Greater Love Hath No Man…

One hundred four years ago today, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month or 1918, the warring nations of Europe and the World fell silent as an Armistice was signed ending the “Great War” (later known as World War I). The War had been devastating in its scope and violence. Millions of people lost their lives; millions more were wounded and permanently scarred by the fighting. Entire cities had been leveled; farms and villages had been ravaged, and economies would take decades to recover.

“The War to End All Wars” did not. It was a failure in almost every regard. Bitterness built up in the decades between 1918 and 1938, spilling into another devastating war. All the noble efforts to promote peace and unity broke down. All those lives sacrificed in the hope of bringing lasting peace were lost, seemingly in vain. And for the soldier who survived, there was continued hardship, struggle, and often, life-long pain and suffering.

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Today, we honor those who have risked their lives to serve their county/countries. Soldiers, medics, chaplains, and innocent civilians who risk their lives do so for a reason. Often, we lose sight of the reasons after so many years, but the primary reason for most soldiers is the protection of loved ones back home and fellow soldiers in the fight. Many of us live lives of comfort and safety, little knowing the dangers of war, famine, and extreme hardship. But soldiers know a life of privation, courage in the face of fear, and the searing loss of violent death. And most of them know this life as a voluntary sacrifice. They willingly lay down their lives, both figuratively and sometimes literally, to save, protect, and improve the lives of others. It is fitting and right to honor such commitment and sacrifice.

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Jesus, when speaking to His disciples at the Last Supper, said,  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14 ESV) After all these years, many of us look at these verses as a moral principle, but not as a commandment. Jesus did not say, “I would really like it if you would love each other sacrificially,” or “I would prefer if you treated each other the way I treated you.” He gave it as a command that we love as Jesus loved.

So that begs the question, “How did Jesus love His disciples?” Ultimately, He DID lay down His life, paying for their sins (and ours) through His death on the cross. There has never been a greater sacrifice, not on the battlefield, not in public service, nowhere in Heaven or on Earth. But Jesus also gave us several examples of “sacrifice” in His life with the disciples. He served. He forgave. He loved. He nurtured and taught. He listened.

It used to be popular to compare Christians to soldiers– to promote service, sacrifice, and discipline in the Christian walk. This has largely fallen out of fashion, as society has diminished the role of the soldier, and the respect it used to give them. But the Apostle Paul used the comparison often, even listing the Christian’s “armor” in Ephesians 6:10-18. We should put on the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, the shoes of the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Of course, we are not commanded to kill, main, or promote warfare and destruction. But we ARE called to be prepared to die for– and LIVE for– the cause of Christ. We are to train, prepare, and stand firm in the Faith. More that that, we are commanded to serve– even sacrificially– our brothers and sisters; we are to be willing to lay down our lives for others.

Today, as we reflect on the sacrifices made in the past, let us renew our commitment to love like Jesus, to serve like soldiers, and to stand firm in our commitment to the One who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us. And, especially in a world that does not know peace, let us pray for those who are touched by war, famine, hardship, violence, and loss. Let us work to bring peace, forgiveness, and practical help to those around us who suffer.

The Blessings of a Faithful Grandmother

Yesterday, my wonderful maternal grandmother would have celebrated her 110th earthly birthday. I have so many happy memories of times spent with her– of shared laughter and tears, walking barefoot through many yards and gardens, “overnights,” looking through her button tin, or her old jewelry box, helping her make homemade egg noodles, or cherry pie… But more than all these, I remember the feelings of peace, joy, and unconditional love whenever she was near.

My Grandmother, Beulah B.

Gram was one of the wisest persons I ever knew. She was patient and kind with everyone. I cannot remember ever hearing her say a spiteful or sarcastic word. She had a quiet sense of humor, and made everyone feel welcome and valuable. She was generous– not just with gifts, but with time and attention, especially for children. She was a hard worker, but she never seemed to look frenzied or “overworked.”

She and my grandfather were married for almost 63 years. She lived with him through many difficult times– during the Great Depression, there were many times when they could not be sure where they would live or what they would eat. Many nights were spent sleeping in spare rooms with family members. Grandad went to war in 1942, and Gram “held down the home front”– taking care of two little girls, and working the night shift as a riveter, while living with her parents. Things were better financially after the war, but Gram kept working– this time as a secretary. She and Grandad still moved around a lot–rented homes, apartments, mobile homes–each time making it look and feel better than it had ever been, or ever would be again. Gram planted flowers everywhere; Grandad collected animals. At the time of her death, Gram and Grandad were living in a rented house– the very house where Gram had been born 82 years earlier!

Gram’s given name was Beulah, named for her paternal grandmother. Her name means “married.” And Gram lived up to her name, and all it suggests. She was faithful, fruitful, and a wonderful companion and champion in her marriage. When she died, my grandfather was lost without her. We nearly lost him that very day. He only lived another four months after she passed.

If I had to choose a word to describe Gram, above all others, it would be faithful. She was faithful in everything she did– faithful to her marriage, faithful to her children and extended family, faithful at work, and faithful to God. Gram’s Bible was worn, and old, but she lived out its pages every day. Her trust in God was absolute– and it had been tested through all the hard times she had experienced. She KNEW she could trust in God’s provision and timing, because she had experienced it first hand. She did not make a fuss about her deep faith, nor did she ever deny the source of her peace and strength. Her life was not easy, but it was bountiful!

Today, as I reflect on her legacy, I am so grateful for her quiet example in my own life, and in the lives of others. I pray that I may leave such an impression before I pass on– that someone will be inspired to a lasting faith and find joy in their life’s journey because I have been faithful. Below is one of her favorite hymns: (I especially enjoy the piano in this clip, because it is close to how my Gram would have played it!)

“He Didn’t Come For Me…”

I’ve mentioned several times on this blog how much I love the book/movie, “The Princess Bride.”

At one point in this fractured fairy tale, the title character, Buttercup– THE princess bride, is waiting to be rescued by her true love, Westley. She has supreme confidence that he will rescue her from having to marry the evil Prince Humperdink. But Humperdink is equally confident that Westley will NOT come– because he knows that the wicked Count Rugen has (supposedly) killed him! As the stuffy archbishop pronounces Buttercup and Humperdink ,”man and wife,” Buttercup is stunned. She keeps repeating, “He didn’t come for me.” She cannot imagine a future in which Westley does not show up and save the day. Her hopes are shattered, and she walks in a fog to the bridal suite, where she prepares to kill herself in despair.

I don’t want to give away everything, but Buttercup’s plans take an unexpected and miraculous turn before the end of the story.

I was reminded of “The Princess Bride” yesterday morning as I sat with my husband, trying to figure out what was happening with his blood pressure. He and I have been battling COVID, and he spent a week in the hospital. He has been home for several days now, and has been improving steadily, until early Sunday morning, when his blood pressure started rising. There were no other symptoms, and we consulted a doctor, who talked us through a course of action, but there was little to nothing they could do for him at the emergency room, unless he had chest pain, paralysis, or a splitting headache, which would indicate possible heart attack or stroke. We increased his oxygen intake level, kept his legs elevated, and his blood pressure came down.

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Then, last night, it happened again. No warning; no other symptoms. We made sure he had plenty of oxygen, elevated his legs, continued doing what we had done in the morning. Slowly, the blood pressure reading came back down– still high, but not dangerously so. We’ve prayed for healing– dozens of other family and friends have prayed for healing. Everything seemed to be going fine– why this? Why now?

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It is so tempting to imagine our story will be smooth and predictable– even when we have a struggle or set-back– to believe that better days and easier times are just around the next corner. And when it doesn’t happen the way we hope or expect, we want to question God– “Why didn’t you come?” “Why did you delay?” “Why didn’t you send word that I would have to go through this?”

But God HAS sent word– there are dozens of examples in which God delays, or simply does not send a swift and easy rescue. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son– and then delayed 25 years! On top of that, God asked Abraham to take Isaac, the son of the Promise, to be a sacrifice! God showed up–just as Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son. God rescued Abraham and Isaac from their ordeal, but it was a nail-biter! (See Genesis 12-22)

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God rescued His people from their slavery in Egypt, and led them straight into a trap! Caught between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, the Israelites seemed to be sitting ducks. How could they have imagined that God would open the sea so they could cross on dry land? Having been rescued in such a miraculous way, the Israelites should have had absolute confidence in God– but instead, they complained about food, complained about the leadership, complained about the weather–even as they could see God’s presence in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night! God rescued them over and over again in the midst of their struggle (and their lack of faith!). (See the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

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Daniel was taken into exile as a teenager– over fifty years later, after God had protected him and put him in a place of great power and prestige, Daniel was set up by his enemies and condemned to be eaten by lions. God did not rescue him by removing the lions or overturning Daniel’s sentence. Daniel had no reason to know that God would rescue him at all. But God’s ways are not our ways. God’s way was to shut the mouths of the lions– something ONLY God could do–proving to Darius, to Daniel’s enemies, and to all who heard about it that God was more powerful and more loving than even our wildest imagination. God rescued Daniel through his harrowing experience– and even brought judgment on Daniel’s enemies in the process.(See Daniel 6)

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And the list goes on– Jacob, Joseph, Ruth, Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego, the prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and others, kings like David and Hezekiah, the exiles of Israel, the Apostle Paul, Queen Esther, Simon Peter, Jesus’ friend Lazarus, the martyr Stephen. Many of these people went through famine, disease, prison, death threats, and even death itself! Yet God preserved their stories for OUR benefit. God reassures us that He is the God of the living and the dead– death cannot stop true love (another of my favorite lines from The Princess Bride)! Nothing can separate us from God’s loving and wise and perfect care!

I don’t know what today will bring for David and me. I don’t know if we will have to return to the hospital, or if they can help restore his blood pressure to “normal.” I don’t know if I will have a sudden relapse or complications from COVID. I don’t know what future changes, adjustments, or griefs we will have to bear. But I do know this– God is with us!

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Sometimes, God rescues us FROM a situation; sometimes He rescues us IN a situation; and sometimes He rescues us THROUGH a situation. We don’t know how God plans to show up and work in our lives over the next weeks. But we know we can trust Him to do what only God can do, and faithfully see us through the rest of our lives.

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I pray that if you are facing unexpected difficulties today, that God will cause you to be strengthened and reassured. He loves you. He sees you. He knows where you are, and, better yet, He knows the road ahead!

The Lord Has Taken Away…

20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Job 1:20-21 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
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The book of Job presents us with a startling picture. Job is a godly man; a righteous man; a man of faith and good works. And yet, God allows him to experience loss upon loss– Job loses everything, short of his life and his nagging, bitter wife. His first response is praise and worship! But as the losses sink in; as the pain and agony and grief continue, Job questions God’s justice and wisdom. Job, like us, wants answers that make sense. He is willing to suffer– even greatly–IF he can see the purpose of his suffering, and justify it to himself.

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We are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S.– a day when we celebrate what God has given us. We normally celebrate family, health, good food, material blessings, etc. We celebrate abundance and comfort; peace and plenty; family and freedom. But his year, our celebration will be quite different. The Lord has taken away…

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Some of us have lost jobs, or we’ve lost our good health to COVID or related factors, or we’ve lost loved ones, often without the chance to say our final “goodbyes”. Millions of us have lost the ability to move about freely and conduct “normal” errands and activities. Schools and businesses are closed or operating from a distance. Families and friends have been kept apart. Much that gave us comfort and happiness has been “taken away” this year. And God has allowed it all to unfold. He has not “taken away” this disease or its consequences. He has not “taken away” floods, or fires, or hurricanes. He has not given us answers or explanations.

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Job’s initial praise turns to questioning. While he does not “curse God and die,” as his wife suggests, Job spends his time wondering, “Why me?” His friends try to find answers– “you must have done something to deserve this, Job.” Because God does not “punish” the righteous. It isn’t logical; it isn’t fair; it isn’t just.

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Except that God laid on His own Son– on Himself– the guilt and punishment for all those who are unrighteous. What Job went through–unknown and unseen to him and his friends–was a glimpse into what God Himself would suffer. Christ lost everything–INCLUDING his life– in order to bring salvation to all those who are willing to believe and receive it. Christ was willing to give away His dignity, His power, His friends and family, and His life. And the Lord allowed it all to be taken.

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Many people read the story of Job– his loss and all his questions and complaints–and conclude that God is not fair or just. They find Him to be capricious and unwilling to ease Job’s suffering or answer his questions. They conclude that God is wicked and unworthy of Job’s praise or trust.

But to do so is to ignore the end of the story– God DOES “answer” Job; He gives Job a chance to justify himself and bring his case. And more than that– He gives Job more than he had before. Job ends up with more children to love, renewed health, and even more wealth than he lost. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Job+42&version=CSB And the same is true of Jesus Christ. Because of His “loss,” the world has gained the priceless gift of Salvation by Grace. Christ has become the first of millions to taste victory over death and enter into eternal life. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+15%3A20-23&version=NIV

Loss and grief still exist in this world; disease and suffering and hardship still plague us this year. But we have SO much to celebrate at Thanksgiving. When the Lord “takes away,” it is not because He is capricious, or jealous of our wealth or happiness. It is not because He is unkind or uncaring. At just the right time, and forever more, the Lord will Give without end– lavishly, extravagantly, abundantly. Nothing He takes away in this life– even a cherished love one–is beyond all hope of comfort, redemption, or restoration. Our losses cannot compare to the riches of His Grace and Love. This is a great mystery, but as Job discovered, God WILL DO IT!

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Blessed be the name of the Lord! Let us Thank and Praise His Holy Name!

Afraid to Call?

Some fears are understandable. Some fears are even logical. Some are not. I wouldn’t say that I am “afraid” of most things. I don’t spend hours of my life being afraid of unlikely events, like being struck by lightning or choking to death on a cracker. I have a healthy fear of electricity and fire. I don’t tempt fate by walking along the edge of cliffs or hanging out of thirty-story windows (both of which are rare where I come from, anyway) . But I have two phobias– irrational fears–that plague me. The first is my fear of snakes. My fear of snakes has not ruined my life, but it has caused me to limit activities– mostly nature walks– where I might be exposed to seeing a snake. I avoid the reptile house at the zoo; I avoid visiting places where snakes are more common. I don’t like to see pictures of them; I don’t watch “snake” movies.

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The second fear is more irrational and causes more problems in my daily life. I am afraid of phones. This doesn’t mean that I cannot make a phone call, or ever answer the phone. But if anyone asks about the best way to contact me, I always suggest e-mail, texts, or other forms of communication. I don’t like hearing the phone ring. I don’t like making calls. I don’t like answering calls. And it has little to do with who is on the other end. It has much more to do with the medium. I can’t see the other person’s face; I can’t predict whether or not the other person is busy or distracted; whether they want a quick answer or a lengthy talk; whether the conversation will end well or leave one (or both) of us at a loss. People call at their convenience–not at the convenience of the person at the other end. Are they in the middle of cooking dinner? Taking a shower? Having an important conversation with a spouse or child?

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But if I determine never to make or receive a phone call, I will miss other important conversations– family members who live far away; business that cannot be conducted in person; appointments that need to be set up; news about births, deaths, hospitalizations, even prayers and prayer requests.

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I say all this because I knew there are some people who have a phobia about prayer. They are afraid to pray– not just in public, but even privately. They fear that they will say the wrong thing, or that they will “bother” God with their petitions. Some fear that God will not hear their prayer or that they will not get an answer. Some are afraid that they will “get what they pray for”– that God will hear their prayer and answer it, but that the answer will involve change, hardship, or pain that they were hoping to avoid. Some fear that their prayers will not be “good enough;” that God will misunderstand their motives or be offended by their words or their lack of knowledge. Some people are afraid of God– that He will reject them and their prayers because of something they have done or the way they have lived in the past.

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Prayer is not meant to be intimidating or difficult. It is healthy to have awe for God. Even “fear” of God– He holds the power of life and death; He cannot be fooled or mocked or bargained with; He knows everything about us, including our thoughts and our past–God is not to be trifled with, even in prayer. But God invites us to pray. He calls us to come to Him; He seeks our fellowship, no matter what we’ve done or what words we string together. There is no magical “prayer formula”– no phrases or special “religious” words or a certain ritual or routine– that we must use to be heard. God– who formed the universe and keeps it running– is never too busy or too distracted to listen to us. Even groans and whimpers are important to Him.

Don’t be “afraid to pray.” And don’t let a fear keep you from praying. Pray through the fear– draw near to God– and He has promised to draw near to you.

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Many years ago, I prayed to God, that He would increase my patience. I had well-meaning people– even pastors and other Christians– who told me not to do it. They were afraid that God’s answer to such a prayer would bring difficulty– that God would answer my prayer by making me go through hard times to learn patience. And He did just that. I wanted to be married and have a family–and I spent nearly 30 years waiting and learning patience! But I would not go back and undo those years. God answered my prayer and He gave me a wonderful husband and family– in His time. Sometimes in those decades of wondering and hurting, I had pain. But I — also had many blessings in singleness–opportunities I had never planned on, changes in perspective, unforeseen experiences and relationships that, I think, prepared me to be a better person and a better wife than I would have been at age 18 or 20.

My prayer for patience was something I felt strongly about– and patience is a Godly thing; it is an aspect of the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). I wasn’t praying for money or fame or a life without struggles. In fact– I wasn’t praying that God would “make me” patient. People who believe that my years of waiting for a husband were the direct result of my prayer for increased patience assume that God changed the circumstances of my life to force me to learn a lesson. But what if God changed my desires to match my circumstances? What if, knowing that I would marry after age 45, God put that prayer in my young and impatient heart? If I hadn’t asked for patience, would I have taken matters into my own hands and tried to “make” a family in my way and my time? Would I have experienced more pain– and brought pain to others– if I hadn’t learned patience?

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God knows what we need. He knows that there WILL be trouble and hardship in our lives. And He knows that we can survive, and even thrive, in times of trouble, because He will be there with us. Nothing about prayer should make us afraid. Nothing about God’s answers should cause us not to seek His face. He loves us extravagantly; He knows us intimately; He controls and safeguards our future with perfect power.

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And we don’t need to use a phone to call on Him!

Death Cannot Stop True Love

I’ve spent the past few days revisiting one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride. The movie is based on a “fractured” fairy tale, written by William Goldman. In it, a spoiled young farm girl falls in love with a lowly farm hand. When he leaves to make his fortune, the girl promises to wait for his return. When word comes back that he has been killed, she swears that she will never love again, and becomes a pawn of a wicked prince.

** SPOILER ALERT**

Of course, her true love, Westley, has not been killed, and when he finally finds Buttercup, she has agreed to marry the wicked prince, who has had her kidnapped and plans to kill her. “Why didn’t you wait for me?, ” Westley asks. “Well..you were dead,” replies Buttercup. “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it a while, ” says the intrepid Westley, to which Buttercup replies, “I will never doubt again.”

In true fairy-tale fashion, Westley and Buttercup must face many obstacles, including all the dangers of the “fire swamp,”capture, torture, a fake marriage ceremony, and Westley being “mostly dead”– again– before they can have their happy ending. But in the end, “true love” wins over all trials and obstacles, and Westley and Buttercup “live happily ever after.”

We live in a post-modern age, where people tend to sneer at notions like fairy tales, true love, and “happily ever after.” We are more likely to echo the words of the bitter Dread Pirate Roberts, who tells Princess Buttercup that “life is pain, highness, and anyone who tells you differently is selling something.” Ironically, the Dread Pirate Roberts is really Westley in disguise. His life is filled with painful trials, and “inconceivable” obstacles, but he perseveres, and his “happily ever after” makes all that came before fade from memory. Because, in the end, death CANNOT stop true love. It may take a few miracles, and lots of patience, forgiveness, and faith, but true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 ESV)

God’s love is true– it is sure and enduring. God’s presence goes with us even into the valley of the shadow of death–even if the shadows and darkness block our sight; even if death seems sure to win. His rod and staff are not tools of torture and dread, but reminders that He is there to guide us, even if we cannot see His face in the gloom.

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Life is filled with pain–and Westley was right; anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. God doesn’t promise that our path will always be on smooth ground in sunny pastures. We may face separation from loved ones, flame spurts and quicksand, betrayal by friends, battles with giants, wicked rulers, even rodents of unusual size. But in each of these situations, we have God’s very presence to comfort us and help us endure to the end. And the “happily ever after?” It is eternal and glorious like nothing we have ever known or even imagined.

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Fairy tales are not real– but God’s word is. The very reason such tales and myths and legends endure is because they echo what we know to be true– Truth, and Love, and Justice, and Honor, and Hope, and Faith–they are eternally enduring and strong. We recognize the truth that “Death cannot stop true love– all it can do is delay it for a while.” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A31-39&version=ESV

The Three-and-a-Half Miracles of Inigo Montoya

**Spoiler alert** If you have not seen this movie, or read the book, I will be disclosing large portions of the plot in the paragraphs below.

I love the movie, The Princess Bride. Though it is not a “spiritual” tale, and not meant to be a Christian allegory, I find a lot of Biblical truth in this story. In my last post, I looked at the skeptic, Vizzini, whose exaggerated claims of intellect and trust in his own brilliance lead to his downfall.

Today, I want to look at one of his sidekicks– Inigo Montoya. Inigo is a reluctant mercenary. He works for Vizzini “just to pay the bills.” His only real ambition is to find his father’s killer and demand vengeance. This has been his guiding ambition for over 20 years, and he is committed to killing his father’s murderer in a duel– if only he can find the elusive villain!

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Inigo knows three things– he knows the villain roams free and has never been brought to justice; he carries the scars from his own failed sword fight with the man, so he knows his skill and ruthlessness; and he knows the man has six fingers on his right hand. He doesn’t know the man’s name or rank, where he lives, what he does for a living, if he still lives, if he has a family– he really doesn’t know how or where to look for him, and he has no plan beyond challenging the man to a rematch to avenge his father.

I cannot condone Inigo’s thirst for vengeance https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+12%3A19&version=ESV, nor his half-baked plan to achieve his goal. But Inigo’s great love for his father and his belief in justice make him a likable character. Unlike Vizzini, Inigo seems concerned for the princess’s welfare and fate, and reluctant to be involved in something that could lead to her harm (or even death). Once he meets the “man in black” who comes to rescue the princess, he treats him with honor and admires his courage and skill, even as he is pledged to try to stop him. He allows his foe to catch his breath, prepare for battle, and even shares his sad tale in the hopes that the man in black can help him find his Nemesis.

Inigo isn’t a very good villain; he is too honorable, too ready to help others he meets along the way. But he attracts miracles along his journey, and I’d like to look at three-and-a-half miracles today.

Miracles come in different types. Some are miracles of preservation; some are miracles of healing; some of transformation.

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Inigo’s first “miracle” is actually a series of miracles of preservation. Three times, Inigo is involved in sword battles, and three times he is preserved. At age eleven, he watches as his father is ruthlessly slaughtered by the villainous six-fingered man. Inigo tries to fight for his father’s honor, but is defeated. The six-fingered man leaves him scarred and humiliated, but considers Inigo nothing more than a “brat,” and considers that he has “taught him a lesson,” so he lets him live. It doesn’t seem like a miracle, but Inigo is given a chance to grow up, when he easily could have been killed. He uses this opportunity to become a great swordsman, so he can find his father’s killer and challenge him to a rematch! When Inigo challenges the mysterious man in black, he is formidable in battle, yet he loses. He is winded, scratched, and disarmed by the stranger, and expects to be killed. Yet, again, he is spared– this time out of respect. The stranger renders him unconscious, but does not kill him. Inigo recovers and finally gets the chance for vengeance against his nemesis, Count Rugen. He challenges the Count to a duel. But the Count cheats, and Inigo is gravely wounded before the battle even begins. Miraculously, he finds the strength of body and will to continue the fight. Struggling against the loss of blood, the taunts of his enemy, and his own sense of failure, Inigo continues to fight, gaining strength and momentum, until he wins–bringing justice to his father, and defeating his enemy.

The second miracle is one of guidance. Inigo needs help to reach his goal of finding and confronting Count Rugen. He needs the help of the very man he fought earlier– the mysterious man in black. But the tables have turned. The man in black has been taken captive and tortured. Inigo must find and rescue him. In desperation, he prays for guidance. He enlists God’s help in locating the man who can help him. But his prayer seems to go unanswered. He stumbles around in the woods, lost and defeated. Finally, he leans against an old tree–and in doing so, he triggers the secret door leading to the torture chamber where the man in black lies, left for dead.

The third miracle is one of revival and restoration. The man in black seems to be dead, so Inigo and his friend, Fezzik, take the body to a man named Miracle Max, to be brought back to life. Of course, this is a fairy tale (though a fractured one). We don’t expect to find miracle workers in the middle of a forest. But we often pray for miracles in hospital wards, courtrooms, and rescue shelters. God sends miracles– but he often does so through the skills and willingness of others. In this case, Miracle Max delivers a crushing blow– he does not have the power to bring someone back from the dead. However, the man is black is NOT dead; he is only “mostly” dead. Miracle Max concocts a restorative potion, delivered in a chocolate-coated pill. The man in black makes a halting, but timely, recovery, allowing Inigo to track down the evil Count and bring him to justice. (It also allows the man in black to finish his quest, rescue the Princess and defeat her wicked fiance.)

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After three miracles, Inigo finishes his quest and faces a surprising new problem. His whole life has centered around revenge. Now that he has achieved his goal, he has no future; he has lost his sense of purpose. And this is where the “half” miracle happens. Inigo’s character is noble, even if his obsession with vengeance has been unhealthy. Along the way, he has befriended Fezzik, and rescued a man who was deemed to be an enemy. He has fought bravely and with honor, and has not been corrupted by money, power, or violence. His new friend, the man in black, offers him the chance to start over– as the Dread Pirate Roberts! (Lest this sound truly “dreadful”, it has already been explained that the name and reputation are what brings terror into the hearts of the other pirates..once again, this is a fairy tale, where pirates can be heroes.)

Inigo Montoya is a flawed character– he is a drunkard, a mercenary, living with years of failure and haunted by his thirst for revenge. He is not wicked in the same way as Count Rugen or the evil Prince Humperdink, but he is lost, confused, angry, bitter, and unable to save himself. He is a sympathetic character because he is a lot like many of us. But Inigo’s life is transformed by miracles– mostly unsought–giving him the opportunity to start a new life, make new friends, and explore new opportunities.

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What unsought, and even unacknowledged, miracles have come into your life? How many times has God preserved your life, guided you in unexpected directions, provided healing or renewal to your physical, emotional, or spiritual being, and given you unexpected new opportunities?

God doesn’t always give us an instant or dramatic miracle– even when we pray for one. Sometimes, he allows us to collapse against a tree, or be scarred by our enemies, or spend twenty years chasing a quest only to find ourselves unfulfilled at the end of it.

But God IS in the business of miracles– and unlike Miracle Max, he doesn’t charge a fee. God’s ways are not our ways https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+55%3A8-9&version=ESV , but His ways are always working for our eventual and ultimate good https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Romans+8%3A28&version=ESV— if we learn to trust. The big difference between Inigo and his unfortunate employer, Vizzini https://pursuingprayer.blog/2020/02/17/inconceivable/, is that Inigo trusted in something bigger than his own exaggerated intellect. He sought to help others and be helped by them, instead of merely using them.

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May our lives be filled with miracles today– great or small–and may we see them and celebrate their true source!

Troubled Waters

I love reading the 23rd Psalm (among many others). I love the picture of the Lord as my shepherd– the green pastures, the still waters, the anointing oil, dwelling in the house of the Lord forever. It is comforting. But there is also the part about walking in the valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil, and sitting in the presence of my enemies–I tend to gloss over those parts.

The truth is, much of our life is spent somewhere in between. We journey through hills and valleys, in sunshine and shadow, and there are times of green pastures and still waters, but sometimes we are in a dry season or wading through troubled waters. We face stress, chaos, unexpected obstacles, and swirling doubts.

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Jesus was no stranger to troubled waters. In His life on earth, He faced stormy seas– at least once in the bottom of a wave-tossed boat, and again when He walked on water to reach His disciples late at night. (Matthew 14:22-33; Mark 4:35-41, etc.) In each case, Jesus could have stilled the waters sooner, or forbidden the winds and waves to cause any trouble. This is often what we pray for– for God to keep us away from the shadow of death, from the stormy seas, from the trials and hardships we wish to avoid.

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Often, God answers those prayers by keeping us from trouble and hardship. Sometimes, He sends friends, counselors, and sweet reminders from His word to build a bridge over rapids or whirlpools or provide light and song on our journey. Other times, He answers our prayers by staying with us through even the darkest and loneliest of valleys, through the raging storms, the unanswered questions, and the waves of doubt. Sometimes we can look back and see how and why God chose to take us by the narrow winding path or through the churning waves. But even when He is silent, He is still there– reaching out to lift us when we fall, or carry us when we can’t go on.

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Lord, help me to follow you, even when the way seems dark or the storms rage. Help me to look up from the troubled waters and see you–ready to swim alongside, or lift me up and bring me to safety. Help me to help build bridges and throw life-lines when needed. And help me to remember that you have promised seasons of still waters and green pastures, as well. Whatever comes this day, may I listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and Savior. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let Nothing You Dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen,

Let nothing you dismay,

Remember Christ our Saviour

Was born on Christmas Day;

To save us all from Satan’s power

When we were gone astray.

O tidings of comfort and joy, Comfort and joy;

O tidings of comfort and joy!

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We celebrate Christmas–we play music, dance, laugh, hang up festive decorations, feast, and exchange gifts.  But for many years, Christmas was a holiday overshadowed by Advent.  Advent is all about preparing for the coming of Messiah, much as Lent is about preparing for the crucifixion and resurrection of Good Friday and Easter.  Advent can be a joyful time, but it can also be a time of fear, darkness, and atonement.  Added to that, Advent comes during the darkest months of the year for the northern hemisphere; the farther north, the darker it gets in December.

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The early Protestants, especially the Puritans, feared the admixture of Christian teachings with pagan rituals associated with the Winter Solstice, and in doing so, they smothered much of the joy and celebration that had come to be associated with Christmas.  However, certain songs and carols survived.  Among these was “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”  The title and many of the lyrics seem strange to our modern ears, but the title simply means, “may God keep you merry (or happy, blessed, joyful, even hearty or healthy), Gentlemen (and Gentle Ladies).”  It was a blessing sung by peasants (or the local watchman) to their local lords and ladies, but it was also an excellent and joyful summation of all that the season really means.  (See more explanation of the origins and meaning of the song here..   https://www.carols.org.uk/god_rest_ye_merry_gentlemen.htm     www.acecollins.com/books/storiesbehindchr.html  )

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Advent IS a good time for reflection and preparation, but it should also be full of joyful anticipation.  Christmas, and all that follows, is all that the angels heralded– good news of great tidings.  And the Gospel is news of comfort and joy!  Not the temporary comfort of a warm fire or the fleeting joy of a delicious feast in the company of merry men and women.  Christmas offers the comfort of knowing that Christ has fulfilled the ancient promises– He has come; he has lived among his own; he has defeated death and the grave; he has risen and ascended!  There is nothing left to fill the Christian with dismay or terror.  It is fear and pain that are temporary–life and peace are eternally promised for those who accept the good tidings!

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This life will still hold pain, grief, injustice, and darkness– but it is not inevitable and it will not prevail!  God is greater than our most pressing problem, deeper than our grief, wider than our capacity to stray, and more powerful than Satan’s thorniest snares.  Christmas Day reminds us of these truths, and allows us to live in true love and brotherhood with those around us, no matter our current circumstances.

Taxing Prayers

It’s tax time in my neck of the woods, and that means that a lot of people are praying.  Some are praying for a tax refund; others are praying that their tax bill is lower than expected, or that they can somehow find the money to pay it.

Taxes are not pleasant, but they are a constant reality of this world.  Even Jesus had to pay taxes–to an oppressive foreign empire, no less.  The people of his time wanted him to lead a rebellion against Roman occupation.  But even if he had done so, their own religious leaders collected Temple taxes.

There are a lot of other unpleasant realities in this life– injustice, bigotry, hatred, disease, natural disasters, accidents, and death.  God doesn’t remove them, no matter how hard or how earnestly we pray… he may send healing, comfort, or strength to get us through a crisis, but he never promised to end poverty, or remove the consequences of sin, or wipe out cancer–YET.

These are the taxing prayers that we continue to pray– prayers that come from our pain and longing for a new Heaven and a new Earth.  It is in our fallen nature to yearn for the perfection of God’s original creation;  a world we have never experienced, but for which our souls were designed.  In praying for things to be made “right”, we acknowledge that they are, in this present age, very wrong.  And we acknowledge that our best efforts can never be “enough” to overcome the ravages of sin.  Finally, in bringing them to God, we acknowledge that only He has the power and wisdom to “fix” them– in His time.

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Taxes are not pleasant, but there will come a day when they are abolished.  God’s love, his mercy, his blessings– they are tax-free, and they are in endless supply.

Even during tax season, that’s something to celebrate!

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