To the outside observer, it made no sense. The thirteen-year intimate friendship between Queen Victoria and her Indian servant, Abdul Karim, flew in the face of all social convention. It caused controversy so deep that all traces of the relationship, in England, were burned at her death. Yet “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) In Queen Victoria’s heart, this warm and spontaneous relationship made perfect sense.
The year was 1888. Great Britain was nearing the height of its empire. Victoria ruled more than eighteen countries. She managed a staff of three thousand at her five estates. Known as “the Grandmother of Europe” her descendants ruled eleven countries. She seemingly wanted for nothing. However, history shows there was something sorely lacking – in her heart. Victoria was profoundly lonely, bored and needed someone who would relate to her as a person rather than a Queen. She had grown up without a father. She was not allowed to associate with childhood peers. She endured six assassination attempts. Her husband died unexpectedly at age 42. Millions of her subjects resented her. She was quite isolated.
Enter Abdul Karim, aged 24, given as a gift to the Queen in honor of her Golden Jubilee. He dared to look her in the eye. He responded to her as a person who needed companionship and kindness. He saw her need for joy and thrilled her with tales and teachings of India. In return, she respected his heritage and treated him as equal to any white man. Ahead of her time, she defended him against the racism of her court and country. She honored him with the highest decorations of her country. All this because he met a need – her need for a confidante.
Still today as scientists have repeatedly shown, everybody needs a confidante. People who have at least one confidante recover more quickly from illness, may enjoy lower blood pressure, outlive loners and sleep better. One of Jesus’s first actions in His ministry was to choose a team of friends to walk His journey with Him and to be trained to continue His work. After the disciples’ failure to stay awake in Gethsemane, with the weight of the world on His shoulders, He pointedly asked His disciples, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:40) If Jesus did not “go it alone,” why should we?
We who have lived know all too well that the years we have are all about the ups and downs, twists and turns, good and bad, the pretty with the ugly. Sources of joy and coexisting sorrow are just part of the deal. Said another way. Life is a mixed bag, isn’t it, of great things along with all that is quite the opposite.
In the midst of what is occurring lately, I have found that for many people, including those for whom life is generally good at the moment, a lot of what is happening is creating some fear. Fear over where the world might be headed. Fear over shootings. Fear over massive natural disasters piling up on top of one another. Fear in response to lack of leadership at many levels and within all political persuasions.
Fear over the fact that our children are relating to devices, e.g. cell phones, seemingly more than they are to people. Fear over what our children and children’s children are going to have to live with. Maybe some of us feel not only some fear, but some hopelessness that there is not much we can do about any of these challenges.
Fear is normal, healthy, God given and human. Fear can help us and it is appropriate. That said, sustained fear, fear that goes on and on and on well past the events that triggered it, might, very well, be an invitation from God to go deep inside and explore where it is coming from. “What does this fear tell me about me. What does it tell me about where I am with God? What does it tell me about my faith?” And as an important aside, fear may helpfully prompt us to ask, “is this fear telling me also that I may need some help with it?”
What many have pointed out long before me is that God says, “Fear Not” more than any other command in the Bible. Obviously fear is a challenge for many of us since God has so much to say about it.
Max Lucado, the Christian writer says the following about fear. He said, “Feed your fears and your faith will starve. Feed your faith and your fears will starve.” In other words, the more we focus on trusting God, the less fear we feel. The more we focus on fear and not God, the more we will fear and the less trust in God we will have.
I know this is easier said than done. I get that sometimes things are overwhelming and it can be a challenge to work through fear and to trust God. I understand it takes practice. It took Paul who wrote the letter to the Philippians practice. In fact in the letter he said he had to learn how to be ok regardless of the circumstances he was in, through learning and practice.
And so I invite you to join me in practicing something. Practicing something that will have a direct impact on us as we ride the roller coaster of life with all of its amazing and joyful ups and despairing, freaks me out downs.
I invite us every in the days ahead, to simply say something to God like, “God in the midst of joy. In the midst of sorrow. In the the midst of goodness and pain. With all that is happening. Above all else, help me trust you. Please give me the gift of trusting you. I can’t get trust in you on my own, I know it comes from you. Help me trust you. Life is a roller coaster and sometimes the good and the bad happen at the same time. Yet help me trust you and help me not be afraid. Help me feed faith and not my fears.”
Paul, who repeatedly was in prison in dismal conditions, practiced and learned such a way of being by doing it over and over and over again. And it led him to trust and to know, believe and act upon the truth, that “We can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.”
Way back in the 1960’s, I was a citizen of El Paso, Texas. A citizen of Mesita Elementary School. A citizen of far west Texas and southern New Mexico. A citizen of the United States. I was a citizen of all of those places and my citizenship shaped, influenced, and affected everything about me from the inside out. I was who I was and I did what I did all in response to my citizenship.
That said, how each of us defines our primary citizenship impacts how we go through the joyous, horrible, and boring times of life.
To help us drill down on what I am talking about, let us look at the life of Paul. As we learn in scripture, Paul spent a number of years in prison in various places. And yet, in the midst of this terrible time and others like it, these are just a few things Paul wrote from prison.
“I pray with joy. I am confident. I press on and I do not give up. Rejoice. Rejoice always. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” Paul wrote at least four letters from a prison cell we know of and in each of them he says things one would not expect to hear in a letter written from such a place.
So how is it, that when Paul was enduring horrible experiences, he was able to express the kinds of things I just shared. Like, “Rejoice. Rejoice always. I am confident. Etc.” I believe Paul answers this question in his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes, “Above all, live as citizens of heaven.” In another place he states, “We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus lives.”
With this in mind, let’s explore what heavenly citizenship actually means. What is it all about? How do we claim our heavenly citizenship? What does it mean to say we are a citizen of heaven?
First and foremost, when we say we are citizens of heaven, it means we know down deep that we are people that belong to God regardless of what is happening. Here are some verses from scripture to help us unfold this.
“Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. We belong to God. It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. We are all children of God. We are a chosen people. We are adopted through Jesus Christ.” And there are many other verses like these all making the same point that we belong to God.
Being a citizen of heaven is all about claiming that our fundamental identity is grounded in God. It is about claiming that we are God’s possession. It is about embracing the truth that whatever we might look like on the outside, regardless of what we do in and with our lives, no matter where we might live, despite job titles and all the other ways we define ourselves, at our core, we are God’s.
You and I belong to God as we were made by God. When we see our primary identity as beloved children of God above all other potential sources, our sense of primary citizenship shifts. We no longer are ultimately defined by things that are temporary, which is everything on earth, things like careers, nationality, status, assets, heritage, and place to name a few, but by God who is eternal.
Through it all, God invites us to claim our heavenly citizenship by embracing that we are each made by God and are God’s beloved children.
What is interesting is that the more we see ourselves as God’s possession, the more we will begin to feel like we are In this temporary world but not ultimately Of this world, because we are not from here, we are from God. This is why Jesus one day, in the midst of prayer said, “My disciples do not belong to this world just as I do not belong to this world.”
Paul says that when we know we are God’s, when our identity is grounded in God, when we take our heavenly citizenship seriously, we begin to live for Christ and our actions begin to reflect our citizenship.
When we see ourselves as a citizen of heaven it means we know where we came from, we know where we are headed, we know to whom we belong, our identity is clear, it becomes evident to us who is in charge regardless of circumstance, our actions and behavior reflect Jesus despite it all, we have the peace of God within us, and we understand that our fundamental purpose in life is to love God and love people until we die and are with Jesus. And when we see ourselves as citizens of heaven we learn to live for Christ knowing we are headed to Christ.
In the Book of Job in the Old Testament, Job suffers every conceivable loss and heartache in a short period of time. His grief, confusion and despair are unfathomable for most who have not sat in his shoes. It is in the midst of his torment that three of his friends show up to console Job. For seven days and nights, they simply are present with their friend. In the Book of Job it says, “No one said a word to Job for they saw that his suffering was too great for words.”
Indeed over the course of my life there have been occasions when I felt compelled to heed this counsel and simply sit with the one for whom I was caring. Perhaps I should be taking this Godly advice this week and say nothing about Las Vegas and the horror and resultant unimaginable grief directly affecting thousands of our fellow human beings. Maybe I should just be offering a blank page to create room for us to pray.
But in the midst of such questioning I was hit with another question. A question that I cannot answer for you as I believe we each need to come to our own conclusion. That question, “Is it worth it?”
Two people meet. There is an unexplainable chemistry. When they look into each other’s eyes, there is a look that cannot be replicated with any other human being. A father reaches out and takes the hand of his young daughter. As they walk along, the father recognizes the gift that his daughter is and that such blessings are ephemeral.
A woman, well trained in medicine, travels to a war torn area or a place decimated by a natural disaster to serve those with nothing left. A nanny quietly kisses a sleeping child on her forehead because she knows the parents won’t take the time to do so.
A young fellow pulls over on the highway to help a family who are in a beaten up old van with a flat tire. A minimum wage nurse’s aide stays after her shift is over on her own time to sit with an aged woman whose family has other things to do. A wealthy man believes all he has is a gift so he generously gives money away with zero demand for accolades or credit. An unemployed woman who struggles day to day puts a dollar in the plate each week, it is her widow’s mite.
A neighbor makes a meal for a neighbor. A friend sends a note of encouragement to a far away friend who is hurting. A single mom works two jobs and stays up late at night helping her two children complete homework. A 7th grader goes straight to the kid who had been subjected to teasing and asks him to play. A person says, “I am sorry.” After scoring two touchdowns, the high school player gives all the credit to his team.
A first responder shows up while bullets continue to fly rendering aid to whomever is before him. A man shields his wife from the gunfire saving her life yet losing his own. A person stands in silence at the scene of the massacre and quietly prays to God for healing for those whom she has never met.
Each of these images, while varied, share one thing in common. The action taken happened because the person involved had the free will to choose to do so. None of the actions were forced. They happened because a decision was made. Goodness, kindness, generosity, integrity, and selflessness, are a direct consequence of the freedom to choose. And such actions far outnumber the actions of those who choose the path of evil.
The same is true of love. Love can never be forced. Love can only be love through the freedom to love. I cannot make another love me, nor can any of us. Love demands free will and love cannot exist without it. And love is far more ubiquitous than hate.
Yet it is this same free will, this same ability to make choices, this same freedom to choose, that since the beginning of time has led some to inflict unspeakable harm, destruction, and suffering on others. From Austin, Texas, to Virginia Tech, to Sandy Hook, to Orlando, to Las Vegas, all such things happened because of free will and of course evil playing on it.
And so I wonder, is free will worth it? Or would humankind be better without the option of making choices and acting on volitional decisions? Would we be better off without love, the kind of love that demands free will? Would we be better off as robots without the ability to decide? Is free will worth it? If not, then what? If so, then what?
There have been many times in my life in which I have had nothing to say about the pain before me. All I’ve known to do in such moments is to get on my knees and pray, look at the cross of Jesus and leave the answers to Him. And pray we must as well as love. To love God and love people through the choices we make each moment in light of those who choose the opposite. Take a moment right now and pray for our hurting sisters and brothers in Las Vegas and beyond.