823) Stuck in the Middle (part two of two)

     (…continued)   The end of the story is what counts most, says Ecclesiastes, and the Bible is big on happy endings.  The Bible is realistic about the suffering in the middle of the story, but teaches us to view the suffering in light of the end.  Sometimes, as in the book of Romans, that whole process is described theologically.  Many other times, as in the story of Elijah and the grieving mother, the process is described by telling stories.  All of these stories are brief in the reading, but long in the living.  Think of the lame man at Bethesda.  He had been praying for help for 38 years before Jesus came and healed him.  It is a wonderful story to read of a miraculous healing and a happy ending.  But that man waited in the ‘middle of the story’ for 38 years.

     Are you in the middle of any trouble or sadness right now?  Satan wants you to believe that you will be stuck there, and that the middle of the story will last forever.  Sometimes it may seem that way; as we say, “some things never change.”  But the Bible keeps opening our eyes to a larger perspective, a perspective that sees even beyond death.  It does so with stories like the lame man at Bethesda, Elijah raising the widow’s son from the dead, and many more.  The stories teach us that even though life is sad and messy in the middle, the end of the story can, by faith, change everything.

     The end of the story is what counts most, says the Bible, and sports will teach you as much.  Imagine that the Minnesota Twins are behind for an entire game, but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth Brian Dozier hits a grand slam home run to win the game.  How will the fans be feeling after the game?  Will everyone be sad because their team was behind for so long?  Of course not.  Rather, the focus will be on the end, the victory; and that victory will be even sweeter because of the earlier struggle and frustration.  The happy ending changes how one views the entire previous struggle.

     The 23rd Psalm says, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  The Psalmist says he’s ‘walking through’– he is just passing through the bad times on his way to somewhere else.  He is talking about the middle of the story, and he knows he is on his way to a better ending.  Therefore, the Psalm is able to end with the happier words, “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  So as Winston Churchill said, “If you are going through hell, keep going.”  Or as C. S. Lewis said: “It doesn’t matter how deep the water is beneath you, as long as you keep swimming.”  And God says, if by faith you keep going you will get there, and the end of the story will be good.

     God opens our eyes to this deeper hope and broader perspective which gives us the resources to approach, understand, and deal with all we must suffer in the middle of our stories. We can deal with suffering by looking forward to the end of it, knowing that God will not leave us stuck in the middle, nor will God just allow it all to go down the tubes at the end in death.

     The priest of an inner city congregation could not help but notice the new visitor.  She had come to mass several days in a row, always arriving late and leaving early, and was often crying during the service.  One day, she stayed after to talk to the priest.  She was sobbing, so he began the conversation, asking simply if she was all right.  “Yes,” she said, “I will be okay.  But I wasn’t when I first came here.  I have been going through a very tough time in my life, and all anybody could ever tell me was ‘Cheer up, you’ve got it good; you’ll get over it.’  I knew I had it good, and I knew I should not have been so depressed.  But knowing I should be happy and wasn’t, made my depression all the worse.  I was even thinking about committing suicide. I’ve never gone to church, but I’d heard about how church helps some people, so one day I stopped in.  The first thing I saw was a man on a cross, his body wounded and bloody, his eyes and face full of pain and agony.  I knew enough of the story to know that was Jesus, but it struck me that his pain and suffering was put right out there front and center for all to see.  It occurred to me that here was a place that suffering was not denied or dismissed, but was taken seriously and honored and even blessed.”  She paused.  The priest said nothing, and she continued.  “I also noticed over on the other wall an empty cross.  That reminded me of what I knew about the rest of the story, that Easter part where Jesus rose from the dead.  I think that must mean that the suffering will someday end.  What I am going through now in my life is going to hurt for a while; probably a long while yet.  But that empty cross gives me the hope that the pain will end, and there will be more to my story.  That is what I have been thinking about here, and it’s all I have to hold on to right now.”

     That true story gets to the heart of what I’m trying to say.  Two of Christianity’s basic symbols are the crucifix, a cross with Jesus on it, and, the empty cross.  The crucifix can serve as a symbol of the middle of the story, that painful middle when Jesus was suffering on the cross and the disciples were stuck in pain and grief and confusion and hopelessness.  But the empty cross speaks also of the empty tomb, symbolizing the rest of the story, when the suffering will end and new life will be given.  

     Keep going.

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Ecclesiastes 7:8  —  Better is the end of a thing than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Hebrews 6:11-12  —  We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized.   We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.

Revelation 21:5-7  —  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  He said to me:  “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.   Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.”

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Help me, Lord my God; save me according to your unfailing love.  –Psalm 109:26

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822) Stuck in the Middle (part one of two)

     Walking by her son’s bedroom, a mother was astonished to see that the room was clean and the bed was made.  She had not seen that for a very long time, so she figured something must be wrong.  Then she saw an envelope, propped up so it could be easily seen, and addressed to “Mom.”  With a good bit of uneasiness, the mother opened and read the letter.  It said:

     Dear Mom, I am very sorry to have to write you this letter.  I won’t be coming home tonight.  I won’t be coming home at all anymore.  I had to elope with my new girlfriend because I wanted to avoid a scene with you and Dad.  You never met her, but I have been finding real love with a girl named Tonya.  She is very nice, but I knew you would not approve of her because of her pierced ears, nose, and tongue, her tattoos, tight motorcycle clothes, and the fact that she is much older than I am.  But it’s not only the love.  Mom, she is pregnant.
     Tonya says we will be very happy.  She knows of a little cabin in a forest in Canada that we can live in with another couple.  They have a stack of firewood for the whole winter, so we are prepared for the future.  We share a dream of having many more children.  Also, Tonya has opened my eyes to the fact that marijuana is not at all harmful.  We’ll be growing it ourselves and trading it with the other people nearby for cocaine and other things that make me feel good.
     In the meantime, we will pray that science will find a cure for AIDS so that Tonya can get better.  She deserves to be well.  Don’t worry Mom, I am 17 and know how to take care of myself.  Someday, I’m sure we will come back to visit so that you can get to know your grandchildren.
Love, Mark
P.S.  Mom, none of the above is true.  I’m over at Tommy’s house.  I just wanted to remind you that there are worse things in life than a bad report card, which you will find in my center desk drawer.  I love you.  Show the report card to Dad, and call me when it’s safe to come home.

     What an abrupt change in perspective comes in the P.S. part of that letter!  Just when your heart is going out in sympathy to that poor mother, you read that ‘none of the above is true,’ and you experience a complete change in emotion.  In a moment, you move from sympathy to the relief that mother was surely feeling.  I remember some unpleasant report card days with my kids, and a letter like that one would certainly serve to set one in a different mood by providing a different perspective.  Instead of wondering what’s the matter with her son and why he can’t do his homework and study for tests, that mother was probably thanking God for her wonderful boy who was just down the street at Tommy’s.  We have all experienced how fast one’s perspective can change.  One’s day to day problems and frustrations can be quickly forgotten by a phone call that there has been an accident or by a doctor’s bad news.

     I Kings 17:17-24 tells a story that also contains such a sudden change in emotion:

Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill.  He grew worse and worse, and finally stopped breathing.  She said to Elijah, “What do you have against me, man of God?  Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”

“Give me your son,” Elijah replied.  He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed.  Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?”  Then he cried out to the Lord, “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!”

The Lord heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived.  Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house.  He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”

Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”

     This story also describes a mother’s grief over her son.  But in the Bible story the situation is even worse.  The son has not run away, but has died.  And in both stories there is, at the end, a quick change in mood and perspective.  In I Kings 17 God gives the boy’s life back in response to the prayers by Elijah.  This hopeless story of death is turned into a time of great joy, as grief and separation is turned into the happiness of a joyful reunion.

     You can read through these stories quickly, each in less than a minute, and within seconds of hearing about the grief, you read about the happiness.  But in order for the story to have its full impact, you have to slow it down.  You need to not only read the story, but also imagine yourself being there and living it.  You have to feel yourself “stuck in the middle of it”  in order to feel the pain of what was going on there.  The widow in the Elijah story had a sick child.  Many of you know what that is like.  The temperature goes up and will not come down no matter what you do.  The child won’t eat or drink anything and is getting dehydrated.  Eventually, the crying stops, and the child is still, listless, and staring off into space.  Now what?  It is the middle of the night, and you rush to the emergency room.  The doctor does his bit, and then says you just have to wait and see if it works.  More waiting.  Seemingly endless waiting.  Finally, the child looks a little better and the doctor says you can go home.  But in a few hours the temperature is up again.  Back to the hospital, and on and on it goes, and it seems like it will never end.  You might know the feeling.  That’s what is all in the middle of the story of Elijah and the widow’s son.  And the son does not get better, but dies; and then there is the grief and regret and weariness and anger.  All of that is described very briefly in the printed story, but it is all a very big part of the lived story.  We read quickly through to the miraculous and happy ending of the story, but we must not forget the uncertainty and pain in the middle of the story.  

     This is important, because as you know we are not yet at the happy ending of our own story, but in the middle of it, perhaps even feeling like we are “stuck in the middle.”  And that “middle time” can be filled with sorrow and trouble and grief and worry and pain.  (continued…)

Rembrandt’s depiction of Elijah raising the widow’s son

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Lead me on, O Lord, for the night is dark and it is a long way to home.  And when the strife is over and the journey is done, we can rest in the warm glow of eternal life.  Amen.  

–Professor Roy Harrisville in a prayer before class at Luther Seminary

716) Set Your Hearts on Things Above (b)

     (…continued)  Nothing can transform our whole way of thinking about everything more than the resurrection of Jesus, where death was turned into life.  Death, that inevitable and final obliteration, was transformed from the end of everything into a new beginning.  “Set your hearts on things above,” says Paul, and then, “When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”  Set your minds on that resurrection from the dead, it says, and keep that in mind.  Then, you need not be desperate to get it all, have it all, or experience it all here in this little world and this short life.  There’s more to come.  We will rise to live again.

     Have you seen those books like 100 Things to Do Before You Die, or, 100 Places to See Before You Die?  There is even one that lists 1000 Places to See Before You Die.  Those books must be for people whose ‘to-do list’ isn’t already long enough.  I sure don’t need a thousand more things on my to-do list.  There always seemed to me to be a certain desperation in the ‘before you die’ part of those titles.  It is as if you have to hurry up and get that all done really fast, because after you die it will be too late to enjoy anything.  But that’s not at all how a believer in Jesus would look at this, not if Christ’s resurrection promise has had any impact on them.  “Set your mind on things above.”  There are far better things promised than anything you can find in any of those books, even lists of the 1000 most fun things and interesting things to see and do all over this world.   The Bible says that glories beyond imagining await us in that heavenly home.  Do you believe that?  Is that your hope?  After all, it was God who created this wonderful little world that we call home for a little while.  Do you think his vast heavenly kingdom, his own home, will be any less wonderful?

     Having the proper perspective on life is always important.  The Gospel gives us a much larger perspective than would otherwise be imaginable, but life itself forces upon us a realistic perspective.  The ancient Romans knew that.  For centuries, the army of the Roman Empire was the most powerful military force on earth.  They conquered, and held for many centuries, all of Europe, much of Northern Africa, and lands well into western Asia.  Their generals were the best in the world, won great victories, and had tremendous power and prestige.  These generals would be honored with great victory parades, receiving respect and praise like few human beings would ever know.

      Sometimes when on parade, to keep them humble, these great and powerful generals would have a slave riding with them in the chariot whose job was to keep whispering into the ear of the general the Latin phrase, ‘memento mori, memento mori…,” translated, “Remember that you are mortal, remember that you will die.”  Amidst the loud clamor of such great honors and praise, this word of reality and truth, spoken to them again and again, gave them the necessary perspective to keep them from getting too proud or overconfident.   That is a good perspective for everyone to keep in mind, and if remembered, would be a reminder to keep looking to Jesus.

     And then, reminded of Jesus, and with the promise of Easter in our mind, we can imagine a different kind of ‘whisperer’ in our ear.  When we are discouraged and see no way out, or in despair and see no hope, or ill and see little chance of ever feeling better again, or dying with no chance of recovery, we can in times like that imagine Jesus beside us, whispering in our ear not ‘remember that you will die,’ but rather, the Easter promise, “Remember that you will live…  Remember, that you will live.”

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I Corinthians 2:9  —  As it is written:  “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived”— the things God has prepared for those who love him.”

Revelation 21:3-5a  —  I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell 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.”  He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Philippians 1:21-24  —  For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.  If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me . Yet what shall I choose?  I do not know!  I am torn between the two:  I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

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May God give us light to guide us, courage to support us, and love to unite us, now and forever.  Amen.

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715) Set Your Hearts on Things Above (a)

 German POW in Russia, 1945

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     It was 1945 in Moscow.  World War II was finally over, and the German prisoners of war had just been released.  Russian soldiers were marching them through the streets to the Moscow train station.  There they would be loaded into box cars and taken back to Germany.

     The people of the city of Moscow lined the streets, and they were angry.  They were filled with an intense hatred that could in a moment erupt into violence.  Hitler’s decision to double-cross Stalin and invade Russia devastated that nation.  Forty million Russian soldiers and civilians died in World War II.  That is almost 100 times the number of Americans that died in the war.  Every family in Moscow lost someone, many families lost several loved ones.  And these German soldiers caused the death and destruction.

     The first German soldiers to go by were the officers.  They were a proud and arrogant group.  They had buttoned their uniform jackets to the top and marched proudly in line as if they were on parade before their own generals.  They did everything they could to give the impression that prison had not broken their spirits.  They wanted people to know that they were not defeated and had no regrets.  Some walked by with smirks on their faces and they looked defiantly into the angry crowd.  The crowd was livid, and was shouting, spitting, and pushing their way forward.  The police had all they could do to stop a riot from breaking out.

     Then, the crowd quieted down a bit, and soon they were silent.  The officers were past, and now it was the enlisted men that were going by.  These were the foot soldiers.  They had apparently been kept in a different part of the prison, because they weren’t buttoned up and marching proudly.  They were just barely moving along.  They were in rags, and looked starved, sick, beaten.  Some looked near death.  Nobody felt like shouting at them or spitting on them.

     A Russian woman quietly walked past the police and gave one of the soldiers a piece of bread.  A few others did the same.  All remained quiet.  Suddenly, those men weren’t the enemy anymore, but they were someone’s loved ones:  someone’s little boy, far away from home, sick and dying; someone’s big brother who they hadn’t heard from for a while; someone’s husband who was feared dead; someone’s fiancé; someone’s daddy.  Many of those Moscow Russians had no doubt seen their own boys come home from the front looking ragged and sick and beaten just like those German boys, and they had pity on them.

     The whole crowd changed from hatred to pity in a matter of minutes; and the change came from looking at other people in a different way, from gaining an entirely different perspective.

     Jesus is always teaching us to look at people, and all of life, from a different perspective.  Do you remember what Jesus had to say about enemies?  Jesus said, “You have heard that you should love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but I tell you love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you…  If all you do is love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Even the pagans can do that much.”  Jesus calls on us to look at other people in a different way.  In fact, Jesus calls on us to look at everything in new and different ways.

     This other way of looking at things is made possible by Christ’s resurrection from the dead.  In the third chapter of Colossians Paul says, “Since you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God;” and not only your hearts, but also, “Set your minds on things above, and not on earthly things.”  Set your hearts– your emotional life; and you minds– your thinking and reasoning, on things above.  Above what?  Above the earth, so that you are able to see things as God above would see them.  Then we may understand and approach everything not only from within the limits of this life, but in light of eternity, because we, like Christ, will be raised.  That changes everything.  Those German soldiers were not only the enemy, but they also were children of God; children badly misled, and guilty of the most terrible things, but still his children and able to receive his forgiveness.  God is the heavenly Father of both Russians and Germans.  Everyone you meet, friend or enemy, is a child of God with eternal dignity and worth.

     The New Testament doesn’t allow the resurrection to be nothing more than a private hope.  It reminds us that the eternal value that God has given to you is no more or less than he has given to anyone else.  And so God tells you to set your hearts and your minds on things above, seeing everything and everyone from that larger perspective.  (continued…)

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Matthew 5:43-44  —   (Jesus said), “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Colossians 3:1-2  —  Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippians 2:1-4  —  Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

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Grant, O Lord, that we may keep a constant guard on our thoughts and emotions, that they may never lead us into sin; and that we may live in perfect love with all people– in affection to those who love us, and in forgiveness to those who hate us.  Give us good and virtuous friends.  In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

–Warren Hastings  (1732-1818)