Act of Love

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

John 15:9-17

Today is Veteran’s Day in our country. This is a day which calls us to reflect on the service of men and women who have given to our nation through military duty. The date for this remembrance was set on November 11 because it coincided with the signing of the armistice which ended the first World War. We remember all who fought to preserve the freedoms and ideals of our democracy. We remember those who fought to protect those freedoms and ideals in other lands. We honor those who died in pursuit of those goals. For all who have served, even to the point of death, we humbly offer our gratitude and respect.

The passage chosen for today speaks of a call to love and demonstrate love through a willingness to sacrifice. Jesus is directing his followers to love one another. He reminds them that they are friends, friends with Jesus and one another. He tells them that the greatest act a person can do for a friend is to give her/his life for the friend. A foreshadowing of Jesus’s act of love for his friends, and enemies, is found in his words. Jesus reminds them, and us, that we are to love one another.

Being willing to give your life for another person seems pretty intense, especially if you do not know that individual. Yet, those who have stepped up to enter the United States military commit to do that if necessary. Over hundreds of years, through multiple wars and conflicts, both in our nation and abroad, women and men have paid the ultimate price for friends, neighbors and strangers. Those who have not lost their lives during service, have still sacrificed to defend and protect freedom and the rights of all humans. They have given their time, their ability to be with loved ones, and some even their mental and/or physical well-being as acts of love and service. Each of these men and women, and those who they left behind, have lived out Jesus’s words to love one another even to the point of laying down one’s life if necessary.

If you are a veteran, as was my dad, you have my heartfelt thanks. If you are the member of a family with a veteran, you have my gratitude for you have sacrificed as well. If you are currently serving in the military at any level, I pray for your safety. I call all of you friends and I commit to love as you have acted in love.

Let us love one another!

Citizenship

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

15 All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. 16 Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

17 Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. 18 For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Philippians 3:12-21

Election Day has arrived in the United States. Many voters have cast their votes prior to today through absentee, mail-in, or early voting. Today is when those votes, along with the ones from people who go to the polls today, are added together to determine who has been elected. This year we vote not only for senators, representatives, county officials, judges, and city officials but also for the President of the United States. There is uncertainty this year if we will know the winner of the election or not tonight. No matter what, it is the duty and responsibility of every citizen to participate in the election by voting. If you are reading this when the polls are still open in your area and you have not cast your ballot, stop reading and go do so right now. If you have already voted, thank you.

In the passage today from Philippians, Paul speaks of being citizens of heaven. He tells us that this citizenship has been obtained through Christ.  Paul reminds us that we should turn our heads from what is behind us. Our faces should be toward what lies ahead. We should set the goal of striving after Christ’s example. Some will focus on what they can obtain now, on earth. Paul encourages us to reach for what is obtainable with our heavenly citizenship.

On this day when our citizenship in the United States is front and center, Paul’s words speak important ideas to us. Being reminded that we have citizenship in heaven puts our earthly one in proper perspective. With citizenship comes responsibility. Our citizenship in the United States carries a core responsibility as well, exercising our right to vote. Our heavenly citizenship gives us the responsibility to follow the example of Christ.  As we complete the election cycle, Paul’s reminder to look ahead is important. We cannot change the past nor can we change the results of the election so we need to move forward. In our moving forward we can work on changing opinions as God guides us, this may result in changing our own opinions at times. No matter if the election goes the way you desire or not, never forget that we are all citizens of the United States and more importantly, citizens of heaven.

Persuasion

And in the days of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his associates wrote a letter to Artaxerxes. The letter was written in Aramaic script and in the Aramaic language.

11 (This is a copy of the letter they sent him.)

To King Artaxerxes,

From your servants in Trans-Euphrates:

12 The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations.

13 Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and eventually the royal revenues will suffer.[a] 14 Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to inform the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. That is why this city was destroyed. 16 We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates.

17 The king sent this reply:

To Rehum the commanding officer, Shimshai the secretary and the rest of their associates living in Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates:

Greetings.

18 The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. 19 I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. 20 Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. 21 Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. 22 Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?

23 As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.

24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Ezra 4:7, 11-24 (NIV)

While in college, I participated in a debate club for a few years. The goal of our form of debate was to persuade those listening that your stance on the assigned topic was the correct stance. As the debater, you used collected evidence and persuasive speaking to prevail in the debate. Sometimes the persuasive speaking was more important than the evidence. Persuasion can be used in positive and negative ways depending on one’s point of view.

The act of persuasion is used in the situation recorded here in the Book of Ezra. The Jews had been allowed to return to Judah from their captivity in Babylon, now known as Persia. King Cyrus had directed them to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. However, not all the Persian leaders felt this was a good idea. When Artaxerxes became king, three of these leaders convinced him to search the archives to discover what rebellious people the Jews had been. Their persuasive argument that if he allowed the Jews to finish rebuilding Jerusalem  it would lead to them rebelling and no longer paying him taxes won out. He found the evidence of previous Jewish rebellions and listened to the leaders. The king ordered them to stop the Jews from rebuilding Jerusalem. The persuasion to protect his treasury was convincing for the king even if it was not the bet for the Jews.

In life we are faced with having to make many choices. Television, social media, and flyers in our mailboxes all contain persuasive arguments attempting to sway our choices. Everything from which aging cream is best for us to which dentist is the best for us can be covered. The key is to look at the source of these persuasive arguments. We need to examine what evidence exists, if any, that supports the words. Take time to determine the motives of the one making the claims. Then determine the potential impact of the choice you make.  From this you can hopefully make the right choice.  Prayer during this process is always helpful. 

Layers

One of my favorite lines from the Dreamwork’s movie, Shrek, is “Ogres are like onions! We both have layers.” Shrek tells this to Donkey during one of the moments when Donkey is irritating Shrek, which actually often happens in the movie. I like this quote because I think it applies to humans as much as it does to any ogre.

Humans have layers and those layers increase as they go through life. Experiences create these layers. Some layers are good because they provide protection. At other times these layers are created to hide behind. Whatever the cause of the layer, if you really are going to know and understand someone, you have to peel away the layers. The top layer of a person is never truly who that person is at the core.

God is able to get beyond the layers. At various points in Scripture we hear about God seeing the core of who we are with the layers removed. The story of the choosing of David is one example of this. The psalmist says, “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.” (Psalm 139:1, NIV) Jeremiah speaks of God in this way, “Yet you know me, Lord; you see me and test my thoughts about you.” (Jeremiah 12:3a) Clearly the Lord is able to go past all our layers which life helps us to form.

I think it is very important for us to first of all acknowledge that what we see in a person is only the top layer. Some individuals will not let you go past that top layer. But knowing that there is more to a person than what we can see, allows us to realize there is potential in every person which may lay under the surface. God saw this in David when Benjamin and Samuel could not. Taking this viewpoint makes it difficult for us to write someone off.

When we acknowledge the existence of layers, then we can make an effort to peel those layers back. This may be resisted because some of those layers contain the scars of being hurt when the person has been vulnerable. Scars are the attempt to cover over the damaged tissue and provide better protection in whatever area has been hurt. Just as the human body creates this protective layer, our mental defenses do the same when we have been emotionally or mentally abused. Providing a safe environment built on trust allows these layers to be opened.

So the next time you are quick to judge a person or to discredit them in any way, remember that humans are like onions, we both have layers. Use the eyes of God to see beyond the layers to the potential of the person which lies under them.

Critics

One of the realities of life is that there will always be critics. It does not matter what your line of work is, someone will always stand at the ready to evaluate your work and point out where improvement is needed. This can be positive if the evaluation is fair and the manner in which the critic communicates the areas of improvement is intended to build you up and not tear you down. The attitude and goal of the critic is key in measuring the beneficial nature of what is presented to you. Critics of both types surround each of us on a daily basis.

Not only in the work environment do critics exist, but they also exist in our everyday life away from the workplace. Someone is always ready to comment on anything we post on social media. Neighbors, family members, and friends give “helpful” advice to us even when we do not solicit such advice. A person can easily feel they are constantly being evaluated in regard to choices which are made and actions which are taken.

What sadly is the case is that oftentimes our critics point out what they view as our weaknesses but are inconsistent with their thought process in regard to what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. Jesus encountered this often during his ministry and life. In fact, he calls such critics out in the Gospel of Luke: “For John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Luke 7:33-34, NIV) Here the critics are not as concerned about Jesus’ actions but concerned about what Jesus represents. They were opposed to his new way of understanding God, faith leadership, and how to interact with one another.

There are critics all around us. Sometimes these critics provide helpful insight to us so that we can improve and grow. Sometimes the views are consistent with caring and wanting to help one another. Other times these critics have the intention of tearing us down. They may see in us something which they dislike in themselves. They may not even care what we are saying or doing but instead dislike what we represent.

When you encounter someone who is critical of you, examine what attitude and intention they bring to the table. Discuss it with a trusted friend. Discuss it with the Lord. Remember most of all that you are a beloved child of God who was created in the image of your Creator.

No Separation

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)

It was many years ago when I was introduced to this passage from the Bible. I was asked by a very close friend to become involved in a week-long camp for youth interested in music, arts and drama. I was recruited to lead the drama portion at the Presbyterian camp near where I grew up. The youth came to camp on Sunday and were given the script to a musical which was chosen in advance. We spent the week auditioning, rehearsing, building sets, worshiping, studying the Bible, and enjoying the lake. The camp culminated in a performance of the musical on Friday night. A few years later, we began to also tour with the musical around the area for three additional performances. One of the musicals which we chose to perform was entitled, Big Picture. Toward the climax of the plot, a grieving parent sits on his son’s bed and reads from his son’s open Bible. This is the passage which he reads and his perspective on life and God is forever changed. (You can send me a message if you want to know more about the plot.)

Since assisting with this musical, this passage has become the most important Bible passage to me. I have often turned to these words when dealing with challenges in my life. This passage has spoken to me when I feel unloved or unworthy of being loved. When doubts about my faith have arisen, this passage echoes in my mind. Asked what is the most important thing to know about God and I will answer by quoting these words attributed to the writer of the letter to the Romans.

From my perspective, these are the only words a person truly needs to know when thinking about their relationship with God. My reasoning is that if there is NOTHING which can separate us from the love of God, why worry.

Our world tries to convince us that we can never measure up to what God wants. Churches have even made the mistake of saying that the only way to be in relationship with God is by following a list of rules. People have told others that their actions, words, thoughts, lives are unfit for the love of God. Criteria has been established in some faith communities to determine who qualifies to be a member based on the color of their skin, their financial status, their sexuality, their type of work, their background. To all of those with this approach to Christianity, I say it is time to read your Bible again and specifically this passage.

The writer makes it very clear here that no power upon the earth, no spiritual being, no aspects of our lives are capable of removing us from the love of God. We are not even capable of doing this for ourselves. God loves us completely as demonstrated through the life of Jesus the Christ.

Believe this good news and live accordingly!

Shining

I am sure that every generation feels like they are living in dark times. We even named a whole era in human history as the Dark Ages. Right now we can feel like there is a lot of dark around us with all the changes in our lives which have accompanied the Corona-19 virus. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise. In addition, we have been living in a very volatile political environment for years as human decency has left most civic discussions and legislative debate. Truly feels like a dark time in so many ways.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I have wondered how to respond to the surrounding events during this dark time. I have followed all the practical advice of the medical community regarding the virus. I have listened to the conversations in the political spectrum and attempted to avoid engaging in hostile debates. But there seems to be something more which I can, must, do. Then I am reminded of a song which I sang in Sunday School in my small church while growing up, This Little Light of Mine. The song is a reminder of Jesus’ words, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, NIV) Jesus tells us that we are to be lights in the world. The question this begs is how do we go about being lights?

Clearly for me, being an example is the way I can be a light in the world. I can wear a mask when I am in an indoor public setting or one where social distancing is a challenge. I can listen to others who have a point of view which is different from my own and not judge that viewpoint. Taking the time to educate myself on the experiences of other individuals will be an example.

Another important way for me to be a light in the world is by sharing compassion and hope with others. Jesus showed compassion even to those who were engaged in his crucifixion. Compassion is not attempting to better others. Using words that build up and not tear down another’s self is compassion. Being present with others even when you do not understand what they are experiencing is compassion.

Sharing hope is reminding each other that we do not walk alone but together and with the Lord. Identifying the positive of each day shares hope. Putting the events of our lives in perspective with the history of humanity and God’s children can produce hope. Sharing the promises of God as identified in Scripture leads to hope.

We are called to share our light with a world experiencing darkness. How are you choosing to shine your light? Let your light shine and do not let anything blow it out!

Trust Needed

We live in a time when it seems very difficult to trust anyone. Over the years, trust has been eroded in some key institutions in our lives. People have lost trust in government officials and elected leaders. As we have recently become very aware, there is limited if no trust in our law enforcement and judicial systems. The trust which people used to have in the Church and religious leaders has broken down. Our neighborhoods are no longer considered safe, so we do not even have trust in our neighbors and this is not only in large cities but also small, rural communities. Trust is a very precious commodity which appears to have become extremely rare.

One reason that this is a major issue for society is that trust is at the foundation of relationships. No relationship can survive if trust is not present. Interaction between individuals at any level requires some amount of trust. If this does not exist, then exchanges will be only on the surface and not have any depth or true meaning. Once trust is destroyed, it takes twice as much work to re-establish it, and may not even occur.

The Church has a lot of trust building to do. The distrust began with the revelations of sexual abuse occurring too often at the hands of faith leaders. However, long before that, the Church had failed to live out God’s love to everyone. For individuals who grew up realizing they were part of an unnamed group now known as LGBTQ, they were shunned by the Church, told to repent their sinful ways, and excluded from active participation in the practices and fellowship of faith. If a person was of a different ethnicity than the majority within the congregation, they were often distrusted and marginalized at best. Asking questions was seen as a lack of faith. Instead of being a safe haven for all people, a place to grow and explore faith, and a demonstration of God’s love for ALL people, the Church became judgmental, ostracizing, and a place of abuse. The Church broke the trust of numerous people and only represented pain.

It is time within our society to openly acknowledge our active role in planting seeds of distrust. The Church has the opportunity to be a leader here. Through its own acknowledgment of actions and words leading to people no longer trusting the Church and its leadership, the Church can show the first step in trying to rebuild the trust. Some individual congregations are doing that and shifts are starting to slowly begin at a greater level. This is going to take time and require a much greater effort. Some will never reclaim a trust in the Church but others can be given an opportunity to share their heart and begin healing. Then if the Church becomes a light and example to the world (as it was created to be) we may see changes happen in other institutions and among groups of people.

We need trust because we need relationships and relationships are only possible if there is trust. Let us take the first step in building trust.

Telling Your Story

Throughout time, I have had the pleasure of reading some amazing books regarding faith and faith journeys. A few of my favorites are The Chronicles of Narnia, The Shack, and Too Busy Not to Pray. Each of these books have given me wonderful insights and amazing motivation. A key aspect of these books is that they are each told in creative ways from the perspective of a person on their own faith journey. This journey is revealed in the pages of their stories. Through this, they have demonstrated the meaning of evangelism.

Many people are resistant to the term, evangelism. Much of this resistance stems from negative experiences which they have had in life when a person tries to aggressively communicate their beliefs to the one listening. Within that communication there may exist words that are easily perceived as threats or attempts to generate fear in order to get the listener to adopt the beliefs being presented. Many Christians do not wish to be associated with this type of behavior, so they shy away from the term evangelism or evangelizing.

In truth, evangelism is actually sharing the good news found in the message of Jesus Christ. The best way of communicating this good news, the love of God extended to everyone as exemplified in Christ’s death and resurrection, is by sharing a person’s own faith journey with another. This is exactly what the authors of the books I mentioned above did for various reasons. In this manner, there is no pushing beliefs on others since each person decides if they read the book or not. There is no fear or threat found in the pages of these books. Instead, they share a story and in the process invite others to explore and discover the Good News.

Here we have an excellent example of what every believer is called to do in their life. Every believer is asked to share their own story. The manner in which the individual may choose to share the story is based on the gifts and talents of that person. There is no special formula which must be followed. Just share. In each of our faith stories there is inspiration and motivation.

Uncertain Times

I clearly recall every detail of September 11, 2001. I can tell you everything I saw, heard, said, and experienced throughout that day. Where I was, what I was doing, who I was with is all etched deeply into my mind. On that day, and many times since that day, I have commented that 9/11/2001 is for me like Pearl Harbor was for the generation before me.

In my lifetime, there have been a handful of significant events that have created a lasting impact upon me. In addition to the attacks on New York City, Washington D.C., and the downing of the plane in Pennsylvania, there is the day when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded shortly after take off on January 28, 1986. Added to my list of significant dates would be November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. The beginning of the Gulf War on January 16, 1991 is a final date that I will add to my list. There have been other significant dates of events in my lifetime which I recall but each of these on my list had some type of impact directly upon my life. Each created some sense of uncertainty for me.

We have now entered another period of uncertainty in my life. Our nation and our world are dealing with a health emergency at a level that I have never experienced before. Everyone of us is being impacted in some way by the international virus which we have come to know as COVID-19. Today, the mayor of my community issued an order for all people to stay at their homes except for essential trips to the grocery stores, places of work, pharmacies, gas stations, or medical facilities. When I go to the grocery store, meat and milk are in very short supply and what is available is highly limited. Other items are gone from almost all store shelves throughout the metropolitan area. These changes make life a whole new experience for me and millions of others.

So what do we do with all this uncertainty?

First, I suggest we keep everything in perspective. This is not the first time our nation, or our world, has faced a life-altering crisis. Throughout the history of humanity, events such as this one have occurred many times, and yet we have seen the crisis end with our species surviving. This does not mean that significant losses have not happened. Nor does it mean that at the end of crisis, the way in which we live does not look the same as before the crisis began. So rather than panic, we need to take each day at a time, navigate through the crisis to the best of our ability, and heed the advice of those who have the greatest knowledge available.

Second, I suggest we strive to deal with one another in compassionate and loving ways. Where possible, assist those who are combating the crisis, aid those who are most vulnerable, and give rather than hoard. When people work together, the outcome is more positive than when we isolate and only look out for ourselves. Providing comfort to those who experience a negative impact due to this situation expresses love that comes from above.

Third, rely upon your faith to be the strength you need. As a Christian, I turn to my Lord to give me reassurance and hope. I have seen some of my Muslim friends expressing their trust in Allah which is their understanding of our God. No matter what your faith tradition is, I encourage you to connect with that faith as you deal with the uncertainty of this crisis. It is through faith that we have hope necessary to realize we will emerge on the other side of this particular crisis.

We once again live in uncertain times. Like those before us, and those who will come after us, these times are just a period in our lives. Our nation and our world will survive and be changed by this even but it will not be destroyed.