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?”

“It’s the Lord!”

Do we recognize the risen Jesus when we see him? 

On the days following Jesus’ resurrection, most of his closest followers did not recognize him in their first encounter. 

Mary Magdalene did not recognize Jesus until he said her name, “Mary.”  The disciples on the road to Emmaus did not recognize Jesus even after he spent considerable time with them explaining what all of the scriptures had to say about him.  It was only at his breaking of the bread while dining with them that they recognized him.

The Gospel of John reports that seven of the disciples while fishing on the Sea of Galilee, did not recognize Jesus about a hundred yards away on shore until after he suggested they cast their nets on the right side of the boat where they caught 153 large fish.  Then John said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!

How often do we fail to see the risen Lord in our lives?  Like Mary Magdalene, he may be calling us by name.  Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he may be opening our minds to the meaning of some scripture.  Like the seven disciples fishing, he may be suggesting we take an action that will have a surprising (miraculous) result.

Today, as I am writing this blog, we are celebrating the 31st birthday of our daughter Emily who was born with Down syndrome.  At the time of her birth I did not recognize the presence of the risen Lord in our midst.  Later I came to see Jesus in her big beautiful smile, her purity of heart, and her natural inclination to love and hug the people she meets.

While we may not always recognize Jesus in the people or circumstances of our lives, the apostle John in his first letter says that “God is love.”  Wherever there is love, Jesus is present. Jesus says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Mt. 25:35-36)  Jesus is telling us that when we love others through our actions, we love him.  

In the musical Les Miserables, ValJean’s closing words are:

“And remember

The truth that once was spoken.

To love another person

Is to see the face of God.”

Let us offer love and receive love, so someone can say, “It’s the Lord.”

“It is finished”

These were the last words of Jesus from the cross according to John.  He had done all that the Father had asked.  He submitted fully to the Father’s will.  Now there was nothing more for him to do in his human state.  Whatever was to follow was in God’s hands.  Jesus was showing his complete trust in the Father.

In the end he submitted to the Father’s will to endure the suffering of the cross even though he asked three times that he might be spared.  Whatever his divine nature was, it did not relieve him of the agony of the garden, the reality of physical suffering and the realization that he was about to carry the weight of all mankind’s sin.  I am not sure we can begin to comprehend what he was feeling.

Jesus introduced the kingdom of God on earth through his teaching, example and miracles.  He fulfilled all the prophesies about him as the anointed one, the Messiah.  He said he was the way, the truth and the life.  He said anyone who has seen him has seen the Father.  He was not only created in God’s image, he was God in human form.   He showed all the rest us what is possible if we are totally human and lay down our will to God’s.   

Like Jesus, God has a specific purpose for each of us.  We are an unrepeatable creation of God with specific attributes designated to do only what we can do with the people and circumstances God places in our lives.

Like Jesus, we need to grow in wisdom and seek God’s will in all that we do.  As Jesus told the disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit so that they would be equipped to fulfill their call, he offers us a similar path with the same Holy Spirit.

As I look back on my life, that includes my wife of almost 54 years, my five children, their spouses and our thirteen grandchildren, a business career, a Christian ministry ,etc., I am still not able to say, “It is finished.”  For as long as we have breath, we have purpose.  There are still people and circumstances to serve in line with God’s will.

Jesus knew when he completed his work for the Father.  We may not be as certain.  But when it is finished, may we hear the words of Jesus, “Well done good and faithful servant!”  “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Mt. 25:21, 34)

A Story of Divine Presence and Cancer’s Limited Reach

Have you ever experienced a feeling of God’s presence such as a moment of special peace or a revelation of truth?

John’s Gospel reports that when Jesus asked the detachment of soldiers at his arrest who they were looking for, they said “Jesus of Nazareth.”  When Jesus responded, “‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground.” (John 18:6)   

One biblical commentary says that John’s interpretation of Jesus’ enemies drawing back and falling to the ground was their unconscious recognition of his divine presence. 

Though they came to arrest him and eventually do him harm, they were apparently awed by his calm demeanor and presence.  They had heard of his miracles.  Some of them who had heard him teach in the temple courts said he spoke like no other. Now they were struck by his divine presence.

Sensing moments of God’s presence and grace in our lives may not be subject to objective observation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen and are not real.  Let me share one example.

A number of years ago a secretary with whom I worked died of colon cancer.  Her name was Rita.  She was not only a highly competent secretary, but a lovely, gracious person.   She was always kind and fair with the other secretaries she supervised.  I watched her decline through two surgeries and multiple regimens of chemo therapy.  On my last visit with her before she died I was shocked by her physical condition – how she went from a vibrant woman in her mid-40s, so full of life, to a near skeleton of a person ravaged by cancer and chemo therapy.

That evening I was thinking about her condition, and I believe God gave me a special understanding of who we are that I had never thought about before.  Most of the aspects that determine who a person is, other than maybe athletic ability, cannot be attributed to their physical bodies.  Whether a person is kind, loving, truthful, and gracious comes not from a person’s physical presence, but from the inner person, the soul, and what we often describe as the heart.

Cancer can kill the physical body, but it can’t kill the inner person or the soul that lives on.  The soul is eternal just as the Bible says.  The next day I wrote Rita a letter sharing these same thoughts, which her family read to her.  I was told that a knowing smile came across her face, and the next day she died.

I believe I experienced a moment of God’s divine presence.  He shared a bit of His truth about life for both my benefit and Rita’s.  It is a moment I will always remember, and one that has re-enforced my Christian faith and changed my outlook on life.

 

 

Matchless Wisdom

thNo one ever spoke the way this man does.”  (John 7:46)

This was the response of the temple guards to the Pharisees after being sent to arrest Jesus while he was teaching in the temple.  Apparently the guards were so struck by what Jesus had to say they decided not to arrest him.

All of the gospel writers report various incidents in which the crowds were “amazed” at the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching.  The conventional wisdom of Jesus’ day was strict adherence to the Ten Commandments and the hundreds of sub-requirements that appeared to govern every area of personal conduct.

Jesus turned the conventional wisdom on its head.  He simplified the commandments and the many detailed regulations of conduct by declaring that love of God and neighbor was the most important requirement.  He expanded the definition of love by equating being angry with a brother with the prohibition against murder. He said that any man who looked at a woman lustfully had already committed adultery in his heart.

Instead of a system prescribing punishment for violation of the Jewish law, Jesus offered promises of happiness for those who are humble in spirit, mourn for their sins, hunger for righteousness, show mercy, serve as peacemakers, and are pure in heart and persecuted for righteousness.

What makes a person wise?

Both Isaiah and St. Paul put wisdom as the first of several gifts of the Holy Spirit. (Isaiah 11:2; 1 Co. 12:8)

As a young lawyer for a large international oil company in the late 60’s, our company and several others were sued by a plaintiff in southeast Missouri for price manipulation in the sale of gasoline.  I retained an experienced antitrust trial lawyer out of St. Louis to represent our company in the local court where the case was filed.

Because there were so many defendants, we had to have meetings of defense counsel to develop our strategy in handling the case.  These meetings would be attended by more than twenty lawyers, all competing to advance what they considered to be the best defense strategy in the case.  Some of the lawyers could become a bit arrogant and aggressive in our discussions.  In contrast, I noticed that our lawyer would always wait until the other lawyers had their say, and then humbly offer suggestions that would totally alter the prior discussions and end up being the strategy that the group adopted. 

As a young lawyer just a couple of years out of law school, I learned a lot about wisdom from our trial counsel who went on to be appointed to the U. S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and the only person ever to serve as Director of both the FBI and CIA.    

Wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find.”