1449) Life is Short, So…?

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     “I am not happy, and life is short, so I need to go after this one chance at happiness,” he said, explaining why he was about to do something that was obviously wrong and stupid; that is, obvious to everyone but himself.

     “Yes,” said his friend, “life is short, so whatever it is you are going through, you have to do what is right and put up with it just a little longer.  Life is short, remember?  The misery will soon come to an end.  Stay on the good path and in a little while, when this life is over, you will hear the Lord say to you, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’  But if you get on the wrong path you will, in a little while after this short life, hear the Lord say to you, “Depart from me.’  And you don’t want that, my friend.”

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I Peter 1:24-25a  —  People are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.

Amos 5:14  —  Seek good, not evil, that you may live.  Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you.

Matthew 25:21  —  His master replied, “Well done, good and faithful servant!…  Come and share your Master’s happiness.”

Matthew 25:41  —  Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’

Psalm 90:10-11a  —  Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.  If only we knew the power of your anger!

James 4:13-17  —  Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.”  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”  As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes.  All such boasting is evil.  If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.

 

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Dear Lord Jesus, mercifully keep me from every act which may deprive me of the sight of you as soon as my trial time in this life is over, or mar the fullness of my joy when the end of days shall come.  Amen.

–William Gladstone  (1809-1898), Prime Minister of Great Britain (adapted)

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Lord, take my hand and lead me
upon life’s way;
direct, protect, and feed me
from day to day.
Without your grace and favor
I go astray,
so take my hand, O Savior,
and lead the way.

–Verse one of a hymn by Julie von Hausmann  (1826-1901)

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PSALM 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.
Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

You turn people back to dust,
    saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.
Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
    they are like the new grass of the morning:
In the morning it springs up new,
    but by evening it is dry and withered.

We are consumed by your anger
    and terrified by your indignation.
You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence.
All our days pass away under your wrath;
    we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
    or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
    for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
    Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
    that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
    your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
    establish the work of our hands for us—
    yes, establish the work of our hands.

1292) No Cheating!

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Or, we could try the Ten Commandments…

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From “How the Ten Commandments Stop Us From Cheating” by Christian B. Miller, October 18, 2016, at: http://www.christianity.com .  Miller is professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University. He is the director of the Character Project and the philosophy director of the Beacon Project

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     Reading the news, you might well conclude that the 2010s are the decade of cheating.  Dozens of runners allegedly broke the eligibility rules to enter the 2015 Boston Marathon.  In 2012, 125 of the students in a Harvard University government class— with 279 students total— were accused of cheating, and 70 were eventually forced to withdraw from Harvard altogether.  In 2015, the hacking of Ashley Madison’s website (“Life is short. Have an affair”) uncovered 37 million users worldwide.

     The world of sports has provided seemingly endless examples.  In 2013 Lance Armstrong admitted that he had cheated, for decades, while bicycling.  Alex Rodriguez missed the whole 2014 Major League Baseball season for cheating.  Russian weightlifters were banned from the 2016 Rio Olympic Games— and though Russia’s Olympic delegation barely escaped a blanket ban for that nation’s history of cheating, the same was not true for the Paralympic Games that followed the Olympics, where the entire Russian team was banned...

     The sheer volume of these cases is enough to make us despair about human character— even if we didn’t have ample evidence from our own, more or less spectacular, moments of dishonesty.  Maybe we are all, deep down, just dishonest people.

     But we don’t just have to speculate.  We live in the age of social psychology, where researchers can actually investigate our hunches about the prevalence of dishonesty.  But surprisingly, the same researchers who have confirmed our worst suspicions— people are very prone to cheat— have also discovered something less expected.  They’ve found a way to practically eliminate cheating altogether.

     First the bad news.  Athletes and celebrities are not alone.  In fact, most people will cheat if given the chance.  A London Business School study had people in a control group take a test with 20 problems.  When the time was up, the test was graded by the experimenters, and each participant was paid $0.50 per correct answer.  On average they solved eight problems correctly.

     Another group took the same test, and also knew that they would get paid $0.50 per correct answer.  But here was the twist:  They were told to grade their own tests and shred their answer keys when they were done— meaning they could report whatever number of correct answers they wanted and get paid accordingly, with no questions asked.  What happened?  They “solved” thirteen  problems correctly.  Could it be that this second group was just that much better at problem solving?  It could be.  But I think we all know what really happened.

     So far, this sounds like more of the same depressing news about dishonesty.  But researchers at the University of Toronto had a really clever idea about how to expand this experiment.  Their control group averaged  3.1 problems solved (these were clearly harder problems).  Then there was the “shredder” group.  For this group, confirming the earlier experiment, the number of problems “solved” went up, to 4.2 on average.

     But— and here is the clever part— the researchers had a third group of participants.  This group was given the same instructions as the “shredders,” with one difference:  They were asked to recall the Ten Commandments before taking and grading the test.  What happened?  On average, this group reported solving just 2.8 problems.  The cheating (presumably) seen in the “shredder” group was entirely gone…

     Explaining the cheating is fairly simple:  Deep down, it seems, most of us would choose to cheat if we thought we could benefit from it and get away with it.  But then why do the Ten Commandments matter so much?  Because we also want to be perceived as honest people both by others and— crucially— by ourselves.  The Ten Commandments serve as a moral reminder of the right way to behave.  Having been given that reminder, it becomes harder to regard ourselves as honest if we then proceed to cheat…

     This is encouraging news.  Most of us are not entirely dishonest people after all.  Truly dishonest people would not care about the Ten Commandments, nor would they care about seeing themselves as honest and let that regulate how much they actually cheat.

     But for most of us, our view of our own characters matters.  We want to think of ourselves as good— and honest— people.

     This discovery has a number of important practical applications.  One is for education.  Cheating is a huge problem in high schools and colleges today.  According to one study, the average rate of cheating while in college is a whopping 86 percent.  But a school’s honor code, if it is taken seriously and used for every paper and test, can serve a similar function as the Ten Commandments.

     In fact, the same researchers at Toronto showed this experimentally.  Control participants averaged 3.4 correct answers.  When given an opportunity to cheat with the shredder, those participants usually did (6.1 correct answers).  But when they first signed an honor code, cheating disappeared (3.1 correct answers).  Strikingly, this was true whether they would be paid $.50 per correct answer, or even $2— four times as much.

     The key, though, is that students actually sign the code.  It can’t just be a nebulous commitment of the school.  It has to be something they are personally committing themselves to.

     Another practical application has to do with cheating on financial paperwork, whether taxes or a company reimbursement form. Such cheating probably results in billions of dollars in losses each year.  Normally the place where you sign your name and pledge that you have completed it honestly comes at the very bottom.  The London Business School researchers found that 79 percent of participants in their study who signed on the bottom of a tax form misreported their earnings.  But when they moved the moral reminder to the top of the form, the percentage of participants misreporting shrank to 37 percent.

     Or consider cheating in relationships.  My wedding ring serves as a daily reminder of the moral commitment I have made to my wife— a reminder to me and to others.

     Christians, of all people, should not be at all surprised by the prevalence of cheating in these experiments (or in society more generally).  Indeed, we could have predicted ahead of time just what the psychologists would end up discovering:  Most of us want to cheat but we also want to think of ourselves as good people.  These are exactly the kind of psychological contortions you’d expect of sinful people.

     But because we ourselves are sinful people, we shouldn’t discount our need for mirrors to our souls—both our temptations and our aspirations. And as it turns out, literal mirrors might work best of all. In another study, when psychologists asked participants to take a test in an empty room for five minutes and then stop when an alarm bell goes off, 71 percent kept going well after five minutes.  But when the participants were seated at a desk with a mirror facing them on the wall, only 7 percent went past five minutes.  A stunning difference.

     We all need mirrors like that— literal or metaphorical.  It might be wearing a cross around one’s neck.  It might be a special bracelet or ring.  It might be a verse that one carries in a pocket or has taped to the office wall.  It could be the simple presence of a Bible in plain sight next to the tax forms or the computer with unfiltered Internet access.

     Thinking that we can get by and not cheat by depending on the goodness of our characters or the strength of our willpower is foolish.  

     We need all the moral help we can get.

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In matters of morals, people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.

–Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

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Deuteronomy 6:4-9  —  Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children.  Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the door-frames of your houses and on your gates.

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Set our hearts on fire with love to thee, O Christ, that in its flame we may love thee with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, and with all our strength, and our neighbors as ourselves; so that, keeping thy commandments, we may glorify thee, the giver of all good gifts.  Amen.

–Eastern Orthodox Church

1228) God Wants Us to Be Good– For Our Own Sake

     God wants us to be good.  When we obey his commands, life is better for ourselves and those around us.  That is why God gives the commandments in the first place.  

     In the Bible, as in the home, there are a variety of motivators described to encourage our obedience.  There are threats and promises, there are blessings given and blessings denied, and there are punishments and rewards.  But most of all, there is Jesus, who has come down from heaven to be with us in this life.  In getting to know Jesus not only as our God, but also as our friend, we can begin to trust that his commands for us are good.

     In the book of Acts there is a miraculous healing of a man who had been crippled from birth.  Peter and John healed this man in the name of Jesus, but that healing came by way of a command.  Peter said to the man, “I do not have any money to give you, but I’ll give you what I have; I tell you, in the name of Jesus Christ, walk.”  That was a command, and it is commands that we often do not like.  We don’t like to be told what to do, and that lame man could have just said, “No, I won’t,” or he could have complained and said, “Do I have to?” or, he could have sarcastically said, “What do mean walk, are you blind; can’t you see that my legs are no good?”  Obedience was just one of several responses that man could have made.  But the man chose to obey, and verse seven says “Instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” and he stood up.  Soon, the man was not only standing, but he was walking and even jumping around.  But first, he had to obey the command.  The healing came by faith that in the name of Jesus he could be healed, and then by obedience to the command.

     Jesus gave a command to the women at the tomb on that first Easter morning.  He said, “Go and tell my disciples what you have seen, and tell them that I will meet all of you in Galilee.”  There again is a command– two commands in fact.  Go and tell the disciples, and then, all of you meet me in Galilee.  Do you think there were any objections, any discussions about whether or not to obey this command, whether or not they had to do that?  Of course not.  Any opportunity to see Jesus, who they saw dead and now was alive, would be a blessing, even if commanded.  

     There have always been debates about how much we have to do to be saved, and what sins God will and will not forgive, and how much preachers should emphasize the Law and God’s commands, and how much they should emphasize God’s love and freely given grace.  But it is only because of our sinful blindness that we imagine a conflict between God’s love and God’s commands.  Throughout the Bible there is such a blending of the two that one can hardly tell the difference.  Even the punishments, when given, are not merely because commands were broken, but because the people were turning away from God’s love and bringing upon themselves all sorts of miseries.

     So for all those reasons, God wants us to be good– for our own sake. 

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Deuteronomy 28:1a…2a  —  If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today… all these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…

Deuteronomy 28:15  —  However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you…

I John 2:5  —  If anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them.  This is how we know we are in him.

Acts 3:6  —  Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

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O Lord, let my life by useful, and my death be happy; let me live according to thy laws, and die with confidence in thy mercy.  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

1226) The First Saint Nick (b)

photograph of a stained glass window of Saint Nicodemus learning from Jesus, Saint Joseph's Cathedral, Macon, Georgia, USA; artist unknown; photographed by the author, summer 2003

Saint Nicodemus, with Jesus

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     (…continued)  John records no further questions or comments by Nicodemus in this conversation, but I think we can safely assume that Nicodemus liked what he heard from Jesus.  His name appears two more times in the Gospel of John.  In chapter seven, the Jewish ruling council wants to arrest Jesus, and only Nicodemus speaks up in his favor, saying, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”  Then, in John 19, after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus, along Joseph of Arimathea, arrange for the burial of Jesus.  The Bible says Nicodemus brought 75 pounds of spices for the burial.  That, according to scholars, is far more than the normal amount.  It is what would be used for the burial of a king– which is an indication of what Nicodemus thought of Jesus.  Nicodemus, despite the way Jesus confronted him at first, did apparently become a friend of and believer in Jesus.

     In many ways, Jesus challenged and contradicted the understanding of grace and faith that Nicodemus had been taught, but Nicodemus saw in Jesus something special, something true and good and miraculous.  Despite the difficulties in understanding and following Jesus, Nicodemus hung in there, stayed in touch, and kept looking to Jesus.  These three references in John are the only times we read of Nicodemus in the Bible.  There is some evidence in other early sources that Nicodemus joined the early church, and was then executed for his faith in Jesus in the early Roman persecution of the Christians.  The Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church list Nicodemus among their saints.

     Nicodemus perhaps saw in Jesus a word of God’s grace that was lacking in his Pharisaic beliefs.  Their brand of Judaism had expanded the simple and direct Ten Commandments into 613 rules.  Perfectionists that they were, they wanted to make sure everything was covered.  For example, “Remember the Sabbath Day” was a commandment, and the Bible said you were not to do any work on the Sabbath.  But what exactly did that mean?  They wanted to know.  You had to eat, didn’t you?  Could you prepare food?  So they made this rule:  you may warm up food, but you shall not prepare it on the Sabbath Day.  Do the preparation on the day before so all you have to do on the Sabbath is put it in the microwave.  There was a rule about having to give thanks before a meal, but that led to more rules.  What constituted a meal?  If you have a donut with your coffee break do you have to say a prayer of thanks for that?  The rule they came up with was if what you eat is bigger than an olive, then yes, you have to say a prayer before you eat it.  One more example.  Is it walking considered working, and if so, how far can you walk on the Sabbath day?  Well, there was a rule on precisely how many steps you could take.  Therefore, if you wanted to go somewhere on the Sabbath, you needed to step it off ahead of time to make sure you were not going too far.  This went on and on.  

     We might be tempted to look down on these Pharisees for this foolish legalism, but they would look down on us for our far too careless and indifferent approach to God’s law.  They most certainly went overboard, and Jesus told them so on more than one occasion.  He criticized them for their hypocrisy, lack of love and mercy, self-righteous pride, spiritual blindness, and so many other things that they had wrong.  But Jesus never criticized them for their obedience.  Jesus did say one time that he did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (though not all the additional laws the Pharisees had invented).

     The Pharisees had many things wrong, but they were faithful about saying their prayers, every day and at every meal.  How about you?  Do you see every bit of food as a gift of God and give thanks at every meal?  The Pharisees were faithful about obeying God’s command to worship each and every week.  How about you?  And they were faithful about obeying God’s command to rest one day a week.  Are you?  Or is your Sabbath Day just as hectic as the work week?  The Pharisees thought only about obedience, all the time, and had no time to remember God’s grace.  They went overboard one way.  But to never consider God and his commands for us in our decisions and our daily life is certainly to go overboard the other way.

     As a young monk, Martin Luther saw only the judging and condemning face of God, much like the Pharisees.  Then one night as Luther was digging into the Scriptures, he noticed something in Romans chapter four. He saw there that the blessings of God come not from obeying the Law, but that ‘the promise comes by faith.’  But even though Luther was led to a renewed understanding of grace, he also continued to teach that our response to such grace must always be diligent and faithful obedience.

     We must not, like the Pharisees, see only the commanding and judging side of God.  But neither should we forget about that.  We should, like Nicodemus, keep our hearts and minds open to all that the Bible says about God– His promises for us and His expectations of us.

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John 7:50-51  —  Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked (the ruling council), “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?”

Matthew 5:17  —  (Jesus said),  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

Romans 4:14-15a…16a  —  For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath…  Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace.

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 O Almighty Lord and everlasting God, we beseech thee to direct, sanctify, and govern, both our hearts and bodies, in the ways of thy laws, and in the works of thy commandments; that through thy most mighty protection, both here and forever, we may be preserved in body and soul, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

1214) Watching Your Tongue

     The wireless mic I wear every Sunday when I lead worship makes me nervous.  A couple times I have forgotten to turn it off after the service, and my conversations out in the hall were broadcast for all who hear.  When I was told that my mic was on, I immediately shut my mouth, turned off the mic, and then did some quick thinking back, wondering if I said anything embarrassing.  I never have, but this is a worry.  We all say dumb things that we would not care to broadcast for the whole world to hear.

     Psalm 139 says, “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me…  You discern my thoughts from afar…  you are acquainted with all my ways.  Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you already know it.”  Psalm 33 says, “From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind…  He considers everything they do.”

     God knows all and sees all.  It is as if we all are fitted with a wireless mic, the switch is always on, and God, who is far more important to our life and destiny than any human, is always listening.  It is a terrifying thought to be so altogether known.  God knows us better than we know ourselves.  Every thought is known by Him, every emotion is known, every moment of doubt and jealousy is known, and every selfish motivation is known, including those that from the outside look completely unselfish and noble.  Mark Twain once said, “We all have thoughts that would shame the devil.”  God sees what is in our thoughts, so he commands us to keep a tight rein on our tongue.

      Ephesians 4:29 says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”  In the next verse, Paul describes how deeply concerned God is about who we are and what we say and what we do:  “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.”  God, says Paul, is grieved by our shameful thoughts, our careless words, and our sinful actions.

     One of the biggest challenges to our moral life before God is learning to tame our tongue.  Jesus has much to say about that, the book of Proverbs is full of good advice about watching what we say, the book of James has an entire section on the matter, and there are many other verses in many other Biblical books.  What we say is heard by God, and if what we say is sinful or unkind, God is grieved.  The negative things we say about other people might sometimes be heard by them, and it of course, grieves and angers them, just as what they say may irritate us.

     William Law, a British preacher and moralist of a couple hundred years ago, would often teach the virtues by writing detailed descriptions of people who were good (or bad) examples of whatever virtue he was trying to teach.  In one essay he describes Ophelia, a high society woman who was very proud.  He describes her as being easily offended by even the slightest remark, but her own conversation was filled with the most bitter and malicious slander, spoken against anyone and everyone, including her friends.  Her words and actions were outrageous, but she herself could never see the double-standard of her behavior.

     The lesson is that if we want to become upset by the careless words of others, we should make sure that all of our words could be said in the presence of those we are talking about.  If not, we ought to be more than ready to do as Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer, and forgive as we have been forgiven.

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I take it as a matter not to be disputed, that if all knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.  This seems proved by the quarrels and disputes caused by the disclosures which are occasionally made.

–Blaise Pascal

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James 3:5b-10  —  Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.  Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Proverbs 11:12  —  Whoever derides their neighbor has no sense, but the one who has understanding holds their tongue.

Proverbs 12:18  —  The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Proverbs 21:23  —  Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity.

I Peter 3:10  —  Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech.  They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it.

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PRAYER ON THE 8th COMMANDMENT by Martin Luther  (1483-1546):

 I confess and ask for your grace, because I have so often in my life sinfully spoke with malice and contempt against other people.  They depend on me for their honor and reputation, just as I depend on them for the same.  Help us all to obey this commandment, giving our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and explaining their actions in the kindest way.  Amen.

1199) Living ‘the Good Life’ (b)

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It is you alone who are to be feared.  Who can stand before you when you are angry?  From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet, when you, God, rose up to judge.  –Psalm 76:7-9a

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     (…continued)  The Psalmist was terrified at the thought of such an accounting before God and said, “Who can stand before you, O Lord?”  The disciples shuddered at the thought of Christ’s demands and asked him, “How can anyone be saved?”  

     Jesus once told a parable about a settling of accounts (Matthew 18:23-35):

(Jesus said), “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him.  Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.  At this the servant fell on his knees before him.  ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’  The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.  But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.  He grabbed him and began to choke him.  ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.  His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’  But he refused.  Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.  When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.  Then the master called the servant in.  ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to.  Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’  In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.  This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

     This king wanted to ‘settle accounts’ with his servants, and one man was brought to him who owed ten thousand talents– an impossible sum of money.   One talent was the equivalent of 15 years of a common man’s labor, and this man somehow owed ten thousand talents.  So “since the servant was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.”  We might well feel that our accounting before God would be just as hopeless and impossible.  But then comes a huge surprise.  The servant begged for mercy and “the master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.”

     What an amazing and unexpected reversal!  This is the kind of reversal of fortune that Jesus himself was here to bring for all sinners.  Who, after all, could hope for anything after giving an account of himself before God?  Who could proudly and confidently stand before God and say, “Yes, I have done all you have expected of me and obeyed you in everything and now I can stand before you without shame or regret.”  No one could say that before the Holy and Almighty God– except by the forgiveness won on the cross for us by Jesus Christ.  It is now Christ who stands with us at our accounting and declares that our sins have been forgiven and our debt is cancelled.  On our own we deserve nothing, but by faith in Christ we can stand before God with confidence and hope.

      There is one more important thing to take note of in the parable.  That king certainly was a gracious king, and he gave that servant’s life back to him by cancelling that debt and giving him that wonderful word of mercy and release.  But sadly, that was not the end of the parable.  That word of mercy comes in the middle of the parable, and then the servant was sent back out into the world.  The gracious word of the king did not mean there were no more worries or obligations for that servant; and God’s word of grace for us does not mean we can now ignore anything else God might have to say to us.  We are still living in the world, and God still expects us to live like his loved and forgiven people.  That means that we must be willing to also love and forgive others, living in obedience to God’s commands.  The fact that we face our day of reckoning with Christ at our side, does not mean that we may take advantage of that grace and disobey God’s commands.  In the last verses of the parable, the king was shocked to hear that his servant, who had been forgiven so much, went out and had a fellow servant thrown into prison for a far smaller debt.  God expects that we will forgive others as we have been forgiven.  God expects that we show to others the kindness that we have been shown, and that we love others as God has first loved us.  Yes, we have received grace upon grace from God, and with that in mind, we will want to live grace-filled lives.

     Captain Miller’s sacrifice and last words inspired Private Ryan every day to live a good life, worthy of that sacrifice.  In a far deeper way, the thought of Jesus Christ, and his love and sacrifice for us, ought to inspire us to want above all else to live a live worthy of such love.

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 O Lord, I give myself to thee, I trust thee fully.  Thou art wiser than I, more loving to me than I myself.  Fulfill thy purposes in me whatever they be, working in me and through me.  I am born to serve thee, to be thine, and to be thy instrument.  I ask not to see, and I ask not to know.  I ask simply to be used by thee.  Amen.

–John Henry Newman, Catholic cardinal and theologian  (1801-1890)

1198) Living ‘the Good Life’ (a)

     The 1998 movie Saving Private Ryan begins with an old man walking through a military cemetery.  It is the American cemetery at Normandy in France where the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives in the D-Day invasion are buried.  The old man, full of emotion, stops and kneels at one of the graves.

     At this point, the movie goes back in time a half century to June 6, 1944, the day of the invasion.  Over half of the men who were the first to hit the beaches that day were killed, and the movie vividly portrays the horrific barrage of bullets and bombs they faced.  Bodies and parts of bodies were scattered all over the beach, and the sand and water were red with blood.  But those who survived kept going.  The whole world was depending on them, and eventually the beach was secured.  The war would go on for another year, but Allied victory in the second World War depended on the success of that invasion.

     The scene then shifts to a little farm in middle America, where a mother receives word that two of her sons died on that beach, and another son had just been killed in action in the Pacific.  Only one of her four sons was still alive.  He was a paratrooper on D-Day, and if still alive, was somewhere behind enemy lines.  General George Marshall heard about this poor mother, and decided that she had suffered enough.  He ordered that this Private Ryan be found and returned home.  Captain John Miller and a squad of seven men were given the task of finding and ‘saving Private Ryan.’

    This would be a dangerous mission.  Private Ryan, if even still alive, and if he could be found, was deep behind enemy lines, and the Americans had not yet been able to do much more than secure the beach.  They do learn where Private Ryan might be, but on the way to him, they are ambushed, and two of Captain Miller’s squad are killed.  When they do find him, they again come under attack.  This time, three more members of the squad are killed, including Captain Miller.  But the battle was won, Private James Ryan was saved, and he would be going home.  However, five men had to die in order to save Private Ryan.

     In his dying words, Captain Miller said to Private Ryan, “James, earn this.”  Private Ryan knew what he meant, and already felt it in his heart.  Five young men had given their lives so that he might have a life.  Now, it was up to him to live a good and worthy live so that that great sacrifice was not wasted.

     The movie ends by going back to the opening scene.  It is the 1990’s again, and we learn it is Private Ryan in the cemetery, now an old man, kneeling at the grave of Captain Miller.  Overcome with emotion, he stares at the grave marker, and speaks to his long dead Captain.  He tells him that he thought of the Captain’s last words to him every day of his life.  He tells him he tried to live a good life, and hopes that he has.  He says he hopes that the life he got to live was worthy of the sacrifice made by Captain Miller and the four others in his squad.  But still he wonders how any life, however well lived, could have ‘earned,’ or could be worthy of such a sacrifice.  

     The elderly Private Ryan stands up, and his wife is there by him.  He looks at her and he says, “Tell me, I’ve lived a good life.”  She reassures him the best she can, Private Ryan turns for one last salute to Captain Miller, and the movie ends.

     That scene is not only a profound look at one man’s story.  For the viewer, it also becomes a profound look at one’s own life.  We are prompted to ask that same question of ourselves and our own life.  Have I lived a good life?

     This leads one on to other questions.  How do we define a good life?  What does a good life consist of?  What is good enough?  There is a difference between ‘living the good life,’ and living a good life.  

     The phrase ‘living the good life’ brings to mind time off of work, plenty of money, rest, recreation, and relaxation; as in, “Ahhh– this is the life!”

     But when the old soldier in the cemetery asked his wife, ‘Have I lived a good life?’ that is not what he was talking about.  Living a good life means something far deeper than sitting on the beach all day with your feet up as you empty the beer cooler.  Living a good life means living an honorable life, being good to other people, making an honest living, keeping your promises, paying your bills, helping those who need help, being kind, keeping the faith, and so on.  And certainly, if you believe in God, you would want to know what God would have to say about ‘living the good life.’

     God’s Word in Romans 14:7-8 says:  

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 then, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.

     I read those words almost every time I do a funeral.  At the time of death, they are words of great comfort.  We are not alone in death.  Even then, God is with us and we belong to Him.  But the words also say something to the living about how to live our lives.  In life also, it says, we belong to the Lord.  Our lives are not our own to live however we want.  None of us lives to himself alone, it says.  If we live we live to the Lord, and belong to Him.  And then Romans 14:12 says:

So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.

     Do you shudder when you read that?  We all should tremble at the thought.  Can you imagine what that means to give an account of our lives to God, who sees everything, and who knows everything, even your most secret thoughts; that God on whom you depend for everything?  And this God is going to demand an accounting from you!  Are you eager to give God an account of your life?  Are you ready to face his cross-examination?  Are you anxious to explain to God about those times when you should have told the truth, but did not; and those times when you should have said a kind word, but instead said a harsh word? Are you anxious to explain every wicked thought, every grudge held, every bit of forgiveness withheld, every selfish deed done, every good deed neglected, and every opportunity missed?

     God gave you everything you have.  Are you anxious to explain to him about those times when you could have been generous, but was not?  In that accounting, God might ask you why you spent so much time complaining and so little time giving thanks.  God might ask why you so often looked with envy at what others had, and failed to see your own blessings.  And what will you say if God asks you if you used what He gave you to serve only yourself, or if you sought to find ways to serve Him with what you were given?  

     Romans 14:12 says that each of us will one day give an account of ourselves and our lives to God.  How do you think that will go for you?

     Private Ryan was overcome by emotion at the grave of Captain Miller who gave his life so that he might live, and then told him to live a life worthy of the sacrifices made for him.  Captain Miller did not live to demand such an accounting, but Private Ryan’s own conscience moved him to demand it of himself.

     We owe so much more to God, and He too demands an accounting of what we have done with the life and the gifts he has given us.  Have you lived a ‘good life?’  Is it in your heart and in your soul to want to live a good life of virtue and faith?  Or, are you more concerned about living ‘the good life’ of ease and pleasure?  (continued…)

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Ephesians 4:1b  —  I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.

Philippians 1:27a  —  Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Colossians 1:9b-10  —  We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.

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O Lord, let me not live to be useless.

–Bishop Nicholas Stratford, Church of England  (1633-1707)

1133) The Fruit of the Spirit

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     The Bible teaches us how to live not only by giving commandments, but also by the listing of important moral virtues.  In Galatians 5:22 Paul wrote:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

If only everyone had such qualities!  Life would be so much better.  But as much as we might desire those virtues, no one can claim to have mastered them.  Paul himself knew what a struggle it was to do the right thing all the time, as he wrote in Romans 7:15:

I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do.

Paul was a good man; but as his own letters show, he had problems with patience and gentleness and love, to just name a few from the list.  Paul had a short fuse, could be very harsh, and he lamented his failure to be loving with those with whom he disagreed.

     But Paul had no desire to give up and say, “Oh well, I am forgiven, I’ll do what I want.”  That is what some were saying in response to his preaching, so in Romans six he corrects this misunderstanding.  After describing the wonderful gift of God’s freely given grace, he said:

What shall we say then; shall we go on sinning so that we can get more grace?  Absolutely not…  We must not let sin be our master.  (from verses 1, 2, 14)

In other places Paul described the Christian life as a battle against Satan, against temptation, and against our own sinful will.  He calls us to a lifelong struggle to do the right thing in grateful obedience to the God who saves us and calls us to himself.

     Max Lucado wrote a little meditation on Galatians 5:22.  He began by describing his early morning prayer time:

It’s early.  It’s quiet.  My coffee is hot.  The sky is still black.  The world is still asleep.  It won’t be long and this peace and quiet will be exchanged for the noise of the day.  The calm of this solitude will be replaced by the phone ringing, by places to go, by people to meet.  The refuge of this quiet, early morning prayer time will be invaded by duties and dilemmas and decisions.  For the next twelve hours, I will be exposed to the day’s demands.  But for a few moments, I have an opportunity to receive God’s Word, and so I read: “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  Well, now I can make a choice, a choice to hear and obey that word, or to ignore it.  Because of God’s love for me, I choose to do my best to hear his word and obey it, and I pray for his help and guidance.  And so I choose…

     Lucado then goes on to list how he chooses to practice each of those nine virtues.  I will go through that list, using some of his words and some of my words.

     First, choose LOVE.  The Bible says, ‘Since God has loved us, we also ought to love one another.’  If God loves that person I cannot get along with, and commands me to love him or her also, who am I to despise them?  I may, this day, have to disagree with and oppose other people, but I will not hate them.  I will approach all my relationships with as much good will as possible.  I choose to try and understand people, see the best in them, and remember that they too are children of my heavenly Father.

     Choose JOY.  I choose to be joyful by being thankful.  One can choose to be filled with resentment and bitterness at all that one does not have, or, one can choose to be grateful for all which God has given.  Gratitude fills one with Joy, so I will choose to be grateful.  This is expressed in a little saying I once saw: Get Rich Quick: Count Your Blessings.  Count the blessings you already have, and you will see how rich you already are.  This is choosing to be joyful.

     Choose PEACE.  Paul perhaps had in mind what Jesus said:  “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  The nations of the world might be at war, and there is not much I can do about that; but I can choose to make peace with those around me.  I will try to see the best in people, I will be quick to forgive, and I will not use my conversation to sow the seeds of anger and distrust among others.

     Choose PATIENCE.  A little patience by even one person in a relationship will make for a more peaceful relationship.  Patience gives one time to see and understand the other person’s point of view.  Patience will help one think of the best way to respond, as in Proverbs 15:1:  “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

     Choose KINDNESS.  “Be kind, be kind;” said the old Scottish preacher, “for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  Nothing endears you more to other people than simple kindness.  An old friend died a while back, and what I remember about him most was his kindness.  He always had a kind word for everyone, and if he ever spoke of others, it was in kindness; and he was loved by all.

     Choose GOODNESS.  I will go without something before I take it by dishonest gain.  I will be content to be overlooked before I will boast.  I will try to see my own fault before I accuse.  I will be truthful.  I will always choose goodness.

     Choose FAITHFULNESS.  I will keep my faith in God first in my life above all other things, and I will make all my choices and decisions in obedience to God.  I will be faithful to other people.  I will keep my promises.  People will not have to question my word or wonder about my commitments.

     Choose GENTLENESS.  I will look at Jesus as my model.  Jesus had the most important gift of all to give to the world, but would not force it on anyone.  He came in gentleness to offer, to persuade, and to encourage; but not to manipulate, abuse, or force his way or his will.  If Jesus can so respect the freedom and dignity of others, I can choose such gentleness.

     Choose SELF-CONTROL.  There is a battle within us to choose to do what is right and not what is wrong.  Sometimes it is difficult to know what is the right thing to do, but usually not.  Usually we know what we ought to do and the battle is to just do it.  The self, our own sinful self, needs to be controlled if we are to live lives obedient to God.  Paul concludes his list with Self-control, the virtue that is the key to living by all the other virtues.

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    Lord, give me the help and guidance I need to practice these virtues in all my actions in today.  For those ways I succeed in doing these things, I will give you thanks.  For those many times I fail, I will seek your grace.  When the day is done, I will rest in your peace, and tomorrow morning I will recommit myself to the same choices.

–Max Lucado (adapted)

1074) Love and Obedience

     The book of I John has two main themes, love and obedience.  John is an old man by the time he is writing these words, and all of his theology is now focused on the basics, which he repeats over and over.  John is the writer who remembered and recorded those great words of Jesus about God’s love in John 3:16:  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  Now, nearing the end of his life, John continues that emphasis on God’s love.

     In I John 3:1 he rejoices in this truth, saying, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be able to be called children of God.”  In the words that follow, John tells us that such love of God should lead us to a response of obedience.  Verse three says, “everyone who has this hope in him should purify himself, just as Jesus is pure.”  In verse five John says, “Jesus appeared to take away our sins, so when we are in him, there should be no sin.”  The Bible doesn’t describe only God’s love, nor does it describe only God’s commands.  Both are there, and the two are most profoundly linked in the person of Jesus Christ.  John tells us that by looking to Jesus we can be inspired to obey.

     I once heard this illustrated in a sermon by an old pastor talking about his father, a stern and dignified judge in rural Nebraska.  The son seldom saw his father wearing anything but his black suit, white shirt, and bow-tie.  He remembered how, when he was small, he looked forward to his father returning from work, even though when his dad did return it was always the same routine.  Always the dignified one, the father would say “Good afternoon, son,” and then sit on the porch swing and watch the boy play.  The father would not pick up a ball and play catch, he would not come down and push his son on the swing, he would not push the toy trucks around and make engine noises.  That was all kid’s stuff, and stern and proper fathers, especially those who were judges, were supposed to sit and watch, and maybe, on a rare occasion, smile a little.  That was what the father thought, and the son never saw it any other way, so he thought that is what fathers were supposed to do.

     One day, the son got into all sorts of trouble with his mother.  He chased the dog around in the house, knocked over an end table, and broke his mother’s favorite lamp.  Then he got in a fight with the boy next door and came home with his shirt all bloodied and torn.  And then he spoke disrespectfully to his mother and even said a bad word.  There had been several days like that recently, and this one was the worst.  The mother told her son that she would be reporting all of this to his father and that he would be dealing with the boy when he got home.

     When the father got home, his wife met him at the door and asked him not to sit on the porch swing, but to come inside.  The son was playing on the front yard, dreading what would come next.  He had never seen his mother so upset with him.  Finally, the door opened and the father came out and stood on the porch.  For a long time he looked at his son with that familiar stern look.  Then that father did the strangest thing.  He took off his suit coat and laid it on the porch swing.  He took off his bow-tie and rolled up his shirt sleeves.  And then he knelt down in the dirt by his son, picked up a toy truck, and said, “Son, show me how you work one of these things.”  And for the next half hour, that father and son, for the first time ever, played together in the dirt.

     Sixty years later that son, by then a retired pastor, described the impact that simple act had on him.  He said what his father did was probably very difficult for him, being the proper gentleman that he was.  But it was so unexpected and it expressed such love, that from then on, the son wanted to be good so that he would never have to disappoint his father– this father who would get down on his knees to play with him in the dirt, and to do that when the son was expecting a much deserved spanking.

   God wants us to be good.  When we obey his commands, life is better for ourselves and those around us.  That is why he gives the commands in the first place.  In the Bible, as in the home, there are several ways God encourages our obedience.  There are threats and promises, there are blessings given and blessings denied, and there are punishments and rewards.  

     But most of all, there is Jesus, the high and mighty, perfect and holy one, who comes down, not from the porch, but from heaven.  He comes to us and gets down on his knees with us in the dust and dirt of this life.  And in seeing this from Jesus, God’s own Son, and in getting to know Jesus not only as our God, but as our friend, we can begin to trust that his commands for us are good.  That’s what John meant when he was always saying things like “So we love because he first loved us,” and “No one who lives in him will want to keep on sinning,” and “If anyone obeys his Word, then God’s love is truly made complete in him.”  (I John 4:19, I John 3:6, I John 2:5)

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Lord Jesus, fill us, we pray, with your light and life that we may show forth your wonderful glory.  Grant that your love may so fill our lives that we may count nothing too small to do for you, nothing too much to give to you, and nothing too much to bear for you.  Amen.

–Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order  (1491-1556)

977) Tookie, Mickey, Santa, and Jesus (2/2)

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     (…continued)  The old Christmas song says Santa Claus “knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good; so be good, for goodness sake!”

     Well, maybe Santa isn’t watching, but we know there really is someone who knows when we are sleeping and when we are awake.  There is someone who does know when you’ve been bad or good, and that someone cares very deeply about what you do, and does indeed even say, be good for goodness sake!

     God does see everything, and God does love you and does forgive you.  But God also wants you to be good!  The Bible is filled with his commands for you.  I Thessalonians 5:21-22 says:  “Test everything.  Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil.”  Why?  Because someone is coming.  The very next verse says we should keep our whole spirit, soul, and body blameless because our Lord Jesus Christ is coming.  Someone should have told Mickey Cohen that.  They should have said, “Mickey, if you want to believe in Jesus, you should know something about what he expects of you; and that means no more killing, no more embezzling, no more prostitution, no more drugs.  You are going to have to quit all that and get a regular job and BE GOOD.”

     It isn’t only Mickey Cohen who needs to hear this.  You and I also need to be told to be good— unless perhaps you think you are good enough?  Jesus had many disagreements with the Pharisees, those who thought they were already ‘good enough,’ and who objected to an obviously good man like Jesus spending all his time with known ‘sinners.’  Jesus said, “I came not to heal the healthy, but the sick.”

     Where are you at in your moral life?  How are things with your soul?  You are perhaps not a sinner in the category of Mickey Cohen or Tookie Williams.  But what category would you put yourself in if you had only two to choose from– healthy or sick?  Are you healthy, doing fine, with no need of Jesus’ forgiveness or command or power to change your life?  Or, are you a sinner, sick and in need of Jesus to heal you?

     There is a reminder here that we all, always need to hear.  We have to keep working at being good.  That is our command and our calling, to obey God in all things, little and big, because we are all very far from what God would want us to be.

     Jesus is coming again at the end of the world, and then we will see him in person.  But he is also already with us.  “I will be with you always,” he said in his last words to his disciples.  He is already, always here; always seeing and always knowing.  

     Keeping that image in mind will help us remember to be good.  Remembering that Jesus is present at every conversation would have an influence on what we say.  Remembering that Jesus is with us when we are watching TV or at the movies would have an influence on what we watch.  Remembering that Jesus knows everything about your personal finances would have an impact on how you spend your money.  Remembering that God is the giver of every good gift would have an impact on how much you complain and how much you give thanks.

     Jesus is with us all the time, and that constant presence of Jesus is not only an incentive to do good and to be good.  To know that Jesus is always with us is also the source of our greatest hope and comfort.  Jesus is also with us in our sorrow and in our pain, in our fear and in our anxiety, in our loneliness, and in our worry.  Jesus is with us by that hospital bed, in that waiting room, and by that grave.  He is even there with those on death row, and there are many amazing stories of what the presence of Jesus has done even in that hopeless place.  No matter what any of us must endure, we have the promise that there is a better day coming.  Even those who will breathe their last breath today can have that hope and promise.

     When Jesus came to earth as that baby born in Bethlehem, he came to stay.

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Isaiah 29:15  —  Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lordwho do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us?  Who will know?”

Psalm 33:13-14  —  From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth.

I Thessalonians 5:15-23  —  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.  Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil.  May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Mark 2:17  —  …Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Matthew 28:20b  —  (Jesus said), “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Galatians 6:7-10  —  Do not be deceived:  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

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Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray.
Bless all the dear children in thy tender care,
And take us to heaven, to live with Thee there.

Away in a Manger, verse 3