John 16:16-24 – From Grief to Joy

Light Shining in Darkness
“Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. It is far better take things as they come along with patience and equanimity.” ~ Carl Jung

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”

At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born, she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. (NIV)

Jesus tended to say things that were neither expected nor wanted. That was even true of Christ’s own disciples who walked and talked with him for three years. Jesus consistently told them there must be suffering before glory. Getting them to buy into such an idea is like trying to get a bunch of Baptists to write their names on a sign-up sheet at church.

Christ was speaking to his disciples in the Upper Room, the last meal he had with them before his death. When they were called by Jesus three years earlier, the disciples were not expecting all the gibberish about leaving and grieving. To put this in contemporary terms, the disciples’ response was akin to saying, “I only think positive. I don’t listen to things that are negative.” Suffering, death, and grief were far from the disciples’ expectations of how things would and should shake-out. They had a hard time understanding what the heck Jesus was saying because his words were out of alignment with their assumptions. Yes, there would be glory and joy. First, however, there must be suffering and grief.

I tend to think in metaphors, so I like that Jesus uses one to bring some context about leaving and returning. And I resonate a lot with his metaphor. My dear wife spent 128 days on total bed rest before our youngest daughter was born. During those four months, we agonized over the health of our little peanut in the womb. I was also in a constant state of concern for my wife’s health. This kind of pregnancy we were not expecting. Those months were hard not only for us but also for our two daughters who needed to step up and participate in family life in new and different ways.

There were months of pain and hardship, not to mention the actual pain of childbirth. Finally, our little girl was born – a bit small, yet, quite healthy. Our grief turned to joy. Nothing could ever take away that joy. We prayed hard back in those days. We asked. We received. And our joy was complete. When I look back on those days, I can remember the anguish. Yet, what prominently stands out is the joy because true unmitigated joy has the power to swallow grief and despondency whole.

In talking through with his disciples about their disappointment of his leaving and their grieving, Jesus graciously gave them the gift of joy. Yes, there can be and is joy in the mourning. Not every story has a happy ending. I can say, however, that the grandest story of all – Jesus Christ’s suffering and death – has resulted in resurrection and ascension. It will all be complete when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. Then, the grand narrative of redemption will have its conclusion of no more crying, tears, or pain. There will be only unending joy.

For now, we still experience heartache along with the joy of new life. It can be confusing living in the awkward state of simultaneous grief and joy. Yet, keep in mind that the grief is temporary, and the despair will not last. Joy, on the other hand, has staying power and will be the permanent state of the believer. It is only the smaller stories which may or may not end well. The big story of redemption already has the ending written – joy without grief.

Christ is risen! Therefore, we need not wait to be happy or expect that everything must go our way to have joy. The good news is that there are always fresh opportunities to be happy through asking and receiving. Imagine a Partridge Family kind of bus coming around to all the bus stops of life. Happy times and music arrive around the clock. Chances are the opportunity to be happy has already arrived. Often, it is right in front of us; we just missed the bus because we were daydreaming about a future state of joy.

We are living in the days of the new normal and continual change. Just as there was no going back to a three-year hiatus of the disciples walking with Jesus, so we need to embrace new and different ways of life together here on planet earth. We have the gift of joy. Its just a matter of unpacking it.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

John 14:15-21 – On Loving God

Welcome, friends! Simply click the video below and let us enjoy our virtual presence with one another.

You can also view this video on TimEhrhardtYouTube

To reflect on God’s love for us, click You Are My King (Amazing Love) written by Billy James Foote and originally sung by Philips, Craig, and Dean.

To reflect on our love for God, click I Love You Lord written and sung by Laurie Klein.

May your week be filled with love and obedience in the power of the Spirit.

On Loving God

Last Supper Barbados
Depiction of the Upper Room by Unknown artist from Barbados.

This week, as I reflected on the words of Jesus:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15) 

my thoughts kept coming back to a dear friend of mine.  In the Fall of 1992, Wesley was on his deathbed in an Iowa hospital.  At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation and was able to take some time off to go and be with him. I was there for a week, spending my days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit to rise about 5:00am and make my way to Wesley’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before family members arrived. Wesley was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. Yet, those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.

You see, what was so amazing about my relationship with Wesley is that only a year before, he and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and did not want much to do with a Pastor.  Yet, in a matter of a few months, we had become devoted to one another as brothers.  Through a series of circumstances that I ascribe as God’s gracious hand, Wesley embraced a spiritual life that was as rich and full as I have ever seen (that is a story for another time). Now, as I sat with him six months later, Wesley was at the edge of his life.

During that week, I watched in the background as day after day, friend after friend, and relative after relative came into Wesley’s room to visit him for the last time.  The majority were much like Wesley before he wholeheartedly followed the love of Christ – having made a profession of faith as children, they had long since outgrew their Sunday School belief.  With each person, as frail as Wesley was, barely able to lift an arm more than a few inches, he would grab a hold, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?”  And then he said to every one of them: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”

Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove.  The words of Jesus to love through obedience are part of what we call the Upper Room Discourse, or Farewell Speech. They are the Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – quite literally being Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. These are the words Jesus did not want his followers to forget. The disciples were distressed and troubled over the prospect that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some focused words to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.

Upper Room
Pewter art of Da Vinci’s Last Supper. A gift from Wesley.

There are a two truths Jesus said to his disciples (and saying to us) as he was grabbing them and holding them close before his death:

Love is practiced through obedience to Christ’s commands.

Love through obedience is accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s help.

If we are to love Jesus, we will obey him – which begs the question: What are his commands?  There are three summaries of Christ’s teaching and commands in the Gospels that encompass loving him through obedience: The Great Commission; The Great Commandment; and, The Beatitudes.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness.  These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Genuine lovers of Jesus are characterized by their: authentic humility; deep concern to the point of tears over sin; gentle and meek spirit toward others; intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice; daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking; and, willingness to accept adversity for the sake of Jesus. Yes, lovers of Jesus are distinctly and profoundly characterized by grace. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God is the normal everyday default life-setting for lovers of Jesus Christ.

When Jesus wanted to put all the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament of the Bible) into a summary that would be easy to remember and understand he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

What Jesus requires is an holistic love for God. Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment between head, heart, and gut – with the glue of love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and church – because Jesus is Lord over it all, not just the church part. In the totality of our lives, in every relationship, and in every activity, Jesus invites us to grab hold of the kind of love that seeks a righteous agenda based in grace and mercy.

What is more, Jesus gave clear instructions of how to occupy our time on this earth while he is away preparing a place for us so that he can take us to be with him.  The gracious and pure living of the Beatitudes and the love of the Great Commandment are to be fully utilized with the Great Commission. Jesus stated:

All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.(Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)

Making disciples is at the heart of Christ’s commands. Every Christian is to be Christ’s apprentice learning the ways of Jesus in all of life, being spiritually developed so that we can be characterized by the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment. Jesus wants lifelong students in the faith, continually learning to love God through integrated and aligned selves in the church and in the world.

This is a big job.  In fact, the task is so huge that Jesus left us with the means of accomplishing it – he has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever (John 14:16). “Counselor” (NIV) is translated in various ways in versions of the New Testament because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with a single English word. Other translations include: “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.”  They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit.  I think the best term to portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is “True Friend.”

A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen; will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need; will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them; and, maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you.  A true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.

Upper Room Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit given to the disciples of Jesus.

That is what the Holy Spirit is – the Spirit helps us when we need help; encourages us when we are down; comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, gives us a good loving kick in the backside when appropriate.  The Holy Spirit is our True Friend in the world.  The Spirit continually speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. The Spirit will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.

Because of God the Father’s love in sending the Son; the Son’s sacrificial love through the cross; the Spirit’s consistent loving presence; and, the triune God’s insistence on living a life of love, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Wesley miraculously lived through his deathbed experience. God was not quite finished with him yet.  Wesley’s Christian life displayed that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a no-holds-barred obedience which is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.

In the summer of 1993, at 29 years of age, Wesley went to be with his Lord.  Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a person whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission.  And I enjoyed a relationship that was totally changed from one of animosity to one that could be characterized as “true friend.”  Because of his love for God, Wesley now sees Jesus.

There is only one level of commitment to Christ – the high charge and privilege of duty and delight. A true disciple, a genuine follower of Jesus, loves him and lives an obedient life to the Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when the Holy Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience to Jesus, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what God is doing in this world.  At other times we observe the commands of Scripture and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or even grief.  And then there are times when we are attentive to God’s Word and God’s Spirit and seek to obey Jesus – only to mess up so that we are left wondering if God could ever really do anything in us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails. We are here on this earth because of our True Friend. Even though we walk with Jesus in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, the Spirit accommodates to our weakness.  To be a disciple, an apprentice, means we keep learning the ways of Jesus under the tutelage of God’s Spirit who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

John 14:27-29 – Peace

79240-christian2bcontemplation

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe. (NRSV)

Peace. Personal peace. Family peace. National peace. World peace. We all seem to want peace. And, yet, so many of us lack peace so that we must medicate to sleep at all. Avoiding family seems normal, just to keep the peace. National peace almost sounds oxymoronic. World peace is merely wishful thinking for far too many people. Perhaps we are in such a befuddled conundrum because of this reason:

We already possess what we so desperately want.

The search for peace is really the search within. The simplest of observations about Christ’s words in today’s Gospel lesson is that Jesus has left us his peace. He gave it to us. We have it. Perhaps we have misplaced it? Maybe its lost in that huge stack on the desk?  Most likely, we plain old forgot about it. We need to remember that God’s peace is here with us. Right now. This very minute. We have exactly what we want.

The peace Jesus is talking about is far more than the absence of war, conflict, and/or infighting. The peace of Christ is the settled and restful calm and confidence of being with God, of an intimate union with the divine. Jesus has given himself. He himself is our peace. Peace did not just happen by chance, or magically appear. Peace was bought at a price – the blood of Jesus (Colossians 1:20). The gift of peace needs to be unpacked (Ephesians 4:3).  Practices of peace and peacemaking must be acknowledged and grafted into our lives if we are going to experience it on the daily practical level (Romans 14:13-15:7).

Since Jesus gives in a different way than any other gift, it may have thrown us off. Like the delivery guy who leaves a package in an odd place, we could be searching for the ongoing gift of peace somewhere on our property. It’s there – it just seems so darned elusive. Yet, peace, the authentic peace that is harmony and unity, can neither be found in perfect circumstances nor in idyllic families and faith communities. Divine peace is the security of relationship with God, smack in the middle of life’s crud.

The reason Jesus can exhort his disciples to be untroubled and unafraid is because the life of God is within them. As that life grows within us; as our hearts are healed with that presence; as we receive peace from the gracious hand of God; then, we discover, often by happenstance, that perfect love has driven the fear away. Fear focuses on the hard situation in front of me, whereas love directs attention on Jesus. As the Father has loved the Son, so the Son loves us – and we have peace – without trying to miraculously conjure it with positive thoughts.

It is the glorious, gracious, and mystical union between Jesus and the believer which is peace. All obstacles have been surmounted and tossed into the trash for the garbage guy to haul away. And, no, you did not accidentally throw your peace in the dumpster. There really is no need for any dumpster diving with Jesus around. He has already done that work for you and me through the cross.

Yet, peace still seems a pipe dream for some, even with the understanding of the gift. Like a new product packed so tightly in the plastic, we struggle to open it. Maybe the following thoughts may help to unpack peace for us:

  • Stop and breathe. It is no coincidence that the Holy Spirit of God is likened as wind. Pausing to take deep breaths in through our nose, and full exhales through our mouth can become prayers. The ancient Christian practice of breath-prayers can help us here. Some examples: Inhale saying, “More of you,” and exhale saying, “Less of me.” Inhale, “Holy one,” exhale, “heal me.” Inhale, “Abba Father,” exhale, “let me feel your love.”
  • Listen to peaceful music and words of peace. If we continually are in a state of agitation, it could be that we are listening to talk radio or taking in a steady stream of TV and social media that is anything but peace forming. It leaves us perpetually upset about something. Turn it around through paying close attention to your music and your media intake.
  • Identify trigger words or phrases. That is, when you sense fear or the lack of peace arising, have a “go to” word or phrase that helps bring you back to the peace which is within. For me, it is quoting Psalm 23, Romans 6, John 14, or some other Scripture passage from memory. So, the trigger phrase is sometimes, “The Lord is my shepherd, I have everything I need, or “Trust God, trust also in me.”
  • Smell it. I keep candles around with pleasant odors and light them when feeling stressed. I also have found that, for me, burning sage helps to feel unburdened and, thus, peaceful.
  • I have observed that many of the behavioral health patients I work with have little to no peace in their lives due to either resentment toward others or the inability to forgive themselves. Forgiveness brings peace, even if the other party does not want it.

There are many more ways to unpack peace in our lives. Hopefully, these few suggestions are helpful for you. Finally, one of the best ways to experience peace is to be a peacemaker. I leave you with the Peace Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

John 15:18-25

            Jesus suffered as a man on this earth.  He was persecuted.  He was hated.  He was killed.  Although we readily recognize these facts as believers, somehow we still seem surprised when we follow Jesus that there are people who downright dislike us.  Jesus clearly said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”  Emotional, psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse can and does occur against God’s people who seek to walk in the ways of Jesus.  There was a time in the first few centuries of the church that becoming a martyr for one’s faith was welcomed as living into the imitation of Jesus Christ.  Even many modern day martyrs for Jesus around the globe have counted it a privilege to suffer as Jesus did.
 
            This all sounds quite strange to Westerners who tend toward the notion that if we do everything with excellence and effectiveness that there will be no reason to be persecuted or to suffer.  But the reality is that Jesus promised that in following him, there will be those who seethe with hatred toward us.  We are not above our Master.  If he suffered, we will, as well.
 
            Thomas a Kempis, writing over five-hundred years ago to clergy students, captured the essence of Jesus when he said:  “Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world.  And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention.  Such occasions are aids in keeping us humble and shield us from pride.  When people ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek his judgment.”
            Almighty God, thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, on my behalf.  Just as he suffered for me, I willingly suffer for him, since his infinite grace has delivered me from sin, death, and hell.  I only ask to be found faithful at the end of the age when he returns to judge the living and the dead.  Amen.