1876) Trading Places

A Memorial Day meditation by former U. S. Marine Charles Colson (1931-2012), for the Breakpoint radio broadcast, May 26, 2006.

     It was February of 1945—three months before the end of World War II in Europe.  Eighteen-year-old Sergeant Joseph George of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, was stationed in Lorient, France.  It was evening, and George was preparing to go on patrol.  The Americans were hoping to locate landmines buried by the Germans.

     Sergeant George had been on patrol duty the night before.  As he told his friend Private James Caudill, he was tired—tired and scared.  Private Caudill offered to take the patrol on his behalf.  He pointed out that, at age 36, he was nearly two decades older than George.  He told George—who had already been blown off a torpedoed ship in the English Channel—“You’re young.  Go home.  Get married.  Live a rich, full life.”  And then Private Caudill went out on patrol.  A few hours later, he was killed by a German sniper.

     The actions of Private Caudill echo the values and valor of generations of military men and women we remember today.  And they are an example of the sort of behavior we almost take for granted when it comes to our men and women in uniform who fight just wars.

     What is a just war?  One that is defined as providing a proportionate response to evil, while protecting non-combatants, along with other considerations.  Today, our military men and women around the world are fighting to resist evil.  Ridding the world of Islamo-fascism—by just means—is a good and loving act.

     This willingness to sacrifice on behalf of our neighbors is why military service is considered such a high calling for Christians—and part of what makes just wars just.  Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica puts his discussion of just war in his chapter on charity—the love of God and neighbor.  John Calvin agreed; he called soldiering justly a “God-like act,” because “it imitates God’s restraining evil out of love for His creatures.”

     A world in which free nations refuse to fight just wars would be a world where evil is unchecked and where the strong would be free to prey on the weak—as we are now seeing in Darfur.

     Our soldiers’ willingness to defend the defenseless around the world makes me proud to be an American.   Their willingness to lay down their lives is a reflection of how the Christian worldview has influenced our society, which is why American soldiers, by the way, are welcomed all over the world, as historian Stephen Ambrose wrote, while soldiers from many other cultures are feared.

   So what of Sgt. Joseph George?  He returned safely home.  He married, fathered five sons.  One of them—Princeton Professor Robert George—is a good friend of mine.  He’s devoted much of his life to fighting the moral evils of our time.

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     In John 15:13, Jesus said, “Greater love has no man than this, that [he] lay down his life for his friends.”  The story of Private Caudill and Sergeant George makes one realize more deeply what a tremendous gift this is.  It’s why the George family has remembered Private Caudill in prayers for sixty-one years.

     Today, Memorial Day, we ought to remember the sacrifices of all the Private Caudills in all the wars Americans have fought—and we should pray for those who are still in the field—laying down their lives for each other, for us, and for the freedom of strangers.

     That’s a very Christian thing to do.

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John 15:13  —  (Jesus said), “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Romans 13:4  —  The one in authority is God’s servant for your good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason.  They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

I Corinthians 13:7  —  Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy.  Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines.  This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

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1875) A Good Teacher

By Joshua Rogers, posted May 27, 2018 at:  http://www.joshuarogers.com

     It was 1988 in Petal, Mississippi, and I was in love.  My third-grade student teacher, Ms. Smith, had stolen my heart.

     Ms. Smith was pretty, with her long brown hair and that tiny ponytail on the top of her head that poofed up.  But it was more than her looks that made me swoon — Ms. Smith liked me.  That wasn’t always the case with my teachers, and for good reason.

     I was hard to manage, especially in third grade.  That was the year I wrote an ugly poem about a chubby classmate, called my girlfriend a curse word that I won’t repeat here and ended up in the principal’s office multiple times.  Basically, I was a problem child, but not to Ms. Smith.

     Ms. Smith treated me like I was her star student, so I acted like it. I paid attention when she taught, did my classwork with vigor and I even asked her to tutor me in math — whatever it took to spend more time with her.

     But even Ms. Smith couldn’t cure my propensity to misbehave.  To this day, I feel bad about the day we learned how to send letters in the mail.

     We all lined up in front of this large, blue, cardboard mailbox Ms. Smith had made.  One by one, each student dropped their letter in the mailbox until I walked up with my letter, put it in, gave the mailbox a little kick and said, “Worthless.”

     I told you I was a problem child.

     Ms. Smith put my name on the chalkboard, leaving me feeling devastated.  I had hurt my favorite teacher and I was ashamed, but not for long.  I was back in Ms. Smith’s good graces within the hour.

     I don’t know what happened to Ms. Smith.  I heard that she went off to do some missionary work.  There’s a part of me that hopes she will somehow read this column, recognize my photo and get in touch with me.  I realize the chances of that are low, but just in case she’s out there somewhere reading this, here’s what I’d like to say:

Thank you, Ms. Smith.

When you came to my third-grade class, I saw myself as a problem child, and I had plenty of evidence to back it up.  I also had teachers who reinforced that idea — not you though.

Everything about you — your smile, the way you spoke to me, the compliments you gave — they brought out the best in me (most of the time).  Granted, I didn’t know what a difference you were making and maybe you didn’t either, but you were one of the adults who helped rewrite my story early on.

I didn’t have to be a problem child.  I could be one of the good kids.  You helped me believe that was possible.

You know who you remind me of, Ms. Smith?  You remind me of Jesus, who said,  “Let the little children come unto Me” — even the difficult children.

I came to you for the same reason those children came to Jesus:  He felt like a safe person, and somehow they knew He loved them.  Whether you knew it or not, that’s how this little boy felt with you.

There’s no greater gift you could’ve given.

    Thank God for the innumerable other teachers who are giving that same gift every day.  I want to thank all of you too.

     You’ve got these growing kids who are interacting with you every day and figuring out whether they have value and dignity.  Your actions and words say, “Yes, you do.”

     Those kids may never track you down and show their gratitude.  They may not even remember you, but mark my words:  You planted a seed and it’s growing inside of them.  Thanks to you, those kids are a little more likely to believe that they’ve got potential and that they’re lovable.

     You got into this to be a teacher.  What greater lesson could your students learn?

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Mark 10:13-16  —  People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.  He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

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 Heavenly Father, you have blessed us with the joy and care of children.  Give us calm strength and patient wisdom as we bring them up, that we may teach them to love whatever is just and true and good, following the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

1874) Memorial Day: Dying; Living; For What? (part two of two)

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General Roger A. Brady, USAF  (1946- )

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Memorial Day: For What Shall We Live?

Whether we wear a uniform or not, we all have sacrificial service to offer.

By Roger Brady, retired United States Air Force general.  Brady speaks and writes on principled leadership and serves as minister of adult education in his local congregation.  This article was posted at http://www.christianitytoday.com on May 25, 2018.

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     (…continued)  Does this mean that God favors America?  I often hear people express that belief, but what I read in his Word is that he favors people who rely on him, who place their trust in him, and who proclaim him as their God, regardless of their earthly citizenship.  Does that ensure their health and wealth and a life of ease?  No, it ensures us of the opportunity to be his sons and daughters, to tell others of the salvation that was freely given to us, to share in his suffering, and to live with him eternally.

     The American writer Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, once said we should give loyalty to our country always and to the government when it deserves it.  I believe he meant that our only true loyalty is to those eternal principles to which governments aspire but do not always demonstrate.  There may well come times when our government takes a path we cannot in good conscience follow, and we must stand where God stands.  But it is right that we devote time to remember and honor those fellow citizens who gave their all for us—we are forever in their debt.

Living a Life of Service

     Most Americans will never serve in the military—actually less than one percent of our population do so.  And even among those of us who do, very, very few of us are asked to give that last full measure of devotion.  So what is the question for us on this day as we remember those Americans who died on our behalf?  I believe that question is —for what shall we live?

     Whether or not we wear the uniform of our country, we all have a service to offer, a service to those ideals that reflect God’s universal truths and that our American ancestors captured in the formation of this country.  When Jesus left this earth to take his place at the right hand of the Father, he left us, the church, to carry on his work.  So when evil strikes in the form of a school shooting or when nature unleashes its fury and devastates property and lives, when children suffer, when people are hungry or homeless and ask “Where is God?!” we must be there and have them see him in us.

     We must bring his comfort and his healing to this world.  When we live lives of service to those around us, we honor the God who saved us and we honor all those who gave that last full measure to secure for us all the things we enjoy in this nation.

     Someday we will find ourselves at the end of our lives looking back, and we will ask ourselves what it was all for.  At that moment, we will all want to recall a life of service to something larger than ourselves, to children who needed our teaching and our example of service, to people whom we gave a hand up in time of need, to friends and colleagues whom we comforted in times of sorrow, lives with whom we shared the many physical and spiritual blessings that have been bestowed on us.  If we live that life of service, we will have fulfilled the challenge of the Savior when he said, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

     So on Memorial Day, and every day, we need to ask ourselves, for what shall we live?  How are we doing at fulfilling not just the ideals of our American forefathers but those universal values set in place by the one who made us in his image, who sent his only begotten son to secure our salvation, the one who “created us in him to do good works?”

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

John 15:12-14  —  (Jesus said), “My command is this:  Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.

Ephesians 2:8-10  —  For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith— and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Deuteronomy 8:10-11a  —  When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands.

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Lord God of Hosts, in whom our fathers trusted, we give thee thanks for all thy servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country.  Unite all the people of this nation to defend the freedom for which they lived and died.  Grant, we beseech thee, that the liberty they bequeathed unto us may be continued to our children and our children’s children, and that the power of the gospel may here abound, to the blessing of all the nations of the earth, and the thine eternal glory; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.

The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church U. S. A., Westminster, 1946, page 317.

1873) Memorial Day: Dying; Living; for What? (part one of two)

Memorial Day: For What Shall We Live?

Memorial Day: For What Shall We Live?

Whether we wear a uniform or not, we all have sacrificial service to offer.

By Roger Brady, retired United States Air Force general.  Brady speaks and writes on principled leadership and serves as minister of adult education in his local congregation.  This article was posted at http://www.christianitytoday.com on May 25, 2018.

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     Memorial Day likely conjures up memories for all of us.  Mine start from when I was too young to know what the day meant.  When I was a young boy, it was a family time, a holiday from school or other obligations, and a time for picnics, multi-generational baseball games in an open field, and reunions with seldom-seen relatives.

     Over the years I have gained a much greater appreciation for this day and what it means.  From my first assignment in Vietnam to my last in Germany, I was continually reminded of the extraordinary sense of commitment and service in the young men and women with whom I was privileged to serve.

The Last Full Measure of Devotion

   During my last assignment, as 33rd commander of the US Air Forces in Europe, I routinely received invitations to speak at memorial events at one or more of the many cemeteries in Europe where young Americans are interred. I was particularly moved by an event in Paris at the Arc de Triomphe.

     The heavy traffic that normally circles that beautiful edifice at a frantic pace had been stopped, and a crowd had gathered to remember and honor French and American men and women who had given their lives in the horrible wars of the 20th century.  Many living veterans of those conflicts wore the uniform they had first donned at a much earlier age, and some of them still bore the scars of war.  It was humbling to be in their company that day.

     For four decades, I was honored to serve with thousands of dedicated young men and women.  Some of them would die in service to their country.  We were extremely sad at their loss as we comforted their loved ones and each other.  They gave their very best, and we were reminded that we must do the same.  They died serving something bigger than themselves—the transcendent ideals that make America the country we cherish.

     For us as Christians, this day should have an even more poignant meaning.  Many of the same values that our nation hopes to nurture and the traits military members are challenged to embody are consistent with those perfectly modeled for us by our Savior.  He was the quintessential example of service and sacrifice.

     In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul said, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8).

     But before he died, he lived.  Boy, did he live!  To the consternation of those watching him, he invited himself to the home of a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus, he challenged the hypocrisy of religious leaders by coming to the rescue of a prostitute, he exposed the meaninglessness of their religiosity by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and he challenged bigotry and insensitivity by publicly engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman that his society said was unworthy of his time.

     As Christians, this example is our heritage also, regardless of our earthly citizenship.  Citizenship in his kingdom, after all, is the one that counts.  Do not mistake what I am saying.  I am grateful every day for that I am a citizen of America, and there is no other place on earth I would rather call home.  Like most Americans, I am here by virtue of circumstances over which I had no control.  I cannot explain it.  I can just be thankful for it.

Patriotism and Piety

   As I now view life in America as a private citizen, I am struck by the similarity of our expressions of patriotism and faith.  Occasionally I wonder if we get the cross and the flag confused.  As American Christians, we are indeed twice-blessed, but we should not get the two confused.  America is an imperfect place, an unfinished project, an ideal we hope to make a reality.

     Our citizenship in the kingdom of God is a gift extended to us freely by God’s grace.  Paul told the Ephesian Christians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10).

     The society in which Jesus lived also had many problems.  There was hypocrisy, bigotry, poverty, and oppression of the weak by the strong, and he condemned all of that.  America is probably a better place than that for even the most marginalized of our citizens, but it is not always what it should be for all of us.  As Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, this is part of the work he left us to do.  Is it our duty as Americans?  Yes, it is—but even more so as citizens of his kingdom.

     I do not always understand how God’s providence works.  I cannot explain why those extraordinary individuals we now call our “founding fathers” came together when they did.  They created a country based on their belief that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”  Their belief in these universal, eternal truths—however imperfect their understanding and expression of those truths—yielded a society in which people of faith can function with more freedom than anywhere else in the world.  (continued…)

1872) “I’m a Dead Man”

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F. Kefa Sempangi

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F. Kefa Sempangi was pastor of the large Redeemed Church of Uganda.  He tells this story in his 1979 book A Distant Grief. 

Easter Sunday 1973 was his first serious brush with death at the hands of Idi Amin’s goons.  After an all-day worship service he went exhausted to the vestry to change clothes— too exhausted to notice the five strangers (government secret police goons) following him into the room:

     They stood between me and the door, pointing their rifles at my face.  For a long moment no one said anything.  Then the tallest man, obviously the leader, spoke.  “We are going to kill you,” he said.  “If you have something to say, say it before you die.”  He spoke quietly but his face was twisted with hatred.

     I could only stare at him.  For a sickening moment I felt the full weight of his rage.  We had never met before but his deepest desire was to tear me to pieces.  My mouth felt heavy and my limbs began to shake.  Everything left my control.  They will not need to kill me, I thought to myself.  I am just going to fall over dead and I will never see my family again.

     From far away I heard a voice, and I was astonished to realize that it was my own.  “I do not need to plead my own cause,” I heard myself saying.  “I am a dead man already.  My life is dead and hidden in Christ.  It is your lives that are in danger, you are dead in your sins.  I will pray to God that after you have killed me, He will spare you from eternal destruction.”

     The tall one took a step towards me and then stopped.  In an instant, his face was changed.  His hatred had turned to curiosity.  He lowered his gun and motioned to the others to do the same.  They stared at him in amazement but they took their guns from my face.

     Then the tall one spoke again.  “Will you pray for us now?” he asked.  I thought my ears were playing a trick.  I looked at him and then at the others.  My mind was completely paralyzed.  “Father in heaven,” I prayed, “You who have forgiven men in the past, forgive these men also.  Do not let them perish in their sins but bring them into yourself.”

     It was a simple prayer, prayed in deep fear.

     When I lifted my head, the men standing in front of me were not the same men who followed me into the vestry.  Something had changed in their faces.

 It was the tall one who spoke first.  His voice was bold but there was no contempt in his words, “You have helped us,” he said, “and we will help you.  We will speak to the rest of our company and they will leave you alone.  Do not fear for your life.  It is in our hands and you will be protected.”

     I was too astonished to reply.  The tall one only motioned for the others to leave.   He himself stepped to the doorway and then he turned to speak one last time. “ I saw widows and orphans in your congregation,” he said.   “I saw them singing and giving praise.  Why are they happy when death is so near?”

     It was still difficult to speak but I answered him.  “Because they are loved by God.   He has given them life, and will give life to those they loved, because they died in Him.”

     His question seemed strange to me, but he did not stay to explain.  He only shook his head in perplexity and walked out the door.  I stared at the open door of the vestry for several moments and then sat down on a nearby straw mat chair.  My knees were no longer strong and I could feel my whole body tremble.  I could not think clearly.  Less than ten minutes before, I had considered myself a dead man.  Even though I was surrounded by 7,000 people there was no human being to whom I could appeal.  I could not ask the elders to pray, I could not appeal to the mercy of the Nubian killers.  My mouth had frozen and I had no clever words to speak.  In that moment, with death so near, it was not my sermon that gave me courage, or an idea from Scripture.  It was Jesus Christ, the living Lord.

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Ephesians 2:1-5  —  As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.  Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

Colossians 3:1-3  —  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  For you are dead, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

Romans 6:3-5…11  —  Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life...  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.

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

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Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.

–Jesus, Luke 23:46

1871) Who Am I? I Am Thine!

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By Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1939), Letters and Papers from Prison, pages 346-7, edited by Eberhard Bethge, copyright 1953, SCM Press, Ltd. 

     Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young Lutheran pastor and theologian of great promise.  He became active in the Confessing Church movement in Germany which took a stand against the Nazi government in the 1930’s.  His activities made him an enemy of the Nazis, and friends encouraged him to flee for his safety.  He accepted an invitation to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but soon came to regret it.  He stayed only a short time, and then returned to Germany.  He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr:  “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America.  I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany.  I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…  Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization.  I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”

     Bonhoeffer was arrested in April of 1943 by the Nazis for his participation in a plot against the life of Adolf Hitler.  He spent the last two years of his life in prison and was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before American soldiers liberated his prison.

     This poem was enclosed with a letter from prison to his good friend Eberhard Bethge in July of 1944.

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WHO AM I?

Who am I?  They often tell me 
I stepped from my cell’s confinement 
Calmly, cheerfully, firmly, 
Like a squire from his country-house. 
Who am I?  They often tell me 
I used to speak to my warders 
Freely and friendly and clearly, 
As though it were mine to command. 
Who am I?  They also tell me 
I bore the days of misfortune 
Equally, smilingly, proudly, 
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of? 
Or am I only what I myself know of myself? 
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage, 
Struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat, 
Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, 
Thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, 
Tossing in expectation of great events, 
Powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance, 
Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, 
Faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I?  This or the other? 
Am I one person today and tomorrow another? 
Am I both at once?  A hypocrite before others, 
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? 
Or is something within me still like a beaten army, 
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved? 
Who am I?  They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. 
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!

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Psalm 139:1-4…23-24  —  O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.  You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.  You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.  Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord…  Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.  See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Romans 7:15a  —  I do not understand what I do…

I Corinthians 4:2-4  —  Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.  I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself.  My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent.  It is the Lord who judges me.

John 10:27-28  —  (Jesus said), “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” 

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Lord Jesus, misery and misfortune annoy and oppress me.  I long to be relieved of them.  You have said, ‘Ask, and you shall receive.’  Lord, I am asking…  But Lord, my longing is so great that I cannot express it in words.  I don’t even know how to ask.  You, O Lord, can see into my heart.  What can I say?  My suffering is greater than my complaint can be.  I cannot counsel myself with my own reason, nor comfort myself with my own courage.  Comfortless, helpless, and forsaken, I am altogether undone.  My God, I know you will not leave me hopeless.  You will hear my prayer and comfort me.  It is for me to pray and await your grace.  It is for you to hear me and give me hope.  Amen. 

–Martin Luther

1870) The Richest Family in the Church

By Edie Ogan, published in Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul, and many other places, including many missionary magazines.

     I’ll never forget Easter 1946.  I was fourteen, my little sister, Ocy, was twelve and my older sister, Darlene, was sixteen.  We lived at home with our mother, and the four of us knew what it was to do without.  My dad had died five years before, leaving Mom with no money and seven school-aged kids to raise.

     By 1946, my older sisters were married and my brothers had left home.  A month before Easter, the pastor of our church announced that a special holiday offering would be taken to help a poor family.  He asked everyone to save and give sacrificially.

     When we got home, we talked about what we could do.  We decided to buy fifty pounds of potatoes and live on them for a month.  This would allow us to save twenty dollars of our grocery money for the offering.  Then we thought that if we kept our electric lights turned out as much as possible and didn’t listen to the radio, we’d save money on that month’s electric bill.  Darlene got as many house and yard cleaning jobs as possible, and both of us babysat for everyone we could.  For fifteen cents we could buy enough cotton loops to make three potholders to sell for a dollar.  We made twenty dollars on potholders.  That month was one of the best of our lives.

     Every day we counted the money to see how much we had saved.  At night we’d sit in the dark and talk about how the poor family was going to enjoy having the money the church could give them.  We had about eighty people in church, so we figured that whatever amount of money we had to give, the offering could surely be twenty times that much.  After all, every Sunday the pastor had reminded everyone to save for the sacrificial offering.

     The night before Easter, we were so excited we could hardly sleep.  We didn’t care that we wouldn’t have new clothes for Easter; we had seventy dollars for the sacrificial offering.  We could hardly wait to get to church!  On Sunday morning, rain was pouring.  We didn’t own an umbrella, and the church was over a mile from our home, but it didn’t seem to matter how wet we got.  Darlene had cardboard in her shoes to fill the holes.  The cardboard came apart, and her feet got wet. But we sat in church proudly.   I heard some teenagers talking about our old dresses.  I looked at them in their new clothes, and I felt rich.

     When the sacrificial offering was taken, we were sitting in the second row from the front.  Mom put in the ten-dollar bill, and each of us kids put in a twenty-dollar bill.

     We sang all the way home from church.  At lunch, Mom had a surprise for us.  She had bought a dozen eggs, and we had boiled Easter eggs with our fried potatoes!  Late that afternoon, the minister drove up in his car.  Mom went to the door, talked with him for a moment, and then came back with an envelope in her hand.  We asked what it was, but she didn’t say a word.  She opened the envelope and out fell a bunch of money.  There were three crisp twenty-dollar bills, one ten-dollar bill and seventeen one-dollar bills.

     Mom put the money back in the envelope.  We didn’t talk, just sat and stared at the floor.  We had gone from feeling like millionaires to feeling poor.  We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our Mom and our late Dad for parents and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly.  We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or the fork that night.  We had two knives that we passed around to whoever needed them.  I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had, but I’d never thought we were poor.

     That Easter day I found out we were.  The minister had brought us the money for the poor family, so we must be poor, I thought.  I didn’t like being poor.  I looked at my dress and worn-out shoes and felt so ashamed — I didn’t even want to go back to church.  Everyone there probably already knew we were poor!

     I thought about school.  I was in the ninth grade and at the top of my class of over one hundred students.  I wondered if the kids at school knew that we were poor.  I decided that I could quit school since I had finished the eighth grade.  That was all the law required at that time.

     We sat in silence for a long time.  Then it got dark, and we went to bed.  All that week, we girls went to school and came home, and no one talked much.  Finally, on Saturday, Mom asked us what we wanted to do with the money.  What did poor people do with money?  We didn’t know.  We’d never known we were poor.  We didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, but Mom said we had to.  Although it was a sunny day, we didn’t talk on the way.  Mom started to sing, but no one joined in, and she sang only one verse.

     At church we had a missionary speaker.  He talked about how churches in Africa made buildings out of sun-dried bricks, but they needed money to buy roofs.  He said one hundred dollars would put a roof on a church.  The minister added, “Can’t we all sacrifice to help these poor people?”  We looked at each other and smiled for the first time in a week.

     Mom reached into her purse and pulled out the envelope.  She passed it to Darlene.  Darlene gave it to me, and I handed it to Ocy.  Ocy put it in the offering.

     When the offering was counted, the minister announced that it was a little over one hundred dollars.  The missionary was excited.  He hadn’t expected such a large offering from our small church.  He said, “You must have some rich people in this church.”  Suddenly it struck us!  We had given eighty-seven dollars of that “little over one hundred dollars.”

     We were the rich family in the church!  Hadn’t the missionary said so?  From that day on, I’ve never been poor again.

Edie Ogan and her husband Phil in 2017.

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Luke 21:1-4  —  As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury.  He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins.  “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.  All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

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PROVERBS 30:7-9:

Two things I ask of you, Lord;
    do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
    give me neither poverty nor riches,
    but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
    and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
    and so dishonor the name of my God.

1869) Wedding Sermon for Anna and Bryan

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     Anna and Bryan. the first Scripture reading you selected for this day, Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says: “Two are better than one, because if either of them falls down, one can help the other one up.”  Those words remind me of the story of creation in Genesis two, where God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper for him.” 

     “It is not good to be alone,” says the Bible.

     Helen was a member of one of my congregations.  I visited her in a care center where she lived out her final years.  Helen never married and she had no children.  Helen was an only child, so she had no brothers or sisters and no nieces or nephews.  Her mother and father were both, also, the only child of their parents; so, Helen had no aunts or uncles, and no first cousins.  When she was about ten years old, Helen’s parents moved from Ohio to Minnesota, thus leaving behind whatever extended family they did have, and also, leaving the community and church where she at least knew a few people.  Then Helen’s parents died.  As an adult, Helen was bashful and quiet, and though she did get to know a few people at work, she had no close friends.  The few acquaintances she did have were all dead.  The only Christmas card she would receive would be from a second cousin back in Ohio, but by the time I knew her, she figured he must have died because the cards quit coming.  Helen was completely alone in this world; the most alone person I ever knew.  And ‘It is not good to be alone,’ says the Bible.

     And so, six verses later in Genesis two it says, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  And that is why we are here today, so Anna and Bryan can be united in marriage and will not be alone, and we are happy for them.

     But, as we all know, that is not all there is to it.  In the words of the marriage service, the couple is reminded of the simple fact that, “the gladness of marriage can be overcast and the gift of family can become a burden.”  Not only can it become overcast and a burden, but that is what always happens, to at least some degree.  So the service goes on to say, “But because God, who established marriage, continues still to bless it with his abundant and ever-present support, we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.”

     So how does that work?  Well, in all the usual ways.  In the New Testament, St. Peter tells us to treat each other with gentleness and respect, to live lives of faithfulness to God and each other, and, adding to our faith, mutual affection, perseverance, self-control, and love.  St. Paul also has such lists, one of which was in today’s second reading from Romans 12.  There, and other places, Paul adds such qualities as sincerity, devotion, joy, patience, forbearance, kindness, and trust.  There is nothing there you haven’t heard about before.  These are qualities we would all like to see in other people, and should also be the kind of qualities we want to have in ourselves as we live with and deal with others.  And for those times we fail and others fail us, and that is every day, Jesus taught us much about the need for confession, and Jesus demonstrated for us the power of forgiveness.

     There is one other quality we find in the Bible from beginning to end, one that should influence not only our family relationships, but all of life, and that is the spirit of gratitude.  We should take in all of life with gratitude, and not take anything for granted.  Gratitude to God for all of his gifts is the key to faith, a happy life, and good relationships.

     When I think about Helen, I am reminded to not ever take family for granted.  In my daily work, I hear all the time about family problems.  Just yesterday, I pressed the wrong contact number on my phone, got a hold of a person I had not intended to call, but within a minute I was hearing a heartbreaking story of the recent troubles in her family.  But I never heard any such complaints from Helen.  She had no family, so she had no family problems.  But I wouldn’t want to be Helen.

     So even though “the gladness of marriage can be overcast, and the gift of family can become a burden,” I am grateful to God for family, and for the two families gathered here today for this happy occasion.

     The marriage service talks about loving and honoring and cherishing each other.  I like that word ‘cherish.’  The dictionary defines cherish as ‘to care about someone deeply and cling to them fondly.’  Helen had no one to cherish her.  From this day forward, Anna and Bryan, you will have each other to love and to honor and to cherish.  Do not take each other or your families for granted, but receive each other and all of life with gratitude to God.

     Anna and Bryan, may God be with you, and you with Him in your life together.  Amen.

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Ecclesiastes 4:8a…9a…10  —  There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother…  Two are better than one…  If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

Genesis 2:18…24  —  The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.  I will make a helper suitable for him…”  That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Romans 12:9-12  —  Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love.  Honor one another above yourselves.   Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

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 Almighty God, who sets the solitary in families:  We commend to thy continual care the homes in which your people dwell.  We pray that you put far from them every root of bitterness, all desire for vainglory, and the pride of life.  Fill them with faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, and godliness.  Knit together in constant affection those who, in holy wedlock, have been made one flesh.  Turn the hearts of parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents; and so enkindle fervent charity among us all, that we may evermore be kindly affectioned one to another.  

Book of Common Prayer

1868) A Great Temptation

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Posted May 18, 2018 in the Standing Strong Through the Storm daily devotion at:  http://www.opendoorsusa.org

    Satan subtly promotes the attitude that says money, property, possessions, physical comforts, as well as worldly fame and honor are the most important things in life.  While God created all things and is the source of all we have, He does not condone our allowing things and money to usurp His first place in our lives.  The prosperity that He so freely gives us, and wants us to have, is indeed a blessing– until it takes the place of God.

      Materialism is thus the attitude that says money, property, possessions, physical comforts, as well as worldly fame and honor, are the most important things in life.  Not to say, “There is no God,” but to say, “I don’t have any need for God!”

     For Christians, materialism is much like the frog in a pan of water that is slowly being heated.  He boils to death because he does not realize the danger quickly enough to jump out of the pot before it is too late.

     A church leader from the country of Romania, which was once a communist-dominated land and is now free, commented, “In my experience, 95% of the believers who face the test of external persecution pass it, while 95% of those who face the test of prosperity fail it!”

     Satan is ecstatic when he succeeds in luring us into this trap.  This is the dark side to money and possessions that many Christians are either unaware of, or unwilling to face.  As a result, the spiritual vitality of many has been sapped and the church as a whole has been weakened spiritually.  Like fire, money is a good servant but a destructive master.

     If the church is to survive this challenge, there is an urgent need to be aware of the true nature of materialism.  Unfortunately, it has become such a vital part of our culture that Christians are often unaware of its control.

     By the standard of the people around Jesus, many of today’s so-called poor are very rich as well as almost all those in free societies.  In Jesus’ day, a rich person was one who had more food than needed for the day and who had more than one set of clothing.

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I Timothy 6:10  —  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Exodus 20:1-3  —  God spoke all these words:  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  You shall have no other gods before me.”

Matthew 6:24  —  (Jesus said), “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and money.”

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Almighty God, judge of us all, you have placed in our hands the wealth we call our own.  Give us such wisdom by your Spirit that our possessions may not be a curse in our lives, but an instrument for blessing, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.    

Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978, Augsburg Publishing House

1867) Evangelism and Church Growth in Vietnam

Posted May 15, 2018 in the Standing Strong Through the Storm daily devotion at:  http://www.opendoorsusa.org

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     Evangelism is an important function of the church everywhere.  But in communist Vietnam, followers of Christ cannot openly share their faith.  Those who do are often threatened or imprisoned.  In response, Open Doors developed several programs to help.  One was a women’s discipleship program based on one-on-one relationships.  It is called Priscilla Training.

     A Vietnamese woman named Han says, “When I was young I went to church.  We were a godly family.  But I found the church very dull, very boring.  The Bible did not speak to me.  I knew some of the stories.  And I listened to our pastor each week.

     “One night when we were all asleep the police came and took our pastor away.  They think if they take him away the church will die.  They want all churches to die.  They kept him in prison for five years.  It’s natural this happens.  I live in a communist country.

     “When the communists tried to kill my church, it challenged my heart.  I knew I had to be strong.  Before, I was just a church member.  Now I have to become a serious follower of Jesus.

     “I started reading my Bible every day, and it became fresh to me.  It spoke to my heart.  It was very, very good feeling, and I liked it. It was good for my life.  I wanted others to have God in their lives too.

     “Attending a secret house church is a risk.  But it is a greater risk going to a training class.  And I decided to take that risk.  I went far away to receive Priscilla Bible and leadership training.  I felt God calling me to be in ministry.  I want to teach other women what I have learned.  My first disciple was named Tuyen.”

     Tuyen says, “My friend introduced me to a godly lady.  Her name is Han.  She taught me how to study better, know God better, and be a true disciple of Jesus.  I reach out to people and tell them all the good news I have in my heart, and the good hope I have in me today.

     “A neighbor told me that a lady, a new follower of Jesus, wants to learn more about him.  She will be my first disciple. I will teach her what I’ve learned from Han.”

     God has equipped thousands of women through the Priscilla Training in Vietnam and all members of the church are thus able to help fulfill the function of evangelism.

In June 2011, Vietnam’s Evangelical Church celebrated its centenary.  The government allowed the missionaries to Vietnam (who were still living and able to travel) to return for the celebrations.  When they left in 1975, there were estimated to be 160,000 evangelical Christians in the country.  In 2011 they found the church had grown to over 1.4 million.  That’s nearly 900 per cent growth!  During the centenary celebrations, Open Doors was officially given an award from the leaders of the Evangelical Church for help in training given through the difficult years.

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Proverbs 31:30-31  –Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.  Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate. 

Acts 18:26  —  (Apollo) began to speak boldly in the synagogue.  When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.

Romans 16:2-4  —  Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus.  They risked their lives for me.  Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.  Greet also the church that meets in their house.

Matthew 28:18-20  —  Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

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Lord, open my eyes so I may see the opportunities around me to tell others about you.  Amen.