2004) Was Jesus Part Irish? (b)

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     (…continued)  So now, let’s look at the first verse of today’s Gospel, Luke 13:31:  “At that very hour some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’”  Why is it that someone always trying to kill Jesus?  I don’t know why Herod wanted to kill Jesus.  It doesn’t tell us that here or anywhere else.  It is usually the Pharisees who are trying to get Jesus killed.  And they are trying to get him killed, at least in part, because he was too much like an Irishman.  Let me explain.

     There was a big part of Jesus’ personality and way of dealing with people that was cheerful, pleasant, open, and easy-going—like the Irish.  He could get along with everyone, and even sought out people that others, like the Pharisees, would shun.  For example, there were rules about diseased lepers staying away from the general population.  Jesus not only sought them out, but he touched them, healed them, and restored them to the community.  Tax collectors were despised and hated and avoided.  Jesus sought them out too, and even went into their homes, thus defiling himself according to the rules.  Adulteresses were to be stoned to death, but Jesus wasn’t in favor of that law; and after embarrassing the would-be executors of one woman, he sent them away.  Jesus was too easy-going for the Pharisees, and they worried about what would become of society if everyone was like that.

     I don’t really think that a DNA test would have revealed any Irish blood in Jesus, but he had some of the best of the Irish ways in his personality.  And then again, maybe the Irish, who had at first been fierce and warlike, got their friendlier ways from St. Patrick, who converted them to Christianity way back in the fourth century, and Patrick got it from Jesus.

     At the same time, Jesus could also be like the best of what I saw in my German heritage.  He could speak the truth in love, and be very direct and demanding– and some, like the rich young ruler, went away sorrowful.  He could be very meticulous and exacting, and said he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it, and that not one speck of it should disappear.  Jesus was very focused, and said no one comes to the heavenly Father but by Him.  And he could be very strict, saying “You have heard it said, do not kill, but I say to you even if you hate your brother you are a murderer;” and to the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Go and sin no more.”  And, there were those who wanted to kill Jesus for being like that too, for being too much like a German.  In Matthew 23 Jesus called the teachers of the Law hypocrites for trying to appear so righteous on the outside but were full of wickedness on the inside.  When Jesus got done with that speech, Matthew tells us that the religious leaders began to scheme to arrest Jesus secretly and have him killed.

     This spectrum between the easy-going, friendly ways of the Irish, and the orderly, strict ways of the Germans illustrates the balance we have to keep in all of life.  Parents struggle with this all the time, trying to decide when to apply strict discipline to keep in the kids in order, and when to let the kids go and figure it out on their own.  And kids learn at an early age how to test the limits.  Keeping this balance takes wisdom and patience and many prayers that, in the long run, the child will respond well.  Sometimes people will say of a troubled child, “No wonder the kid didn’t turn out right, his parents were always too easy on him.”  And, on the other hand, sometimes people will say, “No wonder she is troubled, her parents were always too hard on her.”  It is a tough balance to keep.

   God has always had the same trouble dealing with the whole world, including you and me– when to be tough and when to be tender; when to be easy-going and when to be demanding.  Sometimes when I read the Old Testament I am shocked at how the wrath of God can erupt in explosive punishment on God’s disobedient people.  But just as often I am shocked at the rebelliousness of the people, and I wonder how God could keep putting up with them and continue to forgive them, time and again, giving them chance after chance.  I have heard people say they don’t like reading the Old Testament because they don’t like how God manages things.  They think God is unfair in the way He hands out blessings and curses.  I look at it this way.  I had a hard time raising just two kids in one house and trying to keep this balance.  Who am I to evaluate or judge God for how he deals with everyone in the whole world all at once?  What would I know about that?

     And when I read the New Testament and the words of Jesus, I am, in my own heart, moved back and forth between the demands of God and the love of God.  Anyone who reads the Bible will be challenged by the way of life God expects of us, and one can even become discouraged.  At the same time, one is struck again and again by the “amazing grace” of God, the unconditional love of God, and his ongoing offer of forgiveness when we are sorry for our sins.  We cannot let go of either part of the message.

     We must not let go of Jesus.  Jesus pleads with us, as he pleaded with the people of Jerusalem in this morning’s Gospel, where he said:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

     May we all be, and remain, among those who are willing to let Jesus gather us in, now and forever.

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2003) Was Jesus Part Irish? (a)

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The next two meditations were taken from a sermon I gave on St. Patrick’s Day of 2019.

Gospel:  Luke 13:31-35  —  At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else.  Herod wants to kill you.”  Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’  In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! “

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.  Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

     On this St. Patrick’s Day, I will try to make the case that Jesus was at least part Irish.  I base this not on any historical evidence, but on the fact that Jesus could, at times, display some very Irish characteristics in his personality and ways of dealing with people.  If you bear with me for a little bit of silliness as I pursue this line of thought, I will, by the end, get around to today’s Gospel text, and perhaps make a serious point out of it all.

     Actually, I am a bit of an expert on the Irish, even though I am of 100% German descent.  I base my knowledge on the fact that I grew up with so many of them.  I grew up in a town that was made up of about half Germans and half Irish, and not much of anything else.  In fact, when I was in grade school, on the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day each year, all classes would be dismissed and everyone would go to the gym for a basketball game—the German high school boys against the Irish boys.  What about the others, you might ask; didn’t they get to play?  That question never occurred to us, because back then in my hometown you were either German or Irish (for the most part).

     Even though the town was so ethnically and culturally divided, we all got along pretty well—that is, just so there was no intermarriage.  We all had strict orders from our grandmothers to not marry or ever even date anyone from the other side.  There were to be no German Lutherans marrying Irish Catholics, or it meant big trouble.  It happened all the time, of course, but it always led to an uproar.  In fact, this week’s local newspaper featured a married couple now in their 70’s, the Grand Marshalls of this year’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.  He is a one hundred percent Irishman whose family came from County Cork, Ireland, 150 years ago.  She is full-blooded German.  She said her dad ‘flipped his lid’ in 1966 when they told her parents that they were engaged.  Her dad hollered, he said many bad words, and then he refused to talk to the quiet young man.  The young man then went off to the Vietnam War for a year with that angry old German on his mind to worry about all the while.  After several years things got better, but that is how it was back then.

     Cross-cultural friendships were no problem, so along with friends named Schultz, Schumann, and Albrecht, I had friends named Flaherty, Murphy, and O’Brien.  We knew that we had different rules to follow at church.  For example, we had to memorize the catechism and they had to go to confession.  But none of that presented any problems for our friendship.

     It was working on farms that I noticed the differences most—first when I would work for different farmers baling hay and cleaning barn, and then when I was working for my dad picking up milk at dairy farms.  Generally speaking, the Germans were organized, meticulous, on schedule, and frugal.  Generally speaking, the Irish were easy-going, cheerful, generous, and didn’t watch the clock as close.  And, as you know, all personality traits have their advantages and disadvantages.  German milk houses were neat and clean with everything in order, and the driveways were always clear for backing the truck up to the barn.  The Irish farmers were usually not as tidy, and might not always get around to fixing things right away, so time would be wasted with things like blown fuses.  Sometimes I would have to back the truck in around the manure spreader, a tractor, and four bicycles that were left all over the yard.

     The meticulous Germans were orderly, but they could be difficult.   They weren’t always pleased about a kid picking up their milk, they watched me like a hawk, and they were unforgiving of mistakes.  The Irish were usually pleasant, relaxed, and more than happy to give the new kid a break.  Then again, the Germans were always done milking at exactly the same time.  You could depend on it.  But some of the Irish were very inconsistent and could make scheduling a route difficult and drive the milk hauler crazy.  However, when we baled hay, the frugal Germans would work us harder and pay us less.  The Irish made sure we brought a friend or two along for the fun of it, and, so we didn’t have to work so hard to earn the generous wages they paid us.

     It wasn’t that one group was better than the other.  Generally speaking, they were just different, and oftentimes, the same characteristic could be both a blessing and a curse.  I liked the easy-going nature of the Irish, but only to a certain point.  They could become sloppy and irresponsible.  I liked that the Germans were meticulous and dependable; but again, only to a certain point.  Sometimes they could be unreasonably uptight, demanding, and harsh.   And, of course, there were always exceptions to everything I just said.  That is why I kept saying ‘generally speaking.’  You could never say ‘the Irish are always like this,’ or ‘the Germans are always like that.’  But there definitely were those tendencies, for good and ill, in each.

     Just like there are different ways to be a farmer, there are different ways to be a Christian.  And some of these differences, generally speaking, can also follow cultural tendencies.  The German theological tradition has often been, as you might expect, thorough, orderly, comprehensive, and sometimes very narrow and strict.  Theology is important, Germans want to get things right.  Therefore,  if someone has something wrong we want to work it out, even if that means fighting it out, and there has been plenty of that.  The Irish theological tradition, sometimes now called Celtic Christianity, inherited from St. Patrick, is broader, less meticulous about the finer points of theology, and more a matter of the heart and spirit.  It is a more easy-going, cheerful, even playful approach to the faith, which can be good; but can also, at times, lack substance and be a little too vague for me.  Again, I am speaking in broad generalities.  And, I am not talking about politics, like the troubles of Northern Ireland where the political differences are unfortunately along religious lines.  Nor am I speaking about church structures and politics, Catholic or Protestant.  I am speaking about how serious Christians, in both traditions, have thought about, written, and lived out their faith, theologically and devotionally.  (continued…)

2002) The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life (b)

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     (…continued)  The sins for which the Good Shepherd died are not always dramatic or horrible.  They are often passive, sheep-like little sins.  But still they can lead us away from what is best; and we can, like sheep, end up wandering away from the Shepherd on whom we depend for everything.  The Bible has much to say about lost sheep.

     Did you ever feel lost?  How did that happen?

     Sheep don’t usually get lost by intentionally deciding to run away from the shepherd, bolting off in a sudden, rebellious attempt at escape from the shepherd in order to be free.  Sheep get lost by doing what sheep always do– eating, with their head down, not paying attention to anything but the grass ahead of them.  And bit by bit, or, bite by bite, they simply ‘nibble their way lost.’   And people don’t usually make a conscious decision to longer have faith in Jesus, to mess up their lives, or to get lost.  People, like sheep, often just don’t pay attention and wander away, and end up in trouble, far from Jesus.  Like the prophet Isaiah said, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way.  And the Lord has laid on Him,” on the Good Shepherd, “the guilt of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

     To the eternal, almighty, Holy God, we could be as worthless as a six dollar hat or a $60 dollar sheep.  We could be hardly worth putting up with, much less, worth dying for.  But we are the ones to whom these words of John chapter ten are spoken: “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  That the amazing grace of the Gospel—Jesus gives his life for a bunch of ignorant and indifferent sheep.

     Several months back, somewhere in the Mideast, two missionaries were killed.  It was a husband and wife team, living far from home and family, spending their lives trying to tell some otherwise unreached people about Jesus.  Then, in the prime of their service, after years of training, learning the language, and earning the trust of the people they are there to serve, they were gunned down, killed for the sake of some political agenda, by some of the very sheep they were there to serve.  It is not an unusual story.  That sort of thing, ignored by a news media uninterested in the persecution of Christians, is going on all over the world, all the time.  Are the sheep those Christians are there to serve worth so great a price?

     In 1905, at the age of 30, Albert Schweitzer was already an international success, having received world-wide acclaim as a musician, historian, and theologian.  He was in a comfortable university teaching position and would have been able to go anywhere and do anything he wanted, admired by all who knew him.  But then Schweitzer heard about the suffering of the people in Africa, and about their need for better medical care.  Schweitzer was inspired by Jesus to do something about that.  So he resigned from his lucrative job, left his world famous reputation behind, and went to medical school so he could become a doctor to some unknown Africans.  He went deep into the jungle, set up a clinic, and stayed there until he died at the age of 90.  Schweitzer went back to Europe only twice for brief fundraising trips for his clinic and hospital.  He gave up everything the world had to offer, in order to offer himself to some forgotten sheep.  Are sheep worth so great a price?

     In human terms we may well wonder about the sacrifices of Albert Schweitzer, that missionary couple, and Rita.  We can hardly imagine anyone willing to do that.  But have we grown so used to hearing about the death of Jesus on the cross that we take that sacrifice for granted and hardly give it a thought?  But that must not be taken for granted.  The Bible says we are sheep, and hardly worth such a sacrifice; but still, such a sacrifice was made for us.  Paul in Romans puts it even stronger, describing us in chapter five not as timid little sheep, but as rebellious enemies of God.  Nevertheless, Paul wrote, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us so that we might be saved (Romans 5:8, 10)-0.

   In John 10:27, Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice.”  We have heard that voice.  And what a privilege it is to know Jesus is still willing to call us, and still willing to receive us.  Sheep spend their days with their heads down, seldom looking up.  But all they have to do was stay within hearing of the shepherd’s voice.  They know that in him is their safety and security.  If they can just hear his voice, they would be all right.

     God’s Word works like the voice of the shepherd.  As we keep ourselves within hearing distance of that word—in prayer, in Bible reading, and in worship—we find there the words that give us the only eternal hope, comfort, and security:

That voice says, “Even to your old age and grey hairs, I will be with you” (Isaiah 46:4).

“Whether you live or die, you belong to me,” the voice of the shepherd says (Romans 14:8).

And, “Come to me all who are burdened and weary, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

And, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

And, “Cast all your cares on God, for he cares about you; and he will uplift, strengthen, and restore you” (I Peter 5:7, 10).

     “I will lay down my life for my sheep and they will hear my voice,” says Jesus to you.  And what a comfort that is for anyone who is listening.  It is the only sold ground we have.  All else can slide out from under us at any time and be gone in an instant– except for that voice which says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Someday, everything will be taken away, but even then, Jesus has another place prepared for us.  Everything we have is from that Good Shepherd, blessing after blessing in the good times; and a strong, steady, certain voice of comfort and hope for the bad times, and even for the end of our time.

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

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My Lord Jesus Christ, you are indeed the only Good Shepherd, and I, alas, am a lost and straying sheep.  I have fear and anxiety.  I would gladly belong to your flock and be with you and have peace in my heart.  I hear from your Word that you are as anxious for me as I am for you.  I am eager to know how I can come to you to be helped.  Come to me, O Lord.  Seek me and find me.  Help me also to come to you and I will praise you and honor you forever.  Amen.  

 –Martin Luther

2001) The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life (a)

     Under her senior picture in the school yearbook, Rita was given the distinction of being ‘The Most Likely to Succeed.’  I don’t know if they do that anymore in yearbooks, but in 1977 Rita was the one for her class.  She was a friend to everyone and she was brilliant.  No one was surprised when she was named the class valedictorian.  Rita’s parents were wealthy and they made sure she was given every opportunity to succeed.  She got into a top Ivy League school and had big plans for an important career.

     In the summer after her third year of college, Rita did some volunteer work at an inner-city church.  When it was time to return to school, she decided that what she was doing in the inner city was too important to quit; so she decided to quit school.  For the next two decades Rita dedicated her life to her work in that broken neighborhood; finding homes for abandoned children, getting teenagers into drug counseling, breaking up fights, getting women out of abusive relationships, helping families find affordable housing, and teaching Sunday School.  There was always more to do, and she kept trying to do it all, literally working herself to death.  She was not quite 40 years old when she died of overwork and over-caring.  After the funeral, one of Rita’s high-school friends said, “What a waste.  She could have done so much with her life.”

   Jesus once said to his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his friends.”  Was that a waste?  Perhaps Jesus could have done something better with his life.  Jesus added, “The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  But I am the Good Shepherd.  I know my sheep and my sheep know me; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  In almost all of that tenth chapter of John, Jesus is describing what it means that he is our Good Shepherd.

     We are the sheep.  This is a common Biblical image for God’s people in the Old and New Testaments.  The ever popular 23rd Psalm also uses that image of a shepherd and sheep.  But what does it mean to be compared to sheep?  In our culture, it is an insult to refer to someone as a pig.  In the 1960’s policemen were often called pigs by the young radicals who despised them.  Eating too much or too fast is sometimes called ‘pigging-out.’  My wife sometimes says the inside of my car looks like a pig-pen.  None of these references are complimentary.

     The Bible’s use of the image of sheep for us may not be intended as an insult, but I don’t think the image was used primarily to enhance our self-esteem either.  There were sheep all over the place back then, and people knew what sheep were like.  Actually, sheep are much dumber than pigs.  Pigs are some of the more intelligent of domestic farm animals, whereas sheep are among the dumbest.  On a cold night, for example, sheep will pile themselves on one another for warmth, which isn’t a bad idea.  But sometimes they will make such a pile as to smother to death those on the bottom, which isn’t a good idea for them.  Sheep are so dumb they will run right off a cliff if they are frightened, and it doesn’t take much to frighten them.  Sheep are not particularly clean, nor are they very cuddly, except perhaps when they are small and just had a bath.  Pigs will least get vicious and mean in a fight to protect their young, but sheep are timid and helpless.

     Yet, Jesus refers to us as sheep.  And Jesus  says, “I am the Good Shepherd.  The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”   Why would anyone give up his or her life for one, or even a whole flock of sheep?  What a waste that would be!  It is one thing to give one’s life for one’s family, or best friend, or for one’s country.  But to sacrifice one’s life for sheep?  Is any animal worth so great a cost?  Why should a shepherd risk leaving his wife a widow and his children fatherless for some sheep?  It is an outrageous thought.

   Jesus went on to say: “The hired hand who does not own the sheep sees a wolf coming and runs.  He runs because he does not care for the sheep.”  But when you think of it, maybe the hired hand runs simply because he is a good judge of the value of his own life over and above the life of some sheep.  That sounds to me like good common sense.

     I read one time about a man who had gone out in a boat fishing with some friends.  It was windy and the man’s cap blew off.  He impulsively reached for it, fell into the icy water, and drowned.  What a waste for a $6.00 cap!  Every once in a while we hear on the news of someone falling to their death while posing to take a selfie.  Again, not worth it!

     Jesus pushes this illustration to the extreme to show what it meant for him to die for us.  “The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  For sheep.  For whom did Jesus die?  For the crowds that shouted “Blessed is He” and “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, and “Crucify Him” on Friday of the same week, all following the herd this way and then that way like sheep.  Jesus died for his twelve disciples, and for the many others who abandoned him; for all who scattered like scared sheep when the going got rough, just like Jesus said they would.  And Jesus died for Pontius Pilate, who condemned Jesus after declaring him innocent because Pilate was afraid; timid, like a sheep.  And Jesus died for us, timid as we are with our lukewarm faith, half-hearted obedience, and lack of trust.  (continued…)

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John 10:11-14  —  (Jesus said), “I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep.  So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.  Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.  The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

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Shepherds search for their lost sheep, but for their own profit.  Men seek their lost property, but out of self-interest.  Politicians visit foreign countries, but only out of political calculation.  But why have you searched for me, O Lord?  Why have you sought me out?  Why have you visited this hostile world where I live?  Why have you ransomed me with your blood?  I am not worthy of such effort.  Indeed, in my sin I have willfully tried to escape from you, so you would not find me.  I have wanted to become a god unto myself, deciding for myself what is good and bad according to my own whims and lusts.  I have provoked you and insulted you.  Why do you bother with me?

–Tychon of Zadonsk, Russian peasant monk  (1724-1783)

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2000) Jesus is Everything

NOTE:

AFTER TODAY I WILL BE TAKING A LITTLE BREAK FROM DOING EMAILMEDITATIONS.  I WILL BE BACK IN A FEW WEEKS.  THANK YOU FOR READING.  –Pastor Leon Stier

 

 Malcolm Muggeridge  (1903-1990)

English journalist, author, media personality, satirist

     “I may, I suppose, pass for being a relatively successful man.  People occasionally stare at me in the streets– that’s fame.  I can fairly easily earn enough money to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue– that’s success.  Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions– that’s pleasure.  It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time– that’s fulfillment.  Yet I say to you– and I beg you to believe me– multiply these tiny triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing— less than nothing, and even an impediment– measured against one drink of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are.”

–Malcolm Muggeridge

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Exodus 20:3  —  “You shall have no other gods before me.” (the first commandment)

Ecclesiastes 2:11  —  Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 12:13  —  Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

Matthew 16:26  —  (Jesus said), “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”

John 7:37-38  —  On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

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Almighty God, may we fear, love, and trust in you above all things.  Amen.

–Prayer based on Martin Luther’s catechism explanation of the first commandment.

1999) Irreconcilable Differences– So What?

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By Mark Galli, managing editor of Christianity Today ( http://www.christianitytoday.com )

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     It didn’t take long into my marriage to discover how incompatible my wife and I were.  One reason I was attracted to Barbara in the first place was her apparent interest in theology. We’d spent many happy hours in college taking Bible and religion classes together; we even co-wrote a mediocre paper on the Reformation.  Few people have my nutty interest in theology, so I felt especially blessed to have discovered an eligible woman who shared that interest.  I proposed as quickly as I could, and I was ready to live happily ever after.

     Some days into the marriage I was shocked to discover the truth about Barb.  I’d just finished some weighty tome—such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Creation and Fall—and encouraged her to read it.  She said she wasn’t interested.  When over the next week I suggested another theology book, and then another, and was turned down repeatedly, I asked what was going on.

     “I really don’t like theology all that much,” she said.

     “But what about … ?” I stammered.

     “Once in a while it’s okay.  But most of the time I find it too dry.”

     I was floored.  Here was the woman of my dreams telling me she wasn’t really the woman of my dreams.

     That was the first of many shocking revelations.  As the years unfolded and we each matured in our own way, the differences became more marked.  She liked to get up early; I liked to stay up late.  She stayed politically liberal as I became more conservative.  She enjoyed being laid back; I liked to plan way in advance.  She’s energized by a room full of people; I’m drained.  She thought the kids should be given a break for being kids; I thought they should be disciplined more.  And we couldn’t even argue on the same page—I liked to get things out in the open; she liked to do anything but that.

     Years ago, we compared our Myers-Briggs personality scores.  The literature that interpreted the results was fairly pessimistic about our future.

     But surely after 30 years of marriage, things have gotten better, no?  I recently took an online marital compatibility test to see whether time has made a difference.  We scored a 60 percent.  The test maker said, “If you’re less than 70 percent compatible you may have to struggle hard to maintain a long-term relationship.”

     It appears that Barbara and I are simply not compatible.  Some would say we have irreconcilable differences.  But there’s a mystery here: though we’re as incompatible as ever these days, we find ourselves happier than ever, as well.

   Mired in the self like nearly every couple in self-absorbed America, Barb and I originally thought marriage was about mutual self-fulfillment.  We mouthed all the Christian platitudes about serving God and each other, but when we first got married, we predictably focused on how much fun it was to be together: companionship, sex, increased income, someone to listen, another shoulder to cry on, someone to go on vacations with, and so on.

     As long as we have so much in common, the relationship can blissfully proceed.  The problem is that only the rare marriage can be continually compatible.

     People grow, mature, and change—or at least we all hope they do.  Invariably the person we eye across the table at anniversary 10 will be different from the person we walked down the aisle with.  And that different person will just as likely be less compatible.

     Though compatibility is good and enjoyable as far as it goes, it never goes far enough to make a successful marriage.  That’s because it stays mired in the self.

     Compatibility is ultimately about finding someone who is compatible with me.  Compatibility is about my feeling good about being with someone else who shares my interests, blends with my personality traits, and shares my values.

     Biblical marriage is something altogether different, but at the core isn’t much different from the rest of the Christian life:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5). 

     Jesus, in fact, had little in common with the people on planet Earth.  The chasm between him and us is the difference between the infinite and the finite, holiness and sinfulness, God and man.

     But he didn’t count compatibility with God a thing to be grasped, Paul says.  Instead he emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, of those who were markedly incompatible with him.

     After a few years of marriage, when couples stare into the abyss of their non-compatibility, they generally panic and try to create a new compatibility.  My wife increasingly demanded that I listen with deep sincerity to all the little details of her life.  I really tried.  Couldn’t do it.

     For my part, I insisted that my wife go to a driving range with me, and I tried to teach her how to hit a golf ball.  We ended that experiment after lesson one.

   The more we tried to find areas of compatibility, the more miserable we became.  I mulled over all our differences: politics, kids, remodeling, attitudes toward in-laws, money issues, spirituality—the list was endless.  On and on my mind raced.  I was overcome with a profound sense of how utterly different we were, and how it was simply impossible for us to reconcile those differences.

     But Barbara and I are compatible on one thing: divorce isn’t an option.  So we simply decided we were going to make this thing work in spite of the fact that we were so incompatible.  We didn’t decide it in a day, and we didn’t decide it with gusto and optimism.  We simply felt we had no choice but to learn how to live with a person so utterly alien to us.

     And it was in that period that we began to learn about martyrdom, about the death of the self, about giving up the desire for compatibility.  If marriage wasn’t about how my spouse could make me happier, we each concluded, then it must be about each of us trying to make the other happier.

     One morning on vacation on the beach, she asked if I wanted to go for a walk and look at the tide pools.  This isn’t my instinctive idea of a good time, but she wanted companionship while she did something that was interesting to her.  So I went and entered into the experience as best I could.  I didn’t get nearly the enjoyment from it that she did, but I was happy she enjoyed it so much.

     One evening on the same vacation, after a long and busy day, she suggested we go out to eat.  She was exhausted, and the last thing she wanted to do was cook over a hot stove to prepare a meal for our family and the extended family with us.  I, however, grimaced about the cost of going out.  She responded by saying she’d go to the store and whip something together.  While this wasn’t something she wanted to do, she knew it would make me happy.

     These are simple, ordinary acts of martyrdom, the giving way of self for the sake of the other.  Every marriage has plenty of such moments.  They can be resisted with complaints—”Why don’t you ever do what I want to do?” and “Why don’t you consider my feelings?”  Or they can be submitted to with grace.

     This forsaking of compatibility is slow and painful to learn.  At the end of the day, Barb and I each feel a sense of regret at not having done more for the other.  But every morning there’s a new vow to give it another shot.

     And here’s the crazy thing: the more we stop trying to get each other to be compatible, the happier our marriage has been.  Instead of our differences being insurmountable obstacles to happiness, they’re simply facts that make our relationship interesting—aggravating at times, to be sure, but ultimately more fascinating.

     Certainly Barb and I share many things in common.  But I doubt we share any more than we do with anyone on the planet.  Two human beings are going to share some things in common, no matter how different they are.

But that’s not what holds a marriage together.  Irreconcilable differences are key—at least how we deal with them and learn to love in spite of them.

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Matthew 19:4-6  —  (Jesus said), “At the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said ‘For this reason 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

1998) Mick Jagger and King Solomon (2/2)

     (…continued)  In our own hearts we know what Mick Jagger and Solomon are talking about.  Whether it is our job, marriage, family, house, vacation, church, retirement, or whatever—life never meets our expectations, and it never completely satisfies.  Life never measures up.  This makes some people go on endless search, moving here and going there, never settling and never committing, but always looking for something better and never quite finding what they are looking for.  Others have a more old school approach, accepting things as they are and sticking with it; like the guy who told me “I worked at the same place for my whole life and hated every day of it; but I kept at it.”  Either way, we ‘can’t get no satisfaction.’

     So back to the question:  Why can’t Mick Jagger or Solomon, or you or me, ever be satisfied?

     One of the answers the Bible gives is in that same book of Ecclesiastes by Solomon.  In the eleventh verse of the third chapter it says, “ God has set eternity in the human heart.”

     ‘Eternity’ is in our hearts, but in our heads we know the clock is always ticking, and the years are speeding by us.  We know the truth of what my mother always used to tell us kids when it was time to come in from outside.  We would always complain, and she would always say, “All good things must come to an end.”

     No matter how many of our wishes and desires are fulfilled, our frustration is with the fleeting nature of whatever we receive.  If it all could only last longer.  Have you seen Mick Jagger or Keith Richards lately?  They have had a pretty good run, but they are nearing the finish line, and they look it.

     God created us for eternity; that is what is in our hearts, and no matter how much we get or do, we never get complete satisfaction, because we can’t do anything about the fact that there is never enough time.

     God’s answer to this is found in Jesus Christ and his resurrection.  It always, all, comes back to Jesus.  Colossians 1:16-17 says:  “For in Jesus all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible; all things have been created through him and for him.  Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

     Blaise Pascal, one of the most brilliant scientific minds in history, found out in his thirties that science by itself could not satisfy him.  He found Jesus, and then he said of his previous dissatisfaction, “There is a God shaped hole in every heart.”

     St. Augustine, was one of the most brilliant theological minds in the history of the church.  He was first a brilliant philosopher, but Augustine found that to be unsatisfying.  When he was in his thirties, he became believer in Jesus, and then he said of his previous dissatisfaction:  “Our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in God.

     C.S. Lewis was also an unbeliever until he came to faith in Christ when he was about thirty years old.  Lewis then wrote this wonderful line:  “If we find ourselves with desires that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

     Or, as Solomon concluded (Ecclesiastes 3:11), “God has set eternity into our hearts.”

   None of this means that unbelievers are never satisfied, and as soon as you believe in Jesus you are always satisfied.  Of course not.  We remain sinners, and our hearts remain restless.  But we do, at least, know where that satisfaction is to be found, and we look forward to it.

            There is a verse in the Bible for us when we ‘can’t get no satisfaction.’  In Luke 6:21 there are these incredible words of Jesus: “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.” Wouldn’t that be great, for once, to be satisfied?  When will that happen?  In verse 23 Jesus adds, “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.”  It will be in heaven, said Jesus, that we will finally be satisfied.

     In the meantime, I know I still have to work at being satisfied, and maybe you do too.  It is a spiritual struggle.  Satisfaction does not come natural to me.  I have to work at it.  I have to remind myself to be grateful to God, because it is so easy to take everything for granted.  I have to remind myself to count my blessings.

Image result for cs lewis quotes desires nothing in this world can satisfy

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Ecclesiastes 3:11  —  He has made everything beautiful in its time.  He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Luke 6:21  —  (Jesus said), “Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Colossians 1:15-17  —  The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

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Teach us to number our days, O Lord, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.

–Psalm 90:12

1997) Mick Jagger and King Solomon (1/2)

     In December 2004, Rolling Stone magazine published a special issue which featured the 500 greatest songs of all time (that is, mostly Rock and Roll hits from mostly 1950-2000).  Second on the list was a song written by a couple twenty-two year-old British musicians, and it catapulted The Rolling Stones to international fame.  In early 1965, Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night in a Florida hotel with a tune in his head.  He turned on a tape recorder that was by his bed, hummed a bit of it into the microphone, and went back to sleep with the recorder still going.  The next morning the tape had on it an eight note introduction that made music history, and 45 minutes of Keith Richards snoring.  Richards thought the tune might be good enough to be a filler on side ‘B’ of an album sometime.  But Mick Jagger wrote some lyrics for it, started singing it with a frenzied intensity that became his trademark, and put the song and the group into music history.  Here is that song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nrIPxlFzDi0

     This is a great song, but it does raise a question.  Why can’t Mick Jagger ‘get no satisfaction?’  Think about it– Mick Jagger had it all, already at the age of twenty-two.  First of all, he was having fun.  It is great fun to watch the Rolling Stones perform.  It certainly must have been a lot of fun to be them.  And for over fifty years they have had everything else– success, money, health, fame, friends, sex, travel—all the things most people think they need to make life full and good.  But all his life, Mick Jagger has been singing about not finding any satisfaction.

     And about once a week we hear about another such celebrity, who has it all, but commits suicide.

     Actually, there is one of the famous people of the Bible who was very much like Mick Jagger.  The Old Testament book of I Kings tells the story of someone else who, from a very young age had it all, and also did not find it satisfying.

     In the second chapter of I Kings, Solomon, the young son the great King David, is crowned the next king over all of Israel.  In the next chapter is this story of an amazing offer that God made to the new king (from I Kings 3:3-13):

     Solomon showed his love for the Lord by walking according to the instructions given him by his father David… Then the Lord appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”  Solomon answered, “You have shown great kindness to my father David, because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart…  Now, Lord my God, you have made me king in place of my father David.  But I am young and do not know how to carry out my duties…  So give me a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong…”  The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this.  So God said to him, “Since you have asked for this, and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked.  I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be.  Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for—both wealth and honor—so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings.”

     God then richly blessed Solomon, and as a young man, he had everything.  He was the king of Israel during its greatest years of glory and power.  He , like Mick Jagger, had wealth, prestige, influence, international fame, and, sex (300 wives and 700 mistresses).

   Did having everything satisfy Solomon?  The answer can be found in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, which has always been attributed to Solomon.  The subtitle of Ecclesiastes could be “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”  Here are some glimpses from Solomon’s life:

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18  —  I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.  I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens…   I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.  For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11  —  So, I said to myself, “Come now, I will test myself with pleasure to find out what is good.”  But that also proved to be meaningless.  “Laughter,” I said, “is madness.  And what does pleasure accomplish?”  I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom.  I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.  I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.  I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them.  I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees…  I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.  I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I acquired singers, and a harem as well—all the delights of a man’s heart.  I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me…  I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure, (and I took) delight in all my labor… Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun…  So I hated life. (verse 17)…  Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied (5:10).

     Solomon tried everything:  knowledge and learning, pleasure and laughter, drinking and folly, hard work and accomplishment, building a beautiful palace and gardens, entertainment and sex, wealth and power.  But still he hated life.  It sounds to me like Solomon couldn’t ‘get no satisfaction.’  (continued…)

1996) Church Declining? Not in China!

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The Chinese government takes down crosses; the number of Christians goes up

Churches across China are facing increased pressure to align with the Communist Party, including replacing crosses with the national flag and displaying pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Chinese Christians gather for worship

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By Eric Metaxas and Stan Guthrie, on Breakpoint Daily, posted September 25, 2018, at:  http://www.breakpoint.org

     I want you to meet some brave Christian leaders pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

     When thinking of the golden age of the Church, many of us hearken back to the book of Acts, when Peter and John stood up to the religious authorities, who told them to be silent about Jesus the risen Messiah.  “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God,” they answered, “you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”  Then they prayed for boldness, and the Church exploded across much of the ancient world.

     But there’s a golden age for the church going on right now—with the same kind of courage, persecution, and Spirit-empowered growth.  Where is it?  In communist China.

     World missions historians tell us that when all the foreign missionaries were kicked out of Mao’s China a few years after the Second World War, there were probably no more than 3 million believers in Jesus Christ in the whole, vast nation.  But today, seven decades later, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life counts 67 million Christians of all kinds—35 million independent Protestants, 23 million Protestants in government-sanctioned churches, and 9 million Catholics.  Other estimates go even higher.

     Whatever the true number is, it’s almost as many as there are members of the Communist Party!  Maybe that’s why the government is cracking down on Christians.  According to Christianity Today and other news outlets, Under President Xi Jinping, China’s government has been tightening its grip on religious affairs.

     In February, regulations aimed at religious groups have brought increased pressure on churches to be “Chinese” culturally and to submit to the authority of the Communist Party.  Churches are being told to burn their crosses and replace them with Chinese flags and to display slogans praising the Communist Party.  Some are being forced to join the government-sanctioned churches and permit video surveillance of their services.

     Meanwhile, in Jiangxi province, authorities have forced at least 40 churches to display banners forbidding foreigners from preaching and anyone under 18 from attending.  In August, they even published new rules stating, “Party members who have religious belief should have strengthened thought education.”

     In the spirit of Peter and John, a group of at least 250 Chinese pastors has publicly signed a joint statement opposing the new regulations.  In the statement they declare that Jesus is Lord of all, offering eternal life to anyone who will repent and believe in Him.

     But they also say, in a challenge to the Chinese communists, “God hates all attempts to suppress human souls and all acts of persecution against the Christian church, and he will condemn and judge them with righteous judgment.”

     Then, like Peter and John, they pledge obedience not to the earthly authorities but to King Jesus, no matter what.  “We declare that in matters of external conduct, churches are willing to accept lawful oversight by civil administration or other government departments as other social organizations do.  But under no circumstances will we lead our churches to join a religious organization controlled by the government, to register with the religious administration department, or to accept any kind of affiliation.”

   They close their incredible joint statement with the bracing yet sobering words, “For the sake of the gospel, we are prepared to bear all losses—even the loss of our freedom and our lives.”

     Friends, is it any wonder that the church in China has grown, and continues to grow?  What we’re seeing before our eyes is the golden age of the church in China.  How can we not pray for these wonderful brothers and sisters?  And more than that, how can we not emulate their costly faithfulness in our own little corner of God’s world?

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Acts 4:18-20  —  Then they called them in again and commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John replied, “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!  As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Acts 5:27-29  —  The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest.  “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said.  “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”  Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God and not men.”

I Thessalonians 2:4  —  On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel.  We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.

Matthew 10:28  —  (Jesus said), “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

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Faith of our fathers, living still
In spite of dungeon, fire and sword,
O how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith;
We will be true to thee till death.

Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
Were still in heart and conscience free;
And blest would be their children’s fate,
If they, like them should die for thee:
Faith of our fathers, holy faith;
We will be true to thee till death.

Faith of our fathers, we will strive
To win all nations unto thee;
And through the truth that comes from God
Mankind shall then indeed be free.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith;
We will be true to thee till death.

Faith of our fathers, we will love
Both friend and foe in all our strife,
And preach thee, too, as love knows how
By kindly words and virtuous life.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith;
We will be true to thee till death.

–Frederick William Faber  (1814-1863)

1995) Investing in Mutual Funds

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By Rick Warren, September 26 (and 25), 2018, Daily Hope devotional, at:  http://www.pastorrick.org

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     God wants you to invest in other people in God’s family.  This is what I call the “Mutual Fund.”

     The Bible says in Romans 12:10, “Love one another with mutual affection” (NRSV).

     How do you invest in this Mutual Fund?  By using some of your money to encourage fellowship, to build relationships, and to demonstrate love.

     Anytime you give your money to God, it draws you closer to God.   Anytime you give your money to someone, it draws you closer to that person.  Anytime you write a note of encouragement, you’ve invested in the Mutual Fund.  Anytime you prepare or buy a meal and take it to somebody who’s sick, you’ve just invested in the Mutual Fund.  Anytime you provide a babysitter for somebody who needs to go to a conference or retreat, you’ve invested in the Mutual Fund.  When another believer is discouraged and needs somebody to talk to and you take that person out to lunch and pay for the meal, you just invested in the Mutual Fund.

     You can give to God, and God says that’s storing up treasure in heaven.  But you can also give to other people.  God says that when you do that as an act of love, it’s like banking it in heaven.  Anytime you use your funds to show love to somebody else in the family of God, you’re investing in the Mutual Fund.

     Why should you do this?  Why should you give to encourage fellowship?  The Bible says, “This service you do not only helps the needs of God’s people, it also brings many more thanks to God.  It is a proof of your faith.  Many people will praise God because you obey the Good News of Christ—the gospel you say you believe—and because you freely share with them and with all others” (2 Corinthians 9:12-13 NCV).

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When I was a little kid I used to buy or make all these little cheesy gifts for my parents.  When I look back, the gifts were really lame.  But every time I gave my parents a present, they were overjoyed.  It wasn’t like they needed anything from me, because they didn’t.  They just enjoyed the fact that I thought of them.

One time when I was 8 years old, I went into a thrift store and bought my mother a dress for 25 cents.  I thought it was a really cool dress.  It was about a size four, and my mom was a size 12.   The clerk said, “Ricky, your mom couldn’t get her big toe in that dress.”  I was so offended and went home crying.  When I gave the dress to my mom, she was so thrilled.  After she died, I found that dress in one of her dressers.  She’d kept it all those years.

There’s nothing you can give God that he needs.  But when you give him an offering, you’re saying, “God, I love you.  I’m thinking of you.  I want you first in my life.”

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II Corinthians 9:7  —  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

II Corinthians 9:12-13  —   This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.  Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.

Romans 12:10  —  Be devoted to one another in love.  Honor one another above yourselves.

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Make us always eager, Lord, to share the good things that we have.  Grant us such a measure of your Spirit that we may find more joy in giving than in getting.  Make us ready to give cheerfully without grudging, secretly without praise, and in sincerity without looking for gratitude, for Christ’s sake.  Amen.  

–John Hunter, Scottish pastor  (1849-1917)