What Would You Say In Your Final Letter?

In a letter by Major Sullivan Ballou, Union Army’s 2nd Regiment, Rhode Island Volunteers to his wife Sarah, Sullivan wrote of his love for her and his country. He gave the “last full measure” on July 28, 1861  when the 32 year old lawyer and father of two small boys, Edgar and Willie, died on the battlefield.  If given notice by God of our demise what would we say?

Would they speak of our love or ask forgiveness for the wrongs we have done?  These are some of the final words by Major Ballou:

Sarah, my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break. The memories of the blissful moments I have spent with you come creeping over me, and I feel most gratified to God and to you that I have enjoyed them so long.

Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless and foolish I have oftentimes been!

…and if there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.

The closeness of death might render an opportunity to say words and declare feelings long held in by fear, shame or regret.  Would we ask for forgiveness or release others from their burdens by extending forgiveness?  Why is death the motivation which causes action? We can read the words from his heart and feel the anticipation the next few hours or days would bring to him and his two-thousand men.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.

Ecclesiates 7:2 (NIV)

We need to be reminded of the closeness of death and the fact we have no an idea of its approach.  Death should not cause our movement towards forgiveness and reconciliation because it is the duty of all believers to live as if death is near.  Jesus told us to take up our crosses and only the condemned carried a cross.  Death is the destiny of everyone and we should take this to heart to determine our course in all relationships.

The Bee in the Spider’s Web

I was talking with a hospice team member about what he saw in his garden one evening when a bee got entangled in a spider’s web. The smaller spider was undaunted as he attempted to subdue the eventual dinner and encapsulated the bee with the silken protein strands. The web has the tensile strength of high-grade steel and yet a strand long enough to circle the earth would weigh about eighteen ounces. The bee desperately fluttered its wings but the crafty spider covered them and the hapless bee was history. Spiders cover the prey with a digestive juice which liquefies the insect from the inside out.

But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.

James 1:14-15 (NIV)

While the example may seem harsh, it is a good example of the helpless condition of man and sin. When we try to face down the Enemy we become like the helpless insect.  Growing up without a Savior I found my life darting like the errant flight plan of the bee.  I might know the direction I wished to take but the smallest thing impeded my plans. I knew right from wrong but powerless to resist the wrong or do the right.  Anger, hatred, and malice were just some of the webs where I found myself and no matter how hard I tried I was helpless. I became enticed by evil desire flourishing into full-blown sin and the more I struggled the more I became entangled in that dreaded sin.  The Enemy slowly wrapped me in his web because it was the sin which lived in me.

Paul calls us more than conquerors through him who loved us.  We are not merely a strong army but an empowered force by him who loved so we can resist the Enemy and have an overwhelmingly powerful victory.  Jesus said the “gates of hell” will not be able to resist.  Gates are for defense and not for offense since they cannot move from their foundations.  We are the super-conquerors and we need to take it to the Enemy.  We are no longer in the trap—he is the trapped foe of Jesus, struggling now in the last gasping hours before his eventual defeat.

Running the Race

As I drive to work, I am often met with heavy tractor-trailers with a “wide load” sign across the end of the rig, moving slowly up and down the West Virginia hills.  Often these mammoth trucks have escort cars leading the way with yellow warning lights to alert others of the slow moving convoy.  These cars have poles raised to the height of the truck and its load so they will know if approaching overpasses will prove to be a problem and force the convoy off its planned path.  As the truck lumbers along the highway, other trucks and cars are forced to move farther away to avoid being clipped by the extra wide contents.  Many Christians try to run the race of the Christian life like these trucks–over burdened by sin and things of life which keep them from running as swiftly as they could.   
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,   (Hebrews 12:1 NIV)
A few years ago I led a youth weekend retreat called “Running the Race” with Hebrews 12:1-2 as the theme verse.  We went to a ten-thousand acre Christian retreat center called Faith Ranch in Scio, Ohio.  As we arrived, we gave each teen a painter’s bucket and told them the rules of the event.  Each time they grumbled, complained, or showed disrespect to each other or an adult leader,they would get a load of lava rocks for their buckets.  They were required to carry these buckets 24 hours a day and if they tried to abandon the bucket, more rocks.  If they went to the bathroom–the bucket was with them.  If they went to bed–the bucket was with them.  The only place it did not go was on the horseback rides, but, they were placed at the entrance to the corral waiting for them when they finished.  As they left they had to pick up the ever increasing volume of rocks in their buckets–they were of course–teenagers. On Saturday night at the foot of a cross erected at the retreat center, we showed them it was not just sin which could come between them and the Lord.  These things, such as friends, family, technology, and even church activities, could hinder or slow ithem down in the Christian’s race as a teenager. We had a prayer for these things and they laid the rocks at the foot of the cross and the word, FORGIVEN, was written on the bottom of the bucket and given to each student. The burdens of sin or the things of this world weigh us down and prevent us from running as we should.     
In the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Tanzanian runner John Stephen Ahkwari was the last runner in the marathon.  He came in about an hour and a half after the winner, practically carrying his leg, as it was so bloodied and bandaged. He was asked,  “Why did you keep going?” He said, “You don’t understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start a race, they sent me to finish it.”(SpeedEndurance.com)  God did not save us to start the Christian race but to finish it and we need to make sure we run the race well and not lumber along. 

Does God Laugh?

A recent controversy has occurred over Pastor Joe Nelms prayer at a NASCAR race when he thanked God for his wife.  In his prayer, “Lord, I want to thank you for my smokin’ hot wife tonight, Lisa” followed the example given by Will Ferrell in the racing movie, Talladega Nights.  “I want to get somebody’s attention, so that’s been our desire every time we’ve been up there, to try to make an impact on the fans and give them something they’ll remember, and maybe they’ll go home on a Friday night or a Saturday night and say, ‘Maybe I ought to get up and go to church in the morning,'” Nelms said.  (Fox News.com)  Of course there are those who may grumble under their breath at what this pastor has done.  We never see the image of a laughing God.  He is seen as stern, expressionless, and void of any emotion.  Did  Jesus, who is God in the flesh, ever crack a joke with his disciples; did he laughed or smiled in his lifetime here?  In Psalm 2, God is said to laugh at the thoughts and plans of sinful man. I was told by a seminary professor when Jesus told his disciples to give the hungry something to eat, it was stated in a joking manner since he knew they could nothing about the need.
In the world today someone is going to be offended by a believer’s prayer.  A veteren’s cemetary in Houston, Texas has a director named Arleen Ocasio who has banned the name Jesus or God in any service conducted at the cemetary. 
“Local veterans say the Department of Veterans Affairs is consistently censoring their prayers, banning them from saying the words “God,” and “Jesus” during funeral services at Houston National Cemetery.  Three separate organizations have come forward complaining the cemetery’s director and other government officials are violating the First Amendment. Members from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and the National Memorial Ladies all complain of “religious hostility” at the cemetery.” (Kaffir Kanuck)
God is definitely laughing if man thinks they can stop anyone from saying his name or the name of Jesus.  When the Berlin Wall fell, Western Christians presumed they would have a bountiful harvest of converts from seventy years of communism.  Suprisingly they found an underground church movement alive and well, and all the while God laughed at the communist government’s futile attempts to stop him.  I may not have thanked God for my “smoking hot wife” on national television but I am thankful for Vicki.  God knew the pastor would say what he did, and I wonder if God is more like the Morgan Freeman’s character of God in Bruce Almighty, with humor and a smile, and less like the picture of God as a heavenly cop with a baton waiting for us to mess up. You decide.

Circumstances Change in A Blink of An Eye

Yesterday I received an email during church and since I was on call, I had it on vibrate if I had to leave for a patient or family with hospice.  When opened, it was from a nurse now in labor having her first child.  We had joked about setting a date and I choose August 1, which is my birthday.  Her text made me smile because she apologized because it was happening one week earlier.  At lunch with my wife, I sent someone a message I would be visiting her father in a facility and she replied she was in the middle of a crisis and call her friend, a team member for more information.  The lady’s boyfriend had a swimming pool injury and had been sent by helicopter to a Pittsburgh hospital.  Vicki and I considered driving the seventy miles to be with her but God sent a cousin of the injured man, a pastor, to be with them and have prayer. 
Sometimes the events of life fall on us like rain and we cannot escape them but continue to walk eventually being soaked to the skin.  We wonder where God is and why he does this to his children.  The Bible says “all” things work for the good, but in the turbulent times of life we may wonder why.  No one is exempt from the troubles of life. 
The righteous person may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all;  Psalm 34:19
Troubles happen no matter who we are–believer or non-believer.  Some of the troubles are self-created from wrong behavior, attitudes or ethical choices.  Others may be sent from the enemy but used by God to refine and perfect us.  Then again, some may just happen because of the fallen condition of this world and everyone in it.  In the Psalm 34, the very word, deliver, refers to being snatched or drawn  out, such as a shepherd would do with a sheep which had become entangled in briers or a pit.  While Psalm 50 tells us those who have forgotten God do not have someone to “deliver” them, we can be assured God will deliver us. 
Lastly, we know the God who delivers is also the God who plans.  In those plans he has the best for us–prosper and not harm and for hope and a future.  Prosperity does not mean wealth as today but the Hebrew speaks of understanding and insight.  What a great gift God gives to those who love him–insight and understanding of his acts and actions.  Just as Joseph understood the dreams God had given him which led to his position as second to Pharaoh, those who have been given understanding then can see God’s actions clearly.  He also gives to those a second promise–no harm.  If deliverance speaks of salvation, then harm would be destruction and God gives us a future. 
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  Jeremiah 29:11
The circumstances of our life may be like the ups and downs of the ocean, but don’t worry, for Jesus calmed the storm, both the winds and the waves, and his disciples wondered what sort of man this Jesus was.  You know!  The tomb is empty and you have a future because the tomb IS empty. 
I enjoy trains so much my desire was riding in a real locomotive.  A friend of mine was a superintendent for a short line in South Carolina and invited me to visit his railroad anytime I was in the state.  A few years ago on the way to Florida, we stopped and he took us out to the yard where a 250,000 pound engine sat.  I boarded and sat in the brakeman’s seat when Rich offered me the other seat–the engineer’s!  I sat down and he instructed me how to operate the engine and slowly I moved it forward and backward in the yard.  I was overjoyed and was able to cross one more thing off of my bucket list.  We all have seen various train cars sitting on the siding waiting for the locomotive pick them up and bring them where they are to go.  Going back and forth to college years ago I took the train from Newport News, VA to Providence, RI and whether it was diesel or electric powered, without the engine I would never have arrived at my destination. 
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  John 15:5
Various writers have suggested the fruit is converts or the ethics of the Christian life.  In the IVP Commentary of the New Testament for John, one writer said the fruit is the knowledge of God.  In the picture of the vine and the branches the branch produces fruit, but without the support of the vine there would be nothing.  The vine provides nutrients and water for sustaining the life of the branch. With this support from the vine the branches can then do what branches do: make fruit.  A believer can share in the thoughts, emotions, intentions and power of Christ if they chose to remain in him.  As Christ has full knowledge of God the Father, a believer chooses to remain in Christ and this knowledge thus produces the fruit of converts and ethical behavior. 
To remain in Christ requires submission.  In my book, Broken Vows Shattered Lives (Xulon Press, 2009), I speak of submission within marriage following the submission we see in the Trinity.  Christ is in submission to the Father and unable to do anything except the Father showed him.  Also, he said the Holy Spirit would not speak on his own but what Jesus told him to say.  While the word, submission means obedience and yielding, the opposite is resistance and defiance.  God provided the initiative and the means so man can have the full knowledge of him.  It is our response to this intiative and the desire to remain in Christ which determines fruit. Without him, we could do nothing. 

Even Broken Pieces Are Useful

My first sermon was on Jeremiah 18 and the Potter’s house as God shows the prophet his power to form the clay of his creation into a useful pot.  You can imagine the potter taking a lump of clay and with constant spinning of the wheel, begins to form it into a vessel he has planned in his mind.  With both hands in the lump, his nimble fingers feel the clay to find foreign material which would make the pot useless. If it remained it would cause cracking in the pot during the firing process.  God removes imperfections from us in the formation process to have a useful vessel. 
A potter would not make something to leave on the shelf but something which is useful.  If it was his business and his reputation, the quality of the pot would speak of his abilities.  If he tried to pass a pot which had imperfections as quality, his reputation would suffer.  God’s reputation is on the line in each and every one of us and he is continually working with both hands, one inside and the other on the outside, to form us into a vessel of his workmanship.  He continually reforms us into the image of his Son by the quiet teaching of the Holy Spirit as well as people on the outside.  The continual pressure of these two things are God’s loving way to take a lump of clay and form it into a priceless vessel.  
But what about the broken  pieces?  Years ago in a restaurant they were laying a tile floor.  The boxes of tiles arrived and the workers immediately began to break them into hundreds of pieces in a wheel barrow.  I was perplexed until I saw them lay the tile as a mosaic and with the sandy grout made in the restaurant a slip-free flooring.  God also takes the broken pieces of our lives and forms them into a useful product if we will let him.  Nothing to waste!  The broken pieces and the perfected pot both speak of his powerful plan as the Master Potter. 

The Proof is in the Bread

Before I entered into the ministry I earned my Bachelor’s degree from Johnson & Wales University with an emphasis on food and beverage management.  Part of my degree involved culinary arts and one class I had was breads with Chef Barstein.  When you scale out the ingredients from the formula (baking is a science and requires exact measurements and temps.) you place them into the mixer to begin the process of bread making.  When the ball of dough separates from the sides of the bowl, you cover and allow the twenty or thirty pounds of dough to proof.  The first proof, also called proving, means the rising of the dough due to fermentation by the yeast.  It requires a warm and moist area for the dough to rise to its optimum.  Then the baker will take his fist and punch the dough to release the gases for the beginning of the final proof. 

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. (John 6:35-36 NIV)

Just as most breads are proofed or proved, so did the Son of Man prove himself by the very fact of his first coming.  He chose to give up all the glory, power and worship from the hosts of heaven to put on the confinement of human flesh so we could know God.  He lived the life man was originally to have and showed us the way those who eat of this “flesh” can live.  He loves with such a love that he was willing to die for us. Just as any good baker knows before the final proofing or proving, the dough must be punched. Jesus was himself punched by evil men who laid hands upon him, beat him, spat upon him, whipped him, crucified and buried him in the tomb. 

But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you. Romans 8:10-11

Then the second proof or proving is the Resurrection and the power behind it which comes from God.  The resurrection is the one proof of Christianity and the blessed hope of overcoming this dead and dying mortal body in which we live. The Spirit which gives life because of the righteousness of Christ brings to believers a freedom from the fear and curse of sin and death.  So, the proof is in the bread–The Bread of Life. 

Clydesdales-A Statement on Four Legs

This week the famous Budweiser Clydesdale eight horse hitch will come to Wheeling, WV and we will be on hand to see the over eight tons of horse flesh pull the red, white and gold beer wagon. With its riders, this tradition started directly after Prohibition was repealed when August Busch Jr. bought the first hitch team for his father, August Busch Sr.  The addition of the dalmatian dog started in the fifties because dogs were used to keep people from stealing beer from the wagon during deliveries. (www. seaworld.org)  The horses became an instant hit and are routinely featured as part of the Anheuser-Busch Brewing Company’s advertising with the Super Bowl.  Horses have also been used in warfare since the time of the Sumerians around 2500 BC.  From the lighter calvary horse to the heavier class horse used for the well armoured knight of Europe, the use of horses aided armies as a tool of warfare but today are used for ceremonies and demonstrations instead of active combat. 

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. They are brought to their knees and fall,but we rise up and stand firm. Psalm 20:7-8 (NIV)

When Moses asked God his name, He simply replied, “I AM THAT I AM!”  This name refers to God’s mercy and his condescension toward man while Elohim is the God of Creation with power, strength, and justice.(http://www.hebrew4christians.com/)  While his name is above all others, most of the time the names are used to refer to a divine characteristic of YHWH.  One such name is Yeshua, or the God who saves his people.  Jesus came as God in flesh and Isaiah 9:6 tells us:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,and his name shall be calledWonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince ofPeace.(Isaiah 9:6 ESV)

The Busch companies have to keep a farm to continually raise new horses as others retire and die.  War horses can be killed or the captured could be used by the enemy against you during a conflict.  Those who trust in the name YESHUA, will be saved and will stand firm.  After all, horses need to be bred to remain calm in the face of the enemy, Jesus stood toe to toe with Satan and didn’t flinch in the desert, but rebuked him with the very words of God.  Why not!  They were his to begin with.

Faith, Fireworks and the Darkened Night

Last evening a small group of our church met for a fellowship meal and conversation.  The group included newly-wed couples to those with college-age children. The group brought an assortment of foods, backgrounds, interests, hopes and dreams but the one thing which united them into one was faith.  Jesus calls the people who have seen and followed the light, ekklesia, or those who are called out  or a special assembly.  Formerly a political word, it has entered into the Christian lexicon to mean church.  Like a formal church, this small group is made up of believers with each one gifted to become servants for Christ.  We met at Darrin and Tammy’s home, complete with swimming pool and hot tub and the group settled in for several hours of conversations of various topics until dark.  Darrin and Tammy have a fireworks business and before we left, several men went with Darrin, a trained and licensed pyro-technician to set up and launch various fireworks into the dark night.  It was then, looking around I saw this dramatic display in the sky playing out in the lives of these people of faith.

For hardship does not spring from the soil, nor does trouble sprout from the ground. Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward. “But if I were you, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. Job 5:6-8 (NIV)

All of mankind is born for troubles like the sparks coming off of the the flare used last night to ignite the fireworks display. But when a sinner comes to Christ in faith they become like the light from the pyro-technics.  As the believer grows in their faith, supported and nurtured by other believers, they rise like skyrockets into last night’s  darkness.  At a time of God’s timing, their faith explodes to the oohs of others sitting in a dark and sinful world watching the power of God change their lives.  This visible light show reflects the actions of the church sending forth small pictures of the perfect Light and the power to save. 

As we were about to depart, Psalm 133 was read:

How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along! It’s like costly anointing oil flowing down head and beard, Flowing down Aaron’s beard, flowing down the collar of his priestly robes. It’s like the dew on Mount Hermon flowing down the slopes of Zion. Yes, that’s where God commands the blessing,ordains eternal life. Psalm 133 The Message

One couple told the teachers of the marriage class they would not be were they are both spiritually and professionally if it was not for The Marriage Course taken at the church. Faith, food, and fireworks–a picture of the work of Christ in the life of believers.