Category Archives: Loving God

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 Yoke of Jesus

What is the yoke that Jesus invites us to put on? 

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus says, “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. For my yoke is easy and my burden light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This may be one of the most loving and grace-filled invitations of all time. 

Robert Bellarmine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church in the 16th Century, says that the yoke that Jesus is talking about is the first and greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.”  Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbor as our self, is the yoke Jesus invites us to put on.  In contrast to the yoke that holds two animals together for purposes of pulling a wagon or plow, Jesus’ yoke is not heavy or burdensome.

Many years ago, my wife and I purchased an ox yoke which we found in the attic of an antique store while traveling in Maine.  It is massive, made of solid oak.  Its beam is more than a yard in length with a girth of six inches.  It is quite heavy to lift.

In contrast to such a heavy burden, Jesus tells us his yoke is easy and light.  It is not a burden to carry.  In fact, when we choose to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as our self, whatever other burdens we may be carrying become lighter.

Life’s circumstances can be filled with a variety of burdens — a chronic illness, the care of a spouse with terminal cancer, the loss of a job or career opportunity, the estrangement from a son or daughter, the challenge of a difficult boss or colleague, to name just a few.

One of the greatest burdens that we often choose to carry is sin.  What kind of sin?  St. Paul offers a long list, which he characterizes as obvious: “sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness and the like.” (Galatians 5:19-21)  Implicit in this list is anger, resentment and unforgiveness, not only a heavy burden, but also an obstacle to experiencing the presence and fullness of God in our lives.

But if we accept Jesus’ yoke of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will want to repent of our sin, accept Jesus’ forgiveness, and experience his presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit.  Instead of experiencing the sin described by Paul, we experience the fruit of the spirit, also described by him as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)

The contrast of the two lists is stark.  The first, a heavy burden; the second, the means to lighten the burden.  Jesus tells us to learn from him.  He says he will be gentle and humble with us.  Paul eloquently captures the result of carrying Jesus’s yoke –

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor. 2:9)

“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.”  

No Room in the Inn for Jesus

How ironic!  Jesus experienced rejection even before he was born. “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)  There was no room for Jesus in the inn, so Mary and Joseph had to settle for a cave that was used as a stable for animals.

While these circumstances may have served God’s purpose in taking on our humanity in the humblest of settings, you have to wonder what the innkeeper might have done had he known who Mary and Joseph were and what was about to happen.

We should not be too harsh in judging the innkeeper, for how often have we failed to make room for Jesus in our lives?  There have been times in my life when I made more room for my career than I did for Jesus.  There have been other times, when, like the innkeeper, I did not recognize Jesus in a colleague looking for someone to talk to or the street person looking for help on the streets of New York.

Let me share a story to illustrate, and I apologize that it will extend the usual length of this blog.

When we lived in New York and I was commuting on the trains into Manhattan each day, I would sometimes attend daily mass at St. Matthews just a half block east of Grand Central station.  Since my train did not arrive until 7:32 and mass started at 7:30, I would always be rushing to get there by the time of the first reading.  One day as I was rushing to get into the church, there was a man standing on the church steps who asked me to help him, but because I was so programed to get into the church by the time of the first reading, I ran right by him.  

As I sat down in the pew, I thought to myself, “What did I just do?”  Here someone was asking me to help him and I ran right by him, ignoring his request so I could get into the church at a given time.  I was just like the innkeeper.  I had no room or time for this guy.   

I committed to myself that if he was still there when I walked out, I would see what he needed.  When I came out of the church, he was no longer on the steps, but leaning over the front bumper of a car on the street, vomiting.  “No way,” I thought, and started to walk across the street through a revolving door of a building that would take me to my building.

But the Spirit kept me in that revolving door and back around I went to exit where I entered to check out this guy one more time.  I walked over to him and said, “Pretty sick, uh?”  He was too sick to speak.  He just nodded his head.  I asked if he wanted some breakfast and we went into a little diner next to the church.

It turns out that his name was Richard.  He had been a trumpet player for a band, but lost his job, started drinking, got rolled, beat up, and lost everything he had.  After connecting him up with the Salvation Army, I saw him about a week later.  He was all cleaned up with new clothes and suitcase.  He said he was going to Hartford, Ct., which was his home.  I congratulated him and was delighted to see what had happened.

Then a couple of days later, there he was again, all beat up, his clothes torn, looking awful.  I asked Richard, “What happened?”  He couldn’t say.  He just looked at me with his hollow eyes and shook his head.  I told him to meet me at 10 o’clock, at 43d & Lexington; that I was going to buy him a train ticket to Hartford and put him on the train.  I bought him the ticket, went to 43rd and Lexington, but Richard never showed up and I never saw him again.

The good news is that God never ceases to give us opportunities to make room for him through his son, Jesus.  He is always inviting us to open the door of our hearts so he can reproduce himself in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.  He is always inviting us to love, to forgive, to serve — to build his Kingdom on this earth in the daily circumstances of our lives.

So let us ask ourselves, am I making room for Jesus today in how I relate to the people in my life — my spouse, my children, school friends, work colleagues and the stranger for whom there is no room in the inn?

 

 

 

How Are We to Love God?

When the teachers of the law asked Jesus what was the most important 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)

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 or eternal nature – that part of our inner being that uniquely reflects who we are as an individual person and creation of God.   

With our mind, we love God with our physical or present nature – our intellect, thought, reason and will.  With our strength, we love God with our actions supported by 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.  This is of course consistent with what he said earlier to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

So how do we love like this?  John says, “We love because he first loved us.” (1John 4:19)  The God of all creation loved us so much that he became one of us and then submitted to a tortuous death for our sake.  This kind of love involves humility, obedience, and self-sacrifice to the Father’s will.

We see this kind of love in soldiers who literally lay down their lives for one another in combat.  We see it in parents who sacrifice in the care and provision for their children.  We see it in a spouse who provides continuous, daily care to a terminally ill loved one. 

We can also see this kind of love in the marketplace.  In the 2008 economic downturn, a friend who owns a building supply company in Phoenix refused to lay off any of his employees even though it resulted in having to operate at a loss for some period of time.  His love and concern for his long-time faithful employees overrode the need to operate a business at a profit for what he hoped would be a short-term cyclical retreat in the economy.

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