LOVING IS WHAT MATTERS
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Last week, I argued that darkness is an important part of life and that our faith takes darkness seriously. But it is one thing to realize we must endure the darkness and another to suggest that darkness is necessary to our faith. Darkness teaches us truths that I am not sure we can learn any other way.
Malachi was written during a period following the return from exile. Compared to the exile, life was better in Judah but as Malachi pointed out, the people, the priests and the nation had lost focus. Priests were offering blemished sacrifices, the temple was underfunded and Hebrew men were marrying outside of the faith. These were dangerous practices in any age but particularly as the people were trying to rebuild and recover their identity as a people. The promised messenger would call the people to righteousness, purifying them and return them to the faith “as in the days of old and as in former years.” Ironically this ‘back to the basics’ prophecy for the Hebrew nation has become a forward looking messianic prophecy for Christians. Whether looking backward or forward, it calls us to follow what truly feeds us.
Learning what is most important in life—and then staying focused, is no easy task. It requires letting go of what we think is important in order to leave room to learn what God says is eternal. Our letting go may be voluntary. We may choose surrender but just as often that letting go is forced upon us in the process of growing up, aging and finally dying. We all start out with things ‘we have to have’ and it is only by losing those things that we learn they are not as essential as we thought. Literally by a process of elimination, we start to learn what is eternal. The experience of loss is incremental and is often excruciating but when something that feels so important is stripped away, we are required to prioritize our lives. It is a refining fire.
There is a story about a woman made of salt (I cannot find the source, perhaps one of you know it) that has been a valuable part of my spiritual journey. The salt woman wanders the earth isolated and alone. She approaches the ocean and curious, puts her hand in the water. Suddenly she feels a unity, a connection and peace she has never known. She is joined to something far greater than she. She withdraws her hand to discover it is missing. There is a wonder and mystery in joining with something greater than ourselves. But there is also fear and terror when we realize we must lose the very body that defines us.
In FIRL I asked the groups how their concept of what was most important in life had changed over the years. The easiest was childhood’s ‘I want’ list for Christmas transforming to a ‘I want to give list’. Remember when getting a doll, a bike or a train was the most exciting thing about Christmas morning. But very few of us have the toys we longed for as children. They get broken and we outgrow them. Most of us have cried over the loss of a favorite toy and most of us learned that our lives moved on.
The same process continues well beyond childhood. None of the toys we long for as adults, cars, house, electronic marvels, prestige and even the accumulation of wealth, will last. What seems so important at the time has a surprisingly short shelf life. But at the time, these ‘things’ are the measure of worth and value. And until we lose them, we will likely continue to give them more importance than they deserve. As we age, we realize the transience of our possessions and ultimately everything we hold dear.
One of the bits of pastoral advice to couples I often offer is to make a memory. Things will wear out and go out of style, memories last a lifetime and can sustain you. Sometimes we don’t know that until we look back. One woman described the conversations she had with her brother as they shared their separate memories of their mother. They had no idea how important those memories would be as they lived them. Memories create connections to our past and to each other. When we learn the eternal value of connections, we can be more intentional about our loving.
Below is a sampling of some the other things group members found important over their lives:
One woman said that as a younger woman, she sought to do things properly and even viewed her efforts as godly. Now she says she pays more attention to whether or not she is paying attention. Her presence is more important than her performance.
A man commented that as a younger man, his focus was providing for his family. Now he realized that what was most important was the way he listened to his family.
A physician said he’d realized how important it was to gently touch and use the words “I care.”
My wife has pointedly told me that she does not necessarily seek my advice or opinion when she is unhappy (She told me I just need to grunt in the appropriate places).
Another spoke of the stretching she had to do in order to accept and enjoy her multi tattooed grandson.
In each of these cases, we started out misunderstanding what is most important. And in each case connection emerged as most important. Our most human desire for those we love when they are struggling is to do or to fix. We want to improve their situation, to make a plan, to fix the problem, to manage an outcome. But that is a very secular way to seek to love others—and in real life, it is not sustainable. Inevitably we learn our limitations by failing and each time we fail, we lose something of what we thought we should be. But each time we let go of what we think we should be, we leave room to be become who we are as God’s child.
As Christians, we believe what is most important, indeed what is eternal, is love. We are called to love one another deeply. We are called to love as Jesus loved. His love transcended human boundaries and the way he treasured us was to be present with us. He not only taught us what is eternal, he showed us how. The differences between us dissolve when we follow him.
In Philippians Paul writes that the work of God is koinonia, building a community in love. When we choose to belong to such a community, we can be connected to God and each other even if we are in prison (as was Paul) or even if we are in despair. When we are present to each other in the darkness, our presence is our faith claim that there is hope— and that is how we love. That is what God offered in Jesus. Paul prays that our love “may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best,….”
When we can gain knowledge and insight into what is important—often by living through a refining fire, we can orient our lives toward loving, toward being present, toward living in community. That is the light that shines in the darkness. That is the light that guides us. That is what it means to belong to Jesus. Our path may be serpentine. We can only see the immediate step in front of us but we can always be guided by love of Christ. The darkness teaches those lessons.
May we choose love. May we follow his light. Let it be so.
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