“Love, Not Judgment”

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.” (Mt.7:1-2) 

Frightening!  Jesus  goes on to ask why we look for the speck in another’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in our own.  He says, “You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Mt. 7:5)

After receiving communion on Easter Sunday a few years ago, the words, “Love, not judgement,” came into my mind.  I was thanking God for his suffering, death and resurrection for us, and the blessings that my family and I have experienced as a result. 

In reflecting on these words at the time, I was quite aware that I have struggled with the sin of being judgmental for most of my life.  How often have I been quick to analyze someone’s circumstance without knowing all the facts and coming to a judgment? 

Upon further reflection, I asked myself and the Lord what I should do to counter this tendency.   “When you see a person, whether a stranger, acquaintance, close family or friend, your first thought should be, ‘how can I love this person.’”  Perhaps there is a need for encouragement and affirmation.  Sometimes there may be a need for prayer; perhaps, just a need to listen.  Being judgmental derives from the sin of pride, of which I have an ample supply. 

In my work as an attorney for an oil company one of my early assignments included representing our marketing department and the various managers of that department for a particular region of the country.  I was told to watch out for a certain District Manager who had a reputation for ignoring some of the legal requirements of our business and was generally very difficult to deal with.

I was subsequently invited to attend a marketing managers’ meeting where I sought out this manager and spent some time with him.  We played some tennis during an afternoon break and I got to hear about how he viewed the challenges of his job, about his family and interests in life.  It appeared to me he didn’t deserve the reputation that was following him.  I never had any problems with this manager, nor did we ever have any legal problems coming out of the sales district he oversaw.  Fortunately, I withheld judgment, as the need for critical judgment was not apparent.

The obvious lesson from this incident is not to make a judgment until you know the facts.  But an even better approach when we encounter people is to ask ourselves:

How can I love this person here and now?

Body and Soul

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. (Mt. 10:28)

Matthew is describing how Jesus sent out the twelve disciples. Jesus is offering them guidance in the event they encounter persecution.  He is clearly making a distinction between body and soul, and implying that the soul can live on even if the body is killed.

Being raised in a Christian family, I was aware of the idea of a body and a soul and the two being distinct since I was a child.  It wasn’t until many years later when a secretary with whom I worked died of colon cancer that I began to really understand the distinction.

Her name was Rita.  She was not only a highly competent secretary, but a lovely, gracious person.  She was always kind and fair with the other secretaries she supervised.  She had a joyful and peaceful spirit.  Everyone loved her.  I watched her decline through two surgeries and multiple regimens of chemo therapy.  On my last visit with her before she died, I was shocked by her physical condition – how she went from a vibrant women in her mid-40’s, so full of life, to a near skeleton of a person ravaged by cancer and chemo therapy. 

That evening I was thinking about her condition, and I believe God gave me a special understanding of the nature of our being and the distinction between body and soul.  Most of the characteristics that determine who a person is are not related to their physical nature.  Whether a person is kind, loving, truthful, and gracious comes not from a person’s physical presence, but from their inner being, their soul, and what we often describe as their heart. 

Cancer can kill our physical nature, but it can’t kill the inner person or the soul that lives on.  The soul is eternal just as the Bible says.  The next day I wrote Rita a letter sharing these same thoughts, which her family read to her.  I was told that a knowing smile came across her face.  She died the next day. 

I believe that I experienced a moment of God’s special grace after my last visit with Rita.  He shared a bit of his truth about life for both my benefit and Rita’s.  It was a moment I will always remember, and one that has re-enforced my Christian faith and changed my outlook on life. 

What makes you primarily who you are?

Listening to Jesus

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17:1-9)

A few years ago, a close friend experienced a massive brain hemorrhage and was taken to the hospital.  A brain scan indicated that he would not survive.  I went to the hospital in the morning and then again in the afternoon to support him, his wife and family.

While the prognosis was fairly certain, the timing was not.  After spending most of the day at the hospital, I decided to go home for dinner.  After dinner, I was tired and my first inclination was not to return to the hospital, but then the question started coming into my mind, “What if he dies tonight?”  The question started to nag at me.  It wouldn’t go away.  Then it dawned on me to ask, “Is that you Lord?  Do you want me to go back to the hospital?”  I grabbed my Bible and headed out the door.

When I arrived in his room, there were now more friends beside the family.  We gathered around my friend’s bed and began to pray, read psalms and other passages from the Bible.  We sang hymns that were familiar to him and his family.  Our mood went from being somber to a realization that we were assisting our good friend in his passage from this life to the next.  We began praising God for his life, and what he meant to his family and the rest of us

The monitor started to show an irregular heartbeat, and the intervals between breaths were growing longer.  After a few minutes the line on the monitor went flat.  My friend had passed on to the embrace of God. 

I believe that nagging question I heard after dinner, “What if he dies tonight?” was from Jesus and his Holy Spirit, leading me back to the hospital.  What a privilege and blessing it was for me to be physically present as his soul and spirit left his body to be with God!

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all report on an event known as the transfiguration of Jesus.  In it, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a mountain where Jesus’ face and clothes begin to shine like the sun.  Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking with Jesus.  A cloud covers them and a voice from the cloud makes the opening statement above. 

What a remarkable occurrence!  God is speaking audibly and directly to the three disciples, confirming that Jesus is his son and that the disciples should listen to him. 

We are blessed to have four different gospel writers handing down a treasure trove of Jesus’ words, teachings, and actions.  One way for us to listen to Jesus is to read what he has to say, digest the meaning of his parables and observe his actions for the example they give us.  But Jesus and his Holy Spirit can also speak to us in our thoughts.

I believe that Jesus wanted me to be with my friend and his family when he died.  If I had not listened to him, I would have missed both the opportunity and the privilege. 

Have there been times when Jesus has put a thought in your mind about something he wanted you to do?

Our “Yes” to the Kingdom of God

When considering kingdoms, we tend to think of nations, countries or groups of people in a collective sense.  Yet, when the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come, he replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21) 

The kingdom of God is not visible in the same way a worldly kingdom is with a king and his subjects located in a defined geographic area.  The kingdom of God is also different in that membership is not determined by residence or citizenship, but by individual choice.  The Individual chooses whether he or she wants to be a part of God’s kingdom.  God gives individuals complete freedom to choose or reject his kingdom.

Jesus had a lot to say about the kingdom of God and used the parables to explain what the kingdom is like.  He tells us the kingdom has great value, like a fine pearl or treasure, and we should be willing to give everything we have to attain it.  He says it can grow from the tiniest desire similar to a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, into the largest of plants.  It can coexist with and overcome evil like good seed planted in a field where weeds may also spring up.  God’s kingdom, whether one individual or a few, can impact the world around it like a small amount of yeast impacts a large amount of dough.(Mt. 13:1-36)

Jesus tells Nicodemus that no one can see or enter the kingdom of God unless he is born again of water and spirit.  A spiritual rebirth is necessary. 

So, the kingdom of God is wherever there are individuals who accept God’s offer to dwell in them through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.  The Church, the successor to Jesus and the apostles, facilitates the growth of the kingdom of God through the sacraments and its many forms of outreach.    

Yet, the kingdom of God starts with individuals making a decision to accept God’s offer to dwell within them one person at a time.

Forty-five years ago, in response to a priest’s prayer at a healing mass, I turned over the sin in my life to Jesus Christ.  I met him in as real and personal a way as I can possibly describe.  When I started to wonder whether this really happened, another priest in praying over me later that evening confirmed it was true.   Over time I have tried to make Jesus the center of my life.  I am still capable of messing up, but I will never forget his immediate and loving willingness to take my sin.  

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.”  (Rev. 3:20)

Do you experience the Kingdom of God?

No Law Against the Fruit of the Spirit

Is it possible to fully live out our Christian faith today without running afoul of some law or regulation?

Our culture appears to becoming more intolerant of Christians talking about their faith in the public square or the workplace.  Nativity scenes have been barred from public spaces, Christmas carols are no longer sung in schools, and talking about one’s faith with a co-worker can provoke a harassment lawsuit.

St. Paul describes a way to avoid these conflicts.  In his letter to the Galatians he talks about the importance of living by the Spirit.  He says that if we do, we will experience the fruit of the Spirit which includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

He then declares, “Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:23)

For example, in the workplace there is no law or employee handbook that is going to prohibit supporting a co-worker in Christian love; being joyful in our countenance; promoting peace where there is conflict; being patient, gentle and kind in our relationships with co-workers and customers; and fulfilling our work responsibilities with goodness and integrity.

I have a friend who owns a freight forwarding business with warehouses in Chicago and Minneapolis.  He makes it a point to meet regularly with all his employees.  He tells the following story of employees in Chicago working overtime to help employees in Minneapolis. 

Late one Friday night in Chicago, a truck arrived, carrying products to be delivered to customers in both Chicago and Minneapolis.  The truck had been loaded in a very random way with individual orders mixed up and paperwork not matching the orders.  An employee in Chicago, who had already put in a full day, could have just offloaded the items to be delivered in Chicago and sent the truck on its way.  Instead, he said, “Why don’t we unload the whole truck and reload it correctly for the guys in Minneapolis?”

It took two employees four hours, working into the wee hours of Saturday morning to identify, sort and reload a multitude of orders destined for Minneapolis.  As my friend observed, “This is a small story that could have gone unnoticed, but it is really huge because it reflects an attitude of the employees in Chicago who wanted to support the employees in Minneapolis who had just gone through a difficult time of changing warehouse locations.” 

The Chicago employees were exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit in showing love, kindness, goodness and faithfulness to the employees in Minneapolis.  My friend, their employer, was pleased that they did.   

By exhibiting the fruit of the spirit, Christians can demonstrate a clear contrast to much of today’s culture, and will evangelize more powerfully with their conduct than they ever could with their words.

How do you exhibit the fruit of the Spirit in your workplace?

Angels – Reality or Myth?

Have you ever experienced the presence of an angel? 

A number of years ago, after being with some business colleagues at a dinner on the upper west side of Manhattan, I started back to my hotel.  Because of the lateness of the hour, there were no cabs readily available, so I started walking on Central Park West toward my hotel.  There was hardly anybody on the street and after walking a couple of blocks, I noticed a gang of five young men following about a block behind me. 

As I picked up my pace, so did they.  I began to get concerned.  If I started to run, there was no place to run.  All the shops and restaurants in the area were closed.  They got closer and closer, obviously intent on catching up with me.  Just then out of nowhere, a taxi came roaring up with the driver yelling at me to get in, which I did as he sped away.  On the way to the hotel he said nothing.  Upon arrival, I thanked him profusely and watched him drive away. 

Was he just a benevolent New York City taxi driver who happened along on Central Park West late that evening and came to my rescue?  Given the circumstances and the quickness with which he appeared, I have always believed he was one of God’s angels assigned to look after believers.

The Bible is full of references to angels in both the Old and New Testaments.  Psalm 91 says, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in your ways.”  Psalm 34 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them.”  An Angel held the arm of Abraham preventing the sacrifice of Isaac, wrestled with Jacob, and appeared to Moses in the burning bush. 

Angels appeared to Mary, Joseph and the shepherds in connection with the birth of Jesus.  Angels told all who came to Jesus’ tomb that he had been raised from the dead.  An angel freed Peter from prison, and assured Paul that he and all those on board his ship would be saved from a shipwreck the next day.  Finally, an angel described to John what the new heaven and new earth would look like at the end of the Book of Revelation.

Paul describes angels as “ministering spirits, sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.” (Heb. 1:14)  In describing the preeminence of Christ, Paul declares,“For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible.” (Col. 1:16)  Angels are part of the invisible. 

The soul or inner person of an individual cannot be seen.  Yet, the actions of an individual reflect the nature of the soul; so too, with angels.  Though they cannot be seen, their actions can be manifested in the results of their protection and the messages they convey.  

Just as we embrace on faith the words and events of Jesus’ life, including his resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so too, should we embrace on faith the action of angels in our lives.

Our Jewish Heritage

“And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the scriptures about him.” (Luke 24:13-35)

In Luke’s narrative of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus comes up along-side of them and asks what they are talking about.  Not recognizing him after his resurrection, they describe the astonishing events of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and supposed resurrection. They wonder what it all means.  Jesus gently chastises them for being slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had said about him.     

As Christians, it is tempting for us to focus primarily on the New Testament.  Yet even the gospels in describing the life and words of Jesus, make numerous references to Old Testament events and prophesies.

In Genesis, God tells Abraham that he will be the father of many nations. (Genesis 17:6)  He tells Moses that he will raise up a prophet like him who will teach people everything God commands. (Deut. 18:18)  There are numerous references in Isaiah to the birth of Jesus, along with a description of his character and purpose. (Is. 7:14; 9:6; 40:10-11)  In Isaiah 53, the writer speaks of the suffering servant, Israel, which later becomes a description of Jesus, bringing redemption and salvation to a sinful world. 

Jesus connects us with the Jewish people and their heritage whether we realize it or not.  This heritage, which enriches the understanding of our Christian faith, is not unlike the Christian heritage provided by our parents and grandparents who leave us a legacy of teaching and example.  

Since my mother was Catholic and my father Baptist, growing up in the 1940’s and 50’s, I had the benefit of an ecumenical Christian heritage.  From my father and grandparents, I saw a steady faith with a focus on scripture.  From my mother I saw a special reverence and piety in her prayer and sacramental life.  From them flowed a conscience of right and wrong that carried me until the day I had my own personal encounter with Jesus and the power of his Holy Spirit in the context of my Catholic faith.

I will never know how the prayers of my parents and grandparents influenced the course of my life, but now having the vantage point of parent and grandparent myself, I suspect there was a considerable impact. My wife would testify to a similar influence from her parents and grandparents.

Heritage is part of God’s plan for his creation — each generation passing on how they have experienced God and what they have learned from the time of Abraham 3800 years ago to the present day.  We Christians share so much with the Jewish people – the same God and father, the Ten Commandments, the Old Testament prophets, the wisdom literature, and the dignity of life.  May we one day share the same Messiah!

As Christians, do we fully appreciate our Jewish heritage?

“What is Truth?”

“You are right in saying that I am a king.  In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37-38)

It is ironic that Pilate’s response to this statement of Jesus was to ask, “What is truth?” when the embodiment of all truth was standing right in front of him. 

This was not the first time that Jesus spoke of testifying to the truth.  Earlier, he told his disciples, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6)  At the beginning of his gospel, John describes Jesus as, the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us, and then adding, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”  (John 1:14)

From the beginning of human existence, people have been seeking the truth about the reason and purpose for their lives.  It is part of our created nature put there by God to facilitate our search for him.  Our souls are restless, but instead of seeking God, we often seek security in the things of this world such as greater wealth, recognition, and pleasure separated from the context of God and his creation. 

God became one of us in the person of Jesus, to help us better understand the truth from his words and example in order to free us from our sins. Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)   

Conventional wisdom in today’s culture often runs counter to the truth and the ways of God.  We see the denigration of life through state funded abortion and legalized euthanasia. We see the elimination of nearly all restraints on sexual mores, and a Supreme Court overturning thousands of years of tradition and natural law in redefining marriage. 

We see people confusing tolerance for mercy.  We see increasing relativism on issues of integrity based on personal choice and societal whim instead of God’s revealed truths as set out by Jesus.

Like Jesus, we have opportunities to testify to the truth in our words and actions with the people and circumstances in our daily lives.  The more we regularly read and study God’s Word the better equipped we are to live the truth ourselves and gently represent the truth with others when the opportunity arises. 

In my first year out of law school I agreed to some changes in a contract to purchase a parcel of real estate that cost my company an additional $70,000, a sum equal to more than $500,000 in today’s dollars.  There were some extenuating circumstances, but I told the people involved that I wanted to be the one to personally communicate the mistake to the client manager.  Rather than chastise me, he thanked me for acknowledging the truth of my mistake, which built lasting credibility in our future dealings.  

Think of a time when you have had the opportunity to speak up for the truth? 

God’s Extravagance

How much wine is needed for a wedding? 

For the Wedding at Cana described in Chapter 2 of John’s gospel, the wedding party had run out of wine and the mother of Jesus asked Jesus to remedy the problem.   John reports that Jesus instructed the servants to fill six stone jars with water holding 20 to 30 gallons.  He tells them to draw some out and take it to the headwaiter who tells the bridegroom, ”Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:10)

This is Jesus’ first miracle, and how extravagant it is!  If we take an average of 25 gallons times six jars, we have 150 gallons of wine.  This would be equivalent to 757 bottles or approximately 63 cases. 

This story reflects the extravagant love of God in many ways.  We begin with Mary, the mother of Jesus, interceding with her son for the first time on behalf of a likely friend to save the friend’s family from embarrassment.  My wife and I have hosted weddings for three daughters, and I can certainly relate to how embarrassing it would be to run out of wine at any of their weddings. 

God’s response to this need was far more generous than required, both in the quality of the wine and its quantity.  This is emblematic of what God has in mind for people who respond to him through his son

Jesus is the new wine, quite distinct in quality to the old wine offered by the prophets that preceded him.  This new wine allows people to experience God in the flesh, up close and in person.  This new wine gives new meaning to the Jewish law, teaching and writings.  This new wine reveals the power of God over demons, illness, and the physical elements of wind, storm and sea.  This new wine demonstrates the love of God for all people by becoming one of us and then enduring torture and death to free us from sin, and leading us to a righteous life through the power of the Holy Spirit.  

My wife and I have been blessed to experience the extravagance of God’s love and this new wine through the Christian heritage of parents and grandparents, through our respective personal encounters with Jesus, and through the presence of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit in the daily action of our lives. 

This extravagant love has been manifested through five children, four of whom are now raising Christian families themselves, meaningful work, opportunities in ministry, Christian friends, and a disabled adult daughter who teaches us each day about God’s love and ways.

We will never be able to match the extravagance of God’s love.  We cannot out-give him, out-sacrifice him, or out-love him, but we can return his love and generosity by opening the door of hearts to his gentle invitation. “Here I am,” he says.  “I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come and eat with him and he with me.”  (Rev. 3:20)

Have you opened the door of your heart to Jesus’ invitation?

Love Remains

Our daily lives are filled with many actions.  Most of them affect the current moment, some may affect the future for certain period of time, but few remain long term or have an eternal effect. 

We get up each morning, shower, brush our teeth, comb our hair, eat breakfast, go to work, attend meetings, break for lunch, come home in the evening, have dinner, read the paper, watch the news, help our kids with their homework, attend an evening meeting for some civic or church related purpose, watch some television and go to bed with the expectation of restarting a similar cycle the next morning.   On the weekend, our actions may vary to include some household chores, taking children to sporting or school activities, going to church and engaging in some relaxation. 

In the course of all of these many actions which are here today and gone tomorrow, we will have the opportunity to love and serve others. 

St. Paul has a glorious insight in his first letter to the Corinthians when talking about proper worship and the use of the spiritual gifts in chapters 11-13.  After describing how the various spiritual gifts build up the church, he declares that none of them are as important as love.  He then provides a beautiful description of love and concludes that all of these other actions will at some point pass away, but love will remain. (1 Co. 13:1-8) 

He says, “Love never fails.”  Acts of love never die.  They have a lasting quality.  They are remembered and extend into eternity. 

The committed love of a married man and woman that result in children being born in the image and likeness of God; the loving care of those children into faith-filled adults; the encouraging word to a work colleague or friend; the compassion and assistance extended to a person with a disability; being generous to a friend in need; forgiving a loved one who has wronged you – all of these acts of love have a life beyond their occurrence.  They have a ripple effect that just keeps moving outward in infinite 360 degree rings, often having impact and begetting acts of love by others that we may never know about.  

How ironic that God in his love and mercy forgets repented sin, but remembers acts of love forever!

We strive for meaning and purpose in our lives.  We seek achievement and recognition in our work and professions.  All of these actions may be worthwhile for they further God’s assignment that we “work and take care of the garden” of his creation. (Genesis 2:15) Yet, in time the fruit of that work will eventually pass. 

However, the acts of love taking place in the course of those achievements and in the context of all the other actions that make up our daily lives will not pass but will remain in the annuls of God’s kingdom.   

What of your actions have lasting effect?