Good news for those of us following Meriam Ibrahim‘s sad story of Sudanese court cases, imprisonment and subsequent release with a view to a new life in the West.

My last post on her saga found her, her husband Daniel Wani and their two children living in the library of the US Embassy in Khartoum.

On July 24, thanks to the continued negotiations by Italy’s Deputy Foreign Minister Lapo Pistelli, she and her family flew to Rome. Pistelli accompanied them on the flight.

The Guardian reported that after arriving in Rome, Pistelli, prime minister Matteo Renzi and foreign minister Federica Mogherini took the family to Casa Santa Martha, Pope Francis’s Vatican residence. There the Pope spent just under a half hour with them.

The paper says that Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi described the meeting as follows:

The pope thanked Meriam and her family for their courageous demonstration of constancy of faith. Meriam gave thanks for the great support and comfort which she received from the prayers of the pope and of many other people who believe and are of goodwill.

He added that the Pope expressed his personal

closeness, attention and prayer for all those who suffer because of their faith and in particular Christians who suffer persecution or restriction to their freedom of religion …

A number of politicians in the US and the UK expressed their outrage. Human and religious rights organisations, such as Redress and Hardwired, also got involved in Ibrahim’s case.

However, the Daily Mail spoke to Ibrahim’s lawyer El Shareef Ali, who said:

The Italians had the greatest influence on Sudan and were able to secure her release.

Furthermore (emphases mine):

Hardwired added that charges against Meriam are still open in Sudan and it is unclear what will happen to the cases.

Her original death sentence for apostasy is now with the Supreme Court in Khartoum.

She also faces additional charges for falsifying documents and a new case filed by her family which seeks to annul her marriage.

El Shareef said: ‘We will continue to challenge the case at the Supreme Court and seek a decision that recognises the apostasy law as inconsistent with international law and the Sudanese Constitution so no one else is harmed by these kind of charges.’

Italy’s tireless pursuit of justice in Ibrahim’s case is to be applauded. The Mail reports prime minister Matteo Renzi stating:

If there is no European reaction we are not worthy of calling ourselves Europe.

Too right — and well done!

The Mail and Huffington Post accounts of the Vatican meeting have several photographs for us to enjoy.

The family are hoping to fly to the US very soon. More news to follow on what we pray will be a happy ending and a new beginning for them.

Bible readingContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

The following Bible passages have been excluded from the three-year Lectionary used by many Catholic and Protestant churches around the world.

Do some clergy using the Lectionary want us understand Holy Scripture in its entirety? You decide.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 13:18-21

The Mustard Seed and the Leaven

 18 He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

 20And again he said, “To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.”

—————————————————————————————-

In last week’s reading, which immediately precedes today’s verses, Jesus rebuked the hypocrisy of synagogue leaders who took issue when, on the Sabbath, He healed a woman who had been bent over for 18 years because of a demon.

In today’s verses Jesus states that the kingdom of God will start out small but grow to the extent that everyone under its influence will benefit (verses 18, 19).

Jesus makes this statement because, as Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

Many perhaps were prejudiced against the gospel, and loth to come in to the obedience of it, because its beginning was so small they were ready to say of Christ, Can this man save us? And of his gospel, Is this likely ever to come to any thing? Now Christ would remove this prejudice, by assuring them that though its beginning was small its latter end should greatly increase so that many should come, should come upon the wing, should fly like a cloud, to lodge in the branches of it with more safety and satisfaction than in the branches of Nebuchadnezzar’s tree, Daniel 4:21.

In order to explain His ministry and the sowing of the seed of His bride the Church, he uses the analogy of the mustard seed which grows into a huge, sturdy bush. Everyone in His audience knew how tiny these seeds were.

John MacArthur says that the mustard seed was the smallest seed in that part of the world in those days. The only seed which approximates it in size is the tobacco seed, which is the size of a full stop (‘period’ to my American readers) seen on this page. However, tobacco was an American plant exported to Europe only in the 16th century.

MacArthur elaborates on the size of a mustard seed bush:

Now a mustard seed produced a bush. Typically it could grow to eight feet high and 15 feet in diameter. That is a big plant. As far as garden plants go, that is the biggest garden plant that they new anything about …

And it grew to be a tree it says, it’s not a timber tree, but a large shrub is in view here. In fact, this thing is so large it says that birds of the air nested in its branches. And the word nested here is permanent dwelling. They set up their home, they put their nests there. It’s branches were big enough and broad enough to build permanent nests in. A little unusual for a garden plant. That’s the picture. They get so big and so sturdy and so strong that the birds find it a good place to put their permanent home. We’re not talking about lighting on it and flying away. We’re talking about building a nest and staying.

Jesus’s ministry produced relatively small results at the time because of unbelief often driven by hypocrisy of the religious hierarchy, hence, His allusion to the mustard seed. Yet, it would continue to grow and spread throughout the world. Civilisation under the influence of Christian belief would come to provide a good, secure life for all. Certainly, there have been exceptions throughout history; nothing is perfect. Civilisation has had to evolve over two millennia. And we all wonder about the world today, including Western society.

Despite that, MacArthur says (emphases mine):

And you know, as the kingdom grows in its external visible form as Christianity develops, what comes with it? The greatest civilization, the most advanced civilization, the greatest comforts, the finest medicine, the best education, the best harnessing of human resources and the resources in the earth. Christianity is the one that brought along all of the graces that grace this otherwise pagan world.

And just like 1 Corinthians 7:14 says, “That an unsaved spouse is sanctified by being married to a Christian.” So unregenerate people are sanctified by being around the influence of the growing kingdom of God. I mean, we who live in America should understand that, right? Don’t call America a Christian nation. It isn’t. But Christians have been such a dominating force in this nation’s history as to have provided the best possible life on the planet for all the non-Christians that nest in the tree of Christianity. So the Lord shows by simple power…a simple parable, don’t underestimate the power, the external growth of this kingdom. Christianity, as we speak today, in name is the largest religion in the world; in the world. And it came from such a small and obscure beginning. Just as Jesus said it would. And nesting in the tree are many nations throughout the history of the world benefiting from the blessing of the growth of the kingdom. That’s the external.

Note his mention that this analogy represents the external Church.

In the next two verses (20, 21) Jesus describes the internal growth of the believer. He compares it to the woman who leavened flour. MacArthur says she would have done this with sour dough culture:

when a young Hebrew girl married, her mother would give her some things as mothers do when girls get married, but one of the things that a mother gave a Hebrew girl was some fermented sour dough. That was a wedding present and she took it to start her first batch of bread in her new family. And it symbolized the wonderful continuity from her family into that new family. There are some things you want to leave behind, like the wretchedness of Egypt. There are some things you want to take with you like the love of a family.

And so this idea of leaven symbolized all kinds of influences. And He is saying so it is with the kingdom.

Jesus is saying that faith transforms one person at a time, just as a relatively small amount of raising agent transforms flour into dough from which one can make bread.

Henry says:

But you must give it time, wait for the issue of the preaching of the gospel to the world, and you will find it does wonders, and alters the property of the souls of men. By degrees the whole will be leavened, even as many as are, like the meal to the leaven, prepared to receive the savour of it.

MacArthur makes two good points about the influence of Christianity in our fallen world. The first ties in nicely with Henry’s perspective of allowing a lot of time for the Gospel to percolate. It concerns the Tsunami relief work which was going on in 2004 when MacArthur preached the sermon I’ve been citing in this post:

many of the relief workers in South Asia helping with the Tsunami victims are Christians. In fact, this word that I received was that Christians are flocking in there realizing that these nations are anti-Christian, persecute Christians, kill Christians, burn churches, etc. I heard a story this week about a whole seminary that was burned to the ground. They know there’s a window of opportunity and that the relief work is permeated by Christians. The world doesn’t know it. The world doesn’t see it. It can’t be seen. But it’s a way that God advances His kingdom, and it comes down to this, it’s you and it’s me in the sphere of our influence. That’s how it happens. It’s not going to happen in the great capitols of the world. It’s not going to happen through bureaucracies and civil government and authority. It’s going to happen the way it’s always going to happen, hidden as we influence the world. What a glorious calling and what a great ending.

MacArthur’s other point is that the Church continues to grow, believer by believer, even in countries which forbid any exercise of religion:

I read recently that 95% of the world’s population presently have part of the Bible or all of the Bible in their language. It’s working. Ninety percent of all tribes have had an opportunity to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. You think about Ethiopia, claims to have something around 35 million “Christians.” Talk about 50 million plus Christians in China. Did you know Cuba has 50 Christian denominations operating there under Fidel Castro? Somebody estimated that about 65,000 people profess to give their lives to Christ daily somewhere in the world.

And about 1,500 new churches start ever week. We don’t need the political power. We don’t need the military power. Christians through the years have gotten that very confused. It happens through influence. And Jesus put it this way, “I will build,” what, “my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” And some day He will come as King of kings and Lord of lords. And at that time, let me tell you folks, every eye will see Him as King of kings and Lord of lords and we will be revealed as the glorious manifestation of the children of God becomes evident to the whole world, and we’ll reign with Him in glory for 1,000 years and then on into eternity forever.

May we rejoice every time someone asks us about the Gospel message. That’s the internal influence leading to further external influence of the Church.

Next time: Luke 14:2-6

Those who watch the Tour de France at home could be forgiven for not thinking very much of the podium ladies who present the stage awards and the various coloured jerseys on each day’s stage.

After all, we only see them at the end.

Yet, as Le Monde‘s blog En Danseuse — ‘standing on the pedals’ — explains, they have a full time job just as everyone else involved in this three-week endurance race does.

Henri Seckel interviewed the podium ladies who present Tour sponsor Antargaz’s daily award for the Most Aggressive Rider. This presentation isn’t usually shown on television, but it is for the rider who does his very best — despite physiological and environmental conditions — to finish a stage. However, he must put strategic and aggressive effort into his performance.

The ultimate winner of this accolade, officially known as the Combativity Award, is announced in Paris on the final day of racing — Sunday, July 27, 2014. One lucky losing rider will be in pocket:

Prize money: € 20,000 for the overall winner (€ 58,000 in total).

By contrast, the overall Yellow Jersey winner, who, this year, will be Vincenzo Nibali, will win over €1m.

More on Nibali in a minute.

The Combativity Award

First, to Henri Seckel’s interview with the ladies, Priscilla and Ophélie, who present the Antargaz award. The title of the blog post states that the Combativity Award is not a rubbish prize.

Ophélie explains that it goes to someone who has:

the courage, the pluck, the genius that gives the impression that he could be a stage winner or the best sprinter or the best climber. As there are riders who would like to win this award, it has value.

Becoming a podium lady

Now on to how the ladies got started with the Tour.

Ophélie says that she initially applied to be a driver:

I didn’t realise you had to have such a lot of experience. They said, ‘You won’t be able to do that, but we have something else for you.’

Priscilla had worked on the publicity caravan:

and if you really love the Tour, you want to know everything about it. But I told myself I probably didn’t have the right profile [for the podium].

When asked what the desired profile is, Priscilla said there wasn’t really any of which to speak. Ophélie said:

You have to be tall, at least. Then, not too ugly.

Seckel asked them if they feared being seen as airheads. Both said they were kept quite busy throughout the day, it’s just that most people don’t see them. Ophélie explained:

In the morning, we help prepare the stage departure, we’re running around, we’re welcoming Antargaz’s guests. Then we go to the middle of the stage where there are more guests; we welcome everyone, distribute gifts, then it’s on to the finish. The podium is only two minutes in our day. 

Easygoing and friendly

Seckel then fielded questions about women’s temperaments. As to whether there were ‘wars’ between hostesses from different sponsors, both women said that all the ladies were easygoing. Priscilla added:

The recruitment criterion is for easygoing people. We’re not tearing each other’s hair out.

But, Seckel asked, what about the women who present the yellow jersey? Was there any envy on the part of those who weren’t selected for that?  Ophélie said that no one makes a big deal out of it:

Of course … it’s highly prestigious. But the day-to-day job is still the same.

When asked how they were treated by spectators or guests, Priscilla said that the ladies who work only in the caravan suffer any number of verbal insults, but the podium ladies are treated with great respect. The riders, she makes clear, are nice to everyone.

Post-Tour blues

Such is the experience of the podium lady that, post-Tour, it’s a bit of a wrench getting readjusted to normal life. Ophélie explained:

It’s such a huge event — you’re in a bubble, in a little cocoon. The first time, they tell you: ‘You’ll see. By the end, you’ll be in tears.’ Because you’re totally taken care of, lodged, fed, made beautiful, and then, all of a sudden, that’s it. You’re on the way home, on the train, all alone, no one recognises you because you aren’t carrying anything branded Antargaz, no one smiles, no one says hello.

Priscilla felt the same:

The first year, I said, ‘Nah, I won’t cry, I’ve only known you for three weeks.’ And, frankly, I never cried harder in all my life. The Tour family is not a myth. We see each other afterward, go on holiday together — it’s really impressive.

Podium choreography

I suspect that people who watch a stage all the way to the end for the podium presentations are those who insist on watching all the credits at the end of a film. I am one of those people.

Those of us who do watch the podium presentations know how well synchronised they are. Nothing is out of place. Everything goes like clockwork.

Priscilla and Ophélie said that everything is rehearsed again and again, down to the last detail. It’s not unusual for the podia to be marked for positioning one’s feet and one’s distance from the rider.

They both said that even the slightest faux pas must be avoided, including touching one’s hair. Hence the need for lots of hairspray pre-podium.

Watch the 2013 final awards in Paris (at 1:00 in) to see how the women stand, how they applaud in a ladylike way and how expertly they do this aspect of their job, including the accomplished airkisses they give the riders:

Yet, one Yellow Jersey podium lady bucked the trend this year. In Sheffield, at the end of Stage 2, Vincenzo Nibali won the yellow jersey for the first time in his career. He’s gone on to win it every day since.

Huffington Post has a seconds-long replay in slow motion. The brunette with the bouffant made it look as if she were giving him a kiss but actually only grabbed his neck, pulling him towards her, leaving him covering for the incident by adjusting his collar.

You can see more in a news report via YouTube:

 

No one knows the dynamics behind her refusal to kiss him. Please note that Nibali did not say anything publicly afterward, certainly not as HuffPo’s title might imply. That particular remark came from someone online.

Although not asked about this incident, Le Monde‘s Seckel did want to know about the riders’ hygiene post-race. Ophélie told Le Monde that they are very clean by the time they reach the podium:

At the finishing line, they get into a little camping car where they have a nice wash, change their jersey and so on, so that when they arrive on the podium they’re spick and span.

I shall miss these insights — as well as the Tour — come next week. They’ve become part of my life, too.

Le Monde has been running an excellent blog on the Tour de France this year.

It’s called En Danseuse. In English, this translates idiomatically as ‘standing on the pedals’.

As more than one English-speaker has said over the past three weeks, ‘Doesn’t everything sound better in French?’  You bet.

One of the En Danseuse bloggers, Lucie Soullier, interviewed two Belkin team riders, Maarten Wynants (Belgian) and Lars Boom (Dutch). As I write, they are 113th and 105th in the overall classification. Their team leader, Bauke Mollema, is in 7th place and another teammate Laurens Ten Dam is in 8th.

Soullier asked the two riders all the questions Tour de France fans would appreciate. Below is a summary with quotes for the answers to the big ones.

Boredom: There’s never a dull moment on the Tour, especially this one, which seems to have a higher number of treacherous roads and steep climbs than usual.

Scenery: There’s no time to enjoy the scenery; Wynants watched a replay of Stage 3 in London and saw the sights then.

Gastronomy: Local specialities are out of the question. Riders have to follow the team diet which revolve around rice and pasta with a smaller amount of protein — fish or meat. When cycling, it’s gels and high-energy snack bars.

Now on to the big subjects.

Hair removal

Soullier asked the riders if they remove body hair every day.

Wynants said he doesn’t; often, he’s too tired.

Boom said:

I think I’ll always shave. It just looks nicer. In fact, I’ve never had long hair on my legs.

Soullier asked if hair removal was for aesthetic or practical purposes. Boom explained:

It’s to avoid any infections if you fall.

Wynants added:

And for the massages. If they’re a bit rough, body hair makes them hurt that much more.

Soullier then asked whether they preferred shaving or waxing.

Boom said he preferred shaving:

We guys are softies.

Wynants agreed:

I tried waxing once and cried like a baby. I swore I’d never do it again. A razor is good.

Underwear

Professional cyclists’ shorts are sleek and skin-tight. This leads to an obvious question. Boom explained:

Underwear wouldn’t be very comfortable. But we wear a chamois [a thick cushion underneath the shorts].

Wynants elaborated a bit more:

It’s impossible to wear underwear because of all the friction. We sometimes spend six hours sitting on a bike. The chamois makes it much more comfortable.

Calls from Nature

These days, television coverage sometimes shows a aerial shot of a group of cyclists pulling over to the side of the road, modestly spaced apart. One leads and others follow. There is no protocol.

They are taking a comfort break. This can be difficult when people line nearly all of the route, such as the first two stages this year in Yorkshire.

What happens when it’s difficult to pull over to the side of the road — especially considering riders are consuming five litres of water on each stage?

Boom said he had been able to train himself to go, as it were, whilst riding. He and his teammate actually used a cruder term.

Wynants hasn’t been able to do that:

It’s simple. You stop. There’s a tacit rule that says when the leader stops for a comfort break, there are no attacks. Besides, more often than not, everyone takes a break at the same time. Some can do it when riding, but it isn’t easy. I can’t do it — must be something psychological. And [the presence of the] television [cameras] makes it complicated. You don’t have the right to [go] in front of the spectators. Anyway, you can even be fined for it.

So, there you have it — another Tour de France scoop, thanks to a lady from Le Monde who asked all the right questions for those of us watching at home!

It has often been said over the past century that the Tour de France is more than a cycling race, it’s also everything else going on around it.

Along the route at every stage is the publicity caravan with participating Tour partners and sponsors. These companies have staffed, branded vehicles which go along the route 45 minutes prior to the cyclists’ arrival with inexpensive items or snacks. There are 200 of these vehicles in total.

Some partners, such as the sports newspaper L’Equipe, sell that day’s edition along with umbrellas.

Other companies give away branded pens, keychains or product samples.

Among the most popular companies are those distributing free food or beverages. The lunch meat company Cochonou gives away cotton sunhats and small packets of their dried sausage products, similar to salami.

The spectators, the caravan — and, of course, the riders — make the Tour France’s annual spectacle. It’s popular because it’s free; some lucky souls can walk out their front door and stand along the roadside for a day of fun with their families or friends.

Tour detractors call the three-week long spectacle panem et circences — bread and circuses. However, there is no question that the Tour generates excitement for its many fans.

Some camp out overnight. Others leave home early in the morning to get a prime place along that day’s stage route. The atmosphere builds in anticipation.

It’s worth knowing that July is one of France’s two big holiday months. Approximately half the country is on holiday then; the other half is off in August.

When the caravan of sponsors’ vehicles arrives, everyone knows the riders aren’t that far away. By then, the excitement is at fever pitch for some spectators. Drunk or sober, they want their goodies, especially if they’re free.

This 2013 video shows how the Cochonou caravan — a small truck leading a few 2CVs — goes along the stage routes to distribute sausages and sunhats:

This video shows the company’s stationary vehicles at a stage in Nice:

Cochonou — and other companies — consider the Tour caravan a good way of generating and maintaining customer goodwill.

To find out what exactly goes on in the 2CVs, Le Monde interviewed Elodie, a member of the Cochonou team, in 2011 and 2013. Last year marked her seventh Tour de France in the caravan. In 2011, she was studying physiotherapy. By 2013, she was working as a physio in Paris. Even so, she loved the Cochonou experience too much to miss it.

Many of those working Tour partner caravans are university students. The three-week race is a good way for them to see the country, meet new people and have a laugh.

In Elodie’s 2013 interview, she gave Le Monde the inside scoop on what it’s like to work as part of the caravan crew:

- Elodie got involved thanks to one of her cousins who raved about her time as part of a caravan crew;

- The Cochonou team is small. Everyone gets on well with each other, dawn to dusk;

- Most caravan workers return to the same sponsors year after year so they can spend part of their summer with old friends;

- Although most caravan teams go out at night, they may be subject to random alcohol tests the following morning;

- Workers must be outgoing and friendly towards the public;

- Lunch breaks are five minutes long; one comfort break per stage is allowed;

- The first few days take getting used to, as one’s arms ache from constantly waving at the crowd and distributing goods;

- Crews receive training on how to distribute goods; they lob food and caps out far into the crowds to keep people away from the middle of the road. Spectators making the most noise are top priority;

- One gets a lot of bruises from constantly moving around in a confined space;

- By the end of the Tour, everyone’s exhausted.

Elodie explained the hazards crew members encounter from the public. It’s better to be one of the crew standing up in the 2CV than sitting down. Some men verbally insult the women leaning out the windows or squirt water in their faces. A few spat at Elodie and her colleagues in 2011.

She thought that was bad until a subsequent Tour stage, when a few angry Basques urinated through the open windows. Elodie said one quickly learns to keep one’s eyes and mouth closed when those approaching the vehicles appear menacing.

And heaven forbid you run out of free stuff!

The Tour is more than a bike race. For those who work the caravans, it’s the ultimate three weeks out and about in France.

John F MacArthurOne of the more popular maxims of today’s Church is ‘let go and let God’.

This is a relatively recent saying. Its origin is unclear; regardless, John MacArthur says this equivalent of ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ is unbiblical.

In ‘The Person and Power of God in Your Spiritual Growth’ he explains why. A few excerpts follow, emphases mine below:

The first key to God’s work in our sanctification is His personhood

Most pagan deities are described as impersonal, remote, and indifferent. That is not surprising, because false gods are fabricated by men out of fear and superstition. Even those that have personal characteristics are not portrayed as desiring fellowship with their worshipers. And understandably, their worshipers have no desire to fellowship with them.

The God of Scripture has unimaginable love for fallen, sinful mankind, which has rebelled against Him, blasphemed Him, and vilified Him. He has such great love for them “that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17). It is not the Lord’s will “for any to perish but for all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

For those who belong to Him, the God of Scripture has even greater love and the closest of personal relationships. Throughout Scripture, God is referred to as His people’s Father—on a national level in the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 63:16, 64:8), and individually in the New (cf. Matthew 5:16, 45, 48; 6:1, 9; 23:9). Adam and Eve, Moses, and many other Old Testament saints spoke with God directly. “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, just as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11).

The second essential truth emphasized in Philippians 2:13 concerning God’s part in believers’ sanctification is His divine power. Above all else, it is God “who is at work” (Philippians 2:13) in the lives of His children. He calls them to obey, and then, through His sovereign power, energizes their obedience. He calls them to His service, and then empowers their service. He calls them to holiness, and then empowers them to pursue holiness.

God Himself is the believer’s supreme and indispensable resource and power. The wonder of all wonders is thatit is God who is at work” (Philippians 2:13) in them. Paul summed it up in Colossians 1:29 when he said, “I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me.”

Note that our relationship with God is intensely personal. No other world faith can offer this one-on-one rapport.

Furthermore, the idea that God expects us to be passive or inactive individuals — the way ‘Let go and let God’ is often interpreted — has no foundation in Scripture.

John F MacArthurMany unbelievers and some lukewarm believers think that fearing God is unhealthy.

They also think that God is somehow ‘bad’ for encouraging this fear.

Yet, the fear of which the Bible speaks is an awe that we mere mortals, prone to sin, cannot comprehend.

To believers, ‘fear’ and ‘dread’ differ in meaning from the way we understand these familiar words in a secular context.

John MacArthur has a useful blog post on the subject called ‘The Gravity of Sin’, well worth reading in full.

The section called ‘The Fear of the Lord’ stood out for me and it might help us explain this holy fear to others (emphases mine):

Although God is loving, merciful, and forgiving, He nevertheless holds believers accountable for disobedience. Like John, Paul understood well that “if we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9).

Knowing that he serves a holy and just God, the faithful believer will always live with “fear and trembling.”

An important Old Testament truth is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10; cf. Proverbs 1:7, 9:10). It’s not the fear of being doomed to eternal torment, nor a hopeless dread of judgment that leads to despair. Instead, it’s a reverential fear, a holy concern to give God the honor He deserves and avoid the chastening of His displeasure. It protects against temptation and sin and gives motivation for obedient, righteous living.

Such fear involves self-distrust, a sensitive conscience, and being on guard against temptation. It necessitates opposing pride, and being constantly aware of the deceitfulness of one’s heart, as well as the subtlety and strength of one’s inner corruption. It is a dread that seeks to avoid anything that would offend and dishonor God.

 

Whilst many Western countries have long outlawed the practice of home burial, here in the UK it is still legal.

Television presenter Kirsty Allsop recently told the Independent how she and other family members buried her late mother in her parents’ back garden.

Home burial is illegal in many countries because amateurish digging and interring can contaminate the water table or interfere with utility cables or pipes.

In the UK families seeking to bury a loved one at home cannot act independently but must first contact the Environment Agency for formal permission, which consists of a permit and burial record as well as a procedure to follow for interment. The burial site cannot be close to a ditch or water source.

Furthermore, whereas landed gentry have the space to inter many deceased relatives, the average British homeowner will not be able to bury many, probably only one or two.

Whilst the Natural Death Centre fully support home funerals and burials, they also have a word of advice when it comes time to sell the property. The organisation’s Rosie Inman-Cook writes:

… if a vendor fails to declare the presence of a body or two, then the new home owner would have good justification to successfully obtain permission to exhume, maybe even suing the vendor for the cost of that gruesome process.  However, these properties do sell.  I often wonder, if we all called in the archaeologists, how many of us would discover we have Saxon or Roman remains under our homes? Would that then bother us?

One of the commenters on Kirsty Allsop’s article remembered his family funerals being handled largely at home, except for interment at the local cemetery, until 1950.

He wrote of a British experience, but it was also widespread in the United States.

My grandparents and their friends were accustomed to laying out the deceased at home for a day or two and receiving visitors during that time. A rota of family were on hand from morning until late evening to greet those wishing to pay their last respects.

A more recent scene of this practice is in the 1971 film Get Carter — the original, starring Michael Caine — which takes place in Newcastle. Early in the film, Jack (Caine) sees his brother’s body for the last time in his house before the undertakers arrive to put the lid on the coffin and remove it for burial.

Today, of course, most of us are accustomed to no viewing at all (Britain) or a period of open-casket visitation at a funeral home (the US). Whatever the custom, the undertaker generally takes care of everything.

It is surprising — even with cremation — how expensive funerals can be here and elsewhere. I know of a recent one in the US where cremation and related costs amounted to $3,500 versus $13,000 for body burial at a pre-purchased cemetery plot two hours away. (The plot had been purchased 60 years beforehand, so does not figure in the costs cited here.)

Therefore, it is no wonder that those who can are increasingly opting for home burial. It won’t be for everyone — either practically or emotionally — but many in Britain are glad they have the freedom to go ahead with a plan that makes them feel closer to their loved one. As the Natural Death Centre says, it can also help with the grieving and healing process.

Bible croppedContinuing a study of the passages from Luke’s Gospel which have been omitted from the three-year Lectionary for public worship, today’s post is part of my ongoing series Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

The following Bible passages have been excluded from the three-year Lectionary used by many Catholic and Protestant churches around the world.

Do some clergy using the Lectionary want us understand Holy Scripture in its entirety? You decide.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Luke 13:10-17

A Woman with a Disabling Spirit

 10Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11And there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your disability.” 13And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. 14But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” 15Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” 17As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.

———————————————————————————

Luke 13 is a continuation of Jesus’s calls to repentance in Luke 12.

Last week’s Forbidden Bible Verses post looked at the conclusion to Luke 12, Jesus’s likening the Final Judgement to appearing before a magistrate. He advises ‘settling along the way’ — making amends with God via repentance whilst we are alive, rather than face condemnation in the life to come.

The first story in Luke 13 concerns those who are asking about the spiritual state of the Galilean victims of Pilate’s persecutions and those who perished when the tower of Siloam fell (near the healing pool of Bethesda/Bethsaida in John 5). Jesus tells the people that they had no greater spiritual afflictions than they, therefore, what happened was not a divine punishment. However, Jesus emphasises that those who are wondering about other’s spiritual state should spend that energy examining and improving their own, lest they face condemnation in the next life.

He then relates a parable about a fig tree which has not yet borne fruit. The gardener — vinedresser — advised his boss the landowner to allow him to give it special attention for a year to see if it would bear fruit. If it did not, then he would fell the tree. Jesus’s message here is that God gives us a certain time to repent; if not, we face the consequences of eternal condemnation. We can pray for sinners to be infused with grace and wisdom so to do. However, we cannot pray that God will pardon the unrepentant. Matthew Henry’s commentary says:

Reprieves may be obtained by the prayers of others for us, but not pardons[;] there must be our own faith, and repentance, and prayers, else no pardon.

Now we come to today’s passage, Jesus’s merciful healing of a disabled woman on the Sabbath. This, too, although a healing miracle, symbolises God’s acceptance of the repentant sinner who believes in Christ.

Jesus was teaching in an unnamed synagogue (verse 10). Among the congregation was a woman who was stooped over and could not stand upright; a demon caused her longstanding condition with which she suffered for 18 years (verse 11).

Keep in mind that in synagogues then — as is true in Orthodox synagogues today — women had to sit separately from women. John MacArthur surmises that, in Jesus’s day, the women sat at the back, so she would have been out of sight from the leaders at the front.

Jesus called the lady to come forward and told her she was healed (verse 12). As He laid His hands upon her, she was able to stand up for the first time in nearly 20 years and praised God (verse 13).

The leader of the synagogue then stood up and denounced our Lord’s healing by saying that He had six other days of the week to do it; work was not permitted on the Sabbath (verse 14).

Jesus expressed His righteous indignation at the synagogue leader’s denunciation by saying that hypocritical Sabbath observers were kinder to their livestock than to a human (verse 15). Furthermore, He added, this lady was a Jew — one of their own (verse 16). In other words, who would deny her this merciful healing miracle? Only a hypocritical legalist.

With that Jesus shamed the legalist synagogue leaders and the people rejoiced at His words (verse 17).

MacArthur unpacks this scene for us (emphases mine):

He endeavors to bring on the head of Jesus a violation of the law of God. But of course, there’s nothing in the law of God that says you can’t help somebody on the Sabbath. Any deed of mercy, any necessity was perfectly acceptable on the Sabbath and their Jewish law even said it. The Mishnah even said that you could do anything for a person or an animal that was necessary or merciful. And Jesus, Himself, in the 12th Chapter of Matthew had told them, you know, you’ve got the whole idea of the law of God wrong. Do you remember when David’s soldiers were hungry and they went into the temple and ate the show bread, because they were hungry. And feeding men who were hungry was more important than the symbolism of the show bread.

It really was the hatred they had for Jesus. He was going to make up a rule that you can’t heal on the Sabbath. There could never be such a rule in Judaism, because nobody could heal anyway. So how would that rule develop? So the Lord answers him in verse 15. The Lord answered him and said, “you hypocrites,” He was direct, as always, you spiritual fraud, “does not each of you on Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the stall and lead him away to water him?” Well, He got them, because they did that.

In fact, in the Mishnah, the codification of Jewish rabbinic law, it prescribes that you can do that. You can take your animal if you put no burden on his back and lead him to water or to eat. It even gives you a maximum of 200 cubits that you can go. And they even have some prescription about how wide the well is so you can see how they encumbered these things. But it was perfectly fine to do that. You phonies.

Of course, the crowds that lauded Jesus for His mercy and compassion turned against Him by the time it came for His trial and crucifixion.

That said, not only is this account of Luke’s one of merciful physical restoration but a pointer towards the compassion God has for us sinners. As Matthew Henry puts it:

This cure represents the work of Christ’s grace upon the souls of the people. (1.) In the conversion of sinners. Unsanctified hearts are under this spirit of infirmity they are distorted, the faculties of the soul are quite out of place and order they are bowed down towards things below. O curvæ in terram animæ ! They can in no wise lift up themselves to God and heaven the bent of the soul, in its natural state, is the quite contrary way. Such crooked souls seek not to Christ but he calls them to him, lays the hand of his power and grace upon them, speaks a healing word to them, by which he looses them from their infirmity, makes the soul straight, reduces it to order, raises it above worldly regards, and directs its affections and aims heavenward. Though man cannot make that straight which God has made crooked (Ecclesiastes 7:13), yet the grace of God can make that straight which the sin of man has made crooked. (2.) In the consolation of good people. Many of the children of God are long under a spirit of infirmity, a spirit of bondage through prevailing grief and fear, their souls are cast down and disquieted within them, they are troubled, they are bowed down greatly, they go mourning all the day long, Psalm 38:6. But Christ, by his Spirit of adoption, looses them from this infirmity in due time, and raises them up.

4. The present effect of this cure upon the soul of the patient as well as upon her body. She glorified God, gave him the praise of her cure to whom all praise is due. When crooked souls are made straight, they will show it by their glorifying God.

Therefore, as the psalmist said, let us rejoice and be glad.

Next time: Luke 13:18-21

j0289346Dr R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California and Heidelblog recently called his readers to explore the Reformed tradition of exclusive psalmody — psalms sung a cappella rather than hymns accompanied by musical instruments.

Clark points out that psalmody cuts across cultural and national lines. He cites a 1996 article from the Associated Press which puts this ancient biblical tradition into a modern perspective. The AP reporter visited the Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church in Alabama.

Although fewer Reformed congregations are sticking with traditional exclusive psalmody, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, congregations of which are found mainly in Pennsylvania, New York, Indiana and Kansas, still believes psalms are the best songs for worship.

The Reformed Presbyterians came to the US from Scotland in the 17th century and are known as Covenanters. They follow the Westminster Confession of Faith and attempt to make their worship as biblical as possible.

They point out that, unlike hymns, the Psalms are divinely inspired because they are part of the Bible. They add that the New Testament records Jesus as having worshipped in synagogues, therefore, He would have sung them, too.

The Covenanters believe that worship must be God-centred, giving Him glory. They say that hymns focus more on man’s condition and detract from focussing on the Almighty.

At one time, the AP article says, nearly every Protestant congregation sang hymns, an ancient Christian tradition revived during the Reformation.  Then, in the 18th century, Isaac Watts began penning hymns. No doubt the melodies were more pleasing to the ear than the ancient ones used with psalms, because, over the following century, hymns and instrumental accompaniment became more widespread in church. By the early 20th century, most denominations moved towards hymns almost exclusively.

John Delivuk, a librarian at Geneva College near Pittsburgh and an authority on Reformed Presbyterian history, points out that clergy and liturgists are asking the wrong question when they wonder how to attract new members. The issue is not what people want to hear but rather,  ‘How can a congregation best please God in worship?’

He, like his fellow Reformed Presbyterians (and other smaller Reformed denominations), believe that psalms sung a cappella allow a more focussed and spiritual worship of God.

The Selma Reformed Presbyterian Church’s Facebook page features several sung psalms, such as Psalm 100b:

O Shout for joy unto the LORD
Earth’s people far and near;
With gladness come and serve the LORD,
And bring Him songs of cheer.

Perhaps church music leaders might slip a few psalms — sung without music to ancient (not modern) melodies — in their worship. They might be surprised at the positive reaction from the congregation. They would also avoid the question of what to sing — always a contentious issue when planning the Sunday service.

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