True love changes us

Love people just as they are.

Yes and no.

Yes, all people are created in the image of God and have specific gifts, talents and abilities. Even more than that, each of us has a purpose here on Earth.

I accepted Christ as my savior as a teenager mainly because counselors and other campers at a church camp I attended accepted me for who I was, even though I did nothing to earn their love. I wanted what they had, and it was Jesus.

Love people just as they are.

No. God loves us too much to leave us there. Accepting Jesus as my savior was the starting point, not the final destination. The road of life needs to be re-paved; the old one eventually will wear out.

If we claim to follow Jesus, we must grapple with this:

 

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? On what will they give in return for their life?”

Matthew 16: 24-26

 

And this:

 

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Mark 1:14-15

 

Deny themselves? Take up their cross? Repent?

No wonder Jesus said the way of life is narrow and few will find it (Matthew 7:14).

Deny themselves

I’ve written about this several times recently, and gotten some push-back from it – not surprisingly. It’s not about me. It’s not about you. The world doesn’t revolve around me. Or you.

The church I attend has a term for this: Live surrendered.

It’s not easy, certainly.

I do not have this life (or the next life, for that matter) all figured out. There’s plenty I don’t know. Am I willing to learn?

We all know how difficult justice is to find in our court systems. Lawyers gather as much evidence as they can, for and against, and the jury weighs the evidence and makes a decision. That’s the best we can do.

Yet sometimes innocent people are convicted, and occasionally guilty people go free. It happens. We know this.

Is there a better way? Is there such a thing as true justice?

Yes, there is. But we might not get it until the next life.

At that point, when we see what justice really looks like, we might wish we didn’t have to face it. Because all of us will have to face it.

That’s a column for another day.

The point is: I don’t have all the answers. I know someone who does. That someone is the One who created me. Sometimes God will tell me what the answers to my questions are, sometimes He will not. I follow Him anyway. This is called trust.

I trust that God’s way is better than my way. (Sorry, Frank Sinatra.) That’s what denying ourselves means.

Take up their cross

Yikes. The cross is an instrument of death. We wear it around our necks as jewelry, build them alongside highways and hang beautiful ones inside our churches.

Crucifixion is one of the most horrific forms of death man has ever devised. The purpose – the only purpose – of a cross is to kill someone.

Jesus had a cross. We know that. But he said that followers should take up their cross. Do we have to die too?

In a sense, yes, we do. For the wages of sin is death … (Romans 6:23)

We earn wages. Sin has a price. It’s death.

What is sin? Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4)

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. (James 2:10)

If we think this through, we know this is true. If I’m guilty of theft, I’m not necessarily guilty of murder, but I’m still guilty of breaking the law and I have to serve a sentence for the theft I committed. Right?

So, sin is breaking God’s laws.

What are God’s laws?

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

How do we do that?

On one level those words are easy to understand. But it takes a lifetime to fully know how to love God and love people. (Quick note: Do we love God with ALL our heart, soul and mind – or just with the parts of our heart, soul and mind we want to give to God? We aren’t allowed to interpret the Bible the way we’d like. We either follow it, or we don’t.)

Repent

Gotquestions.org has a good explanation of repentance:

In the Bible, the word repent means “to change one’s mind.” The Bible also tells us that true repentance will result in a change of actions (Luke 3:8-14, Acts 3:19). In summarizing his ministry, Paul declares, “I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds” (Acts 26:20). The full biblical definition of repentance is a change of mind that results in a change of action.

Love them as they are? Yes. But that’s only the starting point.

Why change?

“No slave can serve two masters … You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16:13)

“They (my followers) do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” (Jesus, in John 17:16)

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Denying oneself. Taking up our cross. Repenting. And following Jesus.

This is what true love is.

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Going home

Very few of us can time our deaths the way our births are timed.

Nine months from conception, there’s a due date. With a natural birth, that’s a pretty good ballpark estimate. For a Cesarean section, the parents get to choose the specific date of birth.

Rarely does that happen on the other side of life.

Every death is sudden, even if it’s expected.

The guarantee

In the span of two days last weekend, five friends or acquaintances breathed their last breath.

They ranged in age from 81 to 43. Four of them had long-term conditions; two were in such severe pain, I’m sure their loved ones saw their passing as relief.

But still.

The fifth friend shocked everybody. He was healthy, to my knowledge – no one saw his death coming. He was 62. (I’m 58; he’s my generation.)

Two of them lived in Northeast Ohio, the other three in mid-Michigan (my old stomping grounds).

Death is guaranteed for each of us.

Later rather than sooner, we hope.

Unexpected deaths are the ones that make the news – traffic fatalities, drug overdoses, crime victims, that sort of thing. Most of us won’t leave Earth like that, thankfully, but there’s no guarantees about that, either.

Another friend’s granddaughter died about two weeks ago. She suffered numerous health issues from the day she was born. She was 21.

No one ever said life was fair.

Homegoing

Sometimes, those who suffer have the best dispositions. They are thankful for the blessings they have, even if good health isn’t one of them. Our 81-year-old friend was like that. He had debilitating headaches his entire adult life, but he looked on the bright side every day.

His strong faith allowed him to do that.

He is in heaven now with his savior, Jesus. He knows that with certainty. So does his wife. They were married 61 years.

We visited her yesterday afternoon to offer our condolences. She said she’s not planning a funeral for him, but a homegoing. We knew what she meant.

Funerals are sad. We mourn the loss of our loved one. Rightfully so. But that’s where the focus remains.

With a homegoing, family members and friends know that death is temporary – just a transition to a better life. Healing is promised in heaven. Physical, emotional and every other kind of healing that each of us needs.

The end of time

We mourn the loss of our loved one here on Earth and we miss him or her terribly, but we know we will see him or her again.

Earth is a temporary home, full of pain and struggle, as well as joy and laughter. We know this. Good vs. evil. Unconditional love vs. selfishness. Right vs. wrong.

These battles are fought in the human heart and mind, aren’t they?

We play them out in society, but the real battles take places inside each of us.

When eternity comes, those struggles will end. For better or worse.

We’ll either stand with God in heaven, or we’ll spend forever without Him. The Bible talks about a lake of fire. I wonder also if hell will be a lonely place. We may not see our friends and family any more. Ever again.

I can’t imagine a worse fate than that.

My choice, your choice

We get to choose where we live forever. We determine our own fate, really.

I can’t choose for you, and you can’t choose for me. This is personal, and it’s individual. I can give you chapter and verse, but you must decide whether to accept the gift of life forever or not.

Life is a gift.

Life on Earth is a gift. Each of us must thank our parents, both mother and father, for giving us life. You and I had nothing to do with it.

Life forever is a similar principle. There won’t be marriage in heaven, but we will have a Father. He’s the one who offers us that gift of life eternal.

Most of my friends who just died will receive a homegoing, a celebration of life on Earth and the promise of a wonderful, perfect forever future in heaven.

We can’t wrap our minds around forever. The end of time. No more alarm clocks or deadlnes.

Nor can we fathom perfection. Beauty for beauty’s sake. No hidden agendas. No secrets. No pain or suffering, of any type. No getting tired at night. Never a cold or fever, much less any other sickness or injury.

Mental illness? No such thing any more.

The big picture

One day, we will see the big picture of life. We don’t now. Each of us sees only our small part in this big universe. There’s so much of life I can’t see or understand. I write to try to make sense of it all, but as the Bible says, now I see in a mirror dimly, but then (in heaven) face to face.

I have strong views on certain subjects, and you may have a differing viewpoint on those same subjects. We both might be right, because we see the issue from different perspectives. Neither of us understands the big picture. We try, but we just cannot.

That’s why we need to talk, to listen, to respect each other, to learn from each other.

One day, all the issues we wrestle with will come together. The God of the universe, the One who created us and everything else in it, will reveal all to us.

For now, God has given us earthly minds to learn and grow. None of us can know everything about life.

We desperately need this perspective today.

We need each other.

We NEED each other.

We can’t make this life work without each other. Even though we try.

Oh, we try.

The more I learn, the more I discover how much I don’t know. Keep teaching me, each one of you. I’ll do the same for you.

Meanwhile, as we do that, I’m ready for my homegoing, when all will be well. I’m not expecting it any time soon – I’m still relatively young and in excellent health, if I can say that. No guarantees, of course, except that I will die one day. But whenever the day comes, I hope you’ll celebrate it with me.

And I’d love to celebrate yours, too.

Just not for awhile.

In the meantime, let’s celebrate this life on Earth together. And remember with gratitude those who are already home.

‘That is the whole duty of everyone’

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

So says the wisest person who ever lived, king Solomon. He tried everything: wine, women and song; working hard; seeking pleasure and riches. Nothing satisfied him.

At the end of his days, after he experienced all that life has to offer, he drew the conclusion in this quote.

We still don’t get it, do we?

Solomon doesn’t say that fearing God is the whole duty of the religious, or of a certain nationality or group. No. Every one of us, no matter who we are, must fear God and keep his commandments.

We will be judged. Not by the U.S. Supreme Court, by a fractured Congress or by the court of public opinion. We can argue with our political opponents until we’re all blue in the face, and it means nothing.

Really.

Fear God, and keep his commandments.

That’s it.

That’s what life is all about.

Of course, fleshing that out isn’t as simple as it sounds.

So, how do we do that?

Only one person, in fact, has figured that out.

Since Solomon didn’t get it until it was (almost) too late, let’s look at the life of the one person who understood it right from the start.

One life at a time

That would be Jesus, the sinless one.

His life is explained in the four “gospels” at the beginning of the New Testament. Here’s an overview of Jesus’ adult life as recorded by Matthew, one of his original 12 disciples.

Jesus’ first act was to begin calling future disciples to follow him. He preached to the masses, yes, but he specifically trained a group of only 12 people. Those dozen later changed the world.

As his disciples watched, Jesus preached his most famous message, the Sermon on the Mount, to a big crowd. For example:

 

  • “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
  • “… everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …”
  • “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”
  • “… store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
  • “For with the judgment you make you will be judged …”
  • “Beware of false prophets … you will know them by their fruits.”

 

Jesus stepped up our game. Murder is wrong, of course, but so is anger. Adultery is wrong, but so is lust. Stuff like that. Jesus knows our motives, what we think about. That’s where the rubber meets the road.

Next, Jesus proved his authenticity by healing people – a man with leprosy, two demon-possessed men, a paralyzed man, and others.

He spent time with Matthew and his friends. This was a big deal, because Matthew was a hated tax collector. Imagine inviting over your favorite IRS agent who not only collected your taxes but bribed you, taking more than you owe.

Jesus spent more time training his 12 disciples, then sent them out to do cool stuff themselves. He also warned them that they will face persecution because some powerful, influential people will not appreciate them elevating the poor and sick.

If Jesus walked across the United States in the flesh today, he’d give us a similar message, would he not?

A new command I give you …

Then, Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, rest for the soul and the meaning of Sunday (the Sabbath, actually).

Now, Jesus had crossed a line. When he taught that Sabbath is not about following a host of man-made rules, “the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him” (Mat. 12:14).

Next come a few parables, stories that Jesus told with a moral. He talked about different types of soil, weeds, a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, a pearl and a fishing net. He used these illustrations to describe the kingdom of heaven and its value.

Then Jesus did a series of miracles – he fed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish, then walked on water, then healed many people of their illnesses.

Soon after that, three disciples – Peter, James and John – saw Jesus “transfigured” on a mountain, with his glowing heavenly body next to the heavenly bodies of Moses and Elijah. Jesus was a man, yes, but we can’t forget his divinity as well.

In keeping with his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus then taught about several other subjects:

 

  • Marrying a divorced woman is adultery, except for unchastity. (The point: No one is perfect, including a spouse. Understand what that means.)
  • “Let the little children come to me …”
  • “If you are rich, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” (The riches themselves aren’t sin, unless they supersede God, which they did in this particular exchange.)
  • “… whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.”

 

The world doesn’t think like this, much less live like this. Christians are to live differently than the world does.

Why follow Jesus?

Next came Palm Sunday, when Jesus orchestrated his own parade and entered Jerusalem on a donkey. He taught lessons for a few more days, then was arrested, crucified, buried and resurrected.

Why death and resurrection?

Because Jesus knew we couldn’t keep his commandments, as Solomon discovered. Jesus said so in his Sermon on the Mount, too: “Be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Only when we follow Jesus can our hearts be changed to “fear God and keep his commandments.”

This is a daily struggle, as those of us who follow Jesus know.

That’s what forgiveness is all about. As God forgives us each day, we learn how to forgive each other.

We need to learn what Solomon learned.

But let’s not wait until the end of our lives to figure this out. A changed life equals a changed heart equals a changed society. We need that, certainly.

We need that today.

 

The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13

 

The circle of life in one day

A young couple I know announced their first pregnancy.

A (slightly) older couple celebrated their anniversary.

A friend’s son is hoping to get into an addiction detox center.

Another friend’s younger brother died from complications of a stroke.

I received word of all four events on the same day.

The circle of life.

Birth, anniversary, struggle, death.

I received word of those events in that order, ironically.

The first two were announcements of joy.

Birth

New life is a miracle. It happens the same way every time, but it’s still a miracle. One cell becomes two, then four, then … a living, soon-to-be-breathing human being.

I still remember the birth of our first son. I held a camera in my hands to take photos of the new arrival.

I was so in awe of the moment of David’s birth, I froze. The nurse shaped her hands like a camera and pantomimed taking a picture. I snapped out of my reverie and took a few frames.

Our lives changed forever.

New birth does that.

Anniversary

Anniversaries are special, too, as the couple celebrates thriving through the inevitable ups and downs of marriage – hopefully more ups.

Long-lasting marriages tend to stand out in today’s society, don’t they?

Marriage is not easy, and involves plenty of compromises. But if husband and wife are both committed to the relationship, it grows and deepens.

That’s the ideal, anyway.

The second two events were presented as prayer requests.

Struggle

My friend has prayed for years that her son would overcome his addiction. Apparently, the severe side effects have finally forced him to seek help.

Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we can get better.

I’ve thought about that every so often over the years. Do I have to hit rock bottom before my life can truly change? Why else would I ask Jesus Christ to change me, if I didn’t realize I needed changing?

I’ve never had a chemical dependency (except for the caffeine in coffee, I admit it) or faced a crisis for which I see no way out.

Or, have I?

When my family moved out of state before my ninth-grade year, I was afraid. Since I knew no one in my new school on the first day of class, I searched for something or someone to lean on – and found nothing. The following summer, I was introduced to Jesus in a very personal way, and that began a lifelong process of getting to know Him as my Lord as well as my Savior.

In a sense, then, I did hit rock bottom. I reached a point where I knew I needed something I didn’t have. This is not envy or jealousy. No material possession was going to answer my deepest need.

My friend’s son is at that point too, whether he realizes it or not. If he eventually comes clean from his addiction, that would be a wonderful answer to prayer. But then what? How would he fill that vacuum in his life? The answer to that would determine whether he relapses or not.

That’s down the road for him. Life is a process, not a one-time-decision-live-happily-ever-after moment.

Our pastor, in his current sermon series, calls this “discipleship.” It’s the lifelong process of growing ever closer to God after making the decision to follow Him.

We find our purpose in life through that process. The end game is very real, but so is the journey.

Where are we going?

Addictions are extremely difficult to break. You and I both have seen this over and over.

Experience is not always the best teacher. Not all experiences are worth having. Why can’t we learn from the mistakes of others?

Death

Eventually, we all die. It’s inevitable. Our bodies will wear out sooner or later, unless something unforeseen takes our lives suddenly.

Strokes happen to many people, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept. My father-in-law suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke in his mid-50s that incapacitated him. For a man who owned a business and was a leader in his field, that was a difficult pill for him to swallow. He lived for about 15 years after that.

My friend’s brother survived only a couple of days after his stroke.

Either way, life is not fair, is it?

Every one of us can lament something. Perhaps it’s physical health, a relationship that didn’t work out or is causing us pain, a job loss, family issues … something traumatic and/or something chronic. Each of us can identify something that we’re lamenting.

Choices

How do we handle such struggles? With grace and optimism, or with anger and blame?

Do we seek help when necessary? Or do we fight through it, unwilling to even admit our issues? Frequently this is my problem. I am not good at asking for assistance, even though there are a number of people in my life I could turn to if I truly needed them.

But it’s hard to admit need, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to the baby our friends are expecting next summer.

So pure, so beautiful, so dependent … that’s what babies are.

What kind of a world will he or she be born into? Will that baby know joy, or sorrow?

Probably both. The soon-to-be parents know Jesus as their Savior and Lord, so their child will get off to a great start. He or she will be loved and will learn to love in the deepest sense of that word.

As the child grows, he or she will learn the struggles of life, and hopefully how to overcome them.

There will be anniversaries, and eventually death.

The circle of life continues.

Is your circle bright, or is it gray like the rain – or worse, black?

The night is blackest as it nears dawn. Sunrise is coming.

Eventually, the rain will stop, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine brightly.

In these days of partial sun and plenty of clouds and rain, I’m preparing for full sunshine. Are you?

A search for joy

When we talk of joy as a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), we aren’t talking about a worldly concept, or an idea that the world even understands. Joy hardly isn’t even in the world’s vocabulary.

We talk more about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Happiness and joy are not synonyms. Happiness is temporary; joy is forever. Happiness is the result of doing something that makes us happy, such as eating a good meal.

My wife and I enjoyed a delicious seafood dinner at Red Lobster after church yesterday. But we had a light supper that evening and breakfast this morning. The happiness we felt from yesterday’s dinner didn’t last; we got hungry again.

Joy is constant. Even when I don’t feel “joyful” – and I don’t consider myself a joyful person – joy remains in my heart. Joy, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, is something that only Christians can understand. It’s deep in our hearts. It comes from relationship with Jesus Christ. It involves knowledge as well as feelings.

Let’s look at this a little further.

Good news of great joy

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Luke 2:8-11

 

For the shepherds, that night started like any other night. With no warning, an angel showed up. The shepherds received the shock of their lives. But the angel had a wonderful message to deliver: Don’t be afraid. The Savior was born today.

This news is “great joy.”

Jews had waited for that moment for hundreds of years. Their prayer, their hope, their longing were answered. Expectation and silence were replaced by great joy.

That joy is the Savior, the Messiah. His parents named him Jesus.

Temporary pain, permanent joy

Jesus … said to them (the disciples), “Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me?’ Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy.

“When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world.

“So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

John 16: 19-22

 

Just a few hours before He was crucified, Jesus told His disciples that their pain would be temporary, and that it would turn into permanent joy – that no one could take from them.

Pain comes first. Perhaps we have to feel pain before we can understand joy.

The world will rejoice in their pain, Jesus told the disciples. He knew the disciples would run away from Him when He would be arrested soon after this conversation took place. The world did not understand Jesus’ pain, or that of His disciples, nor can the world understand the joy that followed His resurrection.

This remains true today.

Lost and found

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Luke 15:7

 

Luke 15 describes three parables with the same theme: one lost sheep in a flock of 100, a lost coin and a lost son (prodigal’s son). In all three stories, something valuable was lost. When it was found, the owner in all three parables threw a party for his friends and neighbors to celebrate.

That kind of joy is uncontainable. It bubbles over. It has to be shared.

It’s not “happiness.” Finding something meaningful that was lost brings out a much deeper response in us. A joy worth celebrating.

Reading the law

All the people (about 50,000) gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.

He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

Then he (Nehemiah) said to them, “Go your way … and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And all the people went their way … to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.

Nehemiah 8:1, 3, 10, 12

 

After Nehemiah and Ezra led the Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem and, despite opposition, rebuilt the wall around the city, they read the book of the law of Moses (the first five books of our Old Testament), which was God’s word to them. Because they had been exiles, they hadn’t heard God’s word verbalized for decades.

When the people discovered through the law how much God loved them, they rejoiced. They found joy in God’s promises to them, and in His faithfulness despite their sinfulness.

Do we have the same response when we read the Bible?

Joy while suffering

Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 1:2-4

 

Can there be joy in the midst of pain? When someone is suffering from cancer and is given a short time to live, can that person rejoice despite his or her pain? When a loved one dies, can those of us who remain find joy in the eternal rest our loved one is now enjoying? We miss the deceased person terribly, of course, but can we find joy in the midst of sorrow?

I’ve seen it happen. Such times are never happy. But they can be joyful.

A friend of mine in his early 80s has suffered from severe, often debilitating, headaches since he fell down a flight of stairs when he was 14. He has suffered for decades, literally. He and his wife just celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary. She has suffered alongside him all those years.

Yet, they rejoice in God’s goodness. Like Job in the Old Testament, they accept the bad with the good.

They persevere. Even more than that, they overcome. They continue to live life to the fullest as best they can.

If that’s not joy …

And yet I can’t explain it. I have never experienced anything like that. When all is taken away, we discover what we truly need.