Lift Up the Gates of Your Heart

“Lift up your heads, O gates; rise up you ancient portals that the King of glory may enter. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts is the King of glory.” (Psalm 24:9-10) 

At the time of Moses, God would make himself present in the Meeting Tent and speak to Moses. (Exodus 33:7-11) Later, the Israelites built a temple for God in Jerusalem where he was present in the Ark of the Covenant.

In the above psalm, the psalmist is declaring that the gates of the city be opened so that the people could experience God’s visitation and presence.  A millennium later, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  (John 4:21, 23)  He would also declare that the “the Kingdom [of God] is within you.” (Luke 17:21 NIV)  St. Paul would add, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16)

God’s desire is not to reside in a Temple of bricks and mortar, but in the temple of our hearts.  Let me illustrate with a story.

Beverly is an oncology nurse and says to her patients as she begins an IV, “Let’s pray that this IV will be painless.”  At some point she will ask her patients if she can pray with them.  They always say okay.  At a time when medical care can become quite impersonal, Beverly says, “We get very close to many of our patients. I went to Pat’s house to help her out before she died.  We’ll go to the hospital and pray with patients, even in a coma.  People tell me, ‘You shouldn’t get so close to your patients,’ but I tell them that ‘this is my God job.’”

Beverly is bringing God’s presence to the patients that come to her clinic.  She cares for them; she intercedes for them; as a Gospel singer and concert violinist, she sings and plays for them – she loves them just as Jesus would love them if he were physically present.  He is physically present to them through Beverly.

When we open the gates of our heart to his presence, God shares his own Holy Spirit with us.  The Spirit of God comes to dwell in us and empower us to do the same things that Jesus did and even greater things. (John 14:12) God’s love becomes our love, his strength becomes our strength and his word becomes our word – all for the purpose of bringing about his Kingdom through us to the people and circumstances of our lives.

Lift up the gates of my heart, O Lord, that the love and mercy of your presence may be present to all you place in my path – my wife and family, friends, colleagues, bosses, subordinates, customers, suppliers and strangers.

Have you lifted up the gates of your heart to God and his Holy Spirit?

The Stones Will Cry Out

“Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, rebuke your disciples.’ He said in reply, ‘I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:39-40)

As Jesus was entering Jerusalem prior to his passion, a crowd of his disciples began to praise God joyfully in loud voices for all of the “mighty deeds” they had seen.  Their exuberant and unrestrained praise caused some Pharisees in the crowd to complain to Jesus, and he responds with the above words.

All of creation had been awaiting God’s personal and physical visitation to make things right upon the earth.  That visitation was now taking place in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of David, King of Kings.  Jesus is saying that if those who recognize his visitation and miracles are restrained in their joy and praise, even the stones, inanimate objects of creation, will cry out.

Years later, St. Paul captures this same thought when he says, “For creation waits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God.  We know that all creation has been groaning in labor pains” for God to bring his saving presence to the human race. (Romans 8:19, 22)

As current day disciples, are we loud and joyful in our praise of all the good things God has done in our lives, or are we restrained in our cool and sophisticated ways?

On a winter evening in 1977, I was prayed with for the release of the power of the Holy Spirit by some sisters from the St. Elizabeth Ann Seaton House of Prayer at an evening of renewal program in Briar Cliff Manner, New York.  I experienced a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and my faith was renewed.  It was a mountain top experience.  I remember driving home in a blinding snow storm on the hilly and curvy roads of upper Westchester County, New York.  I could hardly see beyond the hood of my car, but it didn’t matter, for I was brimming with joy and praise of God for his visitation and the changes that he was bringing about in my life.  Even the blizzard, like the Pharisees, could not restrain my joy and praise.

Today, with five older children and thirteen grandchildren, this space is not sufficient for me to acknowledge and praise God for all his works and miracles I have witnessed in my life.   But if you will stay tuned into this blog, I promise that I will share some of the many blessings with you in the weeks ahead.

Do you hold back your praise of God for the blessings and miracles in your life?

Prayer – The Antidote to Temptation

“Why are you sleeping?” Jesus asked. “Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.”  (Luke 22:46 NIV)

After Jesus and the disciples retired to the Mount of Olives following their Passover meal, Jesus suggested that they should pray so that they would not to fall into temptation. He then withdrew to pray about his impending passion.  Even he was tempted to ask God to free him from the trial he was about to undergo, but then submitted to God’s will.

Meanwhile, the disciples were not praying as he suggested, but had fallen asleep.  He chastises them for sleeping and not praying.  We know what happened next; they succumbed to the temptation of fear, and all of them scattered, abandoning Jesus at his arrest.

Jesus’ antidote for temptation is not complicated.  It is simply prayer. In his suggested prayer to his disciples and to us, his concluding petition is, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Mt. 6:13)

Jesus invites us to pray just as he did the disciples.  He invites us to begin our day with him and the Father. He knows from his personal experience that we will not be able to withstand the temptations we face each day without prayer.  Yet, how often do we choose a little more sleep instead of prayer at the beginning of our day?

Prayer nurtures our relationship with Jesus and the Father.  The temptations we face are many and varied — telling the boss what he wants to hear instead of the truth; getting angry when things don’t go our way; engaging in negative humor at the expense of others; flirting with a co-worker; overstating an item on an expense account; getting short with our spouse; or not spending time with our children at the end of a busy day.

One of my more frequent temptations is to get impatient with a store clerk or the person on a help desk when their response seems to take too long or is off the mark.  When I don’t pray, my pride’s expectations are often disproportionate to the problem at hand.  When I do pray, I am reminded to be patient and kind.

With each temptation that Satan threw at Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus countered with a scripture that refuted Satan’s premise for the temptation. (Mt. 4:1-11)  Prayer and scripture are weapons Jesus gives us against temptation and the wiles of Satan.  St. Paul describes them as part of the armor of God. (Eph. 6:12-18)  To these, the Church adds the sacraments of reconciliation and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

How do you protect yourself against temptation?

Connecting God and Work

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15, NIV)

How much do we connect our work with God?  In a seminar on faith and work which I attended a few years ago, most of the people in my small group of 12 said that they never thought of their work as having anything to do with God or their faith. 

Our increasingly secular culture would like to keep God and faith confined to Sundays and inside church buildings.  But that has never been God’s plan. He created us in his image and likeness and put us in the garden of creation to “work and take care of it.”  The Second Vatican Council said, “This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted as one of the more serious errors of our age.”  In commenting on this condition, St. John Paul II said, “A faith that does not affect a person’s culture is a faith not fully embraced, not entirely thought out, not faithfully lived.”

I always remember the response by a legal secretary in our company when she was being counseled about her poor performance in serving the attorneys assigned to her. “I don’t serve anyone but God,” she indignantly declared as she angrily reacted to her job being described as “serving” her assigned attorneys. She was obviously confused about what serving God entailed — that we serve God when we faithfully serve the people and responsibilities in our work.

As Christians who have accepted God’s offer to dwell in us, we serve God and take care of his creation when we bring his presence into our work, seeking to bring his love, truth and excellence to our jobs and the people and circumstances of our workplaces.

James Hunter, in his book, To Change the World, says that the “great commission” has long been interpreted geographically in terms of sending missionaries to faraway places.  But the great commission can also be interpreted in terms of the church going into all realms of social structure, including skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, volunteer service, family life, etc.  He says, “When the church does not send people out to these realms and when it does not provide the theologies that make sense of work and engagement, the church fails to fulfill the charge to “go into all the world.”   

We serve God and take care of his creation when we do our jobs to the best of our ability no matter how significant or insignificant we may view them.  We are acting in God’s plan for us when we bring his presence, truth, love and excellence into the conduct of our jobs. 

How do you view your work?  Do you see it as a piece of the garden of creation to take care of on behalf of the creator of all that exists?  Do you see it as “a thread in the larger fabric of civilization?”    

God Will Have His Way

“So now I tell you, have nothing to do with these men, and let them go.  For if this endeavor or activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself.  But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.” (Acts 5:38-39)

The Book of Acts reports that the Sanhedrin had arrested the apostles and wanted to put them to death because they continued to preach about Jesus contrary to the Sanhedrin’s orders.  A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law who was well respected, cautioned them not to carry out their intention.  He said that if the disciples’ actions were of human origin they will eventually fail.  But if they are motivated by the desire to do God’s will they will endure, and the Sanhedrin will actually find themselves fighting against God.

If our actions are of human origin – motivated by ambition, pride, recognition, anger, resentment, revenge, sexual immorality, etc., they will eventually fail.  If they are motivated by the desire to do God’s will they will endure.

St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:8 that “love never fails.” He goes on to say that three things always remain, “faith, hope and love.  But the greatest of these is love.”  The effects of a kind word or a merciful act last forever, radiating outward to others like the ripples from a pebble thrown in a pond. Let me illustrate with a story.

On the day I was scheduled for prostate cancer surgery a number of years ago, a snow storm almost prevented us from getting to the hospital.  While I was being readied for surgery in the pre-op unit, a nurse came in to say that my brother was outside and wanted to come in and pray with me.  He was a brother in Christ, whose name was Dave.  He soon had everyone standing around my bed holding hands, including the two surgeons still in their hooded parkas, the nurses, and my wife as he boldly, but humbly, led a prayer for the doctors and the success of the surgery. 

What was remarkable about all of this was that my friend, himself, was suffering from renal cell carcinoma and a neuropathy in his feet which made it difficult for him to walk.  To this day, I do not know how he was able to travel the twelve miles in a snow storm to get to the hospital.  His act of love and the memory of that scene will be seared in my memory for eternity.

We might ask ourselves, are my actions motivated by seeking God’s will, or are they of human origin motivated by my own self-interest?  Am I fighting against God, as Gamaliel observes, or am I letting the Holy Spirit work through me for his end and purpose?   

Seeing God’s Glory in our Midst

“Did I not tell you that if you believe, you wll see the glory of God?”  (John 11:38-43)

Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead and asks that the stone covering his tomb be removed.  Lazarus’ sister, Martha, protests that it has been four days since his burial and that there will be a stench.  Jesus responds with the above statement.   

Martha is looking at the physical reality of the situation as she knows it.  No one has ever walked out of a tomb four days after being buried, and dead bodies start to smell from decay soon after death.  Jesus, however, is looking beyond the limitations of physical reality to demonstrate God’s glory by raising Lazarus from the dead. 

How often do we minimize the glory of God by not being able to see beyond some present day physical reality?  We may be trying to cope with a difficult boss or a lost job, the prolonged care of a loved who is ill or who has died, or any number of circumstances that consume all of our energies and leave no room in our perspective beyond the present reality in front of us. 

When our daughter, Emily, was born with Down syndrome I was shocked.  I didn’t know anything about children with Down syndrome, and thought only the worst.  After having three older daughters, followed by an eleven year gap, and then a son, we were hoping for our son to have a sibling to grow up with like his older sisters.  Now our plans seemed to be thwarted.  I could not see beyond the present reality and cried out to the Lord for understanding.   He responded in varying ways, calming my fears and giving me peace. 

One of the ways in which he shared his mind with me about his love for children with special needs was through the words of author Morris West in his book Clowns of God. It was a book I just happened to pick up randomly and begin to read at a rented beach house when Emily was one. It was a novel about a Pope who had seen a vision of the end times, the imminence of a nuclear war between the U. S. and Russia, and the return of Jesus in the form of a care giver to the Pope.  The care giver identifies himself as Jesus the night before war is to break out and he is challenged to prove who he is.  He picks up a little girl with Down syndrome, sets her on his lap and says:

I know what you are thinking.  You need a sign.  What better one could I give than to make this little one whole and new?  I could do it; but I will not.  I am the Lord and not a conjuror.  I gave this mite a gift I denied to all of you–eternal innocence.  To you she looks imperfect—but to me she is flawless, like the bud that dies unopened or the fledgling that falls from the nest to be devoured by the ants.  She will never offend me, as all of you have done.  She will never pervert or destroy the work of my Father’s hands.  She is necessary to you.  She will evoke the kindness that will keep you human.  Her infirmity will prompt you to gratitude for your own good fortune…More!  She will remind you every day that I am who I am, that my ways are not yours, and that the smallest dust mote whirled in the darkest space does not fall out of my hand. I have chosen you.  You have not chosen me.  This little one is my sign to you.  Treasure her!”

In the thirty-three years since that moment, Emily has taught me as much about God and his ways and his love as anything I have ever read or experienced.  When I look back and see the joy, love and understanding she has brought to our family and all who encounter her beautiful smile, her greetings of love and purity of heart, I see the glory of God in our midst.

Idols Competing with Our Love of God

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)

These are the words of Jesus in response to a scribe who asked what the most important commandment was. Loving God and the people he puts in our lives with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength was his answer. It is a consuming task. It impacts every moment and facet of our lives.

In Old Testament times, the idols people worshiped included false gods and their images. Today, our idols include entertainers, professional athletes, public officials, hobbies, careers, material things like cars, homes, jewelry, retirement accounts, etc. None of these are inherently wrong in themselves, but they can become idols if we make them so.

In the early years of our marriage, I took up golf and enjoyed the game and the camaraderie of the men with whom I played. I would play every Saturday morning, not getting home until 2 PM plus once during the week after work. There was also the occasional visit to the driving range. My wife was looking after our two daughters under five with no car since we only had one at the time. I was a young attorney who had to work late some evenings and travel from time to time.

I had made golf an idol that was taking an inordinate amount of time away from the love of my wife, family, and responsibilities that should have taken a higher priority.

A couple of years later, right after the Kansas City Chiefs had won Super Bowl IV, we were able to get season tickets as the Chiefs were moving from their old stadium into the larger Arrowhead stadium. At first it was exciting, but it grew to become a project every Sunday, on which there was a game, taking nearly the whole day with time for transportation, traffic, parking, etc. We had to get a baby sitter for our daughters for nearly the whole day. In addition to the time, it also became rather costly.

I had acquired another idol, a professional football team, again to the detriment of my love and responsibilities to the family. There is nothing inherently wrong with golf or being a fan of a professional football team, but when they detract from loving your spouse and young family, and expressing your love for God on Sunday, I was in danger of creating and serving idols over more important relationships and responsibilities – God and family.

The people of Israel seemed to suffer from this tendency when the Bible reports in 2 Kings: 17:41, “Thus these nations venerated the Lord, but also served their idols.” This eventually led to their exile in 722 BC, by the king of Assyria.

Do you have idols in your life that compete with your love of God and the people he has put in your life?

Changing Culture — A Long Term Project

“Although I am free in regard to all, I have made myself a slave to all so as to win over as many as possible.” (1 Co. 9:19)

Paul is saying that he has become all things to all people in order to bring them the gospel. To the Jew he became like a Jew to win over the Jews. To those under the law, or outside the law, or to the weak, he became like them to win them over for Christ. He established himself as a prototype for peer ministry and the example that missionaries have followed for centuries — build relationships, serve needs, be an example, and then share the gospel message.

Jesus suggested similar instructions when sending out the seventy-two. He told them not to move around from house to house, but stay in one house, extend to it your peace, serve needs like healing the sick, and then tell them that the Kingdom of God is at hand. (Luke 10:1-12)

Today, we live in a fast food, instant messaging world. In business, we look for “quit hits.” But changing lives and transforming culture are long term projects. Let’s look at a real life example.

Barbara worked as a clerk in the juvenile court for a city in California. While she was willing to witness to the Lord when she had the opportunity, she found it hard because of the negative environment stemming from the nature of the cases before the court, the people involved in the cases and the court employees. “Part of my prayer on my way to work every day was to ask that others would see Christ and his love in me,” Barbara said. “While I invited people to my church and shared stories about how God helped me during tough times, I did not see any results.”

When it came time for the court clerks’ Christmas party, Barbara did not plan to attend, but her fellow clerks kept insisting that she had to go. Finally one of them whispered in her ear, “You have to go. You have been elected ‘Clerk of the Year.’” At the presentation, Barbara learned to her surprise that Christ’s presence in her had come through. Some of the things said in her honor were:

“I have never heard her say anything bad about anyone.” “I know better than to bad-mouth people around her. She just looks at me and I think, ‘Oops! Can I reword that?’” “I know if I need help with my work, she won’t get mad or make me feel stupid.” “If you tell her something it won’t get spread all over Juvenile Hall.” “If I need advice, I know I can talk to her. She sees both sides and helps me see the other side too.” “I know she prays for me.”

Barbara was being all things to her co-employees at Juvenile Hall in order to bring God’s presence and the gospel message to the people there – a long term project.

Are you willing to build relationships to bring people to Christ and change the world around you?

Success – Pride – Downfall

“But after [Uzziah] had become strong, he became proud to his own destruction and broke faith with the Lord, his God.” (2Ch.26:16)

How difficult it is to handle success without pride overtaking us!

Uzziah became king of Judah when he was 16 and reigned in Jerusalem for 52 years. At first he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. He sought God through the prophet, Zechariah. He built up the defenses of Judah, raised a large army that defeated the Philistines and constructed public works. As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success.

But the Bible reports that he then presumed to enter the temple to burn incense, a duty reserved to the descendants of Aaron. They challenged him, he became angry and as he was raging at them, leprosy broke out on his forehead, which caused him to be isolated for the rest of his life.

In my 38 year career for a large oil company, I saw a number of good men who experienced success, only to see a pride build up in them that led to overreach in the exercise of their authority. I too, struggled at times with pride in how I related to others, and in allowing my position to define who I was.

Even Jesus’ disciples, James and John, sought the position of sitting at Jesus’ right and left. The others became indignant, but Jesus said, “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mk. 10:43, 45) The reason Jesus said it was easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than a rich man into the Kingdom of God is because of the pride that often accompanies wealth and success.

Our daughter, Emily has Down syndrome. I have learned so much about humility and the love of God from her. She does not presume any special position, only to love her family and friends and to experience our love in return.

One of the problems with how we handle success is its definition. The world views success in terms of position, authority, power and wealth, while God views success by whether we are fulfilling his will in our lives. If our focus is on seeking God’s will, we might be better able to handle the outcome, whether wealth or poverty.

In my morning prayer I sometimes recite a Litany of Humility given me by a friend. “O Jesus, meek and humble of heart, deliver me from the desire of being esteemed, loved, extolled, honored, praised, consulted or approved. Deliver me from the fear of being humiliated, despised, forgotten, ridiculed or wronged. Grant me the grace to desire that others might be loved more, esteemed more, chosen, praised, preferred and become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should.”

How do you deal with success and pride in your life?

Do We Value the Holy Spirit?

“’No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’ – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” (1 Co. 2:9-10 NIV)

St. Paul says that no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God, but in the Holy Spirit, we may come to understand what God has freely given us – words taught not by human wisdom, but by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.

In contrast, St. Paul also says that the man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them because they must be spiritually discerned. (1 Cor. 2: 14)

The Holy Spirit gives me a sense of belonging to God – a feeling of security, knowing that the God of all creation is my Father. He is not distant and out of reach. He has made himself available to me by becoming one of us through his son, Jesus, the Messiah. I can see how much he loves me by how he sacrificed his life through the tortuous death of Roman crucifixion. His Spirit gives me the desire to overcome my selfish nature, and love and serve my wife, family and others as much as I am inclined serve myself.

The Holy Spirit helps me to understand that I am to be a good steward of the responsibilities and circumstances in my life, including family, work, and relationships with others. He has taught me to have courage and trust in God when faced with the life threatening illness of cancer, the family challenge of a disabled child or the circumstances that threaten a presumed career path.

The Spirit gives us knowledge and understanding in our perspectives, conduct and relationships. He enables us to see the natural order of God’s creation. Some people see conflict between science and faith, but the Spirit shows us that science is simply the discovery of the mysteries of creation.

How remarkable! Who can equal God’s love for us and the gift of the Holy Spirit which is our enabler in love, wisdom and truth?

I once read that the contrast between living life in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and not doing so is like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Jesus said, “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13)

As we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost this week, are you experiencing the personal presence of God the Father and God the Son enabled by the gift of the Holy Spirit?