1825) Don’t Get Stoned (part two of three)

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Doubting Thomas, 1602, by M. Caravaggio (1571-1610)

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John 20:19-29  —  On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side.  The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.  Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them.  Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe.”  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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            (…continued)  Instead of our questions leading to the abandoning of our faith and everything else, we could begin by ‘questioning our questions.’  Let’s back up to the beginning.  You probably questioned how such a terrible verse as that could be in the Bible, and how that perhaps does discredit the whole book.  But let’s ask a more basic question: Why does that verse bother you?  Why do you think it is wrong for a father to have such absolute authority over a child?  Not everyone would see that as a problem, not even in the 21st century.  Even in this country there have been ‘honor killings’ where a Muslim father has killed a son or a daughter for converting to Christianity, or, for marrying someone without the father’s permission, or, for a daughter having sex outside of marriage, even if she was raped.  Do all Muslims do that?  Of course not.  There is a vast diversity among Muslims just as there is among Christians, and as a Christian I would not want to be judged by those on the lunatic fringe of our faith.  Such things are certainly rare among Muslims in this country.  But in some nations, surveys have revealed a shocking openness to honor killings, by significant numbers of people.  But not here.  Why?  Because our entire culture and civilization, for the past 3,000 years, has been shaped by the Bible.  The Bible, more than any other book, has shaped our civilization.  Other cultures have been shaped by other books.  I would rather live in a culture like ours, based on the Bible, than anywhere else (even though that Biblical base is fast eroding away).

     This Bible passage on stoning disobedient sons, which sounds so horrible to us, was actually an enormous moral leap forward for civilization.  300 years later, by the time of King David, it was already having a tremendous impact on the way fathers treated their sons.  We appalled at the thought of a father dragging his son before a council of elders to be tried and possibly executed.  But the Hebrew teenage boys at that time would have been breathing a sigh of relief at these new laws of Moses, which at least gave them a chance if they had a mean, unreasonable, and quick-tempered father.  Such progress continues on into the New Testament, where it says in Ephesians that children should obey their parents (that didn’t change), but then adds that fathers should not provoke their children to anger.

     Do you see what can happen when you question your questions?  In this case, a big problem with the Law of God, turns into a wonderful truth about the Grace of God.  In the same way, we should also doubt our doubts.  The Gospel reading above from John 20:19-29 is all about doubt.  On the evening of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead he appeared to his disciples who were overjoyed to see him, as you might well imagine.  But one disciple, Thomas, was not there.  He doubted the story of Jesus being back from the dead, even though his ten closest friends were all saying they had seen him alive and well.  But Thomas must have doubted his doubts enough to keep in touch.  The next time the disciples were all together, Thomas was with them, and Jesus again appeared.  Jesus, after inviting Thomas to examine the evidence (his wounded hands and side), said to him, “Stop doubting and believe;” and Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”

     This is the over-arching truth that I referred to earlier, by which I approach all unanswered questions.  If Jesus rose from the dead, like no other person has ever done, then all of our other, smaller questions must find their answer somewhere— just like this past week I found that one answer to just one question.  I, like Thomas, have had my doubts.  I, like Thomas, was open to learning more.  I, like Thomas, became convinced of the historical truth of the resurrection; and ever since, Jesus has been my Lord and my God.  (continued…)

1824) Don’t Get Stoned (part one of three)

   

The elders at the city gate.

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  If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town.  They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.”  Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.  –Deuteronomy 21:18-21a

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     Do you like that passage?  Neither do I.

     Our ninth grade confirmands will soon select their Confirmation Day Bible verse for their Confirmation service in May.  In all my years of ministry, I don’t recall anyone ever selecting this verse to be their Confirmation Day Bible verse.  In fact, I don’t think I have ever before quoted this passage for anything, anywhere.  I have always known it was there, but this is a passage that needs some explaining, and I never had an explanation.  It has always seemed a little harsh to me.

     That doesn’t mean these verses are never used.  These verses are often brought out by those who want to ridicule, mock, and discredit the Bible.  This passage (and others like it) are quoted, and then it is said that no one would ever do such a thing because it is so obviously wrong.  Who is going to have their son put to death for disobedience?  Therefore, the mockers say, the Bible is hopelessly outdated and cannot be trusted for anything else either.  Case closed.  These verses have often been used by those who want to create doubts about the Bible.

     Long ago I learned to live without knowing all the answers to all my questions about the Bible, because there are some bigger over-arching truths that provide a larger context.  I will get to that later.  This is one of those verses that has remained troubling, and, one that I never looked into.  Until this past week; and then what I learned answered my troubling questions.

     As is often the case, the key is in understanding the context.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is describing how the people should live together as a new nation in the Promised Land which they are about to enter.  His words, therefore, are spoken into an already existing society; one that was filled with savage and ruthless injustices that were just taken for granted.  Life in most ancient societies was brutal, especially for slaves, and the Hebrews were just emerging from centuries of slavery.  As you recall from earlier in that same story, when Pharaoh thought the male population of slaves was getting too large, he just issued a decree that all baby boys should be thrown into the Nile River and drowned.  Rulers could, and often did do that sort of thing.  What you may not know, is that in the ancient world fathers usually had that same absolute rule over their family, even to the point of being able to kill a disobedient child, with no questions asked and without accountability to any other authority.

     So actually, what we have in this passage is the brand new addition of the legal right to due process for the protection of a son from an abusive father (if that is what was going on).  The father is required to take the son before the elders, where it is implied that they would make a fair judgment.  The verse just says that the son will be stoned, but one of the duties of the elders at the gate was to hear and judge these matters.  That is why the verse commands that the son be brought there, implying that this would be for a fair hearing.

     But, you might say, the elders could pronounce the death sentence and that is still pretty awful.  In theory, yes, that could have happened.  But there is not one recorded instance in the Old Testament of this ever happening, even though there are many stories of rebellious sons.  The most famous was Absalom, the rebellious son of King David, who caused trouble right from the start.  Absalom eventually was disobedient to the point of conspiring against his own father, taking the kingdom away from him, driving his father from the capital city, and sitting on David’s throne.  But even then, David did not want his son Absalom killed, but told his loyal generals to be careful not to kill Absalom, even in battle, but bring him back alive.  When Absalom was killed in battle, David was deeply grieved, even wishing that he himself could have died instead.  It is clear that this Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 21, which sounds so primitive and harsh to our ears, was already having the effect of softening the brutality of life in the ancient world.

    I tell you this as an example of how doubts are created, and what we should do when we have doubts about our faith.  Doubts can come from unanswered questions, and you have probably noticed there are a lot of unanswered questions in this life.  I grew up in the 1960’s when the revolutionary spirit proclaimed ‘don’t trust anyone over thirty,’ ‘question authority’ and then ‘question everything else.’  Of course, we should encourage questioning.  That is how we learn and grow.  But for many in the 60’s that came to mean not only question, but also throw out everything and start over, creating a new world built on the solid foundation of ‘drugs, sex, and Rock and Roll.’  Our society today staggers under the profound loss of authority, morality, and stability since that crazy time.  (continued…)

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“Everybody must get stoned…”  –Bob Dylan, 1966 song Rainy Day Women.

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II Samuel 18:33  —  The king was shaken.  He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went, he said:  “O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you.  O Absalom, my son, my son!”

1823) Hearing a Miracle

By Lee Strobel.  Look for his new book, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence, 2018.

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     Duane Miller’s greatest enjoyment came from preaching at his small church and singing songs of worship.  It wasn’t just his livelihood to lead a Baptist congregation in Brenham, Texas; it was his passion, his calling, and his source of joy and satisfaction.

     When he awoke with the flu one Sunday morning, his throat was like sandpaper and his voice would “catch” on words.  Each syllable was painful to speak.  The flu soon disappeared, but his windpipe remained ablaze and his voice reduced to a raspy whisper.  His throat felt constricted, as if someone were choking him.

     For all practical purposes, Miller’s voice was gone.  No longer able to preach, he resigned from his pastorate.  He eventually landed a government job researching records—a position he then lost because his inability to speak meant he couldn’t testify in court about his findings.  Insurance stopped covering his treatments, and he faced thousands of dollars in medical bills.

     “For the first time in my life, I felt utterly useless.  My income, my future, my health, my sense of well-being, all were suddenly beyond my control.  It was a terrifying and humbling experience,” he said.

     Over three years, he was examined by sixty-three physicians.  His case was even scrutinized by a Swiss symposium of the world’s leading throat specialists.  The diagnosis: the flu virus destroyed the nerves of his vocal cords, rendering them limp.  When Miller asked about his prognosis for recovery, a doctor told him, “Zero.”

     Despite Miller’s protestations, his former Sunday school class at First Baptist Church of Houston prevailed on him to speak.  A special microphone was used to amplify Miller’s soft, hoarse, croaky voice—and the class agreed to endure the grating sound because of their love for him and his teaching.

     Ironically, his text was Psalm 103, where the third verse reads, God “heals all your diseases.”  Miller said later, “With my tongue, I was saying, ‘I still believe that God heals,’ but in my heart, I was screaming, ‘But why not me, Lord?’ 

He went on to the next verse, which says the Lord “redeems your life from the pit.”  He told the class, “I have had and you have had in times past pit experiences.”

     As soon as he said the word pit, the choking sensation disappeared.  “Now, for the first time in three years, I could breathe freely,” he recalled.  “I heard a gasp from the crowd, and that’s when I, too, realized my voice had come back.  I could hear myself!”

     His stunned audience began to clap and cheer, shout and laugh; his wife, Joylene, broke down in tears.  “I don’t understand this right now,” Miller stammered—with a fresh, new voice.

     The dramatic moment of Miller’s recovery had been captured on audiotape, which went viral.  Subsequent doctor examinations showed his throat looks like it never had any problems; in fact, against all odds, even the scar tissue has disappeared.

     Said one physician, “Even if I could explain how you got your voice back by coincidence—which I can’t—I could never explain what happened to the scar tissue.”

     Today, Miller is pastor of Pinnacle Church, serving the Cedar Creek Lake area of Texas.  Ironically, he also hosts a daily program on a Dallas radio station—yes, using his voice to tell others about the God who he is convinced still performs miracles.

     “You see, God didn’t just restore my life,” he said.  “He amplified it.”

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At his website (http://www.nuvoice.org/about-us.html), you can listen to the tape of when his voice came back.  Then ask, “Is this a supernatural act of God?  Or is it better explained as some sort of spontaneous remission that only coincidentally occurred while he was quoting the Bible on healing?”

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Psalm 103:1-5  —  Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.  Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits— who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 147:3  —  He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

I Corinthians 15:43  —  Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory.  They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength.

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Psalm 6:2:

Have compassion on me, LORD, for I am weak.  Heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.

1822) Do All Dogs Go to Heaven?

From “How I Know Dogs Go to Heaven” by Joshua Rogers, posted July 30, 2013 at http://www.joshuarogers.com

     I was 10 years old when I saw my neighbor run over my dog, Spot.  In a horrific flash, Spot went under the tire, thrashed around in the front yard for a few seconds and then collapsed in the ditch.  I screamed out his name and ran to his side, hoping that I could somehow stop the inevitable.

     A trickle of blood was running out of his mouth when I reached him, and when I laid my head on his chest, he gave one last whimper and died.  I lay in the grass next to him and wept.

     After our makeshift funeral that evening, I asked my dad whether Spot would be in heaven.  He said something complicated about the possibility of animals having souls, but it just sounded like a bunch of grownup talk to me.  So I went to bed figuring I would never see my dog again.  But within a few hours, I changed my mind.

     That night, I had a dream that I still remember to this day:  Spot was in heaven, and he was walking alongside a tall, bearded man in a robe.  I thought it was probably Moses.

     That was all there was to the dream, but when I awoke the next morning, it was enough to convince me that I would eventually see Spot again.  I went to the kitchen to get breakfast, and my brother Caleb joined me.

     “I had a dream about Spot last night,” he said.  “Spot was in heaven, and he was walking beside a man with a beard who looked like he was one of the disciples.  I think God was trying to show me that Spot is in heaven.”

     “I had the same dream!” I said excitedly, although I wasn’t exactly surprised.  It seemed like something perfectly reasonable for God to do to assure us we would see our beloved dog again one day.

     Twenty-seven years have passed since my brother and I had our joint dream about Spot.  And although I still have a lot of unanswered questions about the afterlife, I’m certain of two things:  Heaven is real, and when I get there, Spot will be waiting for me.

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That wonderful little story does not provide a solid Biblical or theological proof that we will see our dogs in heaven, but I do hope we will.  If God grants that blessing, there are a few old friends I will be looking for.

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Heaven goes by favor (grace).  If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.

–Mark Twain

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See also:

https://emailmeditations.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/411-do-our-pets-go-to-heaven/

https://emailmeditations.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/412-what-is-the-purpose-of-a-dog/

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Genesis 9:16  —  Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.

Revelation 5:13  —  Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:  “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

1 Corinthians 2:9  —  …As it is written:  “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

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O God, my Master, should I gain the grace

To see you face to face, when life is ended, 

Grant that a little dog, who once pretended

That I was God, may see me face to face.

–Francis Jammes  (1868-1938), French poet and novelist, prayer translated by B. C. Boulter

1821) Our Easter Sunday is Coming

“My Dad is Finally Celebrating Easter Sunday” by Joshua Rogers, posted March 31, 2018 at http://www.joshuarogers.com 

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     I have a brother and sister who died in a plane crash when they were 10 and 14 years old.  Although I only have one memory of them, I definitely felt their absence growing up.  I know my father did too.  Dad was in denial for a while after they died.  The private plane in which they were traveling crashed into the Gulf of Mexico during a storm and rescue teams never found any wreckage or bodies.

     Dad kept hoping they were somewhere out there until one day when he had a vision of the moment Rhonie and Scottie died.  It was too much for him and he began uncontrollably sobbing as his heart shattered to pieces with that airplane.

     He quoted Jeremiah 31:15 to describe his feelings of devastation: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”  I don’t think he ever stopped grieving — or hoping.

     My brother and I got a taste of Dad’s hope one day when we were kids and Dad began dreaming out loud about his heavenly reunion with Rhonie and Scottie.  The images were so vivid, the emotions so intense that I began jumping up and down, trying to launch out of my body and into glory.  That must have been a bittersweet moment for Dad.

     It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to lose one of my children — I don’t want to imagine it.  God doesn’t have to though.  Like my dad, he knows all to well.

     God held back and watched as his Son was bludgeoned and beaten and whipped and spat upon and nailed to a cross with no mercy.  What his tears must have been like that Friday afternoon.

     Then Easter Sunday came.

     What it must have been like for Father God to see his Son alive again after such a violent ending to an innocent life.  I can almost picture the Father at the resurrection, his face exploding with the most radiant smile in all of eternity saying, “There you are!” and welcoming his Son back from the dead.

 My father finally got to have his own reunion with his lost son and daughter three months ago when his heart gave out and he left this world.

     What a sight it must have been for Dad to see Rhonie and Scottie, throw his arms around them and say, “There you are!”  It was the Easter Sunday Dad had been waiting for — a celebration of resurrection beyond his wildest imaginations.

     We all suffer in different ways.  Our hearts are broken by depression, shame, secret burdens, sickness, damaged relationships and death.  It seems like the pain will never end, but for those who hold fast to the Lord of resurrection, we know this:  We will have our own reunion with him in heaven one day.

     “There you are!” he’ll say.  And, as Teresa of Avila put it, “In light of heaven, the worst suffering on earth will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.”

     Let’s take courage in the midst of our suffering. Our Easter Sunday is coming.

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Jeremiah 31:15  —  A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

John 20:17  —  (On the morning of his resurrection, Jesus appeared to Mary and said), “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.  Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Romans 8:31-32  —  What, then, shall we say in response to these things?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

Revelation 21:3-5  —  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”  Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

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Prayer for Remembrance Day from The Church of England:

Father, you know our hearts and share our sorrows.
We are hurt by our parting from those whom we loved:
when we are angry at the loss we have sustained, when we long for words of comfort, yet find them hard to hear;
turn our grief to truer living, our affliction to firmer hope in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

1820) “The Lord is Risen Indeed!”

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A story by Andrew van der Bijl (1928- ), ‘Brother Andrew’, Christian missionary to persecuted Christians, founder of Open Doors organization; known as “God’s Smuggler’ for smuggling Bibles into nations where God’s Word is forbidden.

    At the time of the cruel persecution in the Soviet Union under Stalin, public meetings were regularly held in order to ridicule religion, the church and the priests.  On one occasion the inhabitants of a town were summoned to the main square.  From a platform on the square, a fluent ‘scholarly’ atheist, who seemed to have many proofs against the Bible, God and the clergy, addressed the public.

     The crowd had listened silently.  But when the local priest was called to the front to answer this brilliant oration, an uneasy muttering rippled through the crowd.  The man went and stood close to the microphone and everyone held his breath.  The tension could be cut with a knife, and you could hear a pin drop.  What would his answer be?

     We shall never know what went on in the heart of this man – his fear, his prayer – but at last his voice could be heard, resounding through the loudspeakers, not only to the crowd, but also to a large part of the city: “Khristos voskrese!”  Christ is risen!

     For one split second there was silence.  A shudder went through the crowd and then, as a blazing testimony to the priest and to the atheist opponent, the cry broke out, unanimous and powerful: “Voistinu voskrese!”  The Lord is risen indeed!

     That was a bad day for atheistic propaganda in Russia.  It was also a bad day for the religious leaders in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, because they had to bribe the soldiers with much money to get them to tell lies (Matthew 28:12-13).  It was also a bad day for the guards who “became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4).

     But it was a bad day especially for the devil because if he had known this, he “would not have crucified the Lord of Glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8).

     The one who believes in the Cross and the Resurrection takes the side of those who are persecuted.  Or, to put it another way, whoever identifies with the Persecuted Church stands in the power of the Resurrection – a target of misguided and corrupt people, but nevertheless together with the mighty Conqueror.  The Lamb conquers and we conquer too– in Him. Hallelujah!

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Matthew 28:5-7  —  The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified.  He is not here; he has risen, just as he said.  Come and see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him.’  Now I have told you.”

I Corinthians 2:6-8  —  We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing.  No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began.  None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

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EASTER PRAYER, 1766, by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784):  Almighty and most merciful Father, before whom I now appear laden with the sins of another year, suffer me yet again to call upon Thee for pardon and peace.  O God! grant me repentance, grant me reformation.  Grant that I may be no longer distracted with doubts, and harassed with vain terrors.  Grant that I may no longer linger in perplexity, nor waste in idleness that life which Thou hast given and preserved.  Grant that I may serve thee in firm faith and diligent endeavor, and that I may discharge the duties of my calling with tranquility and constancy.  Take not, O God, Thy Holy Spirit from me; but grant that I may so direct my life by thy holy laws, as that, when Thou shalt call me hence, I may pass by a holy and happy death to a life of everlasting and unchangeable joy.  Amen.

1819) Losing Faith (part three of three)

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     (…continued)  The second thing that little snippet of a story can do for us is give us an appreciation for the Lord in whom we trust and in his promises for us.  Frank McCourt said of his daughter in grief at her dead grandmother’s side, he said, “She has no religion for this, no vocabulary, and no prayer… and that’s another sadness.”

     But as Christians, we have all of that.  We have much to draw on when we grieve the loss of a loved one who died in Christ.  To begin with, we have the story of Jesus who had been killed, but on the third day came out of the tomb, risen, alive, and victorious over death.  Who else has done that?  Where Frank McCourt could only speak in terms of a big IF, the New Testament is filled with eyewitness accounts of those who saw Jesus dead and then alive again.  There was no lack of conviction in their words.  Almost all of them would lose their lives, willingly, proclaiming to all the world what they saw and what it means that Jesus is alive.  

     So what do we have to say?  We have the story of Christ’s Easter resurrection.  Along with that, we have all those many verses that promise promise eternal life.  I will list just a few.

     There is the old favorite 23rd Psalm, which says of that time, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…” and then at the end, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

     In John 14:1-3 Jesus says, “Let not our hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me.  For in my father’s house there are many rooms, and I go there to prepare a place for you.  And someday, I will come again and I will take you to be with me, so that where I am, you may be also.”

     And there are Jesus words in John chapter 11 at the tomb of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life; whosoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live again.”

     Of that eternal Revelation 21 says; “There will be no sorrow or pain or tears or even death anymore, for all the old things will have passed away, and God himself will be with us.”

     So now, as Paul says in Romans chapter 14, “Whether we live or die we belong to the Lord, for to this end Christ died and rose from the dead, that he might be Lord of the living and the dead.”

     The verses could go on and on.  This is the vocabulary of faith that Maggie McCourt did not have when grieving the loss of her grandmother, but this is the hope and promise that is available to her and to anyone who will hear of it and believe it.  As the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, where else shall we go? Only you have the words of eternal life.”

     In him we can place our trust, both now and forever.

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Philippians 1:21  —  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Acts 21:12b-14  —   We and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.  Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?  I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”  When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

II Peter 10-16  —  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election.  For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.  I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.  And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.  For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

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O Lord,
support us all the day long of this troublous life,
until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over, and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in thy mercy,
grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest,
and peace at the last.  Amen.

–John Henry Newman  (1801-1890)

1818) Losing Faith (part two of three)

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       (…continued)  Frank’s 10 year old daughter Maggie was also at that memorial service, but she was in a more serious mood.  And she had some questions for her dad about the whole ordeal.  Paraphrasing a bit, this is Frank McCourt’s description of their conversation:

     Maggie kneels with me by the casket, looking at her grandmother, the first dead body she has seen in her ten years.  She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, and no prayer.  And that’s another sadness.  She can only look at her grandmother and say, ‘Where is she now, Dad?’  And all I can say is, ‘If there is a heaven, Maggie, she’s there, and she’s the queen of it.’  And Maggie asks, ‘Is there a heaven, Dad?’

            There is a lot going on in those few lines.  Frank says of his daughter, ‘she has no vocabulary for this, no religion, no prayer, and that’s another sadness.’  Another sadness, he says.  It is very sad to lose your dear mother and grandmother, that’s one sadness, and that’s bad enough.  But there is another sadness, says Frank, the sadness of not having anything at all to say about it.  Two days before, they could talk to grandma, but now she was dead and couldn’t talk, and next day she would be cremated– and that would be it, there would be nothing else to say.  There is no hope, no one who can help, no one to pray to– nothing.  And that’s another sadness.

     When I read those words I was reminded off Thessalonians 4:13 where Paul wrote: “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who have died, or to grieve like those who have no hope.”  Go ahead and grieve, says Paul, that’s only natural; but we need not grieve like those who have no hope.  We have a great hope, as he goes on to say in the next verse: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.”  There is the vocabulary and the hope in all this.  But Maggie doesn’t have any of that.  She’s never heard it.  So she has another sadness.  Yes, says Paul, Christians who have this hope will grieve, but not as those who have no hope.  We have one sadness, not two.  The pain of separation at death is sad enough, but we do not see it as a permanent separation.  We have a promise and a hope; we have something, someone, to trust in at such times as that.  Frank McCourt was honest enough to say he and his daughter did not have that hope anymore, and that was another sadness.  But for Christians, that ‘other sadness’ is taken away by Christ’s Easter resurrection from the dead and our trust in his promise that he will also raise us from the dead, and take us to live with him in his heavenly home.

     “Where is grandma now, Dad?” asked Maggie.

    Her father answered, “If there is a heaven, she is there now, and she is the queen of it.” That was a cheerful and hopeful answer, but it had one too many words in it. “IF” he said, “If there is a heaven.”  And that was a big IF coming from a man whose daughter never saw him paying any attention to God or faith or heaven or anything of the sort.  His reply was cheerful enough, but it lacked conviction, it lacked assurance, and it lacked hope.  The IF was too big for Maggie, so she searched for a more certain reply from her father.  “IS there a heaven, dad?” she then asked.  And he had nothing more to say, not one word of comfort to give.  Faith was gone, and, as he already said, “That’s another sadness.”

     That little story can do two things for us.  First of all, it can serve as a warning, and secondly, it can inspire in us a greater appreciation for our Lord Jesus Christ in whom we trust.

     First of all, the warning.  Frank McCourt’s two-book life story begins with the family deeply involved in the traditions of the faith.  There are prayers at home, there are prayers at church, when someone does something wrong the first thing that comes to mind is confession, and the church school education teaches about all of life from the standpoint of faith.  Yes, there are problems.  The schoolmasters are often too harsh, the people at the church charity are smug and self-righteous, and there is, in the slums, much blaspheming and ridiculing of the faith.  But there are also good schoolmasters, kind and understanding priests, and the life-saving generosity of the church charities.  The good and bad are mixed at church (as in everything in this life), but the family, at the beginning of the book, is at least concerned about, as they say, ‘being in a state of grace.’  God is on their minds, the church is important, and Jesus is there to talk to anytime.  But by the end of the book, there is none of that; not even anything to say at a funeral.  God had not left them, but they left God, and after ignoring God for so long, they had nothing to say to God, and no time for any word from God.  They did not even bother getting a priest.  All faith was gone.  

     There is a warning there.  Faith needs feeding, or as Paul says, faith comes by hearing, and if no attention is paid, faith can die, and then there is nothing left. And as Frank McCourt said, ‘that’s another sadness.’  Faith can die anyway.  One’s salvation is an individual matter between each person and God, and nothing any parent does can guarantee faith in their children.  But there is so much in our world that works against it, so we must give faith every opportunity to take root and grow and deepen.  (continued…)

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I Thessalonians 4:13-14  —  Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.  For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

1817) Losing Faith (part one of three)

Easter sermon, April 1, 2018.

     In his best-selling book Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt tells the story of his miserable childhood in the slums of Limerick, Ireland.  It is the story of a desperately poor family whose life is made even more desperate by the father’s alcoholism.  Any money he gets his hands on goes for pints of Guinness beer, and the family is constantly cold and hungry.  Three of seven children die in childhood.  The book is the story of how the others survive by charity and by their wits, and then overcome all kinds of obstacles to get to America.  And then, in time, they all do very well here.  Frank McCourt also wrote a second book about his life as a young immigrant in America.

     Along with this story of survival, there is the story of the family’s faith; or I should say, gradual loss of faith.  Between the two books, one can follow the faith of four generations, and you can see through the generations the slow, but sure, eroding away of faith until there is nothing left.  In the first generation we see the old grandmother, the mother of Frank’s mother, Angela. She is a stem and crabby old lady, but one who always goes to church, and, encourages her daughter and her grandchildren to remember their religious duties:  going to mass, getting their first communion, getting confirmed, going to confession, and so on.  Frank’s parents, you can tell, were brought up in the church.  They know all about it, they know all the religious duties, and they know what their children should do.  But then they leave it at that; as something for the children.  They insist that their children go to church, but they themselves hardly ever go.  And so the four boys learn from their parents’ behavior that church is for kids, not adults.

     When the brothers grow up and go to America, none of them ever become a part of any church.  And their mother, unlike her own mother, does not encourage it.  What can she say?  She herself has not been to worship for years.  Frank knows about Jesus and about sin and guilt and confession and forgiveness and salvation and all of that.  He knows it all from his childhood, and he thinks about it often.  But he doesn’t very much believe in any of it anymore, and he doesn’t consider it worth teaching to his daughter.  So, by the fourth generation, the loss of faith is complete.  Frank’s daughter, Maggie, has never gone to church.  Relatives and friends don’t even get married in or buried from the church.  There is absolutely no religious connection or opportunity for faith.  

     Not going to worship consistently will usually, over time, slide into not going very much, and then not at all, and then finally, there is no opportunity for even a glimmer of faith to take root and grow.

     In 1981 Frank’s mother died.  There is no funeral, just a gathering of family and friends.  And that is not in a church, but at the funeral home.  And there is no priest and no one to read and proclaim God’s Word; just the family telling stories and singing the old songs of Ireland.  And they were all having a pretty good time of it.  The Irish do know how to have fun.  The four brothers even had a pretty jolly time of it when they had met with the doctor a few weeks earlier to learn about their mother’s critical, life-threatening illness.  The doctor was stammering around, trying to sugar-coat the bad news he had to tell them.  Finally, one of the brothers said, “Relax doctor.  We know our mother is going to die and she knows it too.  And besides, doctor, we McCourts are descended from a long line of dead people.”  Such clowning around continued right on into the memorial service.

     Frank’s ten year old daughter Maggie was also at that memorial service, but she was in a more serious mood.  She had some questions about what they were there for and what it all meant.  Paraphrasing a bit, this is Frank McCourt’s description of their conversation:

     Maggie kneels with me by the casket, looking at her grandmother, the first dead body she has seen in her ten years.  She has no vocabulary for this, no religion, and no prayer.  And that’s another sadness.  She can only look at her grandmother and say, ‘Where is she now, Dad?’  And all I can say is, ‘If there is a heaven, Maggie, she’s there, and she’s the queen of it.’  And Maggie asks, ‘Is there a heaven, Dad?‘ 

    (continued…)

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Job 14:14  —  If a man die, shall he live again? 

Hebrews 2:1  —  We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

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

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O Almighty God, grant that we may ever be found watching and ready for the coming of Thy Son.  Save us from undue love of the world, that we may wait with patient hope for the day of the Lord, and so abide in him, that when he shall appear we may not be ashamed; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Methodist hymnal

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Malachy, Alphie, Mike, and Frank McCourt

1816) “Is It I, Lord?” (part three of three)

     (…continued)  With all that in mind, there is one more important part of this story.  At that same meal, Jesus took bread and took wine, and said “This is my body and blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.”  Think about that in the context of what has just been described.  In the next twelve hours, every prediction of Jesus would come true.  Jesus would be betrayed by one of these men, denied by another, and deserted by them all.  Jesus knew it was coming, and yet he offered his forgiveness to each one.  The Sacrament of Holy Communion, instituted at that meal, was first given to a table full of betrayers, deniers, and deserters.

     There are at least two lessons to learn from this.  First, I have known people who have stayed away from the Lord’s Supper for years because they felt they were not good enough.  This first Lord’s Supper ought to tell them something.  It ought to tell them that the purpose of communion is to offer forgiveness precisely to those who are not good enough; and that means all of us, just like all who were at that first table of the Lord.

     The second lesson is this.  There are churches that forbid communion with people who believe differently from them on a variety of doctrinal issues.  I do admire the way these groups strive to be serious about true doctrine, but I don’t agree with them on this point.  At the very first Lord’s Supper, the problem was not theological disagreement about the finer points of theology.  Rather, the problem was the denial, betrayal, and desertion of our Lord Himself, the very center of our faith.  And yet, the forgiveness of sins was freely offered to all there.  There are places in the church’s life together that lines must be drawn and stands must be taken, but not at the Lord’s Table.  Jesus himself has shown us the way on this one.

     We should all ask ourselves that question the disciples asked Jesus on that ‘night in which he was betrayed:’  “Is it I, Lord; have I also betrayed, denied, deserted, and disobeyed you?”

     “Yes,” Jesus says, “It is you.  So repent of your sins, go and sin no more, and turn to me.”  And then Jesus says to you, “Here is my body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”

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I Corinthians 11:23-26  —  I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

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A PRAYER BEFORE RECEIVING HOLY COMMUNION (By Martin Luther):

Lord Jesus, I have fallen, but I would rather be strong.  For this purpose you have instituted this sacrament, that with it you may rekindle and strengthen my faith, and thus I may be helped.  Therefore, I am here to receive it.  My sins and faults are all known to you.  But you have said in your Word:  “Come unto me all that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest.”  I now come to be helped.  Amen.

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Crucifixion, Rembrandt

Rembrandt’s Raising of the Cross  (1633)

Rembrandt painted himself in the center of the painting (with beret) illustrating that he, like all sinners, was responsible for Christ’s suffering and death.