Two Become One

DSC_0321So, they are no longer two, but one.” (Mt. 19:6)

These are Jesus’ words spoken to some Pharisees who were trying to test him about whether divorce was permissible.  Jesus responded, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them ‘male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one.  Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.’”  (Mt. 19:4-6; Gen. 2:24)

My wife, Marilynn and I celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary on Saturday.  We were married back in a day when a simple brunch for family following mass was an adequate celebration and five dollars was a sufficient gift.

I once heard a speaker say that the bringing together of two separate and independent wills and making them one is surely an act of God’s grace, for how else could it be sustained.   Only God’s grace can transform the self-focus inherent in most individuals, to the love and care for the other marriage partner and his or her welfare.

But as Genesis indicates, marriage is part of God’s plan for his creation.  “Male and female he created them.  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and rule over it.’” He placed them in the Garden of Eden “to work and take care of it.” (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:15)  It only follows that God would bless and have a special grace for people who are attempting to carry out his will and plan for creation.

Still, we live our lives in the world and the flesh with the enemy of God always at work in attempting to detract us from God’s will and plan.  We learn from Jesus that his call to follow him in pursuit of the Father entails an ever increasing dying to self in order to love and serve him, our marriage partner, our children and all the other people God puts in our lives.

Like all marriages, we have experienced both blessings and challenges, but we believe the blessings have outnumbered the challenges.

As we reflected on year fifty-six, we concluded that our love for one another has grown deeper over the years – so many memories – working together in our challenges – sharing in our blessings.  

“Teach me, Lord, your way, that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name.” (Psalm 86:11)

Letting the Holy Spirit do His Work

“He will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14)

These are among Jesus’ last words to the disciples before his arrest and execution.  Jesus is explaining the importance of the Holy Spirit to them, and that the Holy Spirit cannot come to them until he leaves and returns to the Father.  He goes on to explain, “Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he [the Holy Spirit] will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:15)

This is amazing!  Everything that is God’s is Jesus’s – God’s wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge and reverence (Isaiah 11:2); and everything that is Jesus’s the Holy Spirit will declare to us and make available to us!  

We will recall that after Jesus’ resurrection, he instructed the disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, that “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” (Acts 1:4-5, 8)

So, God, the creator of all that exists, becomes one of us in the person of Jesus.  All that God is resides in Jesus, and Jesus says all that he is and has will become available to us through the Holy Spirit.

Let me share a story that I may have related before, but may help illustrate how the Holy Spirit working through us can impact a situation.  One day a number of years ago, Ann, a young woman who was a word processor in our legal department came to see me at the urging of my secretary.  She was a couple of years out of high school, had become pregnant, and the prospective father refused to take any responsibility.  She had little family or support in the area, didn’t think she could be a mother and was thinking about having an abortion.

I don’t remember all that was said, but we talked for a long time about how she was carrying a real person inside her and how God had already given that little person a soul and an identity.  We talked, she cried, and we prayed.  I remember praying with her that God would show her love and give her wisdom and courage.  I didn’t tell her what to do.  A few weeks later, she decided to have the baby and then decided to raise the baby herself as a single mother.

Our paths didn’t seem to cross much after that for many years until she came up to greet me at a reception for my retirement.  She asked if I remembered our conversation and reported that her son was now sixteen years old.  Over the course of my last week of work, I was the beneficiary of many kind words, courtesies and gifts, but the greatest honor and gift was to be reminded of that conversation and hear about Ann’s son.

While I may have not realized it at the time, the Holy Spirit was working through me to bring God’s love and support to Ann.  Several gifts of the Holy Spirit were in play – wisdom, knowledge, courage, faith, prophesy and love.  I wasn’t thinking about them. They were just present to Ann through me and the action of the Holy Spirit.  As a result, one life was changed – Ann’s – and another life was allowed to live – her son’s.

“I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

 

Hardships in the Kingdom of God

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

St. Paul made this statement after being dragged out of the city of Lystra and stoned.  He and Barnabas had been preaching the good news there when Paul saw a man who had been crippled from birth.  Paul perceived that the man had faith to be healed and asked him to stand up.  He did and started walking and jumping around.  The people were amazed and wanted to treat Paul and Barnabas as Gods.  But then some people came from Antioch and Iconium who were jealous of Paul and won the crowd over.  They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking him dead.

Paul recovered from his stoning and returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples, encouraging them to remain true to the faith, and making the above statement. (Acts 14:8-20)

There was resistance to building the kingdom of God in Paul’s day and there is resistance in our day as well.  Christians around the world are encountering ever increasing resistance and persecution in the Middle East, Africa, China, and parts of what was once considered Christendom.  In our country, we find increasing hostility to God’s natural law and scripture-based beliefs in traditional marriage, life and sexual morality.

We should not be surprised by these trends for Jesus warned, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  But he also said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 15:20; John 16:33)

This past Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, commemorating God’s anointing of the first apostles and disciples with the Holy Spirit.  Before Jesus ascended he had told the apostles not to leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift that God had promised.   “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.  You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:4, 8)

The Holy Spirit took this small group of apostles, who ran in fear at Jesus’ arrest, and turned them into bold spokesmen for Jesus and the kingdom of God Jesus had inaugurated.  In just three and a half centuries they overcame one of the most powerful and longest lasting empires the world has ever seen, and brought the kingdom of God to millions of people in most of the known world.

This same Holy Spirit is available to us today.  The Holy Spirit has not changed.  Perhaps we are different from the first disciples, but the Holy Spirit is not.  The same power to build and advance the kingdom of God is available to us just like it was to Paul and the first disciples.  Yes, there will likely be hardships as Paul mentions, and perhaps even persecution.

But this is what the love that is central to the kingdom of God is all about – sacrifice, the giving of self, and the laying down of one’s desires and wants for the love of God and others.  It may run counter to our nature, but it is a higher calling that God has for each of us — building God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven here and now.

“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

Overcoming Unbelief

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

These are the words of a father whose son was possessed by a spirit that robbed him of his speech and often threw him to the ground with seizures and foaming at the mouth.  The disciples tried to drive out the spirit, but could not.  The father said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus replied, “Everything is possible for him who believes.”   The father cried out in desperation, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” Jesus commanded the spirit to come out of the boy and he was healed.  (Mark 9:14-29)

Belief and faith are something Jesus holds in high esteem.  He often responds to people who have been healed through his prayer and physical touch, “Your faith has healed you.” Yet, we have to sympathize with the father of this boy who has seen his son suffer so much over such a long period of time.  He has some belief or he wouldn’t have asked Jesus to intervene.

Like the father in this story, how often is our belief and faith challenged by a lengthy illness in ourselves or a loved one that continues indefinitely without any sign of improvement, or an addiction in a loved one that no amount of prayer seems to bring under control, or any other challenging circumstance that appears to have no end.  We pray, we fast, we go to church, and we ask friends to intercede.  We read scripture that tells us, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Mt. 21:22)

Yet, the illness, the addiction or the circumstance continues.  Doubt starts to creep in and we become fearful that our belief and faith our not adequate. 

Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of prostate cancer.  My Gleason score was a nine on a scale of ten, a marker for judging the severity of the cancer. The pathology report from the surgery revealed that the cancer had escaped the prostate and gotten into at least one lymph node.

My wife, our five children and their families and friends prayed for me.  One friend was even so bold as to push his way into the pre-op room and pray over me and the two surgeons.  My surgeon showed me a chart after the surgery that predicted recurrence in five years for someone with my symptoms.  I underwent hormone therapy for three years. My PSA (a measure of the presence of prostate cancer cells) went undetectable for nine years.

A couple of years ago my PSA started to rise gradually and reached the recurrence level early this year.  The last two tests, however, have shown a slight decrease.  While my circumstances have certainly not been as challenging as the father with the possessed son, I must confess to some degree of worry with each bi-monthly PSA test.  Still, I know that I must trust in God who has brought me thus far.

Like the father of the possessed son, I pray, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” 

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Most high, who abide in the shadows of the Almighty, say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”  (Psalm 91:1-2)

Who is Jesus?

At one point in Jesus’ ministry he asks the disciples who people were saying he was.  “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” Jesus came back at them and asked, “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”

Peter steps forward and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus commends Peter, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”  (Mt. 16:13-20)

We may not appreciate how astounding Peter’s declaration was.  The Jewish people had been waiting for centuries for the coming of the Messiah.  For almost a millennium the prophets of Israel had been predicting the coming of a Messiah, the “Anointed One.”  The Jewish people had built up high expectations who this Messiah would be and what he would do in terms of delivering Israel from its enemies.  Some unknown itinerate preacher from a remote location like Nazareth would hardly meet their expectations.

It is clear from Jesus’ initial response that the disciples’ first answer was not satisfactory.  They couldn’t get by with mouthing what other people were saying, even though that is how Jesus posed the question.  He wanted to hear what they thought and believed.

As Jesus did with the disciples, so he does with us in asking, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Are we just going along with what others say, with what our parents and the church said about Jesus when we were growing up, or have we truly digested what others say and what scripture says, and have decided for ourselves in our words and actions that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God?

This decision is not without its cost or sacrifice, for Jesus shortly thereafter tells the disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God and following him means following his teaching, his example of sacrifice and God’s will for our lives.

Yesterday we celebrated a day to remember the hundreds of thousands of men and women in our armed forces who have sacrificed their lives so that the rest of us might continue to live in the freedom of this nation’s founding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

May the daily actions of the rest of us who claim Jesus as Son of the living God, also reflect a sacrifice in the love of God and the people in our lives.  

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)

 

How Should We Love?

In Jesus’ last discourse with the disciples, he says, “I give you a new commandment: love one another.  As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34; repeated at John 15:12)

St. Augustine asks how is this a new commandment and is it not contained in the old law? “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)  Augustine answers his own question.  Jesus is setting a new standard.  We are to love by more than how we love ourselves, a love motivated by self-interest. Rather, we are to love in the same way Jesus loved his disciples and us.

How did Jesus love his disciples and how does he love us?

  • He called each of them personally, as he does us.
  • He taught them by his word and example, as we are taught by Scripture and the Holy Spirit.
  • He prayed for them, as he intercedes for us with the Father.
  • He who was God, humbled himself to become one of us, and laid down his life for all of us.

Let me offer a story of how this can play out in real life.

John was a county prosecutor in Minnesota. In one of his early cases he was surprised to look across the counsel table and see a former high school friend, Jim, as the defendant.  Over the next twenty-six years, Jim would be prosecuted many times for theft-related crimes to support a chemical dependency.

In subsequent cases, when John saw Jim in court he told him that he was praying for him.  At first, Jim would say, “John, don’t waste your time,” but then he would come to appreciate that someone was caring about him.

In a final case, Jim was again caught with a large cache of stolen goods, pleaded guilty, and was on his way back to prison.  While awaiting sentencing, Jim learned that he was terminally ill with sclerosis of the liver.  His lawyer persuaded the court to let him die in hospice outside of prison.  Jim also asked his lawyer to request that John pray for him.

Over the next six months, John did more than just pray for him.  He visited Jim two to four times a week.  They would reminisce about growing up together and talking about their favorite baseball teams and players.  They also read the Bible together.  That fall, Jim repented of his sins and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.  He died in late November.

John observed, “Over those last six months, I frequently called Jim ‘brother’ because we were brothers in Christ.  Jim loved reading and praying the psalms, and they have new meaning to me now.  God used Jim to teach me about acceptance of suffering and perseverance, and he showed me that it is never too late to say yes to the Lord, no matter what we have done in the past.”

John concludes, “Because God answers prayers, Jim said ‘yes’ to Christ before he died, and I know he is in paradise today – just like another thief who died on a cross next to Jesus 2000 years ago.”

John laid down his life for Jim with his time and support, and patiently guided him to Christ.

“Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

Grateful Hearts

IMG_0126 Andrew's graduation“I will praise God all my life; I will sing praise to God as long as I live.”  Psalm 146:2

This past weekend we were blessed to attend the college graduation of our first grandson, Andrew.  What a blessing it has been to see him grow from birth to the fine young man he has become today!

On such an occasion, many memories flood the zone — from carrying him on my forearm as a baby to wrestling with him when he was three or four.   When he was 10, he flew from Raleigh, NC to Washington by himself to visit us.  He was so talkative when got off the plane, describing every detail of his trip.  We toured Washington’s many sites and got to witness from the Senate gallery a roll call vote involving over ninety senators, while I tried to offer a small civics lesson.  A couple of summers ago, we welcomed him again at the Capitol, but this time as he joined other members from his college fraternity to cycle from San Francisco to Washington over period of two months to raise awareness and financial support for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

God is the author and creator of the family.  He has blessed us with five children and thirteen grandchildren.  Four of our children are now raising Christian families of their own.  Our fifth child has a disability and continues to live with us.  We are so grateful to be a part of God’s plan for his creation and life.

Life is, of course, full of many challenges and over the years we see both ups and downs.  Yet, to see your own children move through childhood into the roles of being parents themselves and seeing them extend God’s plan for creation through their children adds to the blessing.

The Book of Proverbs says, “Children’s children are a crown to the aged.” (PV 17:6)  My wife and I do not care much about crowns, but we are grateful for the family God has given us and the roles of Mom and Dad, and Grammy and Pop Pop that he has accorded us to serve him in his plan for creation.