Tag Archives: New Testament

The Word Reflected in Stained Glass

Sermon given on Sunday, January 14, 2018:  This sermon serves as an introduction to sermons based on the images included in the stained glass window.images

Special note: The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS, has a stained glass window that captures God’s story and during a conference the images mesmerized me. The next few weeks, God’s story will be shared based on the artistic images of the window. Thank you to COR for investing in such an artistic interpretation so The Story can live in all who view it or who learn The Story shared by others.  See attached link.

 

Scripture connections:

Genesis 1:1-2, NLT

1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

John 1:1-5, NLT

1In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.

Revelation 1:7-8, NLT

7Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven.
And everyone will see him—
even those who pierced him.
And all the nations of the world
will mourn for him.
Yes! Amen!

“I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.”

Reflection through art: The Word Reflected in Stained Glass

Sitting in our sanctuary in rural Missouri, we are wrapped by stained glass windows that share God’s story in brilliant images and vivid colors. The symbolism of the stained glass windows reflects the literature of the Bible; and we are privileged to be surrounded by these windows.

Stained glass windows have spoken to me since a child sitting in my hometown sanctuary where the windows allowed smoky light to filter in during the Sunday morning service as the sun rose behind them. The pew in which I sat each Sunday, I watched the window of Jesus holding the lost lamb. I suspect many recognize that story because they too have seen that picture either in their Bible or in a frame hanging on a wall or in a stained glass window like I did.

My awareness of God’s story and fascination for the stained glass windows probably led to the overwhelming sense of awe as I stepped into the newest sanctuary (hardly an accurate word for the enormous room or auditorium) at Leawood’s (Kansas) Church of the Resurrection. The window is huge and measures 35 feet by 92 feet. [The completed jigsaw puzzle is preserved and on display so others may inspect it as we work through the stories and the meaning of the work.]

Briefly, the window has three primary panels that merge together, bordering along a river path that wraps around the central panel. The first section reflects the Old Testament, the middle section is Christ’s story as found in the New Testament, and the final section is The Church after Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The window is packed with images—some very familiar, some less so. But every element of the window carries God’s story forward. There is no time better than today to begin a journey through God’s story as shared in the window.

Let’s begin with Genesis 1:1-2, NLT

 

1In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

 

These words share the beginning of our understanding of Creation. The world God created is represented as coming out of the cosmos in the puzzle, a dark purple circle of heavenly-like bodies—an image I recognize from sitting out gazing at the night sky.

What better time than these first weeks after Christmas to review the opening of Genesis and consider the relationship of God to this world. How one perceives Creation, or explains how the world came to be, is not an issue for me. What matters is that there is an omniscient being I know as God, and no matter what, I am convinced that God’s story includes the stories of the Old Testament and led to the necessity of God joining us in the human form of Jesus Christ.

Reading the gospel of John, the Story is summarized in those first five verses:

1In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.

 

The words we use each and every day are the very tools to carry God’s story forward. The Bible’s words record the relationship of humans to God, provides examples of life challenges and how faith in God makes the human experience bearable. The words shared through the Bible warn, teach, and love us.

John identifies God as The Word. From the cosmos, the Word became the world we know. The Word carries the story forward so all humanity can understand. The Word gives us the ability to tell the story in so many ways—from the visual images as we see in our own stained glass, in the art hanging on our walls, in the sounds of the music we hear, in the words of the literature we read, and in the words we share with one another.

John is one of four different views of Jesus’ story. The middle panel of the COR stained glass window takes The Word and records it visually for us. The Word shared in the gospels tell the stories of Jesus’ life, but maybe more importantly the words provide us the lessons for living in this world with others from around this world.

Interestingly, John’s gospel ends with these last two verses:

24 This disciple is the one who testifies to these events and has recorded them here. And we know that his account of these things is accurate.

25 Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.

The reality of the Bible is that there is no way that The Word is complete. The Word continues as The Church fueled by the Holy Spirit and this is illustrated in the third phase of COR’s stained glass window.

The panel is filled with the images of disciples who have carried The Word forward around this globe in almost every different setting one might think up. As Jesus the man died on the cross, he commissioned his disciples to become The Church. He did not say build a structure to keep the faithful inside, he said to be The Church. The Word continues in the words, the actions, and the story of the disciples that continue following Jesus’ teachings.

The gospel John shares Jesus’ vision for The Church in the book of Revelation. Again the words confirm and continue the timeless story:

7Look! He comes with the clouds of heaven.
And everyone will see him—
even those who pierced him.
And all the nations of the world
will mourn for him.
Yes! Amen!

“I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end,” says the Lord God. “I am the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.”

As we continue to review the story of God as shared in the words of our Bible and the stories of the people who illustrate living a life faithful to God and serving as The Church, we will see that the gift of Jesus Christ provides all the gifts that won’t break: hope, love, joy and peace.

By following The Word, the Teacher and the Holy Spirit as all those before us and those reflected in the COR’s stained glass, we will met Jesus Christ personally. We will see that God is “the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end . . . the one who is, who always was, and who is still to come—the Almighty One.”

Closing prayer:

Dear God,

Thank you for all your disciples

Who share the Word in the Bible,

In the visual arts of stained glass,

And in the auditory arts of music.

 

We ask for your presence in our lives

As we find you speaking to us

In so many different ways:

Through written words

Through visual arts

And through music.

 

Guide us, too, as we continue your work

Sharing The Word in new and surprising ways.

May we be the Church

Sharing the gifts of hope, love, joy and peace. –Amen

 

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Out with the Old. In with the New.

given on Sunday, November 15, 2015

Scripture: Hebrew 10:10-25 (NLT & MSG)

Reflection

Out with the old and in with the new. The phrase echoes in our minds as we clean out a drawer, sort through papers, or weed out the clothes in the closet. All the old, worn out items are purged. This process must be done sooner or later, and the process is slow and difficult because the old items often trigger very strong memories and emotional reactions. Out with the old takes time.

The Message translation of Hebrews 10 begins: “The old plan was only a hint of the good things in the new plan.” Imagine how ancient Israelites heard the Disciples share the “new plan.”

The faith these earliest Christians knew was the Old Law, the Law of Moses that was thousands of years old. The Torah, now the first five books of the Old Testament, provided the Jewish people the very structure of daily life and the spiritual practices that created the very culture in which they lived.

Of course the earliest Christians were not all Jewish, still the new way suggested a new way of thinking. Even if the new plan was simpler, making a shift in ones engrained way of life is extremely difficult.

Think about cleaning out the catch-all drawer or the closet. How long has this item or that been sitting there? Is that item used even once in the last month? What about the last year? Out with the old and in with the new.

God cleaned out the old way with the birth, life and death of Jesus. The new way had to replace the extremely complex and rigid Law of Moses. Jesus was able to demonstrate the new way during his brief ministry in a compelling manner that drew crowds along the roads and outside the doors of new believers.

The message shared was one filled with hope.   Love God above all others; and love one another as you want to be loved. Simple, direct and manageable: the new way allows room for differences.

The new Christians carried the message beyond the villages and soon the New Law extended around the Mediterranean Sea. The new way was accepted by those who knew the Old Covenant and by the non-Jewish people—even the pagans heard the news. The new way changed lives, changed cultures, and changed history.

The world is rushing at us and we are all discovering that keeping up with the changes is difficult. The chant “out with the old and in with the new” becomes overwhelming and may seem too demanding of us personally.

When my grandmother died in 1995, she was just shy of her 97th birthday. Born in 1898, our conversation during the visitation and funeral was to consider what she witnessed during her lifetime:

  • electricity,
  • telephone communication,
  • World War I, WWII, Korea—where two of her sons served, Vietnam, and even Desert Storm
  • prohibition and even participated in active protests against drinking
  • the Great Depression,
  • the Dust Bowl,
  • the installation of president after president including death of FDR, JFK’s assassination, the resignation of Nixon, and
  • the Civil Rights movement.

She witnessed “out with the old and in with the new” in so many different contexts. Yet, these changes are minor compared to that God made from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant.

The old ways were cumbersome and difficult to follow. The faithful had thousands of years to hear God, to follow God, and to correct the behaviors, but they continued to fail. God saw the problem and created a new way sending the Messiah to share the good news: out with the Old Way and in with the New Way:

19-21 So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body. (The Message)

The Old Covenant, the old way, had to change. God’s decision was to simplify the Jewish Law or Torah. The New Way transformed the lives of the ancient Jews but also our lives even today in the 21st century.

This morning, November 15, the world is reeling from another vicious attack in Paris, France. The ancient world’s old ways interrupted today’s world in the city traditionally known as the “City of Love.” How easy it would be to shout, “Love one another as you want to be loved.” The New Way takes work.

Nothing we do here in our community can cure the pain in France, but we can do our part in the worldly culture right here, right now. We must commit to the one mission God asks of us. We are to find the best way that we can to share the good news of Christ and make new Christians:

22-25 So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshiping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching. (The Message)

Out with the old and in with the new ways of sharing the God’s good news. The task of cleaning out the old is not easy, nor will it be easy to find the best way to share the new, especially in the smaller congregations.

Yet with the confidence of those earliest disciples, we can bring in the new. In the Abingdon theological commentary for this week’s lectionary (Year B) and after the violence in Paris, the need for the Good News is essential:

“. . . [the last portion of Hebrews 10 is] the reminder that the need for endurance is still very present. . . . this side of September 11, 2001 and the financial crisis, people are full of fear—not of the living God, but rather for their future security. For others this is because, in the midst of a secular culture, they don’t really know what it means to trust in a living God who acts redemptively in our world. For still others it is because, even if Jesus still attracts, the church itself seems lifeless and irrelevant—not really the body of Christ for the sake of the world. . . . (p. 321).

If any one of us or any group, regardless of denomination, feels called to carry out a mission that can provide a means of grace for others, then the church’s responsibility is to “just say yes.” (Bishop Schnase’s latest book title is Just Say Yes borrowed from Sedalia’s First UMC pastor Jim Downing’s mission.)

Today’s culture is redefining church. The tools of communication have changed dramatically just like it did when my own grandmother’s world installed the first phone in their homes. Certainly it is difficult to learn or to feel comfortable with the new way, but the outcome will be immeasurable.

Ministries, too, have changed. The closest community is within a few miles radius of the church physically, but many churchgoers will drive as much as an hour to attend church that meets their spiritual and cultural mindset.

Many in the immediate community of a church are struggling with the basic needs in life so that takes a priority over church involvement. Does the church in that community work to meet those needs? Churches that focus on the ministry within the immediate community tend to grow.

Bishop Schnase has asked our churches to “just say yes” to the work God calls us individually or as a church to do. How do we do that? When a member develops a ministry idea, can put together a team to carry it out, and has the funds for the project—just say yes.

Churches of all sizes know that a new idea that is put off week after week, month after month dies before it can even get started. Just saying yes to someone’s project will keep God’s work going. Do you and thus the church say no to the new way or do you say yes?

Today’s churches must let go of the old ways in order to reach people in today’s culture. The new ways may feel uncomfortable, rather like a new pair of shoes; but once the shoe, oops, the new methods are broken in, the effectiveness of the church’s mission improves.

Just say yes to trying new ways. Saying yes does not guarantee that a new way will be successful, but if it is not tried, its purpose or its reach will never succeed. The church does have a financial responsibility, but growth comes only if certain risks are taken.

Any project or program suggested needs manpower and supplies. If our responsibility is to share the Good News and to bring others to know Christ, then we must say yes:

32-39 Remember those early days after you first saw the light? Those were the hard times! Kicked around in public, targets of every kind of abuse—some days it was you, other days your friends. If some friends went to prison, you stuck by them. If some enemies broke in and seized your goods, you let them go with a smile, knowing they couldn’t touch your real treasure. Nothing they did bothered you, nothing set you back. So don’t throw it all away now. You were sure of yourselves then. It’s still a sure thing! But you need to stick it out, staying with God’s plan so you’ll be there for the promised completion. (The Message; emphasis added)

These are the words of the earliest disciples. They said yes to the call to the New Way and we must, too. We must find ways to try and try again, knowing that some things may fail, but new ways will bring others to Christ.

Leading others to know Christ and to see their lives transformed by God’s grace is a worthy goal. The old ways churches have used may not work as well as new ways:

Part of the new way inaugurated by Christ is not only embracing a new way of living for oneself but also of living with others. Churches are called to move beyond individualistic piety to embrace communal practices of witness. . . . Today’s texts [referring to I Samuel 1:4-20 and 2:1-10] bear witness to God’s unexpected life-giving power. (p. 324)

Each of us must search our hearts to know what God asks us to do. If we cannot, then we must ask God how we can say yes so others may carry on the work of the church. Just saying yes also means not saying no to others’ ideas for ministry.

The message in 2 Corinthians 5:16-20 confirms the necessity of just saying yes:

16-20 Because of this decision we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it! All this comes from the God who settled the relationship between us and him, and then called us to settle our relationships with each other. God put the world square with himself through the Messiah, giving the world a fresh start by offering forgiveness of sins. God has given us the task of telling everyone what he is doing. We’re Christ’s representatives. God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them. We’re speaking for Christ himself now: Become friends with God; he’s already a friend with you. [The Message; emphasis added]

Closing prayer

Dear patient and loving God,

Saying yes is difficult in a world full of uncertainties,

But we hear your commission to share the good news.

Open our hearts, minds and hands to minister to others.

Speak to us with new ideas, new methods, and new missions.

We can say yes to doing in the best way we can

So those who are weary from life’s demands may find hope.

Show us how to help others with new ways

Even if we feel old ways were better in our lives.

Let us be the vessel for sharing your love

In our own community and even the worldwide community.

May our efforts work on your behalf

So others may be filled with the Holy Spirit today and forever.

In the name of your son, Jesus Christ, amen.

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1. Laying the foundation: Scripture, The Word

Building Our Christian Foundation: a sermon series on the basics of Christianity

  1. Laying the foundation: Scripture, The Word  given on Sunday, January 11, 2015

 

Over Christmas or on birthdays, I expect many discovered Legos or Mega blocks wrapped in the pretty packages. Or maybe it is a set of Lincoln Logs that trigger the imagination of building log cabins, houses, and forts. Kids love to create all kinds of structures with these blocks; and whenever kids begin playing with the pieces, the imaginations take off.

Just ask them to tell you what they are building. The stories show just what is going on in their minds while they pick the pieces up, lock them together and buildings, towns, or even cars, trucks or airplanes appear. Telling the story of what is being built can be as entertaining as simply watching the structures grow, shift, fall and rebuild.

Building Christian faith is very similar. The very foundation of our faith begins with the stories of the Bible. The characters and their stories are the very bricks and mortar that build that foundation of our faith.

The stories can be as entertaining as any high drama found on the television or in the movies. As we listen to the stories, we begin wondering how we would act if we were in those situations. Of course the settings can be very different than what we are experiencing now; but as in all literature, the stories are timeless because the message is the foundation, not the setting.

The verse from I Peter appeared on the opening screen when I clicked on Biblegateway.com, which is my primary source for scripture searches. I did not plan on using it, but I was on the search for today’s scripture and this was Saturday’s verse (January 10, 2015):

But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”1 Peter 1:15-16 NLT

 

Those words confirmed the very thought I was gelling into today’s message. The scripture is the direct link to God.

Scripture is the foundation for all Christians as they begin building their faith. Each book is included after very thorough review by theologians and educators. Some might wonder why the Old Testament is included since the New Testament is the story of Christ, but the foundation begins developing with those first words of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.[a] The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

 

Before everything, God existed. Life is filled with mysteries, and it is easy to get trapped into the arguments concerning whether or not God is real. There is no evidence that science can provide to prove or to disprove that God is real and proof is simply not necessary. The scripture tells us that the “Spirit of God” was the creator, existing before everything.

Being Christian begins with the story shared in the Bible. The United Methodist Church has defined the Bible as “sacred text” and googling what Methodists believe, the website about.com makes this simple statement: “The Bible is considered inerrant and inspired in its original manuscripts, and it contains everything one needs for salvation.”

The Bible and all the stories provide the foundation of Christianity. As John Wesley continued his ministry, he also identified the value of the Bible as the very foundation of Christian faith. He included in his works of piety the study of Scripture. The same about.com website listed among the descriptors of Methodist doctrine this statement: “Close adherence to the teachings of Scripture is essential to the faith because Scripture is the Word of God.”

The opening words of John also makes the definitive statement:

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,[a]
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it.[b]

 

Scripture tells the story, it provides the lessons, and it speaks to us whenever we read and study it. The church began with the first Apostles that Jesus called to ministry, and the stories from the New Testament share how God wants us to live using the New Law rather than the Old Law found in the Old Testament.

Learning how to live a Christian lifestyle is not easy, but through the words of the Bible, we can. Wesley read and studied the Scripture daily and expected his followers to do so even holding them accountable during class meetings (now referred to as small groups). The essentials of the Methodist beliefs were stated in the website article in very clear words:

  1. Shun evil and avoid partaking in wicked deeds at all costs,
  2. Perform kind acts as much as possible, and
  3. Abide by the edicts of God the Almighty Father.

 

The scripture provides all the examples, the methods, and the authority needed for us to live by these three simple rules. The hard part is practicing it enough to get it right but most importantly that it becomes habit.

Practice, practice, and practice some more. Laying a foundation takes careful planning, using the best products, and making adjustments as needed in order to erect a building that can withstand all the storms that nature can slam into the outer walls. Creating a Christian foundation for our own lives takes the same care. If we do make the foundation strong, it will last throughout the generations yet to come.

Practice building your foundation. Share the secrets with your family and friends. Shun evil that surrounds you. Practice random and planned acts of kindness. And keep adding to your foundation by reading the scripture. The stronger your foundation, the more you can tell the story to others—whether in modeling the story, telling it in your own words, creating a piece of art, or even singing a song. God’s message is as strong as your Christian foundation.

Closing prayer

Dear God, the Word,

Speak to us through the scriptures,

Through the work of others,

Through the visual arts,

Through the melodies of music,

And through the models of faith.

We all want to build strong foundations

Of Christian faith.

Guide us to plan ways

To build our own foundations.

Keep us focused on the process

Of reading and studying scripture.

Then let us share the story

In all the ways that we can

So others may discover the Word

And how it creates a strong foundation

On which to build one’s life

And to bring others to know you, too.

Amen.

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Help! I just fell off my horse. What do I do now?

given on Sunday, January 19, 2014

            Don’t ask how the title for today’s thoughts developed because I have no good answer.  All I know is I was thinking about sermons and suddenly the phrase just popped into my head—and I have not been able to shake it off.  Sometimes you just have to follow what God seems to drop into your head.

Last week, the thought I had was whether or not one could yell at God.  While working on that, this idea came through, too:  I just fell off my horse so what do I do now?

Most of us have had the experience of riding a horse or maybe a bicycle.  We know that if you fall off you must get up, brush yourself off, and get on again.  If you don’t, you may not ever get on and try riding again.

Believe it or not, I went searching for a connection to this brain flash.  I thought surely there must be a proverb that connected to the idea, but there is not one!

Step 2 was to figure out how this phrase relates to our Christian lives.  Is there something to which this old adage is connected?  Is this a metaphor for one of Jesus’ lessons for us?  I was reading my nightly devotional and the phrase interfered.  But I found myself connecting it to the concept of forgiveness.

God forgives us.  Jesus tells us that we are to forgive one another.  Now how does that fit with falling off a horse!  Then the connection became clear!

We all know that falling off your horse or bicycle is part of the learning process.  There is no other way to learn than to simply get on, put your feet in the stirrup—or on the pedals—and nudge forward.  On a horse, you use your knees to urge the horse to begin moving.  On the bicycle, you keep one foot on the ground and push off as you push down on the opposite pedal.

Balancing is also important.  In the saddle, you must keep your balance in relation to the horse’s leg movements.  The feet are in the stirrups; the knees tucked in against the horse, and you balance while the horse moves.  One of the most important tricks of staying on the horse is knowing how to use your legs as springs absorbing the unevenness of the gait or the ground.

Now bicycling is a bit different.  It seems like everything is moving in different directions once you pick up your foot off the ground.  The handle bars move, the feet are moving, the wheels are moving, and suddenly you are moving—hopefully forward, but all too often you fall to the ground.  That is when the parent is right there to catch you and to encourage you as you get up and back on the bike.

These experiences are just like living the Christian life.  If you fall off, you simply have to get up, brush off the dirt, and get on again.  God is always there and always loves us.  He does not leave us stranded.  Instead, he waits for us to realize we have fallen, and then he starts to help us.

As a parent, when our kids fall, we rush to their sides to help them get back up; but they continue to grow and we begin letting go so they can develop their own independence.  God is always beside us, but he also knows he cannot do everything for us.  He cannot physically pick us up, carry us and fix our problems for us; he has to let us do it ourselves.

Throughout the Old Testament, the stories tell of the mistakes the faithful made.  When one looks up the term ‘forgiveness’ in the index or in a concordance, the Old Testament references are outnumbered almost 2:1 by New Testament references.

One of the references is annotated with the phrase:  no sin too great for God to forgive.  That phrase is then connected to four passages, two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament:

  • 2 Chronicles 33:12-13–11 Therefore the Lord brought against them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh captive in manacles, bound him with fetters, and brought him to Babylon. 12 While he was in distress he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors. 13 He prayed to him, and God received his entreaty, heard his plea, and restored him again to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord indeed was God.  [NRSV]

 

  • Psalms 51:1-7–Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
    according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;[a]
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.  [NRSV]

 

  • Acts 2:14–14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.  [NRSV]

 

  • I John 2:2–and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.  [NRSV]

These verses lead us to understand how much God loves us and that he gives us simple instructions on how to live a Christian life.  Yes, three verses make absolute sense, but that one from Acts is confusing.

Why is a verse on forgiveness referencing Peter?  The key is to look at how Luke explains Peter’s story.  The fuller text creates a more complete understanding.  Peter is addressing the Crowd who just witnessed the Pentecost, Acts 2:13-21:

13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,

before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Peter was speaking, and knowing that he had denied Christ three times during the trial, Peter had fallen off the horse, so to speak.  He was struggling to understand the full story, struggling with how to share the story, and simply did not know how to get back up from the entire series of events through the trial, the crucifixion, and then the resurrection.

Pentecost made God’s word real once again.  Peter, after receiving the Holy Spirit, found his ability to once again share the story with authority.  And the first thing he shared was a reference to the Old Testament prophet Joel.

“No sin too great for God to forgive” is shown through Peter’s own experience.  From denying he knew Christ, he was forgiven, baptized by the Holy Spirit, and continued to follow the commission to make disciples of Christ.

Christians need to remember that they are always learning how to be Christians.  We are humans and we fall off or out of God’s favor all too often.  But, when we realize our errors, we ask God for forgiveness and we get back up and continue to learn.

God does not care if we made a mistake, he only cares if we do not acknowledge that mistake, ask for forgiveness, and return to living by the one commandment to love one another as we would want others to love us.  We must get back up and get on the horse to become better and better.

Certainly no one wants to fall off, but society has a way of throwing off our balance and we fall.  We might run with the wrong crowd.  We might ignore someone who is hurting or share a rumor that turned out to be hurtful.  We might overspend and forget to tithe.  We might drink, eat, or talk too much; but we must do the right thing when we realize our mistake.

Get back up, shake off the dirt, and get back to God.  It really is not hard to step back into church after you have been absent.  It is important to get back to reading the Bible or go to Sunday school.  Why, you can even ask for something new, a new tool, to help you grow in your Christian life.

The K-Love radio station is trying a new approach.  They are asking people to take the 30-day challenge.  The station asks listeners to commit, call in and commit, to taking the 30-day challenge of listening to nothing but Christians music.  They believe it will make a life-change for the listeners.

Should we set a challenge?  What type of challenge would strengthen us in our Christian journey?  I suggest a challenge, try reading a daily devotion from now until Lent.  Maybe it is just a paragraph like the Daily Word, Guideposts, or the Upper Room.  Maybe it is a devotional that pops up in the inbox of your computer every day.

A challenge could be along any of the basic recommendations from John Wesley such as daily prayer, grace before each meal, sing a hymn or listen to Christians music, read the Bible, have a discussion with a friend or a spouse.  Whatever you choose, get up and get it going!

God does not care if you just fell off or if it has been a little while since you fell off.  All God cares is that you realize you fell, and that you want to get back up and learn more.  He forgives our mistakes and he will rejoice many times over if you pick yourself up and return, too.

Closing prayer:

            Dear Patient Father,

            I fear I made a mistake and fell off my Christian path.

            Help me to start all over with the skills you have taught me.

            Help me to make changes in my daily life that show I believe.

            Help me to show others that I can return to my faith

                        by listening and following your words.

            Keep me near to you and let me lean on you when I stumble,

                        and open my heart to others who may have fallen, too.

            Let me be a little like Peter knowing I am forgiven.

            Give me the words and the actions to share God’s love

                        with those who are so alone without a Christian family.

            Let my lessons be examples to others so they may know

                        how much You love them, too.            –Amen

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Where is the light?

given on Sunday, June 30, 2013

Supporting scriptures:

Genesis 1:3Let there be light…

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.[a] The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters.

Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. Then he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day” and the darkness “night.”

  • Psalm 27:1—The Lord is my light…
  • Isaiah 42:1-9–…And you will be the light…
  • Matthew 5:13-16…You are the light…

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.

14 “You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house.

  • Luke 2:22—He is a light to reveal God.
  • John 1:1-9—The Word gave…light…
  • John 3:20-21—All who do evil hate the light…
  • Acts 13:47-49I have made you a light… (to Paul & Barnabus)

47 For the Lord gave us this command when he said,

‘I have made you a light to the Gentiles,
to bring salvation to the farthest corners of the earth.’[a]

48 When the Gentiles heard this, they were very glad and thanked the Lord for his message; and all who were chosen for eternal life became believers. 49 So the Lord’s message spread throughout that region.

  • I John 1:5-7—God is light, and there is no darkness…
  • Revelations 21:21-25…The lamb is the light…

21 The twelve gates were made of pearls—each gate from a single pearl! And the main street was pure gold, as clear as glass.

22 I saw no temple in the city, for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb is its light. 24 The nations will walk in its light, and the kings of the world will enter the city in all their glory. 25 Its gates will never be closed at the end of day because there is no night there.

Did you see the Super Moon?  What about the lightening the night before last?  Did you notice that even when the electricity went out, there was enough of the Super Moon to help get around the house, not to mention out on the porch?  The natural lights of the moon, the sun, the stars, and even lightening cannot match man-made lights.  God’s light is the best.

In thinking about the changes that our world undergoes, there are constants that remain the same and those are the God things.  God’s lights are one of the constants.  The question we each must ask is where is THE LIGHT in our own lives, or in other words:

  • Where is God in our lives?
  • Are you living your life in such a manner that others see the light as a constant?
  • Do you radiate God’s light so well that others see you as a constant?
  • Does your God-light shine so brightly that even in the darkest moments you can see the way?
  • Can others see the way because of you?

These are the questions that can keep a person awake at night.  Personally I ponder whether or not my life is a reflection of God’s grace.  Sometimes I go back and review, wondering where did I fail.  Other times I feel so good about life, I simply praise God for all the good I see.

Praying hands are simply a must in a world that we have so little control over.  Keeping that open channel with God becomes like breath itself.  At times it is difficult to even know if we are praying, yet at the same time we also know when we are not praying.  Others can even tell.  When we live a prayer-filled life, we shine God’s light so brightly that others recognize it and even seek to follow it.

Keeping God’s light blazing bright in our lives comes down to practicing the disciplines that keep The Light charged up.  If we fail to keep the disciplines, then the light dims and pretty soon looks burned out.  Once the light is gone, it becomes difficult to see, to work, to love, to play, and even to sleep.  It takes work to get that Light back on.

Wrapping up the church year, each one of us needs to check our practices and see if our lights can shine as brightly as they can for the coming year.  The time to evaluate the sources of our spiritual energy is right now, so we can shine for all those we meet.  We cannot, must not, put it off.  Therefore, here are the evaluation questions:

  1. How often do you read the scriptures?
  2. Do you pray daily, hourly, or continually?
  3. Are you actively participating in a small group?
  4. Can you remember the last sacrament you took?
  5. Have you practiced fasting in one form or another?
  6. How often do you attend worship?

For most church members, attending worship and praying regularly are not a problem.  And if the church practices regular days for communion, then in all likelihood, that is not a concern.  The problem spots are the practices of reading and studying scripture, fasting, and participating in small group or Wesleyan-styled class meetings.  Even worship attendance can be an issue if you do not follow the recommended 48 out of 52 weeks of attendance.

These are the acts of piety that John Wesley felt were essential to maintaining one’s faith.  He knew that maintaining God’s light in our life is difficult and with the methods he insisted following, that light became a guiding beam to those who were without hope, without food, without shelter, and without the essentials for daily living.  And, as the light draws in the moths on hot summer nights, the Wesleyan disciples drew others to God.

Are we, right here in our very own community, following the Wesleyan methods we say we believe in a manner that God’s light radiates through and from us to draw others to God’s light?  That is a question we must answer if we are to follow God’s commission.

This is the point when the praying hands get dirty fingernails.  Granted, we realize that this is a metaphor, but Wesley certainly did not separate the two.  An area in which his ministry was well received was the coal-mining region in England.  One of the dirtiest jobs that seemed to deposit a level of grime over everything needed the most. The people needed God.  Now consider our own region.  Isn’t it interesting that at one point this area was once a mining region, too; but since the industry is now gone, does God’s light shine?

Even if the type of economic base switches in a community, there is no reason to think the need for God’s light has changed.  God is available for everybody.   God’s region is not limited by one geographic set of boundaries.  God’s region is global.  This is why Methodists get dirty fingernails just about anywhere they go.  This is why the acts of mercy Wesley encouraged becomes part of the fuel source for God’s light.

Evaluating how dirty our fingernails are getting as a small rural church as well as part of the global church might be challenging.  Well, it is challenging because it is tempered by the economy of a small church.  First, there should be no apologies for the lack of funds available for all the various missions whether it is the Heifer Project, the Ludhiana Medical Mission, the Hydrate Haiti project, the Imagine No Malaria campaign, or the Mozambique initiative.  The list can go on and on.

God’s work is not recorded by the amount of dollars spent.  Rather God’s work is measured by illumination.  Beginning in our own homes, are we being good stewards of God’s resources and the money we earn.  And in our own communities, the light needs shining.  As we evaluate how dirty our fingernails are, we need to begin at the center of our geographical community.  Here we go:

  1. Are the people in the community fed?
  2. Are the neighbors able to afford clothes that they need?
  3. Is the neighbors housing safe and adequate for their needs?
  4. Is the community prepared to handle a disaster?
  5. Does a special need come to mind?

Certainly an evaluation begins with the basic needs for life to be sustained, but it can be broadened to consider the next level of needs—educational, social, community services, and more.

In the pre-conference prayer study, the example of concentric circles was used to demonstrate the various levels of prayer.  The same concentric circle pattern can also identify the levels of ministry for a local church.  The nucleus or center is the physical church itself.  The next circle is the immediate area in the community.  The third circle is outer limits of the town, and then the circle one-mile from the church.  Additional circles needed to be included in rural communities based on how far reaching the members determine.  This may mean a 5-mile radius or a 10 mile-radius, and since our counties pivot around a larger community, an additional circle that bumps up to the city limits of the county seat.

What about the outreach beyond the immediate community, you might ask?  The connectional aspect of the United Methodist Church comes into the picture at this point.  The apportionments that are assessed each church provide the basic foundation for connectional ministry.  It is the choice of the individual churches to determine how involved they wish to become in the global ministries.  This does not mean that the small churches are exempt; it simply means that they can determine the extent of giving beyond the apportionments.

The acts of mercy send out the beams of light so all may know God.  What our small, rural church does adds just that much more to the luminosity of God’s light.  During the next year, we need to keep God’s light shining brightly.  We need to remember that all we do is for the glory of God, and when we keep that as the ultimate goal, we are the light, too.

Closing prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

You are the source of light:  sun, moon, and stars.

You are the source of love in our lives

         that shines so brightly others see you, too.

Guide us as we learn how to turn on our lights

         so others are drawn to your love.

Guide us as we strengthen our faith

         through the spiritual disciplines.

Guide us as we learn to minister to others

         so the light shines for them, too.

May we determine ways to shine your light

         so others may find the way to salvation.  –Amen

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Memorial Day: Remembering good works strengthens foundations

given on Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorial Day 2013:  Remembering Good Works

 

                  Trees snap like toothpicks or fly upward, wrenched from the earth.  Whole rooftops sail, cars tumble like toys, walls collapse, . . .A [tornado] cuts and tears, and only solid foundations survive [the] unbridled fury.  But those foundations can be used for rebuilding after the storm. . . .

 

Memorial Day was established to honor the fallen service people who gave their lives for us.  Horrible, tragic events leave scars and memories, yet from them Americans typically rise up and decide to transform those blemishes into a way to remember the good.  The events have a way of binding people together rather than pushing them away from one another.

The words in the opening were taken directly from the introduction of the book of Job as written in the Life Application Study Bible.  Searching for the answer to how do we manage to face the losses in our lives, I found myself looking into the book of Job.   This man living maybe as long as 4,000 years ago provides us a model of living a Christian lifestyle despite trials and tribulation piled up on one another.

Today may be a holiday, but it is a time to remember.  The events of only seven days ago serve as another reminder of how bad things happen to good people.  Like Job, the Moore citizens did nothing to be targeted for all the destruction; they simply built their foundations in a community located in a region where tornadoes are simply part of the environment.  Humans have no control over nature’s forces, we simply must adapt.

Job had no idea that God and Satan were in a battle, so to speak, to prove the strength of his faith.  Certainly no one wants to be targeted by physical and emotional trauma, but faith in God is the foundation that allows us to rebuild and continue forward.  The Moore citizens now know this, too.  Their foundations remain, now it is time to rebuild—again.

The first news reports aired after Monday’s tornado seemed so familiar.  Only two years ago this week, the reports were about the Joplin tornado.  During the late fall months just last year, the reports were from Hurricane Sandy hitting the eastern seaboard.  And for the Moore community the reports were eerily reminiscent of May 3, 1999, when they were hit with a similar tornado.

Yet in all these disasters, the same qualities of humanity surface:  survivors searching for survivors, rescuers, without thought of self, running right to the worst to save others, strangers appearing from every corner of the earth to help, and the cries of determination as victims declare that as long as their families were alive they would rebuild.

Memorial Day is just this:  a celebration of life, a reaffirmation that with God, all things are possible, and a break from the routine to reward us for the work we do daily that maintains the foundations of our lives.  We hear the words of God and reconnect ourselves to faith, so we may begin the daily routines on Tuesday with confidence that even when bad things happen, God is with us.

Another value for Memorial Day is that it places in mind the examples of those who modeled faith to us personally.  I cannot face this weekend without returning to my own family examples.  There are so many who have demonstrated how faith works.  Whether those we honor are parents, grandparents, friends, neighbors, or even strangers, Cemeteries are full of the very foundations on which we build our own lives.  Our emotions may seem overwhelmed as we review the list of our personal heroes, but each one of them added more strength to our foundations.

Gathering around the tables, we share the stories once again:  stories about health battles, rebuilding after fires, serving in various war zones, terrible wrecks, children lost before their time, family crisis, and many, many more.  Yet a common thread develops through the storytelling—one that provides a faith foundation for us continuing our earthly journey.

Job demonstrated that with each announcement of loss, he experienced pain.  He may have felt as though the world was closing in on him.  He may have thought life was unfair.  Go back to his reaction:

20 Job got to his feet, ripped his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground and worshiped:

21 Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
naked I’ll return to the womb of the earth.
God gives, God takes.
God’s name be ever blessed.

22 Not once through all this did Job sin; not once did he blame God.

Certainly he was hurt, upset, even angry, but he would not let go his foundation of faith.  Never did he blame God, nor did he abandon God.  Even Satan witnessed this.

The stories do not end with Job’s.  The Bible is full of them.  The good goes with the bad, and the bad goes with the good.  No matter what happens along our journey, the one constant is God.  He is with us at all times, even when we lose a child, a spouse, or our material possessions.   He is everything, and the people in our lives bless us even if they are gone from us.

God did not say life was going to be easy.  Neither did Jesus say it was going to be easy.  Only Satan ever tells someone it can be easy, but in story after story, Satan loses the battle.  God wins.  We win.  Even Paul knew that when he wrote his letter to the Philippians from his jail cell:

. . . everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die.

Little did he know that being thrown into jail that time was not going to be the last time.  Paul’s life itself is an example of how bad things happen to good people.  Even when he was the Jewish leader persecuting the earliest Christians, God was there and had to make his presence known in a very dramatic way—striking him blind right there on the road to Damascus.

Paul’s life and Job’s life certainly look like so many of our lives.  Whether the stories are from 4,000 years or 2,000 years or just a week ago, the proof of how strong a faith foundation really is comes from the stories of those who are now gone.  Memorial Day may be a weekend holiday for all of us, but for those of us who continue to build and to strengthen our faith foundation, this is a weekend designed for remembering good works of those faithful who have gone before us.

Looking forward from today, reflect upon these questions:

  1. How strong is your personal faith foundation?  Do you need reinforcement by rebuilding solid faith practices?  Do you need others to help you maintain the foundation?  Have you lost anything that could weaken your faith foundation?
  2. How strong is your church’s foundation?  What needs to be done to make the church a cornerstone in the community?  What work do you need to improve the health of the church?  Can the church survive the shrinking of its foundation?

The theme for annual conference is “Praying Hands and Dirty Fingernails.”  The image this theme creates is duplicated day after day after day each time a disaster hits, each time we put in an honest hour’s labor, each time we stop to wipe the tears in the eyes of a child of God.  After we take this small break in our busy lives, remember the good work of others before us, let’s start afresh on Tuesday with praying hands because we are the church.

Dear God,

Bless those in Moore today.

Provide them the strength to rebuild,

Guide the volunteers as the work

side by side with the residents.

Keep them safe,

keep them fed,

keep them rested.

Rally those near and far

to show God’s grace and love.

As the work moves on and on,

give them rest, peace, and hope.

Like Job, Paul, and all those before

be remembered, honored, and modeled

as we work to strengthen

our own faith foundations.

–Amen.

 

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April’s apocrypha lessons: Telling the old, old stories

given on Sunday, April 21, 2013

Apocrypha Lesson:  Stories of Faith

         Have I a story to tell you!  I have been swamped by all the stories I have heard around town.  Granted some of the stories may be a bit exaggerated since they are spreading like wildfire, but still the stories are absolutely amazing.  I want to go see for myself.

There is this community that is doing all kinds of things differently.  They are just like the rest of us, at least they appear to be, but there is something unique about them.  They go to the stores, like we do.  They all have jobs, like we do.  They have families no differently than we do.  Their houses look no different than anybody else’s around here.  I really cannot see anything different, yet there is something special about them.

The stories they tell are something else. . . the officials are always going through the neighborhood like they are looking for something.  There are certain times during the week that they all get together for some reason.  When they walk out the buildings just about noon on any Sunday, they seem so happy.  They are chatting with each other, the kids are running around their parents and playing with friends, and teenagers just stand around smiling, talking, even laughing.

What is this all about?  This is the story that I hear—they are Christians.  They talk about how God was born as a man, a man they called Jesus, Christ, Messiah, even Savior.  They still have the same illnesses, the same ups and downs in their businesses, and sometimes they have troubles—really big trouble like car wrecks, fires, health issues, and even broken families or relationships.  Yet there is this unique quality about them that makes me want to know more about these Christians.

Whenever you meet people who are open about their faith in God, you begin to notice some of the common characteristics that seem to make them happier than others.  They seem to handle the trials and tribulations of life with a certain finesse that others don’t.  In fact others may just give up and call it quits, but not Christians.

Growing up, my mom had unusual ways of adding her faith into the daily routines.  Living on a farm, we always had cats and dogs around.  In fact that is probably one of the best parts of farm life.  Many hours of my week were spent sitting on the step playing with the kittens, or looking for them in the barn.

One year we had a litter of kittens while I was in college, so Mom ended up naming them.  She called them Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  I tried to figure out why, but the Old Testament story is the key.  I am sure you remember the story:  the three refused to worship the King’s god, a pagan god, and he threw them into the furnace.  When he looked into the flames, he saw four men walking around.

The King could not explain it, so called the men out of the flames.  Sure enough, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, were not harmed at all.  Who was the fourth man?  Well, he was God.  Certainly the story sounds like a tall tale, but the story had the desired outcome.  And the King is transformed.  He abandons his pagan god and praises the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.  The story concludes

Nebuchadnezzar said, “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him. They disobeyed the king’s command and yielded up their bodies rather than serve and worship any god except their own God. –the NRSV

Now Daniel tells that story.  He, too, was a close friend of the King, and he stood up for his faith.  Faith protected him and faith continues to protect us throughout our lifetimes as we meet challenge after challenge.

The apocrypha tells more stories, too.  In fact the set of books in the apocrypha are filled with novels, folktales, poems, and instructions.  These books may not have been ‘canonized’ and excluded from the Bible structure that is familiar to most 21st century Christians, but that does not mean they are not acceptable religious readings for us.

The stories found in the apocrypha book, “Bel and the Dragon,” are sometimes published as Daniel 14.  The stories in Daniel are considered to be folktales, rather like those in Aesop’s Fables or some of the tall tales we have in American folklore.

The story of Bel is a great lesson to share with those who may be following false gods.  Daniel was refusing to follow the King’s order to pray to Bel, a pagan god in Babylon.  Being a friend, the King simply could not get rid of Daniel.  Instead there developed this challenging scenario (This is the full text, but for storytelling purposes, I will paraphrase it.):

Daniel was a companion of the king, and was the most honoured of all his friends.

            3 Now the Babylonians had an idol called Bel, and every day they provided for it twelve bushels of choice flour and forty sheep and six measures[a] of wine. The king revered it and went every day to worship it. But Daniel worshipped his own God.

So the king said to him, ‘Why do you not worship Bel?’ He answered, ‘Because I do not revere idols made with hands, but the living God, who created heaven and earth and has dominion over all living creatures.’

            6 The king said to him, ‘Do you not think that Bel is a living god? Do you not see how much he eats and drinks every day?’ And Daniel laughed, and said, ‘Do not be deceived, O king, for this thing is only clay inside and bronze outside, and it never ate or drank anything.’

            8 Then the king was angry and called the priests of Bel[b] and said to them, ‘If you do not tell me who is eating these provisions, you shall die. But if you prove that Bel is eating them, Daniel shall die, because he has spoken blasphemy against Bel.’ Daniel said to the king, ‘Let it be done as you have said.’

            10 Now there were seventy priests of Bel, besides their wives and children. So the king went with Daniel into the temple of Bel. 11 The priests of Bel said, ‘See, we are now going outside; you yourself, O king, set out the food and prepare the wine, and shut the door and seal it with your signet. 12 When you return in the morning, if you do not find that Bel has eaten it all, we will die; otherwise Daniel will, who is telling lies about us.’ 13 They were unconcerned, for beneath the table they had made a hidden entrance, through which they used to go in regularly and consume the provisions. 14 After they had gone out, the king set out the food for Bel. Then Daniel ordered his servants to bring ashes, and they scattered them throughout the whole temple in the presence of the king alone. Then they went out, shut the door and sealed it with the king’s signet, and departed. 15 During the night the priests came as usual, with their wives and children, and they ate and drank everything.

            16 Early in the morning the king rose and came, and Daniel with him. 17 The king said, ‘Are the seals unbroken, Daniel?’ He answered, ‘They are unbroken, O king.’ 18 As soon as the doors were opened, the king looked at the table, and shouted in a loud voice, ‘You are great, O Bel, and in you there is no deceit at all!’

            19 But Daniel laughed and restrained the king from going in. ‘Look at the floor’, he said, ‘and notice whose footprints these are.’ 20 The king said, ‘I see the footprints of men and women and children.’

            21 Then the king was enraged, and he arrested the priests and their wives and children. They showed him the secret doors through which they used to enter to consume what was on the table. 22 Therefore the king put them to death, and gave Bel over to Daniel, who destroyed it and its temple.  –the NRSV.AC version listed in Daniel 14

Such stories of faith are found throughout the Bible—old and new testaments.  And even as we listen to the stories of our own families, we can discover the stories of faith being passed down from one generation to another.  Jesus told stories, he even asked the little children to gather around him so he could tell them stories.

Stories of faith have not been kept out of schools, either.  Look at the literature from that shared with preschoolers to those in college anthologies.  The stories of faith continue to spread the news of Jesus Christ.  Are we continuing to share our own stories of faith?  Do your children and grandchildren know why you believe?  Do you demonstrate your faith to them when life challenges you?

Paul shared stories, one being his own transformation from Saul the Jewish leader punishing the earliest Christians, to Paul the first traveling Christian missionary.  He was eager to share the stories of Jesus’ work and he did not ignore the ancient Jewish stories of faith.  In Hebrews 11, Paul lists or refers to all kinds of faith stories listing them from the Old Testament right through the New Testament:

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see. The elders in the past were approved because they showed faith.  . . . 36 But others experienced public shame by being taunted and whipped; they were even put in chains and in prison. 37 They were stoned to death, they were cut in two, and they died by being murdered with swords. They went around wearing the skins of sheep and goats, needy, oppressed, and mistreated. 38 The world didn’t deserve them. They wandered around in deserts, mountains, caves, and holes in the ground.

39 All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. 40 God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us.  –the NRSV

Whether the stories you tell are your own, or whether you tell the old, old stories of Jesus Christ, tell them.  Make sure that your children, your grandchildren, your neighbors, and all know how God is your strength, how faith makes life manageable, how even when the clouds cover up the sun, your faith keeps the light of God’s Son shining bright.

Dear Holy Father, writer of the greatest stories ever told,

Thank you for those who told the first stories of faith

   and those telling the stories today.

Thank you for demonstrating your grace, your love,

   and your forgiveness time and time again.

Help us to hear the stories of those today

     whose faith is strong and ever growing.

Help us to share the stories of others who know you

     and stories we know because we believe, too.

May those who still have not heard the stories,

     hear them now.

May those who first hear the stories be transformed

     and discover they, too, have stories to share.  –Amen

 

 

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Breaking Sin’s Code Part 4: DONE.

 

Okay, done.  Sin’s code is broken.  Malachi never really mentioned the word ‘sin,’ but he certainly told the people of Israel that they failed to keep the commandments, especially the first one—have no other God before me.  True he outlined how the priests had failed and then how the people failed, but the major points boil down to two:

1.    Have no other God before me.

2.    Return to God and God will return to you.

The faithful simply must stay focused.

Staying focused on God is not difficult unless you are susceptible to other influences.  Yet there are methods to use that provide strength against those sinful influences—worship together with other faithfuls, serve God, study the Word, give your best to God, and listen to God.  (If those sound slightly familiar, remember the Bishop Schnase’s five fruitful practices:  radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, extravagant generosity, and risk-taking mission.)

The parallel cannot be ignored between Malachi and the Bishop’s advice.  We must practice following the commandments in a manner that demonstrates that we are God’s children.  This unlocks the mystery as to why Malachi was the last prophet before John the Baptist arrived.

The faithful were few in number, but they were still faithful.  Malachi’s prophecy was for everybody, but who followed his advice was heeded by such a few.  God told the people that they must return to God if they wanted God to return to them.

For 400 years, God did not speak to the people.  400 years!  That is almost five lifetimes, two American histories, four centennial celebrations, eight golden anniversaries, 16 silver anniversaries, or 40 decades.  Humans measure time; God’s time has no boundaries.  Still, he was quiet for 400 years.

Malachi’s closing words were meant to encourage the few faithful who were indeed listening.  The first two verses certainly show a division between the faithful and the unfaithful:

“You can be sure the day of the LORD is coming. My anger will burn like a furnace. All those who are proud will be like straw. So will all those who do what is evil. The day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD who rules over all. “Not even a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 “But here is what will happen for you who have respect for me. The sun that brings life will rise. Its rays will bring healing to my people. You will go out and leap like calves that have just been let out of the barn.

Two very different images are shown, but images the people who lived in a farming-based culture could clearly understand.  As faithful followers in today’s world, the farming-based images continue to work.  There is little doubt what Malachi was saying, even to us today, nearly 2,500 years later!

Reading Malachi’s prophecy today is just as relevant to us as it was in 430 BC.  We are still to follow God’s commandments.  True, Jesus brought the Greatest Commandment:  Love God, love one another.  Is that not what Malachi is saying?  Doesn’t the Greatest Commandment supersede or incorporate all the Ten Commandments?

For 400 years, the faithful hung on to God’s words.  The faithful did all they could to maintain the commandments.  For them, Malachi was sharing a prophecy filled with hope, with the promise of life eternal and to meet God face to face.  For those who did not follow the warnings, there was no hope for eternal life, for seeing God’s face.  All there was to look forward to, according to Malachi, was the furnace and they would burn like straw burns.

The prophecy ends with where chapter three began—with the promise of sending a messenger.  Everybody was familiar with Elijah and the relationship he had with God.  The promise from Malachi that the prophet Elijah would come before he himself would come.  The words are hopeful and fearful:

5 “I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will come before the day of the LORD arrives. It will be a great and terrifying day. 6 Elijah will teach parents how to love their children. He will also teach children how to honor their parents. If that does not happen, I will come. And I will put a curse on the land.”

The purpose of the messenger was to prepare even more faithful people to meet God.

Chronologically, we turn the page—we begin the New Testament story, another key to breaking sin’s code or hold. #

# # # #

Picture life now, 400 years after Malachi has spoken.  What has changed?  Not much, that is true.  The faithful are still faithful; they are still waiting for the next messenger or prophet.  Are they ready?

After studying Malachi and considering the chronological list of the books or stories of the New Testament, we see that both Matthew and Luke present the arrival of John, the Baptist, as the arrival of Elijah.  The timeline in Malachi is being revealed:  Return to God and God will return to you.

The faithful had broken sin’s code and had succeeded to stay focused on God to the extent that God was ready to return.   Halleluiah!

This is where we reach into the Greatest Story to be told.  We have the written report through two different sets of eyes as to what happened next.  Both Matthew and Luke begin with the birth and ministry of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus.  To follow the work of John the Baptist is to see the fulfillment of Malachi’s as well as Isaiah’s prophecy.

Listen to the story of John the Baptist in both Matthew and Luke: Matthew 3:1-12 In those days John the Baptist came and preached in the Desert of Judea.

2 He said, “Turn away from your sins! The kingdom of heaven is near.”  . . .

3 John is the one the prophet Isaiah had spoken about. He had said,  “A messenger is calling out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.    Make straight paths for him.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

4 John’s clothes were made out of camel’s hair. He had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

5 People went out to him from Jerusalem and all of Judea. They also came from the whole area around the Jordan River.

6 When they admitted they had sinned, John baptized them in the Jordan. . . .

7 John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing. He said to them, “You are like a nest of poisonous snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming of God’s anger?

8 Produce fruit that shows you have turned away from your sins.

9 Don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham even from these stones.

10 The ax is already lying at the roots of the trees. All the trees that don’t produce good fruit will be cut down. They will be thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water, calling you to turn away from your sins. But after me, one will come who is more powerful than I am. And I’m not fit to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

12 His pitchfork is in his hand to clear the straw from his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the storeroom. But he will burn up the husks with fire that can’t be put out.”

Luke 3:3-18

3 He went into all the countryside around the Jordan River. There he preached that people should be baptized and turn away from their sins.  . . . Then God would forgive them.

4 Here is what is written in the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It says, “A messenger is calling out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord.     Make straight paths for him.

5 Every valley will be filled in.     Every mountain and hill will be made level. The crooked roads will become straight.     The rough ways will become smooth.

6 And everyone will see God’s salvation.’” (Isaiah 40:3–5)

7 John spoke to the crowds coming to be baptized by him. He said, “You are like a nest of poisonous snakes! Who warned you to escape the coming of God’s anger?

8 Produce fruit that shows you have turned away from your sins. And don’t start saying to yourselves, ‘Abraham is our father.’ I tell you, God can raise up children for Abraham even from these stones.

9 The ax is already lying at the roots of the trees. All the trees that don’t produce good fruit will be cut down. They will be thrown into the fire.”

10 “Then what should we do?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “If you have extra clothes, you should share with those who have none. And if you have extra food, you should do the same.”

12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” John told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” John replied, “Don’t force people to give you money. Don’t bring false charges against people. Be happy with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting. They were expecting something. They were all wondering in their hearts if John might be the Christ.

16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But One who is more powerful than I am will come. I’m not good enough to untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

17 His pitchfork is in his hand to toss the straw away from his threshing floor. He will gather the wheat into his storeroom. But he will burn up the husks with fire that can’t be put out.”

18 John said many other things to warn the people. He also preached the good news to them. The choice of words in both is so nearly alike one cannot argue their authenticity.  The message continues that of Malachi.

1.    Have no other God before me.

2.    Return to God and God will return to you.

What does this offer the faithful today?  The same message, only this time it is even simpler because there are not eleven rules and examples, there is one: Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher,” he asked, “which is the most important commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your mind.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) This is the first and most important commandment. …

Remember this commandment; follow the words of the prophets, the disciples, and the church leaders even today.  As long as they are following the words of God, sin’s code will be and is and will always be broken.

Dear Holy God,

Thank you for the words of your prophets,

for the teachers, for the leaders, and for your Son.

Thank you for the wisdom of simple laws

to guide us in our lives.

Thank you for the promise of eternal life

and of meeting you face to face.  –Amen

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Telling the story: King Solomon’s Decision

given on Sunday, February 12, 2012

Telling the Story:  King Solomon’s Decision

What is the lesson for us to learn?

         One of my favorite teas is blackberry sage that is marketed as the “tea for wisdom.”  As I wait for the teakettle to whistle, my mind can wander around aimlessly; but when the hot water hits that tea bag, an aroma lifts up that seems to just bring all those random thoughts together.

Whether or not that specific tea really triggers wisdom or not is undoubtedly an advertising gimmick, but it does seem to make a mixed up mind slow down and begin to work a bit better for me.  I suppose in a way, just the process of making a cup of tea is the real reason the mind begins to focus.  Still, how does one develop wisdom is a question to consider.

Today’s Old Testament story continues to serve as a model of wisdom.  The judgment a young king made in a heart-wrenching disagreement serves as a foundational lesson in wisdom.  As young Jewish children were taught the law, King Solomon’s decision demonstrated the application of wisdom.

Researching the story revealed how essential the story is in the Jewish tradition.  Googling ‘King Solomon’ the first non-Wikipedia articles are from Jewish resources.  One that captured my attention was from a law office.  The entry was a detailed explanation about the decision made in the parentage of the disputed baby.

Trying to summarize the content of that article and a historical piece would be time-consuming.  But, the gist of the two Jewish references indicates that this particular judgment is culturally complicated.  Prostitution was simply one more means of economically meeting the needs of a family or of single women in a patriarchal society.  The issues of widowhood, infertility, and various social situations led to the practice.

In the legal dissertation on the story, the two women were identified as a mother and daughter who were competing to gain a socially acceptable status as a mother of a son.  The more interpretations one reads, the more complicated the story becomes.  Again, the question develops:  Why is King Solomon’s decision about the mothers’ argument used as a teaching tool?

The decision to cut the baby in half certainly grabs attention, and in today’s society downright appalling.  For us to understand the story, we need to understand the culture.  Yet, the graphic images that come to mind with this story have nothing to do with the lesson.  The lesson is about wisdom.

Consider the Old Testament struggles to keep the Jewish people focused on living a God-centered life.  The Ten Commandments seemingly would have been enough but instead laws upon laws upon laws were made controlling every facet of life.  Following that law became so complicated one may have been tempted to just stay home and not even venture outside.

The lesson appropriate today as well as in late 900 BC and early 800 BC is a God-centered life leads to wisdom.  The first verse read today is included in the dream segment.  Young King Solomon was making political decisions by “creating alliances” with other country leaders—some through marriages.  In a dream, God talks with Solomon.  God asks him what he should give him as a result of a pleasing offering.  The answer was for discernment between good and evil.

The Jewish references go in detail how Solomon made the decision, even to the point of watching the body language of the two women.  Asking God for discernment rather than for wealth or influence or any other tangible, materialistic gift pleased God.  The lesson is that asking God for things is not good, but asking God to be central in making decisions is good.

Jesus reiterates this in his ministry.  Rather than force people to learn all the minute details of the law and to live within those extremely tight guidelines, we are to look at the world through God’s eyes.  We are to make decisions as God would make them.  We are to love one another as we would love ourselves.  There is the lesson.

Remember the phrase “Judge not that you be judged”?  That verse comes from Matthew 7, part of the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus again is outlining the guidelines for living a God-centered life:

A Simple Guide for Behavior

1-5 “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.  (the Message)

Simply do not judge others.  God is in charge of judging, not us.  If we judge one another, we do not love one another.

In the Wesley Study Bible, the core term ‘judgment’ ads another dimension to the story:

Judgment is critical evaluation against a standard.  In biblical terms, the standard is the word or the law of God.  No one escapes God’s judgment . . . the Reformation tradition—including the Wesleyan tradition—places judgment in the context of grace.  Redemption is the final word—not judgment.  . . .  John Wesley. . . insisted that God’s prevenient grace opened salvation to all under judgment.  God through Christ calls everyone to respond in faith, to be forgiven, and to grow in love.  Judgment nevertheless remains an awesome reality.  Some, all of us must stand—beyond death—before the judgment throne of Christ.  (p. 1122)

God judges; not us.  We can make decisions about good and bad, but we cannot judge others and their decisions.

The lesson from King Solomon’s decision is one for us today.  We are to ask God for the ability to discern good from bad.  We are to ask God to guide us in seeing the world through his eyes.  Maybe the Jewish lawyer was right.  What the story is about is not the lesson.  The lesson is making decisions based on solid reasoning after seeing the situation through God’s loving eyes.

Another core term of Wesley points this out:

God calls us to use our minds.  God wants us to use the intellectual abilities with which we have been blessed . . . it means to love God is to develop our minds in ways that deepen or enhance our expressions of love.  . . .  Solomon developed his reasoning powers in ways that we now think of as setting the standard for wisdom.  . . .  To be wise is to know how to fully integrate the information we have stored with the situation at hand.  This integration takes into account the relationship we have with God and others.  Wise Solomon sets an example that we ought to emulate.  (p. 414)

Whether the story is remembered for the threat of cutting a living baby in half or not, King Solomon’s decision to ask God for discernment rather than riches demonstrates wisdom in the story.  The lesson for 21st century Christians is simply to love one another.  Look at the situation through God’s eyes and leave the judging to him.

Dear Wise Father,

All too often we jump to conclusions.

We look at the world through our eyes, not your eyes.

When we do, we judge.

Open our hearts and our minds today.

Give us discernment as you did King Solomon.

Guide us in using our reason in making decisions.

Help us to teach others how to love one another.

Amen.

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Telling the story: Cain & Abel

given on Sunday, January 8, 2012

Telling the Story:  Cain & Abel

 

Background:  We are moving into a calendar time known as the Sundays after Epiphany:  January 6, 12 days after Jesus’ birth, the day the Wise Men arrived.  The Christmas Story now becomes the story of Jesus’ development into the man with a new message. 

         One of the questions that has floated around in the back of my mind is why do we need to study the Old Testament once we have accepted Jesus as savior?  The more I studied the Christmas Story, I found myself thinking about how a tiny infant would be raised.  The Old Testament was the primary teaching tool for those of the Jewish Faith, and Jesus was born into a Jewish household.  He was educated with the Old Testament.

         The priests, who were the teachers, too, relied on the Old Testament stories to teach the young people the proper rules for living within the faith community as well as the secular community.  In the local culture, the secular world was structured around the Jewish faith.  Even though Jesus was God, the physical human form had to be developed and to be accepted within the community; Jesus had to grow up just like the other kids in the community.

         Looking back at the Old Testament Bible Stories understanding the culture and the educational style is the lens through which various Bible stories will be studied.  One goal is to connect the lesson from the Old Testament to a lesson in the New Testament.

Just what lesson does the Cain & Abel story teach?

Based on Genesis 4:1-15

         How can a story of one brother murdering another brother in cold blood have any positive lesson for Christians today?  Surely we do not need to hear another violent story; there is enough murder and mayhem on the nightly news, on the various drama TV episodes, and in the movie theaters.  Why this story?  How can it possibly provide us any value when the Christmas story is one of love?

The answer may lie in a verse from Mark.  As the New Testament reveals the story of Jesus’ life, the lessons in the gospels focus on one overarching theme:  love one another.  In Mark 12:30-31 the connection may provide the key:

29-31Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”  (the Message)

Cain and Abel were the first two children of Adam and Eve.  They were born after the couple ate the apple and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden.  Regardless of one’s understanding of the creation story or the sequential record of humanity’s development, the Bible stories provide a primary textbook for how to live and how not to live.  In Genesis 3 and 4, the story teaches how sin separates humans from God.

Adam and Eve failed to follow God’s law, and they were forced into the real world.  As they began their family, they experienced all the same battles families do now:  the need for the basics:  food, shelter, and clothing.  To provide for those needs, the men took various roles to work for those needs while the women continued to meet the needs by cooking, making clothing, and maintaining the homes.

Living in community, the personalities of family and non-family members differed and greed gets in the way.  The problem may have a different look in the 21st century, but it is the same problem that has created conflict throughout human history.

Cain worked as a farmer; he tilled the land and raised crops.  Abel was a rancher, so to speak.  He raised livestock rather than till the land.  The products they produced were different so the comparison of their gifts to God seems to be the source of conflict.  Cain provided an offering to God of some of his produce while Abel provided the best meat he raised.

The various interpretations of the offering agree that this is where the conflict begins.  God expected only the best to be offered, not just some of the gleanings.  The fourth verse provides readers the difference in God’s acceptance of the offerings:

Cain brought an offering to God from the produce of his farm. Abel also brought an offering, but from the firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat. God liked Abel and his offering, but Cain and his offering didn’t get his approval.

The reaction of Cain is the same as a similar experience is for us today:  he became angry.  Whether the trigger for anger is greed—Abel’s offerings were more valuable—or whether it was jealousy because Abel found more favor in God’s eyes than he did, anger took over.

As young children, early Jewish laws were taught from the Old Testament text.  Jesus, just like his peers, went to Temple for teachings and the story was used to teach them the right way to live.  The murder of one brother over the quality of the offering seems petty; yet it demonstrates that sometimes emotions boil up and lead us to make bad decisions.

Today, just like in the beginning with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and other related family members in the Old Testament, violent reactions occur over the same issues:  greed and jealousy are at the top of the list.  This week in our own metro area, the news has reported murders, robberies, and vicious behaviors that echo the Bible stories of conflict.

Have we learned any lessons?  Hopefully we have, but we need to check ourselves against the guidelines or the commandments that Jesus taught and are recorded in the New Testament.  Mark’s inclusion of the greatest commandment:

“The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.

If Cain had provided the best of his labor to God before anything else was done with his harvest, would the story ended differently?  We cannot second-guess the scripture, but we can learn the lesson.

In our lives today, are we offering God our best?  Are we passionate about our love of God?  Are we sincere in our prayers?  Do we put forth our best in using our intelligence and our energy?  Do we come to worship with the zeal that God is the basis of our lives?  Do we come to thank him for his love, his faith, and his guidance?

Cain did not.  Cain freely decided to murder his own brother out of jealousy and/or greed.  Cain sinned.

And what is the rest of the story?  Sin lead Cain to a frustrating, unhappy life.  Not only did he struggle, but also so did his family.  God did not strike Cain down; but when He did talk to Cain, he continued to show unconditional love despite his sin.

God’s punishment is that the land, where Abel’s blood was shed, would no longer produce well for Cain.  The result forced Cain to become a homeless wanderer trying to find a way to provide food, shelter and clothing.  And . . .

13-14 Cain said to God, “My punishment is too much. I can’t take it! You’ve thrown me off the land and I can never again face you. I’m a homeless wanderer on Earth and whoever finds me will kill me.”

God did not follow Cain’s behavior and kill him, no eye for an eye, or tooth for a tooth.  No . . .

15 God told him, “No. Anyone who kills Cain will pay for it seven times over.” God put a mark on Cain to protect him so that no one who met him would kill him.

God demonstrated to Cain what we are to do—he turned away from the sin, punished him, but then protected him.  There is a paradox of sorts in the story, but looking at God’s actions through the New Testament teachings one can see the application of the Greatest Commandment:  ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment  . . .

The story of Cain & Abel might first appear to be one to avoid, but if we look deeply into our personal history and our personal lives, I suspect there is a ‘Cain & Abel’ story hidden within our own lives.  Yet, it is how we deal with our sins that makes Jesus’ story so extremely important.  When we accept God’s grace, work to understand how Jesus was born, lived, and died for us, and then live our faith honestly, then we know that God’s unconditional love will provide us forgiveness and eternal life.

If Jesus can learn from the Old Testament Bible stories, then we can, too.  If we sin as Cain did, we can still turn to God and ask forgiveness.  God loves us.  Jesus loves us.  Do we love God so much that we can follow his example and love those who sin against us?  Remember Jesus’ Greatest Commandment:

29-31Jesus said, “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.”  (the Message)

As we depart today from the safety of our church, let us remember that the stories are there for us to use.  Let us go out and tell the stories so others may understand God’s love.

Dear Loving Father,

Today we hear the Old Testament Bible story

Of Cain murdering his brother Abel.

Let us find the lessons you want us to know,

Let us live the lessons we learn, and

Let us tell the stories to others

So they may also find the joy in Christian living.  –Amen

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