Monthly Archives: May 2017

Idols and Grace

In Jonah’s prayer after being cast into the deep, he prayed first by lamenting his condition and then in remembering the Lord, he made the following observation, “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”  (Jonah 2:8)

What a profound statement!  God desires that all souls turn to him.  He provides grace to draw us to him.  He gives the Holy Spirit and offers to dwell in us if we invite him to do so.  But if we cling to the idols of wealth and fame, career and recognition, the pleasures of sex, food, drink, drugs and the many other self-focused pastimes of life, we forfeit the grace that can be ours. 

Jonah was forfeiting the grace available to him by running from God and refusing to obey God’s desire that he take a message of repentance to the city of Nineveh.

In Old Testament times, idols were often thought of as graven images of false Gods, but in our day, an idol can be anything that we worship with our time, resources and attention to the detriment of our worship and service to God and the responsibilities he gives us, including family, work and ministry.  The list of potential idols is long.

When our first three children were young, I became enamored with playing golf, wanting to become a respectable player.  I would play every Saturday and usually one night during the week after work.  On Saturdays, our foursome would pick me up at 6 am since the course was more than 30 minutes away.  After playing 18 holes and stopping at the 19th hole for a hot dog and beverage, it was often mid-afternoon before I would get back home.  This, coupled with an occasional trip to the driving range resulted in a significant intrusion on the time left for my family.

I was treating golf as an idol, giving it time disproportionate to what was due my other responsibilities, particularly my family.  There is nothing inherently sinful about golf just as there is nothing inherently sinful about other sports activities, or gardening, fishing, hiking, running, woodworking, going to the theatre, or the multitude of other activities to which we can devote our time and attention.

What matters is whether these activities encroach on our first responsibility to love and serve God and others.  We can make idols out of most anything, even good things such as ministry, family, or work if we let our time and attention become out of balance and disproportionate to its place in God’s will for our lives.

If we sincerely ask God how he wants us to spend our time, he will surely respond to us.  Let love be our guide. 

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37-40)

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The Blessings of Christian Friendship

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In Jesus’ closing words to his disciples he says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business.  Instead, I have called you friends, for everything I have learned from my Father I have made known to you.”  He sets a very high standard for true friendship and love when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:14, 13)

Tradition indicates that Jesus spent about three years with his disciples, traveling together throughout Israel, as he taught them and others by word and example about God the Father and the kingdom of God that Jesus was inaugurating. We Christians and followers of Jesus are the beneficiaries of God’s kingdom and the example of Christian friendship that Jesus lived and demonstrated.

For the past thirty-five years I have experienced the blessing of close Christian friendship with a group of men, some of whom are in the adjacent picture (boating on the Potomac last week).  We usually get together one evening a week to share what’s going on in our lives, pray with one another for various needs and enjoy each other’s company. 

Sometimes we study and reflect on a particular scripture, review a spiritual related book or discuss what’s going on in the Church and the world.  Over the years, we have assisted each other with various house or yard projects. When one of us is hospitalized, we visit and pray with the person.  A few years ago, we were at one of the brother’s hospital bedside, reading his favorite scripture and singing his favorite hymns as he passed from this life to the next.

We celebrate birthdays and special anniversaries, and socialize with each other’s families from time to time.  One of the brothers and his wife has a birthday dinner every year for our special needs daughter and her friends.

Catholic lay theologian and author Scott Hahn observes that while we may be the most connected society ever from an electronic standpoint, we are the most unconnected when it comes to genuine friendships and the pervasive loneliness that exists.

Friendship usually results when two or more people seek to associate with one another because of certain things they have in common. It may be a shared interest in work, recreational pastimes, sporting events, enjoying the same hobby or other common activity or interest.

When I experienced the renewal of my Christian faith through the power of the Holy Spirit almost forty years ago, I was struck with how much in common I would feel with someone who had a similar born again Christian experience.  It didn’t matter whether we were Catholic or Protestant, I would feel a kinship and excitement as we shared our experiences of the Lord and his word.

It is no small thing for the Spirit of the living God to dwell in us as he offers to do through his Holy Spirit. (See John 14:15-24)  Coming to know others who share the impact of this common experience gives rise to beautiful, committed friendships — part of God’s desire and plan for all of us.  

A Stretch Goal — Loving as Jesus Loved

In business, athletics and other endeavors of life, we often set goals for ourselves that exceed anything we have done before.  Whether they include increased sales or production, running faster or longer, or improving our winning percentage over the length of a season, we refer to them as stretch goals.

Jesus set a stretch goal for the disciples and us when he said, This is my commandment: Love one another as I love you. (John 15:12) 

How did Jesus love the disciples?  He called and selected them.  He taught them with his words, stories (parables) and example.  He empowered them in sending them out to serve the needs of others by healing, casting out demons and proclaiming that the kingdom of God had arrived. He reframed the response to being offended, from revenge to forgiveness.  And in a crowning illustration of love, he freely laid down his life in obedience to the Father and out of love for all of humanity, to overcome sin, death and Satan’s hold on creation.

As further illustration, he simplified all of the commandments to the love of God and neighbor, and said our neighbor is anyone we encounter, even a stranger as in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Instead of commandments with judgment and penalties, he promised blessings and happiness if we are humble in heart, mourn over sin, hunger for righteousness, show mercy, and seek to be pure in heart and peacemakers.  He even said we would be blessed if we are persecuted for righteousness.

How do we love as Jesus loves?  The opportunities are endless.  The key principle in most situations is to think of others over ourselves.  When our oldest daughter was three or four, as I walked in the door after a long day at work, she would say, Come on, Daddy.  Let’s play.  I got so tired of playing a particular board game, “Flintstones,” but I knew that I needed to love my daughter and our other children by spending time with them.

Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)  While that may involve giving up our actual life for someone else, more often it is laying down our will, comfort or desires for the needs of someone else.  We may need to let go of our career ambitions for the sake of our family.  We may need to give up our plans for the needs of others.  We may need to accept that someone else’s idea is better than ours.  We may need to stop and listen.  We may need to let love rather than judgment be our first response to another’s situation.

A few years ago I participated in a gathering where people were being prayed with for physical healing, reconciliation of broken relationships and other miscellaneous needs.  At one point as I was standing to the side of the room observing all that was happening, the words came into my mind, “It’s all about love.”  People were caring for one another, showing mercy, and humbly and faithfully interceding with God to be and bring his presence to bear on others’  needs.  It was a stretch goal, but that did not deter those who were praying.  

Being Sent — A Broader View

In one of Jesus’ post resurrection encounters with the disciples he says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  Matthew’s last words have Jesus commanding the apostles to make disciples of all nations.

Some take a narrow view that these words apply only to people who are called to religious vocations or missionaries sent off to distant lands.  But we know that the Father, creator of each of us, calls each of us back to him.  He gives each of us the opportunity to invite him into our lives to take up residence in our hearts.  Then, like the apostles, he sends us out to be and bring his presence to the people and circumstances in our lives.

Like the apostles, he also equips us with the power of his Holy Spirit and gifts of the Spirit to do whatever he calls us to do.

As a parent and grandparent, I had the opportunity this past weekend to reflect on the Father’s sending in my life, as my wife and I visited two of our daughters’ families and witnessed the sacrament of confirmation being administered to two grandchildren, one from each family.   We have five children including three daughters and a son who are married, raising families of their own, as well as a disabled daughter who lives with us.

Several of our thirteen grandchildren are moving into their high school years.  As we see them mature as young Christian members of our larger family, we are able to observe what a fine job our children are doing in raising them in the Christian faith and for life generally. 

After almost 54 years of marriage, I believe that God sent me to marry my wife, and raise the family he has given us.  I believe he placed in my heart the desire to be an attorney and provide legal counsel and services to a large corporation, hopefully bringing truth and excellence to the people and circumstances in my work.

In the course of our marriage he gave us five children to nurture and raise in the Christian faith and be available to God to be sent as he has uniquely called each of them.  We did this with words and example, and the help of the Church and other Christian friends.

Now, we are seeing the cycle repeated with our own children.  We meet friends of theirs who tell us about the impact they have in various ministries and activities.  We see their husbands providing well for their families and being good fathers in encouraging, nurturing and spending time with their children.  We see our son and his wife doing the same with their younger children.

What joy it brings to our hearts!

What a blessing it is to be sent!  In sending us God gives purpose and direction for our lives.  Sometimes it takes time to discern his will, but he is always there to guide us in finding what that true call is.

As Jesus said to the apostles, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.”  John 15:16

“Love, Not Judgment”

These words came into my mind after receiving communion on Easter Sunday.  I was kneeling while the distribution of communion was being completed, and thanking God for his suffering, death and resurrection for us, and the blessings that I and my family have experienced as a result.

The words, “Love, not judgment,” kind of came out of nowhere, interrupting both my prayer and thoughts.  In reflecting on these words at the time and later, 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, and assuming that these words and thoughts were from the Lord, I asked myself and the Lord what I should do to counter this tendency.   “When you see a person, whether a stranger, acquaintance or close family or friend, your first thought should be, ‘how can I love this person.’  There is no need to analyze or judge.”  Perhaps there is a need for encouragement or affirmation.  Sometimes there may be a need for prayer; perhaps, just a need to listen.

Jesus had some rather strong words about judging others.  He said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.”  Frightening!  He goes on to ask the question of why do we look for the speck of sawdust in another’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in our own eye.  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. 7:1-7)

James asks, “Who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12)  Being judgmental derives from the sin of pride, of which the human condition seems to have an ample supply.

In my work as an attorney for a large 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 for 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?”