We are frequently told that to follow God we must read the Bible and pray a lot. There are more guides to prayer and Bible study than one could stand to read in a lifetime. Thirteen years ago I began to study the Bible more intently than ever. There were new friends in my life along with my new wife. I combined the Bible study with a prayer life that began developing when I was nineteen.
I lost my cousin, Carl, during my nineteenth year. It was the most serious loss I had experienced in life up until then. Carl and I grew very close as teenagers. One of his greatest attributes was that he had an open mind and an open heart.
Carl’s health declined over about two years before the cancer killed him. Over those two years, hundreds of people prayed for his healing. Preachers and plenty of other people laid hands upon him. Group prayers were held many times. I must have prayed more than a thousand times for him to be healed. I remember one preacher announcing that God would heal Carl.
The end of Carl’s young life was very hard on his mother. She seemed to always have sadness in her eyes after that day. Carl’s death motivated a re-evaluation of my spiritual life and my relationship with God. I did not blame God for the death. My understanding has always been that God loves us and intends the best for us. The problem seemed to be that the church and humans just did not understand God.
I rarely attended church for many years following Carl’s death. The preaching and the teaching just did not make sense. One minute you could hear somebody, perhaps a minister, say that God so loved us, then the same person could say just how angry and vengeful God was. Reading the words of Jesus made it very difficult to believe that God would do some of the things told in stories in the Bible.
The loss of Carl did not mean that I had given up on the Bible, Jesus, and God. It meant that I had to determine what they meant and that I would need to determine what good were the church and Christians in my life and in the world. For about thirteen years after Carl died, I worked very hard finishing college then trying to launch myself into a career of some kind. My three children were born, I taught school for several years, and attempted to develop my family’s farm into a career. Then, 1987 came along and tragedy struck again.
I had returned to teaching after eight years of farming. In my first year at the school, the teachers asked me to become the president of the teachers’ association and I accepted the volunteer position. The superintendent did not like that move, so at the end of the year, my contract was not renewed in spite of the fact that the principal told him that I was the best teacher in the school. The day I was laid off, I arrived home to be told by my wife that she had decided that she needed to go out to find herself. She also insisted that the children would live with her and in those days, fathers had almost no chance of gaining custody of the children. The situation was compounded by the fact that I could not get another teaching position. It appeared the superintendent had blackballed me. I was interviewed several times and received very promising feedback when they would tell me the only thing left to do was to talk to my former superintendent. Some schools told me they had changed their minds while some did not even call me again.
At this point, my lifelong friend, John Hiatt, convinced me that I should look toward Jesus more seriously. I returned to church and for four years attempted to buy into the idea that God would make things happen for me if I just did the right things. During that time I married again.
My second wife, Keithia, helped me to realize that I had been raised in a manner that caused me to misunderstand life. I was dysfunctional and had great difficulty relating to people. Being a parent was especially difficult. My parents were very abusive. My alcoholic father was especially physically abusive. He was prone to striking one or more of us with whatever object was convenient. I never beat my children, but without good examples in my background, I know I failed often. My second marriage failed due to the difficulties of bringing two families together.
Prayer and the Bible just were not working. At least they were not working in the way that is generally taught by churches and Christians. God did not deliver as so many Christians and churches preach. I still did not get angry with God. I knew inside that I was missing something.
After years of counseling, I was able to grow enough to take another shot at marriage and was blessed and fortunate to meet another wonderful woman who is now my wife, Dotsie. She helped me get into a church where I was able to recall some lessons from early childhood. My Grandma Duke had taught us about loving others as we loved ourselves because God loves everybody.
With help from Grandma Duke, Jesus, Dotsie, and a few friends from our church, I realized that prayer and the Bible failed because I did not have the key. Jesus teaches that the key is found in Matthew 22:36-40. The Most Important Commandments (MIC) are stated in those verses. The key is to use that teaching to affect virtually all thinking and acting in life.
In using the MIC as the key, one must also learn what love is. It is not some squishy or wishy washy feeling. It is one’s behavior and thinking. Love requires respect and compassion. It requires patience and a willingness to listen, watch, and understand. To love another does not mean that you must like the other person, but it does mean that you must respect the person enough to accept them where they are. If that can be done, then a relationship can grow. When a relationship grows between two people, changes occur in each person’s life. When compassion is practiced within a relationship, changes can be positive.
I have believed for many years that a person’s primary relationship must be with God. The hard part is figuring out how to get there. The Bible is huge. It is so huge that it can be difficult to know where to start. It is possible for a Christians to have a confused relationship with God so they are of little help in telling or showing somebody else where to start. Churches are generally too caught up in what they believe to truly be any help.
Jesus showed me how to build relationships with the MIC. Jesus teaches that you don’t start the Bible with Genesis and the creation story. Start the Bible with the MIC at Matthew 22:36-40. Translate all of the rest of the Bible and all of life through the MIC. When reading the Bible with the MIC as the focus, one will learn that it is a huge love story. The Bible is a book of relationship. The creation stories become the beginning of the love story that God intends to involve God, humans, and all of creation. Have you ever noticed that right there in the opening statements the writers of Genesis have God stating that everything that is created is good? That includes humans. That means God loves all of us.
In spite of understanding Jesus and the MIC, implementing it in a way that truly makes a difference in life can be extremely difficult. The hard part is that we allow ourselves to be distracted by old habits, by the church, and other things in society. We have things in life that we want. We can profess Jesus and the MIC then, ignore living it.
In 2012 another tragedy struck my life. My son, Dion, and his wife, Jennifer, were killed when one of their neighbors attempted to defraud an insurance company by exploding the house next to Dion’s. When it happened, I felt like dying myself. Dotsie and I wished we could have taken their places. I did not blame God, but I did yell at God for answers. I turned to Jesus to see how I would escape the dark hole where I found I had fallen. The answer was the MIC. The answer was to develop it into an almost constantly running prayer in my mind so that my focus was more on others than on myself. I have been able to expand the influence of this in my life and found that it was the only way I could survive. I regret that I did not have the wisdom to take this path earlier in life.
How about you? Are you waiting for a tragedy or perhaps a few tragedies before you ask what is missing? The hard part is that most of us think we are alright. The hard part is, we don’t think we need to give up our prejudices and self righteous attitudes and opinions. Maybe the hard part is that you are only professing Jesus and are not willing to live Jesus. Maybe you profess nothing and are bored with life. Maybe you profess Jesus concerning some matters in life but not in all of life. Remember, in the MIC, Jesus said “all of the law and commandments hang on these”. That means everythng in life.
Jesus showed me past the hard part.