243) The Imp and the Crust (part two)

By Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), 1886

     The peasant, still railing at his wife, began to carry the drink round himself.  Just then a poor peasant returning from work came in uninvited.  He greeted the company, sat down, and saw that they were drinking.  Tired with his day’s work he felt that he too would like a drop.  He sat and sat, and his mouth kept watering, but the host instead of offering him any only muttered:  ‘I can’t find drink for every one who comes along.’

     This pleased the Devil; but the imp chuckled and said, ‘Wait a bit, there’s more to come yet!’

     The rich peasants drank, and their host drank too.  And they began to make false, oily speeches to one another.  The Devil listened and listened, and praised the imp.  ‘If,’ said he, ‘the drink makes them so foxy that they begin to cheat each other, they will soon all be in our hands.’

     ‘Wait for what’s coming,’ said the imp.  ‘Let them have another glass all round.  Now they are like foxes, wagging their tails and trying to get round one another; but presently you will see them like savage wolves.’

     The peasants had another glass each, and their talk became wilder and rougher.  Instead of oily speeches they began to abuse and snarl at one another.  Soon they took to fighting, and punched one another’s noses.  And the host joined in the fight, and he too got well beaten.

     The Devil looked on and was much pleased at all this.  ‘This is first-rate!’ said he.  
But the imp replied:  ‘Wait a bit — the best is yet to come.  Wait till they have had a third glass.  Now they are raging like wolves, but let them have one more glass, and they will be like swine.’

     The peasants had their third glass, and became quite like brutes.  They muttered and shouted, not knowing why, and not listening to one another.  Then the party began to break up.  Some went alone, some in twos, and some in threes, all staggering down the street.  The host went out to speed his guests, but he fell on his nose into a puddle, smeared himself from top to toe, and lay there grunting like a hog.  This pleased the Devil still more.  ‘Well,’ said he, ‘you have hit on a first-rate drink, and have quite made up for your blunder about the bread.  But now tell me how this drink is made.  You must first have put in fox’s blood:  that was what made the peasants sly as foxes.  Then, I suppose, you added wolf’s blood:  that is what made them fierce like wolves.  And you must have finished off with swine’s blood, to make them behave like swine.’

     ‘No,’ said the imp, ‘that was not the way I did it.  The blood of the beasts is always in man; but as long as he has only enough corn for his needs, it is kept in bounds.  While that was the case, the peasant did not grudge his last crust.  But when he had corn left over, he looked for ways of getting pleasure out of it.  And I showed him a pleasure– drinking!  And when he began to turn God’s good gifts into spirits for his own pleasure– the fox’s, wolf’s and swine’s blood in him all came out.  If only he goes on drinking, he will always be a beast!’

     The Devil praised the imp, forgave him for his former blunder, and advanced him to a post of high honor.

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Proverbs 17:1  —  Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.

Proverbs 15:16-17  —  Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.  Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.

Proverbs 30:7-9  —  “Two things I ask of thee, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; and give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.  Otherwise, I may have too much and deny thee, and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’  Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God…”

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Heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being:  We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but remember that we are ever walking in your sight, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

242) The Imp and the Crust (part one)

By Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), 1886

     A poor peasant set out early one morning to plow, taking with him for his breakfast a crust of bread.  He got his plow ready, wrapped the bread in his coat, put it under a bush, and set to work.  

     After a while when his horse was tired and he was hungry, the peasant fixed the plow, let the horse loose to graze and went to get his coat and his breakfast.  He lifted the coat, but the bread was gone!  He looked and looked, turned the coat over, shook it out– but the bread was gone.  The peasant could not make this out at all.

    ‘That’s strange,’ thought he, ‘I saw no one, but all the same someone has been here and has taken the bread!’  It was an imp (a small demon) who had stolen the bread while the peasant was plowing, and at that moment he was sitting behind the bush, waiting to hear the peasant swear and call on the Devil.

     The peasant was sorry to lose his breakfast, but ‘It can’t be helped,’ said he.  ‘After all, I shan’t die of hunger!  No doubt whoever took the bread needed it.  May it do him good!’  And he went to the well, had a drink of water, and rested a bit.  Then he caught his horse, harnessed it, and began plowing again.

     The imp was crestfallen at not having made the peasant sin, and he went to report what had happened to the Devil, his master.  He came to the Devil and told how he had taken the peasant’s bread, and how the peasant instead of cursing had said, ‘May it do him good!’

     The Devil was angry, and replied:  ‘If the man got the better of you, it was your own fault– you don’t understand your business!  If the peasants, and their wives after them, take to that sort of thing, it will be all up with us.  The matter can’t be left like that!  Go back at once and put things right.  If in three years you don’t get the better of that peasant, I’ll have you ducked in holy water!’

     The imp was frightened.  He scampered back to earth, thinking how he could redeem his fault.  He thought and thought, and at last hit upon a good plan.  He turned himself into a laboring man, and went and took service with the poor peasant.

     The first year he advised the peasant to sow corn in a marshy place.  The peasant took his advice, and sowed in the marsh.  The year turned out a very dry one, and the crops of the other peasants were all scorched by the sun, but the poor peasant’s corn grew thick and tall and full-eared.  Not only had he grain enough to last him for the whole year, but he had much left over besides.  The next year the imp advised the peasant to sow on the hill; and it turned out a wet summer.  Other people’s corn was beaten down and rotted and the ears did not fill; but the peasant’s crop, up on the hill, was a fine one.  He had more grain left over than before, so that he did not know what to do with it all.

     Then the imp showed the peasant how he could mash the grain and distill spirit from it; and the peasant made strong drink, and began to drink it himself and to give it to his friends.

     So the imp went to the Devil, his master, and boasted that he had made up for his failure.  The Devil said that he would come and see for himself how the case stood.

     He came to the peasant’s house, and saw that the peasant had invited his well-to-do neighbors and was treating them to drink.   His wife was offering the drink to the guests, and as she handed it round she tumbled against the table and spilled a glassful.

     The peasant was angry, and scolded his wife:  ‘What do you mean, you slut?  Do you think it’s ditchwater, you cripple, that you must go pouring good stuff like that over the floor?’

     The imp nudged the Devil, his master, with his elbow:  ‘See,’ said he, ‘that’s the man who did not grudge his last crust!’  (continued…)

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Ephesians 6:12  —  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

I Thessalonians 3:5  —  For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out about your faith.  I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.

I Peter 5:8, 9a  —  Be self-controlled and alert.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith…

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Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves:  Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.  —Book of Common Prayer

51) Verleen and the Church Ladies

From The Last Word, by William Willimon, pages 119-121.

     In one of my congregations, we decided that we needed to grow.  We voted to launch a program of evangelism...  We studied a program from our denomination telling us how to get new members.  Among other things, the church-growth program advocated a system of door-to-door visitation.  So we organized ourselves into groups of two and, on an appointed Sunday afternoon, we set out to visit, to invite people to our church.  The teams went out, armed with packets of pamphlets describing our congregation, pamphlets telling about our denomination, fliers portraying me, the smiling pastor, inviting people to our church.  Each team was given a map with the teams assigned street.

     Helen and Gladys were given a map.  They were clearly told to go down Summit Drive and to turn right.  That’s what they were told.  I heard the team leader tell them, “You go down Summit Drive and turn right.  Do you hear me, Helen?  That’s down Summit Drive and turn right?”

     But Helen and Gladys, both approaching eighty, after lifetimes of teaching elementary school, were better at giving than receiving directions.  They turned left, venturing down into the housing projects to the west of Summit Drive.  Which meant that Helen and Gladys proceeded to evangelize the wrong neighborhood and thereby ran the risk of evangelizing the wrong people.

     Late that afternoon, each team returned to the church to make its report.  Helen and Gladys had only one interested person to report to us, a woman named Verleen.  Nobody on their spurious route was interested in visiting our church, nobody but Verleen.  She lived with her two children in a three-room apartment in the projects, we were told.  Although she had never been to a church in her life, Verleen wanted to visit ours.

     This is what you get, I said to myself, when you don’t follow directions, when you won’t do what the pastor tells you to do; this is what you get, a woman from the projects named Verleen.

     The next Sunday, Helen and Gladys proudly presented Verleen at the eleven o’clock service, Verleen along with two feral-looking children.  Verleen liked the service so much, she said, that she wanted to attend the women’s Thursday morning Bible study.  Helen and Gladys said they would pick her up.

     On Thursday, Verleen appeared, proudly clutching her new Bible, a gift of Helen’s circle, the first Bible Verleen had ever seen, much less owned.

     I was leading the study that morning on Luke 4, the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  “Have any of you ever been faced with temptation and, with Jesus’ help, resisted?” I asked the group after presenting my material.  “Have any of you refused some temptation because of your Christian commitment?”

     One of the women told about how, just the week before, there was some confusion in the supermarket checkout line and, before she knew it, she was standing in the supermarket parking lot with a loaf of bread that she had not paid for.

     “At first I thought,” she confessed, “Why should I pay for it?  They have enough money here as it is.  But then I thought, ‘No, you are a Christian.’  So I went back in the store and paid them for that loaf of bread.”

     I made some approving comment.

     It was then that Verleen spoke.  “A couple of years ago I was into cocaine really big.  You know what that’s like!  You know how that stuff makes you crazy.  Well, anyway, my boyfriend, not the one I’ve got now, the one who was the daddy of my first child, that one; well, we robbed a gas station one night– got two hundred dollars out of it.  It was as simple as taking candy from a baby.  Well, my boyfriend, he says to me, ‘Let’s knock off that 7-Eleven down on the corner.’  And something in me, it says, ‘No, I’ve held up that gas station with you, but I ain’t going to hold up no convenience store.’  He beat the hell out of me, but I still said no.  It felt great to say no, ‘cause that’s the only time in my life I ever said no to anything.  Made me feel like I was somebody.”

     Through the stunned silence I managed to mutter, “Well, er, uh, that’s resisting temptation.  That’s sort of what this text is about.  And now it’s time for our closing prayer.”

     After I stumbled out of the church parlor and was standing out in the parking lot helping Helen into her car, she said to me, “You know, I can’t wait to get home and get on the phone and invite people to come next Thursday!  Your Bible studies used to be dull, but I think I can get a good crowd for this!”

     I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  But the church, by the grace of God, grew.

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MORAL OF THE STORY:  We usually think it is yielding to temptation that will make us feel good.  What we want to do might be wrong, someone might get hurt, we might hurt ourselves in the long run– but at least it feels good for the moment.  But Verleen, who had always given in to temptation, found out that resisting temptation made her feel great.  It made her feel ‘like I was somebody;’ somebody who was strong enough and smart enough to say no.   

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Luke 4:1-2a  —  Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil…

James 1:12  —  Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

Luke 5:30-32  —  …The Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”  Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

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Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day:  Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.   —Book of Common Prayer

16) Can Your Faith Survive Prosperity?

 Today’s reading is from a blog that I follow.  Author Randy Alcorn shared these thoughts yesterday from his Eternal Perspectives Ministries website and blog ( http://www.epm.org ).  His words remind me of an old German proverb which says, “It takes strong shoulders to bear good times.”

     Dwight L. Moody once said, “We can stand affliction better than we can prosperity. For in prosperity, we forget God.”
     Moody’s quote reminds me of something that Josef Tson, a believer who was nearly martyred in Ceauşescu’s Romania, said in a class I was taking from him: “Ninety percent of Christians pass the test of adversity, while ninety percent of Christians fail the test of prosperity.”
     This is really in keeping with God’s Word.  For instance, Deuteronomy 6:10-12 says: 
When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you—a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant—then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

     We need to realize that if not for the work of God in our lives, we would have never experienced these abundant blessings.  How many good things come our way that we did not work for or earn or achieve, but were just given into our laps through the homes we grew up in and the culture we live in?  These blessings come through the things that God has done in the past and is doing in the present for us.
     Hosea 13:6 says, “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud; then they forgot me.”  That’s always the danger—to look at all that God has given us and start to think, “This is about us.” We can begin to believe that somehow we deserve all that we have instead of acknowledging the sovereign grace of God that has put these good things into our hands.
     So let’s be conscious in prosperity. The only way you can survive prosperity is to see it as a gift from God’s hand, and to use it generously to help other people.

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Deuteronomy 8:17-18  —  You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth…

Psalm 103:2  —  Praise the Lord, O my soul,  and forget not all his benefits…

Hosea 13:6  —  (The Lord says), “When I fed them, they were satisfied; when they were satisfied, they became proud.  Then they forgot me.

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     Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.      —Book of Common Prayer