God’s Presence is in Relationships

Two years ago, I was involved with a congregation in the Tucson, AZ area.
There was a particular couple that welcomed me each week, both in their early 90’s, who had been married for 65 years, and were faithful and active members in the church. One weekend we received notice that the wife had suffered a stroke so I went to visit her. Her humble and devoted husband was sitting at her side, optimistic of her recovery. But while her mind had maintained, her body began to suffer as other health problems complicated her physical improvement. And the original plans to spend a couple of weeks in physical therapy before going home changed dramatically. Days turned into weeks and she returned to the hospital where she was forced tohave a leg amputated. I watched a woman go from a vibrant example of life into a depressed existence. All the while, her husband sat at her sideproviding anything she needed and actively denying the reality of his wife’s situation. “Once she heals,she can come home in a wheel chair,” he said, without considering that their house was not wheelchair accessible, the doors were not wide enough, and the bedroom was onthe second floor, reachable only by stairs.

Weeks turned into months as the woman bounced back and forth between the hospital and the nursing/rehab facility. Then one day when her faithful husband stepped out of the room for coffee, she confided in me with teary eyes, “Pastor Randy, I’m never going to return to my home on earth. I want God to take me to my eternal home, but I worry about my husband. He has been such a wonderful provider and friend.” I quickly realized how lost he would be without his ‘Angel’ (as he referred to her), which explained his denial of her impending death. She asked if I would have a conversation with him, to which I promised that I would meet with him the following day.

The next morning, I received a call from the husband stating that his wife hadgone into a coma and was unresponsive. I met with him in the rehab cafeteria and brought up the uncomfortable but very real situation. “Will you be OK when she dies?” And for the first time, he met mortality face-to-face along with the immediate changes would come in his life, and his fragile strength crumbled. After a few minutes of silence and weeping, an exhausted husband quietly confessed, “Pastor, if it is time for her to meet our Maker, then he can take my angel.” I asked if he would go into the room and tell her. And so we went in, each of us on opposite sides of the bed. He kissed her, told her how much he loved her, and then proceeded to tell her that he would be ok if she let go of this life. Weeping as he struggled with those difficult words, and struggling to maintain my own composure, I recognized a tear run down one of HER cheeks. She was at peace and passed away 20 minutes later.

Why do I share that story for today’s text? Jesus tells the Pharisees that the most important commandment is to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our minds. It is a love of esteem, trust, and respect rather than one of affection. And it is easy to talk about our love for God and our faith when life is going good. But the real test of faith comes when we are in our deepest valleys…when we lose someone close to us, when the marriage has fallen apart, when we have lost a job or a home, when our dreams have been shattered, when we hear the doctor say, “I have bad news”, when bad things happen to both good and bad people alike, and we curse the unfairness of it all. When just this one time, if God would provide a miracle, I will promise to turn my life around. When we no longer trust God because we haven’t received the answers we want.

How do we understand God in our faith life? Typically we communicate a oneway ‘911’ call to God in times of trouble or to offer a prayer of thanks after receiving something we needed or wanted. But is that a way to have a relationship? Imagine if your relationships with the most loved people in your life were conducted in the same way as your relationship with God? A trustworthy relationship requires NURTURING through prayer, Bible study, helping others, and most of all, listening to God in discernment as much as talking TO God. It requires commitment from both sides, just like this husband and his wife.

Jesus also said that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Again, we are not talking about an affectionate type of love like we had between the husband and wife but rather that we would wish our neighbor the same kind of good that we wish for ourselves. And in this text where Jesus is talking to the Pharisees (the leaders of the church), he is not limiting our neighbors to people we like. No, we are to pray for blessings for those neighbors that we don’t really like too…such as annoying youth that play their music too loud, the nosey gossiping neighbor, the neighbors of other cultures and faiths, the spiteful neighbor that just seems to enjoy getting under your skin, and even those neighbors that feel like enemies!

God’s love for us is so deep, so indescribable, that he became a human in the man Jesus and died for us, providing forgiveness of our sins, NOT because we deserved it, NOT because we earned it, but while we were YET SINNERS. How many people would you literally DIE for? Can you imagine the depth of love to die for people that curse you, like Jesus?

We are called to love God and one another. It’s not about pointing out the flaws of one another, because if we are honest we know that we too have flaws. And if we expect others to overlook our imperfections, to forgive our sinfulness, then we too must humble our desire for retribution while opening our arms in love and forgiveness.

In that moment at the rehab center, when there was complete loss of human control, the last thing from the husband’s mind was the couple’s last argument. In absolute submission, in humble acknowledgment that there was nothing left he could do, he relied completely on the promise of Jesus Christ. Prayers of healing were answered that day, not temporarily on this earth, but permanently in the glorious presence of God.

Unfortunately, we don’t always recognize it until it’s too late, that life is too short for petty arguments, resentment towards those who have hurt us, and getting stuck in mistakes of our pasts. Jesus wipes the slate clean, removes our burdens, and provides the freedom of a new beginning. He is the source of life and love, something that only happens in relationships. Now is a good time to release our burdens and egos to Christ, entrusting God’s guidance over our own, holding out a hand for a handshake, opening our arms for a hug, and recognizing the love of Jesus in the face of our neighbors. Please join me in prayer…