“They Have No Wine”

These are words addressed to Jesus by his mother, Mary.  They are at a wedding in Cana, nine miles north of Nazareth.  Mary learns that the host has run out of wine and asks Jesus to remedy the situation.  Though Jesus first protests that his time had not yet come, he accedes to his mother’s request as she presumes to instruct the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”  

Jesus asks the servants to fill six large jars with water.  He then tells them to draw some out and take it to the headwaiter.  After the headwaiter had tasted the water that had been turned into wine, he exclaims to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves good wine first, and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one; but you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:1-11)

There is a common notion among some Christians that we should only seek God’s assistance in important matters and not bother him with practical every day needs.  Situations involving life and death or economic calamity may qualify, but surely not replenishing the wine supply at a wedding party. 

Yet, that is exactly what Jesus did at the request of his mother.  How reassuring it is that God should concern himself with a practical thing like a wedding party running out of wine.  God places no restrictions on what we may bring to him in our requests.  St. Paul says, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” (Phil. 4:6)

As father of the bride and host of three of our daughters’ weddings, I would have been horrified if we had run out of wine.  No doubt Mary was a close friend of the family hosting the wedding, and brought God’s mercy to bear through her son Jesus. 

Over the years, my wife and I have brought all manner of requests to God, from mundane things like a parking place at a busy shopping center to the significant, like the healing of a daughter’s heart born with a hole between the ventricle chambers.  We have prayed for where we should live, the health and well-being of our children and parents; good schools, good neighbors, good friends for our children and their future spouses; safety in travel, wisdom in our relationships, and that we would all come to know God more each day. 

We should not forget that in his Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that we pray each day for our daily bread.  It is only natural that God, who created us in his image and likeness and entrusted us with taking care of his creation, would want to respond to our requests for the practical needs of life. 

Do you pray for the practical needs in your life?

Gentle Evangelism

“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased…Not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street.  A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench.” Isaiah 42:1-3

These are the words of the prophet, Isaiah, speaking about the coming of Jesus and how he will reach out to people.  Jesus did not shout or raise his voice in the street to proclaim the kingdom of God.  His concern was for the broken hearted, the bruised reed.  He would not snuff out the smoldering faith of the weak or downtrodden.

For many of us when we hear the word evangelization, we conjure up images of someone handing out Christian tracks on a street corner, a televangelist in a mega church, or a famous preacher in a large stadium.  But Jesus did not do the usual things we might think of as evangelization. Jesus simply responded with compassion and mercy.

Although these words were intended by Isaiah for Jesus, they are also applicable to us, his followers.  The following story illustrates how this might work.  The names have been changed for the sake of privacy.

Jerry worked in a medical office and wasn’t feeling well.  He asked his boss, Karen, who oversees the administrative staff, if he could have the rest of the day off.  When Karen asked what was wrong, Jerry offered a rather vague response.  Karen continued to probe, asking if he would be returning tomorrow.  Jerry said he didn’t know.  Karen asked if there was something wrong and Jerry said no.  She invited him to sit down and he started to share that nothing was going right in his life.  He wanted to get married to the woman he was living with, but she was talking about moving out.  He found it difficult to have enough time for his two small children.  He seemed quite despondent to Karen.

As he was leaving, Karen asked if she could make a suggestion.  He said yes.  “When you go home, go into your bedroom, close the door, kneel down and ask Jesus to come into your life and help you.”  Jerry said, “I’ve tried church.”  Karen said, “I am not talking about church, I’m just saying that if you offer that prayer, Jesus will not refuse you, and things will start to change.” 

Sometime later, Karen noticed that Jerry seemed to be happier and had a more positive attitude.  She asked how he was doing.  He smiled, and said, “I did what you suggested and something did happen.  I started to feel warm all over when I prayed.  Later, I bought a Bible and started reading it.  I bought a Children’s Bible and started reading the stories to my kids.  We have started to go to church and my partner and I are moving toward marriage.”

You will notice that Karen did not judge Jerry or preach to him. She gave him an opportunity to talk, she listened, she empathized, and she asked if she could make a suggestion. She related to him as Jesus would. A “bruised reed” she did not break.   

How do you evangelize — with words of persuasion and argument, or with empathy, mercy, and confident in the work of the Holy Spirit?

God Answers Intercessory Prayer

“As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.  Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:59-60)

The Book of Acts reports that while Stephen was being stoned, watching on approvingly was a young Pharisee named Saul who later became St. Paul.  Is it possible that Stephen’s intercessory prayer impacted Paul’s heart and opened the door to God confronting him on the road to Damascus? 

While we can’t be certain of the answer, we should never underestimate the impact of intercessory prayer.  We know that a similar prayer by Jesus from the cross had an impact on the centurion who oversaw Jesus’ Crucifixion.  “The centurion who witnessed what had happened, glorified God and said, ‘This man was innocent beyond doubt.’” (Luke 23:47)

When it comes to intercessory prayer, we can easily make the mistake of thinking, “Who am I that God would listen to me and change the order of nature or human life.”  Yet, Jesus declares, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be given to you.  By this is my Father glorified that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” (John 15:7-8) Jesus offers the parable of the persistent widow to show how we “should always pray and not give up.” (Matthew 8:1-8)

Long before our three daughters were married, my wife prayed for each of them to meet and marry a good Christian man.  She offered the same intercessory prayer for our son to meet and marry a Christian woman.  This prayer was answered for each of them, and today all four of them along with their spouses are raising Christian families that have blessed us in so many ways including thirteen grandchildren.

For a number of summers we have spent a week at the beach with all 24 of us under one roof for some joyous chaos.  With my wife’s initial prayers and our ongoing intercession over the years, we can echo the words of John’s gospel, “From the fullness of his grace we have received one blessing after another.” (John 1:16)

Inside my Bible I keep a list of people that need prayer for healing, discernment, guidance, protection and conversion.  Some of the people don’t even know that I am praying for them.  Others I have lost contact with, but I keep praying.  I don’t need to know the outcomes.  We never know when perhaps another St. Paul might be the result.

Do you have a family member or friend who needs an answered prayer?

The Coming of the Kingdom of God

“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 NIV)

With these words, Jesus is responding to the Pharisees’ question of when the kingdom of God would come.  It is a question people have been asking for centuries, starting with the apostles.   The Pharisees are thinking in terms of an earthly kingdom, namely Israel, but Jesus gives them a surprising answer.  The kingdom of God is not like an earthly kingdom with observable boundaries and an earthly king.     Rather, Jesus says the kingdom of God is “within you,” or “among you” as in some translations.  Its geography is our heart, our soul – our inner being.    

Jesus gives added understanding of this verse in the Gospel of John when he says, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (John 14:23)  If we love God and obey his teaching, God and Jesus will take up residence in us.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, God draws us closer to him each day. We desire to be in his presence, we seek to know him more through prayer and scripture, and to participate in the sacraments if we a part of a sacramental church.  We seek to love and serve God and one another.

Might not this be the kingdom Jesus is talking about when he instructed the disciples how to pray?   “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”   In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in us and that his will be accomplished through us.

As earthly kingdoms experience the rise of enemies with whom they have to do battle, so also does God’s kingdom in us have to do battle with God’s enemy, the devil.  The devil constantly strives to lure us away from God’s kingdom into his kingdom.  But God equips us for this spiritual battle with prayer, his word, the Church’s sacraments and the Holy Spirit.  He provides us with supporting allies in our brothers and sisters in Christ and the Church.

For a number of years I have been meeting every Tuesday evening with a small group of men to share our lives and Christian faith.  We are of diverse backgrounds – a retired school teacher, a former Army intelligence officer, a senior executive with a large government agency, a retired attorney and a Catholic priest.  We have diverse opinions on lots of different subjects, but we are all seeking to grow deeper in our faith.  While each of us is capable of messing up, we are at the same time experiencing a taste of the kingdom of God though one another. 

When will the Kingdom of God come?  When we love Jesus, obey his teaching and invite the Father and Jesus to make their home in us.  

The Blessing of Burdens

“When you are burdened you are close to God.  When you are relieved of your burden you are close to yourself.” (St. John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, No. 4)   

In this proverb-like statement, St. John of the Cross captures the truth about our human nature and the way we tend to relate to God.  When things are going well, we tend to focus more on ourselves than God.  Remember the ten lepers who were healed by Jesus.  Only one returned to thank him and praise God. (Luke 17:17-18)

When we are burdened beyond our capabilities or unable to envision the solution to our need, we are more inclined to turn to God.  We are more open to humbly acknowledge our need.

When our youngest daughter with Down syndrome was facing heart surgery at five months to correct openings between the auricle and ventricle chambers of her heart, we sought the Lord intensely in prayer.  We also sought the prayer of some dear Christian friends who came to pray over our daughter and us.  After praying with us, one of them said, “With all your recent troubles, you may wonder whether the Lord is close to you, but you should know that he is closer than he has ever been before.”  

He was right.  We experienced God’s presence, his peace, and his healing.  During a cardiac catheterization in preparation for the surgery, we learned that the most critical opening between the ventricles had been healed, and the surgery was cancelled.  Correcting the opening between the auricles was postponed until she was four, when she was much stronger and the surgery was less risky.

Psalm 91:15 says, “All who call upon me I will answer, I will be with them in distress; I will deliver them and give them honor.” We should have hope in this promise when faced with various burdens, for they are opportunities to experience Jesus and his mercy. The burden could be an illness, the loss of a loved one, a sin, the alienation of a friend, the loss of a job, or a personal financial crisis. 

In a Christian ministry at a local jail, I have listened to various men share how the ordeal of their imprisonment had led them to be open to listening to God and his invitation to become a part of their lives.  One said that he would be literally dead now if he had not been imprisoned, which caused him to listen to God and come to know Jesus. 

Whatever our burden, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Mt. 11:28-29 NIV)

Have you experienced God’s presence through a burden? 

Peace Lost

If this day you only knew what makes for peace — but now it is hidden from your eyes.” These words of Jesus were addressed to the people of Jerusalem as he made his final entry before his passion. He goes on to describe how their enemies will kill them and destroy their temple, “because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” ((Luke19:42, 44)

Luke reports that Jesus wept as he approached the city, for the people had failed to recognize that God had visited them in the flesh.      

After all of the time he spent with them, after all of the miracles, after all the teaching, they still did not recognize that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was present to them in the person of Jesus.  They did not accept him as the Messiah they had waited for so long, and the consequences were dire. 

How often do we lose our peace because we forget that God in the person of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is in us?  Jesus tells us: he is with us always (Mt. 28:20); he wants us to come to him when we are weary or burdened (Mt. 11:28); he and the Father want to make their home in us (John 14:23); and apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5).

When I get angry with an inattentive store clerk or phone solicitor, I forget that the Father and Jesus reside in me, and I lose my peace. When I am indifferent to a homeless person asking for money at a stoplight, I forget that the Jesus in me wants to show him mercy. When I fail to stop and listen to a family member or friend who wants to talk or share a problem, I am putting shackles on God’s mercy and love that are waiting to be manifested through me.

When I refuse to embrace the cross in daily sacrifices, whether small and large, Jesus has some strong words – he says that anyone who does not take his cross and follow him “is not worthy of him.” (Mt. 10:38)

Yet, God never stops bidding us to seek him.  He has put in us a hunger for him whether we realize it or not.  It is a part of our human DNA.  God weeps when we do not recognize his presence in our lives.

Do we know what brings us peace?  It is the presence of God dwelling in us through Jesus and the Holy Spirit, being poured out through us on the people and circumstances in our lives. 

Is peace hidden from your eyes? 

The Perils of Being Lukewarm

“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:15) 

These words of Jesus to the Church of Laodicea are a shot across the bow of any complacency creeping into our lives as Christians.  God calls us to be holy as he is holy.  Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount offered the Beatitudes as a path to that holiness.  He says if we are meek and humble in spirit, mourn for our sins and the sins of others, show mercy, are pure in heart, and hunger for righteousness, we will be blessed.  We will be comforted, shown mercy, see the face of God, and the kingdom of God will be ours. (Mt. 5:3-12)  This is an offer we should not refuse. 

A few summers ago I took my name off a Saturday volunteers list in a Christian jail ministry for July and August in order to preserve the weekends for boating with family and friends.  God might have worked out the schedule if I had let him, but I pre-empted the choice.  I was neither seeking God nor asking what he wanted me to do in this matter.   

I can relate to Paul’s statement, “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want.” (Rom.7:15)  Living out the Beatitudes by our own will and determination is very difficult, but with God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit, the saints have shown us it is possible.  

Past sins are not a bar to sainthood.  St. Paul was a persecutor of the early church, standing by and sanctioning the murder of Stephen.  St. Peter denied three times that he knew Jesus.  St. Augustine is reported to have lived a rather hedonistic life, fathering a son from a woman he lived with for many years before he experienced his conversion.   Yet, all of them chose to give up following their own wills and seek God’s will instead.  Sainthood is determined by our actions today, not yesterday. 

Yet, it is our sinful nature, particularly pride and sloth, that war against the Beatitudes becoming the fabric for our daily choices.  In our pride we seek to substitute our will for God’s.  In our sloth we become indifferent to the needs of others and lose our passion to seek God in all things. 

While God is forgiving and merciful, his desire and call for us is neither casual nor trivial.  The last thing we should want is to become distasteful to Jesus.

Are we intentional in living out our Christian faith or “lukewarm?”

Worry’s Antidote

“So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ But, seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:31, 33)

Jesus is exhorting us not to worry.   As God provides food for the birds and clothes the flowers with beauty, so will he provide for us.  Jesus says we should seek God’s kingdom first, and all these things will be provided as well.

The variety and subject of our worry is almost endless.  We can worry about our health, jobs, the well-being of loved ones, and what people think of us.  It is not uncommon to worry about all the preparations for a wedding or other big event, only to see it take place, and later wonder what all the worry was about.

When I look back on the greatest opportunities for worry in my life, I thank God that he was present when our youngest daughter underwent open heart surgery at age four.  I thank God that I was not relying only on my own pro and con list when making a major career decision impacting our family.  I thank God for his kingdom in surrounding me with a loving wife, family and friends when having surgery for an aggressive and advanced form of prostate cancer.  That was fourteen years ago.

Peter Kreeft in his book, After Virtue, reverses Jesus’ statement about seeking the kingdom.  “Unless we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these things will not be added to us.”  If we are not seeking God, we are in effect separating ourselves from him, relying solely on ourselves.  “Doing it my way” may sound clever in a popular song, but it is not likely to result in our being part of God’s kingdom with the accompanying benefits of his wisdom, counsel, truth, courage, faith, hope and love.

Seeking God’s kingdom along with his guidance and assistance requires faith, detachment and contentment. We need faith in his love for us, trust in his provision, and hope in an outcome that is eternal.  We need detachment from trying to control the timing, means and outcome. 

When Martha complained to Jesus about Mary not helping her in the preparations for Jesus’ visit, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing.   Mary has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10: 41-42) Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him. 

What is your antidote for worry – seeking the kingdom of God first, or relying primarily on your own resources?

How Are We to Love God?

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your  mind, and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)

Jesus is describing how broad, deep and complete our love of God should be.  It should include heart, soul, mind and strength.

With our heart and soul, we love God with our non-physical and eternal nature – that part of our inner being that uniquely reflects who we are as an individual person and a creation of God.  With our mind, we love God with our physical and present nature – our intellect, thought, reason and will.  With our strength, we love God with our actions supported by our determination and perseverance.   

To help us understand how to love an unseen God, Jesus gives a human illustration in what he describes as the second commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love of self, or survival, is one of the first laws of nature.  It is instinct.  We don’t even have to think about it.  The love Jesus is calling us to embrace, however, is to overcome the instinct of putting self first.   

So how do we love like this?  Let me illustrate with a story.

I have a friend, Jack, who used to own and insurance brokerage.  His office manager was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and had surgery.  She could no longer speak clearly, which was the most important part of her job in interfacing with the firm’s customers.  She was one year from retirement and for her to stop work at this time would have resulted in  significant personal hardship.  Jack took the time to personally call all of the firm’s more than 80 customers to let them know of her condition and ask if they could work with her under the circumstances.  He also asked them for their prayers and understanding.

Jack said, “I knew they loved and respected her, but I didn’t realize how much until the cards, letters, flowers, and gifts came pouring into the office.”  Both the employees of Jack’s firm and the customers expressed a desire to work with her in spite of her disability until her retirement at age of 65. 

Here we see the kind of love that Jesus was talking about in Jack’s effort to go the extra mile on behalf of his office manager.   

Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength starts with the little things. If we let them become a habit, then we start to love God as Jesus commands.

Think of a time when you loved another person with your whole being.  Did you realize you were loving God as well?     

Opportunists for God

“Watch carefully then how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise, making the most of the opportunity, because the days are evil.  Therefore, do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.” (Eph. 5:15-16) 

Surely in our day, with escalating murder rates and random shootings in schools, theaters and churches, there is no less evil than what Paul saw in his day.  Nor is our need to seize opportunities to serve God and build his kingdom any less. 

The key, Paul says, is to be wise and understand God’s will.  This requires a mindset of always asking what the Lord’s will is in every situation, particularly with the people we encounter — family, work colleagues, friends and strangers. 

These opportunities are often unexpected.  Once I was at lunch with a work colleague who started to share how he was estranged from his wife.  He was feeling bad for some things he had done, but was angry over her response.  I just listened as he uncharacteristically shared his emotion over the crisis in their relationship.  Though we were in a public restaurant, I reached across the table, took hold of his arm and prayed that God would give him the courage and grace to reach out to his wife, and that they would both open their hearts to forgiveness and reconciliation. 

While I never learned the details, they did subsequently reconcile.  In reflecting on the moment, I believe God’s grace prompted me to say the prayer and use it to soften hearts and bring an end to this estrangement. 

When someone expresses a need or lets us know that they are hurting, alarm bells should go off alerting us to an opportunity to be and bring God’s presence into the situation.  As Paul suggests, our first reaction should be to understand God’s will. “What do you want me to do and say, Lord?”  

Jesus seized countless opportunities to heal a cripple, give sight to the blind, expel a demon, open the ears of the deaf and even raise the dead to demonstrate that the kingdom of God was at hand.

The Book of Acts reports that Peter and John did not pass by a crippled beggar as they entered the temple, but similarly seized the opportunity to demonstrate that the kingdom of God was at hand by commanding the beggar to stand and walk.

Do you look for opportunities to build God’s kingdom in the daily moments of your life?