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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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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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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.