1520) Just Let God

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   An often quoted definition of faith is to “Let Go and Let God.”  That is to say, let go of your fears and your worries and have the faith to let God take care of you.   It has a nice ring to it, but I was never completely sold on it myself.   Let go and let God do what?— pay my bills, get the transmission fixed on my car, and mow my lawn when I don’t have time.  I don’t think it will work to let go and let God do any of that.  So let go and let God do what?  That line certainly does not apply to everything.  I still have to pay my bills, make an appointment to get the car fixed, and find time to mow my lawn.  But those are the little things in life, and God has given me the strength and the ability to work through that sort of a to-do list all by myself.  But there are other things, bigger things, that do not fit on any to-do list that we are able handle.  Where do I go with my feelings of guilt?  What do I do about my frustration with how fast the years are flying by?  And what about the sadness of seeing loved ones dying all around me?  I’ll never get around to fixing those things because I do not have the strength or the ability or the resources to do so.  It is in these deeper, larger aspects of life that we must ‘Let go and Let God.’  Let go and let God carry you through, now and on into the life to come.  

      This was illustrated for me rather nicely in a story by Father John Powell, a Roman Catholic priest who took some time off from his parish to care for his dying mother.  Here’s his story about how that went.  He writes:     

     I remember in the last days of my mother’s life I used to carry her up and down the stairs of her home.   Her arthritis was so bad by then she could no long manage the stairs by herself.   As I would carry her up and down the stairs, she would grab onto the railing and hold on so that we could not move.  I would say, “Mom, let go, we can’t move.”  And then she would always say the same thing, “No, I am afraid you will drop me.”  Then I would say again, “No, let go.”  And she would always respond, “No, I am afraid you will drop me.”  Finally, she would let go for a while and we would start to move, and then she would grab the railing again, and it would start all over.  One day, as we were going through our little routine, I thought to myself, “Ah, what a perfect analogy for faith.  God has us in His arms and is saying “Come on, let go,” and we are saying to Him, “No, I am afraid you will drop me….”

       That is indeed a wonderful image of what it is to live by faith.  We need the faith to face all those big things in life, but we say, “What if none of this is true?  I can’t see God, what if it is just us here on this little earth?  I am so afraid of death.”  So we desperately cling to this life, trying to have it all and do it all right here, right now, and we hate to see the time getting away on us.  And God is saying, “just let go.  Take my hand and let me lead you.  Surrender your fears to faith in me, and really let go, you will be fine.”  Let go and let God forgive you, let go and let God give you an inner peace even amidst all of life’s outward troubles.  Yes indeed, live to the fullest every day that God gives you now, but be ready when the time comes to let go and trust God that he will make good on his promises for eternal life.

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Deuteronomy 31:8  —  The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

Isaiah 40:11  —  He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah 46:4  —  Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

I Peter 5:6-7  —  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

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God his own doth tend and nourish,

In his holy courts they flourish.

From all evil things he spares them,

In his mighty arms he bears them.

Children of the Heavenly Father (verse two), Caroline Berg (1832-1903)

1503) Creatio Ex Nihilo

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Creatio Ex Nihilo (Latin) = “Creation Out of Nothing.”

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I Believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.

–First Article of the Apostle’s Creed

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Nothing can be made from nothing; once we see that’s so,
Already we are on the way to what we want to know.

–Lucretis, Roman poet and philosopher (First century, B. C.)

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“You may find it hard to believe that God made everything out of nothing, but it takes a lot more faith to believe that nothing turned itself into everything.”

–Mark Cahill

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“I felt in my bones that this universe does not explain itself.”  

–C. S. Lewis

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There is nothing in observable natural law that can explain the creation of matter and energy out of nothing.  There have been many wild speculations by scientists, all of which require far more faith to believe in than Genesis 1:1.  And just because it is a scientist doing the guessing, does not mean that such guesses or speculations can be even tested by the scientific method, much less verified.  Many people have therefore concluded that there must be a God above and beyond what science can observe, measure, and test.  

Then again, as children often ask, “But who made God?”  That is an interesting question, but not one a Christian is required to answer.  It is the atheist whose explanation of the universe must be limited to the observable laws of nature.  Christians believe there is more to reality than can ever be explained.  Christians believe in a God who we cannot see, whose power is unlimited, who is not bound by any natural laws we have observed, and whose kingdom is bigger than the universe that we observe, test, and measure.  With such a God and that view of reality, anything is possible.  We will know something about that God only if He chooses to reveal Himself, and then confirms such revelations by miracles that defy natural explanation– such as a man rising from the dead.

Christians will readily admit we do not have the observable facts or the tools to explain the universe.  We confess our faith in a God beyond our knowing, who is eternal and “not made” (Nicene Creed) by anyone or anything else, and who is beyond the necessary ’cause and effect’ chain of events of our universe.  Our small minds cannot even imagine the fullness of God; just as we will never be able to explain this universe and its origin without reference to the God above it.  And the more we learn about the universe, the laws of nature, and the complexity of life, the more difficult it becomes to explain it all without reference to a power beyond what we see. 

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From a scientist (considered by many to be the Einstien of today) who does not believe in God and has done a bit of such speculating about the origins of the universe:

“The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the big bang are enormous,” he told me.  “I think there are clearly religious implications whenever you start to discuss the origins of the universe.  There must be religious overtones.  But I think most scientists prefer to shy away from the religious side of it.”

–Theoretical Physicist and Author Stephen W. Hawking, quoted in  Stephen Hawking’s Universe, by John Boslough, page 109.

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Genesis 1:1  —  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Psalm 33:6…9  —  By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth…  For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Isaiah 40:28  —  Do you not know?  Have you not heard?  The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

Hebrews 11:3  —  By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

Romans 1:20  —  For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

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Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory in the heavens.  (Psalm 8:1)

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.  (Psalm 19:1-2)

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart
    be pleasing in your sight,
    Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.  (Psalm 19:14)

1453) God’s Justice (part two of two)

A Jewish legend, translated from a small volume published in 1929, Judische Legenden, as told by Else Schubert-Christaller; printed in The Plough Reader, Summer 2001 (adapted).

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     (…continued)  At this, the rabbi could no longer keep his thoughts to himself any longer.  He turned and shouted at Elijah, “I tremble before you, but is this God’s justice, that the devout suffer pain, while the evil receive love?  If so, woe is me, for my heart has lost God.”  

     Elijah towered over him.  There was power in his voice as he rebuked the rabbi:  “You fool!  Who do you think you are to babble about God’s justice because of what you see in just a few hours with your little eyes?  Did I not tell you that you would not be able to bear what I do?”

     But Rabbi Joshua flung himself down on his knees and beat his head against the earth and cried out, “Tell me why you have done all this, or I shall die without faith!”

     Elijah replied, “You, who just three days ago believed yourself to be a godly man, full of understanding, and now you talk like this!  Do you have no trust in God?  Do you know more than God?  Do you think you are kinder and more just than God?  Must you see and understand everything in order to trust God?”

     Despairing, Rabbi Joshua kissed the dust at Elijah’s feet.  Then Elijah said, “I will explain everything to you.  The poor man whose cow I killed was guilty of a great sin and deserved worse.  But because of his godliness, God did not want to afflict him or his wife for it.  Instead, God took the cow as atonement.  As for the man whose wall I straightened; beneath its stones a treasure lay hidden.  Had he made the repairs himself, he would have discovered it.  This treasure would only have served to harden his heart more and increase his evil.  Then, I wished the arrogant men at the synagogue to become city officials, because a city with many officials will be a place of great quarreling, and they will go to ruin in conflict.  Their own arrogance will punish them.  And as for the good man who died here last night– God rewarded him by giving him just what he wanted.  He had lived a long and abundant and godly life.  And now, he desired no more than to have a quiet and peaceful death.  That is what God, in his mercy, granted him last night.”  

     Then Elijah spoke to the rabbi for the last time.  He said, “Stand up, oh man!  Our journey together is ended.  What you have seen with me you will see wherever you may wander on the earth.  But now, when you see wicked people living in lust and happiness while godly ones live in poverty and pain, let your trust in God be great and humble.  The poor farmer had no idea why his cow died, but it was God’s mercy.  The rude farmer had no idea why his wall was repaired, but it was God’s punishment.  The synagogue leaders thought they were getting rewarded by getting the high position they wanted, but they were being punished.  And you thought the old man who died was getting punished, but he was getting his reward.  Things are seldom how they seem.  Who are you, who sees so little, to judge God, who sees all.  Who are you, that you should have the impudence to know the ways of the All-wise One, or search the paths of the Incomprehensible?  It is enough that you believe in God and trust and obey Him.  Leave God’s business to God.  Be silent now before God’s righteousness, which is far beyond your grasp.”

     Elijah turned away from him and disappeared.  But Rabbi Joshua sat still, praying to God.  This time, he prayed not in despair and confusion and anger, but in faith and trust.

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Job 10:1-3; 13:1…3 —  (Job said),  “I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.  I say to God: Do not declare me guilty, but tell me what charges you have against me.  Does it please you to oppress me, to spurn the work of your hands, while you smile on the plans of the wicked?…  My eyes have seen all this, my ears have heard and understood it...  I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.”

Job 38:1-4  —  Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said: “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.  “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?  Tell me, if you understand.”

Job 40:1-5; 42:6   —  The Lord said to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?  Let him who accuses God answer him!”  Then Job answered the Lord:  “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?  I put my hand over my mouth.  I spoke once, but I have no answer— twice, but I will say no more…  Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.

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Psalm 46:10a  —  He says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Psalm 37:1-2…5-9  —  Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away…  Commit your way to the Lordtrust in him and he will do this:  He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.  Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.  Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.  For those who are evil will be destroyed, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.

II Corinthians 4:18  —  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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O God in heaven, I thank you that you do not require me to comprehend you and your ways; for if that were required, I would be most miserable.  The more I seek to comprehend you, the more incomprehensible you are.  Therefore, I thank you that you require only faith, and I pray that you increase my faith in you.  Amen.

— adapted from a prayer by Soren Kierkegaard  (1813-1855)

1452) God’s Justice (part one of two)

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A Jewish legend, translated from a small volume published in 1929, Judische Legenden, as told by Else Schubert-Christaller; printed in The Plough Reader, Summer 2001 (adapted).

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     Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi was a good and just man, always diligent in his prayers and obedient to God.  So when he prayed that he might see the prophet Elijah, God granted his request.  Seeing the prophet appear before him, the rabbi spoke thus:  “Allow me to accompany you on your wanderings, to see what it is you do for God’s cause.  For my heart longs to see God’s justice and to rejoice in it.”

     “Rid yourself of your longing, for you will neither understand what I do nor will you be able to bear it,” Elijah answered him.

     But Rabbi Joshua replied, “I read and meditate on God’s Word every day.  Do I not know God and understand his justice?  I will certainly be able to rejoice in his work.”

     And he begged until the prophet permitted him to follow, but Elijah warned, “Take care not to question why I do as I do, for the moment you ask, your wandering with me will end.”

     So they went and wandered the bright, green earth, back and forth the whole day.  At evening, they approached a small hut, from which a poor farmer emerged.  He hurried to meet the two wanderers and invited them into his dwelling.  Once inside, he bid them sit down while he fetched water so they could wash.  His wife wasted no time in setting before the wanderers fresh milk, bread, and fruit; and with her husband, honored their guests.

     When the prophet and the rabbi wished to sleep, the poor man spread out his own blankets for them; and then he lay down beside his wife on the cold, bare dirt floor of the hut.  Rabbi Joshua’s heart was glad at the hospitality of the poor man, and he thought, “Elijah will surely reward him through God’s justice, so that he will no longer have to spend his life in poverty.”

     But when morning came, Elijah got up and killed the cow, the poor man’s sole possession.  Rabbi Joshua stared in shock at the prophet, who only looked past him with stern eyes, so that the rabbi dared not say a word in question.  The two went on, leaving the poor couple to lament their great loss.

     The prophet and the rabbi passed another day wandering the length and breadth of the bright, green earth.  As the sun dipped low, they entered the gates of a large, beautiful house.  They approached the well-dressed owner to ask if they might rest under his roof.  “Why should I bother with you beggars?” he scoffed.  “You can sleep in the stable.”

     They settled down beside the animals, their hunger unsatisfied, their dusty feet unwashed.  Anger stirred in Rabbi Joshua’s heart and he thought, “Elijah will not let this hardhearted man go unpunished by God’s justice.”

     But Elijah awoke at dawn and went into the stable yard, where an old, dilapidated wall looked ready to collapse.  The prophet straightened the stones so that the wall stood firm again.  Watching, Rabbi Joshua thought, “God sends Elijah to bring trouble to the good people and show favor to those whose deeds are evil.  How am I to understand this?  Is this justice?”  But seeing the prophet’s dark look, he suppressed his bitter questions, and the two went away from the grand house and passed another day wandering here and there over the bright, green earth.

     At day’s end, they entered a bustling city and made their way to its synagogue.  There, the wealthy men of the city sat, dressed in their finest clothes and seated for prayer in order of rank.  When the time of prayer had ended, the men turned to one another and asked, “Who should take in the two wanderers?”  None wanted to invite them into his house of give them a meal.  “Let them stay the night in the synagogue,” they all agreed, and the matter was settled.

     So the prophet and the rabbi, unfed and unwashed, spent the night in the synagogue.  When the men returned to pray the next morning, Elijah took leave of them, saying, “I know that in your hearts you all want to become city officials.  May your wishes come true.”  At this Rabbi Joshua could feel his heart fail within him, and he covered his face with his cloak, despairing over God’s justice.  Yet he still did not question the prophet.

     Again they wandered the whole day over the bright, green earth.  When it was evening, they came to a home where a kindly old man welcomed them in.  He brought water for them to wash themselves, and served them food until both the prophet and the rabbi had eaten their fill.  Then the kind host prepared beds for the two travelers, and wished them a good night.

     But Rabbi Joshua did not sleep.  Fear and sadness kept him awake the whole night, and he did not know how to still the clamor of his conscience.  What kind of God had he worshiped and obeyed all his life?  And the good rabbi feared what would happen in the morning.  Who knew what to expect on such a journey?

     At daybreak, Elijah rose and told Rabbi Joshua they must be on their way.  The rabbi said, “But shall we not thank our wonderful host?”      

     “That will not be necessary,” said Elijah.  “Our host is dead.”

     At this, the rabbi could no longer keep his thoughts to himself any longer.  He turned and shouted at Elijah, “I tremble before you, but is this God’s justice, that the devout suffer pain, while the evil receive love?  If so, woe is me, for my heart has lost God.”  (continued…)

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Jeremiah 12:1  —  You are always righteous, Lord, when I bring a case before you.  Yet I would speak with you about your justice:  Why does the way of the wicked prosper?  Why do all the faithless live at ease?

Psalm 73:3  —  I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Habakkuk 1:3  —  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.

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How long, Lord, must I call for help,
    but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
    but you do not save?

–Habakkuk 1:2

1441) The Benefits of Belief

Prager University, founded by Dennis Prager, is an on-line university consisting of dozens of five minute, clear and concise, video ‘courses.’  Many are political, some are religious, all are thought provoking, and all are free.  You may view them all at:

http://www.prageru.com

This course is by Peter Kreeft, a thinker and writer I have long admired.  Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College and a Roman Catholic.  In this course he describes “The Benefits of Belief.”  Watch the video or read the transcript.

LINK TO THIS VIDEO:

http://www.prageru.com/courses/religionphilosophy/benefits-belief

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In this Prager University course, I want to focus not on the evidence for God’s existence, but on the benefits of belief.

If God exists, then the world didn’t just evolve by chance, but by deliberate design.  There’s an Artist behind this incredible work of art—this big and beautiful world.

If God exists, we’re living in a great story, an epic like “The Lord of the Rings,” with real heroes and heroic tasks.  Ultimately, all the twists and turns of this epic narrative will be paid off, everything will make sense.  It will even have a happy ending, not necessarily, or even likely, in our own lifetime—even Moses didn’t get into the Promised Land—but over the grand course of time in an afterlife, which exists as surely as God exists.

If God exists, the presence of evil, hard as it is to accept, makes sense.  God allows it for a reason—namely, to preserve our free will.  And God will reconcile all injustices in the end.  If there is no God, life is one big crapshoot.

If God does exist, morality is a real, objective feature of the world.  If there is no God, morality is just the rules we make up for this little game of life we play.

If God exists, love is the nature of an eternal reality.  If there is no God, love is just a fleeting feeling, no more than a bunch of chemical and neurological interactions.

If God exists, you are of infinite value.  He knows you as a parent knows his child.  He’s accessible to you.  If there is no God, each of us is as insignificant as a rock on an unknown planet.

If God exists, death is conquered because if there is a God there is a reality outside of space and time.  If there is no God, there is nothing immortal, and all the good things in life are destroyed forever.  You, and everyone you love, and everything you think matters are all consigned to oblivion.  If there is no God, life is pointless.  Everything we’ve done and lived for will ultimately be in vain.

Can I prove with an absolute certainty that God exists?  I can make the case that overwhelming evidence suggests that he does.  But no I can’t prove that He exists with absolute certainty.  That’s likely part of His plan.  God deliberately doesn’t give us absolute proof so that we’re free to choose or not to choose to believe in Him.

So which way do you want to go?

Be honest.  Doesn’t your heart at least hope that there is a good God, a transcendent Validator of love and all the highest human values?  Of course it does.  Why would anyone not wish that life has some ultimate purpose; that good and evil are real; that there is ultimate justice; that our love for others means something?

If you choose to live as if there is a God—even if you are not sure there is a God—you lose nothing and you gain everything.

Religious Christians and Jews are happier, live longer, and are more charitable than their less observant or secular fellow citizens.  These are not my opinions.  These are the findings of a multitude of scientific studies.

If you have been an atheist for a while, it may be difficult for you to change your thinking, even if you find some merit in the many rational arguments for God’s existence.  But you can change your behavior.  You can live as if God’s exists, even if you hold doubts.  Why not?  As I said, you lose nothing and you have everything to gain.

This behavioral approach is far from new.  The Jews have long had a saying, “We will do, and then we will understand,” which acknowledges that action often precedes understanding.  So why not begin with an action?  Why not pray the prayer of the skeptic?

“God, if you exist, you must know that I’m not a believer.  So, please, God, give me the gift of faith, in your time and in your way.  I want to believe whatever is true.  Amen.”

If you say that and mean it, and give it some time, be prepared, because He will not ignore that prayer.

Go on, say it.  Find a private place and say it.  Your Creator is listening.

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Psalm 25:4  —  Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths.

Job 6:24  —  Teach me, and I will be quiet; show me where I have been wrong.

Mark 9:24b  —  I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.

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THE PRAYER OF THE SKEPTIC:

God, if you exist, you must know that I’m not a believer.  So, please, God, give me the gift of faith, in your time and in your way.  I want to believe whatever is true.  Amen.

1435) The Apostle’s Creed (a)

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From my Lenten meditation, March 15, 2017, series on Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, (Part Two).

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Romans 10:9-10  —  “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.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

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     These verses are telling you how to be saved, so pay close attention.  This is important.  Verse nine says “Do this and you will be saved.”  Verse ten repeats the same statement, saying if you do this, “You are saved.”  Do what?  Two things.  First, believe; “believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead.”  What you believe matters.  The second thing you need to do is to say, out loud, what you believe.  Verse nine says, “If you declare with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ you will be saved;” and verse ten says, “It is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

     When do you do that?  When do you say with your mouth what you believe?  Do you do that at school, at work, with your family, friends, and neighbors?  Do you say to them, “I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; how about you?”  Well, that is probably not how you would want to start, but we should all try to look for opportunities to share our faith.  But in case you didn’t get around to that this week, are there any other times you declared with your mouth what you believe?  I can think of at least one time.  If you are in church on Sunday morning we almost always say the Apostle’s Creed, so when you join in and do that, you are declaring with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and God raised him from the dead—just like the verse says.  That is one of the purposes of the Creed—so we can say what we believe and be saved.

     Another purpose of the Creed, and probably the main purpose, is to define the basics of what we believe as Christians.  Romans 10:9-10 doesn’t just say believe; it also gives you something to believe in, as does the Creed.  As you well know, there are many Christian denominations, and they are all different.  In this Lenten sermon series you are hearing about Luther’s Small Catechism.  Many of you grew up with this catechism, memorized it, and was quizzed on it ahead of the entire congregation before you were confirmed.  Some of you never heard of it.  Some of you grew up praying the rosary and going to confession.  Many of us did not.  Most of you were probably baptized as infants, but I know several of you were baptized as adults after you made a decision for Jesus.  Some of you might wonder why our worship service is so stuffy and formal; for others, it is far more laid back and informal than what you are accustomed to.  There are many ways to be a Christian and lots of room for diversity in God’s family.

     But there are limits to this diversity, and being a Christian means believing in some very important truths.  Two of those truths are in the verses above: Jesus is Lord, and God raised him from the dead.  The Apostle’s Creed lists a few more.  And despite our many differences, all Christian denominations recognize the authority of the Apostle’s Creed as the outline, summary, and definition of our faith.  We might disagree on everything else, but Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Mennonites, Seventh Day Adventists, and all the rest agree on this.  This Creed was written before any denominations came to be, going all the way back to the second century.  And the Creed is brief, just over 100 words long.  This brevity allows great diversity in many things, but it does set some important parameters.

     Even this is too much for some.  A common approach to faith these days is that Christianity can mean anything you want it to mean, and it doesn’t matter what you do and it doesn’t matter what you believe.

     For example, I was watching the Super Bowl half-time show this year, and someone said, “Did you know Lady Gaga is a Christian?”  I said, “No, I did not know that.  And I don’t know much about Lady Gaga, but what I do know, makes me wonder what that means for her.”  So I did some searching on the internet and found out all sorts of things.  Lady Gaga did go to Catholic school as a girl, and she still does consider herself a Christian.  But she does not believe in the institutional church, has a wide-open approach to morality, and does not feel bound in her faith by any creeds or traditional doctrines.  She believes she can believe whatever she wants to believe, and can do whatever she wants to do, and it’s all okay with God.

     Some newspaper columnists and bloggers I read praised this new form of Christianity as a religion freed from all previous restraints, and not so judgmental as the ‘old time religion.’  They even said this is perhaps the future of the church.  Wow.  I thought I was just looking up some information on a famous entertainer, and I ended up learning all about the future of the church.  (continued…)

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THE APOSTLE’S CREED:

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen.

1408) Believing Too Little; Believing Too Much

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By Lutheran pastor C. Jack Eichhrost  (Fall 1987 LBI newsletter)

     Most of us have thought that believing too little might be a spiritual flaw, but believing too much can also be a problem.  How so?  Shouldn’t we have faith — and if a little faith is good, why not a lot more; in fact why not more and more and more?

     Actually, believing too little and believing too much may both be forms of unbelief.  Believing too little is the habit of the secularist, the one who lives without relating daily life to God’s action.  The secularist is inclined to live within a closed world of nature; he is content to give natural explanations for almost everything and does not believe in supernatural interventions.  For him, God does not do miracles, because in this world view, miracles are impossible.

     If the secularist is an example of believing too little, what would it look like to see someone believing too much?  Such a person is overly fascinated with miracles and the supernatural.  In the Bible God did indeed perform miracles; he did extraordinary signs and wonders.  But God also acted through ordinary ways.  Because miracles are possible does not mean they are God’s standard operating procedure.

     When God fed the Israelites with manna and quail he gave them a supernatural sign; yet he fed them other ways as well.  Was the food of other times any less a gift from God?  For a time, God fed Elijah in a miraculous way by having birds bring him bread and meat every morning and evening (I Kings 17:6).  But when Elijah had food on a daily basis by other means through the rest of his life, that too was a gift of God and should be seen as such by the eyes of faith.

     Those people who expect God to perform special miracles for them as God did for Elijah are guilty of over-belief.  It sounds like faith, but it is unbelief.  Such people want God acting in spectacular ways just for them.  To say such extraordinary action is impossible or that God used to act that way but now does not, would be wrong.  But to expect God to do miracles for you, is to ask for signs God does not guarantee.  Such an expectation is not what faith should be, because it is not according to what God has made known to us.  Over-belief is living and acting according to our designs for God.  It sounds spiritual, faith-filled, and good.  But it is a wrong belief.

     Under-believing and over-believing feed each other.  Over-believing people are always talking about God’s miracles, giving the impression that God always works that way for people who really believe.  Under-believing people react and are turned off.  They do not want to sound like that or make any claims about God lest they appear to be the same.  Over-believing people thus are encouraged all the more to talk about God in exaggerated ways because their counter-parts do not talk about God at all.  Thus, one reaction feeds the other.

     The early church struggled in a world of unbelief, but it also had to cope with over-belief.  When it was deciding what scriptures were true (for it did have to decide that question) it rejected stories which were falsely filled with the supernatural.  It rejected the story of Jesus stretching a board that his carpenter father had sawed too short.  It rejected the story of how he made birds of mud and then commanded his birds to fly away while his playmates settled for just mud.  Those were stories of unbelief and not of faith because they showed a people that believed too much, and kept adding to the story as it was retold.  But the church did include the feeding of five thousand and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus did perform miracles as signs of the Kingdom of God breaking in.

     Never yet have I been fed by ravens who carried food to my table, like Elijah.  But always I give thanks for food prepared by loving hands, first by my mother during those years of childhood and in these years by my wife.  That food I receive as coming through an order of nature, but is still from the hand of God.

     Believing too much about God can get us into problems as severe as believing too little.  Those who have believed too much and think they have God in their control, often become cynical when some great jolt shakes the foundations.  Then they crumble.  Those who believe too little are in danger of a God who is only the divine emergency squad to get them out of tight scrapes.

     Blessed are those who struggle to keep true faith, who see God’s hand in all that is good, who have hearts open to all miracles, but who believe in God only as he has made himself known.

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Mark 8:11-12  —  The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus.  To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.  He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

John 20:29  —  Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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Lord, do with us as seems best in your own eyes; only give us, we ask, a humble and a patient spirit to wait expectantly for you.  Make our service acceptable to you while we live, and ourselves ready for you when we die; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship/Occasional Services (#467)

1377) Sunday’s Sermon by Bono and Me (b)

          (…continued)  I realized that the key is in seeing our desires on two levels.  There are day to day desires and needs, and there are eternal desires and needs.  There are many concerns on the surface of life; and those are important and need to be tended to.  But there are also those deeper concerns that are always there, no matter how good or bad things are on the surface. 

            For example, I believe in Jesus as my Savior, and therefore I believe that even if were to I die today, I would be all right because the promises of Jesus are forever.  There was a time, many years ago, I did not know what to believe about life and death, and I was looking for something to believe in.  For many good reasons, I decided to believe in Jesus as the way and the truth and the life, so I am not looking anymore.  I found in Jesus what is true and what I need.  I have already looked at the other options and now, I’m all in with Jesus.  On that level, I have found what I am looking for.

            However, on another level, I am still looking for many things.  If a month ago right now you would have asked me if I had found everything I was looking for, I would have said “No!” because I was desperately looking for someone to fix my water heater at home.  So, that led to some frustration, because I couldn’t find what I was looking for— on that other level. 

            But one wrong move on the highway, and an ambulance ride to the intensive care unit of a hospital, and I would have forgotten all about that water heater.  But I would still be holding on to and taking comfort in that deeper hope.  We’re always going back and forth like that, between the smaller and larger concerns of life.

            I don’t know if Bono had any of that in mind when he wrote those lyrics, but the life of faith is always a challenge.  The song is not only about spiritual seeking and finding, but it is also about the ongoing struggle of faith. 

            I am reminded of that story in Mark chapter nine where a desperate father asks Jesus to heal his troubled son, saying to Jesus, “If you can do anything, help us.”  Jesus replies, “What do you mean if?  Everything is possible for one who believes.”  And the man says, “Lord, I do believe; but help me overcome my unbelief.”  Belief and unbelief are there, in the same person, at the same time.  Isn’t that how it always is?  And the U2 song brilliantly reflects the same struggle, describing a believer who is declaring his faith; but one who is still searching, still wondering, still trying to figure it out, and still looking for more– of something.

            Keep in mind those two levels of need.  Deep down, those who believe in Jesus can indeed possess that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’  But on the surface, we still might be looking for more– a stronger faith, the strength to do the right thing, the ability to forgive someone at work, reconciliation with an estranged family member, a little peace and quiet once in a while, a day off, victory over temptation, a good report from the doctor, a visit from the son just down the street who hasn’t stopped in for weeks, or, a call back from the water heater repairman.  There are many different things we are still ‘looking for’ and have not found.

            Now, of course, we have to be careful.  We do have a tendency to want too much and expect too much on that surface level.  There is no need to be always unhappy about the normal day to day frustrations.  That’s life.  And the desire for a more secure income can become endless and impossible to satisfy.  And the quest for good health can become an obsession, and we are all, one day, going to die of something.  And no two people are always on the same page, so a part of life is learning to live with the differences.  And the Bible does say life is a test, and in this world you will have trouble, and God may not want to answer all your prayers and take away all your afflictions, because it is by those afflictions that we grow stronger in our faith and are reminded of our need for God.  So the Bible teaches us to be content, troubles and all.

            The Bible, in fact, teaches us how to live on both levels.  For those concerns on the surface, II Timothy says, “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out.  If you have food and clothing be content with that.”  The Bible also warns us about wearing ourselves out seeking that which does not satisfy.

            The Bible has even more to say about our hope and confidence on that deeper level.  Romans 14:8 says, “Whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.”  Philippians 1:21 says, “To live is to be in Christ, and then to die is gain.”  The 23rd Psalm says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou are with me… and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  Everything, even life itself, can be taken away, and we are still all right.

            Last Fall several of us gathered here for a few Thursday evenings to learn about Christians who are being persecuted for their faith, especially in the Middle-East.  You have seen these people on the news; Christians being targeted for their faith, driven from their homes, or killed by radical Muslim fanatics.  In the class we read a book and watched several video segments about these people.  We were amazed by the faith, persistence, forgiveness, strength, and joy of these people.  On the surface, they were lacking everything.  If you would have asked them what they were looking for, they could have told you they were looking for peace, safety, a way to feed their families that day, a place to sleep that night, a chance to go home again, and many were looking for missing loved ones.  They had lost so much.  And yet, deep down they were all right.  They were smiling and thanking God for the hope they had within them, for whatever meager blessings they did receive each day, and for the love of and presence of Jesus.  Deep down, they indeed had that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’  They were joyful because they still had what was most important.  They had Jesus and his promise of that place where there would be no more danger, no more grief, no more death or sadness or pain, anymore, for Jesus has said that he would make all things new.

            Bono wrote that song thirty years ago, so I don’t know whether or not he has finally found what he is looking for.  Actually, none of us ever get everything we are looking for.  This life always falls short, and we are always looking for something else, something better, an easier path, or, if nothing else, a little more time.  C. S. Lewis, always one with a brilliant insight into everything, turned such unfulfilled desires into a reason for faith, and even evidence there was something to hope for.  He said, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” 

            Right!  The Bible says we were made for God and his home.  That is what we are looking for most of all. 

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1376) Sunday’s Sermon by Bono and Me (a)

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From my sermon on January 15, 2017

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     John 1:29, 32-38  —  The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!…  Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him.  And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’  I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

     The next day John was there again with two of his disciples.   When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”

     When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.  Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”

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            The Gospel of John begins with John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus.  Several verses describe how John is proclaiming to the people about the One who is to come—the ‘true light of the world’ says John 1:9; the ‘Messiah’ says verse 20; the ‘chosen one of God’ says verse 34.  And then in verse 36 Jesus walks by, and John says to two of his disciples, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”  The next verse then tells us that when the two men who had been followers of John heard this, they decided to follow Jesus. 

            Today’s sermon will be on the next verse (v. 38) which reads: “Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’”  Other translations have Jesus putting the question like this:  What seek ye? or What are you after? or What are you looking for?

            Well, no matter how you translate it, these are all good questions for a sermon.  What are you after?  What do you want?  Do you have it?  What are you looking for?  Have you found it?  And if not, when do you think you will find it?

            Thirty years ago right about now, the Irish band U2 was working on an interesting song about this very thing.  The name of the song is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and it’s been praised for its unique blend of American Gospel music and Celtic soul music.  It was released in the Spring of 1987 went to the top of the charts in the United States.  Rolling Stone magazine lists it at #93 of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  Hear and see it below on You-tube.  If you don’t catch all the words, don’t worry, I’ll fill you in on them later…

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e3-5YC_oHjE

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      This song was written by U2’s lead vocalist Paul Hewson, better known by his nickname, Bono.  His friends gave him that nickname when he was a teenager.  Bono is short for ‘bonovox,’ which is Latin for ‘good voice.’  Bono is an international superstar, famous not only for his music, but also for his humanitarian work all over the world.  He is a one man world relief organization, has given tens of millions of dollars to help others, and is constantly pestering other celebrities to do the same.  Few people have done more than Bono to alleviate poverty, disease, and illiteracy in the world.  He, along with Melinda and Bill Gates were Time magazine’s ‘Persons of the Year’ in 2005 for this incredible work.

            Bono is a Christian.  And his faith is not limited to the water-down, flimsy, ‘God is nice and so we should be nice’ type of Christianity of so many celebrities.  Bono is very outspoken about his faith in Jesus Christ who is the Son of God, Savior of the world, and no one else like him has ever lived; and Jesus Christ died for our sins, because we are all sinners (and not all that ‘nice,’ anyway); and we need Grace, not karma, not some vague spirituality, and not some silly inner voice.  We need Jesus, Bono says, so believe in Jesus and you will be all right, or else, you will not be all right.   Bono is not ashamed or embarrassed to talk that way, and people who interview him usually don’t know how to handle that.  That are not used to that from rock stars.  Like many big rock stars, Bono can also be an arrogant loud mouth, he swears too much on stage (at least he used to), and he has been very critical of the church, sometimes in an unfair and uninformed way.  Criticism is always needed, though sometimes his lack of perspective is annoying.  And Bono would be the first to admit he is still a sinner in need of God’s grace; but he is indeed a Christian and a good man.

            Now to the song.  It starts out like a love song, “I have climbed the highest mountains, I have run through the fields, I have crawled, I have scaled walls—only to be with you.”  So, who is ‘you’?  We don’t know yet, but it’s probably some young lady he is pursuing.  That’s what it sounds like so far, and even more so in the next verse when it talks about kissing honey lips and this burning desire. 

            But then comes something unexpected.  The following verse says, “I believe in the Kingdom come.”  Wow!  What does that sound like?  It sounds to me like the Lord’s Prayer.  And then we finally found out who the “you” is that he wants to be with.  Listen to this verse: “You broke the bonds, and you loosed the chains, you carried the cross of my shame… you know I believe it.”  Believing in the cross that breaks my bonds and takes away my shame.  It is sounding like an old Gospel hymn, which is precisely what Bono and the band said influenced the writing of this song.  He is doing everything he can, he says, only to be with Jesus.

            Now, for the confusing part.  After that verse affirming his faith in Jesus, the song goes back to the refrain again, and repeats several more times, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”  What?  It sounded like he did.  He believes in the Kingdom come, and believes in the one who loosed his chains and took away his shame on the cross.  So what does he mean he still hasn’t found it? 

            A few years ago I taught a class called “Rock (and Roll) of Ages” in which I looked at what was going on spiritually in some of my old favorite rock and roll, and country songs (google ’emailmeditations rock and roll of ages,’ #290 and the  following meditations) .  I wanted to include this song, but I couldn’t make any sense out of it, so I didn’t use it.

            But this week, when I read these words from Jesus in John 1, it came to me when I asked myself, “Am I still looking for anything?”  Of course I am.  But don’t I, also, already believe in Jesus?  Yes, of course.  So what’s going on?  (continued…)

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You have made me for yourself, O Lord, and my heart is restless until I rest in you.

–St. Augustine  (354-430)

1311) Trying to Understand Atheists

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Dennis Prager  (1948- )

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“Two Questions for Atheists,” by Dennis Prager athttp://www.jewishjournal.com

Dennis Prager is a Jewish author and nationally syndicated radio talk show host.  His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

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     I have had the privilege of debating five of the top seven “25 Most Influential Living Atheists” as listed at SuperScholar.org:

#2: Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”)

#3: The late Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”)

#4: Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”)

#6: Steven Pinker (“How the Mind Works”)

#7: Michael Shermer, founding publisher of the Skeptic Magazine

     Recently, however, I realized that I never asked any of them two questions that I would now ask before any other:

  1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?
  2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

     The answers to those questions would tell me what I would most like to know about the person:  how intellectually honest he is, and what motivates him.

     To be sure, the answers to those two questions neither validate nor invalidate any atheist arguments.  Atheist and theist arguments rise and fall on their merits, not on the motivations or personal characteristics of the atheist or the believer.  But on a purely human level, their answers would enable me to understand the atheist as a person and as a thinker.

     Take the first question: Do you hope you are right or wrong?

     I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong.  It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism:  that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

     Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life.  A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

     That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism.  This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God.  If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God?  Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

     Now to the second question:  Do you ever doubt your atheism?

     A few years ago, the largest atheist organization in the United States, American Atheists, to its credit, invited me to Minneapolis to debate the head of the organization at its annual meeting.

     At one point, I looked at the audience and asked people to raise their hands if they ever doubted their atheism.  Not one hand went up.

     I found this interesting, if not disturbing, and said so.  Nonreligious individuals often accuse religious believers of not challenging themselves.  And, depending on the religion and on the individual, that is often the case.  Yet it would seem that believers challenge themselves more than atheists do.

     As I explained at the debate, I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God.  When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith.  So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

     I remember sensing that I had a struck a nerve.

     So, then, while I still debate God’s existence with atheists, I do so in order that the audience will hear sound arguments for God’s existence.

     But what really interests me — and I think should interest any believer or atheist — are the answers to these two questions.

     Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God” — do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism.  I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person.

     But a sad one.  For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed.

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“To sustain the belief that there is no God, atheism has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, ‘I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge.’”  –Ravi Zacharias

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“Atheism turns out to be too simple.  If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning.”  –C.S. Lewis

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Psalm 19:1  —  The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Romans 1:20  —  Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities— his eternal power and divine nature— have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

John 14:9  —  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?  Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.  How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

Psalm 74:22  —  Arise, O God, defend your cause; remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!

Jeremiah 29:12-13  —  (Thus says the Lord), “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.  You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”

Jude 1:22  —  Have mercy on those who doubt.

Romans 15:13  —  May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

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A prayer for unbelieving loved ones, based on Romans 15:13:

God of hope, I pray that you fill ____  and ____ and ____ with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit, they may abound in hope.