Loving God and Loving People
Only Christianity offers unconditional love, connection and a personal relationship
with God, together with the promise and assurance of eternal life. Only
Christianity offers connection with a world-wide community who are one, not
through compliance with religious obligation, ethnicity, or class, but solely as a
result of a miracle of new birth into God's family.
As Christians, we are called and privileged to live connected. Connected with
God. Loving God. Connected with people. Loving people. 1 Corinthians 12
describes the Christian community as the "Body of Christ", individually and
corporately connected to one another.
How different this is to the world around us. On one level, we live in the most
connected generation in human history. The world is at our finger tips, and we
love it, we know what is going on, information comes unfiltered (that can bring
both positives and negatives), and we can find new friends everywhere, within
seconds. We can connect to hundreds, or thousands, of people, but at a very
superficial level: we hear about their coffee habits ("check out the photo"), their
sleep patterns, their stream of consciousness, the names of their cats, dogs and
goldfish (other photos), lots of quirky things. I like being connected; I often Skype
my elder son in New Zealand. And the facilities that enable these connections are
getting better all the time.
But there also seems to be a parallel universe, one that is disconnected. Many
people live alienated, out of touch, lacking purpose and drive, out of relationship
with God, family, friends and self, with no one turn to. The depictions of God and
Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, painted by Michelangelo
in 1512, is an apt depiction of this disconnect. Adam is shown stretching forth his
hand in God's direction; this is the same Adam who was made for friendship with
God, an intimate relationship, cut off by disobedience. We see the hand of God
reaching towards Adam, and hear His calling "Adam, where are you?" For 500
years the painting of Adam has, so to speak, been trying to re-connect and
establish a real relationship with God and with the world around him. The human
story is fundamentally about men and women trying to re-establish connections.
But without touching God we will never get there.
Connected: I like the theme of relationship. In some ways (I confess) this is
because I am a bit of a relationship "junkie". I like being with people. Medically,
I have B+ blood, which is rare, but I like the message, "Be positive". I feel
somewhat uncomfortable when I am not connected with those around me. When
my BlackBerry shows "Searching for network", I feel cut off. I do not like black
spots. When I have been out of touch and suddenly hear a reassuring "blip" on my
phone, I feel that I am "back again". When I travel and am obliged by airline
regulations to put my device into "flight mode" and turn it off for take-off I can
hardly wait to land (that is, as soon as the first wheel touches the tarmac) and reconnect.
I like global roaming; it means that I am rarely out of touch with those I
love. Yet, as a Christian, I know that I am never alone.
I am reminded of the entrepreneur Donald Trump, whose former wife organised a
birthday party and invited 5000 of his "closest friends". Imagine the scene.
People queuing to connect with society's "beautiful people". The same ethos
permeates television advertisements: visions of happiness, young people of the
right size and shape run through fields of yellow flowers, listen to inspiring music,
stroll with one another on beaches of white sand, dance and sing as the sun goes
down on a perfect day where nothing has gone wrong, against a palm tree
silhouette, in perfect weather, perfect temperature, surrounded by fawning
admirers because they have the right connections. Truth be told, there is a
yawning gap between such fantasy and real reality. There comes a point where
the fantasy is shown up to be just that, a flight of the imagination designed to take
people away from the quotidian, if only for a few seconds. It is easy to "like" a
Facebook post, but this can be changed to "unlike" at the whim of the reader. It
is easy to "friend" and "unfriend"; these are not sustainable or relationships.
Not everyone finds connection easy: "I said, 'Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest. I would flee far away and stay in the desert. I
would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.' " (Psalm
55:6-8). These words were spoken by David, about to flee his palace during the
insurrection led by his son Absalom, but they echo the way many people feel. Get
me out of here, back to my private house, using my private means of transport
(one person per car), to my private garden (out the back, away from the gaze of
the neighbours), to my private laundry where I don't mix my things with those of
others, to self-service stores (including on-line) if I need something, the automated
check-out line at the local supermarket where no one asks "How's your day been?"
I have a friend who sports a saucer-size badge that says, "Don't tell me what kind
of day to have". Let me go home to my private room, where I can shut the door
on the outside world, turn on the television and don my noise-reduction
headphones. We seek more privacy and personal fulfilment than ever, yet feel
more alienated when think we have it. This is not a new phenomenon. Some early
Christians decided that the best way to get close to God was to be alone; St
Antony (251-356) went out into the Egyptian desert to be alone with God;
however, his followers never left him alone as they surrounded him watching him
being by himself with God. Troglodyte monks in Qadisha Valley in Lebanon have
lived in caves for generations. I have seen them (the current ones, at any rate).
Tourists come to observe their solitude; their quiet spaces become quite crowded.
If you are going to grow as a Christian, you will need connection, with God and
with the people of God, from both ends of the spectrum.
(i) Connected to God: We pursue relationship God because he pursued
relationship with us. "In a desert land he found (Jacob), in a barren and howling
waste. He shielded him and cared for him; he guarded him as the apple of his
eye" (Deuteronomy 32:10). Philippians 2:5-11 tells us graphically how Jesus came
into our world, as one of us, to re-connect us with God. "We love because he first
loved us." (1 John 4:19) "I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn
you with unfailing kindness" (Jeremiah 31:3). Nothing can separate us from His
love (Romans 8:38, 39). You and I were made in God's image, separated by sin but
never out of His thoughts; he has drawn us back. Being Christians opens us up to
new dimensions of relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (The Trinity is
the epitome of loving relationship.)
There is no greater relationship than fellowship with God and with one another.
"He sets the solitary in families" (Psalm 68:6). He appoints places for us to live
(Acts 17). People are selfish, but Jesus Christ calls us out of our selfish orbit into
personal relationship. In fact, the more we connect with Him the more effectively
we will connect with one another, loving God and loving people. Make sure you
have a daily connection with God, through regular Bible reading and meditation,
prayer, practicing the presence of God, actively listening to His voice and obeying
Him. If you need help doing this, ask the Holy Spirit; ask a Christian friend as well.
(ii) Connected to the Christian family: I really like events in church life that
celebrate the multicultural and inclusive nature of the Christian community. Our
relationships as Christians are not institutional, denominational, or structural, but
supernatural; they are miracles from God the Father, more real, more durable
than any other relationship. They do not depend on our temperament, mood,
status, or story, but because we belong to the same family.
Consider the first disciples; Jesus called them from all walks of life: Matthew and
Simon the Zealot are good examples. Matthew was a tax collector, who served the
Roman state; his profession was despised by the people because tax collectors
were seen as toadies of the oppressors, who exploited others and enriched
themselves at the expense of their Jewish brothers and sisters. Zealots (of whom
Simon was one) were self-appointed assassins who worked as self-righteous urban
religious terrorists targeting those who betrayed the Jewish nation. They
especially hated tax collectors. So, Jesus calls Matthew and Simon and says, "Live
together, love one another as I have loved you; let the world see God's love
through your mutual relationship". Jesus turned all the conventions and
prejudices upside down.
If you look at the New Testament carefully you will see the term "one another"
come up all the time: love one another; put up with one another; forgive one
another (we need that a lot); wash one another's feet (or a contemporary
expression of humble service); serve one another; honour one another; receive one
another; warn one another; bear one another's burdens; comfort one another;
edify, or build up, one another; exhort, or encourage, one another (we all need
encouragement; someone to pick us up and support us). You will find things about
others that irk you, or challenge. "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens
another." (Proverbs 27:17).
I have come to the conclusion that we will never grow as Christians outside of
connection. On a recent camping trip I watched a fire we had built to cook our
evening meal and keep us warm. The hottest part of the fire was where the
embers mixed; those embers that fell out died quickly; we need to remain in close
contact with one another if the fire in us is to keep burning strongly.
How can we love God whom we have not seen if do not love those we have seen?
The Bible is uncompromising on this point. I have been in some very different
types of churches and come to the crystal clear conviction that it is not our form,
tradition, or name (which we often become attached to; sometimes defensively)
that matter, but our personal relationship with Jesus Christ and His family.
The only way to grow and remain authentic as a Christian is in relationship. That
can be hard work, test our resolve, stretch our patience; but there is no
substitute. Sunday worship is important, and real, but it is not a substitute.
Friends with Christians on Facebook can be generous, send nice messages, "Like"
us and our posts, but our devices are not a substitute. Jesus did not post a
message, but came in person; "We saw Him...." (1 John 1:1-4). For many people
the only manifestation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit they will ever see is you.
Not because you are a Christian Super Hero or model (although we should all seek
to mentor those who are younger or less experienced in their Christian lives) but
because God chose to reveal Himself to the world through you and me and called
us to relate to others in the same way. Ask yourself, "What is the life of Christ in
this person?" Think about that. It can be transformative.
It is not about you: There is a great spiritual truth here: Christian growth,
spiritual fulfilment, correction and fruit only come about through relationship.
Your belief, faith, gifts, relationship with God and experience are not just about
you, but God's life and power both in you and through you for whole body of
Christ. When you visit the sick, show hospitality and meet with one another, you
are expressing your relationship with Christ to those around you. God has placed
you in your relationships. Make them purposeful. Listen to the Holy Spirit, ask
Him to make you blessing in their lives. Not in some mystical, New Age, hyperspiritual
way, but as a practical expression of Christian life. You never know whom
you are going to impact. I recently reflected on the Gideons who visited my high
school and gave me a New Testament; I read it for years, even while walking to
and from school; I kept it in my top pocket. Several years later a young man came
to see me; he told me that I had led him to Christ at an open air meeting in
Queanbeyan, he was now in Bible College and involved in Christian ministry. You
never know how your life is going to help another. Look out for one another,
spend time together, be available to one another, and pray for one another.
Pursuing God, growth through Connection: Connecting is a dynamic part of our
DNA as Christians. You can only pursue effective relationship if you are connected
to the source. Most of society has the wrong focus: self-centredness. "ME" has
become the default setting. If you try to live differently, in your own strength, to
satisfy your preferences and priorities, you will fall on your face; you will default
to the old ways. You need to plug into the power source. The only way get out of
your comfort zone is to have the strength and fortitude to connect with those
around you in a transformative way as Christians in an unbelieving society.
Connect with Him first; otherwise the entire network will be dysfunctional. Jesus
said that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). Good intentions and
resolutions will never be enough; they just make an "idol" out of our abilities.
God loves you He has the highest purpose for your life. He will give you direction
and capacity as only He can.
Who, or what, are you connected to? Who, or what, is your source of power and
meaning? Whom do you rely on for your purpose and direction?? Who, or what,
has your attention and is driving you? You are called to connect with God and with
people. Don't switch off, don't power down, log-off, or go into sleep mode. Allow
the Holy Spirit to turn you back on, empower you and lead you to the next level.
The Way Home: Finally, maybe you don't feel in relationship at all. TIME
magazine recently featured the story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born Australian
businessman who was separated from his mother and found her after a separation
of 25 years. His story generated international media attention. Saroo has written
a book about his experiences, A Long Way Home, and it is being made into a
movie. Here is the background. One day, as a small boy in India, Saroo
accompanied his brother to a train station where he remained on the platform
while his brother went in search of food. After dozing off for a few minutes, he
woke up to see a train at the station. He boarded the nearest carriage, thinking
that his brother was on the train; and disembarked 1,500 kilometres away in
Kolkata (then Calcutta), where he became a ward of the state in an orphanage.
He was eventually adopted by an Australian family and grew up in Tasmania, but
he never forgot his birth family. For years he tried all possible means to reconnect,
using the Internet, looking at images that might give him a clue as to
here he came from. After a quarter of a century, he finally found the way home
and re-discovered his mother and brother. Maybe you have been searching for the
way home. God made you to know him, but you feel a long way off, without a
clue as to how to get back. Jesus came into the world to bring you back to God,
back to relationship with the One who created you and loves you. He will show
you the way home.