Monthly Archives: April 2016

Emily’s Smile and the Face of God

IMG_0433Have you ever been confronted with so-called medical facts that seem to deny a higher spiritual reality? 

We had that experience with the birth of our daughter Emily, who was born with Down syndrome.  I will never forget the meeting with the geneticist after Emily was born.  He spent an entire hour telling us about all the things that Emily would never be able to do, including, “She will never be able to read.”

His professional training and protocols blinded him from seeing a larger reality involving God’s perspective.  To the geneticist, Emily was imperfect, but to God she was flawless, part of his grand scheme to teach the rest of us about him and what really counts.  

Emily was born with an inclination to love.  Her first reaction when meeting others is to hug them.   She has no guile.  She is not calculating.  She is not likely to offend God as we have all done.  I have learned as much about God and his ways from Emily as any sermon, teaching or spiritual writing I have ever heard or read.

On a Sunday morning a few years ago, I happened to be serving as a Eucharistic Minister in our church and it just happened that I was stationed on the isle that my wife and Emily were coming down.  When Emily saw that it was I who would be serving her communion, she broke out with that big beautiful smile of hers, started rushing toward me, cupping her hands to receive the Body of Christ, and exclaimed, “Daddy!”  My heart melted, and then I thought, isn’t that how God would like all of us to approach him – with absolute love and joy, not worrying about what others might think.   

“From the lips of children and infants, you have ordained praise.”  (Psalm 8:2)

This past week, we celebrated Emily’s 30th birthday.  The geneticist got it completely wrong.  Emily did learn to read.  She has an incredible sense of time, remembering the birthdays of all our family — siblings, brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law, and thirteen nephews and nieces.  She reminds me when to take out the trash.  She has a great sense of direction.  If I go a different direction on the way to church or to her work, she corrects me.  She works at a bakery and catering business from 9 to 2 every day.

Emily was not a genetic accident.   Medical science tells us that the extra chromosome that gives rise to Down syndrome is present in one out of every 700+ conceptions.  Children born with Down syndrome are not a genetic accident.  They are part of God’s plan to demonstrate his love, humility, and purity of heart.  When I see Emily’s smile, I see the face of God. 

How tragic that our culture considers abortion a solution to the extra chromosome when the extra chromosome is really an opportunity to see the face of God.

 

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“To Whom Shall We Go?”

With our fractious society today and its many advocacy groups and competing agenda’s, where do we go for truth, moral righteousness and peace?

We have Right to Life vs Planned Parenthood, the Little Sisters of the Poor vs the government health care mandates, freedom of religion vs the demands of the LGBT community, and of course political parties advocating opposing positions on a host of issues.  In this election year, no single candidate seems acceptable to a majority of the voters.

We have fad diets, fad clothing and fad entertainment; lists of what’s in and what’s out at the beginning of each new year; and more choices on social media than we have time to use.

The Gospel of John reports that at one point many of Jesus’ followers started to grumble about some of his teachings and no longer followed him.  Jesus asked the Twelve whether they wanted to leave him also.  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69)

Both as individuals and as a society, we are constantly looking for meaning and purpose, but the world around us takes us to and fro, and tosses us around like a small boat on a stormy sea.  Everyone seeks peace, but there can be no peace until the love of God is fixed in everyone’s heart.

In our early 40’s while our children were still young, my wife and I faced a decision as to how we wanted to live our lives as a married couple and family.  We had each experienced a personal encounter with Jesus and a renewal of the power of the Holy Spirit on an individual basis, but how were we going to live as a family?  We believed that God was calling us to put him at the center of our marriage and family.  We thought of the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”  Like the apostles, we have tried to follow that call.

Looking back after many years, I would attribute a number of blessings to this decision: two more children added to our existing three daughters including a son and a special needs daughter who has taught us so much about God’s love and ways; career choices attempting to follow God’s will that allowed more time for family and him; involvement in Christian ministry; four of the children married and raising Christian families of their own; thirteen grandchildren to love and pray for.

Of course we have made mistakes and there have been our share of challenges along the way, but God has remained absolutely faithful in his care and provision for us.

“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.  But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33)

“Do You Love Me?”

If Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him in order to redeem the three times Peter denied Jesus, how many times would Jesus need to ask us?  

Most Bible commentators seem to confirm that the threefold challenge to Peter was designed to parallel his threefold denial.   With each question Peter protested, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Denial can take many forms.  There is the direct denial as Peter had done when he denied that he knew Jesus and was one of Jesus’ disciples.  (Matthew 26:69-75)  Then there are more subtle forms of denial such as failing to speak up when our Christian beliefs are challenged or when explicit anti-Christian conduct by others is taking place in our presence.

Jesus did not mince words on this subject. “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven. (Mt. 10:32-33) While there have been times when I have spoken up to defend my faith, I can think of times when I have not.

The more subtle forms of denial are the times when we have failed to live up to “greatest” commandment.  Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)  This is not a passive love.  It involves our inner self (soul and heart); our intellect, thought, reason and will (mind); our action, determination and perseverance (strength).

To help us understand how to love an unseen God in such a complete and total way, Jesus gives us 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.  This is of course consistent with what he said earlier to the disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  (Matthew 16:4)

While I hesitate to think how often I have failed to love according to this standard, God does give us opportunities to love in this way.  Last week I was thinking of a friend who has been recovering from back surgery.  While I had visited him in the hospital, I had had no contact with him in the two weeks since he had been home.  The thought occurred to me (from the Holy Spirit no doubt) that I should call him and offer to bring by a couple of subs so we could have lunch together.  He said yes, we had a delightful time catching up with one another, and I had a chance to pray with him for his continued recovery.

While we may never reach perfection in our love of God and the people he puts in our lives, we should still strive for it, so we can say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  

“Stay with Us”

Have you ever experienced the presence of the Lord and not wanted to let go of the moment?

Two of the disciples had such an experience on the road to Emmaus where they were walking and discussing the events of Jesus’ death and recent reports of angels appearing to some of the women saying that he was alive.  Jesus comes up alongside of them, though they do not recognize him.  He asks what they are talking about and observes how slow of heart they are to believe all that was written about him.  He then explains what Moses and the prophets wrote about him.

As they approached the village and Jesus acted as if he was going farther, they asked him to stay with them.  They subsequently recognize Jesus when he breaks bread, but he then disappears from their sight.  As they later observed, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)

Has your heart ever burned within you, indicating the presence of God?  Perhaps being in the presence of a very holy person; possibly a sermon or a word from a friend that opens your eyes to something that needs to change in your life; maybe the word of an innocent child that reflects a profound truth; perhaps a word of scripture that jumps off the page, an extraordinary act of love experienced from another person, or the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit providing assurance to persevere in a time of suffering.

Many years ago after the burial of my father, my mother, brother and I were riding out of the cemetery in the funeral home’s limo back to town, and I started to have this overwhelming sense of joy.  It was in the middle of January, on an overcast, cold day.  The snow drifts along the road were covered with soot from the windswept plowed fields of northern Iowa.  It was a bleak dreary scene.

Yet, here I was, inexplicably experiencing this heightened level of joy.  I said to my mother and brother, “I know this sounds odd, but I have a great feeling of joy.”  They both looked at me, but said nothing.  The next morning while I was praying in my father’s bedroom, the following words came into my mind, “The reason for your joy yesterday was because your father is with me in heaven.”  

My heart burned within me as I heard those words and recalled the joy from the prior afternoon.  It was the Lord, and I wanted to hold onto every word I heard.

When Jesus later met with the disciples, he promised he would be with them always.  This promise is also meant for us.  If you have never experienced your heart burning within you from Jesus’ presence, open the door of your heart and invite him in.  He is always tarrying outside, waiting for your invitation. Like the disciples on the road, let us say, “Stay with us.”