To the Family of God (2 John 1:1-16)

St. John the Apostle, by sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911)

From the Elder—

To the dear Lady and to her children, whom I truly love. And I am not the only one, but all who know the truth love you, because the truth remains in us and will be with us forever.

May God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, give us grace, mercy, and peace; may they be ours in truth and love.

How happy I was to find that some of your children live in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And so I ask you, dear Lady: let us all love one another. This is no new command I am writing you; it is the command which we have had from the beginning. This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands. The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.

Many deceivers have gone out over the world, people who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came as a human being. Such a person is a deceiver and the Enemy of Christ. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for but will receive your reward in full.

Anyone who does not stay with the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. Whoever does stay with the teaching has both the Father and the Son. So then, if some come to you who do not bring this teaching, do not welcome them in your homes; do not even say, “Peace be with you.” For anyone who wishes them peace becomes their partner in the evil things they do.

I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink; instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you personally, so that we shall be completely happy.

The children of your dear Sister send you their greetings. (Good News Translation)

The Pastor

Tucked away near the back of the Bible is a short little letter from the Apostle John, identifying himself as “The Elder.” This is meant to convey both his venerable leadership and his affectionate relation as the grandfatherly old man who has something important to say. In other words, John was, in our terms, a Pastor responsible for shepherding the church with care.

The Church and Christians

“The dear Lady” is a metaphor for the church. Through personifying the church, John was assigning worth, respect, and dignity to the mother with spiritual progeny.

“Her children” are the believers within the church, spiritual offspring with the church as their mother. This has been an important motif for most of Christian history – an understanding that has gotten lost over the centuries in much of the Protestant world. Yet, one of the magisterial reformers, John Calvin, retained this view of the church and its members:

“The Church is the bosom which God is pleased to gather his children… who are guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…. How useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us under her care and guidance… Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1, 4)

Indeed, Calvin was merely upholding the words of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c.200-258, C.E.)  who stated 1,300 years earlier than the reformer:

“No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”

St. Cyprian (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, ch.vi)

Love and Truth

The relationship between the mother and her children is to be always characterized by familial love. Everything within Christianity rises and falls with love because God is love.

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving.

In fact, God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

God is not okay with deceit, not at all alright with errant understandings of his Son, Jesus Christ, being made out as a mere phantom without a real flesh-and-blood body. He had to be made like us in every way. Otherwise, there is no deliverance from the deceitfulness of sin, the sting of death, and the agony of hell.

John, as the Apostle of love, consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always, insisted John. Love is only really possible when there is truth in the heart.

The true muster of mother church and of individual believing children is their love. No matter what is done – whether outreach, fellowship, or worship – it is all to be done in love and in truth. It’s not enough to be right; the rightness must be applied with the generosity, grace, and liberality of love.

The telltale sign of the deceiver, the false teacher, is that he proclaims only one without the other, either truth or love, but never both together.  

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is a red flag that impure teaching is happening. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love, neither in word nor deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and truth always go together. A mother is a mother because of her children; and a child is a child because of the mother. You cannot have one without the other.

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions, assumes we already understand their situation without hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love finds itself by carefully applying biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love.

Love must have its way, or it isn’t love.

Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Hope and Happiness

Hope is a confident expectation that promises will be kept and realized.

Happiness is the result.

Hope and happiness go together like bacon and eggs, Tom and Jerry, the moonwalk and Michael Jackson, Friday and fish fry, Harry Potter and Hogwarts, salt and pepper, Adam and Eve, Jesus and the Spirit, and well, I think you get the picture.

Unhappiness is the inevitable result of feeling hopeless. Hope and happiness are both relational terms. They come from having good relations based in love and truth.

Love and truth are very much relational terms, being realized because of mother church’s nurturing.

And the chosen mother came into being because of the Father’s gracious will.

So, tell me, what is your takeaway from this quite brief reflection on John’s little letter?…

Comfort For Those with Troubles (2 Corinthians 1:1-11)

St. Paul, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1657

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.

But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (New International Version)

You probably didn’t sign-up for trouble.

Although varying from person to person and from group to group, all of us experience trouble in this world.

The Apostle Paul experienced a lot of trouble throughout his Christian life:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.

I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 

I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28, NIV)

Why didn’t Paul get cynical or jaded by his awful troubles?

What was the secret to Paul’s incredible resilience in the face of such trouble?

How did Paul get through all of that nasty trouble?

Paul, in my opinion, was the consummate Christian. He is the model missionary, mentor, pastor, and caregiver. Yet, it wasn’t his superior giftedness or dogged personality which got him through the tough times.

The Apostle persevered through trouble without succumbing to despondency by receiving help.

Let’s be honest: Most people would rather give than receive – and that is a good thing. Yet, what isn’t a good thing is continual caregiving without yourself receiving care.

We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves. 

The caregiving Christian needs to be vigilant about practicing selfcare and understanding their limitations. One must not pretend to be super-spiritual, with unlimited super-strength and super-compassion, extended to others 24/7 with super-skill. It’s neither realistic, nor smart. 

Caregivers, and not only care recipients, need to accept comfort from both God and others.

“We must accept our vulnerability and limitations in regard to others.  We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves.”

Mother Teresa

The word dominating today’s New Testament lesson is “comfort.” It’s used by Paul ten times in these verses. Comfort involves both speech and action, words and deeds. For comfort to happen, someone comes alongside another and helps them with both loving actions and encouraging words.

We can only give what we have – which means that if we want to continue helping and caring for others, there will need to be continual healthy rhythms of receiving comfort yourself. We provide for others from the largess of grace given to us by the God of abundance.

Sometimes people get stuck in their grief. The troubles have caused such a change and loss that they need help getting out. And the way people get unstuck and resolve their troubles, is through telling their story – which requires someone else to listen. 

St. Paul, by Rembrandt, 1630

Through my own experience of trouble, as well as helping others through their trouble (and sometimes being a troublemaker!) I have developed a checklist of things to do, to allow, and to keep in mind as a caregiver:

  • Live a balanced life. Live in the tension between caring for others and caring for self – without assigning any judgment, shame, or guilt to any of it.
  • Learn to trust other people. You aren’t the only person on earth who can care for the people you care for. Let them contribute so that you can take have a respite.
  • Make a list of needs and concerns. Do this both for yourself and those you care for. Delete those needs that you personally cannot meet. Of the remaining needs, determine the ones for which you are primarily responsible, then, decide which ones are the most important.
  • Contact your Pastor. That’s what he/she is there for. Reach out. You aren’t in a John Wayne movie or an episode of the Lone Ranger. By the way, you know they’re fictional characters, right?
  • Carry your own backpack. Other people have their own backpacks to carry filled with troubles and responsibilities. Although you can help shoulder their load, taking the weight completely off is Christ’s job, not yours. What’s more, don’t fill your own backpack with rocks that leave you with a crushing weight. Be realistic and confident in what you can and ought to do, as well as what you cannot and should not do.
  • Listen to others. Trusted family members and friends usually see the signs of stress in your life before you do. When they speak up, give them your attention. They know what they’re talking about.
  • Accept help. The fast track to bitterness and burnout is refusing the assistance of others who can give you a break in your constant caregiving.
  • Involve others. There are individuals willing and ready to participate if you would just inform them as to what would be helpful.
  • Talk to a therapist. We all get overwhelmed in particular seasons of life. If caregiving has become a compulsion, then take one hour per week to meet with a good therapist or counselor to talk through things in your life.
  • Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Then, delegate some more.
  • Recharge your soul. Find personal time for yourself daily. Engage in things that feed your spirit and energize your inner person.
  • Don’t waste your time and energy. Some people aren’t going to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it; and they don’t really want to understand. And it is not our job to make them understand.
  • Don’t manipulate others. A common temptation is to try and force family, friends, and faith communities to do what we want them to do, whenever we are heavy into ministry. Instead, focus on your own responsibilities and don’t worry about everybody else’s.

God always has a listening ear. The Lord knows grief better than all of us. Jesus understands trouble. In Christ, hope is kindled, care is received, and comfort abounds.

May you, by faith, enter into abundant life – despite the circumstances – so that your overwhelming trouble is transformed into overflowing comfort. Amen.

Heartfelt Prayer (Lamentations 5:1-22)

Orthodox icon of Jeremiah praying

O Lord, reflect on what has happened to us;
consider and look at our disgrace.

Our inheritance is turned over to strangers;
foreigners now occupy our homes.

We have become fatherless orphans;
our mothers have become widows.

We must pay money for our own water;
we must buy our own wood at a steep price.

We are pursued—they are breathing down our necks;
we are weary and have no rest.

We have submitted to Egypt and Assyria
in order to buy food to eat.

Our forefathers sinned and are dead,
but we suffer their punishment.

Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.

At the risk of our lives, we get our food
because robbers lurk in the wilderness.

Our skin is as hot as an oven
due to a fever from hunger.

They raped women in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.

Princes were hung by their hands;
elders were mistreated.

The young men perform menial labor;
boys stagger from their labor.

The elders are gone from the city gate;
the young men have stopped playing their music.

Our hearts no longer have any joy;
our dancing is turned to mourning.

The crown has fallen from our head;
woe to us, for we have sinned!

Because of this, our hearts are sick;
because of these things, we can hardly see through our tears.

For wild animals are prowling over Mount Zion,
which lies desolate.

But you, O Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.

Why do you keep on forgetting us?
Why do you forsake us so long?

Bring us back to yourself, O Lord, so that we may return to you;
renew our life as in days before,
unless you have utterly rejected us
and are angry with us beyond measure. (New English Translation)

“’Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac?”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Prayer is not about getting the right words strung together in a correct formula in a perfect disposition of the heart. Rather, prayer is conversation and a dialogue with God. 

Sometimes prayer looks a lot more like a triage unit in a hospital than it does a steeple on a church. Prayer often looks like desperation more than it does praise. 

God is a Being that we can tell the truth about what is really going on in our lives. Prayer isn’t prayer when we just tell God what we think God wants to hear.

“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The biblical book of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s extended prayer of grief, lament, complaint, and raw feeling. His hometown of Jerusalem was decimated by the invading Babylonian army. Thousands of people were taken out of the city and into exile. The ones left, including Jeremiah, were beside themselves with anger, grief, sadness, and fear.

We hear his cry to God, not worrying about whether it is appropriate language or not. Jeremiah’s words and phrases to God were heartfelt and real:

“We’re worn out and without any rest.”

“All the joy is gone from our hearts.” 

“We are heartsick.”

“We can hardly see through our tears.”

“Why do you keep forgetting us, God?”
“Lord, why dump us and leave us like this?

“Give us a fresh start, for God’s sake!”

Jeremiah was not concerned about how he looked or sounded, and not afraid to express his real thoughts and feelings.

Every thought and feeling is a valid entry into prayer. It is of utmost importance that we pray what is actually inside of us and not what we believe God would like to hear from us. 

The Lord doesn’t like pretense and posturing; God wants the real us. 

Plastic words and phony speeches are an affront to God. We must pray precisely what is on our minds and in our hearts – unfiltered, if need be. No matter the headache or the heartache, we only need to pray, without any concern for doing it perfectly.

“Suffering forces us to change.
We don’t like change and most of the time we fear it and fight it.
We like to remain in emotionally familiar places
even through sometimes those places are not healthy for us.
On occasion, the suffering is so great that we have to give up.
We surrender the old and begin anew.
Often it is the pain we experience that leads us, not only to a different life,
but a richer and more rewarding one.” Dennis Wholey

Gracious God, sometimes I feel like I have to have it all together to even speak to you. Yet you already know my heart better than I know it myself. Forgive my constant hiding from you and accept my heartfelt prayer to you for grace and help, through Jesus Christ my Savior and Lord. Amen.

Welcome Humility (Luke 9:43b-48)

While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples,“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning remained concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

An argument arose among them concerning which one of them was the greatest. But Jesus, aware of their inner thoughts, took a little child and put it by his side and said to them, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me, for the least among all of you is the greatest.” (New Revised Standard Version)

Pride and Humility

Whenever we are not focused on what is most important, we then tend to focus on trivial matters which help no one. Another way of putting this: Getting stuck in pride makes us concerned for our position, whereas being humble creates opportunities to serve our fellow humanity.

“It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes people as angels.”

St. Augustine

The ultimate humility was the cross of Christ. Jesus submitted himself to death, even death on a cross. He emptied himself, taking the posture of a servant. (Philippians 2:7-8) Jesus Christ did not come to be served but to serve; and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

God’s benevolent, gracious, and ethical realm is accessed and rests upon humility.

Wherever there are humble hearts, there is change, transformation, and new life. Where there is the presence of pride, there you will find posturing, positioning, and peacocking – nothing changes.

Humility enables a person to see beyond the end of their nose. A humble posture allows an individual to observe the wounds and pains of those with little power and low societal status. A preoccupation with being great and believing we are indispensable is to amble down a blind path.

Children and Humility

In the ancient world, children were on the lowest rung of society’s ladder. They were mostly looked upon as potential adults – little people who would someday contribute to the welfare of the family business and the community.

Until they became adults, kids were expected to begin learning their future trade with full submission and obedience. They had no power or leverage over others.

So, when Jesus told his disciples to take the lowly position of a child, he was not talking about innocence or cuteness. Christ meant for his followers to divest themselves of prideful positioning for greatness and to instead embrace the helplessness and vulnerability of children.

For Jesus, a child was closer to God’s rule and reign because they existed in truly humble circumstances; whereas an adult had too much concern with looking good and seeking every advantage possible.

The Upside-Down of Humility

Life is more upside-down than we sometimes realize. Adults have more to learn from kids than kids do from adults. To listen to a child is about as near to hearing the voice of God as you will get.

Let us consider how pride and humility work out in our daily lives. For example, when down and hurting, maybe you have had the experience of another person trying to one-up your pain, as if what they experienced was worse than you. In their pride, they ignore that pain is personal, as if it’s a one-size-fits-all. 

Invalidating a person’s state of being or feelings does no one any good.  It happens because of pride and a lack of humility.

“All streams flow to the ocean because it is lower than they are. Humility gives it its power.”

Lao Tzu

Imagine going to see a doctor who turns out to be arrogant in his approach. He fails to really listen to you. He just gives a quick exam and offers his diagnosis with a regimen of more pills to take. You are left sitting there while he is off to another patient, colonizing another person’s mind and emotions with his expertise.

I am not giving doctors a hard knock. I work in a hospital and have great respect for medical professionals who provide wise care plans. Yet, it is likely that you, like me, have had that occasional experience of the doctor full of themselves with all the right answers on your pain and situation.

You may have also had the unfortunate experience of having a pastor, therapist, or counselor assess your situation with little information and even smaller compassion.  Like writing a script for pills, they give you a few Bible verses and tell you to quit sinning and live obediently.

The Good Life and Humility

If pride and arrogance are the original sin, then the remedy to that malady is humility.

No matter who we are – whether doctors, pastors, laypersons, patients, or whomever – we are meant and designed by our Creator God to live a humble life. That means we are to both give and receive humility-based care.

Humility is the cornerstone to every good thing in this life.  Jesus said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NIV)

The door of God’s kingdom swings-open on the hinges of humility.

The Apostle Paul, seeking to follow the Lord Jesus in his teaching and humility said:

“Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12, NLT)

Basic human interactions with one another are to be grounded in humility. The old prophet made his expectations clear:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV)

Life is truly life when it is humility-based.

Care and Humility

Caring for another person is not a simple linear matter of offering opinions or expertise; it is believing that the one needing care is the expert on herself. The caregiver has as much to learn from the care-seeker.

The beauty of humility-based care is that two people discover together how to grow, thrive, and flourish in a situation where it is not currently happening.

Breakthroughs occur in the soil of humility when the care-seeker comes out of the darkness and into the light through mutual discovery and insight.

We live with the confidence of the Psalmist:

“God leads humble people to do what is right and teaches them the way.” (Psalm 25:9, GW)

In the end, God saves and heals, not you or me. That God chooses to use us to bring care to others ought to elicit the utmost of humility within us.

Welcome humility into your life and you will find a truly abundant life.

Lord God, let me have too deep a sense of humor to be proud.

Let me know my absurdity before I act absurdly.

Let me realize that when I am humble, I am most human, most truthful, and most worthy of your serious consideration.

Amen.