1564) Life Sentence

A Local Preacher and a Jailhouse Jesus Freak Brought Me to Faith in Prison

By Gene McGuire, Christianity Today, June 2017, pages 79-80.  Gene McGuire is the author of Unshackled: From Ruin to Redemption (Emerge Publishing).  He lives in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, where he serves as pastor for a Christian family-owned restaurant company, Babe’s Chicken Dinner House.  His website is:  http://www.genemcguire.org

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     It happened in a blur.  One minute we were enjoying a night out, shooting pool.  The next thing I knew, we were running from the law— wanted for murder.

     I’d always looked up to my out-of-town cousin, Bobby.  I was thrilled when he invited me to come along that night.  The Marine Room was well known in my circle of friends as a place that didn’t card minors.  At 17, a high school sophomore, I was confident they’d serve me.

     Alcohol abuse was prevalent in my rural Pennsylvania home.  My biological dad drank himself to death.  My mom couldn’t tell me not to drink, since she did— excessively— every day.  She did try to keep me home that night.  “It’s too late,” she said, when we started out the door at 11 p.m.  I begged Bobby to talk Mom into it.  He did.  We were off, along with my stepbrother Sid.

     A few games of pool and several drinks in, Bobby told us he was going to rob the place.  While surprised at his sudden intentions, the alcohol seemed to dull any impulse for protest.  Sid and I would leave— as locals, we’d be recognized— and Bobby would commit the robbery alone.

     We waited outside.  It was taking too long.  After several minutes, we poked our heads in the door— Bobby had brutally murdered the bar owner.  He shouted, “Don’t just stand there!  Help me find the money!”  Before long, we were on the run.

     I followed Bobby to New York City.  We visited drug dens and stayed in roach-infested motel rooms.  But I couldn’t escape the reality of what had happened.  I decided to return to Pennsylvania and turn myself in.  Bobby said, “Tell them the truth, Gene.  It was all me.”

     I told the detectives everything I knew— and as I did, I realized I wouldn’t be going home.  Because I was present when the crime was committed, I was charged with murder.  A public defender convinced me to plead guilty in hopes of receiving a lenient sentence.  “Maybe you’ll be out in 10 years,” he said.

     A day before my 18th birthday, the judge sentenced me:  “For the rest of your natural life,” without the possibility of parole.

     Life in prison mimics most of the stories and stereotypes you’ve heard.  Violence, drugs, gangs, assaults— they’re all there.  So are the characters.  I met a wide and varied cast.  Two men, in particular, stand out.  The first was a fellow lifer, a jailhouse Jesus freak named Warner.  The second was a local preacher named Larry.

     Guys called Warner “Big Moses.”  He was larger than life.  He’d wake up early every morning and shout, “Get up, you convicts, and praise the Lord!  This is the day the Lord has made!  Rise up!  Rejoice and be glad in it!”  Guys would shout back, “Be quiet, Moses!  It’s too early!”

     There are a lot of “religious guys” in prison, but Warner was the real deal.  He genuinely loved his fellow inmates, and served and encouraged them.  I can’t tell you how many times he posted up outside my cell, confronting me about decisions I was making.  He always had a word for me— especially when it was the last thing I wanted to hear.

     I met Larry when he visited as part of Prison Invasion ’86, a nationwide outreach event.  It’s a long story how I even found my way into those meetings, because I went kicking and screaming.  God had used a number of people: my mom (who had recently come to faith in Christ), people who wrote me letters, fellow inmates like Warner, and members of the prison staff who knew the Lord.

     Walking into that prison chapel was like nothing I’d experienced before.  There was loud worship music playing.  Volunteers from local churches lined the hall, welcoming inmates, passing out hugs like everybody was their friend.  A preacher shared a gospel message and ended with an invitation saying, “Real men make commitments.”  I held still.

     I returned the next day.  Same thing— the music, the people, their genuineness and warmth.  Again, the preacher ended with those words, “Real men make commitments.”  I watched as others made the commitment.  I really wanted to— but I couldn’t.  As the service ended, the volunteers began approaching guys to chat.  I tried not to make eye contact, hoping no one would approach me.

     “Hi, my name is Larry,” he began.  After introductions, I asked, “How long have you been a Christian?”  “Since I was 4 years old,” he replied.  “And I’ve known God’s calling on my life— to be a missionary— since I was 5.”  Was he putting me on?  If a 4-year-old could sort out this Jesus stuff, why couldn’t I?  If a 5-year-old could know his life’s direction, what was I doing at 26 without a clue?

     As our time ran out, he handed me his card with an address and phone number.  “Listen, Gene,” he said, “if there is anything you need— a Bible, some clothes, books to read, anything at all— you write or give me a call.”  He meant it.  I could tell.

     The next day— the final service— I went back, and again it ended with the familiar “Real men make commitments.”  A war raged within me— Go! No, don’t go! Get up! No, don’t move!  I held on to the chapel pew with a white-knuckled death grip.  I pressed my feet into the floor as if they’d grown roots.  I was holding on for dear life.

     Suddenly, it just happened.  I was on my feet, putting one in front of the other until I was at the altar.  I remember praying, “Jesus, I believe you died and rose again for me.  Please forgive all my sins.  I want to be saved.  Jesus, come into my heart today.  Amen.”

     It sounds cliché, but I felt as if a ton of weight rolled right off my back, as if chains fell away and I was free.

     The Scriptures promise that we become a new creation in Christ, that the old passes away and all things are made new (2 Corinthians 5:17).  Life in prison remained life in prison, but from the moment I believed in Jesus, the newness of life was extraordinary.  God opened the doors to healing, new relationships, and ministry opportunities I never could have imagined.

     The Lord continued to use Larry in my life; for the next 25 years he mentored and discipled me, never letting me lose sight of opportunities to love God and serve others, no matter my circumstances.

     Meanwhile, I was actively petitioning the governor to commute my life sentence.  Yet another attempt— after 32 years in prison and 2 1/2 years waiting for an answer— ended in rejection.  I was discouraged, but returned to my cell as I had each time before, thanking God for protecting and providing for me.  As I was giving thanks, I heard God say, “I am going to release you.”  I had no idea when or how, but I rested in his promise.

     Then, in June 2010, I received a notice from an attorney out of the blue.  It informed me of a new Supreme Court ruling (Graham v. Florida) that could offer juveniles given life sentences the opportunity to return to court and possibly receive a lighter sentence.

     On April 3, 2012— sitting at the same table in the same courtroom as three decades earlier— I finally got my release.  As a 17-year-old looking squarely at a lifetime behind bars, I never would have imagined this outcome.

     But God’s love is so great that nothing can separate us from it; his mercy and grace so powerful that no shackles can confine us.  I’m living proof.  I received a life sentence and, along the way, I found life— and freedom.

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John 10:10b  —  (Jesus said), “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Genesis 39:20-21a  —  Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison.  But the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love.

Psalm 142:6a…7a  —  Give heed to my cry; for I am brought very low…  Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to thy name.

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Jesus, I believe you died and rose again for me.  Please forgive all my sins.  I want to be saved.  Jesus, come into my heart today.  Amen.

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1550) Eleven Billion Dollars? No Thanks.

The book cover of The Testament.jpg

From The Testament, by John Grisham, pages 244-246, Doubleday, 1999.

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     This novel begins with the death of Troy Phelan, the tenth richest man in America.  Phelan despises all six of his contemptible children from three marriages, and leaves none of his eleven billion dollar estate to any of them.  Instead, he leaves everything to Rachel Lane, his illegitimate daughter from an affair four decades earlier.  No one else even knew about Rachel, and Phelan met her only once.  All the members of her small family were dead.  Phelan paid for Rachel’s education, and after seminary and medical school she disappeared into the jungles of Brazil to work as a Christian missionary.  She left instructions with her mission organization to tell no one where she was, and she had no intentions of ever leaving her remote mission.  Nate O’Riley is the wealthy and talented, but deeply troubled lawyer hired for the difficult task of finding her.  When Nate O’Riley finally did find her, she made it clear she had no desire to receive any of the inheritance.  In the piece below, Nate and Rachel discuss their very different lives.

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     (Rachel said), “I have perfect peace, Nate.  I surrendered my will to Christ many years ago, and I follow wherever He leads.  You think I’m lonely— you’re wrong.  He is with me every step of the way.  He knows my thoughts, my needs, and He takes away my fears and worries.  I am completely and perfectly at peace in this world.”

     “I’ve never heard that before,” (Nate said).

     “You said last night that you are weak and fragile.  What does that mean?”

     Confession was good for the soul, Sergio had told him during therapy.  If she wanted to know, then he would try and shock her with the truth.

     “I’m an alcoholic,” he said, almost proudly, the way he’d been trained to admit it during rehab.  “I’ve hit the bottom four times in the past ten years, and I came out of detox to make this trip.  I cannot say for sure that I will never drink again.  I’ve kicked cocaine three times, and I think, though I’m not certain, that I will never touch the stuff again.  I filed for bankruptcy four months ago, while in rehab.  I’m currently under indictment for income tax evasion, and stand a fifty-fifty chance of going to jail and losing my license to practice law.  You know about the two divorces.  Both women dislike me, and they’ve poisoned my children.  I’ve done a fine job of wrecking my life.”

     There was no noticeable pleasure or relief in laying himself bare.  She took it without flinching.  “Anything else?” she asked.  “Oh yes. I’ve tried to kill myself at least twice— twice that I can recall. Once last August that landed me in rehab. Then just a few days ago in Corumbá.  I think it was Christmas night.”

     “In Corumbá?”

     “Yes, in my hotel room.  I almost drank myself to death with cheap vodka.”

     “You poor man.”

     “I’m sick, okay.  I have a disease:  I’ve admitted it many times to many counselors.”

     “Have you ever confessed it to God?”

     “I’m sure He knows.”

     “I’m sure He does.  But He won’t help unless you ask.  He is omnipotent, but you have to go to Him, in prayer, in the spirit of forgiveness.”

     “What happens?”

     “Your sins will be forgiven.  Your slate will be wiped clean.  Your addictions will be taken away.  The Lord will forgive all of your transgressions, and you will become a new believer in Christ.”

     “What about the IRS?”

     “That won’t go away, but you’ll have the strength to deal with it.  Through prayer you can overcome any adversity.”

     Nate had been preached at before.  He had surrendered to Higher Powers so many times he could almost deliver the sermons.  He had been counseled by ministers and therapists and gurus and shrinks of very stripe and variety.  Once, during a three-year stretch of sobriety, he actually worked as a counselor for AA, teaching the twelve-point recovery plan to other alcoholics in the basement of an old church in Alexandria.  Then he crashed.

     Why shouldn’t she try to save him?  Wasn’t it her calling in life to convert the lost?

     “I don’t know how to pray,” he said.

     She took his hand and squeezed it firmly.  “Close your eyes, Nate.  Repeat after me:  Dear God, Forgive me of my sins, and help me to forgive those who have sinned against me.”  Nate mumbled the words and squeezed her hand even harder.  It sounded vaguely similar to the Lord’s Prayer.  “Give me strength to overcome temptations, and addictions, and the trials ahead.”  Nate kept mumbling, kept repeating her words, but the little ritual was confusing.  Prayer was easy for Rachel because she did so much of it.  For him, it was a strange rite.

     “Amen,” she said.  They opened their eyes but kept their hands together.  They listened to the water as it rushed gently over the rocks.  There was an odd sensation as his burdens seemed to be lifted; his shoulders felt lighter, his head clearer, his soul was less troubled.  But Nate carried so much baggage he wasn’t certain which loads had been taken away and which remained.

     He was still frightened by the real world.  It was easy to be brave deep in the Pantanal where the temptations were few, but he knew what awaited him at home.

     “Your sins are forgiven, Nate,” she said.

     “Which ones?  There are so many.”

     “All of them.”

     “It’s too easy.  There’s a lot of wreckage back there.”

     “We’ll pray again tonight.”

      “It will take more for me than most folks.”

     “Trust me, Nate.  And, trust God.  He’s seen worse.”

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Isaiah 26:3-4  —  You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.  Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.

Acts 16:29-31a  —  The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas.  He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

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Dear God, Forgive me of my sins, and help me to forgive those who have sinned against me.  Give me strength to overcome temptations and the trials ahead.  Amen.

1465) A Prayer for Easter and Every Day

By Joshua Rogers at http://www.joshuarogers.com, April 13, 2017

     I was five years old when I walked into my mother’s bedroom and told her I wanted to give my life to Christ.  We got down on our knees beside the bed and I asked Jesus into my heart.  After that, I proudly told everyone that Jesus had saved me; but my pride slowly diminished over the years.

     As I got older, the more I questioned the efficacy of my salvation prayer because, let’s be honest, the five-year-old motives behind it didn’t exactly demonstrate any depth of understanding about what I was doing.

     On the one hand, my parents taught me a lot about the Bible, so by that age, I really had developed a childhood affection for the miracle-working Savior who held little kids in His lap and then died to save them.

     On the other hand, I wanted to be born again because I would get to take the grape juice and cracker during communion at our Baptist Church — not to mention the most important reason of all:  I would avoid going to hell.  These reasons didn’t seem like very good ones for wanting to commit my eternal life to God, so I eventually began to wonder if perhaps I hadn’t actually been saved after all.

     My insecurity about my salvation inspired me to repeatedly redo my salvation prayer, but it never seemed like it was enough.  I wanted something more official.  I needed a prayer that would unquestionably provide my eternal connection to Jesus.  But there was a vignette in the Easter story that provided the security that a prayer for salvation never could.

     As Jesus was hanging there and His life was almost over, He had a brief conversation with one of the two thieves hanging on either side of Him.  The gospel of Matthew tells us that this thief had actually been mocking Jesus earlier in his crucifixion.  But Luke tells us the rest of the story:  With the clock ticking down on his life, the thief had a sudden change of heart and made a simple request:  “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom.”

     The man was a low-life, a common criminal attempting a desperate deathbed conversion, and all he could utter was a request that wasn’t exactly profound:  “Remember me.”

     Jesus didn’t do an inventory of the man’s good or bad deeds before He responded.  He didn’t ignore him or wait until the man said the perfect words.  “Remember me” was more than enough.  In the final minutes of their lives, Jesus responded, “Truly I say to you, today you’ll be with Me in Paradise.”

     Maybe you won’t go to church this Easter — maybe you don’t even want to.  Maybe you’re a believer who’s insecure about your salvation.  Maybe the idea of praying about something as monumental as your eternal salvation seems intimidating to you — you wouldn’t even know where to start.  Start here:  “Remember me.”

     It doesn’t matter if your motives are self-interested or if you’ve never shown any desire to follow Jesus.  It doesn’t matter how many mistakes you’ve made.  He’s there willing and waiting to take you home with Him.

     Call out to Him.  Trust that He’s willing to welcome you into His kingdom.  Ask Him to remember you today.  His certain response will have nothing to do with your worthiness and everything to do with His unfailing love.

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“Start here,” Rogers says.  The thief was near the end of his life, so he ended right after he started.  But unless you are near the end of your life (though, who knows?), this prayer must not be the sum total of the Christian life.  Jesus wants you to grow in your faith, do what is right, fight against your temptations, and keep in touch with Him through more prayer and worship and reading his Word.  

But just like for the thief on the cross who first said these words to Jesus, this simple request is a place to start, and, something to return to often.  Keep this prayer in mind.  You can say it anytime and anywhere:  when you are looking for help, looking for hope, or even when you are so blessed as to be doing just fine and want to express your gratitude by remembering the One who is the giver of all your blessings. 

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Luke 23:42-43  —  (The thief on the cross next to Jesus) said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

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John 8:10-11  —  Jesus asked her, “Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?”  

“No one, sir,” she said.  

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

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Psalm 106:4  —  Remember me, Lord, when you show favor to your people, come to my aid when you save them.

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Jesus, remember me.

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1459) Mad at Who?

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Phil Robertson talks about duck calls and Jesus

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By Phil Robertson in NKJV Duck Commander Faith and Family Bible.

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     Years ago I was invited to give my duck call demonstration at a store in Iowa.  A huge crowd of duck hunters gathered around me like bees on honey.  They’d seen our Duck Commander DVDs and our TV show on the Outdoor Channel, and they wanted to meet me in person.  After I went through my demonstration, I used the opportunity to share the gospel.  Look, I know if you’re gonna do that, there’ll be a trickle of people who’ll head toward the exit.  But that’s okay with me, because I’ve also seen the impact of the gospel on people’s lives.

     About five years after that presentation in Iowa, I got this letter:

Dear Mr. Robertson,

I came to hear your demonstration in Iowa because you were my hero in the duck calling world.  In my mind you were the big cheese and the guru, so I had you all built up.  As you went through the demonstration, I thought, That guy can sure blow a duck call– if I could only get half as good as he is.

     I really looked up to you.  But before a cat could lick his tail, the duck calls went back inside your little satchel and the next thing I know, you got a Bible and you’re talking about sin, death, and Jesus.  I’m thinking, What a jerk!  He’s taking advantage of me.  I came to hear a duck call and now he’s beating me over the head with religion!  When I left there, I bad-mouthed you.  I cussed you to everybody I knew.  I even threw your duck calls away.

     But a strange thing happened.  What I heard kept gnawing at me.  One day I woke up and sat on the side of my bed.  I was thinking, Now wait a minute!  This guy told us that we were all sinners.  Which is true.  He proceeded to tell us that we’re all going to go six feet under.  Which is also true.  So I began to question why I was so mad at you.

     It occurred to me, Mr. Robertson, that the whole time I’ve been bad-mouthing you, it really wasn’t you I was mad at— it was God.  He’s the One I’ve been rebelling against.  Here you give me the way off of Planet Earth, you tell me my sins can be removed so I can come forth from the grave— and I am cussing you out over that . . . for five years!  What can I say?  I’m an idiot.

     So I took you up on the good news of Jesus.  I responded by faith.  I was baptized.  My wife is thrilled.  My children are jumping up and down.  They’re happy because their dad is now a Christian.  I hereby officially apologize for cursing you for five years.

     Just because someone hears the gospel and their first response is to get mad or reject you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have said anything.  Remember it’s God who grants repentance to them.  This guy wrestled with the Almighty for years.  That’s spiritual warfare: the devil was on one side and God was on the other.  The Spirit, through the gospel, had convicted him at that duck call workshop.

     A guy once warned me that my preaching was going to hurt my business.  Hurt my business?  We’re comparing duck call sales to people getting their sins forgiven?  After all, Jesus is the light of the world (John 8:12)!  And if He lives in us, Jesus says we’re supposed to let our light shine so that people will see it and come to Him.  Look, I enjoy going to conventions to talk about duck calls, but I want to get down to some more important business while I’m there.  The truth is I really don’t care what it does to the duck call business.

     Besides, I’d say things are working out okay for us on that front.

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I Thessalonians 2:2b  —  With the help of our God we dared to tell you his gospel in the face of strong opposition.

2 Timothy 2:24-26  —  The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

John 8:12  —  When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Luke 11:33  —  (Jesus said), “No one lights a lamp and puts it in a place where it will be hidden, or under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, so that those who come in may see the light.”

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We are going home to many who cannot or will not read your Word.  So, Lord, make us to be a Bible, living as you have taught us to live, so that those who do not read the Book can read it in us.

–Prayer of a Chinese woman

1450) “God, Give Me Another Chance”

Voice of the Martyrs magazine, April 2017, page 11, (www.persecution.com)

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     As Roberto Santo Gomez looked back on his life, he felt like he hadn’t amounted to much.  He was empty inside and his heart was filled with hate.  As a member of the leftist Zapatista rebel group, his work involved shaking down people for money, running drugs, and fighting the government.  But that hadn’t given his life meaning, and now he felt trapped by the Zapatista cause.

     After considering his options, Roberto decided he would go north to the United States and try to make some money.  As many others had before him, Roberto hopped the train that runs from Chiapas in southern Mexico to the U.S. border.

     The trip didn’t go as planned, however.  Roberto fell from the train, severing his left arm and leaving him with multiple fractures.  As he lay on the ground in agonizing pain, he suddenly recalled the words of a street preacher he’d once heard in a park, and his thoughts turned to God.

     “God, if you exist, give me another chance,” he prayed.  “Give me life and I’ll get up and I’ll look for you and I will speak about you.”

     God answered Roberto’s prayers.  He survived the accident, returned to his home and, true to his word, became an itinerant preacher.  Roberto is still poor by earthly standards, but he lives by faith and survives on the generosity of those he meets.  “When I hear him preach, it touches my heart because he preaches with such passion,” a local Voice of the Martyrs worker said.

     The street preacher from Roberto’s past had such an effect on him that he decided to do the same kind of work.  He shares God’s love in parks and on street corners with anyone who will listen.  Though he is often rejected or ignored, he knows from personal experience that God’s Word is planting seeds.

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Lamentations 3:19-23  —  I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.  Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope:  Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

Jonah 2:2  —  In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.

Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

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1437) He Forgot to Sneer

     Several years ago I went to Mexico to visit some Lutheran churches and mission projects.  I traveled with an American missionary working just south of the border, and with a Mexican pastor, Rev. Encarnencion Estrada.  Encarnencion told me the story of his conversion.  He said that when he was a young man, he and his friends were troublemakers and had no respect for anyone or anything, not even God.  They had heard about a Lutheran missionary who was coming to their city to speak.  Enacarnencion had the idea that he and his friends should go to the outdoor service and pretend they were interested.  Then, in the middle of the sermon, he would sneak around behind the makeshift platform and stage and knock the whole thing over, preacher and all.  Then everyone could have a good laugh.  

     As Encarnencion quietly crept closer, he could not help but hear the sermon.  As he listened to the story of Christ’s death on the cross, the words moved him.  The preacher said Jesus died for everyone, even the worst of us.  Encarnencion wanted to hear more, so he decided to delay his prank for a few minutes.  In that brief time, the Lord started to really work in his heart, he said, and he to began shake all over and sweat.  He did not know what was happening, but he started praying.  Encarnencion forgot all about his prank, and at the end of the sermon, he went up onto the stage he had planned to demolish, and there he gave his life to Christ.

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The famous skeptic David Hume (1711-1776) once went to hear the most famous English preacher of the day George Whitefield (1714-1770).  Though Hume was probably an atheist, he came away from that service saying, “I was so taken in by that man’s sermon that I forgot to sneer.”
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Romans 5:6-8  —  You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Acts 13:41-44  —  (Paul said), “Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.”  As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath.  When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.  On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.

Romans 10:17  —  Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.

John 9:25b  —  “…I was blind, but now I see.”

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.

–Ancient Jesus prayer

1390) The Moment of Truth

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By Fred Craddock (1928-2015), Craddock Stories, ed. by Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, 2001, Chalice Press, pages 23-24.

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     When I was pastoring in Tennessee, there was a girl about seven years old who came to our church regularly for Sunday school, and sometimes her parents let her stay for the worship service.  They didn’t come.  We had a circular drive at that church.  It was built for people who let their children off and drove on.  We didn’t want to inconvenience them, so we had a circular drive.  But they were very faithful, Mom and Dad.  They had moved from New Jersey with the new chemical plant.  He was upwardly mobile; they were both very ambitious; and they didn’t come to church.  There wasn’t really any need for that, I guess.

     But on Saturday nights, the whole town knew of their parties.  They gave parties, not for entertainment, but as part of the upwardly mobile thing.  That determined who was invited:  the right people, the one just above him at work, and all the way on up to the boss.  And those parties were full of drinking and wild and vulgar things.  Everybody knew.

     But there was their beautiful girl every Sunday.

     One Sunday morning I looked out, and she was there.  I thought, “Well, she’s with her friends,” but it was her Mom and Dad.  After the sermon, at the close of the service, as is the custom at my church, came an invitation to discipleship, and Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad came to the front.  They confessed faith in Christ.  Afterward I asked, “What prompted this?”

     They said, “Well, do you know about our parties?”

     And I said, “Yeah, I have heard about your parties.”

     They said, “Well, we had one last night again, and it got a little loud, it got a little rough, and there was too much drinking.   All the noise woke our daughter, and she came downstairs to about the third step.  She saw that we were eating and drinking, and she said, ‘Oh, can I say the blessing?  God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.  Good-night, everybody.’  She went back upstairs.  It was quiet.  Then somebody said ‘Oh, my land, it’s time to go, we’ve got to be going.’  And someone else said, ‘We’ve stayed way too long.’  Within two minutes the room was empty.”

     Mr. and Mrs. Mom and Dad began cleaning up, picking up crumpled napkins and wasted and spilled peanuts and half sandwiches, and taking empty glasses on trays to the kitchen.  And with two trays, he and she met on either side of the sink, they looked at each other, and he expressed what both were thinking: “Where do we think we’re going?”

     The moment of truth.

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Isaiah 11:6b  —  …A little child will lead them.

Matthew 18:1-5  —  At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them.  And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Mark 10:13-15  —  People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them.  When Jesus saw this, he was indignant.  He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.  Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

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Almighty God, give me grace to trust to Thy never-failing care and love those who are dear to me, for this life and the life to come; knowing that Thou art doing for them better things than I can desire or pray for; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Charles Lewis Slattery  (1867-1930), Episcopal Bishop, Boston

1384) Have You Seen the Light? (c)

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     (…continued)  I once knew a lady who, right at the end of her life, ‘saw the light.’  Doris left the little town where I was a pastor fifty years before I arrived.  She moved out to California to make lots of money and live an exciting life, and that’s what she did— for fifty years.  Her mother, Helen, who I visited with monthly communion, was in failing health.  Doris, a widow now, was coming back home to care for her old mother until she died.  Helen told me that Doris might bring her to church once in a while, and she might not; but either way, Doris would not be going to church herself because she didn’t go to church all the while she was in California.  Church was not a part of her exciting life.

     I did not see either one for a while, but then one Sunday there was Helen, and also Doris, who sat through the whole service with her mother.  The next Sunday, they were both there again; and every Sunday from then on.  Then Doris said she wanted to join the church.  I said, “That is great, Doris, but tell me about this– all these years of never going to church, and now, you never miss.  What happened?”

     “Well,” Doris said, “it was something you said that first Sunday I brought Mom to church.  The rest of the sermon wasn’t all that good, but one line got me thinking.  You said that many people make careful preparations for their retirement, which they may not even get to enjoy; and they make no preparations for the rest of eternity, which they will most certainly face.”  Doris said, “That’s me.  I am all set for a very comfortable retirement, but I haven’t given a bit of thought to what comes next.  I thought it was time I start paying attention.  I want what Jesus has to offer, and I want to have Jesus in my life.”

     “Praise the Lord, she saw the light… Jesus came to her, and she let her dear Savior in.” 

     Not long after that, Doris’s comfortable retirement was ended by a sudden, fatal heart attack.  She died even before her old mother, and she was off to what was next; which for her, was now that place where there is “no more darkness, no more night, and no sorrow in sight.”  Praise the Lord!

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James 4:13-15  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

Psalm 85:8a  —  I will listen to what God the Lord says; he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants…

Acts 3:19  —  Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.

Romans 10:9  —  If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Amen.

–Ancient Jesus prayer (based on Luke 18:13)

1383) Have You Seen the Light? (b)

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The Light of the World, 1854, William Holman Hunt, English painter  (1827-1910)

Jesus, bringing light, preparing to knock on an overgrown and long-unopened door (Revelation 3:20).

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     (…continued)  Matthew 4:16 tells us what it means to walk in this darkness.  The last half of the verse refers to those living in ‘the land of the shadow of death,’ and that is, of course, all of us.  Death is an ever-present threat, so we are all, always, living in its shadow.  We grieve the loss of those we have loved, we worry over the living, and we live with the knowledge that any day could be our last.  And it’s not only people that die.  Hopes and dreams also die, as the once bright future gradually grinds along into the distant past; and so much always remains unfulfilled, and so many plans end in disappointment.  Not only that, but relationships die and hearts are broken.  And even in those times when everything works out wonderfully, and the all dreams do come true, and relationships do work out, it is only for a little while, and then, as my mother used to say, “All good things must come to an end.”  We would be playing outside at the end of a perfect summer day, and even though we knew it was late and getting dark, we would not like to hear her say, “Time to come in now.”  As we walked into the house grumbling, she would say it every time, “All good things must come to an end.”  We got kind of tired of hearing it, but it was, and still is, the truth.  Good times end, hopes fizzle out, relationships fail, people die; and so we all know very well what the Bible means when it talks about walking in darkness and living in the land of the shadow of death. 

     But when you see the light of Jesus, your eyes are opened to his promise that, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live;” so as Paul wrote, “We look not to what is seen but to what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal” (II Corinthians 4:18).  That truth changes everything.

     There is another kind of darkness.  Hank Williams referred to this darkness when he began the song with, “I wandered so aimless, my life filled with sin.”  I John 1 says:  “This is the message we heard from Jesus and declare to you; God is light, in him there is no darkness.  If we claim to be with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.  But if we confess our sins, and walk in the light, the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin.”  Hank Williams put it like this: “I was a fool to wander and stray, straight is the gate and narrow the way, but now I have traded the wrong for the right; Praise the Lord, I saw the light.”

     God did not give his commandments to pester us with busy work.  Rather, these commands simply teach us how to best live the life God has given to us, in this world that He has created for us.  He ought to know what works.  So when we sin and disobey God’s commands, we end up in the darkness of guilt and regret, of conflict and broken relationships and troubled communities, and in the darkness of fear and anxiety.  And this darkness comes not only from our own sins, but we are also hurt by the sins of others.  We are all familiar with the darkness of sin.  But when we see the light of Jesus, and obey his commands, life can be built on the solid foundation of his Word.

     There is still another kind of darkness, and this is the darkness of ingratitude, of being blind to all the wonders of God’s good creation.  It is the darkness of an ongoing bad attitude, focusing only on everything that is wrong in the world and in your life.  In every life there is plenty of evil, wickedness, troubles, bad luck, and frustration; and there are those who get way more than their share of such afflictions.  But no matter who you are, if that is all you see, you are in the darkness; you are blind to so many blessings, so much good, and so many promises.  You have got to pray that you, as the song says, can be “like the blind man that God gave back his sight.”  We all know people who have been clobbered around by life more than most, but they still find all kinds of reasons to thank and praise God and have a smile on their face.  That’s a powerful witness.  Seeing the light of Jesus means seeing and being grateful for the many ways he has blessed you.

     Matthew 4:16 says, “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”  In John 8:12, Jesus said: “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Seeing the light of Jesus, then, means:  #1) being grateful for this life and all that is in it; #2) having the desire live how God wants you to live this life he has given you; and, #3) taking comfort in seeing this life in the context of God’s promise of eternal life.  (continued…)

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Matthew 4:16  —  The people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

John 8:12  —  When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Revelation 22:5  —   There will be no more night.  They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light.  And they will reign for ever and ever.

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Amen.

–Ancient Jesus prayer (based on Luke 18:13)

1382) Have You Seen the Light? (a)

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Hank Williams, Sr. and Hank Williams, Jr.  (approx. 1950)

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     Seventy  years ago this week, Hank Williams, Sr. wrote the song “I Saw the Light.”  Earlier in the month, the 23-year old Williams and his band were returning to Montgomery, Alabama from a show in Fort Deposit, a little town 30 miles south of Montgomery.  Williams, however, was unable to stay awake for the short drive because he was passed out drunk, as usual after shows, in the back seat of the car.  As they were approaching the city, the driver, seeing the lights of the airport, announced to the band that they were almost home, saying, “I just saw the lights.”  Hank woke up, and a light must have went off in his mind, because a few days later he wrote what has become a Country and Gospel music classic.

     Just a few months before this, Williams auditioned for, and was rejected by, the Grand Ole Opry.  Just a few months later, he was a big star, signed a recording contract with MGM, and started turning out hit after hit—35 top ten singles in the next six years.  And then Hank Williams died, on New Year’s Day, 1953, at the age of 29, in the back seat of a car on the way to a concert.

     Williams was born with a spinal defect, made worse over the years by falling and fighting.  He lived with constant pain, became addicted to pain killers which he used to excess, and then to alcohol.  The continuous overuse of both, often consumed together, destroyed his heart.

     Williams was to perform that New Year’s Day in Canton, Ohio with several others.  The concert hall was already filled, when the other performers received word of Williams’ death.  It was announced it to the crowd, and many people started to laugh, thinking it was a joke.  But then the band softly started to play a song as a tribute.  The crowd quieted, realizing it was not a joke; and then began to sing along to “I Saw the Light.”

     The song is the testimony of a backslider, living in the hope of repentance, redemption, and a chance to start over.  Hank Williams did a lot of backsliding in his short life.  One might even say he was backsliding all the while.  He was raised in the Baptist church where his mother was the organist, but as an adult he did not talk about his faith, and gave little evidence of trying to live it.  But he sure could sing about the power of faith in Jesus, as he did in this wonderful song.  Whether he was expressing what was in his heart, or just writing words he thought might be popular enough to be another hit, only God knows.

     Matthew 4:16 says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.”   “I Saw the Light” begins with these words: “I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin, I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in; then Jesus came like a stranger in the night, Praise the Lord, I saw the light.”  Then in the refrain, Williams sings: “No more darkness, no more night… no sorrow in sight, I saw the light.”  That sounds a lot like Matthew 4:16 (which is quoting a prophecy in Isaiah 9:2).

     There are several more Bible references in the short song.  First, there is the part about Jesus coming as a stranger in the night.  The Bible actually says ‘thief in the night,’ and that you will find in Matthew 24 and I Thessalonians 5.  In Revelation 22 we find the phrase “there will be no more night.”  In verse two, Williams sings about how he was, “Just like the blind man that God gave back his sight, praise the Lord, I saw the light.”  That’s in John chapter nine.  In the last verse there is a reference to the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 7 when it says “straight is the gate and narrow the way.”  And the main reference to the image of light that is used in the song is in John 8:12, where Jesus said: “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  That’s eight Bible references in three verses—not bad for a backslider.  Williams spent much of his life in the darkness, not only with his drug and alcohol abuse, but also because of his lying, infidelity, irresponsibility, lack of loyalty, lack of faith, arrogance, and quick temper.  But it is clear he did know his Bible and he did know about Jesus.  We can only hope that somewhere along the line he really did what he sang about in verse one, and “let his dear Savior in.”

     Have seen the light?  Do you know what it means to walk in darkness, and to live in the land of the shadow of death?  Do you know what that is like?  And if so, are you familiar with the experience described by Matthew to have seen a great light, or, to have the light dawn in your life?  Do you know what that is like?  What is this darkness?  What is this light?  And what does it look like in one’s life?  What does it mean to say that Jesus is the light of the world?  (continued…)

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xtolv9kM1qk

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Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a poor sinner.  Amen.

–Ancient Jesus prayer (based on Luke 18:13)