Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Road to Success

The Road to Success
Matthew 11:28-30
            “For years I had been the greyhound chasing the rabbit of permanent solutions [at my company].  If I worked just a little harder, a little longer, a little more creatively, I would eventually catch the rabbit.  I would experience commercial nirvana, and our business…would run perfectly.  But I was wrong.  In business you will always have problems.”
            Paul Hawken goes on to say that problems in business are really opportunities in disguise.  Eventually he realized that every problem a company faces presents a chance to grow—to improve, to do what it does better in some way.  That’s a good point, and one we should keep in mind on our Christian journey:  Never get bogged down by problems, because each one is an opportunity for greater communion with God, or a higher level of service, or a deeper spiritual experience—or perhaps all three!
            But that’s not the point I want to make.  Hidden in Hawken’s statement is another message we must remember as we pass through life.  It is easy to become so intent on chasing the rabbit that we forget to take time off from the hunt.  Whether that rabbit is business success, or church involvement, or taking care of a family, or one I haven’t thought of, we can make the chase—the pursuit—our life’s work to the exclusion of everything else—and that’s dangerous.
            I remember when I learned that lesson.  My last position before retirement required me to be at work from 8:00 AM to 3:30 PM.  Not bad hours, but I frequently found it difficult to tear myself away when the clock and my contract said I could leave.  There was always one more task to complete, one more piece of paper to deal with, one more problem to solve, and then I could go home and rest easy.
            Then came the heart attack.  It wasn’t massive, but it required a stent and a (mercifully) short hospital stay.  Within a week I was back at work, but with a difference.  From then on, at 3:30, I piled the remaining work in the center of my desk (neatly—I was still OC) and walked out the door.  I found that the work was always waiting for me in the morning.  No fairy labor force came in and cleared my desk overnight; but I also never fell behind or missed deadlines.  Tasks were completed on time, papers were signed, filed—or whatever, problems were solved, sometimes more quickly than if I’d tried to attack them at the end of a busy day.
            Whatever our life’s work we need to take time off for rest and recovery.  Jesus knew this.  That’s why, when his disciples returned from their missionary journey (Mark 6:7-13) he chose to take them on a retreat (Mark 6:30-31).  “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place,” he said to them, “and rest awhile.”  Although this rest time was shorter than Jesus had intended, he knew they needed some time to themselves—knew this because throughout his ministry he sought out times when he could be alone with his Father.
            “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says.  We know we need to do just that—to rest in the Lord, to find time to replenish our strength, both physically and spiritually; but often we are too busy chasing our rabbit of choice to heed Jesus’ words and take advantage of his promise of rest.
            Jesus goes on to say that we should accept his yoke.  That sounds like more work; but in our hearts we know the truth of his next words:  “for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

            Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light, because they include time for us to get away from the rabbit chases of life and find rest for our bodies and our souls—and that’s a promise!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Road to Blessings

The Road to Blessings
Matthew 5:2-5
            Jesus knew.  He understood—at some point—what his earthly destiny would be.  We don’t know for sure when he became self-aware, when he knew exactly who he was and where his ministry would lead.  Was it when he was a little boy?  A teenager?  The gospels are almost completely silent on his growth years.  Luke gives us some information, but not much.  His story about the family’s visit to the temple when Jesus was twelve tells us that Jesus knew his true parentage by that time.  How much he understood about his future at that point, we can’t be certain.
            By the time Jesus began his ministry he must certainly have known what the end would be.  It’s evident in his words to his disciples before the journey to Jerusalem.  “We’re going to Jerusalem,” he said, “and I’m going to be tortured and killed.”  Knowing what was going to happen didn’t deter him.  This is how he carried out his ministry from beginning to end, even though he knew he would frighten and anger those in position to do him harm.  Just as he set his face to Jerusalem, so he had set his face to pursue his ministry wherever it might lead.
            Matthew tells us that Jesus gathered his disciples on the side of a mountain and gave them an extended summary of his message.  We call it the Sermon on the Mount.  Luke gives a different version of this sermon, and tells us it happened on a plain.  Wherever it occurred, it is a definitive statement of how we should live as followers of Christ.
            Matthew’s version begins with the Beatitudes.  Each one describes a condition that is the opposite of what the world says we should be.  Instead of being haughty, we should be poor in spirit.  Instead of joy we will quite likely experience mourning.  Instead of proud we should be meek.  Instead of pursuing earthly riches we should hunger and thirst after righteousness.  Instead of destroying those opposed to us we should be merciful.  Instead of following the path of wickedness we should seek to be pure.  Instead of being ready to fight at the drop of a hat we should be peacemakers.  Instead of living a life of ease we are likely to be persecuted. 
            If we live the Beatitudes, we cannot expect to obtain the rewards the world gives—but never fear:  our reward is sure.  Jesus has promised.
            The author of the following piece understood life much the same way Jesus did, and gave much the same advice.  I do not know who wrote this; I only know it’s appropriate for Christians.

People are unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow;
Do Good Anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight;
Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you help them;
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.

            We can’t imagine Jesus being this cynical.  He came to bring people hope for a better life, and hope is the opposite of cynicism.  But if we read between the lines we can see past the cynicism to the hope.  Like Jesus, this writer knew how cruel the world could be, but he understood that shouldn’t deter us from doing what we know is right. 

            That’s the way to be blessed.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Love Is from God

Love Is From God
John 13:34-35
            It’s no secret among my friends and acquaintances that I love cartoons.  I collect what I think are some of the best.  One section of one wall in my office is covered with the best of the best.  I have a bunch more sitting on my desk with nowhere to display them.
            For several years Bill Watterson drew and wrote a cartoon strip called Calvin and Hobbes.  Calvin was a Dennis the Menace-type boy, very creative and always in trouble, the kind of kid who grows up to lead a life of crime or become a world leader—or both.  Hobbes was a stuffed tiger who came to life when no one else was around.  Hobbes was Calvin’s voice of reason—sort of.  He also enjoyed the adventures Calvin led him into.
            Watterson once said, “It’s hard to be religious when certain people are never incinerated by bolts of lightning.”  How true! 
            Each of us has a list (secret, most likely) of those we would like to see zapped.  Democrats have a list that’s mostly Republicans—and vice versa.  Liberals have a list that’s mostly conservatives—and vice versa.  We could add many other categories to this list, but these two prove the point.
            A couple of months ago our church secretary picked up voice mail when she got to the office.  The woman who had left the message said that unless we believed what her church taught, we were all going to hell.  She concluded by saying that now her message had been delivered, she could sleep easier.
            Unfortunately, this is the essence of the gospel for many people—far too many.  They know they’re right, so we must be wrong, and unless we change our ways and come on board their belief system, we’re doomed.  They’re perfectly willing to commit us to everlasting damnation because our interpretation of the Bible differs from theirs.
            That’s not what Jesus said to his disciples—and, by extension, to his followers today.  John recorded words he remembered from Jesus’ final instruction at the Last Supper:  “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another:  just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”
            Jesus didn’t say, “Love the ones who agree with you.”  He didn’t say, “You have my permission to damn anyone whose beliefs are even slightly different from yours.”  There was no equivocating in his commandment, no exceptions.  “Love one another,” he said, “as I have loved you.”  He went on to say that the distinguishing mark of his disciples was the capacity to love, and to love with an unlimited love.
            Perhaps the woman who called our church was conveying her message out of love.  It’s possible that she felt this was the most loving thing she could do, to let us know of our impending doom if we didn’t convert to her way of believing.  If so, the love didn’t come through.  There was nothing loving in her words.
            It’s obvious that John understood Jesus.  He got the message.  When he was writing his first epistle to the churches, he delivered the same message in slightly different words.
            “Beloved,” he wrote, “let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)

            Love is from God.  God’s followers are to love the way Jesus loved—the way God loved us by sending us Jesus—with unequivocal, unlimited, and unending love.  That eliminates the need for lightning bolts, doesn’t it?

Sunday, July 10, 2016

All You Need Is Love

All You Need Is Love
Mark 10:17-23
            We know this story.  We also know it has been used to make several different points.  It is especially handy for those taking a stand against too much dependence on wealth or against the idolatry of putting too much emphasis on possessions.  I believe there’s another lesson to be learned.
            Several years ago there was a British program on American TV as a summer replacement.  I don’t think it ever got much traction in this country, but I found it fascinating.  It was set in a sort of sanitarium for retired spies.  They were free to roam the grounds and to interact with each other, but quite obviously could not leave.  The main plot concerned an undercurrent of evil inherent in the situation.  Throughout the series some of the spies worked to uncover the wrongdoing and fix the problem.  At the end of the run, one of them became the new head of the institution and everything ended happily for the good guys.
            What I remember most was the background music for the final episode.  They kept playing snatches of the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love.  Since I am to this day an ardent Beatles fan, the use of this song made the show even more interesting for me.
            TV and Beatles aside, the truth of the song’s title can’t be denied.  Perhaps we need some other things in addition to love, but whatever we have is made more enjoyable—and valuable—by the presence of love in our lives.
            Bernadine Healy, M.D. said:  “As a physician who has been deeply privileged to share the most profound moments of people’s lives, including their final moments, let me tell you a secret.  People facing death don’t think about what degrees they have earned, what positions they have held, or how much wealth they have accumulated.  At the end, what really matters—and is a good measure of a past life—is who you loved and who loved you.  The circle of love is everything.”
            At the end of the day love is everything.  Dr. Healy learned this through years of experience.  Many of us have proved it in our own lives with our own loved ones.  On several occasions I have witnessed the love of family and friends at the bedside of one who has come to the end of life.  Fond memories are invoked.  Prayers are said.  Songs are sung—anything to surround the dying one with love.  It’s as if the one final thing that can be given is a letting go, a sending of the loved one to the next life with loving thoughts and words.  It can only be hoped that love has been expressed while the person who is taking leave of this life can still appreciate the loving.
            The importance of love is a lesson the rich young man of Mark’s story seems to have missed.  Somehow he forgot—or never knew—that, at the end of the day love is everything.  Jesus loved him enough to offer him a way out of his lovelessness and into the kingdom, but he couldn’t let go of the things that were preventing him from accepting the offer. 
            Remember the scene from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol where Scrooge’s fiancĂ© breaks their engagement?  She tells him that he has come to love wealth more than he loves her, and she will not accept second place in his heart.  We find the young man of our story in the same position.  He could not love God enough to let go of his possessions.  What a pity!
            Do we love enough to let go of what’s standing between us and God?  Between us and other people?  At the end of the day is love enough for us?  When our end comes will we regret that we haven’t loved enough?  Will we be able to say that all we need is love?

            Don’t wait until it’s too late.  Love now!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Live and Learn

Live and Learn
Proverbs 1:1-7
            Sometimes, especially when we’ve been through a negative experience, we say, “Well, you live and learn!”  What we mean, I think, is that, since experience is often a hard but effective teacher, we have learned another lesson to add to our “Things to Avoid” list.
            Each of us knows at least one person who does not live and learn.  No matter how long they live they never seem to get any wiser.  I’ve heard it said, for instance, that a teacher may have 25 years of experience, or one year of experience 25 times.  We all know which person’s classroom we’d rather be sitting in.
            Recently I came across the proverb, “Learn as if you were to live forever.  Live as if you were to die tomorrow.”  I’d like to explore this statement a bit.
            The first section of the Book of Proverbs was written by Solomon—at least that’s the name attached to it.  Solomon was known for his wisdom writing, a genre popular in the ancient Middle East.  Several parts of the Bible are wisdom literature, including a couple of the general epistles in the New Testament.
            The first chapter of Proverbs focuses on wisdom.  That makes sense, since we usually think of proverbs as tiny bits of wisdom that, if heeded, might help us avoid learning some of life’s lessons the hard way.  Solomon says, “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.”  Proverbs are given to us to allow us, “To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight…to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth.”  I believe these last words will help us understand the first half of our proverb:  “Learn as if you were to live forever.” 
            In truth, we’re all simple and we’re all young—that is, when we compare the span of our life with God’s life, or when we compare our wisdom with God’s wisdom.  No matter how much we know, we’re simple.  No matter how old we are, we’re still children at the beginning of our education.  We must be lifelong learners, accumulating as much knowledge—and hopefully as a byproduct as much wisdom—as our time on earth allows, knowing that, no matter how much we learn, our knowledge will amount to the tiniest drop in the largest bucket in God’s realm.
            The second half of our proverb might disturb us.  We don’t like to think about death, especially our death—especially our imminent death.  We hope to live forever.  That’s what heaven is all about:  the chance to live eternally in the best of all possible worlds.  We can’t worry about heaven, or what it might be like, or when we’ll get there.  All of that is beyond our knowledge and our control.  Instead we must be concerned with what happens in this life.  How should we live? 
            The proverb says, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow.”  This is not a negative statement.  In fact, it’s the most positive statement about life that anyone can make.  We are to live life to the fullest every day, no exceptions, no letdown, no time off. 
            If you knew today was your last day on earth, what would you do?  How would you spend your time?  How would you live?  Whatever might be your answers to those questions, that’s the way you should live today—and tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, and the day after that.  Live every day as if you were to die the next.
            Richard Bach, the author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull says, “Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished:  If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

            That’s how we should live and learn.