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For What Shall We Live?

1db56738fcbefcd9e18164e5af1a7d08Ecclesiastes 3:1-13; Romans 5:7-8

Memorial Day, which originated after the Civil War, commemorates the sacrifices of those who have fought and died in the American armed forces. It was in 1865 that Henry Welles, a druggist in the village of Waterloo, New York, suggested—at a social gathering—that honor should be shown to the patriotic dead of the Civil War by decorating their graves. A year later, a committee was formed to plan a day, and townspeople embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Wreathes, crosses and bouquets were made for each veteran’s grave and flags were set at half-mast.

The first national official recognition of Memorial Day was issued by General John Logan, first commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. This was General Order No. 11 establishing “Decoration Day” as it was then known. The date of the order was May 5, 1868, exactly two years after Waterloo’s first observance. And that year, Waterloo joined other communities in the nation by having their ceremony on May 30. In 1971, Congress made the last Monday in May the official national holiday.
According to the most recent estimate from the Department of Veteran Affairs, 651,031 Americans have died in battle. That number doesn’t take into account others, who died in theatre, but not in battle.

I spent some years as a teacher of U.S. History, have done some training of Navy chaplains, and so have researched our wars. Nevertheless, I was cut to heart to read again the statistics on the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Indian Wars, the War with Mexico, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Shield/Desert Storm and, now, what the Department of Defense lists, as the ongoing conflict that is the Global War on Terror.

General Logan, in issuing General Order No. 11 said, “We should guard the graves [of those who died for us] with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time testify to the present or the coming generations, that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided Republic. If other eyes grow dull, and other hands slack, and other hearts cold in the solemn trust, ours shall keep it well as long as the light and warmth of life remains to us.”
Memorial Day. Interpreters have long noted the aura of sacredness that surrounds the day’s traditional observances. The Memorial Day Foundation offers many suggestions on how we might honor the fallen. Included in these a National Moment of Remembrance at 3 p.m. local time to pause and think upon the meaning of the day. At that hour today, buglers across the country, will be playing “Taps” wherever they may be.

Memorial Day likely conjures up memories for all us. Some of my earliest memories, from my childhood, are of my father, a World War II veteran, marching in our town’s Memorial Day parade. I recall, as well, when I was in my twenties, standing by his flag-draped casket as he was honored by members of the local American Legion post where he’d served as commander for many years. But perhaps I am more acutely attuned to Memorial Day this time around because of a conversation I had some days ago with my son-in-law, a now-retired Special Operative with the Marines, a Raider.

Andrew, over his years of service, was deployed again and again to Iraq, Afghanistan and other of the most dangerous places in the world. And because he and others like him did and do the things they have done and continue to do, we can sleep more easily at night. Though I doubt he’d refer to it as such, Andrew regularly ministers to former soldiers who struggle to sleep as they relive—each night—horrific battles, as they see the faces of the fallen beside them, as they struggle to manage the mundanities of everyday life off the field of conflict.

On this Memorial Day, I will be weaving in and out of the reflections of two men who understand, from first-hand experience, that wars are fought on a wide range of battlefields. The first of the two is Roger Brady, a follower of Jesus Christ and a retired U.S. Air Force General. His words appeared in an article in Christianity Today magazine.

Those whom we honor this Memorial Day, he said, died serving something bigger than themselves—the transcendent ideals that make America the country we cherish. But for us as Christians, he added, this day should have an even more poignant meaning. Many of the same values that our nation should hope to nurture and many of the traits military members are challenged to embody are consistent with those perfectly modeled for us by our Savior. He was the quintessential example of service and sacrifice.

In his letter to the Roman church, the apostle Paul said, “Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7–8).

Before He went to the cross, Jesus showed us how to love each day. To the consternation of those watching him, he invited himself to the home of a hated tax collector named Zacchaeus, he challenged the hypocrisy of religious leaders by coming to the rescue of a prostitute, he exposed the meaninglessness of their religiosity by healing the sick on the Sabbath, and he challenged bigotry and insensitivity by publicly engaging in conversation with a Samaritan woman that His society said was unworthy of His time.

Brady reminds us that, as Christians, we are not only citizens of the United States but citizens of the kingdom of God as well, and our citizenship in that kingdom of God is a gift extended to us freely by God’s grace. Paul told the Ephesian Christians, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:8–10).

The society in which Jesus lived had many problems akin to what we see in the United States today. There was hypocrisy, bigotry, poverty, and oppression of the weak by the strong, and He condemned all of that. America is probably a better place than that for even the most marginalized of our citizens, but it is not always what it should be for all of us. As Christians, regardless of our earthly citizenship, this is part of the work He left for us to do. Is it our duty as Americans? Yes, it is—but even more so as citizens of the kingdom of Christ.

Most Americans will never serve in the military—less than one percent of our population does. And even among those of us who do, very, very few of us are asked to give that last full measure of devotion. So, what is the question for us on this day as we remember those Americans who died on our behalf? It is this—for what shall we live?

Brady reminds us that, whether we wear the uniform of our country or not, we all have a service to offer, a service to those ideals that reflect God’s universal truths and that our American ancestors captured in the formation of this country. Jesus has assigned the church to carry on His work. So, when evil strikes in the form of a school shooting or, when nature unleashes its fury and devastates property and lives, when children suffer, when people are hungry or homeless, when a virus strikes down a loved one, and people ask, “Where is God?!” we must be there and have them see Him in us.

We must bring His comfort and His healing to this world. When we live lives of service to those around us, we honor the God who saved us and we honor all those who gave that last full measure to secure for us all the things we enjoy in this nation.

Some time back, I came across a publication from American Baptist International Ministries that contained an article by IM Missionary Bill Klemmer. Bill begins his article with a reference to Matthew 21: Speaking to His disciples, Jesus tells a parable of two brothers whose father asked them to do some work in the family vineyard. One said, “Sure, I’ll go”—but he never went. The other said, “No way”—but eventually he did as his father had asked.

Bill said his typical response to God’s calling would fit right into this story. Eager to please his heavenly Father, he would answer, “Yes, I’ll go.” But when the initial excitement had faded, his head would get in the way of his heart and he would rationalize, “The timings not right. I need to be better prepared. I’ll go after I finish this one thing.” Usually, Bill admitted, he behaves like the second brother, eventually going, but not always on schedule, sometimes reluctantly and often with timid, halting progress.

At the age of 22, he had a strong sense that God was calling him to serve in Africa as a missionary doctor, and he immediately answered, “Yes,” and took steps to follow through on that calling. Seven years later, having completed medical school and his residency, he had the skills necessary to answer the call. But, along the way, he’d gotten married, had children, gone into private practice and purchased a house. He suggested to God that the responsible thing to do was to save for his children’s college educations, pay off his mortgage, get practical experience and then go to Africa.

One day he and Ann were traveling in upstate Vermont when their train stopped dead in its tracks. In that moment, God led them to pray about the calling he’d heard years earlier. By the time the train started up again, they’d told God they would go. And six months later, they set out with three young children and a fourth on the way. They remained in Africa for seven years before returning to the United States for their first furlough. At that point, the last thing Bill wanted to do was to go back and keep serving. He was haunted by the memory of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had torn him away from his family and kept them apart for 11 long months. Surely, he thought, they’d done enough. Someone else could else could take a turn.

But after a year of visiting churches and sharing stories of God’s faithfulness, he couldn’t shake the call. So, they returned to the D.R. Congo, and over the next decade, the constant fighting there would grow to engulf much of central Africa, claiming an estimated 1.2 million lives in what would become known as Africa’s World War. When they completed their assignment in the D.R. Congo, they moved on to South Sudan, where yet another prolonged civil war was coming to a head with the ethnic massacre of hundreds of thousands.

Today, Ann and Bill are living on the Congo-Uganda border, which has been the epicenter of Africa’s second largest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola. Bill says he continues to contemplate his calling. Now that they’re in their mid-sixties, the children ask, “Isn’t it time for you to come home?” Their simple answer is, “Not yet. We still feel called to serve.”

He and Ann met, what Bill describes as, a “gifted evangelist and educator.” The man was on his way home to a town of half a million persons, a town that has been under attack by rebel militias for several years. Armed elements infiltrate the town at night, raping, pillaging, murdering, and burning homes. A U.N. force has been unable to prevent these attacks. So, Ann and Bill were surprised when the man spoke of his eagerness to get home.

Why? Why are you so eager to get back to a place that so many other people are fleeing?

“You see,” he said, “Jesus is coming back soon, and when He returns, I want Him to find me laboring in the field He assigned to me. I want to be where I am supposed to be—in the trenches—when Jesus returns.”

Last week, our nephew, Bernie, an R.N. contracted the coronavirus in the course of his work, and spent two weeks in the hospital on ten IV drips and many more medications. His breathing was managed via a ventilator. He was constantly dialyzed, and received additional interventions too numerous to recount…the team attending to him tried everything to save him. He went into septic shock a few days ago and succumbed to COVID-19. His wife, Jean, was allowed to be at his bedside as he went home to the Lord, and she wants to believe he was aware of her presence with him. If Bernie had survived, he would have been on a trache and in a nursing home for the remainder of his days. We’re heartbroken. Five other family members (Jean, a nurse practitioner, three of their children, and Bernie’s brother) all tested positive for the virus but are recovering. Bernie is one of more than a thousand healthcare workers who have died in the frontline fight against COVID-19. On this Memorial Day, I will be thanking God for his service and for the service of others who have died in this war.

We all pass through seasons and there is a time for every purpose under heaven. Someday we will find ourselves at the end of our lives looking back, and we will ask ourselves what it was all for. At that moment, I imagine we will all want to recall a life of service to something larger than ourselves, to children who needed our teaching and our example of service, to people to whom we gave a hand up in times of need, to friends and colleagues whom we comforted in times of sorrow, lives with whom we shared the many physical and spiritual blessings that have been bestowed on us. If we have lived that life of service, we will have fulfilled the challenge of the Savior when he said, “Whatever you did for one of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40).

So, on Memorial Day, and every day, we need to ask ourselves: for what shall we live? How are we doing at fulfilling not just the ideals of our American forefathers but those universal values set in place by the One who made us in His image, who sent His only begotten Son to secure our salvation, the one who “created us in Him to do good works?”

Let us not allow Memorial Day to pass by seeing it only as a day that marks the beginning of summer, a day off, a day to barbecue. May our use of the day include an honoring of those who, with their lives, have purchased our freedoms. Not only the soldiers who gave their lives on fields of battle, not only the frontline workers who have died in their service to others, but our Savior Jesus Christ who gave all on the cross that we might have freedom from sin, death and Satan.

Take some time in silence today at 3, offering prayer for those who are in harm’s way around the world, giving thanks for those who have sacrificed all that we might be free, and opening ourselves to a word from the Lord about what call He might be placing on our lives at this very moment.

Let us pray:
God of all our yesterdays, I am part of a people called to remember. Gifted with memory, looking back, I know who You are, what You have done for me in Jesus Christ, and, by Your grace, whose I am. God of my today, O come before You with praise and adoration. Your Spirit is here within me.

God of all my tomorrows, time is in Your hand and I pray I may each day serve You obediently and joyfully. Eternal God, Alpha and Omega, I rest my past, devote my present and hope my future in You. Thanks be to God.

Abiding and understanding God, I pray for those too busy, having too many things to do, who have lost the rhythm of life and have forsaken Sabbath rest. I pray for those who have so much crowding in their hearts of that which is not You, that they make no room for You. I pray for those too familiar with the Good News, too jaded, too preoccupied with that which is not You—those who have lost the quivering of the Holy Spirit at really hearing and being captured by the call and demand of the gospel.

Lord, forgive me if I am one of these, and let me find my abundance in You. Save me from myself and guide me to Yourself.

As I open myself to You, I pray You will gently fill me with Your light and Your Spirit. Help me to take each step trusting in You. Help me to walk Your path relying not on my own strength, but on Yours. Speak Your words to my heart, Lord.

For Your guidance, Your healing, Your power, Your grace, and Your peace—I give You thanks. I pray that I might believe more fully, love more compassionately, and live in your Way more faithfully. I pray these things in the name of Jesus. Amen

From the Chaplain’s Manual of the U.S. Submarine Veterans Organization comes this benediction for today:
God be in our head, and in our understanding;
God be in our eyes, and in our looking.
God be in our mouth, and in our speaking.
God be in our hearts, and in our thinking.
God be at our end, and at our departing.

May the Lord bless thee and keep thee until we meet again. Amen!

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Patience, Persistence, and Perseverance

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James 5:7-12
Patience is defined as the capacity to accept or tolerate delay, trouble, or suffering without getting angry or upset. Persistence is a firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition. Perseverance is steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.

Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. How desperately we need these in our rucksacks today. The coronavirus and the resultant efforts to stem the tide of its dissemination have upended our lives. Grocery shelves are emptying. Businesses are suffering. The stock market is wobbling. In Maine, nearly 90,000 individuals, or roughly 13 percent of the state’s workers, have filed for unemployment since March 15 . While some restrictions on public activities have been lifted, protests are increasing. People are sick of and sick of hearing about COVID-19. Tempers are getting shorter and shorter. Patience is wearing thinner and thinner.

Patience. Patience seems a hard commodity to locate and not just because of a virus. For other reasons, it is sometimes hard to be patient. Frank Luchsinger tells of a woman who telephones him one day, choked with emotion as she reports, “Ray walked away from Day Care this morning.” She is speaking of her husband, who is sinking into Alzheimer’s and is in a wonderful day program in a community center.

“It’s a very busy street. He’s headed west; he knows we live that way. They spotted him at the bank and at the hamburger stand. It’s been six hours. I’d have called earlier but I knew there was nothing we could do. Every time someone sees him, he’s gone before the police get there. It’s such a cold day. Do you think we could start the prayer chain?”
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

A young couple wants one thing most in life—to have a child. They wonder why God has not chosen to bless them with a pregnancy. Both are successful professionals but this brings little satisfaction. Now their marriage is beginning to suffer under the strain.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

A family with several children sits in a fast food restaurant learning that Happy Meals don’t necessarily bring happiness. Children’s meals are all mixed up on the table and while a haggard dad tries to sort out whose meal is whose, the littlest one eats part of a meal that doesn’t belong to him. Tempers flare.
Sometimes it’s hard to be patient.

I’ve heard it said, and I imagine my husband, Gene, would likely say it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to be patient with your spouse. Socrates wrote, “By all means, marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. If you get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher… and that is a good thing for any man.”

We’ve heard it said that marriage is a three-ring circus: engagement ring, wedding ring, and suffer-ring. It has also been suggested that marriage is not a—it’s a sentence; that marriages are made in heaven, but so are thunder and lightning.
Sometimes, it’s hard to be patient.

It’s hard to be patient with our vocations. Certain credentials are required, then experience, then a measure of the right timing and perseverance. Someone not particularly deserving is promoted to the job we want, or we receive damaging and unfair criticism or we are exposed to unrelenting demands resulting in unending stress.

And it’s hard to be patient with our health: that long illness we did not anticipate, medical treatment that doesn’t work out, conflicting opinions, escalating expenses, wear and tear on our loved ones.

And it’s hard to be patient in this time of COVID-19.

“Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength” we read in Isaiah, but when you’re waiting and weary, it’s hard to be patient.

James writes, “Be patient, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” Look to the example of the farmer who, in James’ day, waited for the fall rain in early October or early November that was necessary to prepare the hard ground for sowing and to enable the seed to germinate. Later the farmer would wait for the spring rains that would come in April and May; these were vital for the grain to ripen and mature.
Be patient like the farmer. Stand firm.  Wait on the Lord.

Patience: if you were to think for a moment about some of the synonyms for the word “patience,” what might come to mind would be words like: waiting, holding on, hanging in there, keeping up the fight, and persevering (though, in the Greek, perseverance is a more active word than patience). Patience, remember, is a capacity. Perseverance, an action.

Lyman Coleman and Richard Peace opine that, as Americans, we’re not very good at handling stress and demonstrating patience. Our tendency is to act, to think that we can deal with any challenging situation and make it go away. If we can’t, our next line of defense is to go away ourselves. Fight or flee. The idea of hanging in there, of staying in a challenging situation because that is where we are supposed to be, is not necessarily our strength. Of course, sometimes flight may be the only sane answer. We can’t say, without exception, that in all situations the best thing is to hang in there.

One must always attend to the Lord’s leading, wait for Him, and while waiting, stand firm, like Job.

That was James’ word to the church in 1st century Jerusalem and it’s the word to us today. Though Job was not a patient man and frequently expressed his exasperation with the Lord, James wants us to emulate him in his perseverance: despite the disasters and difficulties that came into his life and the relentless attack of his “friends,” Job kept his faith and did not abandon his trust in God. Job’s dependence upon and waiting upon the Lord brought him extraordinary results. Learn from Job.

James, in chapter 1, verse 2, tells us that whenever we face trials of any kind, we should consider these nothing but pure joy because the testing of our faith produces perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success) and, if we persist and let perseverance have its full effect, we will wind up mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

John Ortberg in his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, reminds us that any truly meaningful accomplishment will require perseverance.  “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, the writer of Hebrews said. In other words, just don’t quit. We might have to endure through times of confusion or doubt, times of loneliness, even times when all seems lost. And we should keep in mind that suffering alone does not produce perseverance, only suffering that is endured in faith.

James, in the verses preceding the ones for today, catalogued some of the Job-like misfortunes the folks of his day were enduring: failure to be paid for their labor, being used to bring opulence to a few while personally being forced to live in poverty, abuse in the courts and more. James counseled them not to retaliate, not to become like those who were oppressing them.

The Lord’s coming is near, he says to them. The Lord’s return will change everything.

Now we might note here that there are three words in the New Testament used to describe the Second Coming of Jesus. The first is epiphaneia (in the English, epiphany). It describes the appearance of God or the ascent to the throne of an emperor. The second word is apokalupsis (the English, apocalypse); this carries the meaning of unveiling or revelation. The third word—which is used here—is parousia. It describes the invasion of a country or the arrival of a king. Taken together, these three words give the sense of what will occur when Christ returns. Jesus first came to this Earth quietly as a baby in Bethlehem. When He comes a second time, it will be in awe-inspiring power as the rightful King. In great might and glory, He will claim His people.

While we wait, James said, look to the example of the farmer who knows he can do nothing to hasten the arrival of the rains. The rains will come when God sends them. We sow a seed, we pull the weeds, we do our part to protect the crop, but there is a limit to what we can do. God must do the rest. God must manage the growth. God must work all things together for our good.

While we wait, the temptation might be to slip into inappropriate survival modes or, more specifically, the temptation might be to adopt the ways of the world. Resist such temptations, James tells us. For one thing, don’t take your frustrations out in grumbling.

Now while groaning in the face of suffering may be appropriate, grumbling at one another is not. Bickering, fault-finding, back-biting, nitpicking, grumbling against others is a form of judgment. And here in James and elsewhere we are told not to judge or we too will be judged.

And grumbling is so often misdirected. We’re upset about something over here…but we take it out over there. In stress situations, it may work like this: we feel pressure but we’re powerless to do anything about it. It comes perhaps from someone we dare not cross. We can’t express our anger and resentment directly, so we do it indirectly. We complain to those around us, often to those dearest to us. We may walk around cranky. We may blame them. In any case, our grumbling does nothing but create tension.

What compounds this is that we can then become chronic complainers, chronic grumblers; we can move our attention away from praise. It’s like the big sheet of paper and the little smudge. You lose sight of all your blessings to focus on the little smudge. That little smudge may work into you in such a way that you become a chronic complainer, focusing always on what’s “wrong” and not on what’s “right,” focusing on the blisters, ignoring the blessings.

Someone who could have done that, someone who could have gotten himself bogged down in smudges was Abraham Lincoln.  If you want an example of someone who never got tired of trying, he’s your guy. Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. He could have quit many times—but he didn’t and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents to sit in the White House.

Once, after losing an important Senate race, he said, “The path was worn and slippery. My foot slipped from under me, knocking the other out of the way, but I recovered and said to myself, ‘it’s a slip and not a fall.’”

He didn’t blame others or use his tongue to tear down others, instead he spoke the truth of his convictions. This is what James is addressing in verse 10. Here he celebrates the men and women who have spoken truth—the prophetic word—in God’s name.

Lincoln, like those prophets, persevered—and because he did our nation survived a great crisis. Here is a litany of a man who never stopped trying:

In 1816—His family was forced out of their home. He had to work to support them.
In 1818—His mother died.
1831—Failed in business.
1832—Ran for the state legislature—lost.
1832—Also lost his job—wanted to go to law school but couldn’t get in.
1833—Borrowed some money from a friend to begin a business and by the end of the year he was bankrupt. He spent the next 17 years of his life paying off this debt.
1834—Ran for the state legislature again—this time he won.
1835—Was engaged to be married; his sweetheart died and his heart was broken.
1836—He had a total nervous breakdown and was in bed for six months.
1838—He sought to become speaker of the state legislature—He was defeated.
1843—He ran for Congress and lost.
1846—Ran for Congress again—this time he won—went to Washington and did a good job.
1848—Ran for re-election to Congress—lost.
1849—Sought the job of land officer in his home state—he was rejected.
1854—Ran for the Senate of the United States—lost.
1856—Sought the vice-presidential nomination at his party’s national convention—got less than 100 votes.
1858—Ran for the U.S. Senate again and again he lost.
1860—He was elected President of the United States.

It was Abraham Lincoln’s belief in the providence of God that allowed him to keep his balance and turn repeated setbacks into eventual victories.

To be formed and transformed through trials, the place to start is with mini-trials. When someone interrupts you, you can practice graciously holding your tongue. When a co-worker borrows something and doesn’t return it immediately, you can practice patience. When you have a headache, you can discover that it is possible to suffer and not tell everybody about it. As simple as it sounds, the place to start being formed by trials is with the mini variety.

But we need to add persistence for the large trials. Perhaps you might identify the greatest challenge of your life right now, or a dilemma you’re about ready to give up on. Make a commitment that you are going to relentlessly persist through prayer.
Perhaps the challenge is relational. Is someone you love far from God and you’ve given up hope? Is it a pattern of sin in your life that you haven’t been able to break and you feel as if you’ll be in its grip forever? Is it a new habit you would do well to cultivate? Is it a family rupture that’s been going on for years?

You don’t keep the faith and attend to these things through sheer strength of will alone but through trusting in, relying on God.

So…what’s the scoop with the last verse in this passage?  It seems a bit oddly placed but it’s not.

The last verse in our passage has sometimes been taken to mean that we should not swear an oath of allegiance to a flag or an oath to tell the truth in a courtroom, but that’s not what James is addressing here. James is not condemning oath-taking of this sort: we find plenty of instances of people taking appropriate oaths all throughout scripture from Exodus to Matthew to Romans to Hebrews.

It would seem James had a two-fold purpose here. First, to warn against the flippant use of God’s name to guarantee the truth of what is spoken. Phrases like: “I swear to God that…” or “As God is my witness, I’ll…” are, in part, what’s in mind here.

Then there are the oaths, the promises, and the boastings we sometimes may be tempted to utter. An example to consider from scripture is found in the experience of Peter who once talked about how faithful he was going to be to Jesus: “Lord if everybody leaves You.  I will not leave You.  Lord, if I have to die to save You, I’ll die in Your place.”

Then when the crucial moment arrived, Peter said about Jesus: “I don’t even know the man.” This was the same man who had sworn to follow Jesus to death.  You see James is saying that, in the Christian life, patience, persistence, and perseverance are not manifested in grand verbal promises but by quiet talk that follows through. Our patient endurance will be shown not in words but in endurance through trials and testing.

So…bottom line: Remember that any truly meaningful human accomplishment will require patience, persistence and perseverance. Allow these to do their work in you, confident that if you do, you will wind up mature in the faith, complete, lacking in nothing. Keep going, stop grumbling, don’t quit. If you fall down, get up. Don’t be an empty talker; just run the race set before you. Learn persistence in the mini-trials and you’ll have greater strength to move through the larger trials. And remember that all of this is not done through the sheer strength of your own will but through trusting in God to use all things for our good to grow us up in Christ Jesus our Lord.
AMEN?
You might wish to lift the following as your prayer: Lord, I know that there is nowhere I can go where You are not and yet often I go about my days without ever giving a thought to Your presence, essentially turning a deaf ear to You, paying no attention to you, overlooking you, discounting you, neglecting you, ignoring you. I do so at my own peril. You are an ever-present help in the midst of troubles. You love me with a love that will never let me go. May I love you and demonstrate my love for you by using the times of discipline to move to greater depths of faith in you. May I embrace the week ahead, being diligent in my labor, kind to my neighbor, generous to the discouraged, patient with my family, loyal to my Savior. May I study the scriptures, be faithful in prayer and—in all things—trust the Lord. I pray in the name of my Savior Jesus Christ. Amen

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Contingent Contentment or Contentment in Christ?

Max Lucado, in the Anxious for Nothing Bible Study, offers two words that served as the inspiration for the message I’m posting today. “Contingent Contentment” is the kind of thinking that starts with the “I’ll be happy when…,” “I’ll be happy if…” I’ll be content when I marry. I’ll be happy when I have a child. I’ll be content when I get a new job. I’ll be content when I move to a new community. I’ll be happy when I get a new car. In every instance, contentment is based on circumstances.

Psalm 42 was composed by someone who is longing for the good ole days and lamenting his current circumstances. He is filled with discontentment. The writer, is a worship leader as well as a member of the Korahite choir. The Sons of Korah were the descendants of Levi who sang in the temple. The psalmist is now in exile in the land of the Jordan River. That river lies north of the Sea of Galilee and contains many waterfalls as it cascades southward. The psalmist tells us that he is feeling overwhelmed by the spiritual “waves and breakers” that have “swept over” him.

He recalls leading groups of people to worship, singing songs of thanks! Those were special times—but the psalmist is singing a different song today. Today, his heart is broken and he can’t seem to locate God. With this background, hear the beginning words of the psalm:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. I thirst for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with Him? Day and night, I have only tears for food, while my enemies continually taunt me, saying, “Where is this God of yours? My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks—it was the sound of a great celebration! Why am I discouraged? Why so sad?”

Can you remember a mountain-top moment of worship? I can remember many. I remember a retreat on the Maryland shore with some Stephen Ministers I’d trained. We’d gathered around the Lord’s Supper, and all of us were taken to a place of deep emotion in worship that moved us to tears, bonded us together, and warmed us to our cores. I remember a Maundy Thursday service and the depth of intimacy and overwhelming love I felt for the Lord and for members of the congregation as I knelt to wash their feet. I remember blessed times when folks have come forward in services to receive Christ as Savior; I remember sacred moments in a baptismal pool. I remember my great joy and relief when I went forward to proclaim my own belief in Jesus as Savior at a Billy Graham Crusade in Boston, Massachusetts. I remember the moment I received spiritual assurance and tangible confirmation of my call to pastoral ministry.

There are moments while praying from the pulpit when the presence of the Holy Spirit has been so palpable that I’ve felt transported. There are moments even in nature when I’ve heard the Lord in the whisper of the wind.

All of these mountain top experiences have something in common: I could feel in every fiber of my being the presence of God. The moment, the time in worship, was good not because it was entertaining or emotional but because the Spirit of the Living God—His grace, His mercy, His mysterious majesty—surrounded me and often surrounded the assembly.

You may remember, as well, moments in worship, communion with God, like this. Perhaps you also remember days you didn’t bother to worship because you just didn’t have it in you. Not that you were lazy or wanted to do something else—no, you just felt numb and cold inside. No matter how loud you sang or how catchy the songs—even if the preaching was right on target—something was missing. Think of a deer in a desert, panting for water, crying as it looks for water, unable to find even a trickle of a stream to quench its thirst.

That’s the way the psalmist describes his spiritual state. He is dry and parched. He’s not thirsty for water but for God. His soul is thirsty. He longs to be near God—to experience a refreshing stream but instead he’s in the desert. Tears, salty tears, are the only drink he can find, but saltwater only increases one’s thirst.

No songs of praise come from his parched lips. His swollen, red eyes see no sign of God’s face. He is only blinded by the sun. And there isn’t even an edifying voice of a fellow worshipper speaking a psalm, hymn, or spiritual song to spur him on to love and good deeds. In the desert, his tragedies are instead exploited by an unbelieving world that taunts with sneering questions, “Well, where’s your wonderful God now?! Can’t you see how hollow all religion is? Give it up!”

But even more troubling questions can come from those who profess to be Christians: “Why do you think God abandoned you like this? Maybe it’s something you did? Maybe there is some unresolved sin or pride in your life? How is it that you’ve fallen out of favor with God?”

And then there’s another question that we sometimes hear: “If you don’t feel close to God, who do you suppose moved?” That last one is actually a good question. If you were to ask that of our Psalmist he might surprise you and say—well it seems to me that God did!

The psalmist feels abandoned and forgotten. Being forgotten is one of the worst feelings. Being forgotten means being alone and defenseless before enemies and the forces of nature. Being forgotten means losing stability and security— nowhere is safe, darkness surrounds.

The psalmist wants to know why God has thrown him aside. He is lost in darkness; enemies have taken advantage of his misfortune. And he feels shame—an embarrassment for God. He has praised God like an adoring child praises a Father— confident in the Father’s goodness and boasting that the Father can do anything! And then, in the moment He is needed most, it seems the Father isn’t there. And the child is—abandoned. All the praise and boasting about the Father becomes… embarrassing.

Whose psalm is this? Who are the children of Korah?

Any of us who feel thirsty for God’s presence. Anyone who hears people say, “Where is Your God?” because something terrible has happened. Those who find themselves in oppressive surroundings as family members or co-workers insult them for their faith. And those who feel stressed and disappointed because God hasn’t seemed to do much to help them out of a difficult situation.

“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!…Each day the Lord pours His unfailing love upon me, and through each night I sing His songs, praying to God who gives me life…’O God, my rock,’ I cry, ‘why have you forgotten me? Why must I wander around in grief[?]…I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him again—my Savior and my God!”

This psalm and the song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” is for the thirsty, parched souls who long for God—those who long to be immersed in His mercy and rescuing grace.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Like the psalm, the song starts off with a little self-talk: Why am I discouraged? Why am I so sad?

Despair is a vicious thing. It’s a sort of auto-immune disorder of the soul. It attacks your soul, then turns your soul against you for feeling sad. But the chorus in both the hymn and the psalm yields to hope. The thirsty soul decides to become a pilgrim. Like the deer, the psalmist is going to sniff out the source of water.

I will put my hope in God! I will praise Him, my Savior and my God!

Being a pilgrim means accepting the wilderness, but settling for nothing on the journey except the deep waters of God. That’s why we need this psalm—to send us on our pilgrim journey, to prepare us for the spiritual life. Too many people settle for poison in the wilderness, contentment based on contingencies. “Feeling better has become more important to us than finding God.”

In his autobiography, When You Can’t Come Back, Dave Dravecky (a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who lost his pitching arm to cancer) says that he “learned that the wilderness is part of the landscape of faith, and every bit as essential as the mountaintop. On the mountaintop, we are overwhelmed by God’s presence. In the wilderness, we are overwhelmed by His absence. Both places should bring us to our knees; the one, in utter awe; the other, in utter dependence.”

Jesus once spoke to a thirsty woman in the wilderness of Samaria (John 4). She felt far from God and so it isn’t strange that she asked, “Where is God?” She had heard from her family—the generations before her—that God was on His holy mountain—Mount Gerazim. But she’d heard from her enemies that God lived in a big house in Jerusalem. “Where is God?” she asked.

Jesus wasn’t surprised by the fact that she’d had five husbands and that the man with whom she was then living wasn’t her husband. Like many of us who long for God, she’d turned to other people, other circumstances, other avenues looking for satisfaction. She was thirsty, and so when Jesus spoke of living water—deep water—that not only satisfies thirst but taps a spring of gushing water in the soul—she wanted it! Like a deer panting for water!

Scott Hoezee recalls having seen a bumper sticker that featured the picture of a telescope along with the words, “If you see God, tell him I’m looking for Him.” This psalmist would appreciate that bumper sticker. But in this psalm, as in so much of our experience, you can’t always find God with the “telescope approach.” Sometimes we try to scrutinize our present circumstances to see if we can locate precisely where God is, hoping we can zero in on Him the way a telescope zeroes in on a star. But it doesn’t always work that way.

To stick with the astronomy analogy for a moment: some of you know that when stargazing, the best way to see some stars is to not look directly at them. Because of the way our eyes are designed, faint objects can be seen best when you look askance from them. Look just to the side of a dim star and you will suddenly see it in your peripheral vision.

Sometimes faith is like that, too. It seems to have been the case for the writer of Psalm 42. Unable to locate God in the present moment of crisis and pain, he instead looks to the past. Not only was the psalmist able then to see God in the past, but somehow it energized his hope in the present moment too. By looking just to the side of his current circumstances God appeared in the “peripheral vision” of his soul once more. A simple act of remembering turns this psalm around and transforms this poem from an ode to despair into a statement of bold faith and audacious hope.

How does this work, I wonder? What’s the mechanism that can take a distant memory of something God once did and use it to re-tool the present? It is finally a mystery how God’s Spirit can use the past to give us hope for the future. But it happens.

It seems we sometimes struggle in knowing where to “find” God in certain moments, particularly in moments of great pain or uncertainty. We don’t always know what God is “up to” or why it seems our prayers are going unanswered—only the truly arrogant or impious would ever dare to claim they always know what God is doing and why. Often, we just don’t know. But perhaps the recovery of our hope doesn’t depend on making sense of each moment. Maybe in life’s darker, deeper valleys it is our memories of who God is and what He has done that can pump a little air back into our deflated balloons of hope.

We are on a pilgrim’s journey, and when trekking through the wilderness, aching with thirst, we must continue to trust the Lord is with us and that He will—as we seek Him—bring us to deep waters that will wash over us, soak us, and cleanse us. On the journey, we sing:

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Why are you so discouraged, the psalmist asks? Why are you so sad? Put your hope in God! We will praise Him again—our Savior and our God!

But, you know, if we will not admit our pain, we can’t deal with its consequences. It’s no wonder that the first step in any twelve-step program is to admit the problem, whether it is alcoholism or drugs or something else. No pastor, therapist, counselor or friend can help those who will not admit their need for help. Folks can’t help if you won’t let them help.
Is there a sense in which you feel isolated from God and God’s purpose today?

Perhaps the problem is your sin, and the first step is honest confession and contrition. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you have been oppressed by others in their sin; now you are innocent of guilt but nonetheless suffering its consequences. Are you dealing with pain or fear that you feel God should have prevented or healed? Are you facing physical or financial setbacks that God has not remedied? Stress in your marriage or family that God has not lifted? In what way do you feel far from God today? Don’t wander off. Cling and pray specifically for what you need.

Cling to the memories of what God has done, cling to the unchanging, always loving nature of God. Cling to the Word of God, cling to other folks of faith, cling to what Jesus did on the cross, cling to hope.

You know, Christians have worshipped God not only in brightly lit sanctuaries, not only in soaring Gothic cathedrals or in the splendor of Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome. Christians have also gathered together in catacombs and prison cells, on the run from Communists in China, and on sinking ships in the Atlantic. Christians have shared the body and blood of Jesus not only while organs played fugues by Bach but also while air raid sirens cut the air outside the church with their shrill warnings of Nazi bombers over London.

Again and again, often in dark circumstances where they could no more see God on the move than could the poet of Psalm 42, Christians have remembered Jesus—they’ve glanced to the side of any present darkness to recall the cross and what that cross has meant throughout their lives. And as they’ve done so, they have again and again discovered that Jesus is no mere memory—He’s here! He’s alive!

And so, stop settling for contingent contentment, being happy only when all the circumstances have lined up according to your desires. Instead, trust God, hope in Him, and know that His is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever.

If you are depressed and feeling all alone, Psalm 42 validates what you’re going through as an experience well-known to all people of the faith, and it can help you express your honest pain to God. It can also remind you that God is with you, God uses all things for the good of His people and—like the apostle Paul—you can learn to be content regardless of your circumstances. You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength.

Keep this psalm and Philippians 4 close by you each day. And, finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received, do; and the God of peace be with you. Amen.

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He Knows No Fear; Fear Nothing While He is With You

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Today marks the fifth Sunday since I last gathered with others for in-person worship in the sanctuary of the Cape Neddick Baptist Church in Maine. It is very strange for our building to stand empty, but the church is its people, and the people continue to be the church outside of the building’s walls. We are reminded in Acts, chapter 24 that:

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything. Rather, He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’

I thought, in this entry, I might do something a bit different. Rather than sharing a sermon, I’ve decided to bring together some of the devotional messages, from sundry sources, that have been ministering to me over these days of physical distancing. Here you’ll find both the text and audio.

We begin with Matthew 10, verse 27, where we read: What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light.”

F.B. Meyer, meditating on this passage, wrote:

Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life, where some infirmity closes us in from the light and stir of life; into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment.

Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the ear to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth’s strident cries.

But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility—that you are to speak in the light—that you are to proclaim upon the housetops.

We are not meant to always linger in the dark, or stay closeted away; presently we shall be summoned to take our place in the rush and storm of life; and when that moment comes, we are to speak and proclaim what we have learned.

This gives a new meaning to suffering, the saddest element in which is often its apparent aimlessness. “How useless I am!” “What am I doing for the betterment of humankind?” “Wherefore this waste of the precious spikenard of my soul?”

Such are the desperate laments of the sufferer. But God has a purpose in it all. He has withdrawn His child to the higher altitudes of fellowship, that s/he may hear God speaking face to face, and bear the message to those at the mountain foot.

Were the forty days wasted that Moses spent on the Mount, or the period spent at Horeb by Elijah, or the years spent in Arabia by Paul?

There is no short cut to the life of faith, which is the all-vital condition of a holy and victorious life. We must have periods of lonely meditation and fellowship with God. That our souls should have their mountains of fellowship, their valley of quiet rest beneath the shadow of a great rock, their nights beneath the stars, when darkness has veiled the material and silenced the stir of human life, and has opened the view of the infinite and eternal, is as indispensable as that our bodies should have food.

Thus alone can the sense of God’s presence become the fixed possession of the soul, enabling it to say repeatedly, with the Psalmist, “You are near, 0 God.”
“Some hearts, like evening primroses, open more beautifully in the shadows of life.”

Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exod. 14:13).

Charles Spurgeon, reflecting on this passage from Exodus, wrote the following:

These words contain God’s command to the believer when he is reduced to great straits and brought into extraordinary difficulties. He cannot retreat; he cannot go forward; he is shut upon the right hand and on the left. What is he now to do?

The Master’s word to him is “stand still.” It will be well for him if, at such times, he listens only to his Master’s word, for other and evil advisers come with their suggestions. Despair whispers, “Lie down and die; give it all up.” But God would have us put on a cheerful courage, and even in our worst times, rejoice in His love and faithfulness.

Cowardice says, “Retreat; go back to the worldling’s way of action; you cannot play the Christian’s part; it is too difficult. Relinquish your principles.”

But, however much Satan may urge this course upon you, you cannot follow it, if you are a child of God. His Divine fiat has bid thee go from strength to strength, and so thou shalt, and neither death nor hell shall turn thee from thy course. What if for a while thou art called to stand still; yet this is but to renew thy strength for some greater advance in due time.

Precipitancy cries, “Do something; stir yourself; to stand still and wait is sheer idleness.” We must be doing something at once–we must do it, so we think–instead of looking to the Lord, who will not only do something, but will do everything.

Presumption boasts, “If the sea be before you, march into it, and expect a miracle.” But faith listens neither to Presumption, nor to Despair, nor to Cowardice, nor to Precipitancy, but it hears God say, “Stand still,” and immovable as a rock it stands.

“Stand still”–keep the posture of an upright man, ready for action, expecting further orders, cheerfully and patiently awaiting the directing voice; and it will not be long ere God shall say to you, as distinctly as Moses said it to the people of Israel, “Go forward.’

From Spurgeon as well comes this:

It was but a little while ago that you were saying, “Lord, I fear I have no faith: let me know that I have faith.”

Was not this really, though perhaps unconsciously, praying for trials?—for how can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised? Depend upon it. God often sends us trials that our graces may be discovered, and that we may be certified of their existence. Besides, it is not merely discovery; real growth in grace is the result of sanctified trials.

God trains His soldiers, not in tents of ease and luxury, but by turning them out and getting them accustomed to forced marches and hard service. He makes them ford through streams, and swim through rivers and climb mountains, and walk many a weary mile with heavy knapsacks on their backs. Well, Christian, may not this account for the troubles through which you are passing? Is not this the reason why He is contending with you?
—C. H. Spurgeon

“Be quiet! why this anxious heed
About thy tangled ways?
God knows them all. He giveth speed
And He allows delays.
‘Tis good for thee to walk by faith
And not by sight.
Take it on trust a little while.
Soon shalt thou read the mystery aright
In the full sunshine of His smile.”

In times of uncertainty, wait. Always, if you have any doubt, wait. Do not force yourself to any action. If you have a restraint in your spirit, wait until all is clear, and do not go against it.

The preceding is found in Streams in the Desert, April 19. From the same source, on April 18, comes this:

And He shall bring it to pass (Psalm 37:5).

I once thought that after I prayed it was my duty to do everything that I could do to bring the answer to pass. He taught me a better way, and showed that my self-effort always hindered His working, and that when I prayed and definitely believed Him for anything, He wanted me to wait in the spirit of praise, and only do what He bade me. It seems so unsafe to just sit still, and do nothing but trust the Lord; and the temptation to take the battle into our own hands is often tremendous.

We all know how impossible it is to rescue a drowning man who tries to help his rescuer, and it is equally impossible for the Lord to fight our battles for us when we insist upon trying to fight them ourselves.

And from the same day’s Our Daily Bread, this:

A feeling of being cared for and supported can help sustain us when we’re facing a challenge. An awareness of God’s presence and support can especially bring hope to encourage our spirit. Psalm 46, a favorite of many people going through trials, reminds us: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” and “Be still, and know that I am God; . . . I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord Almighty is with us” (vv. 1, 10-11).

Reminding ourselves of God’s promises and His presence with us can be a means to help renew our hearts and give us the courage and confidence to go through hard times.

And finally, from the April 16 Streams:

It is by no means enough to set out cheerfully with your God on any venture of faith. Tear into smallest pieces any itinerary for the journey which your imagination may have drawn up. Nothing will fall out as you expect. Your guide will keep to no beaten path. He will lead you by a way such as you never dreamed your eyes would look upon. He knows no fear, and He expects you to fear nothing while He is with you. And He is with you always.

I pray this day will find you—and me—cheerfully and fearlessly—embarking on this day, confident our Lord loves us, is with us and will never leave us. And now may the Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace. Amen

[Accompanying image: acj2blogspot.com]

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Reflections on Resurrection in the Time of COVID-19

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On this Easter, so often celebrated with delicate bunnies and fragile eggs, I want to speak  instead of Resurrection Day and the powerful, power-filled Jesus, the Risen Prophet-King, the Roaring Lion, the Holy Lord of Lords.

My dear friend, Tom Graffagnino, in his brilliant—and all too timely—treatise on the troubled No Border Land that is our Western World, reminds us that:

“Jesus was much more than the Nice Guy from Galilee with innovative, helpful hints for righteous living. Jesus stilled the stormy Sea of Galilee at one point with a word, but He made life-threatening, tsunami-like spiritual waves everywhere else. He came to rock humanity’s boat. He did so two thousand years ago, and He still does it today…We may first encounter baby Jesus, ‘meek and mild’ in the manger, but that is not where He would leave us. Obviously, the ‘All You Need is Love’ Jesus is very popular today. That Jesus fits the mold that the world cherishes and approves…This Jesus Much-Preferred is always agreeable, always friendly, ‘progressive,’ and fashionably up-to-date. [In centering on this innocuous, inoffensive Jesus]… much of the church in the Western world has been…swamped by the lukewarm waters of compromise and mesmerizing higher critical doubt…We expect our under-shepherds in the pulpit to coddle us with easygoing tales…We demand soothing half-truths…and have abandoned the teaching and preaching that brings sinners to their knees…Thinking ourselves wise (sensitive, caring and fair), we have become fools. For convenience’s sake, we have melted down the penetrating, razor sharp, double-edged sword of truth and fashioned for ourselves psychological, snub-nosed butter knives instead.”

And while all too many pastors have given in and have been serving up snacks of milk, cookies, and entertaining stories rather than banquets of deep spiritual truth and doctrinal meat, our society and even our natural world, of which we had been made stewards, have been dying slow and painful deaths.

In 1983, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian historian, who drew the world’s attention to the evils of the Gulag, lamented:

“As a survivor of the Communist Holocaust, I am horrified to witness how my beloved America, my adopted country, is gradually being transformed into a secularist and atheistic utopia, where communist ideals are glorified and promoted, while Judeo-Christian values and morality are ridiculed and increasingly eradicated from the public and social consciousness of our nation. Under the decades-long assault and militant radicalism of many so-called ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ elites, God has been progressively erased from our public and educational institutions, to be replaced with all manner of delusion, perversion, corruption, violence, decadence, and insanity.”

Much of our world has endeavored to shut God out of the very world He created, and many—in so doing—have wound up in their own shaped-to-fit gulags, prisons of their own making.

We have been experiencing a famine of hearing the Voice of God.

Sensing our nation slouching towards Gomorrah, many have been lifting hands in prayer pleading, “God help us!! Help us turn from our wicked ways!! Restore our land!!”

Today, I believe, God is answering those prayers through the trials and isolation brought on by COVID-19. He’s been removing and/or shaking the supports on which we have long relied: jobs, homes, money, friends, families, full bellies, global markets, health systems…He’s made clear to us that we are not in control.

I have been praying for many years that God would bring a revival to rival any and all that have gone before. Never did I imagine God might do this by shaking us to the core with trials that are now encompassing the globe.

Charles H. Spurgeon, in his devotional Morning by Morning, suggested that some of God’s graces would never be discovered if it were not for trials. He wrote:

“Hope itself is like a star—not to be seen in the sunshine of prosperity, and only to be discovered in the night of adversity…It was but a little while ago that on your knees you were saying, ‘Lord, I fear I have no faith; let me know that I have faith.’ Was not this really, though perhaps unconsciously, praying for trials? For how can you know that you have faith until your faith is exercised? Depend upon it. God often sends us trials that our graces may be discovered, and that we may be certified of their existence. Besides, it is not merely discovery; real growth in grace is the result of sanctified trials…Is not this the reason why He is contending with you?”

A few Sundays ago, I posted a sermon entitled, “The Reset Button,” and as the weeks of isolation have gone by, I’ve become even more convinced that God is using this time to reset our personal and corporate lives and to reset our world and all its components. Our personal and societal flaws have been laid bare, and we’ve been given eyes to see what we’ve become but also—what we might yet be.

God is resetting the biosphere and calling us to lament how cruelly we have treated the extraordinary world with which He, the Creator, has gifted us. As Julio Vincent Gambuto has well summarized: “A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet.”

Robin Wright, in a March 23 New Yorker column noted:

“The novel coronavirus has swept the globe at a time when more people are living alone than ever before in human history. The trend became noticeable in the early twentieth century, among industrialized nations; it accelerated in the nineteen-sixties. In the United States, the numbers have almost doubled over the past half century, according to the research aggregator Our World in Data. In 2019, twenty-eight percent of households were single-person—up from twenty-three percent in 1980. Stockholm may represent the apex of this trend: in 2012 sixty percent of households in the Swedish city had only one person. Psychologists note the difference between living alone and loneliness.”

Wright concluded, “I live alone and have no family, and usually don’t think much about it. But, as the new pathogen forces us to socially distance, I have begun to feel lonely. I miss the ability to see, converse with, hug, or spend time with friends. Life seems shallower, more like survival than living.”

Many, in this time, are becoming increasingly anxious and depressed as they worry about the potential loss of homes, incomes, loved ones, and financial security. Ami Rokach, a psychologist in Canada, said she believes it’s a blessing that the coronavirus has hit the Western world. “For the past century,” she told the New Yorker columnist, “human life has focused increasingly on money and material belongings, which, especially with technology, has led to neglect of human relationships. Now that we’re suddenly stuck at home, the best means of surviving, psychologically and biologically, is to interact with people by whatever means available. She wonders if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened interpersonal bonds, having realized how important these are to our health.

I wonder if we might come out of this time of isolation with strengthened bonds with the person of Jesus Christ, having realized how important He is to our health. Isolation? Hmmm?

It was on the third day that Jesus rose from isolation, resurrected from the dead.

In Beyond Belief to Convictions, Josh McDowell, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis tell us that “Jesus broke the power of death by rising from the grave…[He] pierced the kingdom of darkness with a penetrating light.”

“Christ’s resurrection victory over death and despair not only broke the power of death for all of us who trust in Christ as Savior but also provided the means for us to receive a whole new perspective on life. Though we may endure pain, grief, and suffering here on earth, because Christ’s death was followed by his resurrection, we can know that such things are temporary—and that much greater things await us. Because of the Resurrection, we are destined to live forever in new bodies on a new earth, an existence that will be so enjoyable that anything ‘we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory [God] will give us later.’ For we ‘wait anxiously for that day when God will give us our full rights as his children, including the new bodies he has promised us’ (Romans 8:18, 23).

“We have the answer to where we are going in life, and in death…With a belief in the Resurrection, we can face life’s difficulties with the conviction that no matter what, ‘if God is for us, who can ever be against us?’ (Romans 8:31). We can be assured that God has not lost control and will not abandon us (see Romans 8:32). We can be confident that He is not punishing us or condemning us (see Romans 8:34). And we can know that He still very much loves us (see Romans 8:38).”

How long will it take us, how long will it take you, to rise to new life? We will never return to the old normal, and we should give great thanks for that blessing. The old normal wasn’t working.

F. B. Meyer reminded us that “Our Lord is constantly taking us into the dark, that He may tell us things. Into the dark of the shadowed home, where bereavement has drawn the blinds; into the dark of the lonely, desolate life, where some infirmity closes us in from the light and stir of life; into the dark of some crushing sorrow and disappointment. Then He tells us His secrets, great and wonderful, eternal and infinite; He causes the eye which has become dazzled by the glare of earth to behold the heavenly constellations; and the car to detect the undertones of His voice, which is often drowned amid the tumult of earth’s strident cries. But such revelations always imply a corresponding responsibility—that you are to speak in the light—that you are to proclaim upon the housetops. We are not meant to always linger in the dark, or stay in the closet; presently we shall be summoned to take our place in the rush and storm of life; and when that moment comes, we are to speak and proclaim what we have learned. This gives a new meaning to suffering, the saddest element in which is often its apparent aimlessness. ‘How useless I am!’ ‘What am I doing for the betterment of humankind?’ ‘Wherefore this waste of the precious spikenard of my soul?’ Such are the desperate laments of the sufferer. But God has a purpose in it all. He has withdrawn His child to the higher altitudes of fellowship, that he may hear God speaking face to face, and bear the message to those at the mountain foot.”

Meyer concludes his message with this: “There is no short cut to the life of faith, which is the all-vital condition of a holy and victorious life. We must have periods of lonely meditation and fellowship with God. That our souls should have their mountains of fellowship, their valley of quiet rest beneath the shadow of a great rock, their nights beneath the stars, when darkness has veiled the material and silenced the stir of human life, and has opened the view of the infinite and eternal, is as indispensable as that our bodies should have food. Thus, alone can the sense of God’s presence become the fixed possession of the soul, enabling it to say repeatedly, with the Psalmist, ‘You are near, 0 God.’”

If you have never welcomed Jesus into your life as Lord and Savior, I’d invite you to lift the following words in prayer that you may do so. Those who already have a relationship with Christ, may pray these words as well to affirm that blessed reality.

Dear Lord Jesus, I know am a sinner. I am sorry for any sins I have committed— knowingly or unknowingly—against you. I want to turn from my sin and follow you all my days. I believe you died for my sins and I accept your sacrifice in my place. I now come to you and receive you as my Savior and Lord. It is in the name of Jesus I pray. Amen

And now beloved of God, you must build yourselves up in your most holy faith; seek wisdom for the living of these days in God’s Holy Word, the Bible; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; and wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

Now unto Him who is able to keep you from falling, and to present you without blemish before the presence of His glory with rejoicing, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all ages, now, and forevermore. Amen.

Sources:

Graffagnino, Tom. No Border Land: Finding Grace in a Dark and Dying World. Grand Rapids: Credo House, 2020.

Spurgeon, Charles H. Morning by Morning. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000.

Gambuto, Julio Vincent. “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting.” Medium. 2 April 2020. <https://medium.com/@juliovincent/prepare-for-the-ultimate-gaslighting-6a8ce3f0a0e0>

Wright, Robin. “How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll.” The New Yorker. 23 March 2020.

<https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/how-loneliness-from-coronavirus-isolation-takes-its-own-toll>

McDowell, Josh, Bob Hostetler and David H. Bellis. Beyond Belief to Convictions. Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 2002.

Meyer, F.B. Streams in the Desert. 11 April.

<https://www.crosswalk.com/devotionals/desert/streams-in-the-desert-april-11th.html>

 

 

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A New Pattern

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Here is a devotional message from Streams in the Desert that speaks to how the Lord may “shut us up to something divine” wherein He can show us the “utterly new and unexpected.”

Praying, as you look to Him, you may be opened on to the miraculous!

“Then go inside and shut the door”—2 Kings 4:4

They were to be alone with God, for they were not dealing with the laws of nature, nor human government, nor the church, nor the priesthood, nor even with the great prophet of God, but they must needs be isolated from all creatures, from all leaning circumstances, from all props of human reason, and swung off, as it were, into the vast blue inter-stellar space, hanging on God alone, in touch with the fountain of miracles.

Here is a part in the program of God’s dealings, a secret chamber of isolation in prayer and faith which every soul must enter that is very fruitful.

There are times and places where God will form a mysterious wall around us, and cut away all props, and all the ordinary ways of doing things, and shut us up to something Divine, which is utterly new and unexpected, something that old circumstances do not fit into, where we do not know just what will happen, where God is cutting the cloth of our lives on a new pattern, where He makes us look to Himself.

DFG Hailson audio follows:

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The Big Cats

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This morning’s email briefing from the New York Times included an item on the now-airing and hugely popular Netflix documentary series “Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.” The NYT describes the program as centering on “a roadside zookeeper and his plot to kill an animal activist.”

The show reminded me of a podcast from my own On the Road with Mac and Molly show about the Carolina Tiger Rescue and my conversation with Kathryn Bertok, Curator of Animals.

Sheltered at the 55-acre Pittsboro, North Carolina facility, at the time of the interview, were more than 70 animals including tigers, binturongs, lions, cougars, bobcats, caracals, kinkajous, ocelots and servals. The organization is working toward the day when wildcats are not owned by individuals as pets; wildcats are not used for entertainment purposes; no trade exists for wildcats or their parts; and all wildcats prosper in sustainable, native habitats.

In the program, Kathryn and I center on all things tiger from chuffling (tiger speak) to mother-cub interactions to the tiger’s affinity for water (not only for drinking but for bathing). We hear how tigers are faring in the wild and in captivity. Kathryn shares some of the most heartbreaking truths of the $15 billion exotic pet trade that is devastating not only for the animals and their habitats, but for humans as well who are placed at risk when dangerous creatures are made “pets.” The show concludes with the story of Aria, a tiger confiscated from her “owner” that was brought back to health by the Carolina Tiger Rescue.

If you love animals, and especially is you love the big cats, I think you’ll enjoy this episode.

Here’s the link:
https://www.petliferadio.com/ontheroadep28.html

[Featured Photo: Mark Zeringue feeding Roman at the Carolina Tiger Rescue. DFGH]

Mark feeding Roman
An adult male lion can measure more than ten feet from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. Mark Zeringue feeding Roman.

 

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The Reset Button

At the head of this page, you will find a Part One and Part Two of a message entitled, “The Reset Button.” I was having trouble uploading one file, so I made the division. I didn’t quite manage to trim the end of the first file, so—if you keep listening to the end of that—you’ll hear some of my gobbledygook at the end. Sorry about that. I’ll do better the next time.

Here as well is the text of the message.

I’m creating this audio to share with you a message that wonders, in part, if God has pushed a reset button in our day. At the beginning, I am speaking to the congregation I pastor in Cape Neddick, Maine, but the remainder of the message is for all.

I woke this morning to an opinion piece, by David Brooks that was published in the New York Times.

He opened with these words: “It can all seem so meaningless. Some random biological mutation sweeps across the globe, murdering thousands, lacerating families and pulverizing dreams. Life and death can seem completely arbitrary. Religions and philosophies can seem like cruel jokes. The only thing that matters is survival. Without the inspiration of a higher meaning, selfishness takes over. This mind-set is the temptation of the hour—but of course it’s wrong. We’ll look back on this as one of the most meaningful periods of our lives.

“This particular plague is hitting us in exactly the spots where we are weakest and is exposing exactly those ills we had lazily come to tolerate. We’re already a divided nation, and the plague makes us distance from one another. We define ourselves too much by our careers, and the plague threatens to sweep them away. We’re a morally inarticulate culture, and now the fundamental moral questions apply.”

Does it feel to you, as it does to me, like God has pushed a reset button? This time of resetting has found me returning to essential questions and wondering how this pandemic, this plague, might be used of God to call the wayward to the Way, the Truth and the Life who is the Savior Jesus Christ.

So many across the world have turned their backs on God, but perhaps they may now—while there’s time on their hands—perhaps now they’ll turn around. Now that turn around may start with some fist shaking: if you really exist God, if you’re so all-powerful and all-loving, how could you allow this to happen and why don’t you stop it…right now? Have you ever responded like this in years past when personal catastrophes have hit? Why, God? Why?

Why is it so that so often we must come to the end of ourselves before we’ll look to the One who holds the world in His hands, the One who has all the answers? When will we move each question from the Why to the Who?

On August 29, 2005 at 6:10 a.m. Central Daylight Time, Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast of the United States as a Category 3 hurricane bringing with it devastating floods, battering winds . . . catastrophic destruction. More than a million people came under evacuation order. Damage in dollars totaled 81 billion; a mere $40.6 billion of which was in insured losses. More than 3,000 deaths were—directly or indirectly—attributed to the storm. More than 400,000 jobs were lost.

The fall-out from the hurricane spilled out all over the United States in terms that were not only physical and material but also emotional and spiritual. Some folks expressed deepening fears about, concerns over, our safety as a nation. One blogger hinted that the storm was God’s answer to the gambling casinos in Biloxi and/or to Southern Decadence Day, an event scheduled in New Orleans for—what turned out to be—the weekend of Hurricane Katrina. Others, of course, saw the event as evidence that we were nearing the end of the end-times, linking the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean in which 200,000 people lost their lives and 9/11 wherein nearly 3,000 died, to the Luke 21:11 prophecy: “There will be great earthquakes, fearful events and great signs from heaven…”

But others wondered how New Orleans could have survived as long as it had, lying well below sea level surrounded by Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico with inadequate levees that were ripe for breaching, just waiting for the right conditions for disaster to be met. The human-made dimensions of the catastrophe, they insisted, had to be recognized in the middle of any discussion of Hurricane Katrina.

Others pointed fingers at the government. President George W. Bush addressed the nation and attempted to assure Americans that elected officials were concerned that people be safe. He also sought to assure the country that healing could be found not only from the losses of life and property but from the divide that was in evidence between the haves and the have nots. Relative to this, the question was asked by one New York Times reporter: “How could self-interested, shortsighted politicians put off reinforcing the levees?” The same reporter also asked, “How could God allow the negligence, racism, indifference or hardheartedness that long gnawed at the social fabric of New Orleans or the blindness or incompetence of officials who should have understood the brewing human storm, as well as the meteorological one?”

Natural disaster? Punishment for sins? A sign that the end is near? Evidence of human folly? A breakdown of leadership? God’s inattention?

Do those questions sound familiar? Does the finger-pointing sound familiar? Aren’t we hearing those same questions, seeing that same finger-pointing in the era of COVID-19?  How do we sort through the realities of evil, pain and suffering in the light of a good, gracious, and giving God? Why does God allow suffering? If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, can’t God stop both moral and natural evil? And, if He can, why doesn’t He?

As Will Reaves noted in a Christian News and Research article: “That these perennial questions arise in response to every tragedy, war, and disaster shows the enduring nature of our doubt and the magnitude of the question.” Both “natural” evil—such as hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, the spread of viruses—and “human” (or moral) evil— such as genocide, terrorism, various forms of injustice, human folly, human selfishness— challenge our ability to make the reality of an omnipotent, loving God sensible in the wake of suffering.

John Stott has said that “the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith.” There is perhaps no greater obstacle to faith than that of the reality of evil and suffering in the world. Even for believing Christians, there is no greater test of faith than this: that the God who loves us permits us, at times, to suffer.

[I should note at this juncture that, in this message, I’ll be looking to scripture, but I’ll also be borrowing liberally from notes I’d taken down in earlier years from articles written by Albert Mohler, Rick Rood, and others. My citations will be incomplete as my notes were incomplete.]

Now, the Bible clearly reveals God as omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The Creator rules over all creation. Not even a sparrow falls without His knowledge. He knows the number of hairs upon on heads. He rules and reigns over all nations. Not an atom or molecule of the universe is outside His active rule. And the Bible is just as clear in showing God to be absolutely righteous, loving, good, and just.

So…could God prevent natural disasters? Absolutely. Does God respond to prayers regarding the natural world? Of course. One example is recorded in James 5:17 where we read: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again, he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.” Another example is found in Mark, chapter 4, where we find Jesus rebuking the wind, ordering the waves to be still, calming the storm.

Does God sometimes cause natural disasters as a judgment against sin? Yes. In the book of Numbers, chapter 16, we read how God caused the earth to open up. He used an earthquake to swallow rebels who had challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron.

Is every natural disaster a punishment from God? No. In Matthew 5:45, we’re told that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

In much the same way that God allows evil people to commit evil acts, God allows the earth to demonstrate the consequences that sin has had on Creation. Again, Romans 8:19-21 tells us: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”

In these verses, Paul is looking back to the book of Genesis and reminding us that the fall of humankind into sin had an affect on everything, including the universe we inhabit. Everything in creation is subject to frustration and decay. We live in a fallen world that, like its human inhabitants, is waiting for renewal, waiting for the new heaven, for the new earth. Because of sin, throughout the ages, the world has been tainted. We experience illness, death, disease, natural disasters, all types of suffering.

God created us—not as robots forced to do His will—but as individuals with free will. He wants us to use that will to love Him and to love one another.

So why would a loving and all-powerful God allow the catastrophic—citing, for our purposes here, especially the plague of COVID-19—to occur?

Well, let’s go back to where we just were to a look at the possibilities.

Did this begin as a natural disaster? No, it began because of human folly and then it spread through natural processes. If it continues to spread, knowing as we do now, that social distancing can and does slow its progress, it will continue—in large part—because of human folly.

Can God bring great good out of a terrible tragedy? Romans 8:28 tells us, yes, He can. We may not know the reason for suffering in any given situation. But we can affirm, with relief and joy, that in “all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” The Psalms are full of cries for deliverance from trouble as well as the assurance that God is with us and will deliver us from suffering.

Could God use the COVID-19 plague for divine discipline? The Old and New Testaments make it clear that suffering can be an avenue of God’s discipline in our lives. Hebrews 12:10-11 illustrates this. There we read: “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

Is the plague a sign that the end is near? It has been said that we have been in the end times since the days of Jesus. While we are told to be on the watch, we are also commanded not to spend enormous amounts of time speculating on when the end will come.

I don’t know why God would allow the Covid-19 pandemic, and I wouldn’t dare to assert otherwise. God may have a different reason for every individual, every family, every community, every nation, even the world. But, you know, as Charles Spurgeon explained: when we cannot trace God’s hand, we must simply trust His heart.

You might be surprised to learn that when a poll was taken of Hurricane Katrina evacuees living in shelters in the Houston area just days after the storm, eight in ten said that their faith had been strengthened through the ordeal. And 90 percent were hopeful for the future. More than half of their homes had been destroyed. Almost three-fourths didn’t have insurance to cover their losses.

The great hope that we have in the midst of suffering is that, in a way that is beyond our comprehension, God is able to turn evil against itself. And it is because of this truth that we can find joy even in the midst of sorrow and pain. We are even counseled in scripture to rejoice in trial, not because the affliction itself is a cause for joy (it isn’t), but because in it God can find an occasion for producing what is good.

And God is not only aware of our suffering. He feels it. As Paul Little has noted: “No pain or suffering has ever come to us that has not first passed through the heart and hand of God. Christians follow Jesus who the scripture reveals as the “Suffering Servant.” He understands our sorrows. He walks with us in our trials, in our sorrows.

Suffering can provide an opportunity for God to display His glory and to make evident His mercy, faithfulness, power and love, in the middle of painful circumstances. Perhaps you have a testimony to offer in support of that truth. It’s a testimony that must be voiced, that must be shared with those who are struggling in the darkness that is the world apart from Jesus Christ. He does not leave us alone.

As in the case of Job (who was tested through trial after trial and eventually came to offer an outpouring of thanks to the Lord for the lessons learned therein), our faithfulness in trial shows that we serve Him not merely for the benefits He offers, but for the love of God Himself (Job 1:9-11).

Trials also provide an opportunity for followers of Christ to demonstrate their love for others, to compassionately care for those in need. And, as we are comforted by God in our own afflictions, so we are better able to comfort others in theirs. Suffering also plays a key role in developing godly virtues, and in deterring us from sin. Oftentimes, we learn obedience in times of trial.

Suffering can also awaken within us a greater hunger for heaven, for that time when God’s purposes for these experiences will have been finally fulfilled, when we’ll understand far more than we do now, when all tears will be dried, when pain and sorrow shall be no more.

Maxie Dunnam, former president of Asbury Seminary, in a March 26, 2020 presentation to his fellow residents in a retirement community in Tennessee, echoed the poet Rilke in suggesting that we not seek the answers which cannot be given to us, but rather that we live the questions.

We do that, Dunnam says, by first telling God and others how we feel. “That’s especially at the heart of our praying. Tell God and others how you feel. When we do that it reminds us that God is near enough to hear and feel with us, even to hear our complaints. In Psalm 38, the writer, unburdens his soul saying, ‘my heart pounds, my strength fails me, the light has gone from my eyes.’ To express our honest feelings is like a valve that releases all the pent-up tension. Though the burden may still be there, the weight of it diminishes as we name it for what it is and release it to God. The unburdening of our spirits, honestly sharing with God and others, is an expression of trust. The psalmist expressed trust when he prayed, “Lord, do not forsake me; do not be far from me…Come quickly to help me my Lord and my Savior.’”

Dunnam advises that, “we must flavor our expression of trust with expectation. Our big problem is that we want something different to happen in our lives, but we really don’t expect it to happen…The Bible doesn’t merely hold up the possibility that things may be different; the hope offered by the Bible is that we can fully expect things to be different.”

Another way to live the questions is to “allow the questions to teach us. One lesson is that “life isn‘t fair, but life isn’t God.”

Dunnam reminds us that much of our pain and suffering is brought on by “decisions of unperfected persons exercising God’s gift of freedom in selfish, pleasure-seeking, immediate gratification kind of ways; and the fallout is destructive…But as we live the questions, bearing the pain, experiencing the loss, sharing the sadness—all in the fellowship of sorrow and suffering with others, encompassed by our faith commitment to Christ—the revelation will come in time, good will be recognized and glory will be given to God.”

He closes with this:

“Living the questions teaches us how fragile and how precious life is…Life is fragile and precious. But in a sense, that is a penultimate issue. The ultimate issue is that eternal life is ours through faith in Jesus Christ. Our life-giving hope is to know that our life is not bound by the years we live here, but is boundless because of the gift of eternal life from Jesus Christ. It really is inappropriate to speculate that God is the author of this pandemic; we can trace the human actors and sequence of events that caused it to occur. That said, we must boldly affirm that God reigns over all human activity. Whether He initiated it or permitted it, it is certain that God will be using this Coronavirus for His divine purposes.”

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COVID-19 PREPAREDNESS AND SAFETY

The following was a presentation made by the Rev. Donna F.G. Hailson in a worship service on March 15, 2020 at the Cape Neddick Baptist Church in Maine. Some updates were added on March 17. It is being posted on this site because the web host, used by the church, is not functioning properly today. I thought perhaps locals and others might be interested in what is contained therein.

Four Purposes this morning:

  • Sharing the most accurate and up-to-date information
  • Offering reassurances of the Lord’s care for us
  • Making certain we’re doing all we can and should be doing for each other
  • Spending time together in prayer

COVID-19 is a new coronavirus that was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan City, China and has now been detected in other countries including the United States. It is spread in the air via coughing or sneezing; close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands, or touching an object or surface with the virus on it, then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. For some, the respiratory virus causes mild symptoms like the common cold or influenza (flu), for others it can cause severe pneumonia that requires medical care or hospitalization. The concerns are greater for COVID-19 because it is a novel virus which, physicians tell us, means no one has antibodies to it because no one has been infected by it before…We must flatten the curve. That means we need to slow the rate of infection so that the number of people who need hospital services remain in the range within which our health care system can manage.
Prepare:
Know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19 (the following may appear 2-14 days after exposure):

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

Emergency signs:

  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or inability to rouse
  • Bluish lips and face

As of March 13:
No confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine. Two presumptive positives (awaiting confirmation from the CDC). 91 negative tests. 17 pending.
As of March 16 (at 11 a.m.):
Eight confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Maine (Counties: Androscoggin, Cumberland, Knox and Lincoln). Nine presumptive positives; 764  negatives.

As of March 17: 23 confirmed cases and 9 presumptive positives. The latter tests were done by non-governmental labs and are awaiting confirmation from the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory. 


York Hospital will continue delivering meals to their regular clients. The YCSA is continuing to keep the food pantry open, but rather than have 35 people in the space at once, they are limiting the number of folks who may go in at a time. (All are still being served.) They are also continuing to deliver food to those families the pantry has already been serving. The Table of Plenty at First Parish is continuing to serve dinner.

York County Emergency Management has opened an Emergency Operations Center to monitor the situation.


Personal:
Stay at home and/or avoid public places when you are sick.
Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing (Cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hand).
Stay six-ten feet away from a person who is ill.
Avoid sharing drinks. Avoid utensils or objects that may transmit saliva.
Call your health care provider in advance of a visit.
Limit movement in the community (social distancing).
Limit visitors.
Wash your hands and avoid touching your face.
Disinfect frequently touched surfaces with bleach, isopropyl alcohol, Lysol…
Have on hand a two- to four-week supply of prescription and over the counter medications (including decongestants, anti-inflammatory drugs…), food, and other essentials. Know how to get food delivered if the service is available in your area.
Have a first aid kit, flashlight, and space blanket and/or sleeping bag in your car.
Call, text, or email others to check on their state of wellness.

Further Mitigation Measures (with some repeats added for emphasis):
Support your schools’ decisions to close: Proactive school closings save more lives than reactive school closings.

  • Six feet: The COVID-19 virus spreads through droplets. These can move six feet before gravity brings them to earth.  Stay six feet away from people if you need to go outside.
  • Meticulous hand washing: Wash thoroughly and wash often. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer works well if your hands are otherwise clean.
  • Do not touch your face. This is hard. This is a learned skill: Practice often.
  • Clean doorknobs, toilets, cellphones, countertops, refrigerator handles, and so on many times each day. The virus could live on certain surfaces for 4-72 hours.
  • If you can work from home, work from home.
  • No tournaments, no sporting events, no parties…
  • Cancel vacation and business travel.
  • If you are over 60 years old, stay home. Go out only if there is a critical need.
  • Do not congregate in restaurants or bars…
  • Anticipate supply chain issues: work with your doctor to secure a three-month supply of medication. 
  • Many grocery stores have order-ahead options with either pick up or delivery. There are online grocery delivery services available in many areas. Wash your hands thoroughly after unpacking groceries.


CNBC and other churches:
First Parish in York, Bethany, and Temple Israel in Portsmouth have cancelled services for this morning (March 15). The Catholic Diocese of Portland has cancelled or postponed all large gatherings in their churches for the next 30 days.
Only one ABCOM church (American Baptist Churches of Maine) has cancelled worship services today.
No handshakes or hugs this morning. Greet one another with a smile and an air elbow bump or foot bumps.
The offering plate will not be passed so as to avoid touching the surface. You’ll find the plate on the table at the rear of the sanctuary should you wish to leave an offering.
We will not have refreshments after worship as we are advised to avoid self-service.
The Pastor will not be leading a devotional service at Durgin Pines next Wednesday as visitation is now restricted. Visitation is also restricted, until further notice, at Sentry Hill.
The Pastor is keeping in contact with local and regional authorities as well as other pastors in the area and across the country and will provide updates as necessary via email, texts, and calls.

Questions (with answers from Sunday’s worship service):
It was agreed that the Pastor should serve as point person in gathering information, tracking updates and keeping the congregation informed. Depending on developments over the next few days, she’ll decide whether to cancel Sunday services on March 22 and forward and will notify the congregation. The Sunday Study, Midweek Study and all other activities have been cancelled for the time being.
The Pastor has been in contact with all but a handful of people in the congregation. She will continue to reach out to everyone over the coming days. All those contacted say they have sufficient food and medications on hand so no grocery or pharmacy runs are needed.

Helpful Websites:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
Maine.gov (Division of Disease Surveillance)
https://www.maine.gov/dhhs/mecdc/infectious-disease/epi/airborne/coronavirus.shtml

The National Day of Prayer announcement was read with its references to 1Peter 5:7 (“Casting all your care upon Him, for He careth for you”); Psalm 91 (“He is my refuge and my fortress; my God, in Him will I trust”) and Luke 1:37 (“For with God, nothing shall be impossible”).
The Pastor also read the following:
When Martin Luther was dealing with the plague (the Black Death), he wrote these wise words that can help inform the way we approach things happening in our world right now:
“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance to inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, He will surely find me, and I have done what He has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.”

In her sermon, the Pastor encouraged folks to spend the days ahead centering on the Lord who loves us; contemplating the book of Philippians (and especially verses 4:4-7 and 11b-13); praying in our own personal “garths;” engaging in “palms down, palms up” meditation; and keeping in mind these words: “Anxious about Nothing. Prayerful Every Day. Thankful for Everything. Peace.” Our family of faith joined together in corporate prayer, sang the praises of God, and gave thanks for one another and our living Lord.

 

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Less Grumbling, More Gratitude

This message is centered on gratitude, on thankfulness, on the need for us to focus on the positives in our lives, rather than—what we might think of as—the negatives.

I have a couple of stories to share. But we begin first with Philippians, chapter 4, where we read: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. And remember whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”

First story.

When our first grandchild, Katherine, was born, our daughter Brooke went in search of a second-hand dresser that she could paint for her. At a used furniture shop, Brooke located a two-drawer piece that she thought would work. She painted it all white and then applied a bright yellow to the drawers. In white letters over the yellow, she put the words to a song I had sung to her when she was a little girl: “you are my sunshine, my only sunshine.”

Katherine is now 10 years old. Two weeks ago, Brooke purchased a new dresser for Katherine, and the old sunshiny one was taken to a local transfer station where Brooke hoped other parents would find it and bring it home for their child or children.

But then, recently, Brooke and Andrew happened to take their youngest boy, four-year-old Gaelen, to the local fire station where there was to be a safety demonstration.

The department had created a simulation of, a model of a child’s room with a bed, stuffed animals, clothing, a lamp, and a toy chest. And there, in the middle of it all, was Katherine’s dresser. The firefighters had found the piece at the transfer station and probably realized the personalized, painted dresser would increase the impact they were hoping to achieve.

Brooke was stunned, shocked, floored…and overcome with heartbreak. She had to leave. She couldn’t bear to see the dresser go up in flames. And she called me immediately because, she said, she knew I would understand. And I did. And I cried with her. So much family history, so much love, so much caring, so much emotion, was in that dresser.

Now, why do I tell you this story in a message about gratitude? Because her heartbreak, my heartbreak, came from a place of love and gratitude. Neither of us could have cared as much—as we did—about that falling-apart, rickety, broken-down dresser if we hadn’t been invested in it, if we hadn’t been grateful for all the blessings it had seen. We couldn’t be heartbroken at its loss, if we hadn’t stored up in our hearts and minds and spirits the memories represented by that dresser. Now, we had a choice. We could stay in that place of heartbreak, and lament the passing of the years, or we could turn to refocus and reframe the moment to give thanks for the blessings the Lord had bestowed upon us over those years.

Gratitude pumps oxygen into our souls and helps us refocus and reframe our days so we can experience more joy and more peace.  Did you happen to notice in the passage from Philippians how anxiety is linked to how we think, where we put our focus. Too often we quote only verses 6 and 7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We don’t go on to verse 8: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”

I have a confession to make.

Over some months, not all that long ago, I had allowed myself to become so depleted, so discouraged, so drained of energy, so focused on what was wrong, so discontented, that I had become a grumbler. I had become SO worn out, so worn down… I’d become a chronic groaner, a chronic complainer, filled to the brim, filled to the grim, with ingratitude. A grumbling machine.

But then one day, the Lord began to work in me an increasing awareness of my sin of ingratitude, and then He hit me between the eyes with the words of speaker at a conference I attended. I was reminded through these words that ingratitude is one of the great malaises of our society. Ingratitude is a form of idolatry. Some folks believe it’s the real root of all evil, the failure to give God thanks, and it’s tied to what we notice. Do we center on the flaws, the negatives, the missing, on what we think is not quite right? Are we plagued by a spirit of entitlement? Ingratitude can arise when we don’t get the respect, or the money, or the valuing that we think we deserve.

Years ago, author Paul Tournier observed that ‘no gift can bring joy to the one who [believes he] has a right to everything.’ While there is a healthy interpretation of entitlement that is tied to a sense of dignity and equality, when it is exaggerated, it brings continual dissatisfaction and an inability to be thankful for anything. If we think we deserve the gifts and blessings we have received, it is easy for us to become greedy for more benefits and to overlook the needs of others. We may cultivate a capacity not to notice when ‘our benefit has come at someone else’s expense.’ Dissatisfaction as a way of life is encouraged by a consumerist culture that feeds notions of entitlement. We want more, and we want better—better bodies, newer cars, bigger churches, more beautiful homes, finer coffee—a cycle of generalized dissatisfaction fuels envy, striving, and buying.”

Ingratitude can be tied to envy: wanting what someone has and not wanting them to have it. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “Envy is sorrow for another’s good.” Henri Nouwen suggests we can only appreciate God’s goodness to others when we appreciate His goodness to us.

And you know what?  Ingratitude is contagious. It can spread and become terribly destructive.

So…what’s the cure? Gratitude. Focusing on the immeasurable goodness of God’s grace. Reframing our lives to center on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Strengthening practices of gratitude. Articulating our blessings. Beginning and ending each day with moments of thankfulness. Modeling thankfulness. Writing notes of affirmation and encouragement. Working to become more adept at celebrating what is good. Catching people at being a gift, and telling them, “You have been God’s grace to me.” Every night at dinner, sharing that for which you’re grateful. Each and every one of these acts adds to a reservoir of grace.

Now, gratitude doesn’t displace lament. There are experiences in our lives that can bring on sadness, disappointment, anger, frustration. But we are helped when times are tough in remembering that we are secure in the Lord. That God is still good, God is still with us, even when, especially when, times are tough. And even lament has elements of hope, promise and grace.

In a recent Streams in the Desert devotional guide was the following poem by Annie Johnson Flint:

They are HIS billows, whether they go o’er us,
Hiding His face in smothering spray and foam;
Or smooth and sparkling, spread a path before us,
And to our haven, bear us safely home.

They are HIS billows, whether for our succor
He walks across them, stilling all our fear;
Or to our cry there comes no aid nor answer,
And in the lonely silence none is near.

They are HIS billows, whether we are toiling
Through tempest-driven waves that never cease,
While deep to deep, with clamor, loud is calling;
Or at His word they hush themselves in peace.

They are HIS billows, whether He divides them,
Making us walk dryshod where seas had flowed;
Or lets tumultuous breakers surge about us,
Rushing unchecked across our only road.

They are HIS billows, and He brings us through them;
So He has promised, so His love will do.
Keeping and leading, guiding and upholding,
To His sure harbor, He will bring us through.

Author and pastor Rick Warren has suggested that, in happy moments, we praise God. In difficult moments, we seek God. In quiet moments, we worship God. In painful moments, we trust God. In every moment, we thank God.

From G.K. Chesterton we have this, “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or you take them with gratitude.”

“To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him.”—Thomas Merton

God’s grace can appear like a blinding flash of lightning, splitting the sky on a dark night. Our gratitude is the thundering response.

The English poet George Herbert was born at the end of the 16th century into a powerful English family. His father held an aristocratic title and sat in Parliament. The son, who was educated at Cambridge and became a favorite of England’s King James I, seemed destined to a life of wealth, prestige, and political prominence before he decided to take orders as an Anglican priest in his mid-thirties. For three years, he labored as a country parson in a tiny parish southwest of London, before succumbing to tuberculosis at the age of thirty-nine. “Gratefulness” is part of a collection of poems by Herbert that was published shortly after his death.

He wrote in part:

“Thou that hast given so much to me, give one thing more, a grateful heart.
I cry, and cry again; And in no quiet canst thou be, till I, a thankful heart obtain of thee: Not thankful, when it pleaseth me; As if thy blessings had spare days:
But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.”

Hear the Word of the Lord:

Psalm 107:8—Thank God for His marvelous love, for His mercy and wonderful works on our behalf.

First Corinthians 1:4—I thank my God always on your behalf for the grace of God which has been given to you through Jesus Christ.

First Thessalonians 5:16-18—Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4— Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…(And remember) whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things…And the God of peace will be with you.”

From writer Mariel Davenport comes our closing story about resting thankfully in the Lord:

Closing the day as a family, lying on my youngest son’s bed and saying our good-night prayers, my son decided out of the blue that he wanted to pray tonight. This is a rare occurrence for him, especially at bedtime, as he tends to do more wiggling than praying; so we were thrilled at this opportunity to peek into his young heart.

“Thank you, Jesus,” he began, “for my brother, my mommy, my daddy, my house, my friends…oh, and thank you especially for my bunk bed. And, thank you, Jesus, for my toys and for the roof on our house and for our neighbor friends we played with today. Thank you also, for my covers, our food and plates, my cats…” My sweet son must have thanked Jesus for 10 solid minutes! He’s the one who never wants to pray when we do family devotions or bedtime prayers. It was like he was catching up with God. I smiled at the thought.

We finally kissed him and his precious big brother ‘good-night.’ We gently closed the door behind us and left the room.

Not even three minutes passed and we thought we heard our boys calling us, so my husband went to check on them. Everything was fine, but to his surprise our youngest was already sound asleep! My husband examined him closely, and sure enough the little guy was out. He had unloaded on Jesus and now was peacefully off to dreamland!

As I pondered his approach, Psalm 55:22 rolled over in my mind. “Cast your cares on the Lord and He will sustain you…” My young son had the faith to pour his little heart out to God in thanksgiving, for even the smallest treasures, and now could rest secure in the love of the Father. I wondered why I often fail to do the same.

Why do we allow the spirit of discontentment to rob us of true thankful rest in the Father’s care? Why do we focus too often on what we lack rather than what we have? This little one was able (for the moment) to glance around at his life and overflow in thankfulness for a God who abundantly provides.

Colossians 2:6-7 urges believers to do the same, “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” What a beautiful example of this was demonstrated in living color through this little boy. He had absorbed the blessings around him to the point he could no longer contain them in his little heart. He spilled over with thankfulness and that thankfulness unveiled the lack of thankfulness in my own weary soul.

Too often, burdened by the cares of the world and life in general, we can focus on the negative rather than pouring out words of praise and thanksgiving to our God. Based on the example of this little one, I am seeking to empty pitchers of praise before the feet of my Heavenly Father.

In this season of Thanksgiving,  let’s be sure our focus is on praise and the positive, let us allow our own often weary hearts to be led by a child as we thank our faithful God for the many blessings around us… both big and small. Then we can rest peacefully in His care!

 

 

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Unforgiveness: A Loose Cannon Below Decks Redux

The first sermon I ever preached was based on the passage in this entry. Over the years, as I’ve grown in my understanding of this scripture, this core issue of the faith, this key to living a life of peace and hope, I’ve added to it. This is the most recent iteration.

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Colossians 3:12-13:

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

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Quatrevingt_treizeFrench author Victor Hugo, best known for Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was also the author of the novel, 93, (Quatrevingt-Treize). The book is centered on the year 1793, Year Two of the French Republic, which saw the execution of Louis XVI.

In a chapter entitled, “Tormentum Belli,” which Hugo translates in the text as “war machine,” is the story of the corvette Claymore. The author tells us that the three-masted, square-rigged warship was in rough seas when suddenly an awful noise arose from below decks. Hugo tells us: “a frightful thing had happened.”

The vessel was equipped with thirty carronades, short smoothbore cast iron cannons able to fire large shot at short range. These had been fastened below deck by triple chains and the hatches above had been shut. Now, one of these cannons had broken loose and had become something akin to what Hugo calls an “indescribable supernatural beast,” rolling, pitching, rushing, and crashing into the ship’s sides. “Nothing more terrible can happen to a vessel in open sea and under full sail,” Hugo reports, for a loose cannon is “a battering-ram . . . [that] has the bounds of a panther, the weight of an elephant, the agility of a mouse, the obstinacy of an axe, the unexpectedness of the surge, the rapidity of lightning, the deafness of the tomb. It weighs ten thousand pounds and, it rebounds like a child’s ball.”

“How to control this enormous brute of bronze?” Hugo asks. “How to fetter this monstrous mechanism for wrecking a ship? . . . The horrible cannon flings itself about, advances, recoils, strikes to the right, strikes to the left. . . crushes men like flies.”

The whole ship was now in awful tumult as the cannon, which is said to have appeared to the crew as owning “a soul filled with rage and hatred,” tears apart the insides of the ship. Hugo tells us that often it is true that more dangerous to a ship is a loose cannon inside than a storm outside. And what is true of ships is also true of human beings. A loose cannon inside is more dangerous than a storm outside.

God’s Word invites us to go “below decks” for a look at the turmoil that can result when the cannon that is unforgiveness gets loose. And it is in the Word that we will find the help needed for taming this “beast,” this “battering ram” that—left uncontrolled—can wreak devastating havoc.

51FT3YfKAhL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgPerhaps we might begin our consideration of unforgiveness by looking at what acts can set the cannon loose. Author Lewis Smedes suggests these may be summarized as acts of disloyalty and acts of betrayal. Now, I’ve wrestled with whether that summary is sufficient. Disloyalty may sometimes be confused with honest dissent, and the saddest thing about betrayal is that it never comes from our enemies. So what about our enemies? Well, they fit under this summary as well for enemies are only revealed as enemies when they behave like enemies and their revelation as such may come at us like a betrayal.

Words like treachery, abandonment, double-dealing, forsaking, infidelity, letting down and back-stabbing are attached to acts of disloyalty and betrayal and these also capture the nature of the hurting involved:

When your spouse has an affair with your best friend.

When your mother or father fails to show up at your wedding or at a banquet at which you’re honored with a hard-earned award.

When you fully dedicate yourself for years to doing your very best work at your place of employment and a new manager moves into play and tosses you out on your ear.

When a tornado or a hurricane or other natural disaster sweeps through leaving your house in runs. When you return only to discover that looters have taken everything that was left that wasn’t nailed down.

When you’re diagnosed with cancer.

When you commit a colossal blunder or fail to follow through on a promise to a dear and trusting friend or when you speak a word you believe needs to be spoken and it’s received as an attack.

When your loved one contracts a debilitating illness that lingers on for years or when that loved one is unexpectedly taken in death in the blink of an eye.

When a gunman walks in and shoots a roomful of folks gathered for a Bible Study.

When faced with these challenges of life, we may feel betrayed by the spouse, the parent, the friend, the authority figure, the neighbor, our bodies, ourselves, God.

Bitterness. Bitterness is what you get when you leave anger out to rot. It’s what results when injury is added to injury. It begins to root when you go to bed angry, when somebody rubs you the wrong way and the rubbing turns to chafing. It grows in the fertile fields of jealousy, abuse, and vengeance. It hangs in the air. It’s heard in the “us and them,” in the “you did this to me,” in the “he said, she said,” in the “I can’t forgive myself for . . . ” You fill in the blanks.

Anger is a natural reaction to injury real or imagined. Bitterness, resentment, revengeful actions, and unforgiveness are the sins that grow out of unresolved, unhealthy anger. The antidote for these sins is forgiveness.

But who should we forgive? What should we forgive? When should we forgive? Why should we forgive? How do we forgive? Must we forgive the one who keeps sinning against us in the same way over and over? Must we forgive the unrepentant? And really—before we touch on those questions and we can only touch on them as I’m trying to keep this message to under five hours—what is forgiveness anyway? We throw that word around, but we may have radically different ideas on how to define it. And what does it mean to forgive as the Lord has forgiven us?

We’re helped toward a deeper understanding of unforgiveness through a story told by Jesus about a king who one day decides to settle accounts with his servants.

In Matthew 18, verses 21 to 35, we find our Lord sharing a parable about an unmerciful servant, an unforgiving individual. The passage begins with a question from the apostle Peter. “Master,” he asks, “how many times must I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?” Jesus replied, “Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.”

Jesus then relates the kingdom of God to a king squaring accounts with his servants. One man is brought before him. His debt? 10,000 talents which is the contemporary equivalent of about a hundred thousand dollars. This man was hopelessly enslaved to debt! Since he was unable to pay, the king ordered the man, his wife, children and everything be owned, be sold to repay the debt.

Ever been in debt? In debt now? Can you remember—or do you now know—the fear, the worry? Things can look pretty bleak, can’t they? Our passage is telling us that unforgiven sin is like those unpaid debts. They weigh heavily upon us whether we’re talking about a little sin, a great big sin, or a great many sins. Each of us, like the debtors in the text, must settle accounts with the king, God Almighty Himself for all sins are sins against God.

Well, the king, in our parable, calls his subjects before him and the one who owes the thousands pleads for the king to have patience and promises that he will repay the debt in full.  The king is moved to mercy and erases the debt!

One point of the parable is that God is like that merciful king and He is willing and able to cancel impossible debts. He is willing and able to forgive. As Stephen M. Crotts notes in his exposition on this passage, the Greek word for forgiveness may also be translated “let loose.”

“It’s like a terrible knot that suddenly gives and is completely untied. It’s like a horrible bondage from which there is sudden release.”

And what does this free man now do? He goes out and happens upon a man who owes him the equivalent of a measly few bucks. He grabs him by the throat and demands he “pay up!” And when the debtor says he can’t and asks for patience, the man throws him into debtors’ prison and folks who witness this go and tell the king.

What does the king do? He brings the man back, chastises him for his unforgiveness and says, “Shouldn’t you be compelled to be merciful to your fellow servant who asked for mercy?”  Then he has the man tossed in jail where he will sit until the debt is paid. The point of the parable is clear. If God forgives us, we must forgive others. We must forgive as—because—the Lord forgave us.

But those of us who frequent church services know this—at least on some level—don’t we? So why do we see so little forgiveness in Christian circles when repentance and forgiveness are the very foundations of our faith? Amazing grace is what saves wretches such as we all. We, who have turned to Christ for salvation, have been the beneficiaries of amazing grace, amazing love. We’ve been set free. And yet too often we hold one another hostage with our own unforgiveness.

In an older issue of Leadership Journal, I found an article on grace and redemption entitled, “Going to Hell with Ted Haggard.”

The writer, Michael Cheshire, recalls sitting in a sports bar in Denver with a close atheist friend. During lunch, the latter pointed at a TV screen on the wall that was set to a channel recapping Haggard’s fall in a sex and drugs scandal. As he did, he said, “That is the reason I will not become a Christian. Many of the things you say make sense, Mike, but that’s what keeps me away.”

Cheshire assumed his friend was referring to Haggard’s hypocrisy but he was wrong. His friend laughed and said, “Michael, you just proved my point. See, that guy said sorry a long time ago. Even his wife and kids stayed and forgave him, but all you Christians still seem to hate him. You guys can’t forgive him and let him back into your good graces. Every time you talk to me about God, you explain that he wants to forgive me. But that guy failed while he was one of you, and most of you are still vicious to him.”

Then Cheshire says his friend uttered words that left him reeling: “You Christians eat your own. Always have. Always will.”

That prompted Cheshire to investigate what was being said about Haggard in Christian circles. Most folks with whom he spoke shut down and demanded he drop the subject while others dismissed as foolish or silly his question, “Why can’t God still use Ted?”

As he lived within close proximity of Haggard, Cheshire contacted him to see if he would be willing to meet with him and a couple of the people from his staff.  Cheshire found Haggard to be brutally honest about his failures, filled with a wealth of wisdom, deeply caring and pastoral. He learned that Haggard now had a growing church in the very city that knew him and knew about his failures. And God was causing that church to grow.

When some other Christians learned that Cheshire had reached out to Ted, they said they would distance themselves from him if he continued to do so. Several people in his church said they would leave. He was told that his “voice as a pastor and author would be tarnished” if he continued to spend time with him.

Cheshire concluded: “It would do some Christians good to stay home one weekend and watch the entire DVD collection of HBO’s Band of Brothers. Marinate in it. Take notes. Write down words like loyalty, friendship and sacrifice. Understand the phrase: never leave a fallen man behind.”

Where was the love? Where was the forgiveness?

In his wrap up, Cheshire wrote: “The Ted Haggard issue reminds me of a scene in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Huck is told that if he doesn’t turn in his friend, a runaway slave named Jim, he will surely burn in hell. So, one day Huck, not wanting to lose his soul to Satan, writes a letter to Jim’s owner telling her of Jim’s whereabouts. After folding the letter, he starts to think about what his friend has meant to him, how Jim took the night watch so he could sleep, how they laughed and survived together . . . Huck realizes that it’s either Jim’s friendship or hell. Then the great Mark Twain writes such wonderful words of resolve. Huck rips the paper and says, ‘Alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.’”

And Cheshire decides that “if being Ted’s friend causes some to hate and reject me—alright then, I guess I’ll go to hell.”

You might recall here the chastisement Jesus received from the teachers of the law, the Pharisees, who disapproved of Him having a meal with sinners and tax collectors. How could He do such a thing, they asked His disciples.

In our passage from Colossians, we read: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

51zoZJQZV4L._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_In my library is a book entitled, The Sunflower. It’s a story, written by Simon Wiesenthal, a man with whom you may be familiar. He was well known and well regarded for his activities in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice.

In the book, Wiesenthal tells us that he was a prisoner in the Maut-haus-en concentration camp in Poland. One day he was assigned to clean out rubbish from a barn that the Nazis had improvised into a hospital for wounded soldiers. Toward evening a nurse took Wiesenthal by the hand and led him to a young SS trooper. The soldier’s face was bandaged with rags yellow-stained with ointment or pus; his eyes tucked behind the gauze. He was perhaps 21 years of age. He groped for Wiesenthal’s hand and held it tight. He said he had to talk to a Jew; he could not die before he had confessed the sins he had committed against helpless Jews, and he had to be forgiven by a Jew before he died. So, he told Wiesenthal a horrible story of how his battalion had gunned down Jewish parents and children who were trying to escape from a house set afire by the SS troopers.

Wiesenthal listened to the dying man’s story, first the story of what he referenced as his blameless youth, and then the story of his participation in evil. As the man spoke, Wiesenthal’s thoughts drifted to the graves of the Nazi soldiers that he had seen nearby. Each one was decorated with a sunflower and so each one was visited by butterflies. Wiesenthal believed his place of interment would be different: a mass grave, where corpses would be piled on top of him. No sunflower for him. No butterflies for him.

In the end, Wiesenthal jerked his hand away from the soldier and walked out of the barn: No word was spoken. No forgiveness was given. Wiesenthal would not, could not, forgive. But he was not sure he did the right thing.

And some 30 years later he related the story in the book, The Sunflower, and he ended his tale with a question: “What would you have done?” Ten eminent persons contributed their answers in the original release, and when the book was reprinted ten years later, the responses of another 36 were included. Among these were Christian and Jewish theologians, writers, philosophers, and survivors of genocide; a dissident who spent 20 years in a Chinese prison; a son of Holocaust survivors; a former Nazi; the 14th Dalai Lama; and Dith Pran, a war correspondent for The New York Times who was starved and tortured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

Most said Wiesenthal was right; he should not have forgiven the man; it would not have been fair. Why should a man who gave his will to the doing of monumental evil expect a quick word of forgiveness on his death-bed? What right had Wiesenthal to forgive the man for the sins he had committed against others? “Let the SS trooper go to hell,” said one respondent.

Now, there is a great deal more to the story and I would commend the book to you for its powerful wrestling with the themes of justice and forgiveness. But, for our purposes this morning, I want to acknowledge simply that many of us, truth be told, feel the same way when we or our loved ones are sinned against in far less horrible ways.

As Lewis Smedes rightly notes: “To the guilty, forgiveness comes as amazing grace. To the offended, forgiving may sound like outrageous injustice. A straight-line moral sense tells most people that the guilty ought to pay their dues: Forgiving is for suckers.”

So . . . What is the answer to the unfairness of forgiving? It can only be that forgiving is, after all, a better way to fairness. First, forgiveness creates a new possibility of fairness by releasing us from the unfair past. If we do not forgive, our only recourse is revenge . . . and revenge never evens the score, for alienated people never keep score of wrongs by the same mathematics. Forgiveness takes us off the escalator of revenge so that we can stop the chain of incremented wrongs.

Forgiveness brings fairness to the forgiver. It is the hurting person who most feels the burden of unfairness, but he only condemns himself if he refuses to forgive. Forgiving is the only way to stop the cycle of unfair pain turning in your memory and in your gut.

Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiving is not excusing. Forgiving is not smoothing things over. Forgiving is, what Smedes calls, “spiritual surgery.” When you forgive someone, you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You recreate that person in your thoughts. God does it this way too: He releases us from sin as a parent washes dirt from a child’s face, or as a person takes a burden off your back, lays it on a goat and sends it into the wilderness never to be seen again. (There you have the origin of the word, scapegoat.)

Mining the scriptures we discover more than 100 references to the concept of forgiveness and the first thing to remember from all of these is that forgiveness is God-initiated.

In Colossians 2:13 and 14, Paul writes: “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the written code . . . He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

Forgiveness is offered graciously and readily by God.

In the gospel of Luke, we find the story of the Prodigal Son who, having squandered his inheritance, returns home seeking forgiveness and finds there the open and loving arms of his father who welcomes him with great celebration.” So it is with our heavenly Father.

To receive forgiveness, we must desire forgiveness and honestly, wholeheartedly repent. This done, there is to be no limit to forgiveness. In the 17th chapter of Luke, verse 4, Jesus tells His disciples that, “if your brother sins, rebuke him and, if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” And, as we’ve noted, in Matthew 18:22, Christ carries this further by saying that even seven times is not enough, but seventy times seven.” But what if there is no repentance?

One of Jesus’ central teachings is that we love our enemies, pray for them, and do good to those who have hurt us. Interesting isn’t it, how many of us can read the Gospels over and over and miss that point. We might get the theology but not the graciousness that Jesus taught and exemplified. And you know, it’s astonishing how our view of a person can change when we begin to muster up some love for them, when we begin to pray for them, when we consider how we might do them good.

And you know something else? How much repentance do you suppose there was in the hearts of those who stood by the Cross while Jesus hung there? There was a complete absence of repentance in the hearts of the sinners who put our Savior on that Cross. But what did Jesus pray: “Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Often, those who have hurt us don’t even think they’ve done anything wrong. Probably, nine out of ten of the people I’ve have had to forgive don’t think they did anything wrong to me (which suggests that I, too, have probably hurt people without knowing).

Now, please don’t mistake what I’m saying here. I’m not a Universalist. I don’t believe Jesus’s forgiveness extends to those who remain unrepentant, those who refuse to come to Jesus for salvation.

In praying “Father, forgive them,” Jesus revealed His infinite mercy; He still loved them and would forgive them if only they would humble themselves and repent. Now Here’s a crucial point:

When it comes to our relationship with God, repenting and asking for forgiveness are aspects of believing. We know that the forgiveness of Christ can’t help us unless we lay hold of it by faith. The same thing cannot be said about our human forgiveness. We offer our forgiveness to others purely in response to the grace we have already received from the Lord. If we are not willing to forgive, it is an indication that we have not fully understood or experienced the grace of being forgiven. This is true regardless of the “offender’s” attitude towards his or her actions. [Source: Focus on the Family: Forgiving the Unrepentant]

We should note as well that Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them” was answered in the lives of many people. The Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, upon seeing how Jesus died, exclaimed, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” One of the two thieves crucified with Jesus exercised faith in Christ, who promised him paradise. A member of the Sanhedrin publicly aligned himself with Jesus. And, a little over a month later, three thousand people in Jerusalem were saved in one day as the church began. On the cross Jesus provided forgiveness for all those who would ever believe in Him. Jesus paid the penalty for the sins that we commit in our ignorance, and even the ones we’ve committed deliberately. When we are born again we, too, become an answer to Jesus’ prayer “Father, forgive them.” [Source: Got Questions]

In our passage for today, we find the commandment to forgive: “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” Be clothed with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Be willing to forgive. Create the climate for forgiveness.

71ZRN2XHMZL._SX295_BO1,204,203,200_So why, when forgiveness is at the very heart of the Gospel, do we see so little forgiveness even, and perhaps most sadly, within the church community? David Augsburger, in his book The Freedom of Forgiveness, offers us some clues. He says forgiveness is rare because it is hard. It is the hardest thing in the universe. It is hard because it is costly. The one who forgives, he says, pays a tremendous price—the price of the evil he or she forgives.

Forgiveness is costly because it is substitutional and this substitution was perfectly expressed in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ substituted himself for us, bearing His own wrath, His own indignation at our sin. That’s what forgiveness costs. The sinner either bears his own guilt—that’s cold justice—or the one sinned against may absorb what the second party did—that’s forgiveness. And that’s what God did in Christ on Calvary.

Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is costly because it demands that kind of substitution, not the literal substitution of our physical lives on a cross but the willingness to relieve others of the burden of their sins against us as we reach out to them with loving and forgiving spirits.

God paid the immeasurable cost of our forgiveness. How can we hesitate to pay the infinitely smaller cost of forgiving our brother or sister—or our enemy?”

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer need to rerun over and over again the hurt you suffered, when you no longer need to punish those who hurt you by rehashing the details over and over again with whomever will listen.

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you no longer have daily conversations, battles in your head, with those who hurt you.

You will know you are moving in forgiveness when you find yourself praying that those who hurt you will be blessed and will no longer have to suffer for the evil they did to you or to others.

Forgiveness can be a very slow process and, while we may come a long way in forgiveness, we may well find vestiges of bitterness many years post injury. C.S. Lewis learned how long the process of forgiving can take. He tells the story of a teacher he had as a boy. He hated what he described as “that sadistic person” most of his life but, a few months before his death, he wrote to a friend: “Do you know, only a few weeks ago, I realized that I had at last forgiven the cruel schoolmaster who so darkened my childhood. I had been trying to do it for years.”

With attention to prayer and with the help of God, eventually we can forgive. The Lord works the miracle in us as we yield to His transforming power.

And though this will make the sermon a tad longer, it needs to be said, that it is most often true that the ones we have the hardest time forgiving are ourselves.

Everett Worthington, in his Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free From the Past, notes that when you attempt to forgive someone else for an offense, you are adopting the viewpoint of the forgiver. The wrongdoer, of course, is someone other than yourself. However, when you try to forgive yourself, you have to operate from two points of view— both forgiver and wrongdoer, and it’s hard to bounce back and forth from one perspective to the other. We’re with our own selves and our own thoughts all the time. We can’t get away from ourselves and we have insider information about who we really are. We know we’re capable of repeating the same wrongs. We also know that, as much as we profess love for God, we are like Paul who wrote: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”

But we must extend that forgiveness to ourselves and seek it from others. There is a marvelous example of the desire for forgiveness in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Capitol of the World.”

In this, a father traveled to Madrid to find his son Paco who had left the family farm after a misunderstanding. Keep in mind here that the name Paco is a very popular name in Spain. Well, the father, in hopes of reconnecting with his son, placed an ad in the newspaper which read, “Paco, meet me at noon Tuesday in the newspaper office. All is forgiven. Signed, your father.”

Hemingway reports there were 800 young men named Paco who arrived that Tuesday and stood in line, each one waiting to see if the man might be his father who had granted him forgiveness. 800 Pacos! How many of us, if such an ad had been placed at certain times in our lives, an ad that carried our name, wouldn’t have leapt at the opportunity for reconciliation with our own fathers.

Well, our heavenly Father offers that opportunity today. It is as though He has placed that same ad—the newspaper is the Bible—and when we answer and stand before Him, He is there like the father in the story of the Prodigal Son, ready to offer unmerited forgiveness—the gift of forgiveness. He delights in enfolding each of His repentant children in His loving arms.

Have you called on God to forgive you? Your debt is impossible to pay, you know. Have you faced God and told him you’re helplessly a debtor to sin and have you prayed for mercy? You can be let loose from your sins in Jesus!

And God’s ready forgiveness stands also as an example for us in our relationships with others: forgive as the Lord forgave you.

If you’re harboring unforgiveness, harboring grudges and hatred, you’re playing with dynamite. You’re playing with fire. Just like the loose cannon in Victor Hugo’s story, unforgiveness can crash around inside tearing your guts out, terrorizing your mind, tormenting you!

In Victor Hugo’s story, the loose cannon had to be brought under control and chained so that it couldn’t do any more damage.

Right now, why not ask Jesus to take you below decks? Tell him that you are willing to forgive, willing to go with Him to take care of all the troubling things within. Tell Jesus you’re willing. Ask Him to give you power, power to repent, power to turn from your sins, power to say you’re sorry, power to forgive.

PRAYER OF RESPONSE

Gracious and Loving God, I want to serve you and honor you with my very life, and so I do pray that you might reveal to me those corners and cabinets, those closets of sin, that require cleansing and renewal. I confess my unworthiness before you and give thanks for your mercy which calls me from death to life, from lostness to salvation. I thank you for your love that knows no bounds, for your love that never lets me go. As I sit here quietly before you, I ask that you might hear me and might speak to me in the deepest recesses of my heart as I pray for the power to do that which is pleasing in your sight. Clothe me, Lord, with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and grow in me, please, a forgiving spirit grateful for the forgiveness extended to me. Open my eyes that I may see more. Open my heart that what I see may bring me to humility before you and to deeper worship of you, my great Savior, my giving Savior, my loving Savior, my forgiving Savior through whom I live and move and have my being, the One through whom I pray. Amen

ONE MORE STORY TO SHARE:

A week ago last Tuesday, I was rudely awakened—from a very sound sleep —at 4:45 in the morning—by a ruckus being raised just outside our windows. A Walker Coonhound had begun signalling that he’d treed some creature a few yards from our cottage. I could barely see the dog in the pre-dawn light, but I could make out that he was attempting to burrow his way under a barbed wire fence that serves as a line of demarcation between the RV park at which we’ve been staying and the property that adjoins.

After a good bit of digging, the hound shimmied his way through and began circling the tree and vocalizing (think of an insistent and deep carrying voice like a clear ringing bugle, punctuated by sharp chopping sounds). He kept circling and vocalizing for nine hours, driving me nearly out of my mind, making it quite the challenge for me to focus on my writing assignments. Animal Control had been called and two officers finally arrived just after 2 in the afternoon; the canine then escaped into the brush. The hound returned just before 10 that night and started vocalizing again.

By this time, however, Larry, a neighbor vacationing from West Virginia had returned to his RV after a day of sailing. Larry is a man one who has run hunting dogs and now, at 10 in the evening, he heard the hound, went to his truck, started it up, slammed the tailgate down, and yelled, “Load up, boy!” The dog immediately came running and leapt up onto the bed of the truck. Larry gave the malnourished animal a bowl of food, found the owner’s contact information on the dog’s collar and placed a call. A man came by to collect the animal and told Larry the dog had been missing for three weeks. The owner was relieved to have his dog back in his possession; Larry told us the man had probably paid between $10,000 and $20,000 for the dog. Evidenced by the insistently wagging tail, it was clear the hound was equally relieved and delighted to see his human.

Ok. So why am I telling you this story? I was astonished at the tenacity of this animal, and my husband and I learned from Larry that a well-trained hound will keep signaling and signalling, persisting until its master responds. This little guy was hoarse and exhausted after a day of calling out, but he never lost heart. He persisted. And his master responded.

I was astonished at the tenacity of this animal, and Larry said, a well-trained hound will keep signaling and signalling, persisting until its master responds. This little guy was hoarse and exhausted after a day of calling out, but he never lost heart. He persisted. And his master responded.

I learned SO much through my hours of listening to the tenacious dog. A friend observed, “that’s why they call it ‘dogged perseverance.'” She also recalled the words of Martin Luther: “Oh, if I could only pray the way this dog watches the meat!”

If you’re having trouble forgiving, if you’re having trouble of any kind, if you have no troubles at all, persist in prayer, pray the way the dog watches the meat.