2050) Leslie (part one of three)

LUKE 8:26-39–  26 They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town.  For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 For Jesus had commanded the impure spirit to come out of the man.  Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31 And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32 A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside.  The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs, and he gave them permission. 33 When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35 and the people went out to see what had happened.  When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus’ feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37 Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear.  So he got into the boat and left.

38 The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”  So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

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     Leslie was only in his 50’s when he became a resident of the local nursing home in 1965.  There was nothing wrong with him physically.  I remember seeing him walking all over town.  But there was something else wrong, and you could tell that as soon as you tried talking to him.  If you attempted a conversation with Leslie, he would not answer you.  He would not even look at you.  And he always looked sad, really sad, with his head hanging low.  I never once saw him smile.

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     My mother was working at that nursing home at the time, in charge of activities.  It was her job to find things for the residents to do or make– but Leslie never wanted to do anything.  He was totally disconnected from everyone and everything around him.  His last name was the same as my mother’s maiden name, so I asked if he was a relative.  She said yes, we were distantly related somehow way back.  But Leslie’s family had moved to a different town many years ago and they did not stay in touch.  My grandfather said he used to know something of the family, and he knew that Leslie wasn’t always so withdrawn.  Something happened when Leslie was a young man, though grandpa did not know what it was.

     One day someone donated a rag rug loom to the nursing home activities department.  That was nice, but the large contraption had been disassembled, and arrived as a pile of boards, levers, cords, nuts, and bolts– everything but the assembly instructions.  And no one there knew how to put rag rug looms together.  So it there sat for a few weeks, taking up space in the corner.  When Leslie happened to wander through and saw the pile of parts, he stopped and looked at it for a long time.  And then, he put it together.  Whatever Leslie’s problem was, it was not lack of intelligence.  My mother knew where to get rolls of sewn together rags to make the rugs, and when she gave them to Leslie, he figured out how to do it.  And for the rest of his life, Leslie made rag rugs—hundreds, perhaps even thousands.

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Rag Rug Loom and Rug

     But Leslie never came out of his self-imposed shell, and remained the same broken down old man.  Eventually, Leslie died.  That was about 40 years ago.  There was no family to call.  No one had ever come to visit him.  So the nursing home staff arranged for a small funeral service and then a county burial at a local cemetery.  Pall bearers were staff members or spouses.  My mother enlisted my dad to be one of the pall bearers, and after they left Leslie’s body at the cemetery, it was the end of the story.  There was no one to put up a marker, and no one to even think about Leslie or remember him—until a couple months ago.  (continued…)

2049) The Pursuit of Happiness

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From “Are You Happy?” by Philip Yancey, posted on Mon, Aug 27 2018, at:  www.philipyancey.com

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     Each year the UN rates the happiest places in the world, based on such factors as freedom, generosity, lack of corruption, healthy life expectancy, and social support.  Scandinavian countries usually score high:  Finland currently ranks as the happiest country, followed by Norway, Denmark, and Iceland.  Very poor countries and war zones such as Yemen and Syria score the lowest.

     The United States, which ranks 18th of the 156 countries surveyed, has been trending downward for a decade.  Although the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in our founding documents, there’s no guarantee that we’ll achieve the goal.

     A few years ago I was asked to speak on happiness in South Korea and in Hong Kong.  Despite their high standard of living, both places fall toward the middle on the Happiness Index, dragged down by high rates of depression and suicide.  As I explored the topic, I began to see happiness as a surprisingly elusive goal.  Here are some of my observations:

   True happiness must be rooted in reality.  Advertisements promise that a Rolex watch will get me instant status, the right deodorant will make me irresistible, and a no-effort diet plan will transform my life.  A mecca for entertainment, the U.S. offers an endless supply of video games, amusement parks, and around-the-clock streaming of music, television, and movies.  For a vacation I can visit Disney World, a paradise with no litter and no graffiti, where costumed characters greet everyone with smiles and waves.  Sooner or later, though, I must return to the real world of weedy lawns, potholed streets, and cranky neighbors.  Artificial happiness doesn’t prepare us for the realities of life, and may even sow seeds of discontent.

     Happiness may involve struggle, and even pain.  You need only watch the euphoria of an Olympic marathoner, or a triathlete, to realize that peaks of happiness sometimes follow agonizing hours of exertion.  As I look back on my years in Colorado, I remember many happy moments standing atop its 14,000-foot mountains.  On the summits I forgot all about the hailstorms, snow fields, and scary ledges, those memories now swallowed up by the joy of a successful ascent.  You can get a similar view from a chairlift ride—but, oh, what a difference.  St. Augustine said: “Everywhere great joy is preceded by great suffering.”

     Happiness is fleeting.  “Happiness is like a cat,” wrote William Bennett. “If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come.  But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.”  We persist in thinking that fame, success, and money will guarantee happiness, even though we have many proofs to the contrary: Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams.  Happiness often recedes from those who pursue it; it comes instead as a by-product.

     Loneliness fosters unhappiness. Conversely, true happiness tends to emerge as we’re involved with others.  A Chinese proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”  Numerous studies have shown that people who volunteer—for example, in rescue missions, prison ministry, or tutoring programs—have better overall health and an improved sense of well-being.  “Happy are the merciful…and the peacemakers,” said Jesus in the Beatitudes.  The good that we do for others redounds to our own benefit.

     Happiness flows from inner health, regardless of outer circumstances.  Many who go on mission trips return from deeply impoverished countries amazed at the comparative happiness of the people they have come to “help.”  There, social support and strong family ties help raise the level of happiness despite economic challenges.  A competitive society, the U.S. holds out the mythical promise that any child can become President, every poor person can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, any athlete can make it to the NFL or NBA.  And when that dream founders, discontent or even despair sets in.  High expectations lead to deep disappointment.

 The New Testament sets forth another way, of inner strength.  “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  The apostle Paul wrote those words, in his most joyful letter, from a prison cell.

     Some of my most important lessons about inner contentment come from another prisoner, Viktor Frankl, who spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp.  “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning.   Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died reduced to one thing: meaning.  “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he said: “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

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“Where there is too much, something is missing.”   –Jewish proverb

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“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, or a Hell of Heaven.”

–John Milton, English poet, blind for the last 22 years of his life, (1608-1674), from  Paradise Lost, Book I.

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Philippians 4:10-14  —  I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me.  Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.  I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.  Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.

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Give us Lord, a bit o’ sun,
A bit o’ work and a bit o’ fun;
Give us all in the struggle and sputter
Our daily bread and a bit o’ butter.
–On the wall of an old inn, Lancaster, England

2048) The Message on the Small Screen

From “Big Screen, Little Screen” by Philip Yancey, posted September 27, 2018 at:  http://www.philipyancey.com ; adapted from his 2010 book What Good is God?

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Victor Yushchenko  (1954-  )

   Like other members of the Soviet Union, Ukraine moved toward democracy as the Soviet empire collapsed, though in Ukraine democracy advanced at a glacial pace.  If you think our elections are dirty, consider that when the Ukrainian reformer Victor Yushchenko dared to challenge the entrenched party, he nearly died from a suspicious case of dioxin poisoning.  Against all advice, Yushchenko, his body weakened and his face permanently disfigured by the poison, remained in the race.  On election day the exit polls showed him with a 10 percent lead; through outright fraud the government managed to reverse those results.

     The state-run television station reported, “Ladies and gentlemen, we announce that the challenger Victor Yushchenko has been decisively defeated.”  However, government authorities had not taken into account one feature of Ukrainian television, the translation it provides for the hearing-impaired.  On the picture-in-picture inset in the lower right-hand corner of the television screen a brave woman raised by deaf-mute parents gave a very different message in sign language.  “I am addressing all the deaf citizens of Ukraine,” she signed.  “Don’t believe what they [the authorities] say.  They are lying and I am ashamed to translate these lies.  Yushchenko is our President!”

     Deaf people, inspired by their translator Natalya Dmitruk, led the Orange Revolution!  They text-messaged their friends on mobile phones about the fraudulent elections, and soon other journalists took courage from Dmitruk’s act of defiance and likewise refused to broadcast the party line.  Over the next few weeks as many as a million people wearing orange flooded the capital city of Kiev to demand new elections.  Under such massive pressure, the government scheduled new elections, and this time Yushchenko emerged as the undisputed winner.

     When I heard the story behind the Orange Revolution, the image of a small screen of truth in the corner of the big screen became for me an ideal picture of the church.  Jesus-followers do not control the big screen.  (When we do, we usually mess it up.)  Go to any magazine rack or turn on the television and you will see a consistent message.  What matters is how beautiful you are, or how much money and power you have.

     Magazine covers feature shapely supermodels and handsome hunks, even though very few people look like that.  Every parent knows what a devastating impact the relentless big-screen message can have on an unattractive teenager.  And though the world includes many poor people, they rarely make the magazine covers or the news shows.  Instead we focus on the super-rich, names like Jeff Bezos or the Kardashians.  One telling fact symbolizes our celebrity culture: several elite basketball players in the NBA will each earn more money this year than the entire United States Senate.  What kind of society values one person’s athletic prowess more than the contributions of its top 100 legislators?

Our modern society is hardly unique.  Throughout history nations have always glorified winners, not losers.  Then, like the sign language translator in the lower right hand corner of the screen, along comes a person named Jesus who says in effect, Don’t believe the big screen—they’re lying.  It’s the poor who are blessed, not the rich.  Mourners are blessed too, as well as those who hunger and thirst, and the persecuted.  Those who go through life thinking they’re on top will end up on the bottom.  And those who go through life feeling they’re at the very bottom will end up on top.  After all, what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?

     Society barrages us with the message that our worth depends on appearance or income or access to power.  Jesus calls us to see the world through God’s eyes, to realize that God may care as much about what is happening in Syria or Myanmar right now as on Wall Street, that God may have as much interest in the rundown neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles 90011 as in Beverly Hills 90210.  The prescription for health, for an individual or society, requires attending to the contrarian message of the small screen.

     The United States, arguably the most blessed nation in history, must confront the sad fact that privilege does not solve everything.  We have a stable political system and we have, at least for now, more money than any other nation on earth.  And yet with 4.4 percent of the world’s population we house 22 percent of the world’s prisoners, almost as many as China and Russia combined.  And we consume three-fourths of all the world’s prescription drugs.

     The message of the big screen—Consume!  Indulge!  Enjoy!—has patently failed.  Apart from the damage it does our planet, consider the damage we do to ourselves.  The gravest health concerns in the U. S. stem from overindulgence: smoking (emphysema, lung cancer); obesity (diabetes, heart problems); stress (heart disease, hypertension); alcohol (fetal damage, violent crime, automobile accidents); drug abuse; sexually transmitted diseases.  We smoke too much, eat too much, drink too much, work too much, and sleep around with too many people.

     We are quite literally destroying ourselves.  In light of that fact, shouldn’t we give some thought to the message of the small screen?

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Romans 12:2  —  Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.   Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

I Corinthians 13:9a  —  For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight.

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

–From the 1971 musical Godspell

Based on a prayer by Richard of Chichester (1197-1253)

2047) A World Changed by Jesus

By Philip Yancey, posted March 25, 2019 at:  http://www.philipyancey.com

     I once attended a retreat with a prominent Palestinian legislator, activist, and scholar.  She introduced herself by saying, “I am quadruply marginalized.  I am a feminist woman in a male-dominated society.  I am a Christian from a predominantly Muslim society.  I am a Palestinian, a people without a country.  And here in the United States I am a racial and cultural minority.”

     Soon after that retreat I came across the writings of René Girard, the late French philosopher who taught for years at Stanford University.  Girard was fascinated with the fact that in modern times a “marginalized” person has a kind of moral authority.  In our group, for example, the Palestinian woman’s identity gained her instant respect.  Girard noted that a series of liberation movements—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, animal rights, gay rights, women’s rights, minority rights, human rights—had gathered speed in his lifetime.  The trend mystified Girard because he found nothing comparable in his study of ancient literature.

     Winners, not losers, wrote ancient history, and the myths from Babylon, Greece, and elsewhere celebrated strong heroes, not pitiable victims.  Girard ultimately traced the phenomenon back to the historical figure of Jesus, whose story cuts against the grain of every heroic account from its time.  Jesus took the side of the underdog: the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the marginalized.  Indeed, Jesus himself chose poverty and disgrace, spent his infancy as a refugee, lived in a minority race under a harsh regime, and died as a condemned prisoner.

     The crucifixion, Girard concluded, introduced a new plot to history: the victim became a hero by offering himself as a willing victim.  In the words of W. H. Auden: “The idea of a sacrificial victim is not new; but that it should be the victim who chooses to be sacrificed, and the sacrificers who deny that any sacrifice has been made, is very new.”  To the consternation of his secular colleagues, Girard converted to Christianity.

     When Jesus died as an innocent victim, it introduced what one of Girard’s disciples, Gil Baillie, has called “the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims.”  Today the victim occupies the moral high ground everywhere in the Western world: consider how the media portray the plight of AIDS orphans in Africa or Tibetan refugees or uprooted Palestinians.  Girard contended that Jesus’ life and death brought forth a new stream of liberation in history, one that undermines abusive power and injustice.

   The Christian gospel ushered in a stunning reversal of values that went on to affect the entire world.  The stream often moved slowly, and yet Girard concluded that the world’s care for the marginalized and disenfranchised came about as a direct result of the cross of Jesus Christ. It took centuries for that stream to erode a hard bank of oppression, as with slavery, but the stream of liberation flowed on.  Wherever Christianity took root, care for victims spread.  To mention just one example, in Europe of the Middle Ages the Benedictine order alone operated 37,000 monasteries devoted to the sick.

     Even an outspoken critic of the faith, Bart Ehrman, admits in a recent book that Christianity was the first reform movement to champion and elevate the weak, to question a social order in which the strong have a right to dominate the weak.  Today, if you Google indices that measure such values as economic freedom, press freedom, charitable giving, earth care, gender equality, quality of life, human rights, and lack of corruption, you will find that with very few exceptions Christian-heritage nations receive the highest ratings.

     Modern activists draw their moral force from the power of the gospel unleashed at the cross, when God took the side of the marginals.  In a great irony, the “politically correct” movement often positions itself as an enemy of Christianity, when in fact the gospel has contributed the very underpinnings that support such a cause.  Sometimes Jesus’ own followers join the stream, and sometimes they stand on the bank and watch.  Yet those who condemn the church for its episodes of violence, slavery, sexism, and racism do so by gospel principles, arguing for the very moral values that the gospel originally set loose in the world.

     The liberating gospel continues to leaven a culture even when the church takes the wrong side on an issue.  Advances in human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, minority rights, and disability rights have found success because of a widespread sympathy for the oppressed that has no parallel in the ancient world.  Classical philosophers viewed mercy and pity as character defects; not until Jesus did that attitude change.

   “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus told his disciples.  God’s expression in Jesus took the world by surprise, and the reverberations have not stopped.  In a culture that glorifies success and grows deaf to suffering, we need a constant reminder that at the center of the Christian faith hangs an apparently unsuccessful and suffering Christ, who died ignominiously.

     The apostle Paul touched on a deep truth about Jesus’ contribution in his claim to the Colossians: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”  A public spectacle it was when Jesus exposed as false gods the very powers and authorities in which good citizens take such pride.  The most refined religion of the day accused an innocent man, and the most renowned justice system carried out the sentence.

     Another French philosopher, Jacques Ellul, said, “We must always come back to this essential point, that God rules by love and not by strength”: an important reminder in a time when tribalism and the politics of division tempt us toward the opposite.  These days, debates about immigration, race, sexuality, refugees, and health care feed that division. I cannot pretend to have solutions to those problems.  As I ponder the example of Jesus, though, I pray for the grace-healed eyes through which he viewed the world.

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Matthew 5:3-5  —  Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

John 10:17-18  —  (Jesus said), The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.  No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

Colossians 2:15  — Having disarmed the powers and authorities, (Jesus) made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

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We bring before you, O Lord, the troubles and perils of people and nations, the sighing of prisoners and captives, the sorrows of the bereaved, the necessities of strangers, the helplessness of the weak, the despondency of the weary, the failing powers of the aged.  O Lord, draw near to each; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–St. Anselm  (1033-1109)

2046) America’s Favorite Mouseketeer

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Annette Funicello (1942-2013) in The Mickey Mouse Club, 1956

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“The Asterisk in an Obituary” by Robert Petterson, in The One Year Book of Amazing Stories, Tyndale, 2018, pages 537-538.

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     She was as cute as a button, the first crush for a generation of boys.  But the final three years of her twenty-seven-year battle with multiple sclerosis were a waking nightmare.  Once the most recognizable teen on the planet, she was now unable to recognize anyone.  She existed in a coma-like state, propped up in an electrically controlled chair, nearly blind, unable to speak or go to the bathroom on her own.  In those last three years she was fed through a tube.  Her throat had to he cleared several times an hour to prevent her from choking to death.

     There was a time when she was a pop culture icon.  No one received more fan mail than America’s favorite Mouseketeer.  In 1960, a nationwide poll voted her ‘Teenager of the Year.’  Dubbed America’s sweetheart, she went on to drive young men crazy in movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.

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Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in Beach Party, 1963

     She broke hearts across the land when she married her agent in 1965.  Even Linus deadpanned in a Peanuts cartoon strip, “How depressing… Annette Funicello has grown up!”  After the wedding, she stepped out of the limelight.  But no baby boomer could ever forget the darling of The Mickey Mouse Club who became a beach blanket beauty.

     Annette began to lose control in her legs when she came out of retirement to do a movie in 1991.  A deeply religious woman, she was afraid that people would think she was drunk.  So she went public about her MS.  America applauded her gutsy battle with this degenerative disease.  When she dropped out of sight again, no one knew how much MS was ravaging her.  Nor would anyone have recognized her in the end.  But her family had a front-row seat to her nightmare.  In announcing her death in April of 2013, her children said, “Our mother is now dancing in heaven.”

     Within a week of Annette’s passing, Google recorded millions of hits on her life and death.  Almost every article contained a single throwaway line: “In 1986, she married her second husband, horse trainer Glen Holt.”  Glen was only an asterisk in Annette’s obituary.

     Few folks know that Annette Funicello’s first husband was abusive, or that this horse trainer gave her refuge when she had nowhere to go.  Within a year of their wedding, the was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Yet during those last years he bathed her, lifted her on and off the toilet, changed her diapers, and attended to her every need.  In the end, America’s sweetheart was ravaged, bloated, and comatose.  It’s easy to love the girl of our fantasies, but Glen loved her in dirty diapers and with bloated flesh—not for a while, but for nine thousand straight days. 

     When asked if it was a burden, he replied, “How can it, be when you love somebody?” 

     Maybe you are one of those unsung heroes who is caring for someone.  If you’re tired and wondering how long you can hang on, know this: 

Anyone can carry a burden to nightfall.  Heroes get up and do it again tomorrow.

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Annette and Glen Holt

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Galatians 6:9  —  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

I Corinthians 13:7-8a  —   Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails…

Matthew 19:5b-6  —  (Jesus said), “‘A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh;’ so they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

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A PRAYER FOR MARRIED COUPLES:

O God, out of all the world you let us find one another and learn together the meaning of love.  Let us never fail to hold love precious.  Let the flame of it never waver or grow dim, but burn in our hearts as an unwavering devotion, and shine through our eyes in gentleness and understanding.  Teach us to remember the little courtesies, to be swift to speak the grateful and happy word, to believe rejoicingly in each other’s best, and to face all life bravely because we face it with a united heart.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Walter Russel Bowie  (1882-1969), Rector of Grace Episcopal Church, New York City

2045) Funeral Sermon for Roger

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From my sermon for the funeral of Roger, who was once a member of my church, but had long ago moved away.  I knew Roger’s brother Mike, but never met Roger or any other members of the family.  Mike told me that Roger was at one time a hard worker and a good family man, but then became an alcoholic.  He ruined his health and died young.  And, he died alone, having angered and alienated all who knew him.

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     Relatives and friends, grace and peace to you from the Lord Jesus Christ.  You all have many memories of Roger, and on this sad day I would guess that your memories are complicated.  I know about Roger only through what I learned talking to Mike.  Mike has many positive memories of Roger as a good brother, a hard worker, and a man who wanted things done right.  But then there were the many bad years and bad memories, as Roger’s problems affected everyone who knew him.  So as I said, your memories on this day are probably complicated– a frustrating and confusing mixture of good and bad.  And your feelings are no doubt a mixture of the love you once had, and the anger and perhaps pity that you have felt for a long time.

     So what should I say today?  I am probably the least qualified person here to speak about Roger, but I am the one you asked to do this.  I have read from God’s Word and I’ll say some prayers.  I know how to do that, and I know that at times like this that is all we have left.  As Peter one time said to Jesus, “Lord, where else can we go?  Only you have the words of eternal life.”  Peter was right.  There are no other offers on the table.  So, I read from God’s Word, our only source of hope and comfort.

     I thought about just leaving it at that, but then I decided to say a bit more.  I don’t think I should ignore what is on everyone’s mind, but neither do I want to pretend I knew Roger.  I don’t want to be judgmental, but neither do I want gloss over the bad memories, and, as an outsider, trivialize the pain you might be feeling.  So, I will say a few things, and forgive me if I get it wrong.

     I did not know Roger, but I did know Todd, so I’ll talk about him.  And this may or may not apply to your memories and what you are feeling today.  Todd and I became friends in college.  He was a friendly, jolly, Irish farm boy, and an all-around gentleman.  Everything I said earlier about Roger could also be said about Todd.  He was a good friend, hard worker, ambitious, and he wanted things done right.  He became a top salesman and provided well for his family.  But Todd drank too much, and over the years the drinking took over all else.  He lost everything, including his health; and then he died.  And his friends and family were all left with a confusing mixture of memories and emotions.  And to this day whenever I think about Todd, there is still that hodgepodge of recollections; the bad memories of how irresponsible and maddening he could be when he was drinking, and, the happy memories of this cheerful and charming Irishman when he was sober.

     One evening at a reunion of old friends, Todd said to me, “Let’s go for a ride.”  So I drove and Todd talked, and for an hour he poured his heart out to me.  He told me about the pressures of his job, about the difficult family issues he was dealing with, and, about his relentless, never-ending, discouraging, and, what turned out to be, losing battle against his addiction to alcohol.  Todd wasn’t using his problems as excuses, and I didn’t say, “Yes, I can see why you drink.”  He wasn’t asking for any sympathy, and I didn’t offer any.  A part of me wanted to just grab him by the shirt and say, “Don’t you see what you are doing to the people you love and who love you.”  But I didn’t have to say that.  He knew what he was doing and it broke his heart.  But he just could not stop.  And I didn’t say, “I understand,” because I didn’t.  And I didn’t say, “That’s all right,” because it wasn’t.  It was just a mess, and it stayed that way.  But I still liked Todd and I did feel sorry for him.  And all I could think about was that prayer that appears so often in the Bible, that simple, but profound prayer, “Lord, have mercy.”

     “Lord, have mercy.”  That’s a good little prayer; one we could all pray, every day.  Sometimes that is all we can say, and then we just leave it in God’s hands.  And oftentimes, God leaves us to the messes we create for ourselves, and then we have yet another reason to pray, “Lord, have mercy.”

     The traditional Lutheran worship service always begins with the Confession of Sins in which we pray:  “Most merciful God, we confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves.  For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us.”  And then, God’s forgiveness of sins is announced with these words: “In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake, God forgives you all your sins.”

     We all have sins to confess.  We all need God’s forgiveness.  We all need to pray, “Lord, have mercy.”  This is the pattern of the worship service, the pattern of the Christian life, and the pattern of all of life.

     In a little while we will gather at the cemetery for the committal service.  There, we will hear these words: “In the midst of life we are in death.  Of whom may we seek comfort, but of Thee, O Lord.”  Here, we are in the presence of death.  But the rest of us remain, as the words say, “in the midst of life.”

     And so, the Bible is always telling us that we should, in the midst of life, remember.  “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth,” says Ecclesiastes.  “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it Holy,’ says the ten commandments.  “Do this for the remembrance of me,” said Jesus as he offered the bread and wine to his disciples on the night before he died.  

    Our hope and prayer as we remember God is that God will remember us, but that he will not remember our sins.  And if we believe in Jesus, and we pray for his forgiveness, He promises us that He will indeed remember us, but not our sins.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” said the thief on the cross to Jesus, as they were both dying.  And Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”  And we pray the prayer in Psalm 25:6-7:  “Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.  Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.  But according to your love remember me, for you, O Lord, are good.”  Amen.

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“God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

–Luke 18:13b

2044) “Give Me a Break!”

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By Joshua Rogers, posted August 3, 2019, at:  http://www.joshuarogers.com

   I was in a bad mood on my way to church last weekend, and it had everything to do with the woman driving in front of me.  She was going about five miles an hour down a one-way street in Washington, D.C., while looking at her phone.

     I tried to stay calm and not make a big deal of it.  I needed to set a good example for my kids.  But the woman kept slowly chugging down the street while keeping that phone in front of her.  I figured she was texting someone or browsing social media.  I felt more and more irritated.

     Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was about to miss a green light because of the dawdling driver and I honked my horn at her.  It was just enough to grab her attention and get her moving a little faster.

     “I don’t like to honk at people,” I told the kids, “but sometimes you’ve just got to wake people up.”

     The woman kept driving in the same direction we were, and as we were almost to church, I realized that we had been following her there the whole time.  Sure enough, she pulled into the parking lot and drove off to find a space.  She had probably been using the GPS on her phone to figure out how to get there.

     I eased into a space in the church parking lot that was far from where she was headed.  I didn’t want her to realize that I was “that guy” who had honked at her.  I had assumed the worst and it was too late to take it back.

     Within a few days, drivers in D.C. traffic would probably assume the worst about me — except I had the opposite problem: I was going way too fast.

     My son’s body was covered in blazing pink hives from an allergic reaction and we were afraid he might go into anaphylactic shock.  I was rushing through traffic to meet my wife at the emergency room, cutting off other cars and wishing everyone would see my flashers and move out of the way.  God only knows what those people thought of me (if they knew what was going on, they’d be happy to hear that my son got the medication he needed and is on the mend).

     It’s so easy to assume the best about ourselves while imputing ill motives to others.  But like my dad once said, “If you’ve never needed a break, don’t give anybody a break.  If you’ve never needed grace, don’t give anybody grace.  You need it constantly so you need to give it constantly.”

     Today, you and I are going to get an opportunity to make good or bad assumptions about another person.  Sure, we’ll have the evidence to try and convict them of their apparent trespasses, but we’ll also have an alternative: give them the grace we need.  Hopefully, someone will do the same for us the next time we’re in their position.

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Matthew 7:12  —  (Jesus said), “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Mark 12:30-31  —  (Jesus said), “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”

Ephesians 4:2  —  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Colossians 3:12-14  —  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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AN EVENING PRAYER:  Our Father, we thank you for all the friendly folk who came into our life this day, gladdening us by their human kindness, and we send them now our parting thoughts of love through you.  We thank you that we are set amidst this rich brotherhood of kindred life with its mysterious power to encourage and uplift.  Make us eager to pay the due price for what we get by putting forth our own life in wholesome goodwill, and by bearing cheerily the troubles that go with all joys.  Amen.  

–Walter Rauschenbusch

2043) Gossip

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The Gossips, Norman Rockwell, 1948

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I am more deadly than the screaming shell of a howitzer.  I win without killing.  I tear down homes, break hearts, and wreck lives.  I travel on the wings of the wind.  No innocence is strong enough to intimidate me, no purity pure enough to daunt me.  I have no regard for truth, no respect for justice, no mercy for the defenseless.  My victims are as numerous as the sand of the sea, and often as innocent.  I never forget and seldom forgive.  My name is Gossip.     –unknown

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What is whispered in the ear of a man is often heard 100 miles away.  –Chinese proverb

Gossip is saying behind their back what you would not say to their face.  Flattery is saying to their face what you would not say behind their back.  –unknown

Anyone who will gossip to you, will gossip about you.  –common knowledge

Not everything you hear is good for talk.  –Japanese proverb

Gossip need not be false to be evil.  There is a lot of truth that shouldn’t be passed around.  –Frank Clark

Words have no wings, but can fly a thousand miles.  –Korean proverb

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The Eighth Commandment

You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.

What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain his actions in the kindest way.

The Small Catechism, Martin Luther, 1525

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Exodus 20:16 (the 8th commandment)  —  You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Proverbs 10:19 — When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.

Proverbs 12:18  —  The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Proverbs 16:28  —  A perverse person stirs up conflict, and a gossip separates close friends.

Proverbs 17:9  —  Whoever would foster love covers over an offense, but whoever repeats the matter separates close friends.

Proverbs 26:20  —  Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down.

Ephesians 4:29  —  Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

James 1:26  —  Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

James 3:7-10  —  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 

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A PRAYER BY MARTIN LUTHER ON THE 8TH COMMANDMENT:  

I confess and ask for your grace, because I have so often in my life sinfully spoke with malice and contempt against other people.  They depend on me for their honor and reputation, just as I depend on them for the same.  Help us all to obey this commandment, giving our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and explaining their actions in the kindest way.  Amen.

PSALM 141:3:

Set a guard over my mouth, Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.

2042) Producing Steadfastness

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“Suffering That Strengthens Faith,” from the Daily Devotional by John Piper, at:  http://www.desiringGod.org

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James 1:2-3  —  Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 

     Strange as it may seem, one of the primary purposes of being shaken by suffering is to make our faith more unshakable.

     Faith is like muscle tissue: if you stress it to the limit, it gets stronger, not weaker.  That’s what James means here.  When your faith is threatened and tested and stretched to the breaking point, the result is greater capacity to endure.

     God loves faith so much that he will test it to the breaking point so as to keep it pure and strong.  For example, he did this to Paul according to 2 Corinthians 1:8–9:

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not in ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

     The words “but that was to” show that there was a purpose in this extreme suffering: it was in order that Paul would not rely on himself and his resources, but on God — specifically the future grace of God in raising the dead.

     God so values our wholehearted faith that he will, graciously, take away everything else in the world that we might be tempted to rely on — even life itself.  His aim is that we grow deeper and stronger in our confidence that he himself will be all we need.

     God wants us to be able to say with the psalmist (Psalm 73:25-26):

“Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

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Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.

–Peter, John 6:68

2041) Declining with Grace and Faith (b)

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From Your Peak Life Now: How to Face Career Decline with Grace and Faith, by Michele Van Loon, posted July 24, 2019, at:  http://www.christianitytoday.com .  Van Loon is an author and speaker. Her book Becoming Sage: Cultivating Meaning, Purpose, and Spirituality at Midlife releases next spring from Moody Publishers.

     (…continued)  While Qohelet urges his hearers to savor the sweet parts of their lives (Ecclesiastes 5:18–20), he also suggests that we can only fully appreciate that sweetness by taking a counter-intuitive approach: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,” he writes, “for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).

     For those of us nearing or inhabiting our so-called “retirement years,” this lesson is everywhere—in the death of loved ones, lost jobs, cancer diagnoses, and other life-altering illnesses.  I’ve seen it myself.  In the wake of being diagnosed recently with a rare immune system disorder, my earlier ambitions and accomplishments seem, well, mostly meaningless.  And yet I feel less afraid and more free.

     Brooks affirms this truth. “Embracing death reminds us that everything is temporary, and can make each day of life more meaningful,” he writes.  “‘Death destroys a man,’ E. M. Forster wrote, but ‘the idea of Death saves him.’”  He goes on to cite several “death-to-self” practices, including choosing an exit plan from your career while at your pinnacle (rather than trying to hold on to that peak), seeking to serve others by passing on knowledge and wisdom, and prioritizing relationships.

     The other death-confronting practice familiar to Christians—one that Brooks touches on ever too briefly—is worship.  While we often narrowly think of it in the context of corporate singing, Scripture gives us a much more expansive understanding of worship.  The forebear of Qohelet, King David, is one example.  In response to God’s command to build an altar on the threshing floor owned by Araunah the Jebusite, David asks to purchase the property.  Araunah offers to give it to the king, but David is adamant: “No, I insist on paying you for it.  I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing” (2 Sam. 24:24).

     When we offer to God something that costs us—even our cherished “peak selves”—we are experiencing a measure of death.  Jesus forged discipleship and death into a single, life-surrendering action when he said to his followers, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).

     For those of us in the second half of life grappling with career decline, the process of relinquishment involves facing our mortality, embracing a self-denying posture, and worshiping the King.  We see this in the story of Job.  In the wake of losing his family, business, health, and reputation, Job doesn’t flinch from the temporal nature of life or the searing reality of death.  Instead, he worships God. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart,” he says.  “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).

     We need models like this from Scripture.  We also need them from the church today.  Although we are all resurrection people, nonetheless, I’ve found that mature believers who are walking through (instead of fleeing from) the Valley of the Shadow can best translate the hope of resurrection for the rest of us.  They have long been rehearsing the daily surrender to God that leads to generative, abundant life beyond the pinnacle of career success.  At first sniff, their lives may smell like death, but on closer inspection, they’re saturated with the fragrance of worship.

     My grandmother was half right.  We don’t want to peak too early, but nor do we want to enshrine a peak that was never meant to be a destination.  Those high points are but mile markers on the way to our true home.

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Job 1:21  —  (Job said), “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I depart.  The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Luke 9:23  —  (Jesus said) to them all, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

Acts 20:22-24  —  (Paul said), “Now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.  I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.  However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

I Timothy 4:6b-8  —  The time for my departure is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

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O Lord, let me not live to be useless.  Amen.  –John Wesley 

Lord, give me life until my work is done; and give me work until my life is done.  Amen.