1589) Powerful Grace

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By John V. Halvorson, How Long, O Lord?, 1986, pages 32-3 (paraphrased)

     Pete was the best mechanic I ever knew.  He had worked at the same garage for fifteen years.  Business had grown to the point that an additional mechanic was needed.  The owner of the company hired Fred, a much younger man than Pete.  They had very different personalities.  Pete was modest and reserved, while Fred was outgoing, friendly, and gregarious.  Fred was well liked, and many people who had appreciated Pete, now began to prefer Fred.

     Pete grew jealous and felt threatened by this new man.  He thought to himself, “I’ll have to be clever about it, but I can think of ways to undermine this new man.  Then people won’t think he is so great.”

     But then in a quiet moment, Pete began to recall some things he had heard in church about the grace of God.  Grace, he recalled, was more than just pardon and forgiveness, but there was also a power in being gracious.  On one level, being merciful and gracious seemed weak to Pete, but he remembered Romans 1:16 which says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.”

     Pete had learned that grace was a power that could penetrate deep within his soul, melt his pride, and make him a stronger and better person.  When Pete began to pray for grace to help him adjust to this new situation, he experienced some of this power.  He decided that he too could, and should, be gracious.

     In the meantime, without anything being said by either man, Fred was sizing up the situation in his own way.  He graciously began to pull back and push Pete forward, thus giving Pete a feeling of security.  Pete no longer felt threatened, and he was able to let go of his jealousy.  

     We sometimes call this grace that people show each other common grace.  It can flow from special grace, which is the grace that God has shown to us in the person of Jesus Christ, and which comes to us as pardon and power.  Frequently, it is in the midst of common grace that we come to know the meaning of special grace.  God’s grace is the dynamic which makes change possible when something old is threatened by something new.

     Grace is a powerful force.  That is what we mean when we sing in verse four of that favorite old Christmas carol, Joy to the World:  “He rules the world, with truth and grace.”

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Romans 1:16a  —  I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes.

Acts 6:8  —  Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.

Acts 4:33  —  With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.  And God’s grace was powerfully at work in them all.

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Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found,
Was blind, but now I see.

‘Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear.
And grace, my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear,
the hour I first believed.

–John Newton  (1725-1807)

1588) Ghost Stories (c)

     (…continued)  To say there is the possibility of supernatural occurrences is not yet to define what ghosts are.  The usual notion is that ghosts are the spirits of dead people roaming about on the earth— like Lenora.  But this is not what the Bible says happens to us when we die.  The Bible speaks not of ongoing disembodied spirits floating around, but of the eventual resurrection of the body, soul, and spirit; all together (which sounds much more appealing to me).

     As for ghosts, the devil could, perhaps, create the likeness of a dead person without the involvement of any dead person’s actual spirit.  God could do this also, for some good purpose, if He would so choose; as we hear sometimes when people have dreams or visions of deceased loved ones warning them of impending danger or giving them a word of encouragement.  I have read what appear to be credible accounts of such happenings.  God, or the devil, would have the power to create such images or visions of people.  Perhaps that is what the ghost of Samuel was.  We can believe that ghost-like appearances may occur, without believing that everyone who dies immediately becomes a ghost.  There is no Biblical foundation for thinking that.

     So my answer to the confirmation student’s often-asked question about ghosts is:   #1) to acknowledge and even emphasize, our belief in supernatural powers of good and evil.  This natural world that we see around is not all there is:  and, #2), to maintain a healthy skepticism about most of the stories and explanations of ghosts.  The Bible just does not give us enough to go on, and neither does research or personal experience.  But we do get enough brief glimpses of this supernatural world, and there is plenty in the Bible to affirm the presence of “unseen things above,” (and below), to keep us aware of the possibilities.

     While the subject of ghosts is not of central importance to our faith, thoughts on these unseen beings, whatever they are, do teach us some things about God’s world.

     First of all, the thought of ghosts can open minds to a wider reality.  We live in a time when many people are eager to eliminate God from every aspect of life— keep God out of the schools, out of politics, out of conversations, and most of all, out of science.  In such a world, even a good ghost story can be a reminder of the possibility of unseen realities that deserve our attention.  “It’s a ghost,” the disciples cried out in fear when they saw Jesus out on the lake.  They were spending time with Jesus, and when you do that, you will get your eyes opened in all kinds of ways to these unseen realities.  The disciples saw Jesus walking on water, and knew that was something out of the ordinary.  But they hadn’t seen anything yet.

     Secondly, any Biblical interest in ghosts will lead us into what the Bible talks about much more, angels and demons; those other supernatural beings that appear hundreds of times in the Bible, far more than ghosts.  And the Bible tells us these angels and demons are forces for good and evil that attempt to influence us all.  This world is not, as we might like to think, a playground.  Rather, according to the Bible, this world is a battleground, and we are in the midst of this battle between God and the devil, between right and wrong, between choosing to do evil, or, choosing to do good.  We are in it, and we feel it— every day.  We can feel the temptations to do wrong, and, we can feel the reminders and the nudges to do what is right, just as surely as Jesus himself was tempted by the devil and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.  So perhaps when you are tempted to do something wrong, or, are inspired to do something good; perhaps then there is a demon whispering in your left ear, or an angel whispering in your right ear, as my mother used to tell me. There are unseen forces for good and evil that are seeking to influence your will and your choices; if not by whispering in your ear, then in other, very real ways.

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     I return now to the story I began with about the librarian who works in an old building said to be haunted by a ghost.  When children ask him if this is true, he does NOT say: “Of course it isn’t true, we are living in the 21st century; how can you ask such a stupid question; everyone knows there is no such thing as ghosts.”  He doesn’t say that.  Rather, when asked if there is a ghost in that library he says quietly, “I don’t know.”  Then adds, “But if you want my opinion on ghosts in general, I will tell you this—I believe in God, and if there are ghosts, I am not afraid of them, because God is stronger than any ghost.”

     That is a good answer.  It acknowledges the presence of the supernatural, perhaps sometimes in the form of ghosts, but certainly and most importantly, in the existence and power of God.  It is to that supernatural being, who is our kind and heavenly Father, that we can turn to for comfort and protection and hope.  As for the supernatural forces of evil, the devil and whatever assistants he has or methods they use, we need not fear them; but neither ought we fool with them.

   Most Christians, in most times and places over the last 2,000 years, have had an awareness of the daily blessings and dangers of the supernatural.  We would be wise to also be aware.

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Ephesians 6:12a  —  For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, and against the world rulers of this present darkness.

I Peter 5:8-9a  —  Be alert and of sober mind.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith.

James 4:7  —  Submit yourselves, then, to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

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Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us,

We tremble not, unmoved we stand, they cannot overpower us.

Let this world’s tyrant rage, in battle we’ll engage.  

His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgement must prevail. 

One little word subdues him.

–Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, verse 3.

1587) Ghost Stories (b)

The Witch of Endor, Dmitri Nikiforovich Martynov

The Witch of Endor (bringing up the ghost of Samuel), Dmitri Nikiforovich Martynov, 1857

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     (…continued)  The third, and most important, source of information about ghosts would be God’s Word.  Not counting the Holy Ghost, there are at least three ghost stories in the Bible.  In two of the three stories, the disciples think they are seeing a ghost, but it is Jesus.  The first is the story of Jesus walking on the water Matthew 14:22-33.  It is night and the disciples are in the boat.  Jesus was not with them.  The disciples see something out on the lake, coming towards them and they cry out in fear, “It’s a ghost.”  But then the apparition speaks, and they realize it is Jesus, doing another one of his miracles.  The other time the disciples thought they saw a ghost was even more spectacular.  It was Easter evening– the third day since Jesus was executed and buried.  A few people had reported seeing Jesus, just like there were reports at Bethany of seeing Lenora.  But just like at the college, the reports were doubted.  Then, suddenly, Jesus appeared among them, even though the doors were locked.  Luke 24:37 says “They were all startled and frightened and thought they were seeing a ghost.”  But again Jesus speaks, this time saying, “Peace be with you.  Why are you troubled and why do you doubt?  Look at me, touch my hands and feet.  A ghost, does not have flesh and blood.”  (Isn’t it interesting that Jesus does not say there is no such thing as ghosts?  He simply pointed out that ghosts do not have flesh and blood).  Still, it was hard for the disciples to believe, so Jesus then asked for something to eat.  He ate broiled fish in their presence, and everyone knows that ghosts do not eat, so that settled it.  But these stories, miraculous and as they are, are about people who think they are seeing a ghost, but are really seeing something even more amazing and wonderful.

     There is, however, one more story.  Here it is as told in I Samuel 28 (some verses are omitted):

Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him…  And when (King) Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid, and terror filled his heart.  He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or by prophets.  Saul then said to his servants, “Find me a woman who is a witch, so I may go and inquire of her.”

“There is one in Endor,” they replied.

So Saul went to the woman and said, “Consult a spirit for me, and bring up for me the one I name.”

The woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”

“Bring up Samuel,” he said…  (And then said to her), “Do not be afraid. What do you see?”

The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.”

“What does he look like?” Saul asked.

“It is an old man wearing a robe,” she said.  Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”

“I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams.  So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”

Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you?  The Lord will do what he said he would do, and take the kingdom out of your hands and give it to David.  Because you did not obey the Lord, the Lord will deliver Israel into the hands of the Philistines.  Tomorrow you and your sons will be with me here in death.”

   The ghost of Samuel then disappeared.  The next day, Saul and his sons were killed on the battlefield.

     What are we to make of that story?  Here we have not only a ghost, but also a witch.  One isolated ghost story in the Bible is not much to go one, but what is there is not inconsistent with the rest of the Bible.  What then shall we say about ghosts?

     First of all, if ghosts do exist, they are supernatural.  Supernatural is defined in the dictionary as ‘something existing outside the natural world.’  We can see, hear, touch, and weigh human beings; we cannot with ghosts.  Ghosts are, if they exist, beyond the natural world.

     As Christians, we do believe in the supernatural.  We do believe in the existence of powers above and beyond the natural realm.  The Bible says God created the world—God is beyond it, and is free, and able, to work miracles within it.  God is a supernatural being, and God is good.  There are also, says the Bible, supernatural beings and forces that are evil. There is a devil and there are demons; the Bible makes that very clear.  There are, in fact, all kinds of supernatural beings in the Bible, not only God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but also the devil and demons and angels, and even one witch and one ghost, all within the pages of the Bible.

     We do believe in a supernatural realm.  The world that you see is not all that there is.  This does not mean that we accept uncritically every ghost story ever told.  I never saw Lenora and didn’t think I would.  This is an area filled with foolishness, self-deception, hoaxes, and fake news.  But as Christians we do not rule out any and every supernatural event.  It is a part of our faith to believe in supernatural forces of good and evil.

     However, to say there is the possibility of supernatural occurrences is not yet to define what ghosts are.  The usual notion is that ghosts are the spirits of dead people roaming about on the earth—like Lenora.  But this is not what the Bible teaches about happens to us when we die.  The Bible speaks not of ongoing disembodied spirits floating around, but of the eventual resurrection of the body, soul, and spirit, all together– which sounds much more appealing to me.  (continued…)

1586) Ghost Stories (a)

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      I once read an article about ghosts in, of all places, a respected theological journal.  It was written by a man who works in an old library that is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a previous librarian.  Other librarians claim to have seen this ghost in action; moving chairs around, knocking books off shelves, and making loud, scary noises in the night.  The article is a serious reflection on the possibility of such a haunting.  The writer says he is often asked by children if the library really does have such a ghost.  I’ll tell you his answer later.

     I can believe that many children ask about the ghost.  Thinking back to all the years I taught confirmation classes, that is perhaps the one question I was asked most of all.  “Do you believe in ghosts?” they would always ask.  This curiosity is fed by a steady stream books, movies, and television programs about ghosts (some of which are really good).  And, the question comes from a natural human curiosity about all things strange and supernatural.  So how do I answer these curious confirmands?  I will tell you later.

      How about you?  Do you believe in ghosts?  You should believe in at least one ghost.  Every single Sunday morning in church, everyone used to say in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the Holy Ghost.”  Now we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” which is a probably a better translation for today.  But for many centuries, the New Testament Greek word ‘pnuema’ was translated sometimes as ‘spirit,’ and oftentimes as ‘ghost;’ in the Bible, in the prayers of the church, and in the Creed.

     But that is not really what the kids are asking about.  What they are wondering is if there are any other ghosts.  And the answer to that question is related to our belief in the Holy Ghost.  But I’ll get to that later.

     We should begin by asking where we might look for an answer to this question about the existence of ghosts.  I suggest three possible sources of information:  books on the subject, personal experiences, and, most importantly, the Bible.

     I am not an expert on ghost research, so I cannot tell you much about books on the subject.  I read a few books on ghosts when I was in junior high school, but not many since.  I do know from looking around in bookstores, which I often do, that you can find books that say there are ghosts, and books that say there are no ghosts.  I will leave it at that.

      The second possible source of information would be personal experience.  And I have heard some pretty convincing ghost stories from people I trust and believe.  The best one was told by my grandfather.  It happened before he even owned a car, so probably sometime before 1920.  On a dark, stormy night, (when else?), grandpa was on his way home from town in his horse-drawn buggy.  Not far from his farm, he was surprised to see a lady standing by the side of the dirt road.  It was storming, so he stopped and asked if she needed a ride.  She said nothing, but ‘floated’ up onto the seat next to him.  Grandpa was used to seeing people step up into the buggy, so seeing her just glide on up like that made him a little uneasy.  After a short distance, still in the middle of nowhere, the lady put her hand up, motioning for grandpa to stop.  He did, she floated off of the seat, and then– vanished.  My grandfather was a down-to-earth, practical, no nonsense farmer, and this sort of thing was new to him.  He did not know what to make of it.  So he came to the conclusion that he imagined the whole thing, and decided not to say a word to anyone, ever, lest they think he was crazy.

   However, a couple weeks later grandpa was visiting with his neighbor and good friend, Arnie.  Arnie said to grandpa he thought he was going crazy.  Arnie went on to describe to grandpa that very same experience with the vanishing woman on that very same spot in the road.  So word got out and then both men would talk about it.  Grandpa had no explanation or interpretation.  He just told the story.  And I have no idea either what that was all about.  Also, not far from that road, there was a well-known haunted house with many strange occurrences in the 1920’s, witnessed by many people, even during the day, and, by newspaper reporters.  But that’s another story.

     I had my own opportunity to try and meet a ghost back in the early 1970’s when I was a student at Bethany College in Mankato.  The boys’ dorm in those days was the third and fourth floors of the Old Main Building.  There was also a fifth floor, which in the 1930’s was the girls’ dorm, but for decades had been used only for storage.  It was full of old furniture and dust and spider webs, and looked like something out of a Harry Potter movie.  The story was that many years ago a girl named Lenora died on that fifth floor, and from then on her restless ghost had been roaming the long corridors.

     I lived with some noisy guys on the third floor and we always had friends stopping in.  That was fun, but there was no chance of ever getting any studying done.  So I asked for, and received, permission to use one of the abandoned rooms on the fifth floor.  The room was at the end of a long, dark, hallway; one of the areas that Lenora had reportedly been seen.  I wasn’t worried.  Even though over the years some students said they saw her, no one was ever harmed; and I did not believe the stories anyway.  But I couldn’t help but keep my eyes and ears open when I walked down that hallway. 

     For that whole year, I was on that haunted floor more than anyone, and I never once saw or heard anything of Lenora.  That’s how it is with ghost stories.  Some have more credibility than others.  There was never any real evidence for Lenora, and I later read an account of how the rumor was started.  But I still do wonder what my grandfather saw.  (continued…)

1585) Fifty Years As A Quadriplegic

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Fifty years ago this summer, Joni Eareckson Tada’s life changed forever. And since then, God has used her transform the lives of countless others.

By John Stonestreet and Stan Guthrie, August 11, 2017, at: http://www.breakpoint.org

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     Five decades have come and gone since 17-year-old Joni Eareckson (1949-)—now Tada—dove from a pier jutting into the Chesapeake Bay and snapped her spine in the unexpectedly shallow waters, emerging as a quadriplegic.  But of course you probably know that this accident wasn’t the end of Joni’s story.  No, it was the beginning … of a beautiful but arduous life of service that has blessed millions around the world.

     As Joni says, “God permits what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”

     And, oh, what He has accomplished through this one imperfect but beautiful life.  Joni, of course, leads the international ministry Joni and Friends, which provides prayer, support, resources, and even camps to serve and encourage families touched by disability, takes wheelchairs to people around the world, and offers books, curriculum, and services too numerous to mention.

     She’s written dozens of books herself, including “When God Weeps,” “Glorious Intruder,” and “A Place of Healing.”  She’s also an incredible artist, a radio host, and even the star of a movie about her own life.

     But what I truly appreciate and love about Joni is her tireless work to protect and expand the rights of people with disability everywhere.  She served on the National Council on Disability when the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted.  She also served on the Disability Advisory Committee to the U.S. State Department and continues her advocacy on issues that touch on the value of life, including health care reform, adult stem cell research, and fighting euthanasia.  Part of that advocacy was founding the Christian Institute on Disability to train people and churches everywhere to be advocates too.

     In 2012 the Colson Center presented Joni with the William Wilberforce Award for her life and efforts.  Her friend and admirer Chuck Colson said, “She is a defiant, inspirational, joy-filled rebuttal to those who would assault the sanctity of human life.”  Indeed.

     Despite all she’s accomplished and learned in the school of suffering, Joni’s physical and spiritual challenges remain—and in some ways, even increased.  On top of her paralysis, about 15 years ago she began experiencing chronic pain in her hips and back, which was caused by scoliosis from a weakened spine as a result of sitting in her wheelchair for so many years.  The doctors told Joni that her bones were too porous for surgery.  Then, in 2010, they discovered that she had stage-3 breast cancer—from which she has been pronounced cancer-free, thank God.

     “Every single morning when I wake up I need Jesus so badly,” she told CBN News.  “I just can’t tolerate the thought of another day as a quadriplegic with someone else giving me a bed bath and exercising my legs and toileting routines.  It all just seems too overwhelming.”

     And yet Joni perseveres, still crying out to the Lord for help.  The suffering she experiences brings humility and a new perspective.  As she told The Gospel Coalition, “It sounds incredible, but I really would rather be in this wheelchair knowing Jesus as I do than be on my feet without him.”

See also:

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of My Diving Accident
Joni Eareckson Tada | The Gospel Coalition | July 30, 2017
After 50 Years in a Wheelchair, I Still Walk with Jesus
Kelli B. Trujillo | Christianity Today | July 2017
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Philippians 4:13  —  I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
II Corinthians 12:9-10  —  (The Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Philippians 3:8b  —  I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. 
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Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.  The Sovereign Lord is my strength.

–Habakkuk 3:17-19a

1584) Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth (b)

“Facing Death, Embracing Life” by Brent Foster (1975-1995), in Finding God at Harvard, ed. by Kelly Monroe, pages 129-132, Zondervan, 1996.

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     (…continued)  This notion of good coming out of suffering is, I think, still a hard one to understand.  When all the distractions and illusions we create for ourselves in life are suddenly washed away, everything can appear empty and futile.  For me, the dreams, hopes, and plans I once had for this world are gone.  All that I built for myself has been knocked down.  However, I know now that what remains after such a washing is all I really ever had to begin with:  my faith in God, and the hope that things are working according to his will.

     Without God, life is meaningless and death even more so.  As Psalm 127 says:  “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.”  I think only after realizing this have I begun to understand what Christ really has to offer.  Everything I do in life doesn’t have to be in vain, and death doesn’t have to be the victor.  Christ offers order over chaos, purpose over futility, hope over despair, and life over death.

     What I said at the beginning about having a bright future is still true, perhaps even truer now than ever.  Although my illness will appear a tragedy to the world around me, those who know God will understand the truth which he brought to us himself by entering human history in the person of Jesus Christ.  As recorded in his Word, all good gifts are from above, and all the good I will miss in an extended earthly life are but shadows of the real thing.  Real life begins with God.  This is not the end for me but just the beginning.  I find the concluding words of C S Lewis Chronicles of Narnia very fitting:  “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read; which goes on forever; in which every chapter is better than the one before

     I hope that all who read this will remember their Creator, “before the days of trouble come,” so that when forced to really confront the horrible abyss of death, as everyone inevitably will, he will be able to lead you back to safety, sanity, and an eternity of glory.

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Editor’s note:  In the spring of 1995 Brent returned home to Shenandoah, Iowa to be with his family.  He died that summer.

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Ecclesiastes 12:1  —  Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”

II Corinthians 4:16-18  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  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.

Romans 5:3-5  —  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

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O Thou Creator of all things that are, I lift up my heart in gratitude to Thee for this day’s happiness:

For the mere joy of living;
For all the sights and sounds around me;
For the sweet peace of the country and the pleasant bustle of the town;
For all things bright and beautiful and happy;
For friendship and good company;
For work to perform and the skill and strength to perform it;
For a time to play when the day’s work was done, and for health and a glad heart to enjoy it.

Yet let me never think, O eternal Father, that I am here to stay.  Let me still remember that I am a stranger and pilgrim on the earth.  For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come.  Preserve me by Thy grace, good Lord, from so losing myself in the joys of earth that I may have no longing left for the purer joys of heaven.  Let not the happiness of this day become a snare to my too worldly heart.  And if, instead of happiness, I have to-day suffered any disappointment or defeat, if there has been any sorrow where I had hoped for joy, or sickness where I had looked for health, give me grace to accept it from Thy hand as a loving reminder that this is not my home.

I thank Thee, O Lord, that Thou hast so set eternity within my heart that no earthly thing can ever, satisfy me wholly.  I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the contemplation of a more perfect blessedness.  And above all I thank Thee for the sure hope and promise of an endless life which Thou hast given me in the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ my Lord.  Amen.

–John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, 1949.

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Hebrews 11:23  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.  They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were pilgrims and strangers on earth.

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1583) Remember Your Creator in the Days of Your Youth (a)

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In the summer 1989, Shenendoah, Iowa eighth-grader Brent Foster had a leg amputated because of cancer.  Brent went on to play high school baseball, basketball, and tennis.  He was elected president of the student body.  The cancer reappeared with tumors in his lungs during Brent’s senior year.  In the Fall (1993) he entered Harvard University.  The day before Thanksgiving 1994, test results showed that inoperable bone cancer had spread throughout his body.  “I guess I’m realizing that dreams don’t always come true,” Brent reflected.  Brent concentrated his studies in history because, he said, “I like to learn about people in the past, and what they lived and died for.”

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“Facing Death, Embracing Life” by Brent Foster (1975-1995), in Finding God at Harvard, ed. by Kelly Monroe, pages 129-132, Zondervan, 1996.

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     My old friends and acquaintances back in rural Iowa would describe me as a very bright person with an even brighter future.  In fact, the largest paper in the state covered my graduation, calling me “the most accomplished, polished, and courageous student ever to wear the maroon and white” (my school colors).  Success followed me everywhere in high school.  My peers elected me president of just about every major organization in school, and my academic might won state and nationwide recognition.  I more than once found myself in the governor’s office accepting official recognition for my achievements, and locally I was famous for playing high school basketball on an artificial leg.  All of this culminated in being made a valedictorian my senior year and gaining admission to the most prestigious college in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report, anyway), the first person of my school ever to have done so.  Now, here I am an accomplished Harvard student, the world seemingly at my feet.  However, there is one little catch to all of this success: I have widespread bone cancer and only several weeks left to live.

     These were supposed to have been the best days of my life.  Instead I am at the losing end of an eight-year battle with cancer.  And although only twenty-one, my body has grown extremely weak and will soon fail me altogether.  In fact, every breath has itself become a struggle.  After a total of eleven surgeries, a year of chemotherapy, and a month of high-dose radiation, the doctors can do nothing more.  From my experiences, I have sometimes wondered if humans were created with more capacity for pain than happiness.  Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes often ring in my ears (along with the other ringing noises I constantly hear from chemotherapy damage):

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” —before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain… “Meaningless! Meaningless! ” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”

   For me, the days of trouble came early, and I have found little pleasure in them.  I know now that the crosses we are sometimes allowed to bear in this world would not be worth the pain if not for Christ.  During my darkest hours, such as while lying in an intensive-care bed with seven or eight tubes protruding from my ravaged body, all the neat Sunday school answers I had learned as a kid seemed terribly hollow.  There are no pat answers for many terrible and contradictory things in this broken world.  Mere words are meaningless, especially in the face of death.  At such times as these, the only respite for me is to “remember my Creator.”  For in Christ there is a meaning deeper than our understanding and ability to formulate into human speech.  As Paul so correctly wrote in I Corinthians 4:20: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”

     God himself suffered much more than even I could imagine when he became a man, and can therefore understand our deepest sorrows.  I am always moved when I read the account of Jesus visiting the tomb of Lazarus.  After seeing the considerable grief that death had inflicted on his people, Jesus himself wept.  Even though he would soon revive Lazarus, Jesus was overcome with sorrow that humanity had been reduced to such a state and consequently forced to endure such pain.  I have always placed my hope in the promise that, just as Christ revived Lazarus, he will come and fix our brokenness also.

     It is easy to forget this compassion of Christ’s, even though he actually chose to save mankind by subjecting himself to suffering.  There is a mystery in God’s use of suffering to bring renewal and redemption which I don’t completely understand.  But this redemptive quality of suffering and tribulation is alluded to many times in the Bible and then underscored by numerous examples.  For in the words of Paul, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope.  And this hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 3:3-5).

     He even tells us that weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties are necessary “so that Christ’s power may rest” on us (II Corinthians 12:9-10).  My life has certainly shown these words to be true, filling many with hope.  Through my hardships, much of God’s glory has been revealed to me and to others.  But if the only good that had come from my hellish years painfully fighting off death was for healthy people around me to passively be inspired, then I would consider God to be the cruelest villain in the universe.  Quite the opposite though, God has used suffering primarily to help me, to remake me into someone capable of knowing him better.  Although outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly I am being renewed day by day (see II Corinthians 4:16).  The operation has been very painful, but the Great Physician has begun to heal my spirit.  It is impossible to describe in a logical manner this transformation, especially to someone who has never been tempered in God’s furnace.  But all the same, I have come to know a Creator who loves me so much that he is not even willing to spare me a great amount of pain so that I might have real life with him.  (continued…)

1582) Saying Grace

     A visiting pastor was attending a men’s prayer breakfast in a Mississippi Farm County.  He asked one of the impressive older farmers in attendance to say grace that morning.  After all were seated, the older farmer began:  “Lord, I hate buttermilk.”

     The pastor opened one eye and wondered to himself where this was going.  Then the farmer loudly proclaimed, “Lord, I hate lard.”

     Now the pastor was worried.  However, without missing a beat, the farmer prayed on, “And Lord, you know I don’t care much for raw white flour.”

     Just as the pastor was ready to stand and stop everything, the farmer continued, “But Lord, when you mix ’em all together and bake ’em up, I do love fresh biscuits.  So, Lord, when things come up we don’t like in our lives, when life gets hard, when we just don’t understand what you are sayin’ to us; we just need to relax and wait ‘till You are done mixin’, and probably it will be somethin’ even better than biscuits.  Amen.”

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Romans 8:28  —  We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Jeremiah 29:11-12  —  “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”

Psalm 119:71  —  It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees.

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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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1581) Church Growth and Basic Truths (1972)

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By Albert Mohler, April 25, 2011, at:  www.albertmohler.com

     By the late 1960s, liberal Protestants began asking a rather difficult question.  Why were the conservative churches growing?  In retrospect, one aspect of the liberal Protestant crisis was reflected in that very question.  The mainline Protestant denominations would have been better served by asking why their own churches were declining.

     Commissioned by the (liberal) National Council of Churches, researcher Dean M. Kelley set out to find out why conservative churches were growing, even as the more liberal churches were declining.  In his 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion, Kelley argued that evangelical churches grow precisely because they do what the more liberal congregations and denominations intentionally reject — they make serious demands of believers in terms of doctrine and behavior.

     “Amid the current neglect and hostility toward organized religion in general,” Kelley noted, “the conservative churches, holding to seemingly outmoded theology and making strict demands on their members, have equalled or surpassed in growth the early percentage increases of the nation’s population.”

     With amazing insight and candor, Kelley spoke for mainline Protestantism when he noted that it had been generally assumed that churches, “if they want to succeed, will be reasonable, rational, courteous, responsible, restrained, and receptive to outside criticism.”  These churches would be highly concerned with preserving “a good image in the world” — and that meant especially within the world of the cultural elites.  These churches, intending to grow, would be “democratic and gentle in their internal affairs” — as the larger world defines those qualities.  These churches will intend to be cooperative with other religious groups in order to meet common goals, and thus “will not let dogmatism, judgmental moralism, or obsessions with cultic purity stand in the way of such cooperation and service.”

     Then, Kelley dropped his bomb: “These expectations are a recipe for the failure of the religious enterprise, and arise from a mistaken view of what success in religion is and how it should be fostered and measured.”

     Kelley then presented his considerable wealth of research and reflection on the phenomenon of conservative growth and liberal decline.  “Strong” religious movements make demands of their members in terms of both belief and behavior.  These churches demand adherence to highly defined doctrines that are to be received, believed, and taught without compromise.  They also understand themselves to be separate from the larger secular culture, and the requirements of membership in the church define a distance from secular beliefs and behaviors.

     The liberal churches are, by their own decision, opposed to these very principles.  The mainline Protestant churches desired to be taken seriously and respected by the intellectual elites.  They wanted the benefits of cultural acceptance and esteem.  They lowered doctrinal and behavioral requirements and made membership more a matter of personal preference than of theological conviction.

     Kelley concluded: “To the person who is concerned about the future of the ecumenical churches, this theory can offer little encouragement.  The mainline denominations will continue to exist on a diminishing scale for decades, perhaps for centuries, and will continue to supply some people with a dilute and undemanding form of meaning, which may be all they want.”

     …In a recent column in The New York Times, David Brooks raised similar issues…  He noted that many Americans “have always admired the style of belief that is spiritual but not doctrinal, pluralistic and not exclusive, which offers tools for serving the greater good but is not marred by intolerant theological judgments.”

     And he is right, of course.  This is an eloquent description of the religious disposition so well documented by Dean Kelley almost 40 years ago.  This describes the mainline Protestant aspiration — to be seen as serving the public good without the taint of theological judgment…  But, says Brooks, “Vague, uplifting, nondoctrinal religiosity doesn’t actually last.  The religions that grow, succor and motivate people to perform heroic acts of service are usually theologically rigorous, arduous in practice and definite in their convictions about what is True and False… 

     Note that Brooks defined the “strong” profile of belief with terms such as “rigorous,” “arduous,” and “definite.”  With considerable insight, Brooks informed his readers that rigorous theology “provides believers with a map of reality,” “allows believers to examine the world intellectually as well as emotionally,” “helps people avoid mindless conformity,” and “delves into mysteries in ways that are beyond most of us.”  Meanwhile, arduous codes of behavior and conduct “allow people to build their character.”  Brooks explains that “regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.”

     Brooks concludes with a look at Africa, where conservative Protestantism is thriving.  He writes:  “I was once in an AIDS-ravaged village in southern Africa.  The vague humanism of the outside do-gooders didn’t do much to get people to alter their risky behavior.  The blunt theological talk of the church ladies — right and wrong, salvation and damnation — seemed to have a better effect.”

     In the span of just a few paragraphs, David Brooks made the same argument that Dean M. Kelley made in his book-length report on research four decades ago.  There is a wealth of insight in both analyses.  In the present context, evangelical Christians face many of the same questions asked by the liberal Protestant denominations in the 1960s and beyond.  The main question is always deeply theological: Do we really believe that the message of the Gospel is the only message that offers salvation?  

     …In the end, sociology can get us only so far and no further.  The rigor, ardor, and energies of evangelical churches must not be held merely in a desire to hold to a form of religion that will grow, but in a biblical commitment to hold fast to the truth of the Gospel and to share that saving truth with the whole world.

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I Timothy 3:9  —  They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience.

Revelation 14:12  —  This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.

II Thessalonians 2:15  —  Stand firm and hold fast to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.

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Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud  (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury

1580) Church Growth and Basic Truths (2016)

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By Tyler O’Neil, December 2, 2016 atwww.pjmedia.com/faith

     A five-year study of growing and shrinking churches in Canada revealed that theology is critical for church survival, and even for attracting younger people.  Beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, the importance of converting people to Christianity, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ are strongest in growing churches, and weakest in churches on the decline.

     “If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner,” said David Haskell, lead researcher in the study Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy.   This declaration is powerful, but the numbers are even more striking.

     A whopping 93 percent of clergy and 83 percent of worshippers at growing churches agreed with the statement, “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb.”  In shrinking churches, only 67 percent of worshippers and 56 percent of clergy agreed with this statement.

     This finding echoes Saint Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 15:14: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”  This statement seems to contradict many allegorical interpretations of the resurrection of Christ in vogue among “liberal” Christians.

     But the study goes even further in providing evidence that “conservative” beliefs about the literal interpretation of scripture correlate with growing churches.  In declining churches, only about 50 percent of clergy agreed that it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” while one hundred percent of clergy in growing churches agreed with this statement.

     A full 71 percent of clergy in growing churches read the Bible daily, compared with just 26 percent of clergy from declining churches.  This trend is the same among worshippers: 46 percent of those attending growing churches said they read the Bible once a week, while only 26 percent who attend declining churches reported reading scripture that often.

     A full 100 percent of clergy at growing churches (and 90 percent of worshippers there) said that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers.”  In contrast, only 44 percent of clergy at declining churches agreed.  In a fascinating twist, almost twice as many congregants (80 percent) of pastors at declining churches believed in God’s ability to answer prayers with miracles.

   These findings come from a large sample of mainline Christians in Ontario, Canada.  The study surveyed 2,225 churchgoers, along with 29 clergy and 195 official congregants.

     At a common-sense level, these correlations make sense.  If Jesus literally rose from the dead, if it is important to convert non-Christians, and if God has the ability to answer prayers, attending church would have more spiritual value.  If you believe that heaven exists, that Jesus’s death and resurrection allow Christians to go there, and that the only thing required to save someone from eternal torment is to convince them to believe in Jesus, you will find more motivation to go to church and to bring others with you.

     And if clergy and congregations read the Bible less, they would likely be less committed to spreading the truths revealed by Holy Scripture.

     Haskell told The Guardian that growing churches “held more firmly to the traditional beliefs of Christianity and were more diligent in things like prayer and Bible reading.”

     “Conservative believers, relying on a fairly literal interpretation of scripture, are ‘sure’ that those who are not converted to Christianity will miss their chance for eternal life,” Haskell told Britain’s The Guardian.  “Because they are profoundly convinced of [the] life-saving, life-altering benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church.”

     Christians who believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible prove to be more unified on priorities and morality as well.  “That also makes them more confident and, to those on the outside looking in, confidence is persuasive all on its own,” Haskell added.  “Confidence mixed with a message that’s uplifting, reassuring or basically positive is an attractive combination.”

     While the findings of the study are remarkably clear, Haskell suggested they were likely to be controversial.  “If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that.  Theological orientation cuts to the very core of the religious practitioner.”

     On another note, the study found that two-thirds of congregations at growing churches were under the age of 60, while two-thirds of those at shrinking churches were over 60.

     While the “liberal” theology of many mainline churches dates to a more recent origin and often accommodates many ideas considered contrary to orthodox Christianity, some might argue that the “liberal” versus “conservative” terminology in theology is misleading.  The key beliefs here involve the literal interpretation of scripture — most especially the belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ and the importance of converting others.  These are universal orthodox Christian beliefs.  They are the kernel of the Christian faith, the reasons to be a Christian and not something else, and while some may consider them “conservative,” the thing they conserve is nothing more or less than the “Mere Christianity” presented so effectively by C. S. Lewis.

     The study did not involve “conservative” versus “liberal” issues like church positions on abortion, same-sex marriage, evolution, or Darwinism, but rather on pivotal beliefs that make up orthodox Christianity…  These issues are less important than the resurrection of Jesus or God’s power to do miracles.

     In fact, one might ask, “If Christians who believe that God can do miracles and that Jesus bodily rose from the dead are to be considered conservative, what sort of Christians would be called liberal, and in what sense are they even Christian at all?”

     The results of this study are clear.  Churches which champion the literal truth of the Bible on the key issues at the center of the Christian faith are growing, while those which do not are shrinking.  (Tomorrow’s meditation will describe a much more extensive 1972 study done by the liberal National Council of Churches that came to the same conclusions.)

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I Corinthians 15:14  —  If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

John 14:6  —  (Jesus said), “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

II Timothy 3:16  —  All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.

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Most gracious Father,
we pray to you for your holy Church.
Fill it with all truth;
in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it.
Where it is in error, direct it.
Where anything is amiss, reform it.
Where it is right, strengthen and defend it.
Where it is in want, provide for it.
Where it is divided, heal it and reunite it in your love;
for the sake of your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ.

–William Laud  (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury