1299) Who Invented Sex?

By my favorite living Christian author, Philip Yancey, in his October 16, 2016 blog at http://www.philipyancey.com , adapted from his book A Skeptic’s Guide to Faith, Zondervan, 2009 (previously published as Rumors of Another World, 2003).

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     Elk rutting season has just ended in Colorado, and thousands of spectator-filled cars lined the roads of parks and wildlife preserves to watch the show.  I simply had to look out the window:  witness this photo I took in my backyard.

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     Elk are large hoofed mammals—like deer on steroids—that can weigh up to 700 pounds.  For eleven months of the year they hang out in segregated herds of cows and bulls, contentedly munching on grass.  In early fall, however, their behavior changes dramatically.  The bulls strut about, stomping their feet in a rumbling display of intimidation, and look for other male elk to challenge.

     Through the spring and summer, the bulls have grown spectacular racks of jagged antlers.  Come September, they start jousting with other bulls, at first practicing with head feints and then progressing to serious, antler-clashing combat.  Sound from the collisions echoes through the canyon where I live, punctuated by the bulls’ high-pitched screams known as ‘bugling.’  

     As you might have guessed, the goal of all this activity is mating.  After fighting off younger bulls, the winner takes possession of a harem of fifty to a hundred cows.  Then, for the next two weeks, he exhausts himself in a round-the-clock orgy.

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    “You and me, baby, ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” belts out a popular rock band from the 90’s.  The problem with that philosophy—a common view of modern sexuality—is that we humans don’t do it like other mammals.

     Elk take no precautions of privacy, acting out their instincts on a municipal golf course or even in my backyard.  Afterward, they don’t give sex another thought for eleven months.  Sex for them is a seasonal, reproductive act, and nothing more.  As winter approaches, the bulls lose their antlers, reconvene in herds, and look for more grass to eat.

     Humans, like all mammals, experience sex as a powerful force.  But I have yet to meet a hormonal teenager who does it like the elk: fighting for dominance, enjoying scores of conquests in broad daylight, and then setting aside all thoughts of sex for the next eleven months.  Relationship, intimacy, exclusivity, commitment, love—we humans want something more from our sexual experience.

     Zoologists puzzle over the oddity of human sexuality, unable to find any evolutionary advantage in sex that does not lead to reproduction.  Like the elk, most mammals confine their sexual activity to a specified time period: once or twice a year, when the female is in heat.  Humans have no such restrictions, and continue to enjoy sex long after their reproductive years have passed.  Why are we so oversexed?  Some scientists conclude that for humans sex represents a huge waste of time—certainly true if fertilization is the only goal.  (The elk demonstrate sex at its most efficient.)

     Christians look back to the book of Genesis, when God presented woman as an answer to man’s deep loneliness.  “They will become one flesh,” says the author, who then adds the telling observation, “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”  Sex is God’s great gift.  Yet, somehow, over the centuries Christianity has gained a reputation of being anti-sex.  Outside the church, people think of God as the stern spoil-sport of human sexuality, forgetting that God invented sex, in all its strange and exotic varieties across the species.

     I mention the church’s attitude toward sex because I believe we Christians bear some responsibility for the counter-reaction so evident in modern society.  Jesus reserved his harshest words for sins such as hypocrisy, pride, greed, injustice, and legalism.  Yet we who follow him use the word “immoral” to signify sexual sins almost exclusively, and reserve church discipline for those who fail sexually.

     Perhaps worse, in its prudery the church has silenced a powerful rumor of transcendence that could point to the Creator of human sexuality, who invested in it far more meaning than most modern people can imagine.  Sexual power lives on, but few see in that power a clue to the One who designed it.

     (We are more than mammals, so) we don’t do it like other mammals on the Discovery Channel.  Animals do it forcibly, scripted by their genes, at certain times of the year.  Humans cultivate a relationship between consenting parties, best protected in a long-term commitment.  In every aspect, human sexuality encourages relationship.  We get to know, and make love to, not a body but a person.

     When sex becomes a mere transaction—as in prostitution, or pornography viewed online—we instinctively recognize the lie.  No amount of immediate pleasure can silence the nagging sense that naked intimacy should involve more than body parts.  Indeed, even our promiscuous society frowns on leaders (past presidents or current candidates) who, elk-like, act in predatory ways toward the opposite sex.

     G.K. Chesterton said, “Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.”  He was expressing the most basic fact of Christian anthropology.  The gospel calls us to cast off the simple “biology is destiny” formula and to reach farther and higher toward spiritual reality.  In short, we are asked to transcend biological destiny and prove that we are more than animals.

     We are never more god-like than in the act of sex, as the New Testament passages often read at weddings make clear.  This most human act hints at the nature of spiritual reality.  We make ourselves vulnerable.  We risk.  We give and receive in a simultaneous act.  Quite literally we make one flesh out of two, experiencing for a brief time a unity like no other.  Independent beings offer their inmost selves, in a sign of promised faithfulness, and experience not a loss but a gain.

     What about when we fail to meet that lofty ideal?  Jesus set the example of how to respond by showing great tenderness to those who had failed sexually.  Recognizing the depth of their pain, he offered forgiveness and not judgment.

     Even the pain that lingers after sexual betrayal stands, oddly enough, as an indirect proof of sexuality’s original design.  Those who test that design, and fail, in the process gain a haunting sense of what we are missing.  As humans, we want desperately to connect, to grow in personal intimacy even as we progress in sexual intimacy.  We want to be fully known and fully loved, and we feel betrayed when sex doesn’t lead there.

     Sheltering sex within marriage and fidelity does not guarantee that we’ll realize perfect union with another person.  It may, however, create an environment of safety, intimacy, and trust where the true meaning of sex, the sacramental meaning, at times breaks through. 

     If only the elk could understand what they’re missing.

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Genesis 1:27  —  So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Genesis 2:24  —  …A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Genesis 2:25  —  Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.

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1298) Morning and Evening Prayer (jb10)

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From A Diary of Private Prayer, 1949, by John Baillie, Church of Scotland pastor and theologian, (1886-1960); containing a morning and evening prayer for thirty-one days (adapted).

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MORNING PRAYER  (Nineteenth day)

I give you thanks, most gracious God, that again you have brought light out of darkness and caused the morning to appear.  And now, as you send me forth to the duties and doings of another day, I pray that you go with me through all the sunlit hours.  Protect me from every evil way, so that when evening comes I need not hide my head in shame.  

You call me to be your servant; I pray that I may be ready to obey your commandments.  Give me the spirit to keep myself in continual training for the punctual fulfillment of your will.
Let me keep the edges of my mind keen;
Let me keep my thinking straight and true;
Let me keep my passions in control;
Let me keep my will active;
Let me keep my body fit and healthy.

O Lord, I pray your blessing upon all who truly desire to serve you.  Help them to be diligent and faithful in their various callings, bearing their due share of the world’s burden, and going about their daily tasks in all simplicity and uprightness of heart.
For all who tend flocks or till the soil;
For all who work in factories or in mines;
For all who buy and sell in the marketplace;
For all who labor at their desks with pen and paper;
For all who tend to home and family;
Dear Lord, I pray.  

In your great mercy, save us all from the temptations that beset us, and bring us to everlasting life.  Amen.

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EVENING PRAYER  (Eighteenth day)

Heavenly Father, whose mercy ever awaits those who return to you in true lowliness and contrition of heart, hear now this prayer of one who needs your help.  Bravely did I set out this morning upon the life of a new day; now I lie down ashamed and burdened with memories of things undone that ought to have been done, and things done that ought not to have been done.  Bring to me afresh, O God, your healing and cleansing power, so that again I may lay hold of the salvation which you have offered to me through Jesus Christ, my Lord.
For my deceitful heart and crooked thoughts;
For harsh words spoken deliberately and thoughtless words spoken hastily:
For envious and prying eyes;
For ears that rejoice in iniquity and rejoice not in the truth;
For greedy hands;
For wandering and loitering feet;
For haughty looks;
Have mercy upon me, O God.

Almighty God, in asking your forgiveness I cannot claim a right to be forgiven, but only cast myself upon your unbounded love and grace.
I can plead no merit, nor blame the persuasions of others who led me astray;
I can plead no extenuating circumstances;
I cannot plead the frailty of my nature;
I cannot plead the force of the temptations I encountered;

I can only ask, Father, that you forgive me for the sake of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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I John 1:8-9  —   If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us; but if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Romans 7:15  —  I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Romans 7:24-25  —  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?  Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

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1297) Giving Thanks

     The coffee shop was a tiny hole-in-the-wall place, open 24 hours a day.  The lunch counter had the antiseptic shine of stainless steel, and in the early morning light looked sanitary and impersonal.

     Assorted persons were lined up on the stools:  yawning college students up early for a test; a tired looking man in a blue suit with a briefcase; two young nurses, rumpled and hollow-eyed from night duty at the nearby hospital; a family with a little girl; and a sullen teenager putting lipstick on her already too bright lips.

     The coffee shop was quiet except for the sputter of frying bacon, the occasional crack of an eggshell by the cook, and a not-yet-awake voice asking for a second cup of coffee.

     Each person was lost in his or her thoughts.  All were anonymously met together for nothing more than the custom of having an eye-opening cup of coffee in the morning.

     The little girl sat between her mother and father, happily swinging her legs from the stool.  The cook, who was also the waiter, put their orders before them, turned and walked away, polishing the already spotless counter as he went.

     The little girl whispered loudly, “Mother, don’t we ask the blessing here?”  No one else was talking, so everyone heard what she said– and then they all paused to see what the embarrassed parents would do next.

     The waiter stopped his polishing and grinned at the little girl.  “We sure do, sister,” he said with authority.  “We’ll all bow our heads, and you say the prayer,” he said as he stood quietly with his head bowed.  

     The girl then bowed her head, and waited a moment.  Then, up and down the counter other heads bowed– the nurses, the students, the man with the briefcase, then slowly the teenager.

     The little voice seemed loud in the room:  “God is great, God is good, and we thank him for this food.  By his hand we all are fed.  Give us this day our daily bread.  Amen.”

     As heads raised there was a noticeable change in the atmosphere.  The man with the briefcase smiled at the nurses and informed them that he had a new baby son at their hospital.  The college students sipped their coffee quietly, perhaps thinking about little sisters and brothers at home.  The teenager looked in the mirror thoughtfully, and then grinned at the little girl’s mother.

     A momentary bond of friendliness had come into the room.  The little girl, oblivious to what she had done, drowned her waffle in syrup and ate it happily.     –Source unknown

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“Saying Grace”  Norman Rockwell 

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Matthew 5:16  —  (Jesus said), “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Isaiah 11:6  —  The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat,
     the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.

Luke 18:16  —  But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.

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God is great, God is good, and we thank him for this food.  

By his hand we all are fed.  

Give us this day our daily bread.  Amen.

1296) Forgiveness Tested

From Tramp for the Lord, by Corrie ten Boom, 1974, pages 55-57. 

       It was in a church in Munich that I saw him– a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands.  People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.  It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.  (Corrie ten Boom, a Christian, had spent two years in a Nazi concentration camp, sentenced there for hiding Jews in her home in Holland.  All the rest of her family died in the camps.)

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Betsie, Nollie, Casper, Willem, Cornelia, Corrie ten Boom in 1900.

     It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture.  Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.  “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.  And even though I cannot find a Scripture for it, I believe God then places a sign out there that says, “NO FISHING ALLOWED.”

     The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe.  There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947.  People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

     And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others.  One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next moment, (in my mind), I saw a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.  It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man.  I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin.  Betsie, how thin you were!  The place was Ravensbruck and the man who was making his way forward had been a guard– one of the most cruel guards.  Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out:  “A fine message, Fraulein!  How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

     And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand.  He would not remember me, of course– how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?  But I remembered him.  I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.  “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying.  “I was a guard there.”  No, he did not remember me.  “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian.  I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well.  Fraulein,” — again the hand came out — “will you forgive me?”

     And I stood there– I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven– and could not forgive.  Betsie had died in that place– could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?  It could not have been many seconds that he stood there– hand held out– but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.  For I had to do it– I knew that.  The message that God forgives has a prior condition:  that we forgive those who have injured us.  “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

     I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience.  Since the end of the war I had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.  Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars.  Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids.  It was as simple and as horrible as that.

     And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart.  But forgiveness is not an emotion– I knew that too.  Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.  “Jesus help me!” I prayed silently.  “I can lift my hand.  I can do that much.  You supply the feeling.”

     And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me.  And as I did, an incredible thing took place.  The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, and sprang into our joined hands.  And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.  “I forgive you, brother!” I cried.  “With all my heart.”

     For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner.  I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.  But even so, I realized it was not my love.  I had tried, and did not have the power.  It was the power of the Holy Spirit as recorded in Romans 5:5, “. . . because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Living Bible).

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Romans 5:5 — And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. 

Matthew 5:7 — (Jesus said), “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Romans 8:26b — …The Spirit helps us in our weakness… 

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Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  

–Jesus

1295) Learning About God by Coloring With the Kids

By Joshua Rogers, posted October 24, 2016 on his blog Finding God in the Ordinary at:

http://www.joshuarogers.com

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     “Color with me, Daddy,” my oldest daughter said.

     “I prefer to draw a picture, but I don’t know what to draw,” I said. 

     “Just draw a line and keep going,” she said.  “That’s what I do, and then I usually figure out what I’m going to draw after that.”

     So I picked up a pen and began to outline a picture of a tree.

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     “I want to do that,” said my other daughter.  And then both of them got their own pieces of paper and started doing their best to follow me.

     They actually did a good job even though you could tell little kids had made them.  I didn’t care though.  They were imitating me, which I thought was sweet, and they even added their own elements, which made me more proud.  They were teaching me something about loving and being loved by Father God.

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     Speaking of God, I’ve always gotten a little stressed out by the idea of imitating him, as we’re called to do (Philippians 2:5).  It seems like the whole endeavor is set up for failure.  Most of the time, I feel like I’m just playing catch-up with my assignment.  God is perfectly loving and good… and then there’s me:  the oftentimes impatient dad; the inconsiderate husband; the guy who has to fight to keep the focus on Jesus, rather than on himself.

     But then I look at my daughter’s coloring sheet and breathe a sigh of relief. If God is a good father, then my honest effort matters.  I’m not being graded.  I’m not being scrutinized or examined to see if I’m getting is just right.  He wants me to join Him in making something beautiful.  He wants to take the time just to be together.

     Imagine if my daughter said, “Daddy, I’m going to draw this picture, and it’s going to look exactly like yours.  I’m doing this so you’ll be proud of me.  Please don’t get mad at me if it isn’t perfect.”  It would break my heart.

     Pastor Justin Fung says the central difference between effort and earning is motivation.  “Earning is when we do something in order to try to gain God’s affection; effort is when we do something because we already have God’s affection.”  And the only way to secure that affection is through the blood of Jesus.  For those of us who rely upon Him to bring us into God’s family, we can rest in that and just be His beloved children (1 John 3:1).

     It takes a lot of the pressure off of me to think of it that way — to see God as a good father, not some irritable employer who’s just looking for reasons to fire us.  He wants us next to Him.  He wants us to imitate Him, and He is pleased by the trusting heart behind our efforts, even when they’re imperfect.

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I John 3:1a  —  See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God. 

Philippians 2:1-5  —  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.

I Corinthians 4:14-16  —   I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children.  Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.  Therefore I urge you to imitate me.

Hebrews 13:7  —  Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you.  Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.

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Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day.

–From the 1971 musical Godspell; by Stephen Schwartz, based on a prayer by St. Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

1294) Risky Business: A Wedding Sermon

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     Mike and Connie, the text I have chosen for your wedding is from the story of another wedding, the story of Isaac and Rebekah in Genesis 24.  Isaac’s father, Abraham sent his servant on a long journey, back to Abraham’s hometown, in order to find a suitable wife for Isaac.  The servant prayed for guidance, was led to Rebekah, and brought her home to Isaac—Isaac, who did not yet know any of this, even though he was about to be married.

     Beginning a marriage this way is risky business.  The bride and groom had never laid eyes on each other until the day the servant got back with Rebekah and she asked, “Who’s that man out in the cornfield?” and Abraham’s servant replied, “Why, that’s your new husband, ma’am.”

     These days, a woman would shriek at the thought of such an arrangement.  And what young man would like the idea of some guy from his father’s office staff picking out his bride?  Yet to this day, many Chinese, African, and Indian parents talk to other parents and arrange for the marriages of their sons and daughters with partners they have never met.

     I have told my confirmation classes that I think this method of parents arranging for their children’s marriage is just as good as the way we do it, with both methods having certain advantages and disadvantages.  The kids would get all upset and say, “Are you crazy?  That’s too risky!  How can you marry someone you don’t even know!”  They would all argue that marriage is too serious a matter to enter into like that, with parents in charge.  What about shared dreams and goals, what about common interests, what about dating and getting to know each other, what about love, for Pete’s sake— what do parents know about any of that?  “You just can’t have parents making those kinds of decisions for you!” these wise 8th graders would all agree.

     Then, to give them another perspective, I would tell them about Gideon, a young man from India that I got to know several years ago.  Gideon was a college graduate, the son of professional people, and was at the University of Minnesota working on a Master’s Degree.  He was a brilliant student, good looking, well-liked, witty and funny—the life of the party type.  But Gideon never dated.  People would ask him if he had a girlfriend back in India.  “I don’t know,” he would reply cheerfully.  “Maybe I do,” he would go on to say, “My parents are taking care of finding a wife for me, and I am glad to leave it in their hands.  Shucks, I am only 24 years old, and it is too risky for me to make that choice.  What do I know about love and marriage?”

     So what about Isaac and Rebekah?  How did they turn out?  Well, after 66 verses of describing how the servant found Rebekah, one simple verse tells the whole story of their brief courtship and wedding day.  It says, “Isaac brought Rebekah to the tent and he married her; so she became his wife and he loved her.”

     “He loved her,” it says.  Abraham, with the help of his hired man, found a wife for Isaac, they got married on the day they met, learned to love each other, and lived as husband and wife until they were parted by death.  Everything went just the way it was supposed to go.  Before that, there were no evenings of romance out in the moonlight on the front porch swing, no sharing of dreams and goals, no playing on the radio “You make me so very happy,” and not even a proposal of marriage.  It was just, “Isaac, this is Rebekah; Rebekah meet Isaac.  Now someone go call the preacher.”  Yet, from that day onward they learned to love each other, and they stayed together for life.

     No matter how you get a partner and begin a life together, marriage is a risk.  Parents can make mistakes—it happens all the time in India and Africa.  And, when people are allowed to find their own partners, they too can make mistakes.  Love can be so very blind, and we’ve all seen those kinds of mistakes.

     Mike and Connie, you have spent lots of time together, met each other’s families, made plans, and probably have said sweet things to each other— but there is really very little in all of that to reduce the risk.  You do know each other better today than Isaac and Rebekah knew each other on their long ago wedding day, but there will be much more to learn, and an endless stream of adjustments to make.  You will, in the months and years to come, really get to know each other.  Ask any married person when they learned all about their spouse– it is after the marriage, and after all the head-in-the-clouds excitment has vanished in the day to day routine of a job to go to, diapers to change, meals to cook, and bills to pay.  This is where real love, deep love, can grow—or die.  You never know.  It is always a risk.

      And, we ourselves change over the years.  We are not the same at age 35, 45, or 65, that we are when we are 25 and making these huge lifelong choices and promises.  We go through a lot in a lifetime, and it all has an impact on us.  Yes, you will get to know each other better, and as you do, a far deeper love can grow.  But life and love is always a risk.  We don’t know what will happen or what feelings will come and go.

     That is why at the center of the wedding ceremony is a lifelong commitment to remain true to each other no matter what happens.  The risk cannot be avoided.  The commitment binds you together anyway, come what may.  It is love that brought you together, and love that brings you here today.  But marriage is about much more than love.  You are not here today to express your love, but to make a promise; and from now on, the vows you make today will be there to sustain your marriage in times when love will be difficult to maintain.

     As you commit your lives to each other today, remember that God has made such a commitment to you.  He took the risk of creating each of us, giving us the freedom to return his love or ignore it.  God had no guarantee that we would obey him or return his love or pay him any attention at all.  And yet He made a commitment, and He gave us life.  He took the risk.  And there have been times, says the Bible, that God has regretted ever entering such a relationship with us—just like every married man and woman on earth have, at times, entertained regrets about choosing the partner they did.  But mere feelings of regret are no match for a lifelong commitment taken seriously, and the love of God in you, that can give you the strength to make and keep that commitment.  Then, you can indeed “grow in holy love until your life’s end,” as the marriage blessing says.  Remember Christ’s commitment to you, and remember that commitment also was “even unto death.”  By keeping close to Christ, you can learn to live in Christ-like love and forgiveness.

     Mike and Connie, may God be with you and you with Him in all the days of your life together.  Amen.

(inspired by a sermon by Rev. Roy Harrisville)

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Genesis 6:6  —  The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

Genesis 24:4  —  (Abraham said), “Go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.”

Genesis 24:67  —  Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah.  So she became his wife, and he loved her.

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TRADITIONAL WEDDING VOW:

 I, ___, take thee, ___, to be my wedded husband/wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I pledge myself to you.

1293) “I Give My Life to You”

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French tending to their wounded in the trenches of WWI

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     Henri Barbusse (1873-1935) was a French novelist.  At the outbreak of the first World War in 1914, at the age of forty-one, Barbusse enlisted in the French army to fight the Germans.  He spent almost a year and a half fighting in the trenches at the front lines.  At the end of 1915 he was moved into a clerical position due to pulmonary damage, exhaustion, and dysentery.  In 1916 Barbusse became famous with the publication of Under Fire, a fictional novel based on his actual experiences at the front.  Under Fire describes war in gritty and brutal realism, depicting in detail the wretched conditions in the trenches, and the horror of the death all around him.  Later he would write of those awful times:  “I keep remembering, I keep remembering.  My heart has no pity on me.”

     In the novel, Barbusse tells of a conversation overhead in a trench full of wounded men after a battle.  One of the men knows that he is dying, and he says to the other:  “Listen Dominique, you have lived a bad life.  But there are no convictions against me.  There is nothing in the books against my name.  Take my name.  Take my life.  I give it to you.  Just like that, you will have no more convictions on your record.  Take my papers.  There are there in my pocketbook.  Go on, take them, and hand yours over to me.  Then, I can carry all your crimes away with me, and you can start over.”  (Identification papers were less sophisticated then, though even now identities can be switched or stolen.)

     At an infinitely higher level, this is what Jesus did for us on the cross.  He, the sinless one, took our sins onto himself and then to the cross.  In him we now appear in a new light before God, reconciled and forgiven.  

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I Peter 2:24  —   (Jesus) bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.

Isaiah 53:3-6  —  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.  Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.  Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

I Corinthians 15:1-4  —  Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.  By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you.  Otherwise, you have believed in vain.  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:  that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.

Colossians 3:3  — For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

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

–The ancient Jesus prayer

1292) No Cheating!

Image result for cheating test images

Or, we could try the Ten Commandments…

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From “How the Ten Commandments Stop Us From Cheating” by Christian B. Miller, October 18, 2016, at: http://www.christianity.com .  Miller is professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University. He is the director of the Character Project and the philosophy director of the Beacon Project

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     Reading the news, you might well conclude that the 2010s are the decade of cheating.  Dozens of runners allegedly broke the eligibility rules to enter the 2015 Boston Marathon.  In 2012, 125 of the students in a Harvard University government class— with 279 students total— were accused of cheating, and 70 were eventually forced to withdraw from Harvard altogether.  In 2015, the hacking of Ashley Madison’s website (“Life is short. Have an affair”) uncovered 37 million users worldwide.

     The world of sports has provided seemingly endless examples.  In 2013 Lance Armstrong admitted that he had cheated, for decades, while bicycling.  Alex Rodriguez missed the whole 2014 Major League Baseball season for cheating.  Russian weightlifters were banned from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games— and though Russia’s Olympic delegation barely escaped a blanket ban for that nation’s history of cheating, the same was not true for the Paralympic Games that followed the Olympics, where the entire Russian team was banned...

     The sheer volume of these cases is enough to make us despair about human character— even if we didn’t have ample evidence from our own, more or less spectacular, moments of dishonesty.  Maybe we are all, deep down, just dishonest people.

     But we don’t just have to speculate.  We live in the age of social psychology, where researchers can actually investigate our hunches about the prevalence of dishonesty.  But surprisingly, the same researchers who have confirmed our worst suspicions— people are very prone to cheat— have also discovered something less expected.  They’ve found a way to practically eliminate cheating altogether.

     First the bad news.  Athletes and celebrities are not alone.  In fact, most people will cheat if given the chance.  A London Business School study had people in a control group take a test with 20 problems.  When the time was up, the test was graded by the experimenters, and each participant was paid $0.50 per correct answer.  On average they solved eight problems correctly.

     Another group took the same test, and also knew that they would get paid $0.50 per correct answer.  But here was the twist:  They were told to grade their own tests and shred their answer keys when they were done— meaning they could report whatever number of correct answers they wanted and get paid accordingly, with no questions asked.  What happened?  They “solved” thirteen  problems correctly.  Could it be that this second group was just that much better at problem solving?  It could be.  But I think we all know what really happened.

     So far, this sounds like more of the same depressing news about dishonesty.  But researchers at the University of Toronto had a really clever idea about how to expand this experiment.  Their control group averaged  3.1 problems solved (these were clearly harder problems).  Then there was the “shredder” group.  For this group, confirming the earlier experiment, the number of problems “solved” went up, to 4.2 on average.

     But— and here is the clever part— the researchers had a third group of participants.  This group was given the same instructions as the “shredders,” with one difference:  They were asked to recall the Ten Commandments before taking and grading the test.  What happened?  On average, this group reported solving just 2.8 problems.  The cheating (presumably) seen in the “shredder” group was entirely gone…

     Explaining the cheating is fairly simple:  Deep down, it seems, most of us would choose to cheat if we thought we could benefit from it and get away with it.  But then why do the Ten Commandments matter so much?  Because we also want to be perceived as honest people both by others and— crucially— by ourselves.  The Ten Commandments serve as a moral reminder of the right way to behave.  Having been given that reminder, it becomes harder to regard ourselves as honest if we then proceed to cheat…

     This is encouraging news.  Most of us are not entirely dishonest people after all.  Truly dishonest people would not care about the Ten Commandments, nor would they care about seeing themselves as honest and let that regulate how much they actually cheat.

     But for most of us, our view of our own characters matters.  We want to think of ourselves as good— and honest— people.

     This discovery has a number of important practical applications.  One is for education.  Cheating is a huge problem in high schools and colleges today.  According to one study, the average rate of cheating while in college is a whopping 86 percent.  But a school’s honor code, if it is taken seriously and used for every paper and test, can serve a similar function as the Ten Commandments.

     In fact, the same researchers at Toronto showed this experimentally.  Control participants averaged 3.4 correct answers.  When given an opportunity to cheat with the shredder, those participants usually did (6.1 correct answers).  But when they first signed an honor code, cheating disappeared (3.1 correct answers).  Strikingly, this was true whether they would be paid $.50 per correct answer, or even $2— four times as much.

     The key, though, is that students actually sign the code.  It can’t just be a nebulous commitment of the school.  It has to be something they are personally committing themselves to.

     Another practical application has to do with cheating on financial paperwork, whether taxes or a company reimbursement form. Such cheating probably results in billions of dollars in losses each year.  Normally the place where you sign your name and pledge that you have completed it honestly comes at the very bottom.  The London Business School researchers found that 79 percent of participants in their study who signed on the bottom of a tax form misreported their earnings.  But when they moved the moral reminder to the top of the form, the percentage of participants misreporting shrank to 37 percent.

     Or consider cheating in relationships.  My wedding ring serves as a daily reminder of the moral commitment I have made to my wife— a reminder to me and to others.

     Christians, of all people, should not be at all surprised by the prevalence of cheating in these experiments (or in society more generally).  Indeed, we could have predicted ahead of time just what the psychologists would end up discovering:  Most of us want to cheat but we also want to think of ourselves as good people.  These are exactly the kind of psychological contortions you’d expect of sinful people.

     But because we ourselves are sinful people, we shouldn’t discount our need for mirrors to our souls—both our temptations and our aspirations. And as it turns out, literal mirrors might work best of all. In another study, when psychologists asked participants to take a test in an empty room for five minutes and then stop when an alarm bell goes off, 71 percent kept going well after five minutes.  But when the participants were seated at a desk with a mirror facing them on the wall, only 7 percent went past five minutes.  A stunning difference.

     We all need mirrors like that— literal or metaphorical.  It might be wearing a cross around one’s neck.  It might be a special bracelet or ring.  It might be a verse that one carries in a pocket or has taped to the office wall.  It could be the simple presence of a Bible in plain sight next to the tax forms or the computer with unfiltered Internet access.

     Thinking that we can get by and not cheat by depending on the goodness of our characters or the strength of our willpower is foolish.  

     We need all the moral help we can get.

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In matters of morals, people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.

–Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

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Deuteronomy 6:4-9  —  Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.

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Set our hearts on fire with love to thee, O Christ, that in its flame we may love thee with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves; so that, keeping thy commandments, we may glorify thee, the giver of all good gifts.  Amen.

–Eastern Orthodox Church

1291) Morning and Evening Prayer (jb9)

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From A Diary of Private Prayer, 1949, by John Baillie, Church of Scotland pastor and theologian, (1886-1960); containing a morning and evening prayer for thirty-one days (adapted).

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MORNING PRAYER  (Thirtieth day)

Creator God, who rules over the lands and waters of earth, endowing them with forms and colors which no human skill can copy, give me today, I pray, the mind and heart to rejoice in your creation.
Forbid that I should walk through your beautiful world with unseeing eyes:
Forbid that the lure of the market-place should ever entirely steal my heart away from the love of the open acres and the green trees:
Forbid that under the low roof of workshop or office or study I should ever forget your great overarching sky.
Forbid that when all your creatures are greeting the morning with songs and shouts of joy, I alone should wear a dull and sullen face:
Let the energy and vigor, which in your wisdom you have infused into every living thing, also stir within my being, so that I may not be among your creatures as a sluggard and a drone:
And above all give me grace to use these beauties of earth all around me, and this eager stirring of life within me, as means whereby my soul may rise from creature to Creator, and from nature to nature’s God.
O Lord, grant me a kind and gentle heart towards all things that live.  Let me not ruthlessly hurt any of your creatures.  Let me take thought also for the welfare of little children, and of those who are sick, and of the poor; remembering that what I do unto the least of these His brethren I do unto Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

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Matthew 25:40:

(Jesus said), “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

I Thessalonians 5:10:

He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.

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EVENING PRAYER  (Twenty-fifth  day)

Holy God, to whose service I long ago dedicated my soul and life, I grieve and lament before you that I am still so prone to sin and so little inclined to obedience:
So much attached to the pleasures of my senses, so negligent of things spiritual;
So prompt to gratify my body, so slow to nourish my soul;
So greedy for present delight, so indifferent to lasting blessedness;
So fond of idleness, so indisposed for labor;
So soon at play, so late at prayer;
So brisk in the service of self, so slack in the service of others;
So eager to get, so reluctant to give;
So lofty in my professions, so low in my practice;
So full of good intentions, so backward to fulfill them;

So severe with my neighbors, so indulgent with myself;
So eager to find fault, so resentful at being found fault with;
So little able for great tasks, so discontented with small ones;
So weak in adversity, so swollen and self-satisfied in prosperity;
So helpless apart from you, and yet so little willing to be bound to you.
O merciful God, grant me yet again your forgiveness.  Hear my pitiful confession, and in your great mercy remember my sins no more.  Give me faith to rejoice in the righteousness of Christ my Savior so that, resting on His merits rather than on my own, I may more and more become conformed to him in my obedience to you.  All this I ask in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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Psalm 4:4, 8:

Tremble and do not sin.
    When you are on your beds,
    search your hearts and be silent…

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
    for you alone, Lord,
    make me dwell in safety.

1290) Last Letter Home

Wilder Dwight Carte de visite

2nd Massachusetts Lieutenant Colonel Wilder Dwight  (1833-1862)

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     On September 17, 1862, Lieutenant Colonel Wilder Dwight was on his horse waiting for the order to go into battle at Antietam.  He took out a paper and pen and began to write his mother a letter.  He wrote:

Near Sharpsburg.  Sept. 17th 1862.  On the field

Dear Mother, 

     It is a misty moisty morning. We are engaging the enemy and are drawn up in support of Hooker who is now banging away most briskly. I write in the saddle to send you my love and to say that I am very well so far —

     The lieutenant was interrupted by the call to battle.  As he commanded his regiment amidst heavy fighting, a bullet tore through his left wrist and into his hip, shattering it.  He went crashing to the ground in agony.  His men offered to move him, but the pain was so intense he refused.  The battle moved on away from him, and he was left there alone for a while.  Knowing he was badly wounded and probably would not live, he took out the letter he had begun earlier that morning and continued.  The pages are stained with Dwight’s blood, and the words are difficult (but not impossible) to decipher:

Dearest mother, I am wounded so as to be helpless.  Good bye if so it must be …

I think I die in victory.  God defend our country.  I trust in God & love you all to the last  Dearest love to father & all my dear brothers.  Our troops have left the part of the field where I lay — Mother, yours Wilder

      Later, Dwight was carried into a nearby farmhouse where he died two days later.  Sometime during those two days he finished his letter with these few words:

All is well with those that have faith

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I am very well, so far,” Dwight said before the battle, not yet wounded and still full of life.  Later on that same morning he was mortally wounded, and life was ebbing out of him. Yet, he could still write, “All is well with those that have faith.”  Living or dying, he is well.  I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite hymns:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul

Refrain:  It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.  Refrain

But, Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for Thy coming we wait,
The sky, not the grave, is our goal;
Oh trump of the angel! Oh voice of the Lord!
Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul!  Refrain

–Horatio Spafford, 1873

See also:

https://emailmeditations.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/576-it-is-well-with-my-soul/

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Romans 14:8-9  —  If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.  For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.

Revelation 14:13  —  Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

Luke 10:20b  —  (Jesus said), “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

Psalm 23:4a  —   Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.

Psalm 116:15  —  Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

II Timothy 4:7  —  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

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Today’s prayer is from the last words of another Union Soldier who was mortally wounded that same day at Antietam.  Basil DeShetler was a 32 year-old Methodist minister.  He had a wife and eight children.  He kept a diary of his military service.  His last entry was made at 7:00 in the morning on September 17, 1862 (the actual date does not match the date on the page image below).  He wrote:

“7 AM at which I am wounded.  This is written on the spot wherein I lay.

May God bless me and forgive all my sins, through Jesus Christ.”

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Private Basil DeShetler, 7th Michigan, (1830-1862)