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The First Will Be Last and the Last Will Be First In God’s Kingdom

September 24th, 2017

What is the difference between fairness and justice?

How many of us have felt that someone treated us unfairly? Has someone favoured another person over us? All of us have endured some hurt when our dreams are dashed or ambitions denied. Preferred treatment can lay the foundation for bitter memories. Does our ill treatment serve a greater good? Do others in need benefit? Sometimes we endure unequal treatment in the name of justice. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presented the Kingdom as one of justice, not necessarily of fairness. According to Jesus, the faithful, even those who practiced faith all life long, did not earn the Kingdom. God gave His children the Kingdom as a gift.

Jesus told the parable in Matthew 20:1-16 to illustrate His point that “the first will be last, and the last first”. The landowner hired workers at 9:00 am, 12 noon, 3:00 pm and finally at 5:00 pm. The group hired at the end of the day would have included the sort of workers nobody wanted to hire. The owner promised all the labourers the same wage.

The parable would have had significance in the early church whose members were Jewish Christians. To them the “late arrivals,” the Gentiles, deserved a lesser place in the kingdom. After all, they were not the first invited, as were God’s chosen people. Judging from the heated epistles, like Galatians and the accounts in Acts, the conflict between the two groups could get quite intense.

It also runs contrary to how the world works today. We’re used to being rewarded in proportion to our service. We would be happy to grant the apostles a larger share than we would expect for ourselves if we could expect more than a lesser disciple might receive. We feel for the all-day workers, who received the same pay as the one-hour workers. Is that fair? Don’t they deserve more? Shouldn’t the master treat them better?

We don’t want to be on par. We want to be on top! We don’t want mercy (what God gives freely) but justice (what we have earned). If God distributes rewards fairly, we who worked all day will get more than those who arrived at the last hour. We will receive what we have earned plus a generous bonus. The irony, of course, is that the little bit we have earned is of no consequence when compared to God’s grace.

The generosity of the landowner in this case shifts our thinking away from what a person can achieve or offer to the way in which a person and their very life is valued by the landowner. This parable calls into question the way our world operates and how it devaluates people and exploits many who work long hours in appalling conditions so those in wealthier countries can have cheap products.

This parable reveals important truths about God’s grace. No matter how many hours they worked, all workers were paid the same wage—the wage that was promised. The workers hired first represent Israel, the recipients of God’s covenant promises. Those hired last, at the end of the day, represent the Gentiles, who were offered the same salvation available to the Jews through faith in Christ.

Jesus repeated His parable from Matthew 19:30 and added that “many are called, but few chosen.” His meaning is essentially the same in both cases; namely, that God lavishes His grace on those He chooses, and those who receive it are blessed beyond anything they can ever hope to earn.

If Christians are just and pay their lawful debts and injure no one, the world has no right to complain if they give the rest of their property to the poor, or devote it to send the gospel to the world, or release a prisoner. It is their own. They have a right to do with it as they please. They are accountable only to God. The world has no right to interfere.

This parable is about the kingdom of God. It presents the nature of God’s grace. Grace is God’s graciousness. He extends his love and mercy to everyone. Not everyone responds alike to His goodness. Some compare and evaluate their own “goodness” and thereby fail to understand God’s graciousness.

The points of the parable are:

1. The calling to service is in direct relation to the need.
2. The reward for service is a gracious meeting of our needs.
3. The integrity of service will respect the integrity of grace in meeting needs equally.

God can and does distribute His gifts and His goodness as He wills. Grace can’t be earned or deserved. God is completely free to parcel out His favour however He chooses.

When we’re envious, we’re in a battle with God. We doubt God’s goodness in our lives. We resent His decision to bless others. We accuse Him of being unfair. We don’t believe He has our best interests at heart. We accuse Him of playing favourites. God has a good reason why we don’t have what we want. He knows us better than we know ourselves.

There are two main reasons to never compare ourselves to anyone else:

1. We’re unique. God made each one of us special.
2. If we do start comparing, it’s always going to lead to either envy or pride.

We can easily get trapped by our own patterns of counting and assessing and evaluating that we can miss God’s generosity. We can learn to overcome comparison obsession by focusing on the life God has given to us. As we take time to thank God for everyday blessings, we change our thinking and begin to believe deep down that God is good.

We dare not judge God’s love by our poor standards, nor should we think that once we are in heaven we can choose to go to hell. We should admit that no one deserves to receive freely anything from God. It is His grace that brings salvation. Our work is only a poor “thank you” for what we have received from His mercy and grace. (Pause)

The generosity of the landowner shifts our thinking away from what a person can achieve or offer to the way in which a person and their very life is valued by God. God wants to give value and opportunity to even the weakest within the faith community. The good news is not just for the privileged few but for all. God will return and seek us out to join the labour as many times as it takes.

It isn’t the amount of faith we have, or when we come to faith, that matters. The object of our faith matters. Constantly comparing ourselves to others robs us of the joy of working for God, who made each of us His treasure. God’s gift of grace is free and undeserved. Each of us is given the grace that is sufficient for us to live our Christian faith. Our response is to rejoice and be glad.

Those who only find Christ later in their lives are the ones who have missed out, for life in Christ is rich and meaningful. To find forgiveness and fullness and meaning and purpose is to find freedom, which is what Jesus intends for all of us. Following Jesus and His way is the way of freedom. Following the ways of the world are the ways of bondage and meaninglessness. Like the workers hired later in the day, the landowner found them “… standing idle… with no purpose.”

The kingdom of heaven image from Jesus comes as a comfort and as a warning. A comfort, because the invitation is always there for each of us. It is never too late for us to turn to God. It is a warning because there will indeed be those who are welcomed into God’s family after we are. Our task is to love them and welcome them just as God does. We are not to feel haughty and more important because we were there first. We must meet them with great joy for their faith.

When God pours out His love and favour toward us, we don’t have to worry. If we take the time to look we will see that God has filled our cup. When God’s favour is extended to those of whom we disapprove, it’s time for us to begin looking at the world the way God looks at the world. We are all equal in God’s eyes.

The story about the workers in the vineyard is about forgiveness. When God forgives our sins, he forgives them all. A brand-new Christian is as welcome to God as the person who has known God for a long, long time. It’s not about fairness. It is about forgiveness. It is about a big and welcoming God who doesn’t make us feel like second class citizens. God takes outsiders and makes them insiders. He treats us not according to our standards but according to His. The measuring stick he uses is generosity.

When God pours out His love and favour towards someone else, we don’t have to worry. If we just take the time to look, we will see that God has filled our cup to the brim too. When God’s favour is extended to those of whom we disapprove, it’s time for us to grow up and begin looking at the world the way that God looks at the world.

The question for today is this: “Is God fair?” Of course, he is! But do you know what else? The Bible tells us that he is more than fair. The Bible tells us that “God is love.” Does God love us because we love him?” No, the Bible says, “This is real love-not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.” That’s not fair-that’s love.

If we got what was fair, none of us would get to heaven. We can rejoice in the knowledge that God doesn’t give us what is fair. He gives us his love and grace, despite what we deserve!

Comfort For Those Who Feel Vulnerable Right Now

September 24th, 2017

Perhaps now more than ever, we need spiritual comfort. In light of all that is happening here on our planet, now is the time for a real transformation of our consciousness, of our way of being. We need new ways to respond to the doubts, fears, worries, and concerns of living in this world.

I think most of us do our best to avoid vulnerable feelings and find ways to minimize their impact. We focus on something else, distract ourselves, or take pain meds or alcohol to find relief and “take the edge off” these feelings.

Yet, what if these challenging moments are the ones that hold the greatest opportunity to break free from your habitual reactions? What if these are your moments to heal? What if these moments can be portals to experience something deeper-to learn, expand, and grow what is most important to you? What if these moments offer the guidance you really need?

What if you can use these moments when you feel anxious, agitated, or flat-out terrified to find a deeper comfort than you might imagine possible? What if, your most challenging struggles carry your greatest guidance and deepest connections? What if how these moments affect you and what comes from them is the result of how you relate to your vulnerable feelings and what you do with them?

In this article, we explore an essential healing insight you can use anytime you feel vulnerable to help you find comfort and move forward.

Perhaps, there’s no more anxiety-ridden event than death. Fear of dying and fear of losing those whom we love ranks at the top of most people’s list of “Things I’d Like to Avoid.” These fears are the heart of our deepest feelings of vulnerability.

On the other hand, turning toward and facing our fears surrounding death can be a liberating experience. So, I’d like to share two stories from my own life, related to the death of loved ones, to illustrate how we can handle this and other stressful events in a way that empowers us, teaches us, and enables us to live more peacefully, lovingly, gratefully, and fully.

I’ll begin with the story of my Mom’s death.

Mom

A few years ago, my Mom died of cancer. Actually, she died of the effects of her cancer treatment, but that’s a story for a different time. When it was clear she was dying, I took an overnight flight from Denver to the Florida hospital that was caring for her. I was glad I had visited her just a few weeks before to share some final moments and say all the things we wanted to say to each other-and I also wanted to be there when she passed.

I arrived to find her eyes closed and her breathing intensely labored. She was drawing deep gasping breaths, as if there wasn’t enough air in the room or she just couldn’t get enough of it.

She couldn’t respond when I spoke to her. I could see she was trying to open her eyes, but they just wouldn’t open. She was trying to speak and just couldn’t. It was as if her spirit was in the process of leaving her body and her body could no longer do what she wanted it to do.

My sister and I stayed with her throughout that day, night, and into the wee hours of the morning-and the gasping breathing continued, in tumultuous waves. It was painful to watch her struggle-and I sensed that she was hanging on for us. We both assured her that it was OK to go, that we would be fine-though we would miss her so much.

Someone had told me that sometimes people have trouble dying in front of their loved ones. Our Mom was a private person who didn’t want to be a burden on anyone and I thought this might be the case with her at this time. So, my sister and I decided to let my Mom be, get a little sleep, and come back in a few hours.

I was exhausted from traveling overnight and from the emotions of the day and fell into sleep quickly.

Shortly thereafter, I awoke, startled, and felt an open raw feeling in my upper chest. The sensation was terrifying. I had no idea what was happening. It felt like the Universe had split apart and I was completely vulnerable. I felt scared and highly-agitated. I couldn’t lie still in bed. So, I got up and paced back and forth across the room. I couldn’t seem to get enough air.

Within minutes, the hospital called to say that Mom had indeed died shortly after we left her room. When my sister and I went back to the hospital, her body was stiff and cold. Her mouth was open as if to let her spirit release. It was clear that she was gone and what was left in the hospital bed was simply a vehicle that could no longer carry her around. This experience gave me a strong sense that we are more than a body and our spirit lives on.

On several occasions since that day, I have felt my Mom’s presence, especially during important moments in my life. Perhaps life is much more than we can perceive with our five senses, here in this body, in the material world?

Cotton

Fast forward a few years and our family cat, Cotton, was struggling with her body giving out. Cotton was a “rescue kitty” and we are pretty sure she had been badly abused before we brought her home at the age of five. She was skittish of any contact and hissed at all strangers-even at us, if we tried to pet her too long.

It took her a few years to warm up to us. Yet, once she did, she clearly felt loved and at home. She woke us up with head butts and nuzzles every morning, sat by my feet as I meditated, joined us when we taught Reiki or did Reiki sessions, greeted us at the door whenever we came home, and sat on the couch with us as we wound down each day together.

Throughout her eleven years with us, we were the only ones who could go near her. Even going to the veterinarian was impossible, as she would scream and claw violently, even under sedation, so they were unable to care for her.

In her final days, her spirit remained strong, but, as her body was weakening, she couldn’t keep any food down or control her bladder. The results of these two things were all over the house, requiring constant clean-up. She would look up at us, expectantly, as if she was asking for help. We tried many things to make life easier: softer food, an easy-entry litter box, and a rubber mat, which accommodated some of the messes.

Then, one Friday night, we came home from eating dinner out and found her standing near the door with her tail shaking as if it was having a seizure. Fluid was leaking from her bottom onto the floor.

We rushed her to the 24-hour emergency pet clinic.

Even in her weakened state, the vet and assistants had a hard time sedating her so they could examine her and run tests. It took them over two hours to get the sedative in and have it take effect. When the blood work was finally in, it was clear that her kidneys were not functioning well and the doctor said that, at 16 years old, there could be a whole host of other things going on. Her body was failing-and, as hard as it was, we decided to spare her any more suffering.

As the veterinarian administered the heart-stopping medicine, my wife, who had her hand on Cotton’s head, said that her body instantly went from warm to cold. It didn’t happen gradually, like a physical object cooling down, but instantly, like a soul leaving a body.

Just before Cotton died, my wife asked her to give us a sign that she was OK once she passed.

When we arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, there was a large raccoon sitting in a corner on our porch. In all our thirteen years living in this house, we had never seen or heard a raccoon-and we haven’t seen one since.

At first, I was a little afraid of what the raccoon might do. Then, before I could decide what to do about it, the raccoon calmly got up, slowly walked by me, my wife, and my younger son, and disappeared into the bushes. All three of us had the same thought-Cotton sent this raccoon to assure us she was OK. I don’t know how this might happen, but this explanation seemed as clear as the night sky.

The night Cotton died, I woke up shortly after going to sleep and was somewhat surprised to feel the same, raw, panicky feeling in my upper chest as when my Mom died. It was like the veil between life here on Earth and the after-life was torn asunder. I felt intensely vulnerable, as I had those few years before.

However, this time I had an intuition that this feeling was a portal to something, to a deeper insight and connection. So, I took some deep breaths and I ventured right into the heart of this crazy rawness in my upper chest. As I entered deeper into this feeling, it intensified. I almost couldn’t stand it. But, I continued to breathe and stay with it. Then, I had an inspiration to talk to Cotton.

I allowed the energy in my chest to open upward and, though it was scary at first, I could feel something new happening. It was as if a portal was opening.

I asked Cotton how she was and I felt the presence that we had come to know as her. I received feelings that translated into words. She was sad to leave us, but it had been a real struggle for her to be in her body as it deteriorated. She had loved being with us. I told her that she would always be part of our family. I felt her resting and knew that she was forever a member of our spiritual family.

The passing of Cotton felt very much like the passing of my Mom. Perhaps, every being is just as important as any other.

Finding the Gifts in Vulnerable Feelings

So, what healing insight can we learn from death-perhaps one of our most challenging experiences-that we can apply to all the vulnerable feelings in life?

Challenging emotions are portals to deeper insights and connections. When we turn toward them rather than away from them, they guide us to heal and grow. They enable us to discover new perspectives, learn new skills, and have new experiences.

So, when you’re feeling vulnerable, instead of distracting yourself or trying to run away from how you feel, take a break from what you are doing, take a few deep breaths, and turn toward the feelings in your heart. Ask your heart what you need to do to move through this fully, what insight you can learn from it, what guidance is available in this experience, and what the best response is to move forward meaningfully and purposefully.

In the story above, as I sat in the open space of my heart, I felt a desire to talk to Cotton. I told her how much we enjoyed our time with her, how hard it was to see her suffer, and how she will always be a part of our family. I felt her presence and imagined her resting.

I then felt inspired to talk to my Mom. I had done this before, but this time I did it by focusing into the open feeling of my heart with the intention that she was really listening, that she was really there, and that I could feel her response. I used the new perspective that I had learned with Cotton and applied it to my Mom.

Moving Forward

My wife and I were inspired to create a shrine for Cotton in our house, similar to one we made for my Mom when she passed. On my Mom’s, there is a picture of her smiling on her 75th birthday, a beautiful shell collection she made from her many beach walks, and some family mementoes. On Cotton’s, we placed a picture of her snuggled under a blanket with her head on a pillow, an impression of her paw prints, and a glass cat with a necklace that says, “Cotton,” made by one of our friends.

These shrines keep memories of Mom and Cotton alive. We see them every day and remember that life is more than a few years in this body and we are always part of a larger spiritual family. The worries of life seem so much less scary from this wider perspective.

These insights provide comfort and expand our feeling of what is real and possible. They make moments spent together sweeter and more cherished-and expand our consciousness to consider that there is so much more to life than we are aware of through our five senses. We live amongst invisible worlds in which so much more is going on than we know.

The seat of your heart is a powerful place to sit when you feel challenging emotions. You can sit there when you feel anxious, afraid, alone, sad, and insecure. Strong emotions consciously attended to can be portals out of your mundane, habitual, every day, mental-emotional reactions into a much richer, wider, deeper experience of life. This heart-centered process can lead you to appreciation and gratitude for the gifts of each moment and every being.