2132) What’s the Use (part two of two)

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From a Confirmation Sermon I gave a few years ago.

     (…continued)  We should not be surprised that matters of life and death and God and eternity are not foremost in the minds of 8th and 9th graders.  At that age, they are surrounded by life and it still seems like an endless future stretches out ahead of them.  They are becoming more independent, more capable, and their potential and possibilities and options can, at that age, look limitless.  Their whole life is before them.  Why worry about eternity?  They cannot yet even imagine the distant future of age forty.  And God?  One can worry about God when the time comes that God is needed.  For now, there are friends to meet and things to do and plans to make.  Junior high students don’t know yet how short life is, how fast it can end, or how fleeting is the glory of the football field or volleyball court.

     But in a couple of decades, life changes and other things are on your mind.  You begin thinking bigger thoughts and you become more serious about God.  Responsibilities increase, burdens weigh you down, and loved ones die.  In no time at all, you go from being a kid rebelling against your parents, to being a parent with kids of your own who are giving you grief and worries in abundance.  Along the way life hands you a couple of low blows, and then one day the doctor takes a look at that lump you asked about, he says with a concerned look, “You better come back for some more tests.”

     After you put in a few years of that, the main questions in life change from, “Where’s the party tonight?,” to “Is there really a God, how should I be spending the rest of my life, and what does happen when you die?”

     And then you will want to know where to go for the answers, and you will want to feel comfortable going there.  I have seen many people move through these stages over the years; from casting faith aside for what seems more important at the time, to coming back to faith with the realization that only in God is there any lasting hope or security.  But you won’t find most kids to be thinking about any of that yet.  Only the very wisest and most mature teenagers have a deep awareness of God and spiritual matters.  For most of us, life has to slap us around a bit to wake us up to what is most important.

     When that happens, it is important to know where the church is, what it is for, and how to get there.  It is important to grow up in the church and to be there when you are young, even if you have to be dragged in by the ear.  It is important so that when you grow up and realize that you do need God, going back to church will feel like going back home; a familiar place where you can feel like you are among family and friends, and not like a stranger in a strange place.  In church you can feel like you are with family, even when with people you’ve never met before, because you share the same beliefs and value the same things.  So even now, every worship service, every Sunday school class, and every confirmation class is used by the Holy Spirit to strengthen this bond, even when it may seem like not much is going on.  So confirmands, listen close now: even though you might not remember everything you learned here in the past three years, I hope you remember where to turn when you are ready to ask these kinds of questions.  And that time will come.

     Mark was a high school, Sunday school, and confirmation class friend of mine.  He became a missionary, though in high school Mark did not look like the type who would ever ‘love to tell the story’ to anyone, much less backpacking into the jungles of Africa to do that.  After high school Mark abandoned the church and the Christian life, got heavily involved in drugs and alcohol, and was always getting into trouble at work and with the law.  Mark’s life began to unravel, and he tells the story of one particular night when he hit rock bottom.  He had no one else to turn to and no other hope, so got down on his knees and prayed to God to help him.  

     God?  Now where had Mark heard about God?  For a long time Mark had paid no attention at all to God, but he had learned about God many years ago in church and Sunday School and confirmation.  Back then he was trying to outdo me in acting bored and obnoxious, giving our teachers and pastors the feeling that nothing was getting through.  But years later, in a lonely trailer house, with his life going down the tubes, Mark remembered the God who those faithful people had told him about when he was a disinterested, inattentive kid.  And Mark reached out to that God who was waiting for him, and God pulled him up out of the mud, and helped him put his life together again.  All those years later, Mark came back to the faith and to the church.

     During the first World War a man was shot in the chest and lay dying in the trenches.  A friend leaned over to him and said, “Is there anything I can do for you?”  The wounded man replied, “No, I am dying.”  Then the friend said, “Is there anyone I can send a message to for you?”  “Yes,” said the dying man, “You can send a message to this man,” (giving him an address);  “Tell him that in my last minutes what he taught me as a child is helping me to die.”

     The man who was to get that message was the young soldier’s old Sunday School teacher.  When the message got back to him, he said, “Oh, God forgive me.  I gave up Sunday School teaching years ago because I thought I was getting nowhere.  I thought it was no use.

     Sometimes people stop taking their families to church because they wonder What’s the use?  Sometimes teachers and preachers no longer ‘love to tell the story,’ and they feel like giving up because they also wonder What’s the use?  But the Bible says ‘what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’  What is seen is bored, inattentive, defiant faces in a confirmation class; but what is unseen is how the Holy Spirit will use that Word of God in each heart.  

     May we continue to proclaim that Word, and be here for that Word.

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Colossians 2:6-7  —  So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Psalm 40:1-3  —  I waited patiently for the Lordhe turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.  He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God.  Many will see and fear the Lord and put their trust in him.

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God our Father, you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world.  Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals.  Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start.  Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

2131) What’s the Use? (part one of two)

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A sermon I gave on Confirmation Sunday a few years ago.

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     “I Love to Tell the Story,” is a good hymn for Confirmation Sunday.  At baptism, parents promise to bring their children up in the faith, vowing to make sure their children will hear that ‘old, old story of Jesus and his love.’  And that is what we have been doing for these confirmands the past several years– at home, in Sunday School, in Vacation Bible School, and in confirmation instruction– parents, teachers, and pastors have been telling them that old story.  Listen again to some of the phrases from the hymn:

I love to tell the story…the old, old story, of Jesus and his love…
I love to tell the story, for some have never heard… the message of salvation, from God’s own Holy Word…
I love to tell the story, because I know it’s true, It’s satisfies my longings as nothing else would do…

    That is a great hymn and one of my favorites; but I will be honest with you.  Even though I am a pastor, and telling the story is my job and my life’s calling–  I don’t always love to tell the story.  And sometimes, when I’m telling it, it is not at all like the song says, “How pleasant to repeat.”  Rather, it is sometimes quite unpleasant and worse yet, it seems hardly worth it.  Sometimes I even wonder, What’s the use?

     I’m not talking about preaching.  I love preaching.  Preaching is easy.  You give me fifteen minutes of your time, and for those fifteen minutes you all behave yourselves pretty well.  You sit there nice and still, and I appreciate that.  I occasionally catch one or two of you dozing off, but that doesn’t bother me.  At least you are quiet and not interrupting.  You are all on your best behavior.

     But pastors and teachers don’t always get that in confirmation class.  There, we face a less attentive, sometimes even hostile, audience.  A lot of them, (this may surprise you) don’t want to be there at all.  And believe it or not, most of them do not come because they ‘want’ to hear the Bible stories or learn the catechism.  They come because their parents make them come, or so they can see their friends, or so they can walk down to the bowling alley after class.  Don’t get me wrong, these are all great kids, but they did not come to confirmation primarily because they love to hear the old, old story.

     Individually, I think I could have a good conversation with any of them.  But in a group, none of them want to let on that they are showing any interest; so they act bored, they interrupt, they whisper to each other and pass notes, and they look at the clock every 30 seconds as they count down the minutes to dismissal time.  Therefore, I do not always ‘love to tell the story.’

     But when I think back to when I was in confirmation and Sunday School, I can remember acting the same way– being rude, obnoxious, inattentive, mischievous, and bored– and I was one of the better students.  I also was primarily interested in seeing my friends, and then playing softball after class.  And just last week I was talking about confirmation with one of our elderly, most respected members.  He went to Saturday School for instruction back in the 1930’s.  He said that what he looked forward to most in confirmation was recess time, when he and some of the other boys would go out behind the old school-house and smoke cigarettes, taking turns watching for the minister.

     So how can the church reach such kids?  How do we pass on the faith to young people who are more interested in softball, showing off, or cigarettes?  What can the church and parents give kids at this age that can help them keep the faith?

      Well, some of the most important things we can give to our children are the HABITS of the faith.  We can, by consistent, weekly repetition, build into their hearts and minds the habit of being in church every Sunday, the habit of saying prayers at mealtime, and the habit of being at church and supporting it in its other activities and service.  We cannot force faith into anyone, and it is not likely that we are going to make Bible scholars out of any of them in junior high school.  But we can instill in them the habits of paying attention to God.  And habits are best instilled and maintained and strengthened by consistent repetition: being in church every week, saying your prayers at every mealtime and bedtime, and so on.

     These habits will be met with resistance, just like confirmation lessons are met with resistance.  When the child is old enough and on their own, they might even rebel and disregard the habit completely.  But though we rebel against our parents and distance ourselves from them for a while, we do, most of us, find ourselves returning to many of their ways when we are older.  And then those old habits, years earlier instilled by consistent repetition, can begin to re-surface.

     The Bible says, “Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is older, he will not depart from it.”  It does not say he will never depart from it, but that when he is older he will not depart.  Habits, once rejected, are oftentimes, later in life, picked up again and continued.  

     Faith is an individual matter and there are no guarantees in any of this.  But study after study, along with my own experiences with a couple thousand people in five different congregations, have convinced me of the importance of the habit of going to church.  This is especially true for young people, now more interested in social life and looking good, than in sermons and Bible lessons.  The best we can do is instill in them the habits of paying attention to God and keeping in touch with God.  This is, after all, one of the ten commandments:  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy.”  The best youth program any church of any size can have is parents who bring their children to church.  

     All of our habits become like chains in our life, chaining us to things good and bad.  Work to instill in yourself and your children the good habit of being in church each week.  This is where faith is given the opportunity to take root and grow.  (continued…)

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Proverbs 22:6  —  Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Psalm 71:17-18  —  Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.  Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, my God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your mighty acts to all who are to come.

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Bless our children, O Lord, with healthy bodies, with good understandings, with the graces and gifts of your spirit, with cheerful dispositions and holy habits, and keep them in the faith until the coming of the Lord Jesus.  Amen.

–Jeremy Taylor, English writer and Anglican bishop  (1613-1667)

2130) Monkey Business (part two of two)

    (…continued)  Now, to return to the question I asked earlier:  what are we doing here today?  The rite of confirmation, as we know it, is not mentioned by Jesus, it is not commanded anywhere in the Bible, and it was intentionally ignored and discarded by Martin Luther. As I said, it was later rediscovered by the Lutheran Church, polished off a bit and reinterpreted, and is now a part of a long and cherished tradition.  But now it has a different meaning than it had in the Middle Ages and it would be good for us to briefly review that meaning.

     The meaning of Confirmation has to do first of all with Baptism, Baptism which is a main event in the life of Lutheran Christians.  Baptism, unlike confirmation, is spoken of quite extensively in the New Testament, it IS specifically commanded by Jesus, and it receives a great deal of emphasis by Luther.  It is in Baptism, Luther says in the Small Catechism, that God “forgives sins, delivers from death and the devil , and gives eternal life to all who believe, as the word and promise of God declares.”  Confirmation adds nothing to that.  What more can be added?  We receive the entire promise of God right from the start.  So what is confirmation and what part does it have?

    The answer is in the name now given to confirmation in the Lutheran hymnal.  It is now called ‘Affirmation of Baptism.’  That is a good name to call it, because the name itself includes a proper definition of confirmation.  To affirm is to agree to or with something, to say YES to something.  In confirmation you say YES to what happened to you in your baptism.

     Each of this year’s confirmands was baptized as an infant.  Most Lutherans are.  And they did not know 14 years ago when they were baptized what was happening to them.  They understood no part of it.  But their parents and sponsors were there, and they spoke in the infant’s place.  For this reason, some people say Lutherans have it all wrong and we should not baptize infants who do not understand what is going on.  But is God’s ability to love and make promises any less than that of human parents?  Human parents love and care for and commit themselves to their baby long before that baby understands anything about what parents are or even calls them mommy and daddy.  In the same way, God gives his promises and love and care right from the start; and then God gives to parents and sponsors the job of making sure that the little one hears about God and hears about God’s promised future for him or her.  This takes place in bed-time prayers and Bible stories, in Sunday Schools lessons and church services, and then in confirmation instruction.  And then, after 14 years, you, the confirmand are ready to speak for yourself.  At the center of the confirmation service are the same four questions that are at the center of the baptism service.  At baptism, your parents and sponsors were asked, “Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?,” and they said, “I do.”  They were asked “Do you believe in God the Father?,” and they said, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.”  They were asked, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?… and.. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?”   They said, “I Believe… in Jesus Christ… I Believe…in the Holy Spirit” and so forth.  Now, at confirmation, instead of God giving you the promise as he already did in Baptism, now, in confirmation, YOU make a promise to continue to live in the promise God has given you, to continue in the faith that you were instructed in.

     Today the confirmands will answer the same four questions asked of their parents and sponsors 14 years ago, this time speaking for themselves, saying what amounts to, “Yes, I understand now what I did not understand before; and I realize that for a long time already I have been God’s child; and now I make my promise to remain faithful, never leaving or abandoning this faith given to me.”  Confirmation is not in any way a graduation from, or an end to, anything.  It is just the opposite.  It is a promise to continue.  When properly understood and honestly undertaken, confirmation is a wonderful opportunity to publicly thank God and affirm your faith in Him.  

     But if confirmation is in any way understood to be an end of anything, and if the promises are made without any intention of carrying through on them, then it is certainly a ‘fanciful deception’ and ‘monkey business.’  It is up to you which it will be.

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Proverbs 3:5,6 —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.

Colossians 2:6-7  —  So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in himrooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

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Lord God of our ancestors, we thank you for what you have done and will continue to do with our sons and daughters.  Walk with them in life, and keep the evil one from obstructing their path.  You see all; you know where the water is deep.  Keep them from danger.  Order their steps and guide their feet while they run the race of faith.  May the good work that you have begun in them be brought to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.  (ELW, page 83)

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2129) Monkey Business (part one of two)

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Confirmation Day 1919 (one hundred years ago)

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 From a confirmation sermon I gave a few years ago.

     What did Martin Luther (1483-1546) have to say about confirmation?  Confirmation is what we are here for today and our  congregation traces its roots to Martin Luther.  So what did Luther have to say about the Rite of Confirmation?

     Well, for the most part, he ignored it.  In all the 120 volumes of his writings, Luther says very little about it.

     However, when Luther does speak about the Rite of Confirmation, he has three very special words for it.  He calls it ‘gaukelwerk,’ which is German for ‘mumbo-jumbo’; he calls it ‘lugenstand,’ which is German for ‘fanciful deception’; and he calls it “affenspiel’–which is German for ‘monkey-business.’  Confirmation, according to Martin Luther is mumbo-jumbo, fanciful deception, and monkey business.  This is perhaps not what you expected.  But maybe Luther was having a bad day when he said those things and perhaps he did not really mean it.

     So let’s look instead at what the Book of Concord says.  The Book of Concord is the defining book of Lutheran doctrinal writings that came out of the Reformation.   It is understood by Lutherans of all brands to be an accurate interpretation of the teachings of the Bible, and, as an ordained pastor of the Lutheran Church, I am required to pledge my allegiance to this Book of Concord.   The various sections are written either by Luther himself or by his colleagues and successors, and it is, to this day, the widely accepted and respected book of basic Lutheran teachings.  It is the book that defines who we are as Lutherans and what we believe.  In 715 pages, the Book of Concord mentions confirmation only twice; once to say it is not necessary, and the other time to call it ‘humbug.’  Well then, what are we doing here?  I’ll get to that later.

     First of all, I have to tell you what else Martin Luther says.   You see, we use the same word, ‘confirmation,’ for two different things.  First of all, there is the ‘confirmation instruction,’ which our confirmands have been attending for the past three years; and then, there is the ‘Rite of Confirmation,’ which we are here for this morning.  The two are related, of course, but they are not the same thing.  Martin Luther and the Book of Concord had some problems with the Rite of Confirmation as it had come to be practiced in the Middle Ages.  But Martin Luther was very concerned about and in favor of confirmation instruction.  After all, he wrote the book for it, didn’t he?  He wrote the Small Catechism in 1529, and for the last five centuries young people have been studying those words, with their pastors and parents, in Lutheran churches around the world.  Martin Luther was primarily a teacher, and it was out of his classroom preparation that he began to develop the thoughts that led to the Reformation.  He was a teacher throughout his life, and his lectures and sermons now fill those 120 volumes of his collected works.  And at the heart of that tremendous output of Christian teaching is this one small piece that was most treasured by Luther himself and most widely used by Lutherans ever since; this Small Catechism which was written for the instruction of the young.

     So when Luther called confirmation ‘monkey business’ and ‘mumbo jumbo’ he was not referring to confirmation instruction, but to the Rite of Confirmation, a rite that in the Middle Ages had become for many people an empty ritual.  Luther wanted to emphasize the instruction, and he did so to such an extent that he chose to ignore, and even denounce the rite.  Those following Luther, a couple generations later, restored the use of the ritual, and it is for that ‘ritual’ that we gather here today.

     However, we do need to be careful that we do not make the same mistake that was made in the Middle Ages.  We have to be careful that we do not put the main emphasis HERE, on this day.  Sometimes, the confirmation instruction is seen by some as nothing more than a necessary evil one must endure in order to get to this day, and then be done with it all.  But that certainly does make it all monkey business and a fanciful deception.  If that is your approach, then it would be better to be honest about it and leave it alone entirely.  But for Luther, and for us too, this day must not be a graduation, but merely a step along the way, the continuing way of walking with Jesus.  It is a milestone, perhaps, but still just one step in a lifelong process of learning and living the faith.  (continued…)

2128) Thinking About Our Troubles

Affliction is God’s shepherd dog to drive us back to the fold.  –Anonymous

God sweetens outward pain with inward peace.  –Thomas Watson

When we grow careless of keeping our souls, then God recovers our taste of good things again by sharp crosses.  –Richard Sibbes

God measures out affliction to our need.  –St. John Chrysostom, Homily IV

The winter prepares the earth for the spring, so do afflictions prepare the soul for glory.  –Richard Sibbes

Do not even such things as are most bitter to the flesh, tend to awaken Christians to faith and prayer, to a sight of the emptiness of this world, and to the fadingness of the best it yields?  Doth not God by these things oftentimes call our sins to remembrance, and provoke us to amendment of life?  How then can we be offended at things by which we reap so much good?  –John Bunyan

As the wicked are hurt by the best things, so the godly are bettered by the worst.  —William Jenkyn

I am mended by my sickness, enriched by my poverty, and strengthened by my weakness…  What fools are we, then, to frown upon our afflictions!  These, no matter how unpleasant, are our best friends.  They are not indeed for our pleasure, they are for our profit.  –Abraham Wright

Poverty and affliction take away the fuel that feeds pride.  –Richard Sibbes

Afflictions are light when compared with what we really deserve.  They are light when compared with the sufferings of the Lord Jesus.  But perhaps their real lightness is best seen by comparing them with the weight of glory which is awaiting us.  –Arthur W. Pink

The Lord gets his best soldiers out of the highlands of affliction.  –Charles Spurgeon

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Job 36:15-16a  —  But those who suffer He delivers in their suffering; He speaks to them in their affliction.  He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction…

Psalm 119:67  —  Before I was afflicted I went astray:  But now I have kept thy word.

II Corinthians 4;17  —  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

Psalm 34:19  —  Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all.

Psalm 113:13-14  —  As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.

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Help me, O Lord, to make a true use of all disappointments and calamities in this life, in such a way that they may unite my heart more closely with you.  Cause them to separate my affections from worldly things and inspire my soul with more vigor in the pursuit of true happiness.  Amen.  

–Susanna Wesley (1669-1742), mother of John and Charles Wesley and 17 other children
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“Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles.”  Charlie Chaplin

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2127) Wait a Little While, My Soul

From chapter 16 in THE IMITATION OF CHRIST by Thomas a Kempis  (1380-1471)

    Whatever I can desire or imagine for my own comfort I look for not here but in the hereafter.  For if I alone should have all the world’s comforts and could enjoy all its delights, it is certain that they could not long endure (Matthew 16:26).  Therefore, my soul, you cannot enjoy full consolation or perfect delight except in God, the consoler of the poor and the helper of the humble.  Wait a little while, my soul, wait for the divine promise, and you will have an abundance of all good things in heaven.  If you desire these present things too much, you will lose those which are everlasting and heavenly.  Let temporal things be used, but desire eternal things.  You cannot be satisfied with any temporal goods because you were not created to enjoy these alone.  Even if you possessed all created things, you could not be happy and blessed; for it is only in God, who created all these things, that your whole blessedness and happiness can be found.  This is indeed not the fleeting happiness that is seen and praised by lovers of the world.  Rather, it is the happiness for which the good and faithful servants of Christ await (Philippians 3:20), and of which even here they may sometimes have a foretaste.  Vain and brief is all human consolation.  Blessed and true is that which is received inwardly from the Truth.  The devout man carries everywhere with him his own Comforter, Jesus, and says unto Him:  “Be with me, Lord Jesus, in every place and at all times.  Let this be my consolation, to be cheerfully willing to do without all human comfort.  And if, for a time, you withhold all such comfort from me, then may I let your will and just trial of me be my greatest comfort.”

 

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Matthew 16:26  —  (Jesus said), “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?  Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Matthew 16:24-25  —  Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”

Philippians 3:17-20  —  Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.  For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame.  Their mind is on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven.  And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.

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Almighty and everlasting God, who hast preserved me by thy fatherly care through all the years of my life…, (grant now) that the disquiet of my mind may be appeased, that my faith may be increased, my hope strengthened, and my life regulated by thy will.  Make me truly thankful for that portion of my health which thy mercy has restored, and enable me to use the remains of life to thy glory and my own salvation…  Extinguish in my mind all sinful and inordinate desires.  Let me resolve to do that which is right, and let me by thy help keep my resolutions.  Let me, if it be best for me, at last know peace and comfort; but whatever state of life Thou shalt appoint me, let me end it by a happy death, and enjoy eternal happiness in thy presence…  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson (1770)

2126) Fading Beauty

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By Frederick Buechner (1926- ), in Telling Secrets, 1991.

     (My mother denounced) the ravages of old age but never accepted them as the inevitable consequences of getting old.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me today,” she must have said a thousand days as she tried once, then again, then a third time, to pull herself out of her chair into her walker.  It never seemed to occur to her that what was wrong with her was that she was on her way to pushing a hundred…

     The living heart and command center of her room was the dressing table.  When she was past getting out of bed to sit at it any longer, what she needed from it was brought to her on a tray as soon as she woke up every morning, before breakfast even– the magnifying mirror, the lipstick, eyebrow pencils, tweezers, face powder, hair brush, combs, cold cream, mascara.  Before she did anything else, she did that and did it with such artistry that even within weeks of her end she managed a not implausible version of the face that since girlhood had been her principal fame and fairest fortune.

     Over that dressing table there hung for years a mirror that I can remember from childhood.  It was a mirror with an olive green wooden frame on which she had once painted in oils the French words:  Il faut souffrir pour etre belle.  It was the motto of her life:  You have to suffer in order to be beautiful.  What she meant, of course, was all the pains she took in front of the mirror:  the plucking and primping and powdering, the brushing and painting– that kind of suffering.  

     But it seems clear that there was another kind too.  To be born as blonde and blue-eyed and beautiful as she was can be as much of a handicap in its way as to be born with a cleft palate, because if you are beautiful enough, you don’t really have to be anything much else to make people love you and want to be near you.  You don’t have to be particularly kind or unselfish or generous or compassionate because people will flock around you anyway simply for the sake of your beauty.  My mother could be all those good things when she took a notion to, but she never made a habit of it.  She never developed the giving, loving side of what she might have been as a human being.  Needless to say, that was where the real suffering came– the two failed marriages after the death of my father, and, the fact that among all the friends she had over the course of her life, she never as far as I know had one whom she would in any sense have sacrificed herself for and by doing so might have perhaps begun to find her best and truest self.    W. B. Yeats in his poem A Prayer for My Daughter writes, “Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned/By those that are not entirely beautiful.”  My almost entirely beautiful mother was by no means heartless, but I think hers was a heart that, who knows why, was rarely if ever touched in its deepest place.  To let it be touched there was a risk that for reasons known only to her she was apparently not prepared to take…

     Being beautiful was her business, her art, her delight, and it took her a long way and earned her many dividends.  But when, as she saw it, she lost her beauty… she was like a millionaire who runs out of money.  She took her name out of the phone book and got an unlisted number…  With her looks gone she felt she had nothing left to offer the world…  So what she did was simply to check out of the world…  My mother holed herself up in her apartment on 79th Street, then in just one room of that apartment, then in just one chair of that room, and finally in the bed where one morning a few summers ago, perhaps in her sleep, she died at last.

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I Peter 3:3-4  —   Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes.  Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.

Proverbs 31:30  —  Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

Ezekiel 28:17a  —  Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.

Isaiah 40:7-8  —  The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.

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Abide with us, O Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.   Abide with us, for the days are hastening on, and we hasten with them, and our life is short and transient as a dream.   Abide with us, for we are weak and helpless, and if thou abide not with us, we perish by the way.   Abide with us, until the morning light of our resurrection day, when we shall abide forever with thee.   Amen.     –James Burns

2125) What is Going on Down There?

Today’s meditation is just for fun.  I do not know who wrote this piece, and so I cannot say for sure whether or not the following conversation actually took place.  But it contains such good theology and so much that I agree with, that I believe it may indeed be divinely inspired.   –Leon Stier

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GOD:  Frank, you know all about gardens and nature.  What in the world is going on down there on planet Earth?  What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and plants I started eons ago?  I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan.  Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply rapidly.  The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds.  I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now.  But, all see are these green rectangles.

ST. FRANCIS:  It’s one of the tribes that settled there, Lord– the Suburbanites!  They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

GOD:  Grass?  But, grass is so boring.  It’s not colorful.  It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms.  It’s sensitive to temperatures.  Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

ST. FRANCIS:  Apparently so, Lord.  They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green.  They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

GOD:  The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast.  That must make the Suburbanites happy.

ST. FRANCIS:  Apparently not, Lord.  As soon as it grows a little, they cut it, sometimes twice a week.

GOD:  They cut it?  Do they then bale it like hay?

ST. FRANCIS:  Not exactly, Lord.  Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

GOD:  They bag it?  Why?  Is it a cash crop?  Do they sell it?

ST. FRANCIS:  No, Sir, just the opposite.  They pay to throw it away.

GOD:  Now, let me get this straight.  They fertilize grass so it will grow.  And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

ST. FRANCIS:  Yes, Sir.

GOD:  These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat.  That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

ST. FRANCIS:  You aren’t going to believe this, Lord.  When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

GOD:  What nonsense.  At least they kept some of the trees.  That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself.  The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer.  In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes.  It’s a natural circle of life.

ST. FRANCIS:  You better sit down, Lord.  The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle.  As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

GOD:  No!?  What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

ST. FRANCIS:  After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch.  They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

GOD:  And where do they get this mulch?

ST. FRANCIS:  They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

GOD:  Enough!  I don’t want to think about this anymore.  St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts.  What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

ST. CATHERINE:  Dumb and Dumber, Lord.  It’s a story about…

GOD:  Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

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Genesis 1:11-12 — Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.”  And it was so.  The land produced vegetation:  plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.  And God saw that it was good.

Matthew 13:27…28b…29a…30a — (Jesus said)…  “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field?  Where then did the weeds come from?…  Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
“‘No,’ he answered…  “Let both grow together…” (a little out of context, and not the whole story, but it might apply. –L.S.)

I Corinthians 3:7 — So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

Isaiah 40:8 — The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever.

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Praised be You my Lord through our Sister,
Mother Earth who sustains and governs us,
producing varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
–St. Francis
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Lord, purge our eyes to see
Within the seed a tree,
Within the glowing egg a bird,
Within the shroud a butterfly.
Till, taught by such we see
Beyond all creatures, Thee.
–Christina Rossetti

2124) What Good is Government? (part two of two)

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    (…continued)  But as soon as one starts talking about government things get complicated, so I’ll illustrate this with a less complex setting– the family.  

     Let’s say little brother hits big sister.  Now big sister has at least three options.

     Option #1 is she can just ignore it.  If she does that, she runs the risk of little brother hitting her again– and again– and again.  That’s how these things work.  If the violence is allowed to work to bad guy’s benefit and go on without consequences, the aggressor will become bolder and even more wicked.  In time, little brother may really hurt big sister.  Obviously, that is not a good outcome.  Option one, to just ignore the injury, is not a good idea; not for big sister who is getting hit, and also not for little brother who, if unrestrained, will just get worse, and may turn out to be a thoroughly bad person.

     What else can big sister do?  Option #2 is that she can hit little brother back.  This is, of course, what the Bible says not to do.  ‘Do NOT avenge yourselves,’ it says.  But let’s say big sister doesn’t want to go by the Bible, and, since she is bigger, she is able to pound the daylights out of little brother, and perhaps even injure him.  This is not a good outcome either, and, goes to show why it’s not a good idea to leave vengeance in the hands of the wronged party.

     So what else could big sister do?  You already know what option #3 is because that’s what usually happens.  Big sister goes to Mommy and complains that little brother has hit her.

     Now Mommy probably doesn’t want to have to deal with this, but she must.  She would rather that her kids play without hitting, but when the hitting starts, she knows she has to get involved.  So what follows is a little trial.  Mommy asks the accused if he hit big sister.  Little brother insists that he did no such thing.  In a courtroom, this would be called, “pleading not guilty.”  In the family, its called ‘telling a big fat lie’ (at least in this case).  Mommy has already examined the forensic evidence, and she has seen the red mark of a chubby little hand on big sister’s cheek.  So, Mommy pronounces the sentence:  “Go to your room,” she says, or perhaps, “Sit in the corner,” or perhaps, worst of all in the mind of little brother, she might say, “Give your sister a big hug and apologize.”  Justice is done and the evil is stopped, at least for the time being.

     This is not Mommy’s favorite part of being a parent, but she knows she has to do it.  It is part of her job.  Mommy is, to use Paul’s words, “a servant of God, there to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Parents are the ‘governing authorities’ in their families, which is why the fourth commandment does not tell us to love our parents, but to HONOR them.  Honor includes love, but it is more than love.  It also means, as it says in the catechism, that we are to respect parents, obey them, and serve them.

     This little domestic situation is really a miniature of what government is supposed to do, according to the Bible.  If we as individuals are not to avenge evil, then who will stop it?  God will stop it through his designated representatives– parents in the family, and, in the larger society the governing authorities, who are servants of God to ‘execute wrath on the wrongdoer.’

     If some stranger on the street mugs you, you don’t run to Mommy.  You call the police, because they are the arm of government authorities appointed by God to deal with that kind of problem.  Police, judges, juries, soldiers, and armies– these are all servants of the government to restrain evil.  That is why, says Paul, we are to be subject to the governing authorities.  We don’t have to like them.  But we do have to respect, honor, and obey them.  Their job is to protect us from each other, and from outside threats.  It is not their job to forgive the wrongdoer, and we do not expect them to be non-judgmental.  Their job is to judge and punish the wrongdoer.

  Governments do many things.  Sometimes they do horrible things, like commit mass murder against their own citizens.  Those authorities who do that will have to answer to God.  Other times governments do very good things, like build roads and maintain schools.  And sometimes governments do downright silly things.  But God has authorized the governing authorities to do one thing above all else– to execute his wrath on wrongdoers so that evil may be restrained, and the citizens of that government be protected.

     It also must be said that the authority of a government is limited by God.  If the governing authorities tell us to do that which is contrary to the Word of God, then we must not obey.  In Acts chapter four Peter and John were told by the authorities to stop telling others about Jesus.  The disciples refused to obey them, saying, “We must obey God and not men.”

     As citizens under the authority of government we are called to vigilance and to virtue.  Virtue is more than just abiding by the law because we are afraid of what might happen to us if we don’t.  Virtue is doing the right thing freely and without coercion.  It is what the Lord wants from us, and the Founding Fathers of this nation said many times that liberty cannot survive without a godly and moral people.

     These are just a few words on just one aspect of what the Bible says about the governing authorities; and it doesn’t even begin to answer the question of why God doesn’t stop all the evil– except to say that He someday will.  In the meantime, the good news is that Jesus sends his Holy Spirit to us to lead us and to guide us into all truth and obedience.  Jesus, who was, you remember, crucified by the governing authorities, now lives and reigns in heaven.  All authority on heaven and on earth is now His, says the Bible.  And when Jesus comes again in glory, the kingdoms of this world will come to an end and our home will be in the kingdom of God, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.

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Romans 12:17-19  —  Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written:  “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.

Romans 13;1a…4  —   Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established…    For 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.

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Oh God, Almighty Father, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, grant that the hearts and minds of all who go out as leaders before us, the statesmen, the judges, the men of learning and the men of wealth, may be so filled with the love of thy laws and of that which is righteous and life-giving, that they may be worthy stewards of thy good and perfect gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Knights’ prayer, 14th century

2123) What Good is Government? (part one of two)

        “I don’t get mad, I get even,” is what we used to say on the playground, trying to sound tough as we plotted our revenge.  The Bible, however, has a different approach to the matter.  “Love your enemies and pray for those who hurt you,” it says.

     But then it also says something else.  Romans 12:19 says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

     What’s this?  God will seek the revenge?  We should ‘leave room for God’s wrath’ and let God repay the evil?  Isn’t God supposed to be all-loving and forgiving?  What’s all this talk about wrath and revenge?

     First of all, the Bible is indeed clear– if someone does me harm, I should not try to get even.  Instead, I am to return good for evil and leave the paybacks, if there are to be any, to God.  In that same section it says, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody…  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good…  and if your enemy is hungry, feed him…”

     These are nice ideals, but it is fair to ask, does any of this work in the real world?  Or do we just pay lip service to these kinds of nice thoughts on Sunday morning, knowing full well that it will have little application to our life on Monday morning?  Will thieves stop robbing us if we don’t stop them?  Will murderers cease killing just because we treat them nicely?  Will ISIS stop beheading people if we ask them politely?  Won’t evil run amok if we leave it unrestrained and unpunished? 

   The answer is, of course it will.  Sinners won’t stop sinning out of the goodness of their hearts, because for one thing, our hearts aren’t good.  So how can we who live in the real world follow Paul’s advice to never avenge ourselves, advice which seems so other-worldly and impractical?  If we don’t stop evil, who will?

     The answer to that question is in the Bible verse I began with.  Who will stop evil?  God will.  God will stop the evil.  And how does God do that?  Well, there are a few ways he does that, but this meditation will be about how God deals with evil through his designated representatives.  God’s designated representatives in the world to fight evil are described in Romans chapter 13, where Paul writes:  “Be subject to the governing authorities, because they are God’s servants, established by Him, to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.”  There’s that word wrath again, and Paul is telling us here is that one of the ways God brings his wrath upon the wrongdoer is through the governing authorities.  In other words, the government has something to do with stopping evil, by God’s own design.  (continued…)

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