1204) Steve Jobs’ Question for His Pastor (b)

    (…continued)   Now, back to Steve Jobs.  Jobs gave Buddhism credit for helping him focus his life and simplify his approach to technology, two of the things that led to his incredible success.  He was an intensely focused problem solver and innovator, and, his goal was to make his very complex products simple to use.

     But what did Buddhism do for Steve Jobs’ concern for his fellow human beings?  Remember, he walked away from Christianity, disappointed with God’s lack of concern for starving children in Africa.  But Jobs’ Buddhist beliefs provided little incentive for him to do anything about the suffering of others.  He was not known for his generosity.  Bill Gates has established a foundation to help the needy of the world in a variety of ways, has donated tens of billions of dollars to it, and invited other billionaires to join him in the effort.  Warren Buffet, among many others, has joined with Gates.  But Steve Jobs refused.  The company Jobs helped start, Apple, does some significant work by sharing a percentage of its profits with charities, but it seems Jobs did not give away very much of his own vast personal wealth to help the starving, or anyone else in the world.

     I am reminded of a comment I heard many years ago about world hunger by Sam Kinison.  Kinison was a stand-up comedian who died in a car accident in 1992 at the age of 38.  I did not like his humor.  He was crude, vulgar, abrasive, and went out of his way to ridicule religious faith.  He was not the kind of person I ever expected to be quoting in a meditation.  But he did say one thing that struck me with its practical honesty and truth.  He referred to a photograph of a starving child in Africa (probably much like the one Steve Jobs saw), and he said in his loud and abrasive way, “Why is that guy taking a picture?  Why doesn’t he brush the flies off that poor kid’s face and give him a sandwich?”

     Good question.  In the same way we could ask:  “Why spend our time discussing the theological problem of hunger; why not just feed the hungry?”  Sam Kinison’s question leads us back Salee’s question.  Salee was frustrated with his Buddhist religion that sought only to teach the individual how to transcend his or her own suffering.  Salee wanted to get to know the people who were handing out the sandwiches.  He wanted to find out what they believed in.

     Salee learned that Christians feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and we do so because our Lord Jesus has commanded it.  Sam Kinison wondered why the photographer didn’t just give the child a sandwich.  That is what Christians are always doing, all over the world, through international relief organizations and in each congregation.  In my own congregation we, in fact, do make sandwiches, hundreds of them, one night a month.  The boxes of sandwiches are then picked up and handed out to the homeless and hungry on the streets of Minneapolis that very night.  We also host and manage the local food shelf, offer a free clothing day each week, and help support an orphanage and school in Haiti.  Our congregation is not unique.  This is what Christians do.

     Of course, we also spend some time looking at what God’s Word says about the problem of evil and suffering.  God has told us a few things about that, some things that might have helped Steve Jobs when he was 13 years old if he would have stayed around long enough to ask a few more questions.  But Christians don’t just search for abstract answers.  We try to be a part of the answer.  All of those sandwich makers, clothes sorters, and contributors in our congregation are like Steve Jobs in that they don’t know either why children have to suffer in a world made by a loving God.  But we do what we can, and one by one, people are fed and clothed in the name of Jesus.

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Matthew 25:34-40  —  (Jesus said), “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

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John 21:15b  —  Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

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We beg you, Lord, to help and defend us.  Deliver the oppressed, pity the insignificant, raise the fallen, show yourself to the needy, heal the sick, bring back those who have gone astray, feed the hungry, lift up the weak, and take off the chains of those in bondage.  May every nation come to know that you alone are God, that Jesus Christ is your Son, and that we are your people, the sheep of your pasture.  Amen.

–St. Clement of Rome, First century A. D.

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1203) Steve Jobs’ Question for His Pastor (a)

Steve Jobs  (1955-2011)

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     Steve Jobs was truly one of the greatest geniuses the world has ever known.  He has been called the Henry Ford of our time.  Not only was he a brilliant inventor and innovator, he was also an incredible businessman, marketer, and leader.  Along with a couple friends, he started the Apple Computer Company in his parents’ garage in 1976.  Nine years later, after a falling out with Apple’s Board of Directors, Jobs left Apple and became a pioneer in computer generated animated movies.  He was co-founder Pixar, the film company that has produced such popular films as Finding Nemo, Cars, Up, Toy Story 1,2,&3, and many more.  In 1996, Apple was near bankruptcy and the Board asked Jobs to come back.  Jobs did go back, turned the company around, and by 2011 Apple was the most valuable company in the world. Jobs had engineered what has been called the biggest comeback in business history.  Steve Jobs was involved in the development of the iMac, iTunes, iPhone, iPod, iPad, and much more.  By the time he died in 2011 at the age of 56, he had amassed a personal fortune of eight billion dollars.

     As a boy, Steve Jobs attended a Lutheran church with his parents.  At age 13 he asked his pastor, “Does God know everything?”  The pastor answered, “Yes, God knows everything.”  Jobs then showed his pastor a Life magazine cover depicting starving children in Africa and asked, “Does God know about this?”  The pastor answered, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.”  Jobs then declared that he did not want to worship such a God, walked out of the church, and never went back.

     For Steve Jobs, that unanswered question revealed an open and shut case against God.  What else is there to consider?  What kind of God would allow innocent children to starve to death?  So Jobs walked out and, being the brilliant man that he was, the story could raise doubts about God in the minds of many others.  But let’s continue to follow the story.

     Where did Steve Jobs go, spiritually, after he walked out of church?  Well, like a lot of young people, he went nowhere for a long time.  But then during a time of personal crisis, he turned to Buddhism, which he said became a huge influence in his life.  Remember, Steve Jobs turned away from Christianity because he believed it had an inadequate response to the problem of suffering.  Therefore, it is only fair to ask what Buddhism has to say about suffering.

     First of all, belief in God is optional for a Buddhist.  Buddhism is more of a philosophical system and way of life, than a religion that worships a supreme being.  Therefore, there is not necessarily a God to be disappointed in.  But even a philosophical system has to deal with suffering.  So what does Buddhism have to say about that?

     Well, it turns out that the question of suffering is at the very center of this religion.  There is at the core of Buddhism four noble truths:  #1– We all suffer; #2– Suffering is caused by desire; #3– Get rid of your desires and you get rid of suffering; and #4– The path to enlightenment has as its goal to learn how to get rid of desire.  So how then should we respond to suffering?  By living without having any desires, and transcending all desire.

     There is much truth in this.  Let’s say you are depressed because you cannot afford the new boat you have been wanting.  Well, abandon the desire, forget the boat, be satisfied with what you have, and you won’t be depressed about it anymore.  Right?  This can work quite well for many things.

     But what would a Buddhist say to the starving child?  Same thing.  They would say, “Transcend your desire for food.  Your problem is not that you don’t have food.  Your problem is your desire for something you cannot have.  Get rid of that desire, and you won’t be frustrated.”

     “Well,” says the child, “then I will die.”  “Yes,” says the Buddhist, “so now your problem is that you desire to live.  Get over your desire to live, and you will not suffer.”

     “Yes,” says the child, “but it hurts to be hungry.”  “Well now,” says Buddhism, “your desire is to be without pain.  You must transcend that desire too.  So, just get rid of all your desires, and then you will not suffer.”

     Got that?  The fourth of the noble truths tells you how to do that, and that can indeed lead to a real inner peace and strength.  Desire nothing and expect nothing, and you will be able to handle anything.  

     This is a huge oversimplification, of course, but it is the gist of it, and this does have significant real life consequences.  One of the results of that kind of thinking is that Buddhists are not very interested in relieving the suffering of their fellow human beings.  After all, they also believe in ‘karma,’ which means that the bad things that happen to someone are the inevitable result of the bad things they have done– so why should anyone interfere with law of the universe by relieving suffering that is deserved?

     I once knew a Cambodian refugee named Salee.  Salee was a young man when Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia in 1975.  Pol Pot was a ruthless tyrant, and over the next four years, two million Cambodians were dead as the result of his rule, many of them murdered in the infamous ‘killing fields.’  Salee, simply because he was from the educated class, was arrested and marched out of the city into one of these killing fields.  There he, along with a thousand other people, were shot and left for dead.  Salee was severely wounded, but survived. He laid quietly among the hundreds of dead bodies until darkness, and then crept away.  He was a medical student and knew how to treat and bandage his wounds.  He then made his way to a refugee camp in Thailand, and after living there two years, was able to come to the United States.

     Salee is a Christian, one of only a few in Cambodia.  Cambodia is 95% Buddhist, the faith in which Salee was raised.  I asked him how he came to believe in Jesus.  He said that even before the civil war there was much hunger and suffering in Cambodia.  But the poor and suffering people received no help from the government, and they recieved no help from the Buddhists.  

     Salee did notice, however, that American Christian missionaries were helping everyone they could, in whatever ways they we able.  Salee asked himself, “Why do these Christians come here from the other side of the world to help my people, when my people do not even help their own neighbors?”  He went into one of the mission churches to find out.  The pastor told him about Jesus, about the compassion Jesus had for the poor and suffering, and how Jesus told his followers to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.  Salee said he learned none of that from Buddhism.  Salee wanted to know more about Jesus.  Before long, Saly came to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, Savior of the world.  I met him at a Ministry Training School for immigrants that I was volunteering at.  Salee’s goal there was to learn enough about Christianity to go back to Cambodia as a missionary to his own people.

     It is interesting to note that the question which led Saly out of Buddhism and into Christianity, is very similar to the question that led Steve Jobs out of Christianity and eventually toward Buddhism.  Both wondered about the problem of hunger.  Steve Jobs wondered how God could allow it.  Salee wanted to find out about the God that inspired people to do something about it.  (continued…)

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Luke 3:10-11  —  “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.  John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Galatians 5:14  —  For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Matthew 10:42a  —  (Jesus said), ” If anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

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 O Lord Jesus Christ, who when on earth was always occupied by your Father’s business:  grant that we may not grow weary in well-doing, and give us the grace to do all in your name.  Amen. 

879) How Reading the Bible is Like Eating Fish (part two of two)

     (…continued)  We are talking about God and eternity, so it should not surprise us that there are things we don’t understand YET.   From the very earliest times, Christian theologians have talked about the ‘mysteries of the faith.’  They had a lot to say about that because the New Testament itself speaks of such mysteries.   Our word ‘mystery’ comes directly from a similar Greek word, mysterion, which appears 27 times in the New Testament.  In Biblical Greek it refers to “that which awaits disclosure or interpretation.”  These ‘mysteries of the faith,’ says the church, are things which cannot be known until they are explained to us by God.  I am willing to wait for that.

     There are some things we can say.  First of all, Christians are not cannibals.  Talk of eating flesh and drinking blood is a symbolic reminder of how Christ died in the flesh for us and shed his blood for us.  The bread and wine are more than that, yes, but they are not literal flesh and blood.  Also, this is a symbol that was more understandable in a culture that still offered bloody animal sacrifices.  And, the more striking and outrageous a symbol is, the more readily it is remembered.  And it is also the nature of symbols that they require some explanation, so you aren’t going to fully understand it the first time you see it or hear about it.  One could give an entire sermon on symbols and how they work.  Indeed, whole books have been written about the use of symbolism.  All that would be a part of understanding these words of Jesus.  Even then we still might, like those in John 6, find this to be a difficult teaching.  But this meditation is not about all of that.  Rather, I am simply trying to do what Peter did, setting aside some problems with the details, in order to stay focused on the primary message.

     This is illustrated in an old story.  You may have heard it before.  I’ve seen it in many books, some from as far back as 150 years ago.  It is an illustration that I have found helpful in my own approach to the faith.

     Two men are sitting next to each other in a train.  One is reading his Bible, the other is eating a fish dinner.  The man eating the fish said to the man reading the Bible, “Have you read that whole book?”

     “Yes I have,” said the man with the Bible.

     “Do you believe it all?” was the next question.

     “Yes I do,” said the man with the Bible.

     “But do you even understand it all?” asked the questioner.

     “No, I sure don’t,” said the Bible reader.

     “Well,” said the man eating his dinner.  “What do you do about those parts you don’t understand?”

     “Well,” said the man reading the Bible, “I do what you are doing as you eat that fish.  I have noticed that when you come across a bone, you set it aside, and get on with eating the good meat of the fish.  You don’t insist on choking on the bones, do you?  And I don’t choke on those parts of the Bible I don’t understand.  Rather, I set those parts aside, at least for the time being, and I go on and learn from and obey those parts that are clear to me and that I do understand.”

     I have come to believe in the truth of the Bible and the truth of Jesus as Lord and Savior.  I know of nothing else like it in all the world.  So when I come across something that I don’t understand, I like Peter, am staying with the One who has the words of eternal life, even if I do not yet fully comprehend all he says.

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Isaiah 55:8-9  —  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

John 6:66-68  —  From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

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PRAYER BEFORE RECEIVING HOLY COMMUNION:

I believe, O Lord, and I confess that Thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am first.  I believe also that this is truly Thine own pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own precious Blood.  Therefore I pray Thee: have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance.  And make me worthy to partake without condemnation of Thy most pure Mysteries, for the remission of my sins, and unto life everlasting…

Like the thief I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.

May the communion of Thy Holy Mysteries be… to the healing of soul and body.  Amen.

–Orthodox Church in America website (www.oca.org)

878) How Reading the Bible is Like Eating Fish (part one of two)

 

     Jesus says in John 6:53-54, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”  Eating flesh and drinking blood?  That sounds so strange, even to those of who have been around the church for a while and know that Jesus is talking about Holy Communion.  To someone who is not familiar with the language of the church, these verses are absurd.

     This statement caused a scandal even when Jesus first said it.  Verse 60 says that many people responded by saying, “This is a hard teaching; who can accept it?”  In verse 66 we are told that many people turned back and no longer followed Jesus.

     A few years later, when the early church was being persecuted, one of the charges made against the believers was that they were cannibals.  This was because informers who had infiltrated the worship services, heard the leaders speaking about eating and drinking someone’s body and blood.  The first thing we have to do when we look at a reading like this is honestly acknowledge how bizarre it sounds.

     But then the second thing we will want to do with a text like this, is, read it all the way through to the end, and see if that helps.  I think it does.  First, there is this difficult conversation and we are told that many people turn away from Jesus.  Then, in verse 67 Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and said, “You don’t want to leave too, do you?”  Peter, speaking for the group replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

     Peter’s reply gives us the key to reading this strange text, and it can help us with those many other difficult verses in the Bible.

     Think about this from Peter’s perspective.  In this same chapter six the disciples saw Jesus feed five thousand hungry people with one boy’s lunch, and they saw Jesus walk on water.  In other chapters, they saw Jesus heal the sick and the lame, give sight to the blind, restore hearing to the deaf, calm a storm at sea with a verbal command, and even raise the dead.  Jesus had earned a great deal of credibility with these men.  Now they heard him say something very strange and they probably were just as puzzled as the rest of the crowd.  But they were remembering everything else Jesus said and did, so they were not about to leave.  

     However, notice Peter did not say, “Oh no, Jesus, why should we leave?  We get it.  Eating flesh and drinking blood?– no problem there for us.”  Peter did not say that, and I am sure the twelve disciples were also scratching their heads in bewilderment.   Peter did not say, “No problem,” but said, “Where else are we going to go, Jesus?  You (and you alone) have the words of eternal life.”

     Eternal life.  Where else indeed would we go for that?  It is not like Peter could say, “You are getting a little weird on us Jesus, so we are going to go find someone else that can raise the dead and promise us eternal life.”  There weren’t any other offers on the table.  There wasn’t then, and there isn’t now.

     Peter’s words have taught me how to respond to these difficult words and others like them in the Bible.  I will not attempt to sugar-coat any of this by searching the web for some lame explanation.  I must acknowledge that there is much in the Bible that is still strange to me, even after all these years of reading it.

     But first I must ask who am I to decide what makes sense and what sounds strange?  It is not for me to stand in judgement over God’s Word.  For many good reasons I, like the disciples, have come to believe that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh, who visited this earth to die on the cross to save me from my sins, and then rose from the dead to offer me eternal life, and that there has never been anyone else like him.  So when I come across something I do not understand, I am not going to walk away from Jesus.  But I will acknowledge that I don’t understand it YET, and maybe never will in this life.  But I am not going anywhere else, because there is nowhere else to go. 

     “Lord, to whom shall we go,” said Peter, “You have the words of eternal life.”  (continued…)

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John 6:66-68  —  From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.  “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.

Acts 4:10-12  —  Peter said, “Know this, you and all the people of Israel:  It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’  Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

John 14:  —  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

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Eternal God, your wisdom is greater than our minds can attain, and your truth shows up our learning.  To those who study, give curiosity, imagination, and patience enough to wait and work for insight.  Help us to doubt with courage, but to hold all our doubts in the larger faith of Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, 1993

475) How Could You, Lord?

The Kärna Church, entry gate - Malmslätt
     Pictured above is the Karna Lutheran church in Malmslatt, Sweden.  Like many of the churches in Europe, this church is very old.  The present structure is no doubt the result of several expansions and remodelings of the old church, but the original part of the building is believed to go back over 800 years.  Among the villagers of Malmslatt there are many interesting stories about the beginnings of that church, and, of how it happened to be built on that spot.  The legends have their origin in a very old Swedish poem, the poem itself going back almost eight centuries.  The story is so very old, and there have been so many different legends that have grown up around it, that it is impossible to determine what really happened.  I would guess that, as in many old legends, there is at least of grain of truth in the tragic tale that is told.  It is the story of how one man dealt with his grief and his sin.  In 1959 the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman blended together some of these old legends to make an Academy Award winning movie, The Virgin Spring.  What follows is how Bergman told the story in his film.
     Peter Tyrsson was a godly man who led his family in faithful devotion to the church and its Lord.  He had a good wife and a teenage daughter, and, he was wealthy enough to have a few servants to help on his large farm.  One day, Peter and his wife sent their daughter on the half-day journey to the church in Vange, the closest large town, and the only church in the area.  She was to deliver the candles that her parents had bought for the sanctuary, and she was to be home that evening.  On the way, she was met by three wicked herdsmen.  Two of the herdsmen attacked the girl, raped, and then killed her.  The third looked on in horror.  The three then left their herd to escape to another part of the country.  They knew that the fine fabric of the girl’s dress, even though dirty and bloody, could be sold for a good price; so they took it along to sell to some farmer’s wife along the way.  Thinking they were far enough away from the crime, they stopped at the farm of what looked to be a wealthy man to offer the fabric for sale.  Unbeknownst to them, it was the farm of Peter Tyrsson, the father of the murdered girl.  Peter had by this time been informed of his daughter’s death, and he recognized the dress.  Peter was a big, strong man, and in a fit of rage, he killed all three of the herdsman.  He had no way of knowing that one of them was innocent.
     Peter got his revenge, but he was a godly man, and the killing of three men weighed heavy on his conscience.  He was deeply grieved over the loss of his daughter; and now, to his grief was added unbearable guilt.  Peter, who never even forgot to say his prayers every day, was now a violent murderer.
     Near the end of the movie Peter and his wife travel to the place where they were told his daughter was killed in order to give her a decent burial.  They find her body, and after holding her and crying, Peter got up and walked toward a clearing by a creek, where he collapsed in anguish.  He then spoke to God.  He said:  “You saw it, God.  You saw it all.  You saw the death of my innocent child, and then you saw my vengeance; and yet you allowed it all to happen…  I don’t understand you, God.  I will never understand you…”
     “And yet,” Peter went on, “Yet, still I ask for your forgiveness.  I know of no other way to make peace with myself.  I know of no other way to live.  I don’t understand you, God, but I do know how to work with my hands; and so here by the dead body of my only child, I promise that, as penance for my sin, I shall build you a church.  On this spot I shall build it, with mortar and stone and with these very hands.”  And so, the old stories say, the Karna church of Malmslatt, Sweden was built as an act of penance.
     We do not know how much of that actually happened, but true or not, the story of the Karna church gives some profound insights into struggles that we all face:  struggles between good and evil, struggles with the desire for vengeance but the need to forgive, struggles with the burden of guilt and the need for grace, and, the inability to understand the ways of God.   We have all, like Peter Tyrrson, wondered how God can stand by and watch as such terrible accidents, tragedies, crimes, and sufferings go on.   And we have all, like Peter Tyrrson, responded to sin by adding more sin.  And perhaps we have also, even though filled with confusion about God, said like Peter Tyrrson, “What else can I do?  Where else can I go?  To whom can I turn besides Jesus my Lord?”  Even the disciple Peter had to say one time when he was very much confused by Jesus, “Lord, where else should we go?  Only you have the words of eternal life.”
     Peter Tyrrson, like the disciple Peter, did not have answers to those impossible questions of faith.  But even without answers to their questions, they both had the right response, which was to continue to cling to the Lord in faith.  The disciple Peter had some huge failures, the most famous being on the night of Jesus’ arrest when in the courtyard of the high priest he denied even knowing Jesus.  But Peter returned to faith in Jesus and continued to obey and follow Jesus, even until he was put to death on a cross just like his Lord Jesus.
     Peter Tyrrson was not acting like much of a Christian when he killed three men without even waiting to find out if all three were guilty.  But then even though he was very much confused and was not understanding why God did not do something, he still asked God’s forgiveness.  And then he went to work in a very specific way to serve the Lord that he had so miserably sinned against.  The 800 year old Karna church stands as a testimony to the power of faith over evil.
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Daniel 9:18  —  Give ear, our God, and hear; open your eyes and see the desolation of the city that bears your Name.  We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.
Habakkuk 1:2-3  —  How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?  Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?  Why do you make me look at injustice?  Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?  Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds.
John 6:68   —  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”
 
Romans 12:19  —  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
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 ‘A Prayer in Darkness,’ by Richard Foster:
O God of wonder and of mystery, teach me by means of your wondrous, terrible, loving, all-embracing silence.  Amen.