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Monday, June 28, 2010

The Fourth - 7-4-2010

The fourth. It is our most important and most widely celebrated patriotic holiday of the year. When our founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence two hundred and thirty-four years ago, John Adams envisioned celebrations in every city with parades, fireworks and political speeches “from one end of this continent to the other.” More than two centuries later, Adam’s dream has become reality. This weekend bursting sky-rockets and exploding bombs will illuminate the night skies over cities, parks and lakes. Parading bands will march in the streets followed by decorated floats and mounted horses. Politicians will address crowds from platforms hung with red, white and blue bunting.

But the Fourth is more than a holiday dream. It provides the focus for our American ideals in the words penned by Thomas Jefferson, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” With those words, Jefferson laid a theological and philosophical foundation that would inspire and guide our nation.

Throughout our history, sociologists have sought the secret of America’s success. After touring the United States in 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that democracy and freedom worked in America because of America’s faith. He wrote, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith … despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.” Robert Kaplan’s Empire Wilderness sought a similar re-examination of America in 1998. He reached more pessimistic conclusions than de Tocqueville but expressed the same longing for faith. Visiting a Mexican church in Tucson, Kaplan wrote, “The church conjured up tradition, sensuality, nostalgia. If only this church were more relevant to the social forces roiling the southern half of Tucson.” In The Next One Hundred Million, Joel Kotkin paints an optimistic future for America in 2050 based largely on our unique faith. He writes, “a ‘spiritual’ tradition that extends beyond regular church attendance … persists as a vital force.”

We strive toward equality because that is the way God made us. We are each made in His image and every person is born with infinite worth. We are taught, through faith, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, that we are greatest when we are servant to others and that service to God is measured by our actions toward the “least of these.”

The pursuit of happiness can end in disaster when it is misguided. The pursuit of happiness only leads to life when it is linked to the liberty that comes through faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ we are prone to become captive to addictions and sins that easily beset us. Jesus said, “Everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin … if the Son makes you free you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:34-36).

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Journey 6-21-2010

Jackie and I set out on another journey this month. This time we are cruising the open prairies and mountain vistas of Montana. There is something about the open road, something about new territory, new sights, new sounds and new people. I guess that is why Willie’s song, “On the Road Again” stays at the top of the charts. Yesterday we visited Pompy’s Tower and viewed William Clark’s inscription, the only remaining physical evidence of his epic journey with Meriweather Lewis to discover the northwest passage. He scratched his name on the sandstone cliff overlooking the Yellowstone River during their return trip, July 25, 1806.

Something about the human spirit has always been drawn to the journey. We are mesmerized by the expeditions of Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Lindbergh, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong. We are drawn to the imaginary journeys of Hobbits to find Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings and Star Trek’s quest to go where no man has gone before. Journeys, both real and imagined, change the world and they change us.

God chooses to reveal himself to those who are on the journey. In fact, redemption starts with God’s call to Abraham to leave the country of his fathers and launch out on a journey to places he had never seen. Moses’ famous journey out of Egypt resulted in the Ten Commandments which provide the basis for all moral understanding. No journey was ever more life changing for human history than the journey Jesus set out upon when he left Nazareth and gathered his motley band of twelve men to follow him. Their travels on foot through the regions of Galilee, Judea and Samaria changed the world. The stories of their encounters with the lame, the blind, the rich, the poor, prostitutes and priests provide us the framework for understanding God and our selves.

We are all on a journey. The journeys we choose, where we go, how we get there and who goes with us will shape us and change us for the better or the worse. We like to think we are all going to the same place, that we will all arrive at the same destination no matter what we believe, what we do or how we live. But the fact of the matter is that this just isn’t true. Different roads lead to different places. Jesus said “broad is the way and wide is the gate that leads to destruction and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) He alone knows the way that leads to life and He continually invites us to join the journey that leads us there saying, “Come, follow me.”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Fathers Day 6-14-2010

Sunday, June 20, smoke will rise like incense from America’s backyards filling neighborhoods with the scent of sizzling steak, the unmistakable sign of Fathers Day. Fathers Day had its start in the United States 100 years ago in Spokane, Washington. Mrs. Sonora Smart Dodd got the idea while sitting in church observing Mothers Day. Her father raised her after her mother’s early death, and she wanted some way to honor him. The city and its churches adopted the proposal with enthusiasm. Since that time our nation has paused on the third Sunday of June to recognize the role of fathers in our families.

As a twelve-year-old boy, Jesus rewrote everything we ever thought about fathers and everything we think about God. He had returned to Jerusalem with his parents to observe the Passover as was their custom. The Passover was a family event. Relatives and friends traveled in caravans from Nazareth to Jerusalem once a year to visit with distant relatives and observe this significant historic Jewish custom. When the group started their journey home they were struck with the horror of a missing child. The twelve-year-old Jesus had been left behind, lost on the streets of the capital city.

Mary and Joseph left the returning caravan and traveled a full day’s journey back to Jerusalem to find him. After threee days of anguish, they found him in the Temple engaged in discussion with the religious leaders. Hardly able to control her emotions, Mary asked him, “Son, why have you treated us this way? Don’t you know your father and I have been anxiously looking for you?” His response shocked her. He said. “Did you not know I must be about the things of my Father?” Mary and Joseph did not understand what he was talking about. (Luke 2: 41-52) The reason for Mary and Joseph’s confusion is rather simple. They had never thought of God as Father. Like all faithful Jews, they considered God too holy for his name to be pronounced. Only the priest could approach God in the holy of holies and that only once a year. No one thought of God in personal terms as “Father.”

This became a dominant theme in Jesus’ ministry. He revolutionized prayer by teaching us to pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven” and encouraged us to bring all our requests to God saying, “Which one of you if your son asks for an egg will give him a stone, or for a fish will give him a snake? If you being evil know how to give good things to your children, how much more will your Father which is in Heaven give what is good to you.” "Take no thought saying what shall we eat? or what shall we drink? or wherewithal shall we be clothed? For your Heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things ..." "It is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." "I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me." With his final breath upon the cross, Jesus said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” From his first recorded words to his last, Jesus redefined God as our Father.

At the same time, Jesus elevated the role of fatherhood by making this comparison to God. Few relationships have a greater impact upon our lives than the relationship with our father. And few relationships offer greater opportunity for shaping the next generation than a father’s love for his sons and daughters.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Finishing Well 6-8-2010

One of the great lessons taught in every sport is the importance of finishing well. An athlete or a team can stumble at the start, but it is how they finish that makes the difference.

On November 26, 1994, 30,000 fans filled Texas Stadium to watch John Tyler play Plano East in a high school football play off game. With three minutes and three seconds left, John Tyler led the game 41 to 17. On the next play, Plano East scored a touch down, then proceeded to recover three on-side kicks to score three more. With 24 seconds remaining, Plano East took the lead 44-41. They kicked off to John Tyler whose returner took the ball on his three yard line and returned it 97 yards. Final score: John Tyler 48, Plano East 44.

Everyone who follows golf immediately recognizes the name, Jean Van de Velde. Leading the British Open at Caroustie in 1999 by three shots, the Frenchman only needed a double bogey 6 on the final hole to claim the coveted Claret Jug. After a series of reckless shots that ended up in the creek protecting the 18th green, he removed his socks and shoes and waded in debating whether to hit from the water He took a drop, triple bogeyed the hole and lost in a play off.

In 2006 the famous marathoner, Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya was striding triumphantly toward the finish line in the Chicago Marathon. As he approached the line, he threw his hands over his head in celebration, stepped on a logo marking the end of the race, and fell backward striking his head on the pavement. He lay on the road semi-conscious as runner after runner passed him.

Most of us can make a good start at whatever we choose. Everyone can sprint at the beginning of a race, but, what matters most is how we finish.

Looking back over his life the Apostle Paul stated, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul didn’t make a very good start. Known in his youth as Saul, he pursued blind ambition for advancement proudly searching out Christians and throwing them in jail, both men and women. He assisted in the cruel execution of Stephen, an innocent man, stoned to death as the first martyr following Jesus’ resurrection. But, following his conversion to Christ, he lived a consistent life of faith and finished well. In another letter, Paul wrote, “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

When Jesus prepared for the cross, he said to the Father, “I have finished the work you gave me to do.” (John 17:4). The last word he spoke before he died was, tetelestai, “it is finished.” He had demonstrated God’s glory on earth in a perfect, sinless life and “paid in full” the penalty for our sins so that we might have eternal life with Him in Heaven.
May each of us run the race God has given us today, looking to Jesus, “the author and perfecter of our faith” so that we finish well.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Graduation 5-31-2010

On high school and college campuses all across the United States young men and women lined up last month robed in graduation caps and gowns grinning at their friends. Their eyes scanned the audience, peering past dangling tassels in search of family members who searched for them. Cameras and cell phones lit up stadiums and auditoriums with bursts of light seeking to capture the magic of the moment.

Presidents, principals, guest speakers and valedictorians spoke of new horizons, a future yet to be written, a world to be changed. They urged those who have reached this achievement to believe in themselves and to never stop learning.

Every graduate that walks across the stage to shake hands with administrators and receive their diploma represents a unique story. Few are as unique as Helen Small who graduated with a Masters of Science degree from the University of Texas at Dallas. Helen is ninety years old. One of her teachers, Dr. John Santrock, a professor of psychology said. “What especially stands out about Helen as a student is how appreciative she is of the opportunity to learn.” Commenting on her college experience as a ninety-year-old, Helen said, “It’s helped me start a whole new phase of life.”

Graduation commencements inspire us because they not only recognize significant achievement, they celebrate new beginnings, new possibilities and opportunities, or, as Helen said, the start of a new phase of life. Education offers to the young the opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills that equip them for the future. For those who are older, it offers the opportunity to re-tool, to start over, to pursue new dreams.

Nothing is as important for a new start on life as a spiritual transformation that connects us with God and places in our hearts the values that make life meaningful. Proverbs says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In Ezekiel God said, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

God is always about new beginnings. He offers to the young the opportunity to launch their lives on the path that leads to life and, to those who are older, the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over. Whether or not you hold a formal degree from an institution, whether you are nineteen or ninety, you can make a new start on life. Paul wrote in Corinthians “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation: old things are passed away, behold, all things are become new.”