A Legacy Worth Leaving

The following is a letter written by Raymond Ortlund Sr., who was a long time pastor at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena, California. He wrote the letter several years before his death, which he left in his desk, where he knew his family would find it:

Dear Family,

“The time has come for my departure” (2 Timothy 4:6). It’s strange to write this when I’m feeling well and vigorous, but unless Christ returns first that departure time will come. When you read this, it will have happened.

I have had a great journey with Jesus Christ. From childhood I have known about God and revered Him. The name of Jesus has always been precious to me. I thank my dear parents for this heritage. Now, life on earth is over, and I go to meet the Lord face to face. I trust in Him as my sure Savior and rest in His grace at this momentous time of my death. I do not fear death. (I don’t like the pain, blood, and guts of it all!) Actually, I have been anticipating this new adventure and at the time you read this I will be with Christ in heaven. So it’s happened, and I’m now in God’s presence, probably shocked at all I’m seeing for the first time.

I am sorry for my sin and failures, which have been many, but I know Christ has forgiven them. “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Some of those sins have been against you, my dear family, and I am sorry. You probably know my sins better than I. Some you don’t know, I know all too well. But “where sin abounds grace does much more abound” (Romans 5:20).

My dear Anne has been my most treasured friend. If she is still living as you read this, I know you will treat her well. When she goes to heaven, God will give her blue ribbons and gold medals. What a great woman and wife! She has loved and stood loyally by me all our life together. And our last years have been our best. May God reward her for hard work, a forgiving spirit, relentless faith and enthusiastic acceptance of life as it came. She is a woman of God. We shall meet on the other side and sing a duet of praise to God. As you know, Psalm 34:3 has been our verse. We trust you’ve seen that we did magnify the Lord.

Each of you children and spouses have been the joy of my life, as have been the grandchildren. I include Melinda and John in this because they are family to us, too. I have never doubted your love for me, and you have been too kind. I will see you in heaven, and we’ll bless God together.

I urge you to remain true to your Savior. I have no doubt that you will. Love each other deeply in your marriages. Keep your family ties strong. Lay up treasure in heaven, because the stuff of earth is empty. Bank accounts, houses and furniture mean nothing to me now. Actually they never did. Beware of sin, and confess it as soon as you discover it in your life. And let the Spirit’s gift of joy color all your life. As you mature, remain a happy person in Christ. Get even sweeter as you get older. Sour old people are a pain.

 

Job

“My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you” Job 42:5

The Bible does not give us all the answers we would like when it comes to the problem of suffering, but it does take it seriously, and it provides a perspective from which to face it. To this the book of Job makes an important contribution.

The book begins with a look at Job’s righteousness, family, and wealth, and then a look at the heavenly council chamber in which God and Satan discuss Job. It is clear from this that Job’s sufferings happened by God’s permission. After which he is overwhelmed with a series of disasters in which he is deprived of his livestock, servants, sons and daughters, and health.

Then his so-called friends arrive and try and bring him comfort and council. After sitting with him for a week and mourning together they then begin to insist that his suffering is because of his sins and wickedness (Job 15:20; 18:5; 20:5). Job rejects their insinuations as “falsehood” (Job 21:34).

In the end, when Job accuses God of injustice, God speaks to him out of the storm (Job 38:1-42:6). God bombards Job with questions like, where you when I created the earth (Job 38:4)? Can you control the snow, the storm, and the stars (Job 38:22-23)? These rhetorical questions, and many others, are inviting Job to trust the God whose wisdom and power have been revealed in the creation. And in the end, he does (Job 42:2-6).

For us, we are called to trust the same God, who not only reveals himself powerfully through creation (Romans 1:20), but also has revealed his love and justice through the cross (Romans 8:32). The cross does not resolve all the problems of suffering, but it gives us a perspective from which to help to make sense of it. Their is greater purposes at play (Romans 5:3-5), God is in control and does have a plan (Romans 8:28), and one day suffering will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4). The question for us is: will we trust God even when we don’t have all the answers?

Mabel

In his book, Trying to Be Good, Thomas Schmidt tells the story of developing the habit of visiting shut-ins in nursing homes in an attempt to bring a bit of cheer and love into their lives. One day he met a woman whom he could never forget:

“As I neared the end of the hallway, I saw an old woman strapped up in a wheelchair. Her face was an absolute horror. The empty stare and white pupils of her eyes told me that she was blind. The large hearing aid over one ear told me that she was almost deaf. One side of her face was being eaten by cancer. There was a discolored and running sore covering part of one cheek, and it had pushed her nose to one side, dropped one eye, and distorted her jaw so that what should have been the corner of her mouth was the bottom of her mouth. As a consequence, she drooled constantly…I also learned later that this woman was eighty-nine years old and that she had been bedridden, blind, nearly deaf, and alone, for twenty-five years. This was Mabel.

I don’t know why I spoke to her – she looked less likely to respond than most of the people I saw in that hallway. But I put a flower in her hand and said, “Here is a flower for you. Happy Mother’s Day.” She held the flower up to her face and tried to smell it, and then she spoke. And much to my surprise, her words, although somewhat garbled because of her deformity, were obviously produced by a clear mind. She said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.”

I said, “Of course,” and I pushed her in her chair back down the hallway to a place where I thought I could find some alert patients. I found one, and I stopped the chair. Mabel held out the flower and said, “Here, this is from Jesus.”

Tom and Mabel became friends over the next few years, and Tom began to realize that he was no longer simply “helping” Mabel, but she was helping him. After one stressful week, Tom went to Mabel and asked her, “Mabel, what do you think about as you lie here all day?” She replied, “I think about my Jesus.”

She went on to elaborate, “I think how good He’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know…I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied…Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned. But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.”

And then Mabel began to sing an old hymn:

Jesus is all the world to me, My life, my joy, my all. He is my strength from day to day, Without him I would fall. When I am sad, to him I go, No other one can cheer me so. When I am sad, He makes me glad. He’s my friend.

 

The Song of Simeon

For my eyes have seen your salvation…a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to you people Israel. Luke 2:30, 32

A minor character in the New Testament but one who is a great example of spiritual discernment, is the godly old man named Simeon. He was eagerly awaiting the Messiah, and God had told him that he would not die before he had seen him. Moved by the Holy Spirit he entered the temple courts at the precise moment that Joseph and Mary arrived there with their eight-day-old son. It was an example of divine providence orchestrating the encounter.

Now Simeon had the spiritual discernment to recognize Jesus. He took him up in his arms, acknowledging the significance of the one he was holding in his arms. “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word” (Luke 2:29).

First, Simeon saw Jesus as the salvation of God. What his eyes had actually seen was Mary’s child; what he said he had seen was God’s salvation, the Messiah God had sent to liberate us from the penalty and power of sin.

Second, Simeon saw Jesus as the light of the world, echoing Isaiah 49:6, which he would bring light and salvation to the nations, and bring glory to Israel.

Third, Simeon saw Jesus as a cause of division, a rock that some would stumble over and others would build on. When it comes to Jesus, neutrality is not possible.

The story of Simeon is a lesson in spiritual recognition. The more you read the, the more you come to appreciate just how compelling and unique a figure like Jesus is. May we have the eyes to see and rightly appraise just who Jesus is!

The Rage of Herod

Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. Matthew 2:13

In the end there are only two possible responses to Jesus Christ, which are seen in the contrasting figures of Herod the Great and the Magi (who we looked at yesterday). Herod’s reaction to the birth of Jesus was in step with his know character. His long reign was carried out in paranoia. It was the Romans who had put him on the throne and called him “King of the Jews.” But he was a foreigner; his father was an Edomite (south-east of Israel in modern day Jordan) and his mother an Arabian princess. He had no right or title to the throne.

Because of this, Herod always lived in insecurity that someone would take his throne. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that he killed his wife Mariamne; his mother Alexandra; and his three sons Aristobulus, Alexander, and Antipater. He killed many other uncles, cousins, and other relatives. Emperor Augustus said it was “safer to be Herod’s pig than his son.” And now, the Magi arrived asking where he was that was born “King of the Jews.” Herod was not going to stand for any competitors.

Many today are equally threatened by Jesus (though usually minus the carnage). They see Jesus as a threat, a rival, a kill-joy, one who would take them off the throne of their life.

One college pastor, when a student comes (which happens about once a semester) and says “I don’t believe in Jesus any more, I am done with this Christianity thing,” his only question in response is “who are you sleeping with?” In other words, in almost every instance, it is not an intellectual problem with Christianity, it is a moral problem.

The famous atheist Aldous Huxley said candidly, “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning…the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation desired was liberation from a certain system of morality. I objected to the morality because it interfered with my sexual freedom.”

Power, romance, wealth, whatever we are tempted to, we are faced with an alternative. Either we see Jesus as a threat and are determined like Herod to get rid of him, or we see him as the King of Kings and are determined like the Magi to worship him.

The Coming of the Nations

We…have come to worship him. Matthew 2:2

The Magi were most likely astrologer-priests from the ancient Persian Empire (roughly modern Iran). Their visit to Jesus is beautifully complementary to that of the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20). The two groups could not have been more different from each other. Racially the shepherds were Jews, while the Magi were Gentiles. Socially, the shepherds were uneducated and outsiders, while the Magi were scholars and esteemed in their culture. Materially, the shepherds were on the lowest rungs of society and probably had little more resources than the close on their backs and their food provisions were day to day, while the Magi (judging from the expensive gifts they brought) were wealthy.

Yet despite these barriers (racial, social, material), which usually separate people from one another, the Magi were united with the shepherds in their worship of Jesus. They were forerunners of countless other Gentiles who have come to worship Jesus.

What is interesting about Christianity is that while other major religions tend to be ethnically tied to a particular people and culture, Christianity most certainly is not (Galatians 3:28).

More than 80 percent of the world’s Christians today are non-white and non-Western. Last Sunday, there were more Chinese believers in church than there were in all of ‘Christian’ Europe combined, as recently as 1970, there had been no legally open churches in China.

Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, documents that the center of gravity of world Christianity is shifting to the Global South where there is a “dynamic, life-transforming, and revolutionary – if often also wild, ill-informed, and undisciplined” Christian faith.

I remember being in Cairo, Egypt and returning to my apartment late one evening and hearing singing coming from behind a closed door. It was a language that I could not understand but a tune that was unmistakable – it was Amazing Grace. I came to find out later, that there were South Korean missionaries living in that apartment singing a praise song written by an English Christian in a previous century.

This is the universal appeal of Jesus, irrespective of ethnicity. It brought the shepherds from their fields and the Magi from the East. It still acts like a magnet, attracting people from all cultures. It is one of the most convincing evidences that Jesus is the Savior of the World (Matthew 1:21).

What Makes for Happiness?

Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute and the author of The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America. In the book, he summarizes the findings of thousands of research of studies of what makes for a happy life. It is a matter that should interest all of us.

To begin with, Brooks says that nearly half of our happiness is genetic, and another significant portion comes from having the good fortune to be born in the right location – apart from war, famine, epidemic disease, etc. So that much is predetermined. But the portion of happiness that is to some extent within our control, includes what Brooks calls our “happiness portfolio.” And surprisingly (and thankfully), none of the four are related to material abundance. These are the variable components of Brooks’ happiness portfolio:

Faith: Do you have a framework to make sense of death and suffering?

Family: Do you have a home life with mutual affection, where the good of others is as important to you as your own happiness?

Community: Do you have at least two real friends who feel pain when you suffer and share joy when you thrive?

Work: Perhaps most fundamentally, when you leave home on Monday morning, do you believe that there are other people who genuinely benefit from the work you do? Is your calling meaningful? Not: “Is it fun or well-compensated?” – but rather, “Does it matter?”

The political scientist Charles Murray has studied “the kinds of accomplishments that lead people to reach old age satisfied with who they have been and what they have done.” Murray writes, you will find “that the accomplishments you have in mind have three things in common. First, the source of satisfaction involves something important. Second, the source of satisfaction has involved effort, probably over an extended period of time. Third, some level of personal responsibility for the outcome is essential.”

What sorts of accomplishments meet all three criteria? Like Brooks, Murray argues that people achieve the most happiness through their family, vocation, community, and faith. On a related note, Murray emphasizes the old Latin term “vocation” – meaning ‘calling’, which is essentially the same way Brooks uses the phrase “meaningful work.” It is broader than merely producing something for others consumption. It can include building a good marriage or a healthy family, benefiting others, like taking care of an elderly family member, feeding your kids, teaching music, or washing dishes at a restaurant. It is doing the work in life that you understand yourself to be created to do and it is the ways in which you serve the common good through your work, which brings lasting satisfaction.

Brooks concludes, “it is work, not money, that is the fundamental source of our dignity. Work is where we build character.” Work “is where we offer up our talents for the service of others” that we find “value with our lives and where we lift up our own souls.”

Love, Faith and the Lost Battalion

A moving story from Dr. Wesley Ely, who is a critical care doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center:

When his wife’s scream from the next room awakened him, Ford Callis leapt bolt upright out of bed. Then he fell, his left eye smashing the edge of the bed stand. As he hit the ground, the air gushed out of his lungs. Mr. Callis, who is 94, listened intently to the noise-monitor in the dark for any clues from his demented wife, Daisy, in the next room. He could hear his own heart throbbing, he would later tell me, but nothing more. He tried unsuccessfully to crawl to her.

The bleeding laceration on his eye, and his new shoulder and chest injuries, reminded him of the time 60 years ago that he’d been injured and trapped in a foxhole in the French Alps, a member of the famed World War II Lost Battalion. Rescue came then, and it would come now, since the morning phone call from his daughter had gone unanswered as he lay stranded on the floor hours later peering at the sunrise through the window.

Later that day Mr. Callis ended up on our ICU service. Lying helplessly on the floor after his fall, he had developed enough muscle breakdown on what he called the “death crawl” toward his wife that his kidneys shut down from toxic injury. He also developed a bleeding stress ulcer and a new blood clot in his left leg, all of which made for complicated medical circumstances that nearly ended his life.

Yet Mr. Callis kept asking only: “When can I return home to care for Daisy? She’s waiting for me in Ridgetop”—in the rustic house in Tennessee she bought 71 years ago with savings from her job as a riveter making planes during the war.

In the hospital our team of white coats swooped in to “save” Mr. Callis. Yet we later learned from what he told us that his real rescue, the one that mattered most, had occurred on a much higher plane, through a sacramental promise made many decades earlier.

The story began before he became a soldier, when he was 20, and he and Daisy had married. Shortly thereafter, he went through military training and shipped off to Naples, Italy, with the 36th Infantry. The company made its way to the Vosges Mountains of the French Alps, where the Germans surrounded them and began starving them out.

Following failed rescue attempts by the two other battalions of the 36th Infantry, they became known as the Lost Battalion. After eight days without food and water and stuck in foxholes drinking from a pond and eating worms, they were liberated by the 442nd Regiment of Nisei Japanese-Americans.

And now, decades later, Mr. Callis was determined to rescue Daisy. Sporting a black eye but smiling from his ICU bed, he said: “Doctor, I need you to get me home to my wife as soon as possible.” His dutiful daughter stopped staring at the blood dripping into his IV and said, “Yep, that’s his main mission in life, and he refuses to fail.”

Through marriage, it became clear, Mr. Callis had undergone the type of indelible change in a soul that no personal injury or earthly event can undo. “Having someone believe in me and waiting for me back home, that is what gives me purpose. I am more than myself because of our marriage,” he said, expressing his hope that people not give up on marriage even when the sparks of romance seem distant.

All this brought to mind the words of the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when he wrote from a Nazi prison to his niece before her wedding: “Marriage is more than your love for each other. . . . In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed in a post of responsibility toward the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more than something personal—it is a status, an office.”

The story of Ford and Daisy generated lots of discussion on hospital rounds that day. Theirs was not a tale of military or medical rescue, as exciting and perhaps technically interesting as those were. It was one of marital rescue. This covenant has liberated their souls and given them a higher purpose. Each of us that day, married or not, caught a glimpse of where our true north lies and a reminder of when we are at our best—in serving another.

Mr. Callis eventually regained color and strength, and on the morning of his hospital discharge he once more explained, “You know, it takes three people to stay married: Daisy, me and God. This is not just a civil agreement; we are one.” It was a beautiful echo another line in Bonhoeffer’s letter to his niece: “It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”