On October 31, 1999, Jesus came to me with a request (at 2:36 a.m.).
Over the past 27 years of following Him, if there is one thing I’ve learned about Jesus is that He has no sense of earthly timing. His schedule is not like mine. He’ll come wake us up at anytime to teach us, give us advice, talk to us or love on us.
This time I was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Nashville when Jesus woke me up rather abruptly with a particular scripture He wanted me to read. It startled me a little. But instead of ignoring the nudge and going back to sleep, I reached for my Bible, which was sitting on top of my suitcase a few feet away and quickly turned to the scripture reference.
“Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Seriously, a part of me was like, “You woke me up for this?” I knew these verses by heart. I had read these verses a thousand times before. Jesus called these two verses the two greatest of all the commandments. Hundreds of sermons have been preached on these verses. These verses had been turned into too many songs to count. In other words, they were VERY familiar. I’ll be honest; I was a little disappointed with the “message.”
Not knowing what Jesus wanted me to learn, I sat up in my bed and said a simple prayer asking God to reveal what He wanted me to learn from these words. And in no uncertain terms, He asked me to relearn how to love Him and the people around me. Being somewhat paranoid about being questioned, a dialogue began running through my head.
What? I already love you, Jesus. You know I love you. Sure, I probably do not show it like I should, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love you. Does it? It shouldn’t. Because I do.
Jesus was adamant. He began to remind me of my actions. My heart began to break at the thought of the many lives I had hurt because of my lack of love for people. Not to mention, what Jesus must have thought by my lack of love for Him.
The verse Jesus revealed to me at 2:30 in the morning on Halloween 1999 is found in Matthew 22:37, Mark 12:30 and again in Luke 10:27. Three times Jesus repeated these words. Three different times He commanded us to love God and love our neighbor. The two commandments are interchangeable. We can’t love Jesus without loving other people. And we can’t love people without first loving Jesus.
In other words, love people with all of your heart and you will love Jesus; love Jesus with all of your heart and you will be loving people. That’s the only “measuring stick” you need. It was quite obvious to me that I fell far short of God’s expectation of me to love.
My friend Dennis Kirkland loved teenagers more than any man I have ever known. He’s a short man with a big personality. Kids were drawn to his humor, New York dialect and his crazy love of life. As a career youth minister, he had worked at several different churches and had seen God work miracles in the lives of troubled kids at each and every location. Simply put, Dennis is a gifted individual. I had the pleasure of volunteering for Dennis at one of the churches where he worked at for five years.
Although I had worked with teenagers before at a couple smaller churches and with one para-church organization, I was still rough and awkward around teenagers. I didn’t necessarily have the greatest teen experience myself (not hitting puberty until I was nearly 18 years old certainly didn’t help). But I got to know Dennis while working at Jammin Java, a faith-based coffeehouse and thought he would be very interesting to do ministry beside.
After every youth meeting, Dennis and the rest of us youth leaders got together for Heineken and American-made cigars. It was our way of calming down after an energetic day of ministry. Much emotion went into working with young people and this was a time when we could debrief and discuss how we could do things better. I learned a lot of about loving people from these conversations. But one instance in particular, it got personal.
“Matthew,” said Dennis late one Sunday night while puffing away on his stogie, “You were much too hard on those two young men tonight.”
I looked at him somewhat shocked, as if to say, “Me?"
“You’re too tense, bro. You’ve got to loosen up or you’ll never see God use you the way you desire.”
“I need to loosen up?” I asked bluntly. I thought for sure I was too loose now. I was far away from my days at an Independent Baptist Church where it would have been a sin to even breathe in the second-hand smoke of a cigar.
“You’re too consumed with how the kids are dressed, behaving, the words they are using—when you should be much more concerned for their hearts, Matthew. These young people are in need of hearing about Jesus—again and again and again. They don’t need another parent or someone who is constantly ‘watching’ them.”
Maybe he was right. I did put too much emphasis on all the wrong things they would do. In fact, just that night, I had taken those two young men aside and reprimanded them for using the word s***. I told them that if they were to continue using such language they would not be welcome at youth group.
“I know, I know, you’re right,” I replied. “I need to learn to love the sinner and hate the sin. I …”
Dennis stopped me. “That’s your problem,” he said, pointing his index finger at me with excitement and exclamation. “Why don’t you just concentrate on loving the sinner?”
Hmm. “Just love the sinner,” I thought. I had a million “buts” running through my head, but I remained quiet and let his words seep in. The feeling of embarrassment washed over me that night. I felt very humbled—too humbled to talk.
Christians today spend too much time analyzing and judging the lifestyles of people rather than looking for a way to love them. What Dennis said to me made sense then—and it’s a part of my lifestyle now. I was putting too much time and effort into seeking out the “sin” of those kids instead of looking for an opportunity to show them the unconditional love of Christ.
All of us need to lighten up with those who don’t know Jesus. How can we expect people who are not Christian to act like or take on the characteristics of Christians? We can’t enforce that. But we can seek out opportunities to love them. And the need for love is all around us. All we must do is ask Jesus to open our eyes and give us the ability to see humanity as He sees it.
However, asking God to open your eyes may be overwhelming at first. So, beware. When humans begin to truly see the world around us with the eyes of Christ, the simple things in life look differently. You’ll find yourself aching over situations you once ignored. Your heart will reach out to those who would have once walked by. You’ll begin to see people not as strangers, but as men and women who might need you to engage them. A simple elevator ride to the fourteenth floor becomes an opportunity to meet people and create relationships. Remember, you might be the only representation of Christ that person sees for the next 24 hours—learn to love them. Ask God for the ability to truly love them.