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Easter Sunday…

“It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Romans 4:24-25)

Luther comments on this text and what it says about Christ’s victory over sin and how it affects the believer.

This is the meaning of the words by St. Paul: “Christ was raised for our justification.”

Here Paul turns my eyes away from my sins and directs them to Christ, for if I look at my sins, they will destroy me. Therefore I must look unto Christ who has taken my sins upon himself, crushed the head of the serpent and become the blessing. Now they no longer burden my conscience, but rest upon Christ, whom they desire to destroy.

Let us see how they treat him. They hurl him to the ground and kill him. “0 God; where is now my Christ and my Saviour?” But then God appears, delivers Christ and makes him alive; and not only does he make him alive, but he translates him into heaven and lets him rule over all.

What has now become of sin? There it lies under his feet. If I then cling to this, I have a cheerful conscience like Christ, because I am without sin. Now I can defy death, the devil, sin and hell to do me any harm. As I am a child of Adam, they can indeed accomplish it that I must die. But since Christ has taken my sins upon himself, has died for them, has suffered himself to be slain on account of my sins, they can no longer harm me; for Christ is too strong for them, they cannot keep him, he breaks forth and overpowers them, ascends into heaven, and rules there over all throughout eternity. Now I have a clear conscience, am joyful and happy and am no longer afraid of this tyrant, for Christ has taken my sins away from me and made them his own. But they cannot remain upon him; what then becomes of them? They must disappear and be destroyed.

This then is the effect of faith. He who believes that Christ has taken away our sin, is without sin, like Christ himself, and death, the devil and hell are vanquished as far as he is concerned and they can no longer harm him.

Source: “A Sermon on Christ’s Resurrection” (Mark 16:1-8)
From Luther’s Church Postils, mid-1520’s

Read the whole sermon here

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Happy New Year! I thank all of you friends and folks for your warm New Year wishes and visiting my blog. On this first of a new year 2010 I pray that all of us lead a happy, peaceful and prosperous life all year round. I just found a poem by English Poet Lord Tennyson about embracing a new year. I just want to share it with all of you.

Ring Out, Wild Bells

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light;
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more,
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Once again have a great new year!

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“The Lord will settle international disputes. All the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. All wars will stop, and military training will come to an end.” Micah 4:3 NIT

In the time of Jesus the people of Israel were still looking forward to this restoration. Before Jesus’ crucifixion, his disciples were confident that Jesus would go about fulfilling Micah’s prophecy by ridding Israel of their Roman occupation and bringing them peace and prosperity. But their hopes were dashed when he died. However, after his resurrection from the dead, the disciples quickly resorted to their earlier hopes and asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to free Israel now and restore our kingdom?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus made it clear in his response that his kingdom was not that kind of kingdom. Instead, he indicated that Micah’s prophecy would be fulfilled when his eternal kingdom, populated by the redeemed, is established.

This is the kingdom for which Christians pray repeatedly, “may your kingdom come soon” (Matthew 6:10) and about which Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Wars will cease one day, but only when Christ’s eternal kingdom comes. Until then, Paul’s words speak loudly: “Do your part to live in peace with everybody, as much as possible” (Romans 12:18). We may not be able to stop war. But by God’s grace we can obey this command and, “as much as possible,” live in peace with others.

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In Hoc Anno Domini

So the Light came into the world…

When Saul of Tarsus set out on his journey to Damascus the whole of the known world lay in bondage. There was one state, and it was Rome. There was one master for it all, and he was Tiberius Caesar.

Everywhere there was civil order, for the arm of the Roman law was long. Everywhere there was stability, in government and in society, for the centurions saw that it was so.

But everywhere there was something else, too. There was oppression—for those who were not the friends of Tiberius Caesar. There was the tax gatherer to take the grain from the fields and the flax from the spindle to feed the legions or to fill the hungry treasury from which divine Caesar gave largess to the people. There was the impressor to find recruits for the circuses. There were executioners to quiet those whom the Emperor proscribed. What was a man for but to serve Caesar?

There was the persecution of men who dared think differently, who heard strange voices or read strange manuscripts. There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?

Then, of a sudden, there was a light in the world, and a man from Galilee saying, Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.

And the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.

So the light came into the world and the men who lived in darkness were afraid, and they tried to lower a curtain so that man would still believe salvation lay with the leaders.

But it came to pass for a while in divers places that the truth did set man free, although the men of darkness were offended and they tried to put out the light. The voice said, Haste ye. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness come upon you, for he that walketh in darkness knoweth not whither he goeth.

Along the road to Damascus the light shone brightly. But afterward Paul of Tarsus, too, was sore afraid. He feared that other Caesars, other prophets, might one day persuade men that man was nothing save a servant unto them, that men might yield up their birthright from God for pottage and walk no more in freedom.

Then might it come to pass that darkness would settle again over the lands and there would be a burning of books and men would think only of what they should eat and what they should wear, and would give heed only to new Caesars and to false prophets. Then might it come to pass that men would not look upward to see even a winter’s star in the East, and once more, there would be no light at all in the darkness.

And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.

This editorial was written in 1949 by the late Vermont Royster and has been published annually since in the Wall Street Journal.

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Christians awake salute the happy morn
by John Byron

Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Saviour of the world was born
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the Virgin’s Son

Then to the watchful shepherds it was told
Who heard the angelic herald’s voice: “Behold,
I bring good tidings of a Saviour’s birth
To you and all the nations upon earth
This day hath God fulfilled His promised word;
This day is born a Saviour, Christ the Lord.”

He spake, and straightaway the celestial choir
In hymns of joy, unknown before, conspire
The praises of redeeming love they sang
And heaven’s whole orb with alleluias rang
God’s highest glory was their anthem still
Peace upon earth and unto men goodwill

To Bethlehem straight the shepherds ran
To see the wonder God had wrought for man
And found, with Joseph and the blessed Maid
Her Son, the Saviour, in a manger laid
Amazed, the wondrous story they proclaim
The earliest heralds of the Saviour’s name

Let us, like these good shepherds, them employ
Our grateful voices to proclaim the joy
Trace we the Babe, who hath retrieved our loss
From His poor manger to His bitter cross
Treading His steps, assisted by His grace
Till man’s first heavenly state again takes place

Then may we hope, the angelic thrones among
To sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal song
He that was born upon this joyful day
Around us all His glory shall display
Saved by His love, incessant we shall sing
Of angels and of angel-men the King.

May we all be able to have awoken this morning and rejoiced in the celebration of Christmas.

And May God Bless Us, Everyone!

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One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” [Luke 11:1]

Prayer is one of the disciplines of the Christian life that is essential for all to practice. Merely sitting in Church staring at your shoelaces saying “Yeah, God, what the pastor just said” isn’t the peak of one’s prayer life. It is possible to do better, it is possible to pray just as well as your pastor, and it is possible to pray for more than thirty seconds without falling asleep.

As the quote above from Luke details, even the disciples recognized that they weren’t very good at prayer, and needed instruction from the master. But, notice the wording: it is not “teach us how to pray,” it is simply “teach us to pray.” The disciples saw that Jesus prayed often, and they recognized that they didn’t have that will or desire to do the same as Jesus. And so, they asked for that. If you’re in the same situation, it’s perfectly acceptable to say the same thing to Jesus: “teach me to pray.”

At the most basic level, prayer is talking to God. In doing so, you obviously need to know who you’re talking to– you’re not talking to empty space, or some half-realized form, you’re talking to the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. Like talking to another human, it really helps to know who you’re talking to, what their likes and dislikes are, and how they react. Thus, as you want to talk with God more and more, you should be reading his word (The Bible) in order to discover His character, and receive His words. Reading the Bible is not a requirement before your first prayers, as God still hears them, but as time goes on, getting to know God helps tremendously.

Going beyond that basic level, Jesus’ response back to the disciples had a model for prayer: “He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.'” [Luke 11:2-4]

In addition to this model, prayer should be a habit, as Jesus demonstrated. Mark records this as a habit from very early on in Jesus’ ministry: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” [Mark 1:35] The gospels record many other times where Jesus left the disciples to spend time with God– it was a regular habit for Him.

Jesus also had other specific comments on praying: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” [Matthew 6:5-8]

Basically, as Jesus says here, public prayer is its own reward. But, private prayer to God is even better. Some forms of public prayer are quite good and necessary– such as a pastor at a service. Those prayers are instructional to others, and proclaim God’s words as well. But, there are very few pastors (if any) who neglect the private prayer as well. And also, Jesus says that we don’t need to worry about using lots of fancy words or long prayers like others, as God sees our hearts. But, we shouldn’t necessarily think that thirty seconds of listing off a few things is a good prayer either.

If you’ve got nothing else to say to God, you can always repeat the Lord’s prayer– it has a number of specific requests and actions that can be used as the basis to attach other prayers to. The first request to God is not ‘your kingdom come.’ It’s ‘hallowed be your name’ — i.e. “God, make your name Holy.” God is maligned by so many people these days, and His last name is not ‘dang.’ This is a specific breaking of the third commandment– “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” [Exodus 20:7] So, in addition to this part of the Lord’s prayer, you can pray for everyone (possibly including yourself) who’s misused, profaned, or tarnished God’s name.

Next up in the Lord’s prayer is ‘your kingdom come.’ So many people regard Jesus’ return as an inconvenience, a problem, a bother. Some would rather prefer Jesus’ return not to happen until after they get back from a planned cruise, or moving into a new home, or any other event. Still others look at the events of the tribulation in Revelation and say “Lord, I don’t want to be around when most of the world is wiped out by many painful methods.” [Some believe the rapture will be before the tribulations, others after. Taking ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first’ with a bit of cynicism, a friend of mine commented that those who think they’ll suffer on Earth after the rapture will be raptured, and those expecting a free ride out won’t get raptured. But I digress…] There’s nothing here on Earth that can compare with God’s riches and majesty in Heaven once He arrives. There’s nothing worth sticking around here on Earth for– Heaven is just so much better that we should all be praying for its arrival as soon as possible.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is what Jesus said, not ‘give us this day our daily caviar and pheasant under glass.’ We are to be glad with what God has given us, and trust in Him for the basic necessities of life– our needs, not our wants. Too much time spent thinking about the wants of our flesh can lead you into financial debt, idolatry, and worse. [Not to mention being simply overweight, as one of my cats has proved.] So, we are asking God to be content and joyful in what He’s given us.

‘Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us’ explicitly details out what we need to do in response to the prayer, as opposed to the implicit parts as above. As John noted, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:9] So, we can be forgiven of our sins, as we confess them to God (and hopefully also to everyone involved in the sin). But, we are also to forgive all those sins against us– this is quite often, the harder thing to do, as our flesh cries out “Hey! They sinned against us. Judge them now, God, as I’m in the right.” [For an example of this, see “Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve” from Psalm 94:2, and many other Psalms.] So, we are to continually search our minds for cases in which we were sinned against, forgive them, and move on– not dwelling in anger, resentment, or bitterness.

Finally, at the end of this quote from Jesus, we see ‘And lead us not into temptation.’ This stands along with “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” [1 Corinthians 10:13] Basically, God will not lead us into temptation, but He will let us stray off his path into the traps of temptation that lie just off of it. We are to pray that we continually are reminded that in any tempting situation, God’s promised a way out. It may not be pleasant [Genesis 39:7-18], it may not be what we think we want, but God has promised a way out, and it’s our responsibility to find that escape hatch and use it.

The above is an short analysis of just a few short sentences in the Bible of a prayer by Jesus. Whole books can be (and are) written on each short phrase, but the above was done as an example of how to take Jesus’s short words, and use them as a framework to hang your own prayers onto.

In talking with God, remember that God is omnipresent– i.e. everywhere. God’s there to listen when you pray in Church. And before a meal. And while driving. And while at work. And at all other times. Paul reminds us to “pray continually” [1 Thessalonians 5:17], something that is greatly helped by God’s omnipresence. There are lots of small breaks during the day– at a stoplight, waiting for the microwave, between tasks at the office, or anything else. Those are great opportunities to slip in a few words of prayer to God, and not just along the lines of “God, hurry up this stupid traffic light.” If you need subject material to pray for, just look around– there’s bound to be someone else needing prayer, some action that needs doing, or just about anything else. If necessary, ask the Holy Spirit to point out what to pray for. This is not to contradict the set times of prayer mentioned above, but prayer time in addition to the fixed times.

While praying, if we do so silently, many people (myself included) have the annoying tendency of our minds wandering all over the place. I can be praying for those at work, and a few seconds later, wondering how the next parts of the project at work will be implemented, to getting annoyed at the buggy software we have to use due to some monopolies, to whether deregulation would work for the taxi market in Outer Mongolia. Then get back on track for a few more seconds, and spend a minute not praying off on tangents again. Praying out loud is a good way to keep focused– you’re concentrating more on what comes out of your mouth and less on all the random things that pop into your head.

In forming a regular prayer habit, many find that some sort of prayer diary is helpful. Around church, work, home, and the like, you can very easily get deluged with prayer requests. You can bet that there’s at least one thing that every person you know needs prayer for, and most of us know a lot of people. Keeping track of all of the requests from those we know to things we should pray for (our government at all levels, fulfilling the great commission, etc) can easily pile up. Writing things down in a somewhat organized form helps you keep track of them– and also lets you see in a concrete way later on which prayer requests have been answered. It’s sometimes very rewarding to see how many requests were answered, as we see God’s work, as opposed to forgetting we ever prayed for certain things.

This may seem rather old-fashioned, but I do believe that posture helps us pray. Sitting back in a reclining chair is a great way to fall asleep, while kneeling in prayer shows respect and honor that’s due God. Yes, it’s harder to get down and kneel as you wait for a stoplight to change, but for your set times of prayer, I recommend such a setup.

For a pattern of prayer that I’ve heard, and is somewhat useful, try ‘ACTS’ – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Each of these 4 building blocks can be expanded out to fill a few sentences, or much more. Adoration is simply acknowledging that God is God. He’s the king of all, the creator of the universe, the Holy one, the omniscient omnipotent one, and many other adjectives. Basically, you’re putting God first in the prayer, and putting Him in the proper place in your life.

Next, as confession, confess your sins to God. This should be fairly self-explanatory, and yet not excessive either. Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, before he broke off from the Catholic Church, spent hours per day in the confessional, confessing every last little misguided thought, every possible problem. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we shouldn’t be trying to pretend we don’t sin. John says “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” [1 John 1:10] So, some time spent confessing sins, and receiving forgiveness does a lot to help keep us humble and right before God.

Thanksgiving is also self-explanatory– you thank God for what he’s done. This can be answered prayer requests, blessings for things you didn’t pray for, thanks in advance for the good works he’s got planned out for us to do, and everything else. Basically, you spend time in your prayers acknowledging all that God’s done in your life, and thanking him for it.

Supplication is your requests for yourself and/or others. Notice that it’s not the majority of the prayer time, as many get in the habit of doing. [“God you’re great. Now, listen to the 5,000 things I’ve got written down in my prayer diary here” is how the all-supplication prayers tend to go.] And, in supplication, while you may have specific requests for yourself, there should also be a number of prayers for others. It helps is to pray for others, sometimes to the exclusion of self, as it gets our focus off of ourselves and our needs (and wants), and onto how others can be helped.

Some months ago, I felt like my prayers weren’t very effective, were monotonous, and short. God put it on my heart that I could do better, that I could learn more from those in the Bible and others around me. So, I started off doing what I detailed above: I read over prayers in the Bible. I’d already read the Bible cover to cover twice, so I kept that up. And, I set aside a regular time to pray every day, in addition to the prayers I normally have before going to sleep. It’s taken some time, and I still think a whole bunch of others can “out-pray” me, but I’ve learned enough to pass on specific tips and ideas related to prayer.

Finally, prayer is a habit and a discipline that we develop throughout our entire lives. We don’t just get good at it for a while, and then leave it to others, nor should we get discouraged by an initial inability to pray effectively. It may take days, weeks, or even months of constant prayer to develop good habits, and sometimes even years for specific requests to be answered. But, in all things do so with the attitude that you’re in this for the long run– a marathon of prayer, not a short sprint.

As a Lutheran I have heard the following many times – it is another way to think of a prayer model:

Martin Luther had a barber by the name of Peter Beskendorf. One can imagine that it was when Peter was giving Dr Luther a shave when he took the liberty to ask,

By the way, Dr. Luther, how do you pray?

It usually is a bad idea to start going into a lecture when someone has a razor near your throat so Luther decided that perhaps a letter would be more appropriate. And this 40 page letter is now known in posterity as the treatise, “A Simple Way to Pray” first published in 1535.

The excerpts from the letter (below) will give us an insight into Luther’s own spiritual practices and personal spiritual life:

A good, clever barber must have his thoughts, mind and eyes concentrated upon the razor and the beard and not forget where he is in his stroke and shave. If he keeps talking or looking around or thinking of something else, he is likely to cut a man’s mouth or nose – or even his throat.

So anything that is to be done well ought to occupy the whole man with all his faculties and members. As the saying goes:

He who thinks of many things thinks of nothing and accomplishes no good.

How much more must prayer possess the heart exclusively and completely if it is to be a good prayer!

Nonetheless, we see that Luther was also very human, having the same distractions that many of us would have:

It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering:

Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that.

Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to nothing. We have to watch out so that we may not get weaned from prayer by fooling ourselves that a certain job is more urgent, which it really isn’t – and finally we get sluggish, lazy, cold and weary. But the devil is neither sluggish nor lazy around us.

And now Luther moves on:

Kneel down or stand up with folded hands and eyes towards heaven… speak or think as briefly as you can

And now he starts his prayer… By praying the 10 Commandments! Not that he just sounds them off mindlessly one by one – a practice that he would have dismissed as empty phrases or babbling (in his own words,zerklappern, or rattling something into pieces).

Instead he proposes that only one Commandment at a time be reflected and prayed upon:

…in order that my mind becomes as uncluttered as possible for prayer…

His shares with his barber his personal method of reflection:

Out of each commandment I make a garland of four twisted strands. That is, I take each commandment …

First as a teaching,

Secondly, a reason for thanksgiving

Thirdly, a confession

Fourthly, a prayer petition

Luther was of course nice enough to provide examples for every Commandment! Here’s one from the 7th Commandment, “You shall not steal”:

First I learn here that I shall not take my neighbor’s property nor possess it against his will, neither secretly nor openly; that I shall not be unfaithful or false in my bargaining, my service and work lest what I gain should belong to me only as a thief; but I shall earn my food with the sweat of my brow and shall eat my own bread with all those who are faithful.

At the same time I shall help my neighbor so that his property is not taken away from him through such actions as mentioned above

Secondly, I thank God for his faithfulness and goodness in that He has given me and all the world such a good teaching and through it protection and shelter. For unless He protects us, not one penny nor one bite of bread would remain in the house.

Thirdly, I confess my sin and ungratefulness, there where I have wronged someone and cheated him or where during my life, I was unfaithful in keeping my word.

Fourthly, I ask that God may give grace so that I and the entire world might learn His commandment and think about it and improve. I pray that there may be less stealing, robbing, exploiting, embezzling and injustice. I also pray that such evils may soon end when the Day of Judgment comes.

Luther suggests the same method for reflecting on The Lord’s Prayer after one’s reflection on the Commandments and even the Apostle’s Creed when one has “the time and leisure“. He, however, does get realistic and shares:

It often happens that my thoughts go for a walk in one petition of the Lord’s Prayer and then I let all other six petitions go. When such rich good thoughts come, one should let the other prayers go and give room to these thoughts, listen to them in silence and by no means suppress them.

For here the Holy Spirit himself is preaching and one word of His sermon is better than thousands of our own prayers. Therefore I have often learned more in one prayer than I could have obtained from much reading and thinking.

Luther finally warns his barber:

Don’t take too much upon yourself lest the spirit should get tired… It is sufficient to grasp one part of a Bible verse or even half a part from which you can strike a spark in your heart… for the soul, if it is directed towards one single thing, may it be bad or good, and if it is really serious about it, can think more in one moment than the tongue can speak in ten hours and the pen can write in ten days. Such a dexterous, exquisite and mighty instrument is the soul or spirit.

So to put it all in a nutshell:

The Warm Up the intentional focusing of one’s thoughts and intention to encountering God in prayer

Reflection start by reflecting on a passage of Scripture, or one of the Commandments, or one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, etc

Thanksgiving what do I have to be thankful about?

Confession what do I regret, whether it is something I have said, thought, or done, or perhaps left unsaid, unthought and undone?

Petition what should I ask God for, both for myself and for others?

Action how can I put what I have learnt or experienced from my prayer into action to make a difference in my own life and in the life of others?

When prayer transforms from speaking to being silent, and from being silent to listening, the voice of God will come through.

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Grace. Forgiveness. Mercy.

SI Cover Ed Thomas

For many Christians, the concepts of grace, mercy, and forgiveness are just that – concepts. They are ideals to be striven towards. Many do not live these ideals. That, in and of itself, is a shame.

Many of us think we have forgiven. In truth, we hold the tiniest of grudges. We don’t extend the Grace of God that He gives to us. We don’t prove the mercy in the complete forgiveness for a person’s actions. Sometimes we extend the blame of sin to a person’s family, relatives, or friends. To do so, regardless of even the best of our intentions to the contrary is part of the human condition, our sinful nature, a remnant of the original sin. We don’t consciously think of denying that grace and mercy, we just do.

So when a story comes along that illustrates true forgiveness, grace, and mercy – on the level that GOD gives – I am stunned at the true capacity of the healing nature of God.

This is the story of a small town Iowa football team, the town, and a murdered coach. It is the story that of what a coach, leader in his community and church, teacher of tomorrow’s generation taught, lived, and passed on to not only an entire town, but multiple generations in that town.

Ed Thomas was a man of deep Christian faith, and in 34 years at the same school lived as an example his credo, “Faith, Family, and Football.”

In Parkersburg, Iowa, dusk and rain fell on the small farming town, and the hum of cicadas ceased. On that soupy evening, the parents of football players at Aplington-Parkersburg High School went about their task much like the football team prepared for its game Friday night – the team’s first since its legendary coach was gunned down by a former player.

The game against longtime rival Dike-New Hartford was televised nationally by ESPN. Aplington-Parkersburg won 30-14. But there were no cameras around Wednesday after practice, when, despite the rain and darkening sky, five parents squeezed red plastic cups into a chain-link fence outside the practice field.

After working on wet grass for 30 minutes, they backed up and admired their handiwork, which read:

FAITH … FAMILY … FOOTBALL

They invoke those words to capture the essence of Ed Thomas, the slain coach known as much for his deep faith in Christianity as his love for football. In 37 seasons – all but three at A-P, as they call the high school – he won two state championships, amassed a record of 292-84 and repeated one refrain as ritualistically as they plant and harvest corn in Parkersburg, which has no stoplights and sits about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.

Thomas’ credo is engraved alongside a picture of the coach on a plaque made after his death June 24 and mounted on front of the new ticket booth this week.

“If all I have taught you is how to block and tackle, then I have failed as a coach.”

The week leading up to the game Friday revealed more about Thomas, who was 58 when he was shot in the school’s weight room. And more about a town of 1,800, ripped apart by a tornado just a year earlier, coping with yet another tragedy.

On Monday, they gathered at “The Sacred Acre.”

It is the field Thomas groomed meticulously for more than three decades, and, on the day it was ravaged by the tornado, the coach declared it would be ready in time for the 2008 season opener. He made good on his promise. He drove the town back from the edge of the abyss through his deep faith in God and in his town, and his players. That night they went on to win 53-20, marking the beginning of a near storybook 11-1 season.

This time the disaster was worse. This time, they would not have the “old coach” leading them back from the brink. Parkersburg was grieving for their slain icon, and it was hard to know how people felt about the approaching game – until the students headed back into the building Monday morning and Jim Clark arrived.

He headed for the middle section of the home-side bleachers, climbed up eight rows, one row below the press box, and got to work. Using duct tape and bungee cords, he tied the blankets to the metal benches and, as is customary among A-P fans, reserved seats for the game, this time five days before kickoff.

A section of seats Clark reserved were for the Beckers, the family of the former player who killed the coach. He wasn’t just any former player either. He was the son of one of Ed Thomas’ first team captains and the older brother of a starting offensive lineman.

Jim Clark was a friend of the family to both the Thomas’ and the Beckers, who’s son Mark was being held, charged with the shooting of Coach Thomas, and two days after the shooting they visited the shattered parents, Joan and Dave.

While they were there, Joan Becker took a phone call.

It was Jan Thomas, wife of the murdered coach.

“What a wonderful person,” Clark recalled Joan Becker saying.

The Beckers also had received a call from the Wiegmann family that includes Jon, a longtime assistant football coach at A-P; Coy, a senior and the team’s starting quarterback; and Dawn, president of a group that includes all parents of the senior players. They arranged for Scott Becker, the younger brother of Mark Becker and a senior lineman, to come to their house.

More than a dozen teammates were waiting.

They’d sent him text messages of encouragement almost immediately after Mark Becker was arrested the morning of June 24. When Scott Becker arrived at the Wiegmanns’ house, his teammates embraced him. Then they played ping pong, horsed around and watched movies.

“We had him smiling the whole time,” his teammates recalled.

The next day, the players went swimming in the pond behind the Beckers’ house. People still worried that Scott Becker, well-liked but quiet, might grow even more withdrawn. When the coaches called a team meeting at the elementary school library that week, Ed Thomas’ grown sons, Aaron and Todd, took Scott Becker into the hallway.

Teammates recall him returning to the library with tears in his eyes and a look of relief, as if unburdened by the feelings of guilt or shame. On Aug. 10, the first day of preseason drills, Scott Becker was there, as were all his teammates, putting the team back together – having not let it fall apart in the first place.

Joan Becker had taken over as secretary of the senior parents’ group. She also sat next to Jan Thomas during Sunday services at First Congregational Church.

It was the church they had both attended for decades and where Ed Thomas had served as an elder and counseled Mark Becker. The Beckers sought Ed Thomas’ help as their son’s behavior grew increasingly erratic.

Tuesday brought the crash of football pads, grunts, and the sounds of coaches rippling across the fields. On the field across the street from the building where their coach was murdered, the A-P Falcons went through practice drills in front of a small audience.

One father watched from inside his truck. Two fathers watched from a slope on the grass. And then there was a younger, burly, bearded man watching alone from atop a small hill.

The man had driven past the field a handful of times in recent weeks. But, still haunted by the shooting, he would not let himself get any closer until this day. He was greeted by the familiar sight of red helmets and red uniforms worn by the Falcons as they slammed into tackling dummies and into each other.

This past spring, Ed Thomas told people he expected to field one of his largest rosters ever, indeed a fitting comeback from the devastation wrought by the tornado . This time, after the shooting, however, distraught younger players talked of quitting. If they couldn’t play for Thomas, some told their parents, they didn’t want to play at all.

From the observation posts held by the fathers, brothers, cousins of the players, one could hear the sounds as they echoed across the field.

“How bad do you want it?” an assistant coach hollered.

No one yet quite knew.

Nor did the players know what was happening the next day on their way to the locker room.

The following day, Wednesday, as the players arrived to change into their practice gear, the superintendent directed them to a grief counseling session that had been set up to help the town through it.

During a brief intermission, someone approached the seminar leader and identified one of the people in attendance. The short-haired woman in the back of the room. It was Jan Thomas.

Jan Thomas is an EMT who was on call the morning of her husband’s death, she was among the first to arrive at the scene. She very easily could have looked on the scene and let it ravage her faith in God, and everything Holy. Imagine the shock, pain, utter collapse of reason at reporting to a violent scene such as this, expecting in some ways to see someone you knew from this small town… and laying eyes on your husband as he lay mortally wounded.

The leader took note of Jan and someone else in the room – Aaron Thomas, 30, the slain coach’s oldest son. Todd Thomas, the coach’s younger son, had left his job as a financial adviser after the shooting and taken over as the team’s offensive line coach. Aaron Thomas had taken on even greater responsibility.

It was Aaron Thomas who spoke at his father’s funeral and told more than 2,000 gathered for the service that it was OK to mourn that Monday, but on Tuesday they must get back to work, and get there early. That if people truly wanted to honor his father, they would move forward, with a sense of purpose, the same way his father lived. He counseled that his father had always known the three things that held this town together – Faith… Family… Football.

Aaron told the gathered that this is his father’s legacy, to teach the simple truth of Christ, demonstrate how to the life of faith while raising a family, both in a nuclear sense, and in the extended family that athletic teams become.

A group of recent A-P graduates decided to order red wristbands embedded with those words – faith, family and football – and sell them for $3 apiece, with the money going to the Ed Thomas Memorial Fund.

They ordered 1,500. Sold out in two days.

They ordered another 1,000. Those lasted a week.

They ordered another 1,000. Gone in 10 days.

They ordered another 300, which arrived this week and were on sale on game day. These also sold out.

Thursday saw the day begin with gray clouds. Misty air. Soggy grass. All waited for the A-P Falcons when they returned to the practice field, and the practice was as crisp as the coaches’ exhortations.

Final practice before the season opener. After what the new coach describes as “one of the finest Thursday practices he had ever seen”, the team huddled around Kerns, who spent more than two decades coaching under Ed Thomas before forced into the position of co-head coach.

“Fellas, this should be a special moment,” he said.

They’d been waiting for this moment almost as much as the game itself.

The coaches passed out decal stickers that read “FFF 09.” By now, the three Fs and what they stood for were embedded in their brains, if not their hearts.

Faith, family and football.

Players wiped their helmets dry and carefully placed the decals on the backs.

On Friday, the bleachers were full, and the Thomas’ sat next to the Beckers as they took to the field for the first time in 34 years without Coach Ed Thomas leading them out. Time will tell if the town will recover from losing such a beloved figure and stalwart of their community and bounce back as they did when Coach Thomas led them back from the tornado in May of 2008. One thing is certain, the families of the Thomas’ still grieve and the family of the Beckers still have an ordeal yet to come, but they will face it together. An expression of Faith and Forgiveness, extended Family typical of small town America, and Football, a game around which Ed Thomas influenced hundreds at A-P High School, and thousands beyond those boundries.

The lessons of Faith Family Football are not lost. They live on. They are remembered. They are his legacy because he lived it. His family lives it.

And none of it would be remotely possible without the King of Heaven reaching into the hearts and minds of these afflicted and placing his Holy Peace upon them.

How much of an impact did Ed Thomas have on his community? It is immeasurable. His impact of influence reached far beyond his town.

At his funeral every player on every team in the conference that A-P plays in showed up, lining the streets in their football jerseys to say goodbye to a rival’s coach. One player from such a team was asked “why would you come to pay respects to a rival coach?” The teenager answered, “because of who Coach T. was and how he lived. He earned respect from everyone he crossed paths with. How could we not show up?”

Those stickers? They are worn by all of the teams in that conference this season. FFF 09.

Faith… Family… Football

Tempered with Grace… Mercy… and Forgiveness.

May we all be open to receive God’s love and be able to truly forgive those that trespass against us.
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Forgiveness

“What greater gift can I give to you? and what greater gift can you give to me?
Nothing is greater than your love and your forgiveness,
and that is greater than anything.”

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