Saturday, July 22, 2017

Passing the Test

He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times..."

-- Matthew 16:2-3

If you're a fan of Star Trek, you'll be happy to know that filming is underway for the next installment of the popular movie franchise. Star Trek 4 is scheduled for release sometime in 2018. And rumor has it that the plot involves Captain Kirk crossing paths with his father, the young Star Fleet commander who sacrificed his life in the 2009 Star Trek reboot to save his newborn son and the Federation fleet.

Speaking of the first Star Trek reboot, Star Trekthere's a scene where Kirk--then a brash Star Fleet Academy cadet--must undergo a computer-simulation exercise called the Kobayashi Maru Test. Designed by Mr. Spock, the test places Kirk in a no-win scenario as the commander of a starship facing the overwhelming force of aggressive Klingon warbirds.

Kirk remains calm while the imaginary Klingon spacecraft open fire. He even munches an apple from the comfort of the captain's chair as his exasperated crew wonders aloud if their leader will take action amidst the chaos. Star Fleet Academy observers also question if the cocky cadet takes the situation seriously. But just at the protective shields of Kirk's vessel are about to give way, the Klingon attack grinds to a halt. Then, it's the Klingons' shields that begin to fall. And with a few well-aimed photon torpedoes ordered by Kirk, the enemy ships are quickly destroyed.

The Kobayashi Maru Test was meant to gauge Kirk's response to impending defeat in an unwinnable situation. But since he had reprogrammed the simulation and re-written its conclusion, he could remain confident in the midst of circumstances that no previous cadet had overcome.

"I don't believe in no-win scenarios," Kirk later explained. And why should he? After all, he already knew the story's outcome.
Maybe our world isn't under attack from a squadron of Klingon warbirds. But a quick check of the news headlines reveals considerable turmoil in our midst. Thank God (literally) that we don't have to rely on our own cleverness to overcome it. The good news is that our Creator is in control of our crazy environment of politics, unemployment, revolutions and corruption. Maybe that's hard to believe. However, God's Word (the Bible) explains that he had it all figured out thousands of years ago--even before the world was formed. He knew which of us would be his followers. And he knew that his creation would need a perfect Savior to deliver us from the consequences of our misdirected lives.

The timing had to be perfect. And so it was. Centuries after the Old Testament had promised his arrival, Jesus was born in an obscure village called Bethlehem--exactly as predicted. Later, prophesy after prophesy would be fulfilled during Christ's brief ministry through his remarkable words and deeds.

Why does this matter to Jesus' modern-day followers? Throughout our trials big and small--and when our world seems to be crumbling around us--we can rest assured that God's plans are always trustworthy and on schedule, even when we don't understand what's happening. We can't see things through his perspective. But since he wrote life's first chapter, last chapter and everything in between, we can be confident that God already knows how our stories will turn out. Moreover, he's the author of a happy ending for those who love him and trust in his Son. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shades of Gray

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

-- Micah 6:8

One of the great misconceptions about Christianity is that it's all about rules and regulations. Yes, it's true that the Old Testament has over 600 of them, covering everything from proper animal sacrifice to priests with disheveled hair. What's more, the Jewish religious authorities added many others over the years through their oral traditions. Maybe the intentions were good. But the burden was heavy. Who could ever please God by following them all when there were too many to even remember?

"Until the time of John the Baptist, people had to obey the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets," Jesus explained to his followers. "But since God's kingdom has been preached, everyone is trying hard to get in."

God's Word was perfect. But Jesus got Decisionto the heart of its true meaning. When an expert in the Law asked Christ to name the greatest of the 10 Commandments, the Lord answered:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Christ-followers who stick close to this principle are likely to travel far down the road of Spirit-filled living. But there are still issues and situations--so-called gray areas--that the Bible doesn't specifically cover. Examples include issues with personal relationships, styles of worship, food and drink, and types of entertainment. Although the Apostle Paul never considered questionable Internet sites and pay-per-view movies, he was no stranger to debatable issues in his own day that pulled the church away from what was (and still is) most important: the Good News about Jesus. Paul advised early Christ-followers that their newfound faith in Jesus gave them liberty.

"Everything is permissible," he explained. "But not everything is necessarily beneficial."

In other words, just because we CAN do something doesn't necessarily mean we SHOULD do it. But this spawns an obvious question: How do we know if a particular gray area is OK?

We first need to determine if the proposed activity could be a problem to those who see us do it. For example, would it build up or hinder the faith of another Christ-follower if they saw you buy a ticket for an explicit R-rated movie? And on the same note, would the activity benefit you spiritually or physically? Just because you CAN eat a bucket of fried chicken and a carton of chocolate ice cream doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

Our faith in Jesus has given us the freedom to live enriched, fulfilled lives. But this same liberty isn't a license to sin. That should be the last thing in our mind. Above all--whatever we choose to do--we need to do it for God's glory. Because after all, the world is watching.

"A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house," Jesus tells us. "Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven."

The fact is that Christianity is much more about relationships than rules. And it's when we focus on loving God and our neighbors through what we say and do that the vivid colors of life emerge from the gray. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Soul Food

The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.

-- Proverbs 16:26

What's your idea of a great meal?

For some folks, a grilled steak, baked potato and tossed salad always hit the spot. Others love pizza, Chinese or seafood. And let's not forget those who crave vegetarian. 

Our tastes and taste buds might vary widely, but its hunger that unites us. Likewise, we all share another type of appetite that has nothing to do with cheeseburgers and ice cream. It's the spiritual hunger that's hard-coded in our SteakDNA. Inside, everyone has a gnawing desire to fill a gaping internal void. Some try through negative pursuits involving drugs, alcohol, compulsive spending or gambling. Others rely on long hours in the office or escaping reality through online gaming, television or even travel. But after the thrill is gone, the hunger always returns. And there's never any satisfaction.

Jesus addressed this spiritual starvation by proclaiming (and proving) himself to be the "food" that everyone craves. It's when we accept him as our Lord and Savior that he fills the void and nourishes our lives. We just need to be willing to ask, listen and obey.

Spiritual hunger isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we all need a drive--a certain level of intensity--to continue developing as Christ-followers. That's because the old saying is true: life is a journey rather than a wide spot in the road. God has so many things for us to see, experience and comprehend during our brief existence on Earth. That's how we grow and mature into Jesus' likeness. 

Unfortunately, too many Christ-followers become spiritually malnourished because they stop seeking meaning in their lives. The solution is to grow in faith by making the most of the people, places and situations that we encounter each day. That means developing our spiritual muscles through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, small group participation and other positive habits. After all, there's nothing like a good workout to whet ones appetite.

Are you hungry for more than bland, mundane existence? There's plenty of good stuff on the menu:

"I am the bread of life," Jesus declares. "He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Start Spreading the News

Jesus isn't here! He has been raised from death. Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you,
"The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life."

-- Luke 24:6-7

If it bleeds, it leads.

That's the old saying in the news business. Turn on the TV or check the headlines on the web, and you're bound to come across story after story about alleged political corruption, financial hardship, job layoffs and degenerate human behavior. The fact is that the media thrives on bad news and hyping the worst possible scenarios. After all, good news rarely drives ratings or attracts clicks.

Positive headlines also don't paint an Newsunrealistic, gloomy picture of our circumstances. For example, bad economic news can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies when people becomes too scared to buy a much-needed automobile or even a new pair of shoes. True, too many people really are struggling these days with difficult life challenges. But unemployment, crime, sickness and death have been part of the human experience for centuries. There's nothing new under the sun.

But enough with the depressing headlines. How about spreading some good news for a change?

As Christ-followers, our Good News (The Gospel) is that Jesus paid the price for our sins (past, present and future) when he died in our place on the cross. Then, just as predicted centuries earlier in the Old Testament, God resurrected him to life to forever defeat the power of sin and death in our lives. It's this same power that will one day raise all Believers to eternal life and joy with our Creator.

"Death has lost the battle!" proclaimed the Apostle Paul. "Where is its victory? Where is its sting?"

Does this Good News sound a bit too good to be true? If so, you're not alone. Even some of Jesus' closest followers found it hard to believe when they heard reports--just days after witnessing his crucifixion--that he was actually alive. Let's consider this encouraging passage from the Gospel of John, which details the skepticism (and later amazement) of an apostle known to this day as "Doubting Thomas":

Although Thomas the Twin was one of the twelve disciples, he wasn't with the others when Jesus appeared to them. So they told him, "We have seen the Lord!"

But Thomas said, "First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won't believe unless I do this!"

A week later the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas was with them. Jesus came in while the doors were still locked and stood in the middle of the group. He greeted his disciples and said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and look at my hands! Put your hand into my side. Stop doubting and have faith!"

Thomas replied, "You are my Lord and my God!"

Jesus said, "Thomas, do you have faith because you have seen me? The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!"

Are today's headlines getting you down? Now's the time to start spreading the Good News.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

All That Glitters

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

-- 1 Peter 1:7

You've seen the commercials.

They're the ones that invite you to trade in your gold jewelry for quick cash. And with the price of gold these days exceeding $1,200 per ounce, the promise of easy money might be irresistible. But while you're rummaging through your jewelry chest for that ugly necklace from your great-aunt, don't forget the old saying: All that glitters isn't gold. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that when it comes to gold jewelry, what you see isn't always what you get.

The proof is as close as your ring finger. GoldThat's because most gold jewelry is marked with a karat rating of 10k, 14k or 18k: the higher numbers indicating the greater corresponding purities of the precious metal. But since the purest gold (like 24k) is very soft--and not to mention very expensive--goldsmiths mix it with other metals so the resulting alloy will stand up to everyday wear and tear. One of the most popular gold ratings, 18-karat, is 75% gold mixed with a 25% alloy of silver, copper or both. A lower-purity gold with a more affordable price tag is 14-karat. And then there's 10-karat gold--generally the lowest purity that can still be referred to as gold. About 60% of a 10-karat gold ring represents metals other than gold! Then things really get dicey when it comes to the gold-filled and gold-plated jewelry sold on cable shopping channels and late-night TV.

The bottom line is that gold jewelry can look dazzling to the untrained eye. But Jesus--who's the Master Artisan--is quick to spot cheap imitations and showy, overpriced pieces that aren't what they seem. And he's looking at people rather than jewelry!

Christ aimed some of his most stinging criticisms at the so-called religious people who said all the right things, appeared to be spiritual and made a show when giving their weekly church offerings. They looked fine on the outside. But Jesus was able to scrape off their shiny golden veneer to reveal the ugly base metal of their hearts.

He called them hypocrites.

Christ would likely use this same term for some modern-day church-goers. After all, they've worn their Sunday-finest mask for so long that they think it's natural. But there's good news for those who truly desire genuine transformation and a new life through faith in The Savior. God specializes in forming beautiful and useful examples of his handiwork from raw materials exposed to the intense heat of daily trials and tribulations. And it's when life gets super-heated that our impurities are finally burned away. This trial-by-fire leaves only high-quality gold--the precious metal that's pure and pliable enough to be formed into the effective Christ-followers that our Creator both values and desires.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Lawn and Garden

I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.

-- Genesis 17:6

Recorded during a time when the livelihood of most people involved agriculture, the Bible is full of references to the planting, harvesting and storage of crops. The crowds that followed Jesus from village to village were certainly familiar with the imagery of fruitfulness in his parable called The Sower. They knew a thing or two about cultivation. After all, their ability to grow and harvest a thriving crop each year could mean the difference between starvation and having plenty.

A related theme in the Bible is that of Harvestmankind's need for a thriving relationship with its Creator. Without him, nothing--either spiritual or physical--can grow.

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener," Jesus tells us through John's Gospel. "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful."

Christ then added this caution:

"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."

Warm weather is here, and folks are flocking to lawn and garden centers to buy the tools, fertilizers and other supplies to make their gardens thrive. They know that with enough time and effort, the harvest can be both remarkable and satisfying.  
The same goes for cultivating our spiritual lives, which also takes time and effort. But unlike a plot of vegetables that eventually withers and dies with the first frosts of autumn, spirit-filled lives rooted in a solid relationship with God will thrive and produce much fruit--and all with eternal benefits.

Are you cultivating a fruitful, personal relationship with your Creator--and are you helping others do the same? Work awaits us in the fields. So as we gather our spiritual gardening tools for the task at hand, let's consider these familiar words of Jesus from Matthew's Gospel:

"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few."

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hitting the Wall

I am coming soon. So hold firmly to what you have, and no one will take away the crown that you will be given as your reward.

-- Revelation 3:11

Long-distance runners call it The Wall. It's that barrier of mental and physical fatigue that successful athletes train for years to overcome. If successful, they'll reach the finish line with power left to spare. But those who are unprepared will drop out of the race in exhaustion and defeat.

As Christ-followers, we face our own wall each day as we try to live up to the calling for holiness--or being conformed to all things to God's will. That means we must be set apart by living by our Creator's standards rather than the world's expectations. But too often we tire as we fight our natural tendencies to do what's wrong ("sin"). Instead of following Jesus' example of loving our neighbors, helping the disadvantaged and honoring God, we're tempted to go back to our old "Me First" lifestyle. It's a real struggle: the selfish stuff we know we shouldn't do versus the ultimately world-changing things we can and should do. And as with any long battle, fatigue tends to set in.

Of course, giving up is never a viable Obstacleoption. We read in the Gospel of John that Jesus' disheartening words caused many of his followers to turn their backs on him and head home. Christ then asked his 12 disciples if they also planned to leave him. To this Simon Peter replied, "Lord, there is no one else that we can go to! Your words give eternal life."

What can we do when we hit our spiritual wall? First, we should lighten our load by shedding the excess possessions and unnecessary distractions that hold us back. For example, do any of us really need the burden of more credit card debt when we probably have more than we need of just about everything? And like successful marathoners, we must always keep our eyes on the finish line. Yes, steep hills and rough road lie ahead of us. But every step we take gets us closer to victory!

Finally--and most importantly--we must always pray for strength. And we get this much-needed vitality through the Holy Spirit: the personal Power that all Christ-followers receive when they ask Jesus to be their Lord and Savior. The Holy Spirit is literally God residing in every Believer. It's that Force that enables us to do or say the things we never could before, overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and generally do the impossible. In fact, the Bible tells us it's the same Power that raised Jesus from the dead that first Easter morning. And it's our Power to keep on the journey.

James, the stepbrother of Jesus, gives us these words of encouragement:

"Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him."

Do you have the power you need to overcome the obstacles in this long-distance race called life? All you have to do is ask for it in faith.