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Monday, July 30, 2012

Run to Win

All eyes are focused on London for the Olympics where we are mesmerized by the best athletes of the world competing at the limit of their talent and determination. A high bar was set for the entertainment factor when the Queen appeared to skydive into the opening ceremonies alongside her 007 agent, James Bond.

The Olympic games date back to 770 BC and were expanded in the first century by Augustus Caesar, the Emperor of record at Jesus’ birth. Writing to Greeks in the first century, the Apostle Paul drew on Olympic metaphors to help them understand how to live the Christian life: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.” (1 Corinthians 9:24).

Christianity is not a spectator religion. We all must run! In spite of the fact that our churches are arranged so that most of us appear to be sitting in the stands watching a few performers on the stage, the truth is that we must compete in the race. Sunday services are more like team meetings in the locker room to get us ready for the main event that starts on Monday.

The Academy Award winning movie Chariots of Fire depicted the 1924 Olympic competition between Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, the two fastest men of their day. Abrahams had never lost a race until Eric Liddell beat him in the 100 meter dash by a single step. Mortified by the loss, he later sat in the empty stands with his fiancĂ©. She kept trying to encourage him, but he finally snapped at her, “You don’t understand. If I can’t win, I won’t run.” Stunned, she paused for a moment then responded with typical feminine insight. “If you don’t run,” she said, “you can’t win!” That is the Apostle’s point. If we don’t run, we can’t win. We must all live out our faith in Christ in such a way that we “run to win!”

This requires discipline. Paul continues, “Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.(1 Cor. 9:25). The athletes we are watching in London must exercise great discipline in diet and training. Only by imposing discipline upon their bodies can they compete for the gold.

Too many Christians think that once they accept Christ by faith and receive the assurance of heaven that they can live however they wish. They are like someone who has been accepted to the Olympics and chooses to train for their event by eating Blue Bell ice cream and watching others compete on TV. They might be at the Olympics, but they won’t win the prize. The Apostle concludes, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27).

Monday, July 23, 2012

Dealing with the Devil

When my mother was eighty-seven, she called me asking my opinion about some counsel she had received from some well meaning Christian friends. They told her that the Devil was always present, always beside her, always trying to make her fall. Near the point of tears, she asked if that was true. A widow for thirty-three years, the thought of the Devil constantly beside her, testing her, only served to deepen her sense of loneliness and fear.

I was glad to reassure her that her friends, as well meaning as they were, got it wrong. The Bible does not teach that the Devil is present everywhere. Nor does it teach that the Devil is always standing beside us tempting us. In the last days before her death at eighty-nine she demonstrated complete confidence in  God's presence and His promises.

When Jesus was tempted for forty days in the wilderness the Bible clearly states that after the temptation the Devil left him. If the Devil left Jesus, he also leaves us. He cannot remain constantly by our side tempting us. The Bible also says, “Resist the Devil and he will flee from you.” If he has fled, he cannot remain by your side.

Unlike our Adversary, Jesus is always with us. He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Giving comfort to followers of Christ, Paul stated, “Greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world.”

Of course, not everyone believes the Devil is real. But, there is a lot out there about the Devil. He shows up in books, movies and videos. To show just how confused people are about the Devil, a nation-wide survey conducted by the Barna Group indicated that a minority of Christians believe Satan is a personal being, but a majority of Christians believe a person can be under the influence of spiritual forces such as demons.

No one would argue with the fact that there is enormous evil in the world.  Our news reports are filled daily with murders, thefts and atrocities both local and global. The recent horrific killings in Aurora at the Dark Knight premier is a case in point.

The Bible teaches that the Devil is a real, personal being, our Adversary that seeks our destruction. (1 Peter 5:8). But the Bible also teaches that the Devil is a defeated being. (Revelation 20:10).

We need not fear the Devil or all his demons. We need not live our lives in fear of the evil and violence that is so evident in our world. We can live with confidence. If God be for us, who can be against us?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Flying Upside Down

Thirteen years ago today John F. Kennedy, Jr. took off on his fateful flight from Essex County Airport, New Jersey.  Heir to the legendary Kennedy good looks, charm and fortune, the young Kennedy possessed unlimited potential for political and commercial fame. But, in less than two hours, his young life would be cut short along with his wife and sister-in-law who were passengers.

Flying at night without instrument ratings, the young Kennedy was dependent upon visual contact with the ground in order to land the Piper Saratoga safely at Martha’s Vineyard Airport two hundred miles away. Unknown to Kennedy, he was flying into a night fog. Choosing to fly over open water, he became disoriented with no visual horizon, and apparently pulled the plane into a deadly spiral. Their bodies were discovered in the wreckage eight miles off the coast of Massachusetts.

Kennedy’s tragic death underlines the dangers of spatial disorientation in flight, something commonly referred to as “flying upside down.” The pilot thinks he is flying right-side up, but is, in fact, “flying upside down,” so that when he thinks he is pulling up, he is instead flying into the ground. Dallas Willard used this metaphor to introduce his book, The Divine Conspiracy drawing the conclusion that Jesus was the only person who ever lived who knew how to fly right-side up. The rest of us, left to our own devices, inevitably fly upside down.

This is the reason Jesus’ instructions sound so counter intuitive. “Give and it shall be given to you, good measure, pressed down and running over.” “Whoever would save his shall lose it, and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. … If you love those who love you what reward do you have?” “If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.” “Do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also”

Jesus’ instructions sound incredulous in a world that operates on systems of revenge and retaliation, of greed and self-interest. Perhaps that is the reason our world seems to be out of control, gripped in a death spiral destined for destruction. Only when we learn to trust the One who alone can see the horizon are we able to “right our plane” and fly right-side up.

Monday, July 9, 2012

What Do You Know?

No one knows what you know. And everyone else you meet knows things you don’t. Even though my wife and I have been married more than forty years, we each know things the other doesn’t.

At birth, we immediately begin to build our knowledge base from family and friends.  Perhaps due to the fact that we shared a significant common base of knowledge in our formative years, most of us tend to remain close to those siblings and friends for a lifetime. But as we grow, our knowledge differs. We follow different paths, study different subjects, pursue different careers, live in different places and meet different people. Our individual knowledge becomes unique, like our fingerprints.

The pursuit of knowledge is a good thing. And we should celebrate each achievement that increases our knowledge. But how much does any one of us really know? And how much do we all know if the knowledge of every human being could be combined?

Scientists are continually trying to piece together the puzzle of the past, to reconstruct our origins and the path we have taken to get to where we are. Physicists recently discovered what appears to be the Higgs boson, what some refer to as the “God particle,” which could answer the origin of all mass. But, even with this discovery, the sum total of our scientific, philosophical and historic knowledge represents only a small fragment of the total knowledge in the universe. The more we discover, the more we realize what we don’t know. The puzzle pieces of the past are often misleading, having to be rearranged and reconfigured to correct our preconceived ideas.

Solomon, considered by many to be the wisest man to ever live, wrote, “I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, ‘I know,’ he cannot discover.” (Ecclesiastes 8:17).

Perhaps the most important discovery is not what we know, but the fact that we are known. David wrote, “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; You understand my thought from afar. You scrutinize my path and my lying down, and are intimately acquainted with all my ways.Even before there is a word on my tongue, behold, O LORD, You know it all.” (Psalm 139:2-4). To Jeremiah, God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Jesus said, “the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”

As we expand our personal knowledge and strive to understand the universe, we can live with confidence that the One Who made it all knows us and loves us as He demonstrated in His Son, Jesus.

Monday, July 2, 2012

To the Ends of the Earth

I grew up in a small town in Texas and did not travel more than a hundred miles from home before high school. My first trip to a “foreign country” was across the Red River into Oklahoma. But, when I was eighteen, God called me into the ministry and that changed everything. I knew when I accepted that call that Christians were to bear witness of Christ to the uttermost parts of the earth. I had no idea that God meant for me to go there.

He first took me to regions of the United States that I had only read about: to the boundless beauty of the Northwest, the plains of Indiana, the urban centers and rocky coasts of the Northeast. I even lived in Minnesota for eight years where I learned how to survive brutal winters and celebrate summers. I discovered the immense pleasure of sweet corn, though I never learned to eat lutefisk.

I was introduced to poverty in Matamoras, Mexico that seemed to pale beside the favelas of Brazil. I visited orphanages in Guatemala and saw volcanoes with lush forests. While conducting church planting conferences in Australia, I toured Sydney’s Botanay Bay, woke to the sound of a laughing kookaburra outside Melbourne and napped on the grass at King’s Park in Perth, then witnessed the crashing surf at Auckland, New Zealand. In Moscow, I stood outside the Kremlin and toured Lenin’s tomb after working on a partnership with Siberian Christians. We met with Christians from around the world in Prague and visited Bethlehem Chapel where John Hus preached in 1402. In Egypt, I stood in awe at the foot of the same pyramids that were once seen by Abraham and explored the catacombs of Alexandria where Christians took refuge in the first centuries. I met with NGOs in Aceh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami and woke each morning to the Islamic call to prayer. This summer I am in Nuremberg, Germany serving as pastor of a new English speaking church with more than a dozen nationalities represented.

Along the way I learned that God loves different cultures and different people. He loves the red, brown, yellow, black and white. He loves long hair and short. He loves the sound of different music and different languages. Like His creation with all of its multifaceted mysteries, he loves the diversity within the human race.

I learned that when I am in a different culture I see myself differently, and I see God in ways I would have never seen Him. I learned that there is no greater adventure than to follow Him to the ends of the earth to share the message that He has revealed Himself in His Son, Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. I am filled with awe, wonder and amazement at the journey that started, for me, with a very small step in a small town in Texas.