A Matter of Degrees

It’s coming up on Sunday and time to go to church meeting. But you’re not feeling very motivated to go. Mostly it’s because of some of the people there. You know how it can be, the bossy sister who always has unsolicited advice, the brother who seems to only see people’s faults (especially “the young people”). Maybe it’s just you, or maybe just your congregation. What to do?

Back in the days of Moses, God set up his seven feasts in Jerusalem. In particular he said, “Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Ex 23:7)”. Everyone had to leave home and go to Jerusalem to keep the feasts. Psalm 120 through Psalm 134 are each denoted as “A Song of Degrees,” and it has been suggested that these psalms were sung by the children of Israel as they went up to Jerusalem and then up to the temple. The first one doesn’t sound very promising:

Psalm 120 [A Song of degrees.]
In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, [and] from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, [that] I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
I [am for] peace: but when I speak, they [are] for war.

“I’m OK, it’s all those other people!” You can hear the conversations: “Those men from Gad think they’re really something. And don’t get me started on the Judeans. They act like they’re the only ones who know what God wants. Boy, it’s going to be long trip.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? After being away from God’s people for any length of time, even a week, we can begin to dwell on a lot of negative aspects of our experiences with them.

But we can turn our eyes to the Lord as the next Psalm reminds us:

Psalm 121 [A Song of degrees.]
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help [cometh] from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

You get to the church/chapel and you head inside and you see your brethren and sisters and think about why you’re there. The next psalm takes a different tone:

Psalm 122 [A Song of degrees of David.]
I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:
Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.
For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy walls, [and] prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace [be] within thee.
Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.

Why are you there? For “the testimony,” “to give thanks unto the Lord.” In spite of any misgivings, you can take up the attitude in the last two verses, “For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace [be] within thee. Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.” After all, it’s not “my” church or even “our” church, it is “the house of the Lord.” It’s what Paul wrote to remind Timothy, “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Tim 3:15)”

The next one takes it a bit further. Psalm 123:3 says, “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us: for we are exceedingly filled with contempt.” Turn your critical eye upon yourself, and you will see again that we need the Lord’s mercy because of our OWN shortcomings. Jeremiah wrote, “[It is of] the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. [They are] new every morning: great [is] thy faithfulness. (Lam 3:22-23)” Even as believers we must depend on God’s mercy to keep our heart right.

Psalm 124 ends with, “Our help [is] in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Three psalms back it was MY help that came from the Lord; now it is OUR help. Psalm 126:3 says, “The LORD hath done great things for us; [whereof] we are glad.” What an improvement! Instead of “I am this” and “they are that,” it is all of us together, recipients of God’s goodness and grace, and together we are glad. When we get to Psalm 133, look how different things are:

Psalm 133 [A Song of degrees of David.]
Behold, how good and how pleasant [it is] for brethren to dwell together in unity!
[It is] like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, [even] Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
As the dew of Hermon, [and as the dew] that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, [even] life for evermore.

Now we remember why we’re here! To give thanks to the Lord for what he has done for us, and to enjoy the fellowship of the saints. It’s good, it’s pleasant, it is precious! We can turn our eyes away from ourselves to the one who alone is worthy. So we can end with the last psalm in the group:

Psalm 134 [A Song of degrees.]
Behold, bless ye the LORD, all [ye] servants of the LORD, which by night stand in the house of the LORD.
Lift up your hands [in] the sanctuary, and bless the LORD.
The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.

I’ll bet by then you can hardly wait to come back next week!

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Lost and Found

So, Charlie picks me up on the UConn campus and we make the 85 mile trip to my girlfriend’s house in New Milford, CT. (By the way, part one of this story is here, and part two is here.)  He drops me off and heads to his girlfriend’s house in Watertown, and I sit and visit until we head to the Gospel Meeting in the Brookfield Gospel Hall on Pocono Road (see pic below).  The folks there had a Gospel Meeting every Sunday night from 7:00 until 8:00.  I had never been to any of these meetings, so my girlfriend filled me in on what to expect.  The meeting started with a couple of Gospel hymns and a prayer, and then two of the brethren got up (one at a time) and preached the Gospel.  That night the first man preaching was my Facebook friend Jim Rosania who was visiting from the Terryville Gospel Hall and the other was Jack McGrath from Brookfield, who is now with the Lord.  Jim, if you’re reading this, I confess that I don’t remember what you preached about.  But I remember Jack’s message.  He read the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16.  Here’s the passage:

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that [would come] from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

I remember the story from when I was a kid.  In fact, I used to listen to (and sing) a Peter, Paul, and Mary song called “Tramp on the Street” that was about this story (see below).  But I’m not really paying much attention.  I’m lost in my thoughts about what is going on in my life.  I am not doing well in school, but for many reasons I am more concerned about what I call “cosmic” things, what I would refer to today as “eternal” things.  What if what these people are telling me is true?  Am I really going to Hell?  Since I started to read the Bible and talk to other Christians around campus in the previous few months, it seemed that circumstances were leading me to really consider the question: “What will happen to me when I die?”  There had been many “coincidences” that culminated in today’s sequence of events that now finds me listening to a preacher teach about Heaven and Hell.  “But,” I think, “I’m a rational guy, a math major, a scientific kind of guy.  I want some PROOF that this is true.”  As I stare out the window, I see a big pine tree and think,”If a branch falls off that tree right now, I’ll believe it’s true.”  But then I realized that I would just claim it to be another in the long line of coincidences that I have been experiencing.  As I complete that thought, Jack reads the last line of the passage: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”  Then he says, “If you won’t accept God’s word, you won’t accept any proof of the truth, not even if someone came back from the dead!”  My immediate thought is, “What a coincidence!”

But now I can’t deny it.  God is, in fact, speaking to me, in a very direct way.  Oh, I’m not hearing voices or seeing visions, but it is not reasonable to ignore  the “messages” I am getting.  After Jack closes the meeting with a prayer, we sing hymn #77 from the Gospel Hymn Book (see pic below of the page from the hymn book).  The tag line of the hymn is, “Thou wouldst be saved, Why not tonight?” and the “Why not tonight” tag line is set separately over to the right, so it appears five times.  The thought is now my own.  If I want to be saved, why NOT tonight?

The meeting ends and my girlfriend and I get in her old 60’s Volvo (see sample pic below) to make the hour and a half trip back to UConn.  I’m driving and I’m talking about my reaction to the day, especially the gospel meeting, while she sits quietly and lets me ramble on.  I really want to tell her I’m saved now, but I know I’m not.  And here’s the dilemma: I know I have three spiritual enemies: the world, the flesh, and the Devil.  This is old information from my childhood which has been recently reinforced by the Christians I have met.  I had already come to the conclusion that the world didn’t want me to be saved, as represented by my friends who were just like I had been, more interested in scoring some hash, LSD, and the occasional lump of opium.  They were not going to help me with my eternal destiny, in fact, quite the opposite.  So the world was out. As I’m talking, I realize that it’s Satan that is trying to get me to say I am saved even though I know I’m not.  He’s definitely not on my side, so I reject the idea of lying about my condition. So Satan is out.

Now I am faced by the final enemy: me.  The arguments start in my mind against the truth that I have just learned about my soul’s need for salvation.  That truth is that I am a sinner, and my own sins condemn me to Hell forever.  But Jesus died on the cross in my place, so I don’t have to go to Hell.  But it is up to me to accept him or reject him, and if I accept him, I’m saved and I get to go to Heaven.  As I face this ultimate truth, my own thoughts begin to tell me, “Don’t worry.  You’re OK.  You’re better than most people so you’ll probably go to Heaven.”  This has been my guiding principle through all of my life, that I’m not so bad, that I’m better than most, but now I see it for the lie that it is.  My next thought is, “I’m a math major who can’t even pass my math course, How will I ever get into God’s Heaven?” I have no place else to go.  I’m LOST!  I have no ability to do anything about it, I’m going to Hell.  And the worst part of it is that the only one who can do anything about it is God.  This is the same God that I have railed against silently in my private thoughts and loudly in public.  One time I shouted that if Jesus came into the room I would spit on him!  Why would he ever save me?  I am truly lost, there is nothing I can do!  But in my desperation I turn to God anyway, and in my mind I say, “God, SAVE ME!”

And he does.  Right there.  In the drivers seat of that Volvo, somewhere on route 84 near Plainville CT at around 11:00 at night.  God shows me that Jesus loves me, and when he died on the cross it wasn’t just for “everybody” or for “all the sinners,” it was for ME!  He saved me!  I’m saved! I turn to my girlfriend and say, “I’m saved!  God saved me just now!”  I expect shouts and tears of happiness and joy (that’s what I am feeling) but all she says is, “Are you sure?”  But I am not offended, because I AM sure.  I have never been more sure of anything in my life.  I am no longer “lost,” no longer on my way to Hell, but I have eternal life and am on my way to Heaven. I’m FOUND!

By the way, the next day I ran into Connie Wynn, the first born-again Christian I ever met, who had been praying for me every day for five months, and when I told her I got saved, she did shout and cry and hug me, and we thanked God together that he saved me.

Here I am, 41 years later.  Jesus has been at my side all that time.  Most days I feel like I haven’t accomplished much on his behalf, but I am grateful for all that he has done for me, and that I have the ability and opportunity to tell others about the God who loves everyone, each person, even though each one is a sinner who doesn’t deserve his love.  And I can tell them that when Jesus died on the cross, it wasn’t just for me, it was for you, too.

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Here’s a link to the Google Maps Street View of the Brookfield Gospel Hall.  I actually got married there.

Here’s a link to YouTube of the song “Tramp on the Street”  by Peter, Paul, and Mary

Here’s a pic of hymn #77 that we sang that night:

Why not tonight?

Hymn #77 from the Gospel Hymn Book

Here’s what the Volvo looked like, though it was gray and much more beat-up:

Old Volvo

Example of old Volvo

So how did phones work in the old days?

Back in the dark ages of the 1970’s there was no such thing as a cell phone.  There was no such thing as a wireless phone, either.  In fact, there was no such thing as more than one phone company.  Almost everywhere there was only AT&T, and the phones in your house belonged to them, not to you!  That being said, in Connecticut our one phone company was the Southern New England Telephone Company instead, fondly known as S-N-E-T.  The reason I bring this up is that because of this arrangement college students couldn’t afford phones.  So in every dorm there was a pay phone down in the lobby.  If you  wanted to call someone you would call that phone and if someone happened to be walking by, they would answer it.  You told them who you wanted to talk to and there was a PA system that they would use to page the person you wanted to speak to.  Then that person would run downstairs and get on the phone.

Anyway, back to my story to see why this is relevant.  After the radio show was over (see previous post), I decide to take a shower.  In those days a dormitory was just that, a bunch of double rooms with a communal bathroom and shower on each floor, not like the “suites” they have today.  So I gather up my soap, shampoo, towel, etc., get in my robe, and proceed across the hall to the bathroom.  I finish my shower and come out into the hallway, and I hear my name on the loudspeaker.  I have a call on Sunday morning!  So I run down the stairs in my bathrobe and get the phone.  It’s my buddy Charlie from off campus.  He got a call from my girlfriend asking him if he would pick me up and the both of us could go to Brookfield for their weekly Gospel meeting that night.  Charlie was up for this since it actually gave him an excuse to drop me off and then go home so he could see his girlfriend.

I am speechless.  She had never asked me to attend any of their church meetings in the five months I had known her, even though we talked about them often.  Now here I am having been shocked by a pinball / eternal life story on the radio, and now getting an invitation to hear more about it (eternal life, not pinball).  I absolutely want to go, so I tell him to come and get me.  I am also amazed by two things. One, someone was walking by the phone in the lobby on Sunday morning and bothered to answer it.  Two, I was in the hallway for about 15 seconds, enough time to walk across the hall and unlock my door.  In that 15 second window I was paged because I have a call.  If I had still been in the shower, I wouldn’t have heard it.  If I had returned to my room I may not have heard it since it isn’t that loud and wouldn’t have been listening for it.  It was perfectly timed.  “What a coincidence!” I think.  “First I turn on the radio at just the right time to hear the pinball story, and now I’m in the hallway to get a phone call.  Huh!  It is certainly starting out as a very interesting day.”

I had no idea where this day was going to end up.

[Part 1 is here.]

Feb 14, 2014 – First Post

So, 41 years ago today, while driving a 60’s era Volvo sedan on route 84 outside of Plainville, Connecticut, I asked God to save me from my sin, and he did! I realized that Jesus Christ had died for me on the cross so my sins could be forgiven.

I have been feeling nostalgic, so I am writing the story of how that all came to happen.

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February 1973, Sprague Hall, University of Connecticut. It’s Sunday morning, and I am actually awake. Usually I sleep all day Sunday and wake up when it’s time for my girlfriend to return to campus. She goes home every weekend so she can go to “meeting” on Sunday morning, what most people call “church”. Anyway, I turn on the radio to the one FM station we can get in Storrs, Connecticut, and they are playing one of my favorite songs: Killing Me Softly by Roberta Flack. All of a sudden, some guy starts talking over the song! How aggravating! But what he says catches my attention:

I saw a piece of life in a pinball machine the other day.

Cool! I love pinball! Before video games pinball was IT. I fancied myself quite the player, though not a pinball wizard. So I listen as he continues.

I was on my last ball, and it was heading straight for the ball dump, and that would be it, game over. But I caught the ball just a little bit with one flipper, pushed it to the other flipper, hit the Special Target, and I won a whole new game.

I understood this feeling exactly and there was nothing like it. See, in Connecticut and some other states, it is considered gambling to award a free game since that has actual value, so you could only win a free ball. But in New Jersey where I learned to play, a free game was what you got, and that’s what you played for. The machine would make a *knock* sound, and you knew you had won another game! It was really exhilarating! Then he said:

That’s what it’s like when you get Jesus in your life. Your life can be headed straight for the dumps, but get Jesus in your life, even just a little, and you get a whole new game.

I was completely stunned. Here was some random guy on the radio talking about pinball and he relates it to Jesus. It turns out it was a Christian radio broadcast relayed from some place in Texas, and it aired every Sunday morning on our station. And it was exactly what I needed to hear, because my life was heading straight for the dumps, and I sure needed something. I had recently turned twenty years old, and my life had been going downhill for some time due to my own actions. This incident was the continuation of God’s efforts to get me to pay attention to eternity, and to consider the fate of my own soul.

TO BE CONTINUED…