Our Desire for Recognition

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Mt. 23:12)

In spite of Jesus’ admonition, many of us struggle with the desire to be recognized and honored.  While I may try to be humble, there is an unspoken desire in me for recognition that has been a weakness in my character for a good part of my life.

This can manifest itself in various ways — being disappointed when we don’t receive compliments, experiencing jealousy over another’s success, allowing ambition to crowd out other priorities in our lives. There was a time early in my career when I allowed the desire to move up the corporate ladder to short change other responsibilities in my life.  Fortunately, the Lord opened my eyes to this reality and gave me the grace to bring better balance to both family and work. 

Still, I quietly desire recognition for things I do.  St. Gregory of Nyssa said we should “openly despise the accolades of the world and reject all earthly glory.” He suggested seeking God’s will instead of our own as a true act of humility and self-denial.   

St. Paul has one of the best statements about seeking recognition.  He says, “Do nothing out of selfishness or vain glory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves.”  He then goes on to make one of the more eloquent statements in all of scripture when he declares that our attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus, “Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.”  (Philippians 2:3, 6)

If Jesus, the Son of God, did not seek recognition for who he was, why should we? Confident in his relationship with the Father, he was content with the family who raised him, with his likely carpenter apprenticeship to his earthly father and the evolving revelation by his heavenly Father to teach, to witness and eventually to sacrifice his life in a tortuous death for the rest of us.

St. Peter in his first letter encourages us to “clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: ‘God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble.’  So humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time.” (1 Peter 5:5-6) 

A priest once told me that the recognition we receive from God in being loved and accepted by him is all the recognition we need. 

Do you seek recognition in the world’s eyes, or is being loved and accepted by God sufficient for you?  

Where Do You Look for Purpose?

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5

When Mary Magdalene and the other women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body after his crucifixion, they encountered two men described by Luke as angels who asked the above question.  

To their astonishment, these men told them that Jesus was alive!  He was not dead, though he had been put to death on the cross.  How incredulous the whole scene must have appeared to them.  Two days earlier, they saw Jesus die and taken down from the cross.  They saw his dead body embraced by his mother as she wept.  They saw his body placed in the tomb.   How could he be alive?

Our God is the author and creator of life.  He is not bound by our perceptions. 

How often do we look for the living among the dead?  How often do we search for Jesus where he is not present?   How often do we look for real meaning, purpose or happiness in life where they are not to be found – in that next job, promotion or the ever-changing notion of success; in a particular friend, group of friends or organization; in a sports team, sports hero or celebrity entertainer; in that new house, boat or car; in breaking 80 in golf, achieving a perfect 300 game in bowling or completing a full marathon in record time; in food, alcohol, drugs or other unique experience?

I know a friend who was looking for meaning and purpose in life and tried all kinds of things, even traveling to the Himalayas in India, searching for the “Living Master.”  He did not find him.  Only later, after attending a weekend retreat in his hometown conducted by a Christian outreach to the business community, did he find the true living master, Jesus, the Messiah. 

This friend found that Jesus had been waiting for him all along. “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev. 3:20) 

Jesus became alive and present to my friend, providing the meaning and purpose he had long sought.  Ever since, he has been operating a construction business, bringing God’s presence to his employees, customers and community in how he relates to others, does business with integrity and seeks excellence in all that he does.

Where do you look for purpose in life?  Is it Jesus?  He is present to you this very moment. 

Enlarging Your Tent

“Enlarge the space for your tent, spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes.” (Isaiah 54:2)

The Prophet Isaiah is suggesting that we should enlarge the tents of our lives and work.  Whether as individuals or as a group, we tend to get comfortable with familiar people, familiar friends, familiar routines, familiar work, and even familiar forms of outreach.  Isaiah encourages us not to fall into the bed of comfort and familiarity, but rather to move the walls of our tents to include people who are not a part of our normal social patterns, people who may not necessarily share our background, beliefs, and values.

I have been involved in various forms of Christian ministry for a good part of my adult life.  Much of it has been peer related – young people when I was young; business people when I was in business; people who were part of my social patterns at the time. 

A few years ago I started volunteering in a local jail ministry.  It challenged me.  I was not comfortable and felt like I was out of my element.  While this ministry is currently suspended during the COVID pandemic, I believe God wants me to continue when it resumes.   God calls us to faithfulness, often without the benefit of a report card or feedback.  It is our presence and love that he wants regardless of what we perceive the outcome to be.

Enlarging our tents can also include how we relate to one another — family, friends and strangers.  Pope Francis has encouraged us to engage in “little gestures” of love.  He cited examples for the family. “They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion.  Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early breakfast awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work…a blessing before we go to bed.”  “Love is shown by little things,” says Francis. 

In an Alpha outreach program at our local parish, when we pray with people to experience more of the Holy Spirit in their lives, we often hear about their desire to love more.  Loving more starts with “little gestures” of love.  As the King said in the Parable of the Talents, “Well done my good and faithful servant. Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities.”  (Mt. 25:21)  

Loving more starts with the little things every day.  As loving in the little things becomes a habit, God increases our capacity to love and sacrifice in the larger things.  A habit of love in the little things will open the door to people familiar and unfamiliar, and enlarge our tents.

How can you enlarge your tent to love in the little things?

The Acts of the Apostles in Today’s World

“So extraordinary were the mighty deeds God accomplished at the hands of Paul that when face cloths [handkerchiefs] or aprons that had touched his skin were applied to the sick, their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.” (Acts 19:11-12)

Some scripture commentators refer to the Acts of the Apostles as “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit.”  It begins with Jesus’ instructions to the disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise.  “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 upon you, and you will be my witnesses In Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:5, 8) 

The same Holy Spirit that empowered the early disciples to build God’s church in the first century is still present to us today.  The following story was related to me by my friend, John who was a county prosecutor in Duluth, Minnesota and later a District Court Judge.

John worked with Eric, a detective sergeant who was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer.  Eric was in his mid-thirties, married, and had two children.  After a couple of months of chemotherapy, Eric lost his hair and was often too weak to come to work. 

John could see that Eric was very ill, so he asked him if he could attend a Christian conference in Minneapolis in order to be prayed with for healing. John explained that the healing power of Jesus had been manifested at these conferences, but Eric was too weak to make the trip. 

At the conference John stood in for Eric, as people gathered around him to pray that Eric’s cancer would be healed.  Someone handed John a handkerchief that was prayed over to take back to Eric.

Upon returning home, John met Eric one day at the courthouse and invited him into his office.  “I told him that we had prayed for his healing at the conference, and someone had given me a handkerchief, which we prayed over for him.  I emphasized that I firmly believed in the healing power of Jesus Christ and that God could use the handkerchief as a sign of our faith to heal Eric just as had been done in biblical times.  We placed the handkerchief on his chest and prayed that the healing power of Jesus would remove the cancer from him.”

Eric thanked John and told him he believed that he would be healed and would return the handkerchief after the doctors had confirmed that he no longer had cancer.  Sometime later Eric did indeed inform John that the doctors had confirmed that he was cancer free.  This took place in the fall of 2001. To this day, the cancer has not returned.

Sometimes our willingness to step out and do something that may seem foolish reflects the kind of faith on which God wishes to act.  God is still performing miracles today through the power of the Holy Spirit just as he did with Peter, Paul and the other disciples of the first century.

Can we experience “acts” like the apostles in our lives today?

Exercises for the Heart

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV)

Pick up any health magazine and you will likely see an article about the importance of exercise, diet and eliminating stress to maintain a healthy physical heart.  But what about our other heart – the non-physical one that the Bible talks about so much?

The abridged concordance at the back of the NIV Bible shows 75 references to the use of the word “heart.”  None of them are talking about the physical organ that is the center piece of our circulatory systems.  The following are just a few examples:

  • “Love and serve the Lord, your God, with all your heart” (Dt. 10:12)
  • “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5)
  • “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew: 6:21)

Some of these verses come from texts that may go back more than 3000 years.  None of them are referring to our physical heart.  All of them seem to be searching for a way to express that mysterious interior part of our existence that determines who we really are – our attitudes, our propensity to love or be selfish; our inclination toward joy or depression; our motivation and thirst for life; the source for many of our daily choices. 

Since we can’t physically see or touch these non-physical aspects of our existence, we use words like heart, soul, spirit, and inner self to describe them. Although separate from our physical being, they take up residence there.  If our physical being is destroyed, God promises that our heart, soul and spirit live on.  That’s why St. Paul says our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. (1 Co. 6:19)

Since our non-physical heart is so instrumental to all of the rest of our existence, are we treating it with the same care as our physical heart?  What are we feeding this other heart?  How are we exercising it? Is our diet primarily one of pop culture that includes R and X rated movies and comedians that love to use four letter words?  Is our life filled with busyness that leaves no time for daily prayer, the reading of God’s word or the serving of someone other than ourselves?   

Might we not fill this “wellspring of life” with a dedicated time of talking with and listening to God each day; reading the Bible and other spiritual books; serving a spouse, child, colleague or friend; and seeking God’s will in all things.

How are you nourishing and exercising your other heart?

God’s Glory in You

“You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb…so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works.” (Psalm 139:13-14)

Whether we recognize it or not, we all have the glory of God in us.  We are gloriously made in the image of God.  Our human body, with all of its parts and a mind that combines instinct and rationality, is still not fully comprehended by medical science.  We are made up of millions of cells that work in unity to give us eyes to see, ears to hear, a mind to understand, along with coronary, respiratory and digestive systems to sustain our lives. 

We are the top of the pyramid of God’s creation.  Genesis tells us that we are made “to work and take care” of the garden of creation. (Gen. 2:15 NIV) Jesus says, “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain,” and “you will be my witnesses… to the ends of the earth.” (John 15:16; Acts 1:8)  The glory of our being combines with the glory of our mission. 

Yet, the psalmist warns us, “How long will you people mock my honor, love what is worthless, chase after lies?” (Psalm 4:3)  St. Paul chastised the people of his day for exchanging the glory of God for images of mortal man, and for exchanging the truth of God for a lie in how they lived. (Rom. 1:23, 25)

Do we recognize the glory of our being?  Do we see the glory of working and taking care of the people and circumstances God has entrusted to us? 

There have been times in my life when I have forgotten who I was and the important work God had given meEarly in my career I sought the false gods of recognition and position without regard to what God’s will was for me and my family.  I didn’t recognize God’s glory in me as one of his created and I wasn’t asking him for guidance in what he wanted for me and the family he had given me.

By the grace of God, the example of my wife and the power of the Holy Spirit, God opened my eyes to see that I was wonderfully made in his image to work and take care of a piece of his creation that was all a part of something larger than myself. 

It is part of God’s plan, also called natural law, that most of us become co-creators with him.   We bring new life into this world, nurturing that life in the context of a family with a mother and a father, and teaching and demonstrating the truth of God’s word to the next generation. 

We are also called to work and take care of our thread in the larger fabric of creation, whatever it may be, so that both civilization and God’s kingdom are moved forward on earth as it is in heaven.  We are precious in the eyes of God. 

What are you doing with God’s glory in your life? 

God Inhabits the Ordinary

“When they had fulfilled all of the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth.” (Luke 2:39)

After the baby Jesus was presented in the temple, Luke reports that Mary and Joseph returned to their home in Nazareth.  How ordinary!  The Son of God is born of Mary and entrusted to Joseph and her.  With the exception of a few humble shepherds and the Magi, people gave them little notice. 

Joseph and Mary were practicing Jews who observed the laws and traditions of Judaism.  Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day and consecrated to God in the Temple in Jerusalem as was required for first born males of Jewish families. 

The Gospels give us few facts about Jesus’ childhood other than the incident when he was 12 and stayed behind in the temple during the family’s annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  The likelihood is that Jesus’ early life was very ordinary with Jesus growing up as a young Jewish boy, experiencing all of the things any Jewish boy would have experienced with family and neighbors.  They would observe family traditions and the practice of Judaism in a small village.  Jesus likely learned his father’s trade of being a carpenter, for scripture says, “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” (Mark 6:3)

God inhabits the ordinary.  He did this with Jesus.  He inhabited the ordinary in preparation for the extraordinary.  He did this with the prophets that went before Jesus.  He does this with us.  We cannot expect to experience God in the extraordinary if we are not experiencing him in the ordinary. 

The ordinary includes our daily work and contact with co-workers.  It includes taking out the trash and helping our children with homework; standing in line at the checkout counter and the many choices we make each day, large and small. 

Jesus tells us in John 14;23, that if we love him, the Father and he will come and make their home in us. One of his last words to the disciples was that he will be with us always.  He is in us and with us as we choose to act on his presence.  As a result, instead of cursing the person who cuts us off on our way to work, we bless him.  We show patience to our children in helping them with their homework.  We listen to a co-worker who wants to share a problem.  We forbear in reacting negatively to an inattentive retail clerk.

Ninety-nine percent of life is ordinary.  If we are experiencing Jesus in the ordinary, we are experiencing the kingdom of God, which Jesus says is here and now.  When a need or crisis hits we can then experience Jesus in the extraordinary as we pray with a sick friend for healing, bring reconciling words to a troubled relationship or love to a forgotten stranger – anticipating that God will act in and through us.

Are you experiencing God in the ordinary events of your life, so that you can also experience him in the extraordinary?

Grace – “The Lord’s Goodness in the Land of the Living”

“The Lord is my light and salvation; whom do I fear? The Lord is my life’s refuge; of whom am I afraid?  But I believe I shall enjoy the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27: 1, 13)

This is a beautiful psalm, full of hope, joy and confidence, even in times of difficulty.  

Through this “light” (knowledge of God and our existence), “salvation” (God’s saving grace) and “refuge” (God’s protection), we will “see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”  This is a promise for this life, here and now. 

Whatever the challenge – a demanding boss, a difficult colleague, an unreasonable customer, the loss of a job, a personal illness, the suffering or loss of a loved one, God’s saving grace is available to us in the present moment. 

Phillip Yancey in his book, What’s so Amazing about Grace? tells the story of a rock concert at Wembley Stadium in London in 1988, to celebrate the changes in South Africa.  For some reason the promoters scheduled opera singer, Jessye Norman as the closing act to sing, Amazing Grace.  For twelve hours various rock groups blasted the fans already high on booze and drugs. 

Yancey reports, “Finally the time comes for her to sing.  A single circle of light follows Norman, a majestic African-American woman wearing a flowing African dashiki, as she strolls on stage.  No backup band, no musical instruments, just Jessye.  The crowd stirs, restless. Few recognized the opera diva.  A voice yells for more [rock music]. Others take up the cry.  The scene is getting ugly.

“Alone, a capella, Norman begins to sing, very slowly:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound

            That saved a wretch like me

            I once was lost but now am found—

            Was blind, but now I see.   

“A remarkable thing happens in Wembley Stadium that night.  Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent before her aria of grace. By the time Norman reaches the second verse, ‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved…, the soprano has the crowd in her hands. By the time she reaches the third verse, ‘Tis grace has brought me safe this far, And grace will lead me home,’ several thousand fans are singing along.

            When we’ve been there ten thousand years,

            Bright shining as the sun,

            We’ve no les days to sing God’s praise

            Than when we first begun.*

Jessye Norman later confessed she had no idea what power descended on Wembly Stadium that night.”  Yancey said, “I think I know.  The world thirsts for grace.  When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.” 

Might it not be “The goodness of the Lord in the land of the living?”

Do you see the goodness of the Lord, or is it obscured by the cares of daily life?

* View Jessye Norman on YouTube, Amazing Grace, Wembley Stadium, 1988

The Divine Power of Truth

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.”  (2 Cor. 10:3-5 NIV)

St Paul is talking about truth having divine power.  Truth, the knowledge of God, his word and work, has divine power.  It demolishes lies, deception, and all manner of error.  Since truth is from God, it is eternal and never fades or dies, in contrast to lies and deception which may last for a while, but are eventually discovered and proven false.

Truth on the other hand may lie dormant for a time, but is always discovered and demolishes the stronghold of lies.  Examples in our world today include such questions as when life begins, and what constitutes marriage.  If we discovered biological cells on another planet, the headlines would declare “Life Exists on Another Planet.” Yet, a human egg fertilized with a human sperm is not?  Genesis and all of nature declare that marriage is between a “male and female” who become one to “be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth and subdue it,” but the wisdom of this world through our highest court says it is not?  Is our culture exchanging the “truth of God for a lie,” as Paul discusses in Romans 1:25?

When Pilate was trying to determine who Jesus was and whether he was a king, Jesus said the reason he was born and came into the world was “to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate, like many of our leaders today, not recognizing the embodiment of truth standing right in front of him, asked, “What is truth?”  (John 18:37-38)

History testifies to the power and lasting nature of truth. The Roman Empire oppressed and persecuted Christians for almost 300 years.  Yet historian Will Durant eloquently observes:

“There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest state that history has known.  Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.” (Caesar and Christ, p. 652)

In recent memory we have seen regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union seek to oppress and outlaw the truth of God, but instead the power and eternal nature of truth brought each of them crashing down.

Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching…you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (Jn. 8:32) May we never lose confidence in the power and eternal nature of truth against the lies of the world. 

Do you appreciate the power of truth?

“Do Not Be Afraid”

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.  Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 31:8)  

Moses made this statement to Joshua when he appointed him as his successor for taking the people of Israel across the Jordan River into the land of Canaan. Taking a people into a new land and removing the people who were previously there was indeed a formidable task and it was understandable that Joshua was experiencing fear and doubt.  Moses told Joshua to “be strong and courageous.”

Have you ever become fearful about whether you can handle a new task or situation that appears formidable?  The possibilities are many — taking on a new job whose scope and responsibilities appear to exceed your skills and experience; trying to restore a relationship that is broken; persuading a rebellious child to change his or her ways; providing ongoing care of a loved one; facing an illness involving suffering, disability or even death.  All of these circumstances can give rise to fear and doubt. 

After serving as an attorney for Mobil Corporation for most of my career, my last assignment involved overseeing our corporate policy and compliance for environmental, health and safety.  The entire staff was made up of engineers and technical people, taking me way out of my comfort zone.  There were times when our staff was challenged when attempting to bring certain compliance issues to the attention of senior management.  Although tempted by fear to back away from our findings, I prayed that the Lord would go before us.  Interestingly, on every occasion when this happened the senior management of our company supported our findings and ordered changes in how things were being done. 

When Jesus was calling Peter and Peter responded that he was a sinful man, Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.”  When the angels approached Zechariah, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds, on each occasion they said, “Do not be afraid.”  At the Last Supper, Jesus said to all of the disciples, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

St. John Paul II opened his pontificate with the words, “Be not afraid!”  He went on to say, “These are not words said into a void.  They are simply the words of Christ himself.  Do not be afraid of God who became man!”

Are you moved by fear and doubt when facing adversity or do you ask the Lord to go before you?  Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”