Looking Forward to the Blessing

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Book of Revelation)

A sad thing about getting old is that slowly but surely one loses all his friends. We are “left behind” by those that opt for an “early departure” and simply leave this world for a better life with the Lord and his angels. Like the verse says, the ones that die in the Lord are blessed and look forward to an eternity of fulfillment and happiness. The ones that stay simply continue with their “labors”. The ones that stay experience a loneliness and isolation that creeps to the point that many simply decide to join a retirement community, assisted living facility, or in the worst of cases, simply take their own lives.

Man was not made to live alone. He was made to live and function in community, preferably surrounded by friends, loved ones, and family. In today’s culture the family ties are not strong. The result is that old parents are usually left alone by themselves or simply moved to a facility for seniors where somebody else is paid to provide the basic services. As we age, the ranks of the company that grew with us simply thins down to a trickle and eventually we are left with only memories, looking at old photo albums and remembering the good old times.

I have lost so many friends that I wonder why it is taking me so long to go. More than half of my high school class are gone. Friends that shared my life in the various places where I lived have departed. Nobody replaces them. It takes a life to make good friends. One just can’t buy them in the nearest Walmart. They are “irreplaceable assets”. Even many that graduated with me from the university are long gone. They are now resting from their labor.

I was talking with one of my remaining friends this morning. Thanks to FaceTime we are able to look at each other via computer. We agreed on many things especially the fact that the most important thing that really keeps us going is our faith. Knowing that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that there is a blessing in waiting for us, a place of rest from the turbulence and loneliness of this life is the best antidote for depression that man could ever invent.

One of my remaining friends is approaching the end of his journey at this time. It is something that repeats itself again and again, more so as we get older. Another departure. Another celebration of life for the ones that go and a reminder of more loneliness to come for the ones that stay behind. I have spoken with him several times remembering the times we shared, without too much emphasis on the fact that he is about to go. He told me he is ready. He knows that he will be in a better place. I am not ready to lose another friend. I am still dealing with the feeling that is already dawning on me. His deeds will follow him. He will be just fine. I will miss him till that day when we will join the family of the redeemed.

Some may say that there is nothing after we depart this life. That would be very sad. If that is so, then there is no consolation, no hope, nothing to look up to, only a desert to traverse without even the hope of an oasis. I prefer to believe in what HE said. It helps me to live what remains of my journey. It gives me something to look forward to. I may run out of friends but I will still have a FRIEND that is waiting for me at the other side. When my time comes I will also rest from my labors. Hopefully my good deeds, albeit scant, will follow me. Thankfully, HIS deed is sufficient. Because of what HE did for me, I am complete, ready to go, luggage ready, just waiting for the signal to fly away and receive the promised blessing.

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A Contrite Heart (re-print)

For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57)

How can God be like he is? The only logical answer I can find is that only God can be like God is. When I started walking in the ways of the Lord I was in awe at the holiness required to be a Christian. All I could hear was the need to be holy, to act holy, to speak holy, to think holy and never fail to walk in the ways of holiness. I was so overwhelmed by these thoughts that nothing I could do would give me peace. How could such a “clean” God accept such a lowly sinner as I was?

One true thing about me is that I have never thought of me as a model of good behavior for others to follow. I have always known my limitations. Maybe that’s why I don’t feel any respect for many hypocrites that claim to  “float” over this world without soiling their shoes with the ground we all walk on. I know very well the materials of which I am made. Not very good. The clay at “Punta Brava” where I was born and raised was not good even for normal pottery. Therefore it was kind of scary to consider that one day I would have to appear in His presence to receive judgement from His hands. I was not the meanest of the bunch. My problem was that I was intelligent enough to know the difference between good and bad, and my actions and thoughts were always leaning toward the mean side. If I didn’t know, it wouldn’t have been so bad. But I knew…

So here I am, looking forward to facing a God that lives in a high and holy place and whose name is holy. Can there be hope for me? Would I be allowed in his holy place with my soiled shoes and dubious ways? Honesty is a good thing. Not lying to ourselves keeps us sane and mentally healthy. It allows us to live with respect for ourselves and for others, not allowing us to think higher of us than what is fair and true. The problem is that to fair well in the after life we may need a lot more that just being honest in this life. Honesty does not clean our acts enough to give us the boost we need to reach heaven and get a solid foothold there. It is a wonderful attribute but not enough.

But then I found out that God can live in two places at the same time: a clean and shiny one, and a not so clean one in need of a lot of brooming, cleaning, mopping, disinfecting and shining. That is what the verse above says. He is holy but is not afraid to lose his holiness by living inside a human being that , although honest, needs a total make up, overhaul, revamping, and even making anew. All he requires is a contrite heart, one that acknowledges its condition and confesses its needs with a lowly spirit.

Humbleness is the key. Not an easy thing for proud people to attain.

It hasn’t been easy to be humble. There are so many things that tend to make us proud. It is difficult to live without being “proud” of something, achievements, job, position, professional standing. It is such a delicate balance that unless we have our sights clearly aligned with Him we tend to fall by the wayside.

Humbleness is not considered “cool” in our days. Many times it is considered a sign of weakness. Nobody said it would be simple. Only that it is possible. We will never qualify to be like God, or even to be in his presence counting only on our own merit. We could be “honestly” lost forever. I know many honest people that unless something happens in their lives, may spend eternity in eternal separation from God. Humbleness, the conscious decision to confess our need for Him, the acceptance of our limitations and total inability to make it to heaven on our own, will pave the way for us. A broken and contrite heart will never be rejected by our loving God.

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Friendship

The dictionary defines the word “friendship” as a relationship of affection, sympathy and trust that is established between people that are not family related.  This definition introduces other terms which also need to be acknowledged and defined.  What is “Affection”?  What is “Sympathy”?  What is “Trust”?

The superficiality that characterizes our time has permeated our lives in such a way that a “friend” is someone who is requesting to be approved by the “click” of a mouse on a computer that is connected to “Facebook”, for example.  The result is that we could have a bunch of “friends”, whom we don’t know, whom which we have no affinity or sympathy with, and with whom we do not have a relationship of affection, and much less, one of trust.

It seems to me that the issue is not to know the definition of the term.  What is important and practical, I believe, is “being a friend”.  How does a person behave when feeling affection for the other?  How do we display sympathy towards a person who is not in our family circle?  How do we display trust towards someone whom we “don’t know”?  It seems to me that it is much easier to speak about friends and friendship than being one.

Someone once said that “a friend is someone who knows everything about you and esteems you anyways.”  Maybe this is not the definition that appears in the dictionaries, but without a doubt is one that is very practical.  Words tend to be empty when they are not backed by actions.  It does not serve well to speak a lot and do little.  Interpersonal relationships do not get nourished by vane words but by the actions which are conducive to the benefit of the other person.  True affection is not directed to better our position, but instead, to give ourselves freely to the benefit of the other person whom we call friend.  Trust is displayed, precisely, when we refuse to accept that which others think obvious, but goes in discredit or discriminates against of that someone whom we call friend.

Friend is someone whom you don’t have to wear a mask with.  Someone who knows you and knows everything about you, and accepts you the way you are without you having to change anything about yourself.  Is that whom does not insist in changing you in order to accept you into his “kingdom”.  Friend is that who remains by your side, defending you, when others attack you.  Friend is that which holds you in high esteem when others despise you, simply because the friendship ties do not depend on the circumstances to remain valid.  Friend is that who does not seek after “his own”, instead, in his list of priorities you go before him.

In my case, I prefer to have a few who know everything about me and esteem me anyway; even if they do not know the definition of the term.

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Rescue and Restoration

I waited patiently for the LORD; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40)

Most of us have seen sad times in our lives, even though our best intentions have been  to live according to our highest principles. Failures and sadness seem to be the patrimony of the human race. We are no exception.  I still remember the famous question when I was just a small kid: “What are you going to be when you grow up?” Did we ever answer we were planning to be losers, or failures? Nevertheless, we fail, and fail more than once, sometimes falling in the same pit again and again. I don’t know if that is a consequence of our “original sin” or simply the human condition, a nature that we wear like a dress and follow daily with our innermost thoughts and processes.

David, who was no stranger to failures, finally learned his lesson and was kind enough to leave the answer for posterity. We are the beneficiaries of his hard earned knowledge and experience. He was the chosen king of Israel but still another human being, just like us. After falling many times and having learned not to blame anybody else but himself, he wrote Psalm 40, a testament to God’s power and love to redeem, rescue, and restore those that have nowhere else to go but to Him.

While in the pit, David learned to wait patiently for the Lord. How many times do we ask God: “please give me patience”? That’s a dangerous petition. Patience 101 is taught only in the pit. Not funny. That’s where we learn to be patient. But we learn. God is a good teacher, no questions about that. Once we learn we become better persons with greater self control. We also learn not to expect anything from fellow human beings, Government programs and other sources that will finally take more than what they give. If we get something from them, that’s a bonus. We learn to depend completely in the Lord.

How many people cry out to God at the same time? Only God can receive so many signals interfering with each other from his kids here on Earth. How can he identify the source, the need, the place, etc? Well, He is God, isn’t he? He is a personal God. He knows His sheep by name. His sheep hear His voice. He is the God of the world and the masses but he is also a personal, a one-to-one God that takes special care, particularly of those whose heart has been offered to Him in love. “He turned to me and heard my cry.” What makes me so important that God takes time from whatever He is doing and turns to me to listen to my need? Nothing. It is all about His love that is bestowed on all His children. They are all important to Him. That’s the way He is. I know that when I cry to Him, He listens. Action is stopped at Heaven, angels stand by for orders form the Master, He listens, and issues His command: “Lift him up from the slimy pit! He fell again. He is weak and slow to learn. But he is my child, I love him, he loves me, and I AM there for him no matter what!”

He lifted me out of the slimy pit…” The slimy pit is a dangerous place to be. It is filled with quicksand. The more you move, the quicker you sink in it. It is impossible for us to save ourselves. We need external help, somebody to extend at least a rod that we may grasp. Our Savior uses His cross for that. He extends his cross over the slimy pit, over the quicksand, we grasp it and he pulls us to safety. After all, he’s been there. He knows about slimy pits. He is uniquely qualified to provide the assistance we need. A lot of people may listen and talk. Our Lord listens and acts! Things happen!

“He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” Nothing makes a fall easier than a shaky ground to stand on. In contrast to the unreliable nature of the institutions of this world (even banks are failing), God is a firm platform to stand on. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Firm on that platform we can then lounge to a future full of guaranteed results. Human advice and choices offer only a temporary fix. Only the Lord is eternal and his cure permanent. He is the secret to a stable life.

Finally, He puts a new song in our lips and hearts. Could we be happy while remembering the suffering and failures of the past? You know as well as I do that many people (including us) have a tough time forgetting past mistakes, failures and suffering. Many times, past mistakes are like anchors that prevent us from moving forward and spreading our wings like eagles. Suffering is addictive. It tends to stick to us. When God does the job, he does it completely. He replaces the whining with a new song. Sometimes we don’t even understand why we are so full of joy. It is OK not to understand it. After all, who cares? There are so many things we don’t understand in life. His new song actually erases bad memories and replaces them with a joy that flows from inside out and touches everyone with whom we come in contact. How can people that came from the slimy pit be so happy? Only He knows! Like the hymn says: “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day  long!”

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On Father's Day

A day of remembrance. Some thirty four years ago my father went to be with his Maker. I am now as old as he was the day he died. It is a strange feeling. In the eyes of many people that knew him, he was not the best example of what a father should be. But I loved him. Just like he was, I loved him.

In those days, I told myself that when I grew up I would not make the same mistakes he made. I promised myself that I would be a better dad. Today, I am “balancing the checkbook”. You know what? There’s not much difference. He made some mistakes, I have made others. It is very possible that my children’s evaluation of my “grades” as a father are just like the one I submitted for my own father. All in all, we are just human beings, just average human beings. I think that, on the average, the whole Earth has stayed the same since creation. The atmosphere has kept the original air for millenia. Nothing has escaped. Nothing has come in. People live and die and like Solomon said: “there’s nothing new under the Sun.” The laws of physics talk about the conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, conservation of matter. Essentially, all that means that, on the average, nothing changes. Even God is the same yesterday, today and forever. People appear to change but they really don’t. We may have more knowledge, understand things better, but deep down there we are the same.

Today, I remember my father. I would love to have him with me. I would listen more and talk less. I would strive to spend more time with him. If I could only turn the time machine back…

Was he the best father? Maybe not. But he was MY father, the one God gave me. During his life, I tried to honor him the best I could. Today, I think I could have done better, much better. In his own way I know he loved me and provided for the family. How do I rate when compared to him? I would like to think that I learned the lessons, that I became a much better father… but all in all, I am not sure. Sometimes the best we can do is not good enough. Children will always find fault with their fathers. But that’s the way life is.

One of these days I’ll see him again. I will say how sorry I am for having judged him so lightly. I don’t know what he will tell me. But we will talk, and spend time together, and who knows? We may even be the family we were not when he was walking this Earth.

Love you Dad!

Your son,

Me

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The "Underdogs"

So, whose side is God anyway? I suspect He is on the side of the underdog, the poor, the humble, and the needy. The Apostle Paul once said that he would rather be weak because the power of the Lord would then be his strength.

People, including religious ones, strive for power and authority. They usually disguise their want with pious words like “spiritual power” or something like that. In the final analysis they want to prevail, to be on top, to triumph, to stump on whoever is weaker. Of course, they claim that all they want to do is to have “victory of the devil”. Yeah right… It is difficult or impossible for the zebra to disguise its stripes. The Lord said that he would honor the meek and the humble. Who wants to be meek and humble today?

For a long time I have said that it is preferable to be on the receiving end of the blows of the “strong”. The reason is clear: the Lord is the defender of the fallen. His protection is afforded to the ones that suffer, not the the ones that create the suffering. He multiplies the strength of those that have none. He is the defender of the orphans and widows. He covers and protects the ones that are laying on the floor, being trumped by the “strong”.

I have learned that true strength is achieved by the old lady that prevails on her knees, praying to the Lord for “one day at a time”. Fear that “weak” woman, for her Lord and Savior, the King of kings, is her defender! She has a lot of clout in high places and ultimately, she will not be the one that will deliver the blow that will destroy the ones that think they are strong. It will be her Lord, and when He strikes nobody can remain standing.

So, it is better to be in the company of the ones that have surrender their strength for the sake of the Lord’s strength. I learned the lesson when I was a kid. At my young age I was not the strongest and usually, when the brawlers were stalking me to “teach me a lesson” I would rather change course on my way home. That, until I learned that I did not have to be strong as long as I could count on a stronger friend to be with me. And so it happened that I befriended a fellow student that was stronger than the bullies. He made it very clear: “If you hit him you will have to deal with me.” Time passed and I grew older but the lesson was well taken. The Lord is my good friend. He is stronger than the bullies. Nobody is more powerful. He is my defender. He walks with me wherever I go. I am not strong. He is strong. My strength resides in my constant dependence on Him that is the protector of the weak.

I suspect that sooner than later we will see the provisions of the Sermon on the Mount developing in front of our eyes. Don’t get me wrong. I am struggling with this because I still like being the victor, the strong, the one that hands out the blows, the one that prevails. It’s just human nature (a poor excuse, right?). This is the way many of us are. But I am learning. Little by little I am being conformed to His liking. Hopefully, I’ll be ready for primetime when the time comes!

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One Day At A Time

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)

“One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that’s all I’m asking from you. Just give me the strength to do everyday what I have to do.” Thus says the beautiful hymn that centers on what Jesus himself told the crowd that was listening to him during the Sermon on the Mount. So many people die before their time because they worry too much, mostly about things they cannot control, such as the future. The market for products to control anxiety has grown without bounds fueled by the insecurity of the people tied to the uncertainty of the times, the economy, and politics both national and international.

Last week I received a phone call from an individual trying to sell me a “cancer policy”. I told him that it was not in my plans to acquire cancer even though it seems to be happening to so many people. My rationale – should I worry or plan for something that is in the future that only God controls? Should we buy insurance for all eventualities? Or should we use our energies and resources to live in this world as abundantly as we can knowing that the Lord is taking good care of us? Should I worry about things that are beyond my control? I don’t think so.

I know, I know. As responsible individuals we should plan ahead for the unexpected. But again, can we identify the unexpected? If we could, it would cease to be unexpected, wouldn’t it? One thing is to plan for retirement, saving funds for later use to support us when we will no longer be able to work. Another thing is to worry and prepare for something that we cannot even identify. That is precisely God’s domain. He reigns and specializes in providing for all things that we cannot anticipate. We are not alone in this world. He sent us like sheep among wolves, but even sheep do certain things for themselves. When they can not, the Pastor comes to the rescue. He is the Good Shepherd. He is also our Shepherd.

Unbelievers usually spend their best years worrying about the future because they don’t believe that “tomorrow will worry about itself.” They can not trust a God in whom they have not believed. Jesus is not their shepherd because he is not their Lord. Many Christians behave like unbelievers when they live their lives in constant worry. They pay the price at the shrink’s office, the drugstore, and eventually mental hospitals.

I remember a time when I felt that circumstances had added up to swallow me alive. I saw no way to escape from the days ahead when I would have to face a nightmare of events that were not allowing me to even sleep. For days and weeks I was anticipating the moment when I would have to face certain disaster for my entire life. All my life, everything I had achieved, would certainly go “down the drain” mostly as a result of my own stupidity. There was no escape. And then, I remembered the Word of God, “…do not worry about tomorrow…” One day at a time, sweet Jesus, that’s all I’m asking from You, repeated my soul. That’s when I decided to think only about what was in front of me, always trusting God for a miracle that would cover and provide for the events that may or may not happen in the future. I was able to sleep again.

“My Judgment Day” came and went. It was not easy but God took control of the situation. My Shepherd was there with me. The lion could not devour me, its jaws where shut tight. My Lord was with me in the lion’s den. I will never forget what happened that day. Since then, I learned the lesson that has guided my life: I will live today always trusting tomorrow in the hands of the Lord that looks after me. “One day at a time, sweet Jesus…”

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