Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Failure Builds Compassion

Mark 14:71-72 (NRSV): Failure Builds Compassion
71 But [Peter] began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this [Jesus] you are talking about.” 72 At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
There are many moments in my life that are celebrations: The birth of my children, the marriage and friendship I share with my wife, the gift of spiritual conversion, my career as a teacher, and many other blessings God has been so gracious to give. But what about the times in my life of which I am not proud, the times when I have sinned and miserably failed? In relation to these failures, I often play a mental game. The scenario goes like this: I remember a time when I made a poor life choice, a choice that was not only sinful, but life altering. This poor choice, moreover, set a certain trajectory in my life. The game usually culminates in a self-posed question: If I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now, would I change the way I did that? I am certain that every one of us has thought about changing our past choices with the wisdom we gained later in life. If we look at our mistakes, however, with a set of spiritual eyes, we see that God is with us during those moments of failure, picking us up and giving us the strength to move to a better place with Him.
Through the gift of free will, God permits our failures. And it is through the proper use of our failures -- repentance, contrition, and seeking forgiveness --  that we strengthen our character and become the person God has created us to be. Peter, for instance, denies Jesus three times, even after Peter expressly says earlier that he will die with Jesus rather than deny him:
30 Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But [Peter] said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same. (Mark 14:30-31)
Peter, the earliest leader of the Christian church and chief among the disciples, miserably fails. I am always taken aback by this. If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest followers and friends can commit such a serious sin against the Lord and be forgiven (see John 21:15-19), then there is hope for me. In a sermon on this passage, John Chrysostom states the following:
The reason God's plan permitted Peter to sin was because he was to be entrusted with the whole people of God, and sinlessness added to his severity might have made him unforgiving toward his brothers and sisters. He fell into sin so that remembering his own fault and the Lord's forgiveness, he also might forgive others out of love for them. (On Saints Peter and Elijah: PG 50; 727-728)
Our failures -- when reflected on with humility, contrition, and repentance -- are grafted into God’s plan for us. Through the power of His love and our cooperation, God can take our worst mistakes and make them important pillars of our character. But we have to be willing to break down and weep as Peter does in Mark 14:72. Peter’s weeping eventually brings him to the beach of Galilee, the charcoal fire, and the three-time declaration of his love for Jesus (John 21:15-19). Through grace, Peter’s failures build in him a stronger foundation of character, leadership, and mercy toward others. And through our failures, God does the same in us.
It is tempting for me to play the game, to fantasize about ”doing it over.” But when I see God’s hand in my life, picking up the pieces of my failures and building me into something I could never achieve on my own, I am amazed. At the tender age of fourteen, for instance, I was a lost cause in school -- disinterested, unmotivated, ill-prepared, and poorly-influenced. And during my freshman year, I even considered dropping out. It took a team of caring teachers, administrators, and counselors to intercede and show me that learning was achievable and fulfilling. I am glad God gave me the eyes to see this then and to be sensitive to it now as a father and teacher. It is God’s love working through those failures that has given me the foundation of who I am as a hopeful-but-flawed husband, father, teacher, and neighbor. God uses our failures as the critical building-blocks of our character.
How do you see Peter’s denial of Christ, and later reconciliation, working in and through your life? Are there moments, choices, or chapters of your life that you, too, wish you could change? Offer them up to God. Through His love He turns everything into a gift and moment of grace.
I pray, Lord, that we all see our life experiences, both good and bad, as gifts that, through Your grace, become the necessary pillars to who we are in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Have a blessed week!

Stan

Monday, May 22, 2017

Love in Action

John 14:19-21 (NRSV): Love in Action
In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.
Last Tuesday, our high school hosted the Greyhound Choice Awards. For those who don’t know, this night gives teachers, staff, and administrators an opportunity to recognize loving qualities and characteristics in students who more often go unrecognized. And as I sat in that audience, I was moved by the presence of love and devotion among my colleagues. I was inspirited by the glowing faces of the students as they received their acknowledgements and awards. I was heartened, most importantly, because I knew Christ was present in every sincere face, thought, gesture, and word on that stage and in that room. The place trembled with God’s love.
In this passage from John chapter 14, Jesus reminds the disciples of His everlasting presence in them if they continue to follow His commandment to love. In John 13:34-35, the great commandment Jesus gives to his disciples is to love (the original Greek is agapao) each other without limit. It is through that highest form of active love, then, that Jesus reveals himself (21). As Jesus’ disciples today, we, too, are all called to give pieces of ourselves away to others: We are called to agapao others. And when we do this, we make Jesus visible in the world.
I witnessed this love, the visible presence of God, Tuesday night on stage and in that room. People got up and gave a piece of their hearts away to each child they honored. Their active love was made tangible in the fondness of their faces, the sincerity of their voices, and the tranquility of their tears. And the students, in turn, reciprocated that love through their joy and thanksgiving.
St. Teresa of Calcutta, a disciple who constantly gave herself away to the poor, said, "If you do your work with joy, you can bring many souls to God. Joy is prayer, a sign of our generosity, evident in our eyes, our faces, our actions." Our joy, our prayer, our generosity, and our actions are God’s gifts to us. Let us joyfully share our gifts through active love -- offer a smile to a stranger, say hello to someone new, write a letter to a distant friend, tell someone close “I love you,” perform a random act of kindness for someone, pray for a person who needs prayer.
I pray that by the power of the Holy Spirit, we all live in the loving light of Jesus Christ and look for the moments in our day when we, too, can offer small acts of self-giving love.
Have a blessed week.

Stan

Monday, May 15, 2017

Proclaiming Mighty Acts of Love

1 Peter 2:9 (NRSV): Proclaiming Mighty Acts of Love
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Peter’s letter is universal, so its message applies to all Christian communities spread throughout the first-century world. The letter, then, even applies to us today. Peter calls us to be “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” and this can be intimidating. After defining our status as “chosen,” Peter further directs our actions: We are to live out this “royal priesthood” by “[proclaiming] the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This can be a daunting task for the “average Joe” like me, but God lovingly gives us His grace to accomplish it.
God gives us the free gift of His grace. And it is by this free, unmerited gift that we are able to express devotion and love toward God and charity and mercy toward others. Our Christian task, according to several places throughout Scripture, is to take God’s grace and apply it in our lives through acts of love. Jesus calls us to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). Naturally, then, the things from which God’s grace flows should stem from our love for God and neighbor. What are these means of grace, then?
John Wesley, an eighteenth-century theologian and minister, once wrote a sermon about the means of grace. In that sermon he both defines and separates them into two categories: works of piety and works of mercy. According to this theological concept, the means of grace are ways God works in and through us. Wesley states that works of piety can be expressed through prayer, Sunday worship, studying Scripture, and partaking in the sacraments. Works of mercy, on the other hand, can be applied by visiting the sick and imprisoned, serving the needs of the poor, seeking justice, and ending oppression. This list is in no way limited, and most Christian traditions agree that both works of mercy and piety are ways we connect with and express our love toward God and others.
Peter says that we are to “proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Those acts come through God’s free gift of grace and our faith in Jesus Christ; there is nothing we can do to create them. In this, we (even a hesitant sinner like me) are equipped to to love others with the heart of Christ. Through our faith and baptism, the Holy Spirit lives in us and wants to “proclaim mighty acts” of love through us. Let us reach out together -- now, today, this week -- channeling the love of God to the next person we meet.
May God’s peace, blessing, love, and grace permeate our being in all we do. In Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.  
Have a blessed week!
Stan


P.S.
For an excellent three-minute video on the means of grace, which helped inspire this devotion, please click following link: https://goo.gl/8Qx5NY.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Faith’s Reassurance

Psalm 23: 3-4 (NRSV): Faith’s Reassurance
3 [The Lord] leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for [the Lord is] with me;
There are times when I don’t know the path or will of God in my life. And it is during these times that I am presented with two options: I can either despair and stress out about it, or I can pray putting my faith and trust in Christ.
This Davidic psalm captures the essence of every spiritual struggle I have ever had, and believe me the struggles don’t go away. But knowing that God has given me these words to recall -- “[The Lord] leads me in right paths / for his name’s sake” (3) -- I find comfort and assurance in God’s plan. Even in the darkest valley of life, David writes, God is present, protects, and provides. Evil rears its ugly head in our struggles, and that can feel threatening. We must have faith, however, and “fear no evil” (4) because God is with each of us.
St. Paul writes that when we love God, everything we experience works for our good -- even our uncertainties, struggles, and failures. God’s purpose, Paul implies, is something we often cannot see in real time (Romans 8:28). Through God’s grace, our faith, and our baptism, we belong to Jesus Christ. And in that belonging, God leads us “in right paths” (3), even when the world and our folly threaten and blind us.
I pray that the Holy Spirit give us true faith and trust in the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. And in that gift of faith and trust, I pray that we reach out to others in authentic love, knowing that there is nothing to fret or fear because God is with us and leads the way. May the Spirit of Christ rest in our hearts.
Have a blessed week.
Stan

Monday, May 1, 2017

God's Extraordinary Love

John 21:15, 19b (NLT): God's Extraordinary Love
15 After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these [other disciples do]?”
“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”
“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.
19 . . . . Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”
Throughout the gospels, Peter, leader among the disciples, makes repetitive mistakes. He even denies Jesus three times during the Passion. But God is all loving and forgiving. In the Scripture above, we notice how Jesus lives out this love by prompting Peter to reconcile -- not once, but three times: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Jesus knows our humanity. Not only did he create us, but he is one of us -- all God and all man. None of us is beyond forgiveness. Whenever I need a reminder of this, I recall Peter’s personality and actions. He was often confused, thick-headed, stubborn, and quick to judge -- everything I am (just ask Dana). But Jesus picked him to lead the early church. There is always hope, friends.
Through the discouraging haze of our mistakes, it is easy to lose focus and forget the extraordinary love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus reminds us, however, as he does Peter, that we are to turn away from our mistaken path and turn toward him. And in our facing Jesus, we are met with love, forgiveness, and and a call to follow him.
I pray that each of us answer as Peter does -- “Yes, Lord, ...you know I love you” (21:15). May we answer the call to follow Christ in our daily mission to serve and give ourselves away to others. Amen.
Have a blessed week.
Stan