“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I have a golfing buddy who loves to make this statement: “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans!”
In a way, it is true, isn’t it? Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans. This was driven home most emphatically to me when I was at a Gordon-Conwell Seminary board meeting approximately 10 years ago, seated in the student cafeteria, having lunch with Joanna Mockler, one of my fellow trustees. Joanna’s husband was Coleman Mockler, the CEO of Gillette. She told me how Coleman was about ready to take early retirement as soon as he could complete the introduction of the new “Sensor” blade, which was to be launched with an advertising campaign in that season’s Super Bowl. Then the two of them were going to enjoy life together, traveling the world and spending quality time with family and friends. He would be on some boards, such as the Harvard University Board of Overseers, and she on boards such as Gordon-Conwell Seminary. We then were joined by students who shared the rest of the luncheon time with us.
Just before the board meeting was to reconvene, Joanna excused herself to go to the ladies room, saying, “I’ll see you back in the board meeting in a few minutes, John.”
On the way to the restroom, she was abruptly stopped by a seminary official who had just gotten word that her husband, Coleman Mockler, a few minutes before (while we were talking about their future life of retirement together), had suffered a massive heart attack in his executive suite at Gillette headquarters. She was rushed from the board meeting on Boston’s North Shore down to Gillette headquarters to the side of her dying husband.
Joanna Mockler discovered, in the most abrupt way possible, the truth of that statement, “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.” One minute, she was animatedly talking future plans with Coleman. A few minutes later, she was a grieving widow.
As a management-by-objective kind of guy, even before the phrase was invented, I set goals and had objectives for my life, only to discover how life does take crazy bounces.
As a teenager, I looked forward to graduating from Junior High West in Arlington, Massachusetts, to attend Arlington High School. Suddenly, my Dad accepted a call to a new ministry, which meant leaving the church he had served for 14 years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and moving to the Chicago area. There went my plans. I never saw my childhood neighborhood friends again.
During high school and college, I prayerfully planned a career in politics, making all the right moves, running for the right offices, even serving as the precinct chairman of the political party of my choice during the Nixon/Kennedy presidential election of 1960. Then, in graduate school at Princeton, God clearly led me away from politics into the ministry. There went my plans.
I assumed that I would meet my future wife at Wheaton College. What better place to find a young Christian woman with common goals? I didn’t. It was a year after graduation that I met Anne in Taiwan and again, a couple of days later, in Hong Kong, when and where I least expected to meet my life partner. There went my plans.
We got married the summer before my final year at Princeton Theological Seminary. Her parents assumed they had lost her to an eastern pastor. I, too, planned on a lifetime of ministry on the East Coast. After three years in Tulsa and six years in Key Biscayne, Florida, it appeared that we would spend at least 20 years at the First Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh. Then God abruptly confronted us with a call to St. Andrew’s and literally bulldozed us out of that 200-plus-year-old cathedral church in the heart of a major eastern city and brought us here to Newport Beach, California, the last place I ever dreamed of serving. And here we are, 25 years later. There went my plans.
We raised our daughters, Suzanne, Carla and Janet here in Newport Beach. Anne and I had all kinds of spoken and unspoken assumptions as to how our family life would play out when, suddenly, Suzanne was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease her senior year at Princeton. Even then we assumed that she would battle through and live, as many do. But, 19 months later, she died. From that moment on, every assumption about how family life will play itself out simply evaporated. There went our plans.
I could give more illustrations from my life. And you could add to them from yours. I look back and realize that “Life is what happens to you while you are making other plans.”
Frankly, that is not all bad, unless perchance you see it from the perspective of the fatalism of the non-believer for whom all life is a series of accidents and happenstances in which “Lady Luck” plays a prominent role. All these 63 years of experience I have had, combined with all these same years being immersed in reading the Bible and endeavoring to be a follower of Jesus Christ, I have discovered that you and I have a choice to make. It is a choice between “Life-PLUS” versus “Life-MINUS.”
Jesus said, “‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly'” (
Life-Minus is life lived by default. It is life lived without a personal relationship with the Shepherd. It is the life of the stray, the lost sheep. It is a life of great freedom to do anything one feels like doing, to think any thought one wants to think, to go anyplace that one chooses to go. It is a life of spiritual quarrel and intellectual anarchy. It is a life lived without the liberating limits of God’s Word and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
Contrast to it Life-Plus. When Jesus said, “‘I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly,'” He is literally talking about the life of purpose, the life lived with positive momentum. The phrase in the Greek describes this life as “abundant life,” which literally means to have a surplus, a super-abundance of something. To be a follower of Jesus, to know who He is, to repent of sin and put your trust in Him for salvation, to be infilled by His Holy Spirit, means to have a super-abundance of life.
History tells how a Roman soldier came to Julius Caesar with the request for permission to commit suicide to end his life. He was a wretched, miserable, dispirited creature with no vitality. Caesar looked at him and declared, “Man, were you ever really alive?” When we try to live our lives powered with our own energy and strength, we end up with Life-Minus. When we are followers of Jesus, we are privileged to live Life-Plus.
That is what I have been trying to say during these last three weeks of teaching about the “Three-Fold Secret of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit comes into our life when we repent and put our trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. The Holy Spirit infills our life when we make a complete, unconditional surrender of ourselves to Him. But then it is our tendency to begin to closet off certain areas of our life, quenching the Holy Spirit, limiting God’s access to the entirety of our lives. We need to make a daily inventory, opening ourselves anew to the fullness of the power of the Holy Spirit. As we do it, we are privileged to see ourselves not just knocked around by life, something that happens to us while we are making other plans, but, in a pro-active way, to see God at work within us – in the joys, the tragedies, and the ambiguous times that blend a bit of both into Life-Plus.
One of my friends, who is in AA, came up to me after we had completed the series on the Holy Spirit. He said, “John, what you are saying sounds just like one of the Twelve Steps: total, complete, unconditional surrender of life to one’s higher power.” That’s right. The author of the Twelve Steps took that principle right out of the Bible. And the name of your higher power is Jesus Christ, who comes in the fullness of the Holy Spirit to give you Life-Plus.
There are three qualities that help facilitate the abundant life.
Quality one: This life has a vocation.
This vocation has two aspects to it. One is that of “effectual calling.” This means that you have been called to repentance and trust in Jesus Christ. You are one of His. The Holy Spirit has drawn you to Jesus Christ. You have said “yes” to that call. You are accepted in the beloved. That is your effectual calling.
This vocation also has the aspect of “life work.” This involves what you do for a living. It is not an accident. You see work as a God-given privilege to provide for your own and to provide for the financial support of His kingdom on earth.
Quality two: This life has an avocation.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines avocation with these words and phrases: “Diversion. Distraction. A subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one’s vocation, especially for enjoyment. Hobby.” Do you have an avocation? Do you have a diversion with a purpose? Do you have some kind of athletic outlet that provides exercise for your body and mind? Are you taking seriously the privilege of social relationships, investing yourself in friendships? Are you engaged in some kind of servant ministry? It is not your professional employment, but, at the same time, it is something that you take as seriously as your employment. Most likely, these avocations will bring life and vitality to your years of gainful employment and then will follow you on into retirement, making those years every bit as meaningful and purposeful as the years in which you were at the peak of your professional activity. I commend to you a book written by my friend, Bob Buford, titled HALFTIME. You will hear more about this book and this concept in the months ahead, as we are going to proactively encourage you to stop and reassess where you are in life, so as to make the rest of your life more meaningful than the first part of your life. You don’t have to wait until retirement for this. Right now, you are privileged to reassess and discover the abundant life that God has for you when you take seriously both your vocation and your avocation.
Quality three: This life has a vacation.
Every life needs a vacation. I know some people who pride themselves in not taking vacations. They are workaholics. Life is all serious. They literally burn themselves up in ways that destroy the ultimate contribution that they could make.
A number of weeks ago, Lydia preached an excellent message on “Sabbath.” It was a great message. At the same time, some of you were upset that she would even mention such an outdated concept. Don’t kid yourself. If you do not take at least one full day of a week off for worship, renewal, recreation, you will probably get all those days off in a row in the breakdown of body and spirit. You are built for renewal. If you do not take an annual vacation of some sort, in which you get away from the routine for refreshment, you will suffer burnout. Think creatively as to how to use your vacation time to the best advantage. That is part of abundant living, not just letting life happen to you – Life-Minus – but life enabled by the Holy Spirit – Life-Plus.
I will never forget a message I heard at the Park Street Congregational Church in Boston, Massachusetts, the end of June, 1968. I had flown up from Key Biscayne, Florida, to help my sister and brother-in-law, Miriam and David Rockness, pack and move at the time they graduated from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary to their new church call in Grand Haven, Michigan. Together, we went to the Park Street Church on that Sunday evening. Dr. Harold Ockenga gave a simple, three-point sermon on how every life needs a vocation, an avocation, and a vacation. He mentioned that the next morning he was leaving on vacation for his summer home in New Hampshire. He said, “I have been working since last September, drinking from the fresh waters of the well. Now the well is exhausted, and I am down to the bottom, sucking muck.” It is time for refreshment of these summer weeks, and I look forward to coming home in September with a fresh, new energy and resource.
Does your life have a vocation, an avocation, and a vacation? If it does not have all three of these, creatively oscillating together, being powered by the Holy Spirit, you will experience Life-Minus instead of Life-Plus. In a negative way, life will simply be what happens to you while you are making other plans. The alternative is Life-Plus, in which you have the confidence that even if life happens to you while you are making other plans, the Holy Spirit of God is enabling that life. What happens, retrospectively, will be seen to be much better than the plans you have.
Before we come to the communion table, let me make some brief comments on the underlying signs of life success.
A number of weeks ago, I came across an article in a ministerial journal, written for youth ministers, titled “The Three Rule Marker of Success.” Although it is really designed for youth ministers, I am convinced that these are also appropriate for all of the rest of us.
The first sign of life success is: when you are taken for granted.
Most of us are inclined to feel like we are a failure when we are taken for granted. Stop and think about that for a moment. The real crisis for others is when they can’t count on us. The spouse is worried about potential unfaithfulness. The children are worried about a possible divorce. The parents are apprehensive about being neglected in their old age. Faithfulness to the Lord and to others will bring with it the tendency on the part of others to simply take us for granted.
I sit on the Support and Counseling subcommittee of the Los Ranchos Presbytery. I have done this for most of my 25 years in this Presbytery. The issues that come to us from our 60 churches are not the stories of churches that are doing well, happy pastoral relationships and well-functioning staffs. We tend to take those churches and situations for granted. The ones of which we take notice are those that are troubled.
Being taken for granted isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you.
The second sign of life success is: when you have stayed put for a while.
Some people have lives that are constantly churning. They are never happy where they are. They are always looking for a new job, a new partner, new thrills. Long-term commitment to the Lord and to others is what the Christian life is all about. From time to time, God may deploy you in different places to do different jobs, but the profile is one of long-term stability.
I have heard statistics that the average youth minister stays at a church about 1.8 years and the average pastor about 2.5 to 3 years. You can’t get much done in that period of time, can you? That’s hardly enough time to get started. Staying power is the name of the game.
The third sign of life success is: when you are a force for truth, not an echo of the culture.
How easy it is to mimic the styles and attitudes of a culture. Instead, those of us who are followers of Jesus live with a kind of “counter-culture” quality to our lives. Our highest commitment is to the kingdom of God and our allegiance to Jesus Christ, which then enables us to make a quality contribution to the kingdom of this world. If we are chameleons, constantly adjusting to our environment, we will never make much of a contribution. We are to love everyone with whom we come into contact. At the same time, as followers of Jesus, we march to a different drum-beat.
The article I read described some youth ministers as trying so hard to be popular with the young people that they never impact their lives. The youth leader must love the young people but challenge them to something better, spiritually, morally, intellectually. The same is true for the rest of us. We are called to humbly walk with Jesus and demonstrate by our lives His presence in us.
As we come to the communion table, I ask you the question, “Is life what happens to you while you are making other plans?” The answer is, “Yes.” But the real question is, “Is it Life-Minus, or is it Life-Plus?”
My dear friend, Joanna Mockler, could have responded to the death of her husband with Life-Minus. She could have self-destructed, and all her plans for the future would have evaporated. She could have become a bitter, angry person, spiraling down into addictions and hopelessness. But no, instead, she claimed Life-Plus. Abundant life. Certainly, she grieved. Even still, she misses the “what could have been.” But she has discovered the life God gives through His Holy Spirit. It is different than the one she planned for herself. It is one of creative service for the Lord through Gordon-Conwell Seminary, through World Vision, through her local church, through her friendships, her family relationships.
And I, in my better moments, when I move beyond the little pity parties I sometimes have for myself, thinking about the “what ifs” in life – I, too, can testify to the wonderful privilege of Life-Plus, God’s will for me, even when I was making other plans.
I welcome you to the table if you have repented of sin and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. I welcome you to eat of the body and drink of the blood of Jesus Christ in remembrance of what He has done for you and His promise of abundant life, Life-Plus!