1030) Past, Present, Future (a)

     In his ground-breaking work on the human mind, psychologist Sigmund Freud taught that by delving deep into your past life you could learn how your early childhood experiences created the person you are today.  While much of Freud’s work is no longer accepted, it is now assumed by many that what you are as a person today is largely a product of your past experiences.  Are you the hard-working, responsible type?  That is because you are an oldest child, and the oldest child is often given more responsibilities and more discipline and the expectations are higher; therefore, they turn out to be more responsible.  Are you likable but irresponsible, always trying to be funny?  That might be because you are the youngest in the family and you decided at an early age you had to act up if you wanted to get a little of the attention.  Are you fussy, neat as a pin, quick to go after even the smallest piece of dust?  Well, that’s because that’s how it was in your home, and to this day you can’t stand a mess.  Or, on the other hand, it could be because you were raised in a messy and unorganized house, and your neatness now is a reaction against how you were raised.  Either way, and in many other ways, this can be made to work, and whatever you are can be explained by how you were raised and other past experiences.  That, anyway, is the theory. We are a product of our past.

     While we know our minds are too complex to be explained by any one theory, we certainly do understand the importance of our past and the way we were raised.  After all, isn’t that the hope of all parents, that they do the right thing and raise their children in a proper way, so that they can have some positive influence on their children’s adult life?  As every parent knows, kids will go their own way, and there is no way you can perfectly pre-program the desired results; but we do have some influence.  Even so, parents can control only a part of what a growing child experiences.  And, no matter what experiences any one has, there is also, always the matter of one’s own God-given free will.  Certainly, your past is an important part of who you are, but it is by no means the only part.

     But another big part of what goes into making you who you are is your future.  This isn’t thought about as much, but we may, in fact, be shaped more by our future than by our past.  Let me illustrate how this happens.

     Brothers Peyton and Eli Manning are great NFL quarterbacks.  Their past probably had something to do with this, being the sons of a professional quarterback Archie Manning.  The Mannings were a sports minded family, always playing something out in the yard, and the boys learned much from their father.  Eli says that their father encouraged them, played with them, and taught them, but he did not force them to play any sports at any level.  The boys were allowed to make their own choices about school activities and future plans.  Did they want to pursue this interest in football as encouraged by her father, or, would there be other interests that they would want to pursue?

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) NFL play...

Peyton, Archie, and Eli Manning

     Children don’t always move into something just because their parents are encouraging it.  I went to school with several farm boys.  Some wanted nothing more than to get done with school and go farming.  Others, couldn’t wait to graduate, go to college, get into some other kind of work, and never again have to look at another cow, pig, chicken, or bale of hay.

     The Manning boys chose to keep playing football, and somewhere along the line, after making that choice, the future began to be a more important influence than the past.  No longer were just playing football in the back yard because that is what their dad liked to do.  Eventually, they were playing football because out ahead in their future, they could see themselves in the NFL, just like their dad.  That future hope began then to shape and determine everything they did and every decision they would make– how to spend their free time, where to go to college, who to have as friends, what to eat, how to exercise, and everything else.  Their past experiences shaped them, but now, their future hopes were determining much of what they did.  In their past they were exposed to football and developed a love for it.  But it was the future hope of a career in football that turned the game into something more than the leisure-time activity that it is for most people.

     You don’t have to be a pro football player to know how this works.  Parents might encourage their teenage son to get a job.  Because of how he was raised, he might already be a hard worker and more than happy to do so.  Therefore, his past is a factor, and then with his own free will he chooses to go along with the idea.  But before long, something more important than anything else comes into play.  There is the future goal of a car that can be purchased, and while the boy is working, he is counting how fast the money is adding up and how soon his future goal will be realized.  His present life is being thus determined not so much by the past anymore, as by the future.  (continued…)

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 Philippians 3:12-14  —  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

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O Jesus, fill me with your love, and I pray, and use me a little for your glory.  I pray that you accept me and my service.  Amen.

–David Livingstone  (1813-1873)

997) Nowhere Else to Turn

Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a British reporter in the U.S.S.R. in the 1930’s.   Here he describes two episodes which provide contrasting insights into life after the Russian Revolution.  Muggeridge had initially admired the revolution; then he saw the results of two decades of communist rule.  The Communists promised hope to the nation, but instead brought ruin and despair and fear, along with the deaths of tens of millions of their own people.  One scene of the suffering is described in the first paragraph.  The second paragraph describes how people then turned to their only real hope.

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     I tried to describe it all— the abandoned villages, the absence of livestock, neglected fields, everywhere famished, frightened people and intimations of coercion, soldiers about the place, and hard-faced men in long overcoats.  One particularly remarkable scene I stumbled on by chance at a railway station in the gray early morning; peasants with their hands tied behind them being loaded into cattle trucks at gunpoint;… all so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half light…

     In Kiev, where I found myself on a Sunday morning, on an impulse I turned into a church where a service was in progress.  It was packed tight, but I managed to squeeze myself against a pillar whence I could survey the congregation and look up at the altar.  Young and old, peasants and townsmen parents and children even a few in uniform— it was a variegated assembly.  The bearded priests, swinging their incense, intoning their prayers, seemed very remote and far away.  Never before or since have I participated in such a worship; the sense conveyed of turning to God in great affliction was overpowering.  Though I could not, of course, follow the service (it was in Russian), I knew little bits of it; for instance, when the congregation says there is no help for them save from God.  What intense feeling they put into these words!  In their minds, I knew, as in mine, was a picture of those desolate abandoned villages, of the hunger and the hopelessness, of cattle trucks being loaded with humans in the dawn light.  Where were they to turn to for help?  Not to the Kremlin and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, certainly; nor to the forces of progress and democracy and enlightenment in the West.  Honourable and Right Honourable Members had nothing to offer, (nor did) the radical free press.  Every possible human agency was found wanting.  So only God remained, and to God they turned with a passion, a dedication, a humility impossible to convey.  They took me with them; I felt closer to God then than I ever had before, or am likely to again.

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PSALM 46:1-2a…6-7…9-11:

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear...

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress…

He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

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Lord, have mercy.

Christ, have mercy.

Lord, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison, An important prayer in Christian liturgy from earliest times.

996) The Valley of Vision

     There is much in the Bible that tells us what to do: be honest, be faithful, love and serve your neighbor, do not lie, do not cheat, do not steal, and so forth.  One of the best known parts of the Bible is the Ten Commandments, that very important list of things that we should do, or, not do.  There is indeed much in the Bible about what we should do.  

     But there is probably even more in the Bible about what we should see.  For example, II Corinthians 5:16 tells us we should no longer see other people from a worldly point of view.  For another example, the world says, “You can have it all;” but God in the book of Proverbs says, “It is better to have only a little and have peace, than to have great wealth and nothing but strife” (Proverbs 17:1).  From a worldly point of view, when you get old and your health is gone, you are done for.  But from God’s point of view, even at the end of our days we can say with Paul, “Brothers and sisters, our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).  I Samuel 16:7 tells us that even though from a worldly point of view people are judged by their outward appearances, God looks at what is in the heart; again, a different way of seeing.  From a worldly point of view, the time comes for us all when our time is up and as the old expression goes, “We haven’t got a prayer.”  But with God, no matter how hopeless the situation looks one always has a prayer.  Jesus, beaten and hanging on the cross, with the life quickly draining out of him, still had a prayer.  He prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

     The Bible tells us all kinds of things to do, but first of all, it tells us how to SEE– how to see the world, and life and death, and other people, and everything from a whole different point of view.  And then, with that whole new way of seeing, we are led into the wisdom to obey in those things God has told us to do.

     Many years ago, Howard Thurman was the dean of the chapel at Boston University.  He was the grandson of a slave and often told stories that he had heard from his grandmother about living in slavery.  One of the things she told him was the importance of the slaves of going to church on Sunday.  Decades later, she could still remember well how her old slave preacher would so powerfully tell the story of Jesus resurrection from the dead, and then describe the promise of how we too would live forever with him in heaven.  And then the old preacher would take off his glasses, look straight into the eyes of the congregation, lean over the pulpit, and say to them in all seriousness, “Slaves, I want you to remember, you are not any man’s property.  You are the children of God Almighty, and no one can ever take that from you.  Never forget that.”  Sunday after Sunday, he was preaching into those people another point of view– not the worldly point of view, but God’s vision; and in their desperate and sad situation, that made all the difference.  With that new way of seeing they could live and die with hope and courage.

     Even in the deepest and darkest valley, we can know God is with us, and that gives us an entirely different way of seeing everything.

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Psalm 23:4  —  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Ezekiel 37:1-3  —  The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.  He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”

Habakkuk 3:17-18  —  Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LordI will be joyful in God my Savior.

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The Valley of Vision

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty thy glory in my valley. 

–From The Valley of Vision, 1975, a collection of prayers by the Puritans edited by Arthur Bennett.

946) We Had Hoped…

The Road to Emmaus, 1877, Robert Zund, Swiss painter, (1826-1909)

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     Luke 24 tells the story of Jesus joining two men walking on the road to Emmaus, a little town about seven miles from Jerusalem.  It was the afternoon of the day Jesus rose from the dead.  These men had known Jesus but they thought he was dead, and the Bible says that for a while on this walk they were kept from recognizing him (verse 16).  Luke records a casual conversation between the three men about the events of the past few days (v. 17f):

Jesus asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast.  One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” Jesus asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people.  The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

     In the rest of the story Jesus explained to them from the Scriptures the meaning of those events.  Then, at just the right moment, the Bible says their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus, their friend, back from the dead (verse 31).  And suddenly, Jesus disappeared, and the two men ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others.

     In verse twenty-one the men said:  “They crucified Jesus, but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”  We had hoped.  That is a very sad little phrase.  Hope there is in the past tense.  Hope is a wonderful thing, but in order for hope to work, it has to be in the future tense; you have to be hoping for something yet to come.  But here, hope is in the past tense.  So this sad little phrase is really not talking about hope at all, rather, it is talking about the DEATH of a hope.  “We had hoped he was the one,” they said; but “they crucified him,” and now he was dead, so now, there is no hope.

     We have to have hope to live.  We can be in the most desperate and miserable of situations, but if we have hope, we can go on.  Prisoners of war, living under horrible conditions, tell how they were able to survive because they kept hope alive.  On the other hand, many survivors report that those who lost hope, would die.  We must have hope.  So it is a depressing little phrase that says, we HAD hoped he was the one.  Perhaps you know the feeling.

     I had hoped, she said, that he’d give up drinking after we got married, but he didn’t and now my life is ruined…  I had hoped, he said, that the treatments were going to work and I would get better, but that didn’t happen and I’m not going to see my kids grow up…  I had hoped, she said, that our son would at least call us someday, but we never hear from him…  I had hoped, he said, that I could keep my job, but I got laid off, and I’m 55 years old, so now what will I do?…  I had hoped, she said, that my prayers would be answered, and he would have returned to me, and I would not be alone.  But the praying did no good, so where is God anyway?  If this faith thing can’t get me the help I need when I need it, then I’m not interested.

     We had hoped that he was the one, said the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  We all know what it is to have hoped for something, and we all know what it is to have those hopes disappointed.

     And hopes and dreams, even when met, can, after a while, still be disappointed.  There are a lot of little boys and girls right now who are just hoping for the time to go fast so Christmas can arrive, with days off from school and presents galore.  That hope will be met, the time will go by fast and Christmas will arrive; but so also then will the vacation time go by fast, and the gifts will be opened and stuffed in the closet, and it will be back to school.

     As we get older and learn how this goes, our hopes deepen and mature, as we have more long term goals and dreams.  But still, whatever we hope for, even if achieved, will not last.  Even life-time hopes like for a career and marriage and family will come and go like a Christmas vacation. “I had a good life,” said the old lady in the care center; “I got pretty much everything I wanted and worked for, and it was nice, but now it’s over.”  Even if we get everything we want, our hopes will still soon be disappointed, because the most basic fact of life is that time runs out.

     I Corinthians 15:19 says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  We need a deeper hope, a more profound hope, a more long lasting hope than anything we are able to manage on our own.  We need a hope that will transcend all of our other hopes.  Even if God’s way would be to give us everything we wanted, when we wanted it, we would in the end, says the verse, still be sad and pitiful.  Death ends even the very best lives.

     But, says the very next verse (verse 20), “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead”– and that changes everything.  As the Bible says, “the last enemy to be defeated is death.”  Now, all who believe in Christ will be made alive again.  Alive again.  There is a hope worth having.  There is a hope that grants a whole different perspective on whatever you get or do not get in this life.  We will be alive again, says Jesus, and all that is lost will be restored, all that went wrong will be made right, and everything all so confused now, will be made clear and good in that perfect home prepared for us.  “We had hoped,” they said on the road to Emmaus, but they thought that hope died with Jesus on the cross.  But then, after seeing Jesus again, they had their hope restored, and they said, “Did not our hearts burn within us to hear him speak.”

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Romans 5:1-5  —  Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Isaiah 49:23b  —  (The Lord says), “…Then you will know that I am the Lord, and those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”

Revelation 21:5  —  And He that sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Romans 8:18  —  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

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Show me your ways, Lordteach me your paths.
Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior,
    and my hope is in you all day long.

–Psalm 25:4-5

816) Using Your ‘But’ (part two of two)

     (…continued)  Once you start looking, you will see that little word ‘but’ all over the place in the Bible.  It is a good word to remember in all of life.  As a person of faith, you will always want to keep putting the BUT in your story.  That is what I mean by using your ‘but.’  “Things are not going very well for me right now, BUT I know God is with me.”  “Much of what is going on in my life doesn’t seem to make much sense or have much purpose, BUT I know that God has promised to work out all things for my good.”  “I am having a bad day/week/year, BUT God has given me so many good days/weeks/years.”  “This is a painful time in my life, BUT the Bible says God can teach me and help me to grow in our faith through the painful trials I must endure.”  “I’m not yet what I want to be, and I know I’m not yet what God wants me to be, BUT I do know he has forgiven and is working within me.”  “I’ve been so ill for such a long time, and I’m getting sick and tired of being sick and tired, BUT I know that God can heal me if that be His will.”  Or perhaps, “The doctor just told me there is nothing more they can do for me, BUT God has already given me 61 good years, and I know that even when this life ends, I will go to live with the Lord in a far better home.”  By faith, we have to keep remembering to keep these ‘BUTS’ in our story.  Faith prays, and faith hopes, but then faith is always able to adjust and go deeper.  God always has another promise.  God always gets the last word.

     You have often been told to use your head.   I am suggesting also use your ‘but.’  Use it like these Biblical writers for the strengthening of your faith as you remember God’s past faithfulness.  Everyone has a story to tell of trouble in their life.  And every person of faith can tell a story of how God has brought them through, or, of how God’s future promises sustain them even in the midst of ongoing troubles.  Take a moment to consider your own stories of trouble, and how you can make the phrase “BUT GOD” a part of the way you tell the story of your life.

     We often wonder how we can share our faith with someone else.  One of the best ways you can share your faith with another is by just telling them your story, describing what Jesus means to you and how God has made a difference in your life.  And somewhere in your story, you can use your ‘but.’  That is what the former slave-trader John Newton was doing when he wrote, “I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”  You do not have to tell people what they need to do for God.  You can simply tell them what God has done for you.

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Storyteller is a wonderful new song about telling others the story of how God has been active in your life.  Right in the center of the song’s lyrics is the word BUT, as we hear of God’s presence in the dark times of the singer’s life.  Don’t miss the video at the link below, which not only sings about telling stories, but also tells a few stories of people whose lives were troubled, BUT GOD…

https://www.youtube.com/user/itsmorganmusic1

STORYTELLER, 2015, Sung by Morgan Harper Nichols (with Jamie Grace)

Written by Jamie Grace and Paul Mabury

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On a Sunday evening I’m looking back over all the years and where I’ve been

Looking at old photographs I’m remember you were right there, and you have been ever since

With every page that turns I see your faithfulness

Oh the mountain where I climbed

The valley where I fell

You were there all along

That’s the story I’ll tell

You brought the pieces together

Made me this storyteller

Now I know it is well, it is well

That’s the story I’ll tell

There were some nights that felt like

They would last forever

BUT you kept me breathing

You were with me right then

And all that you have done for me I could never hold it in

So here’s to me telling this story

Over and over again

Oh the mountain where I climbed

The valley where I fell

You were there all along

That’s the story I’ll tell

You brought the pieces together

Made me this storyteller

Now I know it is well, it is well

That’s the story I’ll tell

You hold the broken

You hear my every cry, every cry

My eyes are open I know that it is well, it is well

That’s the story I’ll tell

For years and years and years I’ll tell

That’s the story I’ll tell…

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Psalm 78:4b  —  …We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lordhis power, and the wonders he has done.

1 Peter 3:13-15a  —  Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed.  “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”  But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

II Corinthians 1:8-10  —  We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.  Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again.  On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us.

2 Corinthians 4:6-9  —  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.  But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

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My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart
    and my portion forever.

–Psalm 73:26

815) Using Your ‘But’ (part one of two)

(This is a repeat of Emailmeditation #428.  I am using it here with a different title as a preface tomorrow’s Emailmeditation #816, which is new.)

     Though BUT is a simple and common word, it is one of the most wonderful words in the Bible.  As you remember from your grammar lessons in school the word ‘but’ serves as a conjunction in sentences.  Conjunctions are words that join together other words or phrases.  The two most common conjunctions in the English language are the words ‘and’ and ‘but.’  The word AND combines similar words or thoughts, like “Jim and Jack and Tom are all going to the ball game.”  The word BUT, on the other hand, introduces something new, or different, or contrary, into the sentence; such as, “Jim and Jack are going to the game, BUT Tom has to stay home because he is sick.”  The word BUT signals that the sentence is about to go off into another direction.

      In the beginning pages of the Bible (Genesis 15:1) God repeats to Abram a wonderful blessing he had given before.  “But,” says Abram, introducing a problem, “what good are all these blessings when I don’t even have an heir?  Where are all these children you have been promising me?”

     “But,” the Lord replies, introducing something different, “you will have an heir,” adding that Abram should look at the stars in the sky, because that is how numerous his descendants will be.  That was not only a different thought, but it was also unexpected since Abram and his wife were already middle-aged, and would be well into their old age before the child would be born.

     In those few verses from the earliest chapters of the Bible we see a pattern that will repeated throughout the pages of God’s Word.  First, there is a problem.  The person in the text is in some kind of trouble or distress, BUT then, there is always a way out provided by God.  Faith always has an answer.  God never fails.  So we see these ‘buts’ all over the place in the Bible, as God is always introducing something new and different and unexpected into every situation in order to bring the people through whatever situation they are in. 

   This is a message we all need to hear, because every person on earth is in at least one of three predicaments.  There are those who are in the midst of trouble, and there are those who are just coming out of trouble, and, there are those who are on their way into trouble.  Everyone falls into one of those categories, and maybe even all three at once.  We’ve all been through troubles, some of you are in the midst of sorrow or trouble right now, and everyone has more trouble ahead of them.

      BUT the Bible has something to say to us about our troubles.  Look at what God’s Word says in I Peter 4:12:   “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you; BUT rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”  The trouble will not last, says Peter, BUT there is a solution.  There is another, better day coming, and if not in this life, then in that day when you will be with Jesus in his home, and then you will rejoice, says Peter.  In I Corinthians 6:9 Paul writes, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of heaven, not the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor thieves nor the greedy nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God–which is just what some of you were,” he says.  “BUT” Paul goes on, “You were washed, you were forgiven, you were justified in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.”  We have all not only been in trouble, we have also caused trouble for ourselves and for others, or, as the Bible puts it, ‘we have all sinned and have fallen short’ of God’s expectations of us (Romans 3:23).  BUT, the Bible also says, Jesus has died for us and forgives us and has saved us from ourselves.  So in Romans 6:23 we read, “For the wages of sin is death, BUT the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  

     Psalm 103 talks about how fast this life gets away on us.  We are like the flowers of the field, he says, here one day, and gone the next, BUT, it says, “from everlasting to everlasting the love of the Lord is with those who fear him.”

      One could go on and on with Bible verses because the Bible is filled with these kinds of ‘buts.’  This message is also in many of our best hymns.  Think of that most favorite of all hymns, Amazing Grace, which begins with these words:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, BUT now am found, was blind, BUT now I see.

     Think that other old favorite, How Great Thou Art.  The hymn starts out singing about the awesome wonders of God– the stars, the mighty thunder, the forest glades, and the lofty mountain grandeur; and then the first word of verse three is BUT:  “But when I think, that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died, to take away my sin…”  God is so great and so awesome, BUT still he cares about little me and my troubles, and He has even sent his Son to die for me.

     Everybody has a story to tell of trouble in their life, and everyone who keeps looking to God also has a story to tell of how God has been with them in that trouble and brought them through, or, will bring them through.  These stories will frequently contain the word BUT:

“I was down in the pit of despair, BUT God brought me up…”
“I was sick and almost died, BUT God made me well…”
“I didn’t know what I would do, BUT God provided a way out for me…”
“I didn’t think I could go on, BUT God was with me and strengthened me…”

     Even when our stories end in the very worst way, as they all indeed will with death, even then, with God, we can say BUT, because we believe in the resurrection from the dead.  Faith prays, faith trusts, faith hopes, and then, no matter what happens, faith is always able to adjust to the new reality.  No matter how bad it gets, God always has another move to make.  As it says in Romans 14:8, “whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”  This kind of faith is shown by Martha in John chapter 11.  She had been praying that Jesus would come and make her brother well, but Jesus did not arrive in time and Lazarus died.  Even then she did not give up on faith, saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died, BUT but even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”  And Jesus went to the tomb and raised Lazarus from the dead.  Not even death can keep us from God, or keep God from fulfilling his promises to us.  

     Keep the faith– and keep looking for, praying for, and waiting for the ‘buts’ in your story.  (continued…)

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Genesis 50:19-20  —  But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid.  Am I in the place of God?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

II Corinthians 4:16-18  —   Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  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.

Hebrews 11:13-16  —  These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.

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“Lead us not into temptation, BUT deliver us from evil.”

–Jesus, Matthew 6:13

528) Finding Hope in a Latrine

     Long before there was a war in Vietnam, there were Christian missionaries proclaiming the Gospel to the Vietnamese.  The Christian population of Vietnam was never very large, and it has been severely persecuted since the end of the Vietnam war, but those who have persisted have grown strong in the faith.  Hien Pham was a Vietnamese Christian who worked as a translator for the missionaries in the 1960’s and 70’s during the war.  After Vietnam fell, Hien was captured by the Viet Cong and imprisoned.  He was accused of collaborating with the CIA, and while in prison he was to be re-educated.  He was taught about the evils of democracy and the many benefits of communism.  He was also told that he had been brainwashed by the Christians, and that there really was no God.  The authorities took away the Bible that he loved and forbade him to speak English, the language that he loved.

     “There is no such thing as God,” was the message that his captors drilled in, day after hellish day.

     For a long time, Hien held on to his faith, remembering the words of his Bible that he could no longer read, and, saying his prayers every day.  But finally, Hien began to wonder, “Maybe they are right.  Maybe there is no such thing as God.”  Soon his questions became convictions, and one night he decided not to say his prayers.  Instead, he made up his mind that he had been deluded all along by those missionaries, and he would no longer believe in God.  “I’m through with God,” he said to himself that night.  “When I wake up in the morning, it will be no more God for me and no more prayer.”

     The next morning, Hien, the newest atheist in the camp, stood in line as the commanding officer of the prison barked out the assignments for the day.  Hien’s job that day was to clean the latrines.  He cringed when he heard it.  This was the ultimate form of indignity for the prisoners.  The latrines were shabby and filthy and Hien would be spending the entire day amidst that filth.

     The soiled toilet paper was not flushed through the primitive plumbing, but was put into waste baskets.  One of Hien’s last jobs of the day was to empty these waste baskets.  All day long he had labored with reminders to reinforce his new belief that there is no God.  How indeed could a loving God leave him here and not rescue him from this living hell?  But as Hien’s work for the day was coming to an end, something in the last trash can happened to catch his eye.  It was a piece of paper with printed type.  As Hien looked closer, he saw it was in English.  Anxious to read this language once again, he looked around to make sure no one was watching.  He then quickly rinsed off the filth and tucked the paper into his pocket.

     That night after everyone had fallen asleep, Hien carefully took out his flashlight and removed the still damp paper from his pocket.  In the upper right hand corner he saw printed Romans 8.  Amazing!  This was a page from the Bible.  In a state of shock, Hien began reading.  The first verse he read was Romans 8:28:  “We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  What a miracle to find a page of the Bible on that very day that he had decided to forget about God; and then to read first of all that verse that spoke right into Hien’s situation and into his heart.  Hien read on:  “What then shall we say in response to all this?  If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen?  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, or anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     Hien began to cry.  Of all the Scripture verses he had known, these were the ones he most needed to hear in his present situation, and now they had come back to him in a most incredible way.  “Lord,” he prayed, “you would not let me out of your reach for even one day.”  Hien then gave up the atheism that he had just embraced, and went back to his faith and his daily prayers.

     The next morning, when Hien saw the commanding officer before the daily line up, he asked him, “Sir, would you mind if I cleaned the latrines again?”

     The officer stared at him, puzzled.  He decided Hien was trying to be a smart aleck, so he said, “All right, you are going to clean them every day until I tell you to stop.”

     Hien did not know it in the beginning, but it was that officer himself who had been tearing out pages from a confiscated Bible and using them for toilet paper.  Now, each day, Hien would find more pages, and each day, he would rinse them clean, hide them in his pocket, and read them at night.  In this way his faith was sustained and strengthened.  Life seemed hopeless to Hien as he cleaned those prison camp latrines, but there among the filth he found a word of hope.   

     After a while, Hien was released from prison.  In time, he escaped from Vietnam in a small boat.  He was one of the boat people that were so often in the news back in the 1970’s.  He made it to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then eventually was able to come to America.  He lives now in San Francisco, where he has a business.  Whenever possible, he looks for opportunities to tell people about how good God has been to him.      (Story told by Ravi Zacharias for whom Hien Pham worked as a translator in 1971.)

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Romans 8:18  —  I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Romans 8:28  —  We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:24-5  —  For in this hope we were saved.  But hope that is seen is no hope at all.  Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

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My God, I believe in you.  Increase my faith.

 My God, I hope in you.  Strengthen my hope.

389) Eternal Hope

     Sometimes when faced with tragedy or trouble we comfort ourselves by saying, “Oh well, it could have been worse;” or, “At least it is not as bad as what happened to that family down the street;” or, we may say, “Being in the hospital was tough, but I saw there a lot of people with far more troubles than I.”  It is good to remember that others also suffer, and, these kinds of comparisons can give some comfort.  But in Romans 8:35 Paul goes beyond that kind of comparative comfort.  He first describes some of the very worst things that can happen, and then he says, ‘Not even these things can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.’  Look at the troubles Paul lists– persecution, famine, nakedness, the sword, and more.  It doesn’t get much worse than that; no food, no clothes, danger on every side– and Paul endured those hardships much of the time.  But even so, Paul was filled with confident hope and could proclaim, “Not even all this can separate us from God, but in all those things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us.”  Then in verse 38 he says not even death will separate us from God.  In fact, it is death that brings us into God’s home.  As an old hymn attributed to St. Francis expresses it, “And you, most kind and gentle death, waiting to hush our final breath; you lead to heaven the child of God, where Christ our Lord the way has trod.”

     We are all on a journey to God, and on the earthly part of that journey God is with us providing comfort and strength and assurance in the midst of all our troubles.  But when the very worst does come, death ends only the earthly part of our journey, and we then continue on in God’s heavenly home.  So, Paul says, we will never be separated from God’s love.

     Sometimes we limit our trust in God to this time and place.  We hear things like, “Just trust God, he’ll make sure you get better;” or, “just trust God, he will make sure you get what you are praying for.”  But I don’t think Paul would say that.  Yes, we must certainly trust God in and for all things.  But it is an immature faith that thinks trusting God means that God will always give you everything on your list, as if your will was always perfectly in line with his.  God’s will for us may be very different from our own wishes, and a more mature faith will trust in God even when it seems he is not there at all; even when it seems God contradicts our personal preferences.  God will, as it says in Romans 8:28, work out all things for the good of those that love him– but we must remember that God has all eternity to work things out, and not just the 70 or 80 years of your life here.

     Antonio Parr, the narrator in Frederick Buechner’s novel Lion Country, must watch his sister die of a rare disease that leaves her bones brittle and breaking with even the slightest pressure.  As she is dying, and as more bones break, her pain becomes unbearable.  Antonio must watch her suffer, and also see his two little nephews lose their mother at such a young age.  His faith is shaken as he begins to question the truth of all those Bible verses about God’s love and care.  But Antonio does continue to trust in this God that he cannot understand.  He says, “I didn’t like the thought of God being the one who had broken Miriam’s bones, but… I decided that he had always been one to play rough, and if the last word was really going to be one of rejoicing, I could forgive him anything.”

     Why God plays so rough, and whether God causes the troubles or simply allows them to happen, are other topics for other times.  The Bible does have some things to say about that, too.  As we read the stories of the great men and women of the Bible we see that yes indeed, God does allow much trouble to come into their lives.  But we also see that God does get the last word, and he has promised that it will be a word of rejoicing for all who have believed in Him.  As the German preacher Helmut Thielicke said in several of his sermons during World War II, sermons often interrupted by air raids and bombs:  “He who possesses the last hour, need not fear the next minute.”

     Before going into combat a soldier asked the chaplain if his prayers for safety would guarantee that he would not be harmed by bombs or bullets.  The chaplain replied that faith in God made a man sure and certain of the most important thing, which is that even if his body was shattered, his soul would be untouched and safe.  We know that many soldiers in every war have prayed for protection, but many of them did not make it home.  We know that every day many prayers in many hospitals are not answered with health and recovery.  But our trust is in a God who is bigger than life itself.  Death for God is nothing more than one of the many problems that God will one day put an end to forever.  On that day, death itself will die.

     There is the old saying, ‘Where there is life, there is hope;’ but with faith in Jesus we can say, ‘Where there is death, there is hope there, also.’

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Romans 8:35, 37  —  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?…  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 14:7-8  —  For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.  If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Hebrews 13:6  —  So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.  What can man do to me?”

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Let no riches or poverty make me ever forget you, Lord:  let no hope or fear, no pleasure or pain, no accident without, no weakness within; hinder my duty, or turn me from the ways of your commandments.  O let your Spirit dwell with me forever, and make my soul just and charitable, full of honesty, full of religion, resolute and constant in holy purposes, but inflexible to evil.  Make me humble and obedient, peaceable and pious:  let me never envy any man’s good, nor deserve to be despised myself:  and if I am despised, teach me to bear it with meekness and charity.  Amen.

–Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)

357) Two Sad Songs (and a little hint of hope)

     Norma Egstrom’s mother died when Norma was only four years old, and most of the rest of her childhood was spent with an alcoholic father and a cruel step-mother.  Norma sought refuge in music, working hard at developing her considerable talent.  As a teenager she changed her name to Peggy Lee and began performing professionally for local radio stations in and around her hometown of Jamestown, North Dakota.  When she was 17 she moved to Los Angeles, and at the age of 21 she was discovered by Benny Goodman.  She began singing for his band and recorded her first number one hit at the age of 22.  She had many more hits in her career, along with success as a songwriter, composer, and actress.  Her last vocal hit was the unusual song Is That All There Is? in 1969.  The verses are spoken, and the entire sad song expresses disappointment with life.  Only the refrain is sung, and that says simply, “If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing; let’s break out the booze and have a ball.”  This popular song contains not one word of hope.  The last verse even raises the thought of suicide, but then dismisses it, being in “no hurry for that final disappointment.”

IS THAT ALL THERE IS?  

by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, performed by Peggy Lee (1969):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCRZZC-DH7M

“I remember when I was a very little girl, our house caught on fire.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face as he gathered me up in his arms
and raced through the burning building out to the pavement.
I stood there shivering in my pajamas and watched the whole world go up in flames.
And when it was all over I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to a fire?'”

Refrain: Is that all there is?
Is that all there is?
If that’s all there is, my friends,
Then let’s keep dancing.
Let’s break out the booze
And have a ball
If that’s all there is.

“And when I was 12 years old, my father took me to the circus, the greatest show on earth.
There were clowns and elephants and dancing bears and a beautiful lady in pink tights flew high above our heads.
And as I sat there watching the marvelous spectacle, I had the feeling that something was missing.
I don’t know what, but when it was over I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to a circus?'” Refrain

“Then I fell in love with the most wonderful boy in the world.
We would take long walks by the river or just sit for hours gazing into each other’s eyes.
We were so very much in love. Then one day, he went away.
And I thought I’d die, but I didn’t.
And when I didn’t, I said to myself,
‘Is that all there is to love?'” Refrain

“I know what you must be saying to yourselves.
‘If that’s the way she feels about it why doesn’t she just end it all?’
Oh, no. Not me. I’m in no hurry for that final disappointment.
For I know just as well as I’m standing here talking to you,
when that final moment comes and I’m breathing my last breath,
I’ll be saying to myself…” Refrain

Peggy Lee (1920-2002)

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    Delta Dawn is another sad song, but unlike Peggy Lee’s 1969 hit, Helen Reddy’s 1973 hit contains a hint of hope– a brief word of hope using an image from the Bible.

DELTA DAWN

written by Alex Harvey, 1972, #1 hit by Helen Reddy in 1973

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=afsp7MU-nTI

Delta Dawn what’s that flower you have on?
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by?
And did I hear you say he was a meeting you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky

She’s forty-one and her daddy still calls her “baby”
All the folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy
‘Cause she walks around town with a suitcase in her hand
Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man

In her younger days they called her Delta Dawn
Prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on
Then a man of low degree stood by her side
And promised her he’d take her for his bride

Delta Dawn, what’s that flower you have on
Could it be a faded rose from days gone by
And did I hear you say he was a-meeting you here today
To take you to his mansion in the sky

     In her younger days, she was a beauty, “the prettiest lady you ever laid eyes on.”  Then she was abandoned, stood up by a “mysterious dark haired man” who had “promised her he’d take her for his bride.”  Now, “folks around Brownsville say she’s crazy,” because she is still walking around town with her suitcase in her hand, waiting for this mysterious dark haired man.  So far, this is just the story of a broken and disturbed woman, and she seems to be without hope.

     But something else is going on here.  Delta Dawn is now waiting for someone to take her where?– “to his mansion in the sky.”  Who talked about taking people to a ‘mansion’ in the sky?  Jesus, of course, in John 14.  Delta Dawn has been hurt in this life, and she’s a wounded soul.  She has gone from being the prettiest girl in town, to a crazy lady.  She’s “a faded rose from days gone by.”  But she still has a hope.  Someone else is coming to get her, someone who will not disappoint her, but who will indeed take her to his mansion in the sky.  Did Alex Harvey have all that in mind?  I don’t know, but that is the image he used.

     So to answer the despairing question of Peggy Lee “Is that all there is?,” Delta Dawn says “No, there is more– there is a mansion in the sky.”  “Believe in me,” said Jesus in the same passage as he talked about that mansion– “Believe in me and I will take you there.”  Delta Dawn is a believer and she is ready, suitcase in hand.

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Alex Harvey wrote this song about his mother.  Here is the story:

http://blogs.tennessean.com/tunein/2013/07/19/story-behind-the-song-delta-dawn-by-alex-harvey/

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Helen Reddy in a 2011 interview talking about her quiet life now:  

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xhVxpx7aCQ

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Ecclesiastes 2:17  —  So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me.  All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Luke 12:19-20  —  (The rich fool in Jesus’ parable said to himself), “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”  But God said to him, “You fool!  This very night your life will be demanded from you.  Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?”

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John 14:1-3 (King James Version)  —  (Jesus said), “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions:  if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”

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Grant, O Lord, that what has been said with our lips we may believe in our hearts,
and that what we believe in our hearts we may practice in your lives,
through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.  –John Hunter, Scotland, 18th century 

246) Two Snowstorms

     Life is a struggle, Paul says in Ephesians 6, and we know what he means.  We face struggles with children and with parents, with spouses and bosses, with co-workers, employees, neighbors, and authorities.  There are struggles for health, struggles with finances, and struggles against despair, fatigue, and frustration.  We know the feeling.  To live is to do battle on many fronts.

     Paul goes right to the center of all these struggles and says that at the very heart of it all, this is a spiritual struggle.  It is a struggle to do right and not do wrong; it is a struggle to have faith and hope, and to not give in to despair and unbelief; it is a struggle to know and hang on to the truth of Jesus Christ that transforms everything.  The struggle continues, but when you know and believe that truth, you can know that one day the struggle will end and you will still be all right.  And knowing that you will be all right in the end can change one’s whole view of the struggle.

     I have struggled through many snowstorms.  I worked my way through college driving milk trucks, garbage trucks, and school buses.  And there were many days that we had to be out on the road in the very worst weather.  And although I never looked forward to having to drive on bad roads with poor visibility, there was always something exhilarating about getting the work done on days like that.  I remember especially the January 1975 ‘Blizzard of the Century’ as it was called in Minnesota.  The first day of the storm nothing moved.  It was impossible to go anywhere.  The next day was only a little better, but we had to get out.  Now there were two days milk to pick up, and some farmers were already dumping milk down the drain for lack of room.  We had to try and get to the farms.  But it was trouble all day.  Roads were opened slowly by the plows but then quickly drifted shut again, driveways were plugged, the temperature was 20 below, and the wind was fierce.  Sometimes it would take as long to get two farmer’s milk picked up as it would normally take to pick up at all eight farms of an entire load.  Getting stuck meant hard shoveling in 70 below wind chill.  Everything was frozen and more difficult.  But we got the work done.  We got all the milk to the creamery that day in the ‘Blizzard of the Century.’  There was something very satisfying about that, and looking back on it now, I remember it as a good day.

     I remember another storm, this one a few years later while I was a student pastor in South Dakota.  This storm I do not remember so fondly.  I got caught in this storm late at night on a seldom traveled road that I was not familiar with.  There were few farm homes in that area, and in the blowing snow I could see not a single yard light in any direction.  I could not risk leaving my car.  It was far too cold, and I had no idea which way to go or how far I would have to walk.  But it was also dangerous to stay with the car.  I was stuck in a huge drift in the middle of the road on a curve.  With the poor visibility, I feared getting hit by another car or a snowplow.  After two hours of shoveling and praying that no other vehicles would be on the road, I did get out and made it the rest of the way home safely.  But that experience was not exhilarating.  It was just plain frightening.

     What was the difference?  In the first example, I knew I was going to make it.  It was cold and miserable and the snow was often deep.  But it was daylight, visibility was adequate, I knew the area, and there was always a farm in sight and within walking distance.  Even though I still had to struggle against the elements and suffer the cold, I knew that I was going to get home safe.  I would not freeze to death or get hit by a snowplow that could not see me.  It was still a difficult struggle all through the day, but I was without fear.

     In the South Dakota storm, the struggle was filled with uncertainty and fear.  For three hours I did not know whether or not I would live or die.  Leaving my car would put me in a life-threatening situation, but it was also dangerous to wait inside my vehicle, or, to be outside shoveling.  Anything I chose to do put me at risk, the outcome was unknown, and I had much to fear.

     To those who believe in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, the Gospel says, ‘You are going to make it!’  No matter how tough it gets, no matter how fierce the battle, no matter how miserable the path, no matter how long the struggle, you are going to make it to God’s home safely.  Not even death can change that.  “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s,” says Romans 14:8.  We can be assured of that.  The struggle will continue but the outcome is certain.  Jesus has won the battle for us and so we can live without fear.  Therefore, the struggle can be exhilarating and satisfying, like the day was for me hauling milk in that snowstorm.  We do not have to be crippled by fear, like I was on that remote South Dakota highway.  This can make all the difference for us.  We can live with courage and confidence, come what may, for God is with us in all things and at all times.  Jesus Christ has defeated death, has gone on ahead of us, and he has promised to bring us to himself.

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Ephesians 6:11-12  —  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

Romans 14:7-8  —  For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.  If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.

Revelation 21:3-4  —  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

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O God, who knowest us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright; grant to us such strength and protection, as may support us in all dangers, and carry us through all temptations, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer