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Monday, April 29, 2013

Finishing Well

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 triple bogeyed the hole and lost in a play off.

Robert Cheruiyot of Kenya won the Boston Marathon four times.  He was striding triumphantly across the finish line in the Chicago Marathon in 2006 when he tripped.  Although he won the race by falling across the finish line, he had to be carried away in a wheel chair. 

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. 

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.  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.”

You might stumble today.  You might regret some things in your past. But a race is still to be run and God gives to everyone the opportunity to finish well.

When Jesus prepared for the cross, he said to the Father, “I have finished the work you gave me to do.”  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.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Is God Just?

The senseless bombing at the Boston Marathon last week set off a number of emotions: horror, grief, confusion, anger.  Most of us joined our government leaders in calling for justice.

Speaking at the Interfaith Service in Boston, President Obama said, “Yes, we will find you. And yes, you will face justice. We will hold you accountable.”  Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren stated, “we will identify whoever did this – and we will bring them to justice.” The FBI Special-agent for Boston said, “We will go to the ends of the Earth to identify the suspects responsible for this despicable crime.”

Somehow, being able to identify whoever committed this crime and bringing them to justice restores a sense of balance.Four days later one suspect is dead, the other badly wounded and in custody. 

This, of course, is not the first time our nation has been stricken by senseless slaughter.  The Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Twin Towers on 9-11, Fort Hood in 2009, all remain vivid in our memories.  In each case the heroism, love and sacrifice of thousands vastly overwhelmed the criminal hatred of the few.  And in each case we felt compelled to go to every extreme to find and punish the perpetrators.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were arrested for detonating the explosive in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people including 19 children under the age of six.  McVeigh was executed by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.  Terry Nichols is serving a life sentence in prison. 

After the Twin Tower attacks in 2001, we launched an all-out war against Saddam Hussein and Iraq.  U.S. Navy Seals eventually cornered Osama bin Laden in his compound in Pakistan and gunned him down. The Fort Hood attacker faces the death penalty in a court martial scheduled for May 29.

Justice is a multi-billion dollar business. Every day the news is riddled with crime reports and subsequent accounts of the apprehension and conviction of the criminal. We are mesmerized by courtroom drama.  Our novels and movies largely revolve around the contest of good vanquishing evil, the twists and turns that lead to justice and vindication of right over wrong.

Why is it that in our human relationships, we require justice, but when it comes to God, we seem to think everyone is going to Heaven? Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten that the God of redemption is also the God of justice. Isaiah wrote, “But the Lord of hosts will be exalted in judgment, and the holy God will show Himself holy in righteousness.”  (Isa. 5:16).

When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel he portrayed Jesus’ promise to return and render judgment to all men (Mt. 26:31-41). “In that you have done it to the least of these,” Jesus said, “you have done it to me.”

Our efforts at justice are imperfect. Sometimes the guilty go free. Sometimes the innocent suffer. But the courts of God are perfect in every way. As the Scripture says, “It is appointed to man once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27). And as the Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not be deceived. God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows this shall he also reap.” (Gal. 6:7).

Monday, April 15, 2013

When Suicide Strikes

The world was stunned two weeks ago when Rick Warren’s son, Matthew ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot.  Author of one of the best selling books of all time, The Purpose Driven Life, with more than twenty-million copies sold world-wide, Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, have been open about their grief and the long struggle with their son’s mental illness that led up to his suicide. Warren’s church described Matthew as “an incredibly kind, gentle and compassionate young man whose sweet spirit was encouragement and comfort to many. Unfortunately, he also suffered from mental illness resulting in deep depression and suicidal thoughts.”

Virtually every family has been touched, directly or indirectly, by suicide and its painful aftermath. According to the World Health Organization, almost one million people die of suicide world-wide each year, a rate of 16 per 100,000, up 60% over the last 45 years. It is among the top three causes of death for those ages 15-44 and the leading cause of death for those ages 10-24. More teenagers and young adults die by suicide each year than by AIDS, birth defects, heart disease, cancer and influenza combined. Placed in historic context, we may well be experiencing a global suicide epidemic.

Mental disorders, especially depression and alcohol, are a leading cause. Suicide’s social stigma coupled with fear, embarrassment, grief and spiritual misunderstanding may contribute to our inability to address helpful solutions. But, increasingly, churches are seeking ways to help people who wrestle with this deadly emotional illness.

 Frank Page, President of the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, lost his 32-year-old daughter to suicide in 2009. His book, Melissa: A Father’s Lessons from a Daughter’s Suicide, will be released June 1. He writes, “Did you ever wonder where God was when you sat up at night asking questions that had no solvable answers? Did you ever doubt His love and goodness? Did you feel abandoned by Him? Deserted? Alone?

“I understand if you did. I understand if you still do. Suicide is not a situation that lends itself to casual conversations with God. It hurts. And more than that, it seems as though He could have prevented it all if He'd wanted to. At those times when the loss seems the most impossible to bear, at times when you can't believe what your child is doing or has done to themselves, it can feel like God is nowhere this side of heaven to offer all that comfort His Word so confidently promises.

“But I can tell you by the testimony of Scripture, He is strong enough to weather our hot accusations against Him, patient enough to withstand our desire to seek distance from Him (though such a thing is, of course, theologically impossible), and compassionate enough to feel emotion at the deep, hollow anguish that can often stand between us and our tottering faith.”

If you are wrestling with suicide issues in your own life or among your family and friends, there are resources to help. Call the national suicide prevention hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255),  Boys Town hotline at 800-433-3000, or Christian Suicide Prevention at 888-667-5947. Visit www.texassuicideprevention.org or www.allianceofhope.org.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The Stranger Among Us

My “multi-great” grandfather, Thomas Tinsley, landed in Jamestown in 1638 after a risky voyage across the Atlantic. My mother’s family, the Harper’s, came to America from Ireland. Along with them came others from Norway, Poland, Germany, Italy, and a host of captives from Africa. They were followed by still more from Asia, including refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. Native Americans came first, beating all of us to this continent by a few thousand years.  We have come from every corner of the earth. We are a nation of immigrants. 

We are one nation with many ethnicities embracing every skin color and many languages. More than ninety languages are spoken in Houston.  Polish is the third largest language group in Chicago with a Polish population equal to Warsaw. 

The recent explosion of the Hispanic population with the rise of undocumented citizens has put pressure on our immigration systems to the point that we are tempted to forget our immigrant history and heritage.

In light of this, evangelicals across the United States are calling for an Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action for Immigration Reform on April 17, 2013.  Leaders organizing the event include Leith Anderson, President of National Association of Evangelicals; Richard Land, President of Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; and Gabriel Salguero, President of National Latino Evangelical Coalition.  Keynote speakers at the Washington D.C. event include Bill Hybels, Willow Creek Community Church; Laurie Bechore, Mariners Church;  and Lee de Leon, Templo Calvario in Orange County, CA.  Supporters include a long list of evangelical organizations such as Focus on the Family, Navigators, Lifeway, and Missio Nexus.  This represents a huge network across denominational lines to bring focus to one of the pressing issues of our time.

According to the event’s website, evangelicals across America are calling for prayer and bi-partisan legislation that: “respects the God-given dignity of every person, protects the unity of the immediate family, respects the rule of law, guarantees secure national borders, ensures fairness to taxpayers, establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents.”

M. Daniel Caroll-Rodas, distinguished professor at Denver Seminary, speaking to evangelical leaders in Ft Collins said, “The Bible teaches us to welcome strangers, and we must live that. We must make this a foundation for what we are communicating to our congregations.”

Faith leaders met in Florida on April 3 for “Who Is My Neighbor? A Forum on Immigration.” They urged people to turn to the Scriptures to see what Jesus would say about welcoming the stranger.  Matthew Soerens of World Relief said, “We are working to build a moral movement of evangelicals who believe in just and practical immigration solutions that include an earned process for citizenship. Tens of thousands of Christians have accepted the ‘I Was a StrangerChallenge’ and are reading 40 days of Bible verse to learn about God’s heart for the immigrant.”

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Other Korea

When Kim Jong Un ordered North Korea to prepare its missile batteries for a nuclear attack against the United States last week, it made me think of Robert.

I met Robert five years ago. He was one of the orphans rescued from the war-scarred streets of Seoul in the 1950's.  Pearl S. Buck brought him to the United States with other children so he could receive an education.  Robert became a U.S. citizen, grew up and graduated from college with a degree in finance.  He married, and was well on his way toward becoming a wealthy man. But he was miserable.

Through the influence of his wife and her family in Canada, he came to faith in Christ as an adult.  After that, everything changed.  He left his career, went to seminary and became the pastor of a Korean church in Texas. A few years ago God led him to Cuba where he had no contacts and no plan. He immediately met some Cuban believers and, since then, has been helping start churches in Cuba.

Robert says that the reason he has been starting churches in Cuba was to learn how to work in a Communist country so that when North Korea opens up to the gospel, he will be ready to return and reach those who were his enemies when he was a child. Recently he has been working in China among North Korean refugees praying for an open door to North Korea.

 A few years ago my wife and I visited Seoul. We found a prosperous modern city in a growing economy. We rode efficient subways in complete safety. We attended a prayer meeting at 6 AM in one of the churches where more than one thousand South Koreans gathered to pray quietly with friends and family. Today South Korea sends out more Christian missionaries than any other country except the United States. It is the fourth largest economy in Asia and it is referred to as the “Miracle on the Han” because of its remarkable economic progress in the last fifty years.

North Korea, by contrast, is poverty stricken. Ruled by a strict Communist regime, its only hope for economic improvement rests in global nuclear intimidation. More than 3 million North Koreans died of starvation in the 1990s in what some have called the “last slave society on earth.” North Korea ranks first among nations persecuting Christians.

A couple of years ago, thousands at the Lousanne Conference were moved to tears by the testimony of an eighteen-year-old North Korean student who told of her family’s ordeal after becoming followers of Jesus Christ. She has not seen her father since 2006 when he returned to North Korea and was arrested for his faith. She believes he has been executed. She concluded her testimony by saying, “I believe God’s heart cries out for the people of North Korea. I humbly ask you, my brothers and sisters, to have the same heart of God. Please pray that the same light of God’s grace and mercy that redeemed my father and my mother and now me, will one day shine down on the people of North Korea.”