A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35)
Pat and I returned from Macedonia last night – a ten day visit with our daughter, her husband, and four children who live in the capital Skopje. I am ashamed to admit that I had little enthusiasm to make the journey. Not that I don’t like being with our family because I do. It’s just that I am intimidated by the rigors of travel, especially being on the road nearly twenty-four hours each way. And while jetlag is manageable, I find changes in normal patterns of eating, sleeping and exercise distressing. Consequently, I wrestled with the decision of whether or not to go, which was an internal struggle between my heart and my flesh. My heart said go; my flesh said no!
And my mind? Well, my mind was a two-edged sword in this battle between my will and my body. On the one hand, my mind reassured my heart that traveling was the right thing to do. These are our children and grandchildren. Having us visit would undoubtedly be a great blessing for them. They have sacrificed much to be missionaries to Macedonia. They are literally following in the footsteps of the apostle Paul who blazed this trail 2000 years ago. Pat of course was “all-in;” having framed her life around her family; her heart was set on seeing her only daughter and four of our grandchildren. So by going I would be honoring her as well.
On the other hand, my mind also rationalized my fleshly desires. Was I not warranted after a lifetime of business travel to stay at home? I dislike flying, jostling through the crush of people at airports, and inching through security and custom lines. I am a creature of habits, particularly sleeping and eating, which are the first casualties of long distance traveling. Not to mention other potential struggles with travel such as flight delays, tight connections, lost baggage, bad weather, illness, etc. Stress upon stress. And what about the ministry and family commitments we have at home?
I didn’t ask God what He thought because I honestly didn’t want to hear his answer. And while I’ve learned from the Psalmist that God knows our thoughts before a word is on our lips, I didn’t know that God answers us when we don’t specifically ask him. I should have known there is no escaping the Hound of Heaven. Because even though I didn’t ask the Lord what I should do, I clearly heard His answer: make love my goal – not my comfort, not my desires, not my perceived happiness. Simply set my heart on love and follow it. In other words, go to Macedonia.
One of the earliest teachings I recall on how to live a Christian life was by Keith Brown, then Sr. Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He explained how Jesus, in his last night on earth, concisely summarized all that He had taught his disciples,“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) Keith’s message was simple, yet profound – if we want to hear at the end of our lives, “well done, good and faithful servant,” then we must make love our aim. Don’t make happiness our aim, don’t make money our aim, don’t make things that bring us pleasure our aim. Don’t even make being loved our aim – this is futile, we have no control over this. If Jesus is right, the only thing that really delivers is the practice of His love, come hell or high water – no matter how difficult it is.
And so Pat and I made our plans, bought our tickets, and journeyed to Macedonia. Although our travel was not perfect, it was less arduous than my fears. Most surprising, I discovered that in blessing our family we ourselves were blessed. We had the honor of watching a family in love with one another in daily interactions – from our daughter patiently handling little crises of four small children to a joyous reunion when their “dada” returned home at the end of a weeklong conference. We saw a family living life in a deep community of believers helping one another through daily trials and the rigors of expat living. And we saw a family deeply in love with God and spreading the good news in a challenging part of the world. Yes, there were physical burdens to be sure. Yet God was faithful to take us there and back again, exhausted in our bodies but greatly renewed in our souls.
The city of Skopje is surrounded by mountains, the largest of which is Vodno. On its summit is the Millennium Cross, which at 217 feet towers over the city. Shining by day, illuminated at night, and visible from most places in the city – it is an ever-present reminder that God is always watching, always protecting, and always showing us the way to go. It became for me a visual representation of the words of the Psalmist:
Is there a place that I can go where You won’t follow me?
Can I escape Your Spirit, Lord, or from Your presence flee?
If I climb to the heavens, Lord, upon the highest stair,
Or if I plunge the lowest depths, I know that You are there.
If I should rise on wings of dawn to find a place to dwell,
And settle down across the sea, I’ll find You there as well.
For even there Your hand will guide and help me here below;
And with Your right hand holding fast, You will not let me go.
(Psalm 139: 7-10)
The ear of God ever hearing, the eye of God ever watching, the hand of God ever guiding, the Spirit of God ever present.