Schmitt disagreed.  They wrote they were disappointed in administrators for responding too soon without allowing time for debate, and they chastised their fellow students for making childish demands:  “College is the last place that should be a safe space.  We come here to learn about views that differ from our own, and if we aren’t made to feel uncomfortable by these ideas, then perhaps we aren’t venturing far enough outside of our comfort zone.”

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

II Timothy 4:2-4  —  Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage— with great patience and careful instruction.  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine.  Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.

I John 1:8  —  If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

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Almighty God, give us a measure of true religion and thereby set us free from vain and disappointing hopes, from lawless and excessive appetites, from frothy and empty joys, from anxious, self-devouring cares, from a dull and black melancholy, from an eating envy and swelling pride, and from rigid sourness and severity of spirit, so that we may possess that peace which passes all understanding, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), English philosopher