728) Cleo and John (part one of two)

     Cleo was dying of cancer.  She was still strong enough to come to church and go to appointments, but the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do.  The cancer would soon end her life.  She was 62 years old and her husband had just retired.  They had lots of friends and plenty of money and all kinds of plans.  With John now retired, they would finally have time to enjoy life.   But the cancer ended all their plans.

     It was my first week in that congregation, and Cleo asked me to come over and visit her and John.  She said, “I don’t know how much time I have left, and I want to tell you some things for my funeral while I am still able.”  I went to their home, and she did indeed have much to tell me.  She had put a lot of thought into her funeral, and had a list of all her favorite hymns and Scripture readings.  With each hymn and each Bible verse she had a comment or a story on why that was important to her and why she wanted it read or sung at her funeral.  Then she said, “I even have a verse picked out for your sermon text, if you think that would be okay.”

      “Yes, of course, I would like to have a verse from you for the sermon,” I said.  She then turned the pages of her Bible to Joshua 23:14.  This verse is near the end of the book of Joshua, and, near the end of Joshua’s life.  He is, in fact, giving his final instructions to the people of Israel.  The very next chapter tells of his death and burial.  Joshua had much to say to them in these final words, and in the verse Cleo requested for her funeral sermon text he said,

Now I am about to go the way of all the earth.  You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God have you has failed.  Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.

     One might wonder why Cleo picked that verse.  There are many other verses in the Bible that would seem to fit her situation better.  In the Psalms there are many complaints about the unfairness of life; and no one could have blamed Cleo for thinking it was unfair for her to be dying when all her friends were making plans and doing things and going places.  And if she did not feel it was polite to complain to God, there are those other Psalms that simply express the sadness of life in this disappointing world.  Or, she could have selected Jesus’ own words as he was dying, quoting Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  She certainly could have felt forsaken by God.

     But Cleo did not choose any of those verses.  Rather, she chose a verse that expressed her faith and her gratitude and her confidence in God.  “All of God’s good promises have been fulfilled for me,” she said, making Joshua’s words her own.

     When you think about it, she was right.  God never promised her, or any of us, a long life and the time to fulfill all our plans and dreams.  God never promised that we would not face disappointment.  God did not promise that we would never have to leave our loved ones behind.  In fact, none of those things that Cleo would be missing out on were ever promised to her, or any of us, by God.

     What God has promised is the strength to meet each day– and Cleo was certainly staying strong.  God promised comfort in the midst of even life’s greatest tragedies and suffering– and Cleo certainly was experiencing that comfort even during this, the most terrible time of her life.  And things were going to get even worse for Cleo.  She would endure much pain and suffering before she died.  Yet, she had that ‘peace that passes all understanding’ even unto her dying breathe, and all who saw her were inspired by her faith.

     Most of all, Cleo was a firm believer in God’s promises of the life to come in that place where there would be no more cancer, no more disappointment, no more pain, no more tears, and no more death.  With that confident belief in that eternal promise, she had no bitterness about missing out on a few more years here.  Cleo had thought a lot about what she wanted said at her funeral, and she wanted everyone to know that things aren’t always as they seem.  God had not failed her at all.  In fact, all of God’s promises for her had been fulfilled; not one failed her; just like Joshua said.  As Paul wrote, “Look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”  (continued…)

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Joshua 23:14  —  (Joshua said),  “Now I am about to go the way of all the earth.  You know with all your heart and soul that not one of all the good promises the Lord your God gave you has failed.  Every promise has been fulfilled; not one has failed.”

Joshua 24:14a…15  —  (Joshua said),  “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness….  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living.  But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18  —  Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

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In you, Lord, I have taken refuge… Into your hands I commit my spirit; deliver me, Lord, my faithful God…  Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress; my eyes grow weak with sorrow, my soul and body with grief.  My life is consumed by anguish and my years by groaning; my strength fails because of my affliction, and my bones grow weak…  But I trust in you, LordI say, “You are my God.”  My times are in your hands… 

–Psalm 31:1a, 5, 9-10, 14-15a

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705) By Faith… (part two of two)

     (…continued)  ‘By Faith,’ is a phrase the Bible often uses.  An often quoted definition of faith is to “Let go and let God.”  Let go of your fears and your anxieties and have the faith to let God take care of you.  It has a nice ring to it, but I was never totally sold on it myself.  Let go and let God do what?-– pay my bills, get the transmission fixed on my car, and mow my lawn when I don’t have time.  I don’t think it will work to let go and let God do any of that.  So let go and let God do what?  That line certainly does not apply to everything.  I still have to pay my bills, make an appointment to get the car fixed, and find time to mow my lawn.  But those are the little things in life, and God has given me the strength and the ability to work through that sort of a to-do list all by myself.  

     But there are other things, bigger things, that do not fit on any to-do list that we are able handle.  Where do I go with my feelings of guilt?  What can I do about my frustration with how fast the years are flying by?  What about the sadness of seeing loved ones dying all around me?  I’ll never get around to fixing those things, because I do not have the strength or the ability or the resources to do so.  It is in these deeper, larger aspects of life that we must ‘Let go and let God.’  Let go and let God carry you through; now and on into the life to come.

     This is illustrated in a story by Father John Powell, a Catholic priest who took some time off to care for his dying mother.  Here’s his story about how that went:

I remember in the last days of my mother’s life I used to carry her up and down the stairs of her home.  Her arthritis was so bad by then she could no long manage the stairs by herself.  As I would carry her up and down the stairs, she would grab onto the railing and hold on so that we could not move.  I would say, “Mom, let go, we can’t move.”  And then she would always say the same thing, “No, I am afraid you will drop me.”  Then I would say again, “No, let go.”  And she would always respond, “No, I am afraid you will drop me.”  Finally, she would let go for a while and we would start to move, and then she would grab the railing again, and it would start all over.  One day, as we were going through our little routine, I thought to myself, “Ah, what a perfect analogy for faith.  God has us in His arms and is saying “Come on, let go,” and we are saying to him, “No, I am afraid you will drop me….”

     That is indeed a wonderful illustration for what it is like to live by faith.  We need faith to face those big things in life, but still we say, “What if none of this is true?  I can’t see God, what if it is just us here on this little earth?  I am so afraid of death.”  So we desperately cling to this life, trying to have it all and do it all here, right now, nervously watching the years slip away on us.  But God is saying, “Just let go.  Take my hand and let me lead you.  Surrender your fears to faith in me, and really let go, you will be fine…”  Let go and let God forgive you.  Let go and let God give you an inner peace even amidst all of life’s outward troubles.  Let go of your fear of death, and let God’s promises give you comfort and hope.  Yes indeed, live to the fullest every day that God gives you now, but be ready when the time comes to let go and trust God that he will make good on his promises for eternal life.

     We have been given this life by God, and we can trust that he is able to give us life again; and so we can indeed, “Let go and let God.”

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I Peter 5:6-7  —  Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.  Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Hebrews 11:13-16  —  All these people were still living by faith when they died.   They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country— a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

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701) Cheerful Insecurity

C. S. Lewis (left) with Paddy Moore (right) in World War I, 1917.

C. S. Lewis wrote this letter after the aged Mrs. Moore (who he calls his ‘mother’) went to live in a nursing home.  Mrs. Moore was the mother of Edward (Paddy) Moore, a friend of Lewis’s who was killed in the first World War.  Lewis had pledged to care for this friend’s mother, and for many years that care was a huge burden in Lewis’s life.  (From The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume III.)

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30 December 1950

Yours was a cheering letter which warmed my heart (I wish it would have warmed my fingers too: as it is they will hardly form the letters!)…

Our state is thus:  my ‘mother’ has had to retire permanently into a Nursing Home.  She is in no pain but her mind has almost completely gone.  What traces of it remain seem gentler and more placid than I have known it for years.  Her appetite is, oddly, enormous.  I visit her, normally, every day, and am divided between a (rational?) feeling that this process of gradual withdrawal is merciful and even beautiful, and a quite different feeling (it comes out in my dreams) of horror.

There is no denying that our domestic life is both more physically comfortable and more psychologically harmonious for her absence.  The expense is of course very severe and I have worries about that.  But it would be very dangerous to have no worries– or rather no occasions of worry.  I have been feeling that very much lately: that cheerful insecurity is what our Lord asks of us.  Thus one comes, late and surprised, to the simplest and earliest Christian lessons!

. . . I am glad to hear your inner news.  Mine, too, is I think (but who am I to judge?) fairly good.  Let us pray for each other.

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Deuteronomy 8:11-14a  —  )Moses said), “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.  Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God…”  (Moses here recognizes the danger in ‘having no worries.’  He warns them to be careful, because when they are settled in the promised land, and have all their physical needs met, they may become proud and forget the Lord.)

It is better to have some ‘occasions of worry’ and be forced to depend on and trust in God, as the following verses describe:

Psalm 73:26  —  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.

Psalm 56:3  —  When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee.

Lamentation 3:25-26  —  The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him; it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.

Philippians 4:6  —  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Psalm 46:1-2a  —  God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear…

And then, have a trusting, cheerful heart:

Proverbs 17:22  —  A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

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In you, Lord my God, I put my trust.

–Psalm 25:1

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691) Believing and Trusting

          The most important question of your life has to do with your relationship with God.  It is God who created you, God who daily provides for you and sustains your life, and it is only in God that you have any hope at all in the face of death.  So yes, the most important question of life has to do with God.  And one way to put that question is, “What does God want from us?”  What is it that God wants from us, expects of us, demands of us?  God has given us everything, and it is only by his grace that we are even here; so we want to be very clear about the way we answer this question:  “What does God want from us?”

      One of the most common answers to that question is that God wants us to be good.  And yes, there is no doubt about that.  God gave the Ten Commandments for a reason.  He expects that we will hear his word and obey it, or, as Luther says in the Catechism, “We should fear and love God so that we do not lie… do not kill… do not steal…,” and whatever else each commandment says.  God does want us to obey Him and be good.  But that is not what God wants most of all.

     Another common answer would be that God wants us to believe in Him.  And yes, there is no doubt about this being a correct answer.  From beginning to end the Bible talks about the importance of belief.  That most famous of all Bible verses John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, and whosoever BELIEVES in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  But God doesn’t just want us to simply believe He exists and leave it at that.  He expects that our belief will consist of more than an opinion about whether or not there is a powerful force behind the universe.  There is even a Bible verse that talks about such inadequate belief.   James 2:19 says, “So you believe in one God.  That’s good.  But even the demons believe, and tremble.”  The devil certainly believes there is a God, but that doesn’t make him a Christian.

     What then is it that God wants from us?  To be sure, God wants us to believe in Him, but God wants that belief to also include TRUST.  God wants us to trust in him.  Of course, you have to believe in God before you can trust in Him; and when the Bible talks about belief, it always means belief that leads to and includes trusting in God.

     There is indeed a difference between simply believing in something, and, believing and trusting.  I am reminded of a jeep ride I had one time in the mountains of southwest Colorado.  We were staying in Ouray, Colorado, and a big attraction there was the all-day jeep ride you could take from Ouray across and over the steep mountains to the town of Telluride.  The ride was mostly on old mining trails that were already narrow and sometimes half washed out.  Sometimes, we weren’t on any road or trail at all, just going cross country or down a dried up creek bed.  Much of the time we were inches away from a cliff with a two thousand foot drop.  On frequent hairpin turns the driver would have to go out over the cliff, and then back and forth as he worked his way around the narrow turn.  One wrong move and there would have been no chance of survival.  My eyes were telling me, get out of this jeep and get down on your hands and knees, and crawl back to safety.  But my head was telling me, “This driver does this every day.  I’m sure he doesn’t want to die.  It must be okay.”  We did get across the mountain to Telluride safely.  We had lunch there, and then we would be going back across the mountains to Ouray by another mountain trail.  “How is that road?,” we all asked nervously.  “Ah, it’s worse,” said the driver calmly, “more washouts and the road isn‘t nearly as wide; but we’ll be all right.”  Did I believe he could make it back safely?  Yes.  He was a good driver and he did this every day.  But could I trust him to get me back safely?  That raises the question to another level.  And I did also trust him, so I continued the trip.  By that time, I was quite used to trusting him for the ride and was able to relax and enjoy the view.  But believing he could do it, and trusting him enough to get back into that jeep were two different things.

     Telluride, straight ahead

     “Cast all your cares on the Lord, for he cares about you,” says the Bible.  Believing that there is a supreme being of some sort up there somewhere is one thing.  But to believe that God speaks to you in the Bible, knows you by name, loves you, is concerned about you, and will take care of you; adds trust to mere belief.  Just like I learned to trust that jeep driver and became more relaxed as the day went on, we can learn to trust God as we continue to experience his grace and blessings throughout our lives.  This does not mean everything will always go well.  That did not happen for anyone in the Bible and it doesn’t happen for anyone today.  Troubles come to us for a variety of reasons, and it is God’s promise in Romans 8 that he will work out all things for our good.  We might not see that right away, and we might not ever see it in this life; but that is a promise we can learn to trust in.

     The cloud that hangs over all of this is the threat of death.  What about those who die too young?  What about the threat of our own death?  There are no guarantees, as we all well know.  And that inevitable end of everything seems to cancel out anything we might learn by the experience.  How can God work out any good from that?  Someone once said, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”  I have always liked that line.  But what if it does kill me?  Then what?

     Then, says the Lord, I raise you from the dead and give you new life again.  “Whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord,” says the Bible.  Trusting God means looking at all of life, not just the next 24 hours, and not even just the next 24 years.  Trusting God means looking at life from the perspective of eternity.  God will work out all things for our good, but the Bible doesn’t say how fast he will work it out.  Trusting God means also trusting in His timing.  And God has lots of time and, God says, so do we.

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

Proverbs 3:5-6  —  Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.

Psalm 112:7  —  They will have no fear of bad news; their hearts are steadfast, trusting in the Lord.

Psalm 116:10  —  I trusted in the Lord when I said, “I am greatly afflicted”

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Lord Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.

–Psalm 84:12

On the ‘road’ from Ouray to Telluride

657) When the Foundations are Destroyed

     

Rushford, Minnesota, August 19, 2007

From a sermon given the following Sunday.

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     Seven years ago my wife and I bought the house in which we are now living, and I am very happy to report that in all that time, that house has not moved even one inch.  It continues to sit there, solid as can be, on the same foundation it was built on.  It hasn’t moved a bit.

     That is what houses are supposed to do, and for the most part we never even give it a thought.  You all woke up this morning, and sure enough, there was your house, in the very same place as it was when you went to bed last night.  Our cars, expensive as they are, come and go.  The items within our houses get moved in and around and out again.  Even the people that live in houses come and go.  Houses get sold and the previous owners move out and new folks move in, or, people in the house die and the house goes on to others.  But the house usually stays right there through all the many changes, solid as can be on its firm foundation.

     But not always, as we’ve been seeing on the news this week.  You’ve probably seen the pictures; portions of homes hanging out over a washed out river bank, houses washed onto railroad tracks, lop-sided houses with the basements caved in, houses out in the middle of the road.  I saw one couple on TV talking about being in the house when it started to move.  They had gone upstairs where they thought they would be safe from the rising water.  But soon the whole house was lifting up off of its foundations, and moving off the yard and down the road, or I should say, down the river, swollen as it was to include everything around it.  That uprooting of something so solid will have an impact on them for the rest of their lives.

     Psalm 11:3 asks, “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do, O Lord?”  It goes on to speak of the Lord as our refuge.  Other Psalms speak of the Lord who sustains us and restores us.  The destruction of our foundations certainly forces upon us the big questions of life, questions that we might otherwise be distracted from by the hassles and routine duties of day to day life.  The people in Rushford have had those routines disrupted and their entire lives turned upside-down.  They are probably wondering what there is in life that can be depended on.  If the very foundations of your house are not even solid and secure, what is?

     The writer of the book of Hebrews was writing to a people very familiar with the God of the Old Testament– a God who was known to ‘shake the foundations’ once in a while.  As you know, the Old Testament has something to say about a really big flood, sent by God Himself, for the very purpose of shaking the foundations.  And God does that kind of ‘shaking’ quite often in the Old Testament.  With with that in mind, listen again to these words from Hebrews 12:26 where God says, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”  It goes on to say:  “The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken– that is, created things– so that what cannot be shaken may remain.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God with reverence and awe.”

     That is something to think about.  God himself will, at times, shake the temporary foundations, if that is what is needed to return us to those foundations which cannot be shaken.  So we might well ask, ‘Is that what the people in Rushford needed?’  Were they, in Southeastern Minnesota, more in need of the reminder than those of us here in South Central Minnesota?  Does God decide ahead of time who will get how much rain, and then dole it out on the basis of who deserved a much needed rain on their crops, and who, on the other hand, deserved a devastating flood?  And if that is the case, how can it be that all those who needed the reminder to turn to God happen to live in the same area?  Who can even begin to say how this works?

     But even if we don’t have all those answers, we can take to heart the lessons of Hebrews 12.  The much needed rain did come to us as a great blessing, and it has not yet turned against us in the form of floods.  But we can be certain that we will each get our turn at having our foundations shaken.  Everyone gets their turn at this shaking in one way or another, be it storm or illness or disappointment or failure or conflicts, or any of the afflictions we may face.  In fact, as the verse says, everything that can be shaken will one day be removed, for in death we ourselves will be removed from all that we have and know.  Therefore, it is for all of us to heed the Word of the Lord there which says, “Look then to what remains, what cannot be shaken, and therefore, let us be thankful that we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken.”  When everything else is shaken, taken, washed away, burned away, or destroyed, there is still something that remains– that eternal kingdom of God, promised to all who believe.  Every time the foundations are shaken can be a time to look deeper at and for that kingdom of God.  The Psalmist prayed, “What can the righteous do when the foundations are being destroyed?”  God answered that, and every prayer, of everyone in every time and place, by sending Jesus Christ; and Jesus shows us the way to that everlasting kingdom which cannot be shaken or destroyed.

     The hymn When Peace Like a River was written in the mid-1800s by a man named Horatio Spafford.  Not many of us have had our foundations shaken and our lives turned upside-down by tragedy like him.  He and his wife and four daughters lived in Chicago.  They were going to England for a vacation, but the husband was delayed by business.  The wife and four daughters went on ahead.  He was to follow on a later ship.  The ship that this family was on sunk in a storm, and most on board perished at sea.  His wife survived, but all four of their daughters drowned.  As soon as he heard of the tragedy, the grief-stricken father took the next ship across the Atlantic to join his distraught wife.  As the ship passed over the area where his daughters were lost at sea, a deeply shaken Horatio Spafford was thinking about that ‘kingdom that cannot be shaken,’ and was inspired to write this great hymn of faith and hope.  In the first verse he wrote of his time of agony, describing it as “when sorrows like sea billows roll.”  But then he adds, “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, it is well, it is well, with my soul.”

     The contrast is between what can be shaken, this fragile life of ours in these temporary bodies, and what cannot be shaken, our eternal soul.  In this life, the sorrows can roll over us in waves, and sometimes does– but all can still be well with our soul, which is held in God’s eternal hand no matter what happens to us here.  Thus, even though filled with grief, Spafford could write, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

     With God, the surface of things can be filled with turbulence and sadness; but at the deepest level, our souls can be at peace.  We can have what the Bible call that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’  But without God, even if everything on the surface is going well, there will be in our hearts a deep anxiety; anxiety because the clock keeps ticking, our days are numbered, ‘everything will be removed,’ and without God, there is no hope of anything more.

     Put your trust in that foundation that cannot ever be destroyed or shaken.

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Psalm 11:3  — If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?

Hebrews 12:25-28  —  See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.  If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?  At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”  The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.  Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God with reverence and awe.

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God’s Word forever shall abide,

No thanks to foes who fear it.

For God Himself fights by our side,

With weapons of the Spirit.

Were they to take our house,

Goods, honor, child, or spouse;

Though life be wrenched away,

They cannot win the day,

The Kingdom’s ours forever.

–Martin Luther, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, verse four.

641) Be Realistic

     

In 1942 farmer and Baptist minister Clarence Jordan (1912-1969) started Koinonia Farms, an integrated farm cooperative near Americus, Georgia.  Any kind of  integration was a threat to many people in the heavily segregated Deep South of the middle years of the 20th century, and the Ku Klux Klan was an ever present threat to those who lived at Koinonia.  Jordan led a courageous and determined non-violent response to the threat, even refusing the offer of the protection by Federal troops during a particularly dangerous time.  The following story is from Cotton Patch Sermons by Clarence Jordan.

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      A lot of people think that Christians are just fuzzy-minded people living in a world of illusion.  That isn’t true.  Those who have gotten up out of the stupor of sin and put their faith in Jesus are the ones who are living in the world of reality.

     One time about 93 car loads of Ku Klux Klansmen came out to Koinonia and suggested to us that we find a climate a little bit more conducive to our health.  We declined their suggestion, and word got out that I was about to be lynched.  Some very dear friends came to me and suggested that I find refuge north of the Mason-Dixon line.

     I said, “Well, we came here because of the will of God and, if we leave, it will have to be because of the will of God.”

     They said, “Now wait a minute here, you’ve been a preacher too long.  You got to get your head out of those theological clouds and face up to reality.  The Klan is about to lynch you and you might as well face up to it.”

     Well, I hadn’t been sitting there getting shot at and machine-gunned and all like that for three years without being aware of the fact that I was in danger.  But I said to them, “Now what do you mean face up to reality?”

     They said, “Be practical.  It’s all right to discuss theology at the seminary, but you got to face up to the cold stark facts of life.”

     I said to them, “Now listen, I think I’m the one that’s being realistic and you are the ones being unrealistic.  You’re facing up to the demands of the Klan which is temporal and transient.  And I’m facing up to the demands of God who is eternal.  Now who’s being realistic?  I think God was here before the Klan and I think God will be here after the Klan is gone.  And I think God is more real in this universe than the Ku Klux Klan.”

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Luke 12:4-7  —   (Jesus said),  “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more.  But I will show you whom you should fear:  Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell.  Yes, I tell you, fear him.  Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies?  Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.  Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered.  Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Psalm 27:1-3  —  The Lord is my light and my salvation— whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life— of whom shall I be afraid?  When the wicked advance against me to devour me, it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.  Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me even then I will be confident.

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PSALM 3:1-7a… 8a

Lord, how many are my foes!  How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me, “God will not deliver him.”

But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high.

I call out to the Lordand he answers me from his holy mountain.

I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side.

Arise, Lord!  Deliver me, my God!…  From the Lord comes deliverance.

591) Healed!… Of My Desperate Need to Be Healed

     Recently I ran across an old videotaped recording that contains a fascinating conversation between two men, Tim and Greg.  Thirty years ago, when the conversation was recorded, both men were in their middle 30’s, and both were teachers at the same college.  At about the same time, they were both diagnosed with an incurable form of cancer.  Both men were dedicated Christians and prayed for healing, and both had many others praying for them.  Everything about their two situations was almost identical; except for one thing.  Tim, apparently in answer to the many prayers, received a miraculous healing of his disease.  The doctors could not explain it, but his cancer was gone, and he sat there strong, healthy, and with a long future ahead of him.  Greg, however, received no such healing, and he was dying.  He sat there thin, weak, and full of the cancer that would, in a mere two months, end his life.  Tim began the conversation by expressing his gratitude to God for the healing he received.  He then asked Greg how he felt about not being healed.  Tim said, “Greg, don’t you think God is being quite unfair about the whole thing, healing me and not you?”

     This is how Greg responded:

Well, in order to say something is unfair, you have to know everything about both situations.  Our situations look similar, and so it looks to us to be very unfair.  But God sees far more of the whole picture than we do, and perhaps God sees some differences.  Perhaps you and I, or those around us, have different things to learn by what is happening to us.  Perhaps there is someone you know who will be brought to faith in Jesus because you were healed.  And perhaps someone I know will be strengthened in their faith by seeing how I face death.  I am content to leave the answers to my prayers in God’s hands, knowing that He alone sees everything, and knows far more than we do.  Besides, we get a rather short time of it here on this earth anyway, no matter how long we live.  But the promise of God is that we will live again, forever, in a better place.  So I am not going to fret over missing out on a few extra years here.  We both have a whole eternity of life ahead of us.

     I am impressed by Greg’s calm and faithful acceptance of his disease and approaching death.  He spoke of death with courage and confidence; without any bitterness or fear, and without a hint of jealousy over the miracle Tim received.  Rather, he chose to speak about finding meaning in his suffering.  Perhaps, he thought, God intended that some important purpose would be served by his death.  I believe he was right about that.  I know my own faith was strengthened by Greg’s testimony even now, thirty years after his death; and perhaps his words will have an impact on you also, along with the many others over the years who saw the video.

     Greg was encouraged by God’s long-term promise of eternal life, and it was in that context that he viewed his short-term suffering and early death.  Greg was receiving some rough treatment, but he knew the end of his story would be good.  There is much in the Bible and in life that we do not understand, but the Bible is not so much about smooth sailing and perfect understanding, as it is about remaining faithful until the end; an end which, for the Christian, is always a happy ending.  Greg’s story indeed had a happy ending, ending not in death, but in the heavenly home that was prepared for him by Jesus his Lord and Savior.

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From another young man who whose prayers for healing were not answered with a long life on earth:

“I have been healed of my desperate need to be healed.”

–Dave Busby, quoted in a speech given by a close friend of his.  

Dave Busby died in 1997 as a young man after a life-long battle with cystic fibrosis.

Dave Busby

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Psalm 31:15a  —  My times are in your hands.

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.

2 Corinthians 12:7b-9  —  In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

John 14:1-3  —  (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled.   You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms…  I am going there to prepare a place for you…  I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

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PSALM 31:1-3, 5, 9-10, 14-15a:

In you, Lord, I have taken refuge;
    let me never be put to shame;
    deliver me in your righteousness.
Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me.
Since you are my rock and my fortress,
    for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
Into your hands I commit my spirit;
    deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
    my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
    and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
    and my bones grow weak.

But I trust in you, Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
My times are in your hands.

517) We Understand So Little

From The Book of Virtues, by William Bennett, 1993, pages 774-5.

Our understanding of God’s creation is imperfect, so our faith must fill in the gaps, as this old Jewish folktale reminds us.

     Once there were two young brothers who had spent all their lives in the city, and had never even seen a field or pasture.  So one day they decided to take a trip into the countryside.  As they were walking along, they spied a farmer plowing, and were puzzled about what he was doing.

     “What kind of behavior is this?” they asked themselves.  “This fellow marches back and forth all day, scarring the earth with long ditches.  Why should anyone destroy such a pretty meadow like that?”

     Later in the afternoon they passed the same place again, and this time they saw the farmer sowing grains of wheat in the furrows.

     “Now what’s he doing?” they asked themselves.  “He must be a madman.  He’s taking perfectly good wheat and tossing it into these ditches!”

     “The country is no place for me,” said one of the brothers.  “The people here act as if they had no sense.  I’m going home.”  And he went back to the city.

     But the second brother stayed in the country, and a few weeks later saw a wonderful change.  Fresh green shoots began to cover the field with a lushness he had never imagined.  He quickly wrote to his brother and told him to hurry back to see the miraculous growth.

     So his brother returned from the city, and he too was amazed at the change.  As the days passed they saw the green earth turn into a golden field of tall wheat.  And now they understood the reason for the farmer’s work.

     Then the wheat grew ripe, and the farmer came with his scythe and began to cut it down.  The brother who had returned from the city couldn’t believe it.  “What, is this imbecile doing now?” he exclaimed.  “All summer long he worked so hard to grow this beautiful wheat, and now he’s destroying it with his own hands!  He is a madman after all!  I’ve had enough.  I’m going back to the city.”

     But his brother had more patience.  He stayed in the country and watched the farmer collect the wheat and take it to his granary.  He saw how cleverly he separated the chaff, and how carefully he stored the rest.  And he was filled with awe when he realized that by sowing a bag of seed, the farmer had harvested a whole field of grain.  Only then did he truly understand that the farmer had a reason for everything he did.

     “And this is how it is with God’s works, too,” he said.  “We mortals see only the beginnings of His plan.  We cannot understand the full purpose and end of His creation.  So we must have faith in His wisdom.”

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) The Veteran in a New Field (1865)

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Job 26:14  —  And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!  Who then can understand the thunder of his power?”

Isaiah 45:9  —  “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground.  Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’  Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?”

Romans 11:33-34  —   Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”

1 Corinthians 1:25  —  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

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Dear God, be good to me; thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.  AMEN.

–Breton Fisherman’s Prayer

428) But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Jesus, Matthew 6:13

391) Cave Exploring (part two of two)

     There are times in life when you have to trust someone and follow them no matter what.  In that cave, I had to trust and follow our guide.  Perhaps you have faced medical decisions where you had to trust in and follow the advice of your doctor, and it was a matter of life and death.  But there is nothing in all of life like the decision to trust in and follow Jesus.  There is no other decision that has such eternal consequences.  There is no one else to follow that can lead us beyond the limits of this life.  And there is no one to follow who can be more trusted and more reliable in teaching us how to live our lives right now.  In the cave, I had to be able to follow the guide to get back out to the light of day.  In life, we need to follow Jesus, the Creator of life, in order to know how to get along with each other, how to value the right things, how to make the right choices, and how to have a firm and solid hope for the future.

     One time in the cave we said to the guide, “That passage looks interesting.  Can we crawl through and go that way?”

     “Oh no,” he said, “that space looks big enough, but it is like the funneled entrance to a rodent trap.  You can crawl in, but if you get stuck, you can’t very easily back out.”  No one wanted that to happen, so we did not challenge his authority or wisdom.  God’s Word gives us many similar cautions and warnings and commands that when heeded, leads to the peace and well-being he intended for us.  But when God’s wisdom and authority are not heeded or accepted or believed in, and we go our own way, we can get ourselves into all kinds of troubles from which we cannot easily escape.

     This is the challenging part.  Following Jesus may not always produce immediately visible benefits, and not following or obeying Jesus may not always get one into trouble right away.  Oftentimes, it may look like it doesn’t make any difference at all what you do.  But here  my cave exploring experience can again be instructive.  If I would have chosen to not follow the guide, I would not have been in trouble right away.  It wasn’t at all hard to go snooping around in that cave.  The helmet light was good, there was plenty of room to move around most of the time, and it would have been great fun to just go around and do what I wanted to do, without always listening to the guide and without having to wait for the slow ones in the group.  I am sure I could have seen and experienced much more on my own.

      But eventually I would be lost and in big trouble.  On our own, in caves and in life, we can get only so far.  When I was in that cave, there was no doubt in my mind that I would follow that guide; and in life it is wise to not only believe in Jesus, but also to follow him.

     Author Ernest Hemingway followed no one or nothing but his own intense desire for action and adventure and pleasure.  As a young man he went off to fight in a war his nation wasn’t even involved in.  He just wanted to be a part of the action.  He ran with the bulls in Spain and led big game hunting safaris in Africa and was a big sea fisherman.  No one could out-drink him and he was willing to fight anyone.  He was a real man’s man, a rough and tough guy that made Hollywood tough guys look like wimps and fakes.  Like Frank Sinatra, Hemingway could say of his life, “I did it my way.”  But then, while following no one or nothing but his own passions, Ernest Hemingway lost his way.  By his late 50’s he was battling alcoholism and depression, and at age 61 he committed suicide.  He was a man of great power and confidence, and he looked invincible.  But in one of his books he wrote a line that may have expressed what was going on underneath all that outward bravado. “Life breaks us all,” he wrote.

     He was right.  We are made of pretty fragile stuff– nothing more than this “frail, frail flesh,” as Shakespeare put it.  All it took was a little bullet to end the life of the tough and powerful Ernest Hemingway.  Even something as little as a germ can do us in.  ‘Life breaks us all,’ in one way or another, and then the darkness falls.  ‘But,’ says Jesus, ‘follow me… for I am the light of the world… I am the way and the truth and the life, and in me is abundant life, now and forever.’  Follow Jesus.  He shows us the way out of the darkness, and will one day fix all that is now broken.

     The power of a man like Ernest Hemingway can look impressive, but human power always lasts only so long.  The Bible speaks of a different kind of power, as Paul once wrote, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

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John 14:6  —  Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Matthew 4:19a  —  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said…

I Corinthians 1:18  —  For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

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O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy:  Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer