1044) A Noble Lie

Jean Valjean and the Bishop in the 2012 movie Les Miserables

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From the 1862 novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (1802-1885); as adapted in The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, 1993.

Truth can be so complicated a thing as to call for certain noble dishonesties on some rare occasions.  In this scene we witness a lie told not merely for the sake of compassion, but in order to secure virtue in another man’s soul.  As James Russell Lowell put it, “As one lamp lights another, so nobleness enkindleth nobleness.” 

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     Jean Valjean was a wood-chopper’s son, who, while very young, was left an orphan.  His older sister brought him up, but when he was seventeen years of age, his sister’s husband died, and upon Jean came the labor of supporting her seven little children.  Although a man of great strength, he found it very difficult to provide food for them at the poor trade he followed.

     One winter day he was without work, and the children were crying for bread.  They were nearly starved.  And, when he could withstand their entreaties no longer, he went out in the night, and, breaking a baker’s window with his fist, he carried home a loaf of bread for the famished children.  The next morning he was arrested for stealing, his bleeding hand convicting him.

     For this crime he was sent to the galleys with an iron collar riveted around his neck, with a chain attached, which bound him to his galley seat.  Here he remained four years, then he tried to escape, but was caught, and three years were added to his sentence.  Then he made a second attempt, and also failed, the result of which was that he remained, nineteen years as a galley slave for stealing a single loaf of bread. 

     When Jean left the prison, his heart was hardened.  He felt like a wolf.  His wrongs had embittered him, and he was more like an animal than a man.  He came with every man’s hand raised against him to the town where the good bishop lived.

     At the inn they would not receive him because they knew him to be an ex-convict and a dangerous man.  Wherever he went, the knowledge of him went before; and everyone drove him away.  They would not even allow him to sleep in a dog kennel or give him the food they had saved for the dog.  Everywhere he went they cried:  “Be off.  Go away, or you will get a charge of shot.”  Finally, he wandered to the house of the good bishop, and a good man he was.

     For his duties as  bishop, he received from the state 3,000 francs a year; but he gave away to the poor 2,800 francs of it.  He was a simple, loving man, with a great heart, who thought nothing of himself, but loved everybody.  And everybody loved him.

     Jean, when he entered the bishop’s house, was a most forbidding and dangerous character.  He shouted in a harsh loud voice:  “Look here, I am a galley slave.  Here is my yellow passport.  It says:  ‘Five years for robbery and fourteen years for trying to escape.  The man is very dangerous.’  Now that you know who I am, will you give me a little food, and let me sleep in the stable?”

     The good bishop said:  “Sit down and warm yourself.  You will take supper with me, and after that sleep here.”

     Jean could hardly believe his senses.  He was dumb with joy.  He told the bishop that he had money, and would pay for his supper and lodging.

     But the priest said:  “You are welcome.  This is not my house, but the house of Christ.  Your name was known to me before you showed me your passport.  You are my brother.”

     After supper the bishop took one of the silver candlesticks that he had received as a Christmas present, and, giving Jean the other, led him to his room, where a good bed was provided.  In the middle of the night Jean awoke with a hardened heart.  He felt that the time had come to get revenge for all his wrongs.  He remembered the silver knives and forks that had been used for supper, and made up his mind to steal them, and go away in the night.  So he took what he could find, sprang into the garden, and disappeared.

     When the bishop awoke, and saw his silver gone, he said:  “I have been thinking for a long time that I ought not to keep the silver.  I should have given it to the poor, and certainly this man was poor.”

     At breakfast time five soldiers brought Jean back to the bishop’s house.  When they entered, the bishop, looking at him, said:  “Oh, you are back again!   I am glad to see you.  I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver also, and will bring forty francs.  Why did you not take them?”

     Jean was stunned indeed by these words.  So were the soldiers.  “This man told us the truth, did he?” they cried.  “We thought he had stolen the silver and was running away.  So we quickly arrested him.”

     But the good bishop only said:  “It was a mistake to have him brought back.  Let him go.  The silver is his.  I gave it to him.”

     So the officers went away.

     “Is it true,” Jean whispered to the bishop, “that I am free?  I may go?”

     “Yes,” he replied, “but before you go, take your candlesticks.”

     Jean trembled in every limb, and took the candlesticks like one in a dream.

     “Now,” said the bishop, “depart in peace, but you need not sneak through the garden this time, for the front door is always open to you day and night.”

     Jean looked as though he would faint.

     Then the bishop took his hand, and said:  “Never forget you have promised me you would use the money to become an honest man.”

     He did not remember having promised anything, but stood silent while the bishop continued solemnly:  “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good.  I have bought your soul for you.  I withdrew it from black thoughts and the spirit of hate, and gave it to God.”

     From that moment forth he was a totally different man.  What the bishop has wished to make of him, that he carried out.

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Treat a man as he appears to be, and you make him worse.  But treat a man as if he were what he potentially could be, and you make him what he should be.

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Luke 15:1-2  —  Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.  But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

II Corinthians 5:17  —  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come.  The old has gone, the new is here.

Luke 6:30  —  (Jesus said), “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”

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Psalm 51:10

Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.

1043) Someone Sees You

An old folktale.

     Once upon a time a man decided to sneak into his neighbor’s fields and steal some wheat.  “If I take just a little from each field, no one will notice,” he told himself, “but it will all add up to a nice pile of wheat for me. ”  So he waited for the darkest night when thick clouds lay over the moon, and he crept out of his house.  He took his youngest daughter with him.

     “Daughter,” he whispered, “you must stand guard, and call out if anyone sees me.”

     The man stole into the first field to begin reaping, and before long the child called out, “Father, someone sees you!”

     The man looked all around, but he saw no one, so he gathered his stolen wheat and moved on to a second field.

     “Father, someone sees you!” the child cried again.

     The man stopped and looked all around, but once again he saw no one.  He gathered more wheat, and moved to a third field.

     A little while passed, and the daughter cried out, “Father, someone sees you!”

     Once more the man stopped his work and looked in every direction, but he saw no one at all, so he bundled his wheat and crept into the last field.

     “Father, someone sees you!” the child called again.

     The man stopped his reaping, looked all around, and once again saw no one.  “Why in the world do you keep saying someone sees me” he angrily asked his daughter.  “I’ve looked everywhere, and I don’t see anyone.”

     “Father,” murmured the child, “Someone sees you from above.”

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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 90:8  —  You know all of our sins, even those we do in secret.

Jeremiah 16:17  —  (The Lord declares), “My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes.”

Luke 12:2  —  (Jesus said), “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”

Hebrews 4:13  —  Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight.  Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

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Almighty God, you see what is in my heart.  You know my thoughts, words, deeds; all that I do and fail to do.  Even sins unknown to me are known to you.  Where can I flee except to your mercy?  Forgive what I am and do; and teach me to fear and love you.  For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

1042) Miscellaneous

     Henri Nouwen tells the story of an old holy man who saw a scorpion floating helplessly in the water of the River Ganges.  The old man leaned out over the water, hanging to some roots, and tried to rescue the scorpion.  As soon as he touched it, the scorpion stung him.  Instinctively he withdrew his hand.  A few seconds later, having regained his balance, he stretched himself out again.  This time the scorpion stung him so badly that his hand became swollen and bloody.  The old man’s face contorted with pain.  Just then a passerby saw the old man stretched out over the roots struggling with the scorpion.  He yelled, “Hey, stupid, old man!  What’s wrong with you?  Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature!  Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?”  The old man turned to the stranger and said calmly, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”  Take this as a parable of the God who reaches out in love to redeem us, even as we sin against him.  

Romans 5:6-8…10  —  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us…  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!

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     William Willimon  —  We were in a group, talking about problems in the church.  The congregation had been through some rough times, financially speaking.  There was a great deal of accusation and blaming.  People said that the problems had been festering in the congregation for many years, that the problems were due to a history of mismanagement.

     Then a young woman spoke up and said, “While all of this may be true, could I just remind all of you that if this congregation had not been here, for me, when I really needed a family in the worst sort of way, I would have died.  You are the ones who reached out to me, who told me that God was not mad at me, that God loved me and cared for me.  What would have happened to me if this church, with all its faults, had not been here to tell me and to show me that God was God for me?”

     It was for us all a grand reminder of both the gift of the church and of our responsibility as keepers of the flame of the gospel, bringing warmth to those who live in an often cold and darkened world.

Colossians 3:12-14  —  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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     Martin Luther King, Jr.  —  “There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God.  We have genuflected before the god of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate.  We have worshiped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills play out and sensations are short-lived.  We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy, and that in a world of possible depressions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity.  These transitory gods are not able to save or bring happiness to the human heart.  Only God is able.  It is faith in Him that we must rediscover.”

Exodus 20:2a…3  —  “I am the Lord your God…  You shall have no other gods before me.”

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From A Noble Indifference by James Meikle (adapted):

     The brevity of time, and the near approach of eternity, should give us a noble indifference about everything here on earth.

     What does it matter whether I dwell in a palace or a prison, since it is but for a day, an hour, a moment!  What disappointment should grieve me in time if I shall possess God for eternity?     

     I look around me and see multitudes eager on the chase, keen in the pursuit of created vanities, forgetting that this world is passing away.  I am astonished at the stupidity of people; that the trifles of time should consume them.  I also find myself in the deluded throng of triflers, and condemn my own vain conduct.

     One hundred years ago the earth was filled with inhabitants who are now in eternity.  They were then straggling along the road of human life with care and concern, with burdens and bitterness; but now are forever at their journey’s end.  

     I am now traveling the thorny path and shall also shortly arrive at my eternal home.  The time is so short that why should anything that can befall me give much pain or pleasure?  The end will be bitter for the unsaved, but for the saved the passage of time is a joy, because the shorter the time, the nearer to heaven.

     All the complicated afflictions of this life will disappear when time is no more.  Why, then, take deep concern, or heavy sorrow; or much joy, or lasting delight, at the ill or good of the few flying moments on our journey to eternity?  God is eternal, and in God shall my soul find boundless pleasures and unfading bliss.

Psalm 90:10  —  Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

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 O Lord Jesus, who was silent before Pilate and Herod, do not let us wag our tongues without thinking of what we are to say and how to say it.

–Irish Gaelic prayer

1041) Be Persistent in Prayer (b)

     (…continued)  A woman’s husband died suddenly.  She said to her pastor some time later, “This has been terrible and my days are filled with loneliness and grief; but deep down, I know I am going to be all right.”  Then she added, “I feel like I have been preparing for this moment for all my life.”  What she meant was that all the sermons, all the prayers, and all the Scripture passages she had heard and read and prayed over the years about tragedy, death, grief, sadness, and hope– in all of that she was in training for an event of this magnitude.  The words of the funeral were all familiar to her:  the 23rd Psalm, John 3:16, the great hymns, etc.–  it was familiar, and it all now took on a new and even deeper meaning for her.  None of this makes one immune to grief.  Even Jesus wept at the tomb of a good friend.  But persistence in faith, that ongoing connection to God through prayer and worship, gives our faith a depth that we can draw on, when needed, for hope and strength.  The faith, the words, and the promises become a part of who we are and how we see the world and all of life. 

     Our relationship with God, like any relationship, needs to be kept alive and meaningful by persistent contact.  We worship every week, not for God’s sake, but for our own.  God is able to do very well without us.  He has done fine without you and me for a very long time already.  But WE need to know Him and to be connected to Him, and, take hold of that grace offered to us.  Sometimes people will say they don’t get much out of the worship service.  But it is a mistake to try it just every once in a while and then decide it does not work for you.  The blessings do not come from an occasional sampling, but from persistent attention.  That is one of the messages of this parable.

     Conversation is a part of every relationship, and prayer is our conversation with God.  Think about two types of conversation.  First, imagine a conversation with a stranger.  Perhaps you are sitting in the same waiting room.  You’ve never seen him or her before and you’ll never see them again.  But for something to do you strike up a conversation.  You don’t know each other, so for the most part you just share information– your name, where you live, what you do, and so on.  It passes the time, but a few hours later you have forgotten everything.  None of it matters to you, so it doesn’t make an impact.

     Now imagine a conversation with an old friend.  You already know everything about each other, so the conversation can freely wander around onto all sorts of topics– ideas, opinions, feelings, updates on the family, and memories.  And when you start talking about memories, oftentimes all it takes is a word or two to bring to mind a whole story, event, or even an entire time period.  Just one word or one name can bring back to you both a whole flood of memories, happy and sad.  This kind of conversation is not forgotten in a few hours, but each visit adds another layer to that deep and ongoing friendship.

     I prefer the second type of conversation to the first.  In the first, you are just passing the time.  The second type is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  I will drive hundreds of miles to just sit and have such a conversation for even a little while.

    We want our conversations with God to be like those conversations with an old friend.   When we must turn to Him in desperation in prayer, we should not have to feel like we need to introduce ourselves.  It is best if we do not have to start out by saying, “Well Lord, I know you haven’t heard from me for a while, but…”  It is much better if that desperate prayer can be a part of an ongoing conversation.  We get irritated with friends who call only when they need something (like the man in the parable), but that is how many people treat their relationship with God.

     In John 15 Jesus calls his disciples his friends.  Jesus also says several times in those verses, “Remain in my love,” or, ‘Abide with me’ in the older translations.  Remain, abide, stay close, keep in touch; don’t disappear for ten years and then wonder why the relationship seems dead.  Of course, our friendship with Jesus is not going to be exactly the same as that with a friend whose physical presence is right before us.  There is for now, because of our sin, a separation and a distance.  So as Paul said we live by faith, not by sight, and the relationship and conversation is going to be much different.  Someday we will see clearly, but in the meantime, the relationship can grow closer and stronger even without seeing Jesus in person.

     And when we add to our prayer the hearing of God’s side of the conversation by reading His Word, that too can work like a good chat with an old friend.  In a time of need, just a few words of an old familiar and favorite verse can bring to mind a whole flood of memories and emotion and strength.

For God so loved the world…

The Lord is my Shepherd…

God is our refuge and strength…

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…

Cast all your care upon me…

     For those who have been persistent in their walk with the Lord, just a few words like these bring to mind a whole world of past memories and future hopes.  Conversation with God by our prayer and the hearing of His Word is then no longer like talking to a stranger, but like coming to and spending time with an old friend.  That is the blessing of being persistent in our response to God’s grace.

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Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
    for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
    until the destroying storms pass by.

–Psalm 57:1

1040) Be Persistent in Prayer (a)

The Importunate Neighbor, William Holman Hunt (1895)

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Luke 11:5-8:  (Jesus) said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’  And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.”

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     Luke 11 begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray.  In response, Jesus does two things.  First, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, and then he tells this strange parable about a persistent midnight intruder.  Jesus calls him a friend, but anyone, friend or not, who bangs on your door in the middle of the night for no good reason will seem like an unwelcome intruder.  The man banging on the door says that he is in a desperate situation.  Someone has arrived at his house, perhaps hungry after a long trip, and the man says, “I have nothing to set before him.”

     “Well, too bad!,” the sleepy friend is probably thinking.  “The grocery store will open in a few hours and he isn’t going to starve to death in that amount of time.  Besides, what kind of friend is this?  He’s not acting like much of a friend, showing up unannounced out of nowhere expecting to be fed in the middle of the night.  Why bother me,” thinks the sleeping man, “for the sake of that other guy’s rudeness?  Why not be a friend to me and leave me alone?”

     Who can blame this man, so rudely awakened, for telling his inconsiderate friend to get lost?

     But this midnight intruder is not so easily put off.  He keeps banging on the door, calling out, making an all around nuisance of himself, until finally, the man trying to sleep gets up and goes to the door to let the man in.  He says to himself, “Though I care nothing for this man’s predicament, and though I think this man is a pain in the neck to be bothering me this way in the middle of the night, I will get up and give him what he wants to get him out of here so that my kids and I can get back to sleep.”

     Jesus says we ought to be like that in our prayers.

     Like what?  In prayer, we are doing the asking so we must be the rude man, and does that mean it is rude to bother God with prayer?  Does that then make God the irritated friend, unwilling to help, requiring constant banging on his door in order to get his attention.  Is that what God is like?

     We get into trouble if we read too much into the parables.  Parables are not precise and comprehensive theological expositions of everything.  Parables are simple illustrations with a focused purpose.  The purpose of this little parable is not to give a full description of God, but rather, to say something about our spiritual life.  And the point Jesus is making is not that we should be rude, and not that God is unwilling to hear our prayers; but simply, that we must be persistent in prayer– like the man at the door in the middle of the night was persistent.  In our prayers, in our worship, and in all aspects of our spiritual life, we should be persistent in coming to God.  Persistence, says verse eight, is the key.

     The Bible not only tells us about God, but it also tells us that God wants to have a relationship with us.  God is our Father, says Jesus.  We are his children.  Christ, the Bible says, is the bridegroom of the church.  This is the language of family, the closest of all human relationships.  God has already done everything that needs to be done to fulfill that side of the relationship.  God sent his only son, Jesus Christ, who taught, healed, lived among us, suffered for us, and died; and then rose from the dead.  Risen from the grave, Jesus came back to us and he forgave us and he offers us eternal life.  That is what we call grace, and that is God’s part of the relationship.

     But a relationship needs two interested and involved parties.  And so the Bible is always reminding us of our part of the relationship, always inviting our response, our faith, and our attention.  God expects that we will not ignore him, but that we will keep in touch.  One of the ways we do that is in prayer, and another way is in worship.  This parable is about being persistent in our part of the relationship.  Yes, we are saved by grace, but what happens if someone does not ever respond in any way to such an ‘amazing grace,’ not even with an occasional word of thanks?

     Here is how Methodist pastor William Willimon described this in a parable of his own.  A man and a woman were married.  They promised, as people do in a marriage, to live together forever, no matter what.  Shortly after their honeymoon, the man went on a long trip.  He left town and did not tell his wife or anyone else where he was going.  He just left, and his young wife did not hear from him for a very long time.

     Ten years later, he showed up again, unannounced.  He went into the house, walked up to his wife, put his arm around her, and said, “Hi honey, what’s for supper?”  He planned to resume married life just as it was ten years before.

     The woman shrieked.  To the man’s great surprise his wife hardly recognized him.  Not only that, but she had already officially ended their marriage by divorce due to abandonment, and she was now married to another man.

     The man was upset and objected to her behavior.  “Why don’t you love me anymore?” he said.  “Why have you forsaken me?  Do our marriage vows mean nothing to you?”

     It was, of course, the husband who had forsaken his wife, the husband who had paid no attention to his wife for such a very long time; and then, after a while, there was no more relationship.  He should not have been surprised.

     God does not forget us.  But when someone stays away long enough, they themselves will begin to feel the death of that relationship.  To them, God will begin to seem distant or not there at all.  It may seem to them like God has abandoned them, but they might need to ask themselves who has been absent from who, just like the young husband should have been asking.  If one makes no effort to keep in touch with God, then, when that person does turn to God in a time of need, it should come as no surprise that God does not seem very close. But when someone does stay close to God, and is persistent in prayer and worship, they will find that greater blessings do come with the closer relationship.  (continued…)

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To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
O my God, in you I trust…
 Make me to know your ways, O Lordteach me your paths.

Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
    for you are the God of my salvation.

–Psalm 25:1-2a…4-5a

1039) Valentine’s Day Last Words

Robertson and Muriel McQuilkin

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Adapted from an article at:  www.familylife.com

     They met as students at Columbia Bible College.  Robertson McQuilkin remembers sitting behind her in chapel, watching Muriel Webendorfer run her “lovely, artistic fingers” through her “lovely, brown hair.”  As they began spending time together, he discovered Muriel was “delightful, smart, and gifted, and just a great lover of people and more fun than you can imagine.”

     He proposed on Valentine’s Day in 1948 and they married in August the same year.  For the next three decades, they raised six children and served God together at a variety of posts, including 12 years as missionaries in Japan.  In 1968 they returned to the United States and Robertson became president of Columbia Bible College (now Columbia International University).  Muriel taught at the college, spoke at women’s conferences, appeared on television, and was featured on a radio program that was considered for national syndication.

     The first sign that their lives were about to change appeared in 1978, during a trip to Florida to visit some friends.  Muriel loved to tell stories, and punctuated them with her infectious laughter.  But while they were driving, she began telling a story she had just finished a few minutes earlier.  “Honey, you just told us that,” Robertson said, but she laughed and went on.

     “That’s funny,” Robertson thought. “That has never happened before.”

     But the same type of problem occurred again, and with increasing frequency.  Muriel began to find it difficult to plan menus for parties.  She would speak at public functions and lose her train of thought.  She had to give up her radio show.

     In 1981, when Muriel was hospitalized for tests on her heart, a doctor told Robertson, “You may need to think about the possibility of Alzheimer’s disease.”  It was hard to believe, since the disease does not usually strike someone so young.  But the diagnosis was confirmed by other doctors.

     As the next few years went by, Robertson watched helplessly as his fun, creative, loving partner slowly faded away.  Muriel knew she was having problems, but she never understood that she had Alzheimer’s.  “One thing about forgetting is that you forget that you forgot.  So, she never seemed to suffer too much with it.”  One time, after already experiencing significant memory loss, Muriel saw a television program about Alzheimer’s disease and said, “I sure hope I never get that.”

     Muriel found it more and more difficult to express herself.  She stopped speaking in complete sentences, relying on phrases or words.  Though she continued to recognize her husband and children, she lived, in Robertson’s words, “in happy oblivion to almost everything else.”

     There was one phrase she said often, however:  “I love you.”  Robertson learned much about love from Muriel, and from God, during those first few years of her disease.  When he was away from her, she became distressed, and would often walk the half-mile to his office several times a day to look for him.

     By 1990, Robertson knew he needed to make a decision about his career.  The school needed him 100 percent, and Muriel needed him 100 percent.  In the end, Robertson says, the choice to step down from his position was easy for him to make.  Perhaps the best explanation can be found in the letter he wrote to the Columbia Bible College constituency to explain his decision:

…Recently it has become apparent that Muriel is contented most of the time she is with me and almost none of the time I am away from her.  It is not just “discontent.”  She is filled with fear— even terror— that she has lost me and always goes in search of me when I leave home.  So it is clear to me that she needs me now, full-time…  The decision was made, in a way, 42 years ago when I promised to care for Muriel “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.”  …She has cared for me fully and sacrificially all these years; if I cared for her for the next 40 years I would not be out of her debt.  Duty, however, can be grim and stoic.  But there is more:  I love Muriel.  She is a delight to me— her childlike dependence and confidence in me, her warm love, occasional flashes of that wit I used to relish so, her happy spirit and tough resilience in the face of her continual distressing frustration.  I don’t have to care for her.  I get to.  It is a high honor to care for so wonderful a person.

     So at age 57 Robertson resigned his position as college president and became a homemaker and a care-giver.  “People think it must be so difficult,” he said, “but actually even on the emotional side I didn’t look back with any regrets at all.  I enjoyed the new life.  It is God’s assignment for me now.”

     When Robertson accepted his new assignment, he thought his public ministry was ending.  Instead, it transformed into something altogether different.  In a culture where people prize their individual freedoms above all else, this simple story of a man who loved and served his wife has touched people in a way that he never anticipated.

     The story of Robertson’s act of love spread across the country.  Pastors mentioned it from the pulpit, leading couples to renew their wedding vows.  Christianity Today printed two articles by Robertson, and in 1998 he expanded that material into a book, A Promise Kept.  He appeared on television and radio.

     Robertson relied on God to give him the strength to meet his wife’s needs week after week, month after month.  

     One special memory was of Valentine’s Day in 1995.  He was riding an exercise bicycle at the foot of her bed and thinking of past Valentine’s days, including the one in 1948 when he asked for her hand in marriage.  Muriel woke up, smiled, and suddenly spoke for the first time in months, saying in a clear voice, “Love…love…love.”

     Robertson rushed over to give his wife a hug.  “Honey, you really do love me, don’t you?” he said.  She responded with the only words she could find to say yes: “I’m nice,” she said.

     Those were the last words Muriel ever spoke.  By the time their 50th anniversary passed in 1998, she had lost all ability to function on her own, and spent each day lying in bed.  During that time Roberston worked on writing projects and accepted some speaking engagements, but most days he was at home.  He cared for Muriel until her death on September 19, 2003.

     “In sickness and in health…”

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I Corinthians 13:7  —  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I Corinthians 13:13  —  So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

Matthew 25:40  —  (Jesus said), “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

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Almighty God, in whose hands are all the powers of all people, grant that we may not lavish away the life which you have given us on useless trifles; but enable us by your Holy Spirit to shun sloth and negligence so that every day we may carry out the tasks which you have allotted us.  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson

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Robertson McQuilkin died June 2, 2016 at the age of 88.  The following tribute was written by Randy Alcorn for him June 10, 2016 blog at http://www.epm.org:

http://www.epm.org/blog/2016/Jun/10/robertson-mcquilkin

1038) Babe Ruth’s Testimony

“The Kids Can’t Take It If We Don’t Give It” by Babe Ruth

This is Babe Ruth’s last message.  It was written with the help of friends not long before his death.  The Guideposts magazine office received it on August 16, 1948, the day Ruth died.  Guideposts published it in their October 1948 issue.

ruth6.jpg

George Herman “Babe” Ruth, Jr.  (1895-1948)

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     Bad boy Ruth.  That was me.

     Don’t get the idea that I’m proud of my harum-scarum youth.  I’m not.  I simply had a rotten start in life, and it took me a long time to get my bearings.

     Looking back to my youth, I honestly don’t think I knew the difference between right and wrong.  I spent much of my early boyhood living over my father’s saloon, in Baltimore; and when I wasn’t living over it, I was in it, soaking up the atmosphere.  I hardly knew my parents.

     St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, where I was finally taken, has been called an orphanage and a reform school.  It was, in fact, a training school for orphans, incorrigibles, delinquents and runaways picked up on the streets of the city.  I was listed as an incorrigible.  I guess I was.  Perhaps I would always have been but for Brother Matthias, the greatest man I have ever known, and for the religious training I received there which has since been so important to me.

     I doubt if any appeal could have straightened me out except a Power over and above man.  Iron-rod discipline couldn’t have done it.  Nor all the punishment and reward systems that could have been devised.  God had an eye out for me, just as He has for you, and He was pulling for me to make the grade.

     As I look back now, I realize that knowledge of God was a big crossroads for me.  I got one thing straight (and I wish all kids did)— that God was Boss.  He was not only my Boss but Boss of all my bosses.  Up till then, like all bad kids, I hated most of the people who had control over me and could punish me.  I began to see that I had a higher Person to reckon with who never changed, whereas my earthly authorities changed from year to year.  Those who bossed me had the same self-battles.  They, like me, had to account to God.  I also realized that God was not only just, but merciful.  He knew we were weak and that we all found it easier to be stinkers than good sons of God, not only as kids but all through our lives.

     That clear picture, I’m sure, would be important to any kid who hates a teacher, or resents a person in charge.  This picture of my relationship to man and God was what helped relieve me of bitterness and rancor and a desire to get even.

     I’ve seen a great number of “he-men” in my baseball career, but never one equal to Brother Matthias.  He stood six feet six and weighed 250 pounds.  It was all muscle.  He could have been successful at anything he wanted to in life, and he chose the church.

     It was he who introduced me to baseball.  Very early he noticed that I had some natural talent for throwing and catching.  He used to back me in a corner of the big yard at St. Mary’s and bunt a ball to me by the hour, correcting the mistakes I made with my hands and feet.  I never forget the first time I saw him hit a ball.  The baseball in 1902 was a lump of mush, but Brother Matthias would stand at the end of the yard, throw the ball up with his left hand, and give it a terrific belt with the bat he held in his right hand.  The ball would carry 350 feet, a tremendous knock in those days.  I would watch him bug-eyed.

     Thanks to Brother Matthias I was able to leave St. Mary’s in 1914 and begin my professional career with the famous Baltimore Orioles.  Out on my own…  free from the rigid rules of a religious school…  Boy, did it go to my head.  I began really to cut capers.

     I strayed from the church, but don’t think I forgot my religious training.  I just overlooked it.  I prayed often and hard, but like many irrepressible young fellows, the swift tempo of living shoved religion into the background.

     So what good was all the hard work and ceaseless interest of the Brothers, people would argue?  You can’t make kids religious, they say, because it just won’t take.  Send kids to Sunday School and they too often end up hating it and the church.

     Don’t you believe it.  As far as I’m concerned, and I think as far as most kids go, once religion sinks in, it stays there— deep down.  The lads who get religious training, get it where it counts— in the roots.  They may fail it, but it never fails them.  When the score is against them, or they get a bum pitch, that unfailing Something inside will be there to draw on.  I’ve seen it with kids.  I know from the letters they write me.  The more I think of it, the more important I feel it is to give kids “the works” as far as religion is concerned.  They’ll never want to be holy— they’ll act like tough monkeys in contrast, but somewhere inside will be a solid little chapel.  It may get dusty from neglect, but the time will come when the door will be opened with much relief.  But the kids can’t take it, if we don’t give it to them.

     I’ve been criticized as often as I’ve praised for my activities with kids on the grounds that what I did was for publicity.  Well, criticism doesn’t matter.  I never forgot where I came from.  Every dirty-faced kid I see is another useful citizen.  No one knew better than I what it meant not to have your own home, a backyard, your own kitchen and icebox.  That’s why all through the years, even when the big money was rolling in, I’d never forget St. Mary’s, Brother Matthias and the boys I left behind.  I kept going back.

     As I look back those moments when I let the kids down— they were my worst.  I guess I was so anxious to enjoy life to the fullest that I forgot the rules or ignored them.  Once in a while you can get away with it, but not for long.  When I broke training, the effects were felt by myself and by the ball team— and even by the fans.

     While I drifted away from the church, I did have my own “altar,” a big window of my New York apartment overlooking the city lights.  Often I would kneel before that window and say my prayers.  I would feel quite humble then.  I’d ask God to help me not make such a big fool of myself and pray that I’d measure up to what He expected of me.

     In December, 1946 I was in French Hospital, New York, facing a serious operation.  Paul Carey, one of my oldest and closest friends, was by my bed one night.

     “They’re going to operate in the morning, Babe,” Paul said.  “Don’t you think you ought to put your house in order?”

     I didn’t dodge the long, challenging look in his eyes.  I knew what he meant.  For the first time I realized that death might strike me out.  I nodded, and Paul got up, called in a chaplain, and I made a full confession.

     “I’ll return in the morning and give you Holy Communion,” the chaplain said…  As I lay in bed that evening I thought to myself what a comforting feeling to be free from fear and worries.  I now could simply turn them over to God…

The Babe Bows Out: Nat Fein personal copy

Babe Ruth’s Farewell at Yankee Stadium, June 13, 1948

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Psalm 71:17  —  Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.

psalm 73:22-23  —  I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.  Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.

Psalm 71:9  —  Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone.

Psalm 71:18  —  Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

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Lord, our God, we are in the shadow of your wings.  Protect us and bear us up.  You will care for us as if we were little children, even to our old age.  When you are our strength we are strong, but when we are our own strength we are weak.  We suffer when we turn our faces away from you.  We now return to you, O Lord, that we may never turn away again.  Amen.

–St. Augustine, as he contemplated old age

1037) Wait and See

An old Jewish folktale as retold in The Book of Virtues, ed. by William Bennett, pages 774-5, 1993.

     Once there were two young brothers who had spent all their lives in the city, and had never even seen a field or pasture.  So one day they decided to take a trip into the countryside.  As they were walking along, they spied a farmer plowing, and were puzzled about what he was doing.

     “What kind of behavior is this?” they asked themselves.  “This fellow marches back and forth all day, scarring the earth with long ditches.  Why should anyone destroy such a pretty meadow like that?”

     Later in the afternoon they passed, the same place again, and this time they saw the farmer sowing grains of wheat in the furrows.

     “Now what’s he doing?” they asked themselves.  “He must be a madman.  He’s taking perfectly good wheat and tossing it into these ditches!”

     “The country is no place for me,” said one of the brothers.  “The people here act as if they had no sense.  I’m going home.”  And he went back to the city.

     But the second brother stayed in the country, and a few weeks later saw a wonderful change.  Fresh green shoots began to cover the field with a lushness he had never imagined.  He quickly wrote to his brother and told him to hurry back to see the miraculous growth. 

     So his brother returned from the city, and he too was amazed at the change.  As the days passed they saw the green earth turn into a golden field of tall wheat.  And now they understood the reason for the farmer’s work.

    Then the wheat grew ripe, and the farmer came with his scythe and began to cut it down.  The brother who had returned from the city couldn’t believe it.  “What is this imbecile doing now?” he exclaimed.  “All summer long he worked so hard to grow this beautiful wheat, and now he’s destroying it with his own hands!  He is a madman after all!  I’ve had enough.  I’m going back to the city.”

     But his brother had more patience.  He stayed in the country and watched the farmer collect the wheat and take it to his granary.  He saw how cleverly he separated the chaff, and how carefully he stored the rest.  And he was filled with awe when he realized that by sowing a bag of seed, the farmer had harvested a whole field of grain.  Only then did he truly understand that the farmer had a reason for everything he did.

     “And this is how it is with God’s works, too,” he said.  “We mortals see only the beginnings of His plan.  We cannot understand the full purpose and end of His creation.  So we must have faith in His wisdom.”

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James 5:7-8  —  Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains.  You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

Psalm 46:8a…10  —  Come, behold the works of the Lord…  Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the heathen, I will be exalted in the earth.

Job 37:14b  —  …Stand still, and consider the wondrous works of God.

Psalm 37:7a  —  Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him…

Isaiah 55:8-9  —  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.   For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

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Take from us, O God, all impatience and unquietness; and let us learn to patiently trust in your ways, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Jeremy Taylor

1036) Holy Communion– Mystery and Obedience

There are three things that spread the Christ-life to us:  baptism, belief, and that mysterious action which different Christians call by different names– Holy Communion, the Mass, the Lord’s Supper.

If you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day.  That is why daily prayers and religious reading and churchgoing are necessary parts of the Christian life.  We have to be continually reminded of what we believe.  Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind.  It must be fed.

–C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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More from C. S. Lewis (compiled and edited from various sources, primarily Letters to Malcolm):

      The very last thing I want to do is to unsettle in the mind of any Christian, whatever his denomination, their belief about what is happening when they receive the bread and wine…  

     Some people seem able to discuss different theories of Holy Communion as if they understood them all, and needed only evidence as to which was best.  This light has been withheld from me.  

     I do not know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood…  I can find within the forms of my human understanding no connection between eating a man– and it is as man that the Lord has flesh– and entering into any spiritual oneness with Him…  My effort to do so produces mere nursery thinking…  (I can not agree) with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used only symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ.  They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that.  But it would be profane to suppose that they are as arbitrary as they seem to me.  I well believe there is in reality in appropriateness, even a necessity, in their selection.  But it remains for me, hidden.  

     I am not saying to anyone in the world, “Your explanation is wrong.”  I am saying, “Your explanation leaves the mystery for me still a mystery.”  Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so impenetrable to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation.  Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body.  Here the prig, the don, the modern in me have no advantage over the savage or the child.

     I hope I do not offend God by making my Communions in the frame of mind I have been describing.   The command, after all, was ‘Take, eat’; not ‘Take, understand.’   

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Alvin Rogness, The Word for Every Day, Augsburg Publishing House, 1981, page 35:

     Obedience makes sense when you understand that disobedience will get you into trouble.  You obey the speed limit, when to disobey may get you arrested.  You observe the IRS regulations; if you don’t, you pay a fine.  It can be demonstrated that to disobey the commandments, “Thou shalt not kill,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” is to invite all sorts of unpleasantness.

     There is another kind of obedience that does not rest on understanding at all.  It rests on trust.  This is the kind God asks of us.  We don’t honor God very much by not killing someone; it simply doesn’t pay.  But when we obey God in matters that we cannot understand or that have every chance of giving us trouble— that’s obedience out of sheer trust.  We honor God most by this kind of obedience.

     When they were small, my boys were quite different.  One, when I asked him to do something, would irk me by asking, “Why?”  The other didn’t bother to ask; he simply went ahead and did it.  I suppose I should have been pleased with the curiosity and caution of the first son, but I confess I was more pleased with the second— with his obedience in trust.

     God cannot be displeased when his children try to find out why they ought to do something he has asked.  But he has asked us to do many things for which there are no obvious reasons.  I think of Baptism, for instance.  Who can explain to anyone’s satisfaction what occurs in Baptism?  To be sure, we speak of the washing of regeneration, the grafting of a child into Christ, the gift of faith.  But these are “explanations” that at best satisfy only the believer.  We baptize, simply because Christ commands it.  We obey in trust.

     What do I receive through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper?  I am told that my sins are forgiven and that I have communion with my Lord.  The more the churches have tried to give theological explanations for what the Lord’s Supper means, the more separated from one another they have become.  Many of us may agree with C. S. Lewis that it is enough that the Lord has told us to come, and we come!

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Luke 22:19  —  (Jesus) took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Matthew 8:8-10  —  The centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.  I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

Matthew 28:19  —  (Jesus said), “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

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As the night-watchman waits for the morning, so do we wait for you, O Christ; come with the dawning of the day, and make yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread; for you are our God for ever and ever.  Amen.

–Author unknown

1035) Talking About Living in Sin (part three of three)

By Rev. William Willimon in Pastor, pages 257-260, Abingdon Press, 2002 (adapted).

     (…continued)  When Jesus wanted to change the world, he summoned a rather ordinary group of inexperienced, not overly talented folk to be his disciples.  This is the typical way Jesus does revolution.  Although to the world such means may seem hopelessly ineffective, unrealistic, and impossible, the church is, for better or worse, God’s answer to what is wrong in the world.  Just let the church begin telling the truth, witnessing to the fact that God rules and that Jesus Christ really is Lord, and the church will quickly find how easily threatened and inherently unstable are many of the powers of this world.  If Christians were not being persecuted in the Mideast and in China, and being ridiculed in Hollywood and at Harvard, we might think that the church was no longer proclaiming the Word of God.  That thousands still pay for this faith with their lives and their freedom is proof positive that God is still able to speak through his people.  The false principalities and powers see in the poor old church a threat to everything upon which their world is built.

     One of our recent graduates, now living in California, told me about dragging himself out of bed one Sunday morning and attending the little Episcopal church around the corner.  The service went as expected until the pastor stood up at the time of the sermon, and said, “I suppose that some of you expect me to make some statement about the sexual shenanigans of our president (Bill Clinton).  What have we to say to the moral mire in Washington?  Well, permit me just a moment to go over this again, if I must.  People, we are Christians.  We do not have sex with those to whom we are not married!  For us, there is no sex outside the promises of marriage between one man and one woman!  Must we belabor the point?  I hope not.  Now let us move on to other concerns.”

     Ephesians 4:15-16 establishes a link between truth-telling and community and maturity:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.

     “Speaking the truth in love” is linked to maturity and growth.  Without truthful speech, we are left with immature Christians.  In the church, in my experience, we usually opt for love at the expense of truth.  Of course, from a gospel point of view, dishonest love is hardly love at all.  On the basis of Ephesians 4:15-16, truthful speech is an aspect of the practice of love, a necessary component of Christian unity among a people for whom there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6).  Too often, in too many congregations, unity is purchased by the world’s means— suppression of information, deceitful flattery, and niceness— rather than through the Christ-appointed means of speaking the truth in love.  In order to have unity or love worthy of the designation “Christian,” we need to be more in love with truth than with either unity or love…

     A woman accosted me at the front door, at the end of service, after I had preached on forgiveness.

      “Do you mean to tell me that Jesus expects me to forgive my abusive husband who made my life hell for ten years until I got the courage to leave him?  I’m supposed to forgive him?”

     I got nervous.  Defensively I said, “Well, we only have twenty minutes for the sermon.  I can’t properly qualify and nuance everything.  But I do feel that, though I am deeply concerned about the problem of spouse abuse, Jesus does tell us to forgive our enemies, and who is a greater enemy than your ex-husband?  I do think that Jesus probably did mean for us to…”

     “Good!” she said.  “Just checking!”  With that she left, going forth, I think, with a burden placed upon her back, a burden not of her own devising, to walk a narrow way quite different from the ways of the world.  Who told me as a preacher to attempt to lessen that gap, that life-giving gospel gap, between her and the gospel?  Who told me that she was unable to respond to the command of Jesus?

     Sometimes we do not have to say anything to be a powerful witness…  

     A young man called me early one Monday morning to tell me that he needed to talk.  He was in terrible shape, having wandered about the university campus all night, crying most of the time.

     “I had the worst night of my life,” he explained.  “Last night, after the fraternity meeting, as usual we had a time when we just sit around and talk about what we did over the weekend.  This weekend, during a party we had on Saturday, I went upstairs to get something from a brother’s room and walked in on a couple who were, well, ‘in the act.’

     “I immediately closed the door and went back downstairs, saying nothing.  Well, when we came to the time for sharing at the end of the meeting, after a couple of the brothers shared what they did over the weekend, one of the group said, ‘I understand that Mr. Christian got a real eyeful last night.’

     “With that, they all began to laugh.  Not a good, friendly laugh; it was cold, cruel, mean laughter.  They were all laughing, all saying things like, ‘You won’t see nothin’ like that in church!’ and ‘Better go confess to the priest,’ and stuff like that.

     “I tried to recover, tried to say something light, but I couldn’t.  They hate me!  They were serious.  I walked out of the meeting and stood outside and wept.  I’ve never been treated like that in my life.”

     I told him, “That’s amazing.  You are not the greatest Christian in the world, are you?  You don’t know the Bible that well.  You don’t know much theology.”

     “You know me, I don’t know anything,” he said.

     “And yet, even a Christian like you, in the right environment, can be recognized as a threat and can be persecuted,” I said.  “You are young.  You don’t know that much about church history.  There was a time when to be a martyr, a witness, you had to be good at preaching, or had to be some sort of a saint.  These days, even a guy like you can be a witness for Jesus.”

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Matthew 5:10-12  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

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O God of all power, comfort and defend your flock which you have redeemed through the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Increase the number of true preachers; enlighten the hearts of the ignorant; relieve the pain of the afflicted, especially those who suffer for their testimony to the truth; by the power of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

–John Knox, Chaplain to Edward VI in England, main compiler of the Scottish Prayer Book (1514-1572)