1372) The Big Pygmy (b)

“I Went From Fighting in a Cage to Living in a Hut”

     (…continued)  After Jesus helped me overcome my depression and addiction, my dreams for my life changed.  I wanted more than MMA fame; I wanted to serve God however I could.  I started volunteering at local ministries and prisons, sharing my story with anyone who would listen.

     I also knew I needed a break from MMA (Mixed Martial Arts fighting).  Even though I still loved the sport, the temptations were too great.  But without fighting, I didn’t know what to do with my life.  In desperation, I prayed:  God, I’m yours.  Is there anything you want me to do?  I desire to do your will, not mine.

     That’s when a strange vision flooded my head.  I watched myself weaving through the jungle.  Among the forest’s white noise, I heard the faint sound of lively music, unlike anything I’d heard before.  As I stepped into a clearing, I saw 150 people, living in a cluster of twig-and-leaf huts.

     I took a step forward, and the vision changed.  I was bombarded by flash-fast images of malnourished children and starving old men.  I saw a man dying from a disease eating him alive.  For some reason, I could tell these people were oppressed and outcasts.

     I sobbed so uncontrollably that I left a puddle of tears on my Bible.  I wondered if I was crazy, but I knew I couldn’t have imagined what I saw on my own.  I didn’t know who these people were, but I knew I had to help them.  Turning suddenly to Isaiah 58, my eyes locked onto verses 6–12 (see below), about God’s heart for the poor and oppressed.  The passage started a fire in my heart.

      I shared my vision with my mentor, Caleb, and he immediately knew I was describing a Mbuti (or Pygmy) tribe in the Congo.  He told me he was leading a group there in a month with his high-risk missions ministry, Unusual Soldiers, and he encouraged me to go with him.  Our goal on this trip would be to find the most remote Mbuti villages in the jungle, form relationships with them, and learn more about their needs.

     I saw firsthand that circumstances there were graver than I had seen in my vision.  And after several months back home, I still could not shake my burden.  Caleb connected me with Shalom University, a Congolese Christian school dedicated to serving the Pygmies.  I knew I couldn’t help them unless I understood them first, so I lived with them for a year.  I slept in a twig-and-leaf hut, ate their food, and suffered from the same diseases.  One bout with malaria nearly killed me.  But no matter how tough things got, I felt more at home than I ever had in the gym.

     I was soon adopted into the Pygmy tribe and given a new name:  Eféosa Mbuti MangBO.  “Mbuti MangBO” means “The Big Pygmy,” which is appropriate, since at six foot three I tower over the average (four-foot-seven) Pygmy man.  “Eféosa” means “The Man Who Loves Us.”

     Recently, after a five-year hiatus, I returned to the MMA cage with the goal of raising money for Fight for the Forgotten, the organization I founded to help serve the Pygmies.  The drive to fight is still there, but I’m no longer fighting my inner demons.  I’m fighting to fulfill God’s call on my life.

For more about Justin Wren and Fight for the Forgotten, go to:

http://www.water4.org/fightfortheforgotten

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Justin Wren  (on the left)

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Isaiah 58:6-12:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

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O Lord, our Savior, you have said that you will require much of those to whom much is given.  Grant that we who have been so richly blessed may strive together to extend to others what we so richly enjoy, to the fulfillment of your holy will and the everlasting salvation of all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–St. Augustine  (354-430)

1371) The Big Pygmy (a)

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Justin Wren (on the right)

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“I Went From Fighting in a Cage to Living in a Hut”

Romans 7:24  —  What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?

Romans 7:25  —   Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

John 8:36  —  (Jesus said), “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

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 CONFESSION OF SINS from the Lutheran liturgy:
Most merciful God, we confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.  We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us.  Forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.  Amen.

1370) Words from the Spirit

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From the Voice of the Martyrs January 2017 newsletter, (www.persecution.com)

     A pastor from an Islamic country in the Middle East recently shared the story of Shani, one of his church members.  Shani’s husband was the leader of a house church, until one day when he simply disappeared.  For three months, Shani had no idea where he was.  The authorities who had taken him had filed no charges against him, and he wasn’t allowed to see a lawyer or his family.

     Shani was left alone, worrying about her husband and about herself.  She knew her husband was strong and that his faith would endure even if he were tortured.  He would never give up names of other Christians or details about their secret gospel work.

     But Shani was afraid she wasn’t that strong.  “Dear God,” Shani prayed one night, “please don’t allow them to find me.  I can’t handle torture.  I cannot handle a jail cell.  I’m not strong like my husband.  If they torture me I’d probably give up the names of every single Christian.  I might even deny my faith completely.”  She prayed that prayer, then went to sleep.

     Shani was awakened at 6 a.m. the next morning by someone banging on her door.  When she looked out the window, she saw two police cars in front of her home.  “God!  I told you that I can’t handle arrest and torture,” she prayed.  “And this is what happens?  Whatever happens now, God, it’s your fault.”

     The police took Shani to the local jail, which was filthy and smelled like a sewer.  She had grown up in a wealthy family and had never been in a place like this.  

     In the middle of her first night in jail, the guards pulled her out of her cell and took her to an interrogation room.  The interrogator across the table from her looked very angry.

     “Why do you talk about Jesus to Muslims?” he demanded.  “Don’t you know that is illegal here?  You are not permitted to evangelize.”

     The only thing she could think to say was, ‘Dear God … Lord.”  Then she suddenly felt God’s presence and peace.

     Shani looked up at the interrogator.  “I have a right to evangelize,” she said, “and I’m happy that I’m evangelizing.  We’re supposed to evangelize.  This is a commandment from Jesus Christ.  Everyone needs to hear this Good News.  You need to hear this Good News, too.  God sent me here to tell you about Jesus.  You are a poor man.  I feel bad for you.  You don’t have peace, you don’t have joy, you don’t have hope.  You don’t even know why you are alive.  The only way to the truth is Jesus Christ.  You are an interrogator now, but one day you are going to stand before the ultimate judge, Jesus Christ, and He is going to examine you.  Without Him, there is no hope for you.  And Jesus is going to ask you, ‘Why did you do this to My servants?'”

     The interrogator was shocked by her bold words.  “I see,” he replied.  “I know exactly who you are now.  Your punishment has just increased.  Go back to your cell, and I’ll deal with you tomorrow.”

     As Shani was escorted back to her filthy cell, she prayed, “Oh, Lord, what did I do?  How could I have been so stupid?  Why did I even say all of that stuff?”  After further thought, she decided she would apologize to the interrogator and take it all back.  She decided she would say whatever he wanted her to say.

     The following night, the guards again dragged her out of her cell and into the interrogation room.  Despite her plan, she again felt the Holy Spirit’s guidance and began to share the gospel with her interrogator.  The third night, it happened again.  Each night, Shani entered the interrogation room with the intent of apologizing to the interrogator, and each night she instead boldly proclaimed the gospel.

      After the third interrogation, Sham went back to her cell hoping to give her mind a rest and fall asleep.  She hadn’t slept since her arrest and she was exhausted.  In the middle of the night, she heard a knock on her cell door.  To her surprise, it wasn’t a guard.  It was the interrogator.  Shani was terrified.  Was he coming to beat her or even to kill her because of her disrespect toward him?

     “Don’t worry,” the interrogator said calmly.  “I will not harm you.  I want to ask you for a favor.  Would you pray for me tonight?”  The interrogator entered Shani’s cell with tears in his eyes.

     “How did you know that God sent you here at this particular time in my life?” he asked.  “The past three days I’ve been going through hell.  How did you know that my life is so crazy, so messed up?  I tried everything in my religion and I could never find peace.  I learned today that the only Savior is Jesus Christ.  Please help me to be saved.”

     The interrogator stayed in Shani’s cell for three hours, and before he left, he placed his faith in Jesus Christ.  He then ordered the release of both Shani and her husband on the secret condition that they agree to meet privately to disciple him.

     Maybe you have prayed prayers like Shani’s:  Lord, I can’t handle cancer.  Lord, I can’t work for this difficult boss even one more day.  God, I can’t handle this rebellious teenager.  Lord, I can’t endure the betrayal of my unfaithful spouse.

     Shani told God she could not handle arrest, and that under torture she might give up the names of other Christians, or even deny her faith.  And yet this timid, fearful woman boldly shared her faith with her interrogator and everyone else in the room.  A frightened woman who thought she might deny her faith, ended up leading an enemy of the gospel into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

     Pastor Wally Magdangal is a Filipino Christian who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia.  He was arrested for his Christian ministry in Saudi Arabia and sentenced to death.  But God miraculously intervened, and Pastor Wally is still alive and serving the Lord today.

     As he shared his story with us, Pastor Wally said something profound: “Until God is finished with you, you are invincible.”  Until God says your time on earth is over (and He is the only one who can make that determination), you cannot be stopped.  We don’t have to live in fear of persecution, Muslim extremists, medical diagnoses, or anything else.  It’s not about us anyway; it’s about God and His power in us.  Because of God’s power in us, we need not be afraid.

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Luke 12:11-12  —  (Jesus said), “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.”

Luke 12:4  —  (Jesus said), “I say unto you my friends, Be not afraid of them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.”

Joshua 1:9  —  Have not I commanded you? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

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“Lord, help me.”  –Matthew 15:25b

1364) “I Don’t Give a …”

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     An old Catholic archbishop was giving his Good Friday sermon to a large crowd in his inner-city cathedral.  He told a story of three boys who long ago came into that same church during the confessional time.  They were laughing and joking and making all kinds of disrespectful racket.  Two of the boys then dared the other one to go into the confessional booth and make some stupid confession.  They made a bet that he would not do it.  But the boy did go in, and still chuckling, he made an outrageous confession to the priest.  He said that he had robbed several banks, beat up his parents, knifed many other tough guys in fights, and went to bed with a different woman every night.  His two friends were rolling in the aisles with laughter.  The priest, however, kept his cool and replied calmly, “My son, in the name of your Savior, Jesus Christ, all of your many sins are forgiven you.”

     The boy got up to leave and collect on his bet, but the priest called him back.  He said, “You are forgiven, but as you know, every word of forgiveness requires an act of penance.  This is what you must do.  When you leave the confessional booth, you must go to the altar and look up at the statue of Jesus on the cross, with the crown of thorns on his head, the nails in his hands and feet, the stab wound from the spear in his side, and the scars from the beatings on his back.  I want you to look into the eyes of your Lord on that cross, and I want you to say to him, ‘I know what you did for me Jesus and I’m here to tell you that I don’t give a damn.'”

     The boy stood still.  He was no longer laughing.  Now, he just wanted to get out of there.  He went to his friends and said, “There, I won the bet.  Let’s go.”  

     But the friends, still howling with laughter, said, “Oh no, you aren’t done yet.  If you want to win the bet, you have to finish your act of confession and do the act of penance.  Go in and do it.”  

     The boy did not want to go back, but he did not want to lose the bet.  So he went up to the cross, looked up at Jesus, and started to say, “I know what you did for me Jesus and I don’t give a …”  He stopped.  He could not finish the sentence.  He started again, and again stopped.  He tried one more time, and again had to quit.  Finally, he ran past his laughing friends and out of the church.  

     The old archbishop telling the story then ended his sermon by saying, “I was that young man, and that day changed my life.  I realized I could not say what the priest said I should say.  I realized that I did care what Jesus did for me, and I knew I should begin acting like I cared.  So the next day I went back to that priest and made a proper confession.  In time, I myself became a priest, and it was all because that priest in that confessional made me look at the wounds of Christ and think about how those wounds were for me.”

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Pray about any areas of your life in which you need to confess the attitude of “I know what is right, and I know what you want me to do, Jesus, and I know what you did for me– but I don’t care.”

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Isaiah 53:4-6  —  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows:  yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and by his stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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TRADITIONAL CATHOLIC PRAYER BEFORE A CRUCIFIX (www.catholic.org/prayers):

Look down upon me, good and gentle Jesus,
while before Thy face I humbly kneel and, with burning soul,
pray and beseech Thee
to fix deep in my heart lively sentiments
of faith, hope and charity;
true contrition for my sins,
and a firm purpose of amendment.
While I contemplate,
with great love and tender pity,
Thy five most precious wounds,
pondering over them within me
and calling to mind the words which David,
Thy prophet, said of Thee, my Jesus:
“They have pierced My hands and My feet, they have numbered all My bones.”  Amen.

1362) How to Repent (part two of two)

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     (continued…)   The next day one of the nurses saw her pastor who was visiting one of his parishioners in the same hospital.  She asked if he would stop in to see the woman, and he agreed to do so.  He went into her room and introduced himself and asked if she wanted to talk.  “It’s no use,” she said, “It is too late.  I have been a terrible sinner and I am going to hell and I deserve it.  But I am afraid.”

     “Well,” said the pastor, “the Bible says we are all terrible sinners, and you are right, you do deserve to go to hell, and so do I.  But Jesus died to save us from our sins.  Can I tell you about Jesus?”  The woman nodded, and the pastor continued.  He said, “The Apostle Paul wrote in the book of Romans, ‘While we were yet sinners, and enemies of God, Christ Jesus died for us.’  And do you know what Paul did before he became an apostle?  He hunted down and persecuted the early believers in Jesus, even standing by and approving as one named Stephen was executed by a mob.  But then Paul was saved.  And the Bible says that if you confess your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus, you too can be saved.  Do you want to confess your sins?”

     The woman listened attentively, but was confused.  “Confess?” she asked, “Now? To you?”

     “No,” said the pastor, “Not to me, but to Jesus.  But I will stay here to help you.  Are you sorry for your sins, and do you truly repent of them?”

    “Sorry, yes, I am sorry, nothing but sorry,” she said, “I am filled with regret; fear and regret and dread– I am feeling all of that right now.”

     “Well, that’s a good start,” the pastor said.  “The Bible says that fear is the beginning of wisdom, and that if are sorry for your sins you can be forgiven.  You are fearing God’s judgment and you have deep sorrow for your sins, and so you are ready to repent.  Shall we begin in prayer?”

     The woman bowed her head, and the pastor began.  He invited Jesus into the room, he told Jesus that this woman was a terrible sinner, and that she now wanted to confess her sins.  He asked her to pray a simple prayer from the Bible: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Sobbing, she repeated the words.  The pastor then encouraged her to begin to confess, and begin she did.  She started with how even as a child she was so mean to her parents, and then how, as a teenager she ran away from home.  She let them worry about her for months, not letting them know where she was or even if she was alive.  To support herself, she had gotten into a life of prostitution, which she was involved in on and off for years.  It was the only steady work she ever had.  Along with that she lied, cheated, betrayed her friends, and stole, doing whatever she could to stay alive and support her drug habit.  She had settled down a bit for a couple years, got married, and even had a child.  But the marriage ended and the child had long ago been taken away from her, and she made no effort to keep in touch.  Her parents were dead, her siblings had quit trying to contact her, and her few friends were all either dead or too full of their own troubles to come and see her.  She was alone with her regrets.  Her confession was filled with such crying that the nurses came in a couple times to make sure everything was all right.  Finally, she laid her head back on the pillow, exhausted and silent.

     The pastor said nothing for a long time, and then finally said, “You have indeed been a terrible sinner, and God hates sin.  But having confessed your sin, and being truly sorry for them, I can say to you, that in the mercy of Almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for you, and for his sake, God forgives you all your sins.  The Bible says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.’  Do you believe in Jesus and are you willing to invite him into your heart?”, the pastor asked.

      She replied, “I am not even sure what that all means, but yes, I want to believe.  I want to be forgiven and I want to go to heaven and not to hell.”

     “Just look to Jesus,” the pastor said, “just keep telling him that you want to believe, and he will take care of the rest.  When Jesus was on earth people came to him with even the smallest seed of faith, and he received them and blessed them.  When Jesus was dying on the cross, a thief was dying on a cross next to him.  And that thief came to Jesus then, just like you now, in the last hours of a miserable life.  And all that thief said was, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus said some wonderful words to him.  Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Let that be your simple prayer now and for whatever is left of your life; “Jesus, remember me.”  And then, when you fall asleep here, you will wake up not in hell, but in heaven with Jesus.  You have God’s word on it.  ‘Today,’ Jesus said, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise.’”

     The nurse who invited that pastor in told him later that the woman died peacefully a few days after that visit.  And instead of hearing her constant crying, the nurses would hear her praying over and over again, “Jesus, remember me.”  It was the only prayer she knew, but she had heard the story of how Jesus received and honored even such a simple plea for mercy as that.

     The love of God isn’t just an idea or a principal, like the first chaplain presented it, but it is to be found in a Person.  And the love of God isn’t just an ointment that you can smear over everything that moves, like the first chaplain did, without any reference to that woman’s sinful life or her complete absence of faith.  The love of God is received by faith and confession and repentance and prayer.  That woman knew her sin needed to be taken seriously and dealt with; and that is what the second pastor helped her do, along with calling her to faith in Christ Jesus.  We know the love of God by knowing Jesus, and we come to faith in God through Jesus, who forgives our sins.

     Faith isn’t just whatever you want it to be.  Faith has a specific object and content, it is faith in something solid, in Someone who was here, and who had some specific things to say, both promises and commands.  That Someone is Jesus Christ, the way and the truth and the life.  Confess your sins, repent, and believe in Jesus, and you will be saved.

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Proverbs 9:10  —  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.

I John 1:8-9  —  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

John 3:16  —  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

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God, have mercy on me, a sinner.  —  Luke 18:13b

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  –Luke 23:42

1361) How to Repent (part one of two)

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 I heard this story from another Lutheran pastor.  I will tell it as I remember it, filling in the conversation a bit as I go– but this was the gist of it.

     A middle-aged woman was dying of cancer in a big city hospital.  She received no visitors, and she was not accepting her fate very well.  She wept day and night, and sometimes her loud cries could be heard down the hall at the nurses station.  The nurses tried to help by offering her a sedative, but she did not want that.  The nurses offered to call the hospital chaplain, and the woman did agree to that.

     The chaplain came in and asked the woman if he could help her.  She said, “I will soon be dead, and then what is next for me pastor?  I am a terrible person, and I am afraid of going to hell.”  Being careful not to offend her religious beliefs, he asked about her church background.  She said, “I have no church background.  I was baptized, and my parents dragged me to church for a few years, but that was it.  I never believed in much of anything, but I have heard about hell, and I know that is where I am going.”

     “Well,” said the pastor, “I can assure you, God is a God of love, and God loves you and accepts you, just the way you are.  You have nothing to fear.”  She stopped crying, listened quietly, and said no more.  Finally, the pastor said a brief prayer and left the room.  He told the nurses that he thought the woman would all right now, and they thanked him for his visit.

     But the woman was not all right, and was soon crying as much as before.  She made no complaints to the nurses, and was not asking anyone for anything; but it saddened the nurses to see her so distraught.  They asked the dying woman if they should call the chaplain in for another visit.  She said, “No, don’t call him back.”  (continued…)

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Psalm 51:3  —  For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.

Lamentations 3:19-20  —  I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall.  I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me.

Hebrews 9:27  —  …It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that to face judgment.

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Ah Lord, my prayers are dead, my affections dead, and my heart is dead:  but you are a living God and I commit myself to you.  Amen.  –William Bridge

1355) The Book that Led its Own Author to Christ

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Lew Wallace (1827-1905)

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From the book 100 Bible Verses That Changed the World, by William and Randy Peterson, 2001, pages 141-142 (adapted).  

     By the time he wrote Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, General Lew Wallace had already achieved fame in several careers.  He had served in both the Mexican War and the Civil War; he had practiced law; and he had been governor of the New Mexico territory.

     Though he had a curiosity about religion, he was not a Christian.  In his own words: “I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment.  I had no convictions about God or Christ.  My ignorance of the Bible was painfully a spot of darkness in the darkness.  I was ashamed of myself.”

     Once he had spent several hours talking with the noted atheist Robert Ingersoll.  Ingersoll was the nation’s most prominent atheist, and tried hard to convince Wallace that Christianity was not true, “vomiting forth ideas and arguments like an intellectual volcano” Wallace later recalled. Ingersoll’s arguments made Wallace determined to come up with some personal convictions of his own about religion.  As Wallace started to read the New Testament, he was interested in the story of the wise men in Matthew chapter two.  Who were they?  Where in the East did they come from?  After considerable research he wrote up his ideas thinking that someday he might develop them into a magazine article.  Little did he know what would eventually develop from that research.

     A few months later he spent an evening with friends, discussing religion, the Bible, and Jesus Christ.  Wallace himself said very little that evening because he didn’t have much to say.  He had never thought religion was important, but after that discussion he considered the possibility that he had been wrong.  Again, he suspected that the answers would be in the Bible.

     Wallace felt that the best way to study something was to have a practical goal.  So he told his wife he was going to write a book, and that the subject would be Jesus Christ.  The first chapter would be derived from his research on the wise men, and the last chapter would be about the crucifixion.  When his wife asked him what he would put in between, he replied, “I don’t know yet.”

     His research and planning took seven years.  In the middle of that time, he was appointed governor of the New Mexico territory.  Occasionally his literary work would be temporarily disrupted by a war with Native American tribes or a death threat from the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid, but Wallace kept returning to his research and writing.  Besides reading the Bible, he read every book he could find about the Bible.  And as his research progressed, he more and more came to believe the Gospel accounts.  By time Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ was completed in 1880, Lew Wallace was convinced that Jesus was indeed the Christ.

     Wallace’s story tells of Judah Ben-Hur, a patrician Jew whose enemy, Messala, causes him to be unjustly sentenced to the galleys and his family to be imprisoned.  When Ben-Hur is freed, he enters a chariot race against Messala, and in the race Messala is defeated and maimed.  Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, freed by the new Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate, are cured of leprosy by Jesus shortly before his crucifixion.

     The book quickly rose to the top of the U. S. all-time best-selling list (not counting the Bible) and remained there until 1936.  In 1926 it was made into a silent film; its producers spent more than four million dollars to make it, a record up to that time.  Then in 1959 it was remade as a three-and-a-half-hour epic blockbuster.  Some critics have called it the greatest epic film ever made.  The film, which cost fifteen million and took six years to make, was nominated for twelve Academy awards and won eleven.  It was again made into a movie in 2016.  It has been called the most influential religious book of the 19th century.

     And it all began because General Lew Wallace wanted to find out a bit more about the wise men.

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“It’s one of the great if little known ironies in the history of American literature: Having set out to win another soul to the side of skepticism, Robert Ingersoll instead inspired a Biblical epic that would rival the actual Bible for influence and popularity in Gilded Age America—and a folk story that has been reborn, in one medium or another, in every generation since.”

–John Swansburg

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Matthew 2:1  —  Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. (KJV)

II Peter 1:16  —   For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

Deuteronomy 4:29  —  If… you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.

Luke 11:9  —  (Jesus said), “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”

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Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

–Mark 9:24

1336) No Mutts

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“NO SUCH THING AS A MUTT” by Roy Borges

     The first time I laid eyes on my brother’s dog, I didn’t like him.  He was a mangy old mutt.  As far as I was concerned, he was utterly worthless.  He didn’t know any tricks.  He picked the most inconvenient times to have to go out.  And he wasn’t a very good watchdog.  In fact, if anybody ever tried to break into our house, I’m sure this dog would have helped him.

     My brother’s dog knew how much I disliked him.  That’s why he made it his mission in life to torment me.  For example, he never chewed up anything that belonged to my brother.  But that lousy dog chewed up everything I owned.  One day he chewed up the title to my car.

     I despised this mutt.  But I loved my brother very much.  So, one afternoon, I agreed to help him out by babysitting his dog.  But as I worked around the house that day, I soon forgot about the dog.  And when someone – maybe me – left the front door open, that sneaky mutt ran right out into the street.  Suddenly I heard the screeching of tires and a sad, mournful yelp.  I ran to the door.  There in the middle of the road lay my brother’s dog.  I knew he was dead.  I’ll never forget the pain on my brother’s face when he came home and found the dog he loved lying dead on the living room floor.  I’d never seen my brother cry, not even when I smashed up his brand new car.  But he cried that day.  I cried inside as I watched my brother suffer.

     Suddenly I realized that just because I didn’t see anything good about this mutt didn’t mean there wasn’t anything good about him.  My brother saw this dog with a different set of eyes than I did.  He loved him a lot.

     Sometimes it’s like that with people.  We meet others who look like mutts to us.  They have irritating personalities.  They do things we don’t like.  They cause us problems.  All in all, they seem pretty worthless.  We just don’t like them.  Maybe we even hate them.

     So it’s hard to understand what God could possibly see in them.  But God looks at each of us with a different set of eyes.  He loves every one of us very much.  In fact, He loves every one of us so much that He sent His only Son to die on the cross for us so that we could know salvation and spend eternity with Him.  There are no mutts in God’s eyes.

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     Roy Borges, the author of this little story, has a reason for wanting to write about mutts.  He says, “I’ve been a mutt for much of my life, someone looked down upon as a worthless person, someone nobody wanted; and for good reason.”  Roy is 68 years old, and in his 32nd year of a 45 year sentence at the Florida State Prison after being found guilty of committing several burglaries.  He was 36 years old when he was sent up for that long sentence on the three strike law.  He had been in and out of prison several times before that, and the judge decided that the Florida court system had had enough of him.

     In between his previous times in prison, Roy had gotten married and fathered a child.  But he lost both his wife and daughter after a pattern of abuse and abandonment.  When he wasn’t robbing homes, he was using drugs.  He learned both habits as a child from his heroin addicted ex-con father.  Roy Borges admits he was worse than his brother’s worthless mutt.  After all, the dog just laid around all day, and at worst chewed up shoes or other items.  But Borges left behind a path of pain and misery wherever he went.

     In December of 1989 Roy’s life was changed dramatically.  He went to the prison chapel service on Christmas Eve.  He heard a fellow inmate talk about his conversion to faith in Jesus Christ and the tremendous impact that had on his life, even though he was still in prison.  Roy decided to give his life to Christ, and he has not been the same since.

     Roy began to spend all his free time reading to learn more about his new faith.  Then, he began to write about it.  He said this was a great surprise to him, because English was his worst subject in school, and now, he wanted to read and write all the time.  God has blessed his efforts.  Several of his articles have been published, first in the prison newspaper, and then in national magazines.  He has won several writing awards and has written two books.

     Roy Borges remains in prison.  The article I read did not say when he was eligible for parole, but he is sentenced to be in prison until he is over eighty years old. So his time is divided between writing and working at his job in the prison kitchen. He says, “My greatest desire is to write for other prisoners.  So many of them are lost, like I was for so long, and I know how to speak to them. This writing has given my life meaning and purpose even here.  God has given me this gift and this work so that I can serve him.”

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Roy Borges, inmate #029381, Florida State Prison system

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

Luke 4:18-19  —  (Jesus said), “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Psalm 119:141  —  Though I am lowly and despised, I do not forget your precepts.

Psalm 22:23-24  —  You who fear the Lord, praise him!…  For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.

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Almighty and most merciful God, we call to mind before you all those whom it would be easy to forget:  the homeless, the destitute, the sick, the aged, those in prison, and all who have none to care for them.  Help us to heal those who are broken in body or spirit, and to turn their sorrow into joy.  Grant this, Father, for the love of your Son, who for our sake became poor, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg, 1978, prayer #181, (adapted)

1310) A Prayer for an Unbelieving Husband

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A story told by Tom Housholder, pastor/evangelist in the former American Lutheran Church.  The story took place in the 1950’s in  Housholder’s first congregation.  I heard him tell this story when I was on internship in Sisseton, South Dakota in 1979.

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     Elmer lived the life of a hermit in a remote cabin in a valley in the mountains of Idaho.  Elmer had no friends, and no one knew anything about him.  His cabin was far from any main road, so people knew of him only because of his occasional trips into town to buy a few things.  Elmer did not go to church anywhere and never talked to anyone about anything.

     One day Elmer parked his old truck in front of the Lutheran church and went in to talk to Pastor Tom.  The pastor was surprised to see Elmer, and invited him to come into his office.  Elmer introduced himself and said, “Pastor, I would like to be baptized.  Would you do that for me?”

     Without hesitating, Pastor Tom said, “Sure, Elmer.  But can I ask you what made you decided you wanted to be baptized?”

     “Well, pastor,” Elmer said, “it was my wife that got me thinking.”

     “Your wife!” said a surprised Pastor Tom.  “I didn’t know you had a wife.”

     “I don’t anymore,” Elmer said looking down.  “She’s been dead for about sixty years.”

     The pastor shook his head and said, “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

     “It’s a long story,” Elmer replied, and then went on to tell the pastor the story of his life, a story no one in town had ever heard.

     Elmer was originally from Minnesota.  He got married, and he and his wife moved to North Dakota where they homesteaded a farm.  There, they had a child, and with tears in his eyes Elmer talked about how happy the three of them were.

     One afternoon in their second winter on the farm, Elmer’s wife and baby were visiting at a neighbor’s house.  Early in the evening it started to snow, so Elmer’s wife and child left for home.  On their way, the gentle snow suddenly turned into a blizzard, with the intense prairie winds blowing the heavy snow so hard that the mother could not see where she was going.  They lost their way, and both froze to death that night in the rapidly falling temperature.

     Elmer was devastated by the tragedy.  He could not get over it.  In the long and lonely nights that followed, he came to a decision.  He would never love anyone like that again.  In fact, for the rest of his life he would not even try to get to know anyone.  He did not want to leave himself open to being hurt like that ever again.

     The next Spring Elmer packed up a few belongings and headed farther west.  He bought a small place in this mountain valley, built a cabin on it, and stayed there.  And he kept that promise he made to himself, and never got to know a single person.

     One of the few things Elmer brought along from his home in North Dakota was his wife’s Bible.  It was important to her, and he had fond memories of her reading it every day.  Elmer said he was never interested in religion.  His wife would occasionally bring it up to him, but he paid no attention, and she never forced it.

     Many thousands of times over the last sixty years, Elmer would sit in his rocking chair and hold that Bible in his hands, thinking of his wife and how happy they were together.  He never opened the Bible.  He still was not interested in what it had to say.  Elmer just held that Bible because it reminded him of his wife.

     “Well,” Elmer said as he neared the end of his story, “I have arthritis in my hands now and I have been dropping things.  Last night when I reached over to pick up the Bible, it slipped out of my hands.  It fell open on the floor, and inside I could see a small piece of paper.  I put on my glasses to take a closer look, and I saw it was my wife’s handwriting.  It was a prayer.  It said, ‘Lord, get a hold of Elmer—he doesn’t know you yet.’  That isn’t much, but it was enough to make me want to do something about it.”

     Over the next few weeks Pastor Tom met with Elmer to help him ‘get to know the Lord.’  When baptism day came, everyone in the small congregation gathered around the font to serve as his sponsors.  When the baptism was complete, Elmer, who had never again wanted to get close to anyone, looked up and said to everyone, “Hi, family.”

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I Corinthians 7:13-14a…15b-16  —  If a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband…  God has called us to live in peace.  How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?  Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

James 5:16b  —   The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

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Lord, get a hold of _______.  He/she doesn’t know you yet.  Amen.

1283) Do Not Presume… Do Not Despair…

Luke 23:32-33…38-43:

 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with Jesus to be executed.  When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals— one on his right, the other on his left…  There was a written notice above him, which read: This is the king of the Jews.  One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him:  “Aren’t you the Messiah?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other criminal rebuked him.  “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence?  We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve.  But this man has done nothing wrong.”  Then he 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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     There is much one could say about this little exchange of words between two criminals and the Savior of the world.  I want to say something about the last minute conversion of one of the criminals.

     Jesus once told a parable about workers in a vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).  Some of the workers begin very early in the morning and work all day, others are hired throughout the day, and some don’t begin until five in the afternoon.  But then all of them are paid the same wage.  One of the lessons of that parable is that the door is always open, we may come to faith anytime, and God receives us with his fullest blessings.

     We might assume that these two thieves on the crosses next to Jesus were not believers.  But now, right at the very end of their lives, they have the greatest opportunity possible for a last minute conversion.  They were dying in the presence of the Son of God himself.  One of them sees Jesus and believes in Him, and the other does not.  That’s how is is with last minute conversions– sometimes they happen and sometimes they don’t.

     Think about the mothers of those two boys, probably at home worrying about them.  These mothers no doubt worried much over the years, disappointed with how their boys turned out.  Maybe they didn’t even know where their sons were that day; though perhaps they did hear about their trial and the sentence to be executed for their crimes.  We can imagine that the biggest worry for those mothers was to think that their sons were dying without being right with God.  And unless they were at the cross that day, and heard this conversation with Jesus, they would have been left with uncertainty.  But they would have probably been quite sure their boys died without being right with God, and that leaves a terrible sadness.

     St. Augustine was one time asked a question by a mother in that very position, distraught about the fate of her son that died.  He had drifted away from his Christian faith, and she did not know if he had ever returned to the Lord.  In his reply Augustine referenced this story.  He said, “Do not presume anything, one thief was lost.  But do not despair, one thief was saved.”

     Do not presume, he said, there are no guarantees– one thief was lost.  He rejected and even insulted Jesus right to the very end.  I have seen people die that way.

     But, Augustine said, do not despair, for one thief was saved.  In his last day, perhaps it was even his last hour, he looked to Jesus in faith.  That can happen.  I have seen that, too.  Even on a death bed, even in quiet of one’s own heart without anyone else seeing, hearing, or ever knowing, just between the person and Jesus, right at the end, one can come to faith.

     Do not presume… do not despair…

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Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

–Luke 23:42

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