837) Old and New

Image result for jeremy taylorMany people do not have the time or the desire to read books on theology and the Christian life.  It is estimated that over 90% of what printed by Christian publishers is purchased by less than 10% of American Christians.  British pastor and author Jeremy Taylor would not disapprove.  While the above quote makes abundantly clear the importance of giving such attention to our spiritual concerns, the quote below recommends ‘little reading and much thinking.’  It is hoped that these daily Emailmeditations can provide an opportunity for that, giving you ‘a little reading’ each day to help you think about your relationship with God and your eternal destiny.

Read not much at a time; but meditate as much as your time and capacity and disposition will give you leave; ever remembering that little reading and much thinking, short prayers and great devotion, is the best way to be wise, to be holy, to be devout.

–Jeremy Taylor  (1613-1667)

Psalm 90:12  —  Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

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C. S. Lewis once said that for every new book one reads, one should also read an old classic, in order to broaden one’s mind beyond the narrow limits our own time and culture.  I have tried to do that, and have often found the old classics to be slow and difficult reading.  There is a reason why Mark Twain said, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.”  But I have usually found the effort to be worthwhile, discovering valuable treasures in these old books.  And then, as advised by Coleridge in the quote below, I like to share it.

Great works are not in everybody’s reach, and though it is better to know them thoroughly than to know them here and there, yet it is a good work to give a little to those who have neither the time nor the means to get more.  Let every bookworm, when in any scarce old tome, he discovers a sentence, a story, or an illustration that does his heart good, hasten to share it.

–S. T. Coleridge  (1772-1834), English poet and philosopher

Matthew 13:52  —  (Jesus) said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

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These Emailmeditations are much briefer than reading an entire book, but still may sometimes require a slow and careful reading.  Renovare’s Christopher Webb writes:

It is not always easy to read these old books.  That is not only because they are rooted in the past, although it is true that sometimes we will need to be ready to understand that the author is speaking from, and addressing, the concerns, assumptions, and even prejudices of another age.  It can also be difficult because we are used to reading quickly.  Woody Allen once quipped that, after taking a speed reading course, “I read War and Peace in twenty minutes– it’s about Russia.”  The spiritual classics simply will not submit to that kind of treatment.  Instead, we need to approach them using some of the skills of ‘lectio divina,’ divine reading.  We need to read slowly, savoring the turns of phrase and the insights they embody.  We need to read expectantly, open to the possibility that this writing might change the course of our lives.  And we need to read longingly, with a heartfelt desire that our reading will not only teach us about Jesus, but actually lead us into his presence.  Reading in this way takes time– it can takes months to work through a single book– but that is all right.  We need to remember that the goal is not turning the pages; it is turning our hearts.  

In 1955 Scottish theologian John Baillie edited A Diary of Readings, devotional readings for each day of the year, selected from writers throughout the history of Christianity.  What he wrote in his preface about his book could also apply to many of the selections for these daily meditations:

So many different traditions, as well as periods, and no doubt tempers of mind, are represented that not everyone, and perhaps no one, can make every page his own.  I could not myself do this.  But I hope each page may be found worth attending to and thinking about, and that from it something may be learned.  Some pages may be thought difficult, but it does not hurt to have our minds stretched a little, even when we do not fully comprehend.

Philippians 4:8  —  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

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Guide me, O Lord, in all the changes of my life in this world; that in all things that shall happen, I may have an evenness and tranquility of spirit; that my soul may be resigned to thy divine will and pleasure, never murmuring against thy gentle chastisements and fatherly correction.  Amen.

–Jeremy Taylor

706) Learning the Language of Heaven

Adapted from Dr. Walter Sundberg’s chapel sermon, March 12, 2008, at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota

     The United States has been and still is a nation of immigrants, and millions of these new arrivals want to learn the language of their new country.  Thus, there is a great need for ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers and volunteers.  I have heard that ESL volunteers are told in training that when someone learns a new language, each WORD must be repeated a minimum of 50-60 times before it is implanted in the brain.  To teach someone a new language is a long and laborious process, requiring great patience.

     Think of it, between 50 and 60 times of saying or hearing each word before it is in the mind for good!  And think of how many words it takes to build even one sentence; one sentence so someone can then, finally, make a comment on the weather, communicate a thought, or ask directions.

     A child growing up learns the language of their parents quickly, but this is hard work for an adult. A great deal of effort is necessary to find one’s way in not only the language, but also in the whole culture of a new and different country.  Much knowledge is needed to find our way around in this mortal, earthly realm.

     So what effort, we might ask, is needed to learn things in the realm of the spirit, things necessary to find our way to and in that heavenly realm?  How much repetition would be needed to learn the language of faith, the language of trust in God and obedience to God?

     Jesus touched on this a little bit in a discussion one time with his disciples.  “Seventy times seven” he said, “you must forgive your brother.”  70 x 7.  The disciples had asked if three times might be enough, but Jesus said, “Oh no, it is going to take a lot more practice than that!”  It is by repetition that we learn the language we speak, and it is by repetition that we learn the language of faith.  There are a few other times when such numbers are mentioned in the Bible in connection with growing in faith.  In the Old Testament, God made the ancient Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years before they could enter the promised land– forty years for them to learn to trust and obey their God.  Forty days Moses spent on the mountaintop, praying and preparing to receive the Ten Commandments.  Jesus himself was led into the desert to be tested for forty days.

     And the Season of Lent is forty days in the church year to remember again the story of Christ’s sufferings and death for you; a time to hear again the same story, hear the same Gospel preached, receive the same sacrament of the bread and wine, the sign and seal of his promise of the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation for you.

     Think of all the many Sundays you have gone to church over the years, going through the same order of service again and again; to confess your sins again, to hear that word of forgiveness again, to say the Creed and the Lord’s prayer again, to hear those same Scripture lessons read again, and to hear yet another sermon.  So much effort just to learn the language of the spirit, as we stumble and mumble along in our clumsy way on the path to God.  But this is an effort we must make, and must continue to make.  

     That is, unless you already have this all firmly planted in your mind, heart, and soul.  But do you?  Is there ever a week that you do not have any sins to confess?  Do you already know all there is to know from the Scriptures?  Is your faith is so strong that you do not need the weekly reminders and encouragements and presence of the Holy Spirit?  You won’t need to answer that.  God has already answered it for you.  He made it clear in his commandments when he said, Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep it Holy.  Remember by repetition, by observing the Sabbath every week.  It takes great effort to learn another language so that it is firmly implanted in the mind– 50-60 repetitions for each word.  How can we expect that the language of faith, this language of an entirely different realm, should be easy or come automatically?

     Given the choice, I would never have learned any other languages.  English would have been enough for me.  But my educational goals forced me to learn three languages.  I needed two years of a foreign language to help me get into college, so I studied French in high school.  I then needed two years of a foreign language to get my Bachelor’s degree, so I studied German in college.  I needed three semesters of ancient Greek to graduate from seminary, and so I studied Greek.  After six years of such study I can assure you, repetition works in learning a language.  It is the only thing that works.  And repetition takes time.  The more time I spent, the better grades I received.  When I spent the time studying, I would get A’s– always in German, and usually in Greek.  When I did not spend the time, I failed, as I did one semester in Greek when I took too many classes and worked too many hours at my job.  I did not take the time for the repetition.

     Repetition is the key to learning and maintaining the knowledge of a language.  The language I learned best was German.  After two years, I was able to carry on a simple conversation.  But then I never used the German that I learned, and within a few years lost almost everything.

     The language of faith also needs repetition, or faith can be lost.  So, “On the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread and gave thanks, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying, take and eat, this is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.Keep doing this, Jesus said, keep repeating this ritual; because it will help you remember me, it will help you remember what I did for you.  It will, we might say, help us learn and remember the language and the ways of that spiritual realm, that heavenly world in which we will one day be newly arrived immigrants.

     Our liturgical tradition, so often condemned as the ‘same old thing’ week after week, is built on this principle that we learn by repetition.  It sounds like work, but it is all grace; because what we keep hearing over and over again in that liturgy is the truth about ourselves– that we are weak and fragile– and that we need to come back time after time to find our refuge and strength.  The truth is that we will never finally grasp it, never get completely rid of the sin, never really get it all together.  God knows that.  But still we are invited back to hear again and again God’s word of forgiveness and his promise of eternal life, won for us by the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.  We are reminded that ‘we are weak and he is strong’ (as we learned in Sunday School), and that we have all fallen short, but that God in Christ has saved us.  So yes, God does insists that we come back, every Sabbath, but only so we don’t forget and turn away; so that we will keep the faith and do not become lost as we emigrate to that heavenly land.

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Luke 22:19  —  (Jesus) took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

I Corinthians 11:25  —  In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Matthew 18:22  —  Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

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PRAYER AFTER WORSHIP:

Grant, O Lord, that the words we have said with our lips we may believe in our hearts and show in our lives, to your honor and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

480) Samuel Johnson on ‘The Need to be Reminded’

18th century linguist Samuel Johnson often said that in the area of morality we do not so much need ‘instruction’ as we need ‘reminding.’  Most of the time, he would say, the problem is not that we don’t know what is the right thing to do, but, for whatever reason, we often do what we know to be wrong.  The best remedy, Johnson says, is to find ways to constantly remind ourselves of God’s presence in our lives, and of his commandments.  Weekly worship and daily devotions are good ways to keep us mindful of God; and, remembering God, says Johnson, is the most effective incentive and encouragement for the doing of what is right.  Or as Moses said, we must be careful and watch closely so that we do not forget what God has done for us and let his Word slip from our heart.

What follows is from the writings of Samuel Johnson.  Johnson was not a pastor, but occasionally wrote sermons for his pastor.  A couple sections from two of these sermons are here edited and paraphrased.

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From #19, Sermons:

     Most of the wrongs we do in our lives arise not from ignorance, but from negligence.  We know what we should do,– we just don’t do it.  And sometimes, the obligations that are best known, are most readily forgotten.  However strong or durable our knowledge of right and wrong, our resolve to do the right is weakened by time or by distractions.  It is necessary then, that our minds be enlightened by frequent repetition of basic moral instructions, which if not recollected, quickly lose their effect…

      If we truly observe our own hearts and conduct, we see how difficult it is to preserve the precepts of religion in their full force and how easily we forsake the ways of virtue.  Many temptations surround us and many obstacles oppose us.  We are lulled by laziness, we are seduced by pleasure, we are led astray by bad examples, and we are betrayed by our own hearts.  Very quickly do we relax our attentions to the doctrines of pure Christian living, and we grow cold and indifferent to religion.  When we are then called on to do the right thing in the moment of decision, we find our minds entangled by a thousand objections and we are quick to make every excuse.  And because we readily satisfy ourselves with our excuses, we are willing to imagine that we shall also satisfy God.  But the God of infinite holiness and justice sees into our hearts and minds and penetrates our hypocrisy.

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From #9, Sermons:

     All sin that is committed by Christians is committed either through an absolute forgetfulness of God, or, because the ideas of God and religion that were in our minds were not strong enough to overcome and suppress the desire created by some other, more pleasing, or more terrifying choice.  That is to say, the love or fear of some temporary good or evil, were more powerful that the love or fear of God.

     The ideas that influence our conduct can be more strongly impressed on the mind only by frequent recollection.  For every idea, whether of love, fear, grief, or any other passion, loses its force by time; and, unless revived by regular meditation, will at last vanish.  But by dwelling upon ideas, we increase their force, gradually making those ideas predominant in the soul.  These moral values and virtues can then become more powerful than our passions, so that morality shall easily overrule those appetites which formerly ruled within us.

     Therefore, when a person neglects worship and God’s Word, he may begin to lose all ability to distinguish good and evil, and having no fear of God to oppose his inclination to wickedness, he may go forward from sin to sin with no remorse.  But if one struggles against temptation and does not give in to idleness and despair, he may find himself able, at least at times, to resist the wrong and do what is right.  And that resistance is greatly aided by a diligent attendance upon the service and the sacraments of the church, together with a regular practice of private devotion.  This strengthens faith, imprints upon the mind an habitual attention to the laws of God, and gives one a constant sense of God’s presence– all of which will help one in the avoidance of the snares of sin.  The one who thus regularly reminds himself of God and his commands, will find that the fear of God will grow superior to the desires of wealth or the love of sinful pleasure.  And by continuing to receive the blessings and wisdom of worship and God’s Word, the attributes of goodness and faith will be preserved and not weakened, and he will be able to persevere in a steady practice of virtue and will enjoy the unspeakable pleasures of a quiet conscience.

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Romans 7:15  —   I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

Deuteronomy 4:9  —  (Moses said), “Be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live.

Exodus 20:8  —  Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.

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Almighty God, give us a measure of true religion and thereby set us free from vain and disappointing hopes, from lawless and excessive appetites, from frothy and empty joys, from anxious, self-devouring cares, from a dull and black melancholy, from an eating envy and swelling pride, and from rigid sourness and severity of spirit; so that we may possess that peace which passeth all understanding, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

 –Benjamin Whichcote (1609-1683), English philosopher