Finishing the Race

“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

These are the words of Paul to Timothy while Paul is under house arrest in Rome and expects his martyrdom to take place soon.  Paul is reflecting on his life since meeting Jesus on the Road to Damascus, and his call from Jesus to bring the message of Christ to the Gentiles.  He is concluding that he has kept the faith in fighting the battle Jesus gave him and has now finished that battle and race.

Last week, Ann, a good friend of ours from Armonk, New York left this physical world to be with God the Father.  Like Paul, who brought the message and presence of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles two thousand years ago, Ann did the same in her time and place. 

I first met Ann as a fellow volunteer religion education teacher of high school students in our small Catholic parish.  She had a smile that radiated the joy and love of Jesus.  Her smile sparkled like a diamond and served like a magnet, drawing people to her, and thus to Christ.  Since I had never served in the role of a religion teacher before, she befriended me and became kind of a mentor.

After a few months, she started inviting my wife and me to various spiritual related events. One such invitation was to a week of Renewal in the Holy Spirit conducted by a group of nuns from Scarsdale at a nearby parish.  The result was that we both ended up experiencing the release of the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

It was a watershed moment for both of us, renewing our relationship with Jesus and totally changing our perspective on all of the priorities of our lives.  And what was the driving force for this amazing impact – the loving and gentle persistence of Ann, conveying the love and joy of God, as reflected in that beautiful smile. 

The last time I saw Ann was in a nursing home with her husband Tony, living nearby one of their adult children.  Though she was in a wheelchair and partially paralyzed from a stroke, she still had that beautiful smile.

Before Paul’s imprisonment in Rome when he was saying his final farewell to the Ephesians, he prayed that he would “complete the task the Lord Jesus had given me – the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.”  (Acts 20:24)

While Ann fulfilled many tasks that the Lord had given her – loving and supporting her husband, Tony, for over 60 years, raising a family of three daughters and one son, she, like Paul, brought the love and message of Christ to many.

Ann, may you rest in the Father’s arms free of all physical limitation, with your beautiful smile still reflecting the joy and presence of God.

Mocking Jesus and his Followers

“But they laughed at him.” 

This was the reaction of the crowd who were crying and wailing over the death of Jairus’s daughter when Jesus said, “The child is not dead but asleep.” (Mark 5:21-43)  Jesus proved the mockers wrong when he raised the little girl to life.  Mark reports that their mocking turned to astonishment.

When reflecting on the mocking of Jesus we often think of his trial and crucifixion when the Roman soldiers put a crown of thorns on his head, a staff in his hand and knelt before him saying, “Hail King of the Jews.” (Mt. 27:29)  But the mocking started from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when the devil began his temptations of Jesus with the words, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”  The devil was mocking Jesus and his being the son of God soon after Jesus heard the words from his Father, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  (Mt. 3:17)

Even Jesus predicted his mocking to the disciples when he said, “They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him.” (Mt. 27:29)

We who follow Jesus are not exempt from being mocked for our faith.  Once in a gathering of several employees where I worked including one of our senior executives, I happened to mention that I was involved with an organization with the name of Christians in Commerce, whose mission was to encourage people to live out their faith in their work.  The senior executive started laughing and saying that Christians in Commerce was an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  All of my fellow employees started laughing as well, taking joy in my discomfort and piling on with similar mocking statements.

What was interesting was that when I was later with this executive with no one else present, he would ask me all kinds of questions about Christians in Commerce, the Bible and God.  This happened several times.  While he may have not realized it, he was searching for God.  We had worked together at various times along our respective career paths, so we had a good and credible relationship with one another, and were able to have meaningful conversations.

Proverbs 9:7 says, “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult.”  Jesus did not respond to people who mocked him.  He let his works be his response.  After his arrest, he did not respond to his accusers and mockers; he let God respond for him with his resurrection.

So, how should we respond when we are mocked for our Christian faith?

First, we should stop and ask the Lord what he wants us to do.  There may be circumstances where we have the opportunity to clarify a misunderstanding.  Then again, he may want us to trust in him and say nothing, like Jesus — letting God act then or at a later date.   For me with this executive, I was given an opportunity to speak about all kinds of things with respect to Christians in Commerce and my faith at later date.

Two Become One

DSC_0321So, they are no longer two, but one.” (Mt. 19:6)

These are Jesus’ words spoken to some Pharisees who were trying to test him about whether divorce was permissible.  Jesus responded, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them ‘male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one.  Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.’”  (Mt. 19:4-6; Gen. 2:24)

My wife, Marilynn and I celebrated our 56th wedding anniversary on Saturday.  We were married back in a day when a simple brunch for family following mass was an adequate celebration and five dollars was a sufficient gift.

I once heard a speaker say that the bringing together of two separate and independent wills and making them one is surely an act of God’s grace, for how else could it be sustained.   Only God’s grace can transform the self-focus inherent in most individuals, to the love and care for the other marriage partner and his or her welfare.

But as Genesis indicates, marriage is part of God’s plan for his creation.  “Male and female he created them.  God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and rule over it.’” He placed them in the Garden of Eden “to work and take care of it.” (Genesis 1:27-28; 2:15)  It only follows that God would bless and have a special grace for people who are attempting to carry out his will and plan for creation.

Still, we live our lives in the world and the flesh with the enemy of God always at work in attempting to detract us from God’s will and plan.  We learn from Jesus that his call to follow him in pursuit of the Father entails an ever increasing dying to self in order to love and serve him, our marriage partner, our children and all the other people God puts in our lives.

Like all marriages, we have experienced both blessings and challenges, but we believe the blessings have outnumbered the challenges.

As we reflected on year fifty-six, we concluded that our love for one another has grown deeper over the years – so many memories – working together in our challenges – sharing in our blessings.  

“Teach me, Lord, your way, that I may walk in your truth, single-hearted and revering your name.” (Psalm 86:11)

Letting the Holy Spirit do His Work

“He will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14)

These are among Jesus’ last words to the disciples before his arrest and execution.  Jesus is explaining the importance of the Holy Spirit to them, and that the Holy Spirit cannot come to them until he leaves and returns to the Father.  He goes on to explain, “Everything that the Father has is mine; for this reason I told you that he [the Holy Spirit] will take from what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:15)

This is amazing!  Everything that is God’s is Jesus’s – God’s wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge and reverence (Isaiah 11:2); and everything that is Jesus’s the Holy Spirit will declare to us and make available to us!  

We will recall that after Jesus’ resurrection, he instructed the disciples not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, that “In a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.” (Acts 1:4-5, 8)

So, God, the creator of all that exists, becomes one of us in the person of Jesus.  All that God is resides in Jesus, and Jesus says all that he is and has will become available to us through the Holy Spirit.

Let me share a story that I may have related before, but may help illustrate how the Holy Spirit working through us can impact a situation.  One day a number of years ago, Ann, a young woman who was a word processor in our legal department came to see me at the urging of my secretary.  She was a couple of years out of high school, had become pregnant, and the prospective father refused to take any responsibility.  She had little family or support in the area, didn’t think she could be a mother and was thinking about having an abortion.

I don’t remember all that was said, but we talked for a long time about how she was carrying a real person inside her and how God had already given that little person a soul and an identity.  We talked, she cried, and we prayed.  I remember praying with her that God would show her love and give her wisdom and courage.  I didn’t tell her what to do.  A few weeks later, she decided to have the baby and then decided to raise the baby herself as a single mother.

Our paths didn’t seem to cross much after that for many years until she came up to greet me at a reception for my retirement.  She asked if I remembered our conversation and reported that her son was now sixteen years old.  Over the course of my last week of work, I was the beneficiary of many kind words, courtesies and gifts, but the greatest honor and gift was to be reminded of that conversation and hear about Ann’s son.

While I may have not realized it at the time, the Holy Spirit was working through me to bring God’s love and support to Ann.  Several gifts of the Holy Spirit were in play – wisdom, knowledge, courage, faith, prophesy and love.  I wasn’t thinking about them. They were just present to Ann through me and the action of the Holy Spirit.  As a result, one life was changed – Ann’s – and another life was allowed to live – her son’s.

“I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

 

Hardships in the Kingdom of God

“We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

St. Paul made this statement after being dragged out of the city of Lystra and stoned.  He and Barnabas had been preaching the good news there when Paul saw a man who had been crippled from birth.  Paul perceived that the man had faith to be healed and asked him to stand up.  He did and started walking and jumping around.  The people were amazed and wanted to treat Paul and Barnabas as Gods.  But then some people came from Antioch and Iconium who were jealous of Paul and won the crowd over.  They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking him dead.

Paul recovered from his stoning and returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples, encouraging them to remain true to the faith, and making the above statement. (Acts 14:8-20)

There was resistance to building the kingdom of God in Paul’s day and there is resistance in our day as well.  Christians around the world are encountering ever increasing resistance and persecution in the Middle East, Africa, China, and parts of what was once considered Christendom.  In our country, we find increasing hostility to God’s natural law and scripture-based beliefs in traditional marriage, life and sexual morality.

We should not be surprised by these trends for Jesus warned, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”  But he also said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 15:20; John 16:33)

This past Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, commemorating God’s anointing of the first apostles and disciples with the Holy Spirit.  Before Jesus ascended he had told the apostles not to leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift that God had promised.   “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 on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:4, 8)

The Holy Spirit took this small group of apostles, who ran in fear at Jesus’ arrest, and turned them into bold spokesmen for Jesus and the kingdom of God Jesus had inaugurated.  In just three and a half centuries they overcame one of the most powerful and longest lasting empires the world has ever seen, and brought the kingdom of God to millions of people in most of the known world.

This same Holy Spirit is available to us today.  The Holy Spirit has not changed.  Perhaps we are different from the first disciples, but the Holy Spirit is not.  The same power to build and advance the kingdom of God is available to us just like it was to Paul and the first disciples.  Yes, there will likely be hardships as Paul mentions, and perhaps even persecution.

But this is what the love that is central to the kingdom of God is all about – sacrifice, the giving of self, and the laying down of one’s desires and wants for the love of God and others.  It may run counter to our nature, but it is a higher calling that God has for each of us — building God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven here and now.

“’For my thoughts are not your thoughts; neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

Overcoming Unbelief

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”

These are the words of a father whose son was possessed by a spirit that robbed him of his speech and often threw him to the ground with seizures and foaming at the mouth.  The disciples tried to drive out the spirit, but could not.  The father said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  Jesus replied, “Everything is possible for him who believes.”   The father cried out in desperation, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.” Jesus commanded the spirit to come out of the boy and he was healed.  (Mark 9:14-29)

Belief and faith are something Jesus holds in high esteem.  He often responds to people who have been healed through his prayer and physical touch, “Your faith has healed you.” Yet, we have to sympathize with the father of this boy who has seen his son suffer so much over such a long period of time.  He has some belief or he wouldn’t have asked Jesus to intervene.

Like the father in this story, how often is our belief and faith challenged by a lengthy illness in ourselves or a loved one that continues indefinitely without any sign of improvement, or an addiction in a loved one that no amount of prayer seems to bring under control, or any other challenging circumstance that appears to have no end.  We pray, we fast, we go to church, and we ask friends to intercede.  We read scripture that tells us, “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  (Mt. 21:22)

Yet, the illness, the addiction or the circumstance continues.  Doubt starts to creep in and we become fearful that our belief and faith our not adequate. 

Twelve years ago, I was diagnosed with an advanced and aggressive form of prostate cancer.  My Gleason score was a nine on a scale of ten, a marker for judging the severity of the cancer. The pathology report from the surgery revealed that the cancer had escaped the prostate and gotten into at least one lymph node.

My wife, our five children and their families and friends prayed for me.  One friend was even so bold as to push his way into the pre-op room and pray over me and the two surgeons.  My surgeon showed me a chart after the surgery that predicted recurrence in five years for someone with my symptoms.  I underwent hormone therapy for three years. My PSA (a measure of the presence of prostate cancer cells) went undetectable for nine years.

A couple of years ago my PSA started to rise gradually and reached the recurrence level early this year.  The last two tests, however, have shown a slight decrease.  While my circumstances have certainly not been as challenging as the father with the possessed son, I must confess to some degree of worry with each bi-monthly PSA test.  Still, I know that I must trust in God who has brought me thus far.

Like the father of the possessed son, I pray, “I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!” 

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Most high, who abide in the shadows of the Almighty, say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.”  (Psalm 91:1-2)

Who is Jesus?

At one point in Jesus’ ministry he asks the disciples who people were saying he was.  “They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’” Jesus came back at them and asked, “But what about you?  Who do you say I am?”

Peter steps forward and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  Jesus commends Peter, saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”  (Mt. 16:13-20)

We may not appreciate how astounding Peter’s declaration was.  The Jewish people had been waiting for centuries for the coming of the Messiah.  For almost a millennium the prophets of Israel had been predicting the coming of a Messiah, the “Anointed One.”  The Jewish people had built up high expectations who this Messiah would be and what he would do in terms of delivering Israel from its enemies.  Some unknown itinerate preacher from a remote location like Nazareth would hardly meet their expectations.

It is clear from Jesus’ initial response that the disciples’ first answer was not satisfactory.  They couldn’t get by with mouthing what other people were saying, even though that is how Jesus posed the question.  He wanted to hear what they thought and believed.

As Jesus did with the disciples, so he does with us in asking, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?”

Are we just going along with what others say, with what our parents and the church said about Jesus when we were growing up, or have we truly digested what others say and what scripture says, and have decided for ourselves in our words and actions that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God?

This decision is not without its cost or sacrifice, for Jesus shortly thereafter tells the disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)  Believing that Jesus is the Son of God and following him means following his teaching, his example of sacrifice and God’s will for our lives.

Yesterday we celebrated a day to remember the hundreds of thousands of men and women in our armed forces who have sacrificed their lives so that the rest of us might continue to live in the freedom of this nation’s founding principles of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

May the daily actions of the rest of us who claim Jesus as Son of the living God, also reflect a sacrifice in the love of God and the people in our lives.  

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6)