Saturday, March 25, 2017

Guiding Light

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

-- 1 John 1:5-7

If you're ever visiting Helsinki, Finland, be sure to check out Suomenlinna Church, one of the first landmarks that greets travelers arriving in the city by sea. This remarkable house of worship was built in 1854 for the Russian troops garrisoned at the nearby fortress. Its designer was Konstantin Thon, who was also the architect of the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow.

Converted in the 1920's from a Lighthouse ChurchRussian Orthodox Church to an Evangelical Lutheran Church, this impressive structure is today a popular site for weddings. What's more, Suomenlinna doubles as an operating lighthouse. Its beacon blinks the Morse code letter "H" to alert mariners that they've reached the Finnish capital.

Suomenlinna Church's dual role is biblically significant. First, it reflects Jesus' admonition recorded in Matthew's Gospel to illuminate the world with God's hope:

"You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

Second, Suomenlinna's beacon serves as a guide--both to sailors seeking safe anchorage--and to less-than-perfect people who are seeking hope and salvation. It's also a reminder that life's voyage is treacherous. And that's why it's so wonderful to know that this welcoming light points the way to Jesus Christ. He invites us to follow him and help build his kingdom--and all while illuminating his truth and giving comfort to those who live in darkness.

"I chose you to bring justice, and I am here at your side," he reminds us through the Book of Isaiah. "I selected and sent you to bring light and my promise of hope to the nations."

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Breakfast of Champions

For the Lord your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.

-- Deuteronomy 20:4

Legend has it that about 500 years before Jesus proclaimed the Gospel, a professional courier named Pheidippides completed the world's first marathon. Following the Greek army's decisive victory over the Persians at Marathon, he was dispatched to share the good news with the people of Athens. Pheidippides faithfully ran the more than 20 miles to his destination. And after announcing, "Rejoice, we are victorious," he dropped dead from exhaustion.

These days, thousands of runners compete Wheatiesin marathons all over the globe. And many of them prepare by adhering to a special diet to carry them over the finish line. In her Runner's World article The Healthy Runner's Diet, Liz Applegate recommends a regimen of seeds, fruits and vegetables, plant foods with their skins intact, milk and milk products, foods originating from cold water (like fish and other seafood), plus meat, poultry, and eggs from free-range or grass-fed animals. These powerful foods, says Dr. Applegate, promote good health and peak athletic performance for long-distance runners. And as most marathoners understand, eating the right foods can mean the difference between victory and dropping out of contention with miles left to go.

A similar dietary principle applies to Christ-followers. After all, our faith-journey isn't a sprint or even a jog. Instead, it's a life-long marathon. And it's to this end that we strive for lives that produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But if we're constantly feeding ourselves with negative influences--such as poor choices in relationships and entertainment--we shouldn't be surprised if we follow our old sinful natures from time to time. Expressions of jealousy, bitterness and frustration are common examples of what can happen when we fail to consume the right spiritual foods for going the distance. As the Apostle Paul explained to the Galatians: "Our sinful selves want what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit wants what is against our sinful selves. The two are against each other, so you cannot do just what you please."

It's obvious that every Christ-follower--just like every participant in the famous Boston Marathon--needs to prepare for the long and demanding race ahead. But rather than carb-loading to maximize the storage of energy in our muscles, we need to follow a determined spiritual regimen that will help see us to victory.

Let's start with ongoing prayer and a continual awareness that we can't make it without the Holy Spirit living within us. So instead of living one day at a time, we're to proceed moment-by-moment. Second, let's deliberately filter our thinking. Do the movies we watch, the websites we visit and the friends we make feed our spirit or our sinful nature? And finally, we need to die to ourselves every day by constantly watching for the traps and obstacles in our lives that can run us off the track. In 2 Timothy, Paul wrote that his spiritual diet and rigorous training paid off for his journey of faith:

"I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. At last the champion's wreath that is awarded for righteousness is waiting for me. The Lord, who is the righteous judge, is going to give it to me on that day. He's giving it not only to me but also to all those who have set their heart on waiting for his appearance."

Whether you're a brand-new Christ-follower or you've been a believer for years, the old saying is true: You are what you eat. Let's be sure to choose the right spiritual diet to see us to the winner's circle.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Road Warriors

Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

-- Psalm 43:5

Think your daily commute is rough?

Even if you've braved the infamous rush hours of Atlanta, Washington, DC, New York City or even Los Angeles, count your blessings that you don't live in Sao Paulo, Brazil. According to Time magazine, traffic jams in that South American metropolis of 20 million can sometimes drag for 100 miles!

Sao Paulo residents ("Paulistos") cope Trafficthe best they can as the gridlock consumes more and more of their lives. But their sense of helplessness and lack of control leave them feeling angry, exhausted and depressed. Time's quote from one frazzled commuter says it all:

"I feel useless, like I am a prisoner," complains Andreia de Oliveira, an architect who spends between two and three hours each day going to and from work. "I could be at the gym, studying, at home relaxing. But instead I am stressed and frustrated."

You might not suffer through crippling bumper-to-bumper traffic all day. But you (like every human being) have felt from time to time like things have spiraled out of control. Perhaps you feel like that today--and for good reason. But believe it or not, God is in control of the situation.  

This is a fundamental truth that every Christ-follower should embrace. But we often don't feel his control because we can't see the big picture. We don't know the life-changing people and situations that he'll introduce to our existence. We also don't have his vantage point of knowing what's around the corner and miles up the road. Moreover, it's hard for us to see a greater purpose in our lives when we're going through the pain of unemployment, lingering illness, family problems or even death. But God is in control. And for those who trust and follow him, he offers this assurance:

"Before I made you in your mother's womb, I chose you," says our Creator. "Before you were born, I set you apart for a special work. I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."

Has your life become a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam of depression and frustration? Don't ever lose hope. God knows what we need--and he knows it long before we ever ask him for help.

"But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord," we read in the Book of Micah. "I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me."

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Only Thing We Have to Fear

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" 

-- Romans 8:31

It was March 1933. The United States was in the midst of severe economic turmoil, with millions of people out of work, homeless and near despair. In that fourth year of The Great Depression, Americans needed solutions--and lots of hope.

That's when the newly elected president, RooseveltFranklin Delano Roosevelt ("FDR"), gave his first inaugural address to the nation. And he was quick to remind his fellow citizens that they had not failed. 

"Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid," explained Roosevelt, "we have still much to be thankful for."

Then came his speech's most memorable line: 

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Today, nearly 85 years later, some things haven't changed. We still seek shelter from our fears. Deep down, we may feel discouraged and abandoned because we don't sense God's presence. And our self-image is one of inadequacy. But the truth is that God knows the plans he has for us. Moreover, he sees us for what we can become rather than who we are at the moment.

Whatever we fear in this life, let's remember that we don't face it alone. In fact, it's when we're in God's presence that we're truly the most protected. It's all a matter of coming to our Father in prayer, listening for his response and guidance, and obeying accordingly in faith.

The Great Depression eventually ended with the United States emerging from World War II as the most powerful nation in history. FDR had successfully led America through years of economic turmoil and global conflict. But he knew that he could never alone conquer the giant called FEAR. The president instead relied on the guidance of Someone far more powerful and compassionate than he could ever be.

"In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God," concluded FDR's first inaugural address. "May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come."

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Stormy Weather

Jesus said to his followers, "Why are you afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

-- Mark 4:40

"Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

It's been about 2,000 years since Jesus' first disciples heard these assuring words of truth and wisdom. Isn't it remarkable that they're just as relevant to modern-day Christ-followers like you and me? Turn on the TV and surf the Web, and try to avoid the endless stories about politics, crime and unemployment. Likewise, who can avoid the unsettling sights and sounds of natural disasters and global unrest?

The point is that storms are everywhere. LightningAnd there's no escape--even after we've switched off the smartphone and logged off from Facebook. For some folks, it might be a job loss or bankruptcy. For others, it's a chronic illness or the prospect of major surgery. Maybe your trouble involves family or relationship issues like a divorce or the loss of a loved one. And it raises a logical question: Does God even care about our personal hurricanes and flash floods? After all, the waters of life are choppy, and the skies are dark and threatening.

Under such gloomy circumstances, let's remember that we worship a God who's much greater than any natural disaster, economic difficulty or international dispute. Ours is a God who literally spoke the universe into creation, formed great mountain ranges with his hands and parted the seas with a breath. And with just a word, he calmed the rough waters of Lake Galilee that had threatened to drown his small band of followers. 

"Is anything too hard for the Lord?" asks the writer of Genesis, the first book of the Bible.

Let's take God at his word when he tells us that through life's turmoils, he works for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose. Meanwhile, we should also remember that we're not exempt from personal storms once we turn our lives over to Jesus and become his followers. But what does change is that we gain access to a Power who helps us endure any difficulty, great or small. What's more, we become beneficiaries of an eternal inheritance that will make our current troubles fade into oblivion. The storms that seem so great today will become laughably insignificant tomorrow.

Yes, there will be times when the lightning flashes and thunder rumbles overhead. But we can rest assured that through faith in our great God, blue skies are on the horizon.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Great American Heroes

Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.

-- Luke 16:10

Maybe you remember that amusing series of commercials from several years back called Great American Heroes. Each tongue-in-check ad recognized a faceless individual who labors diligently behind the scenes to support the American lifestyle. What made the commercials memorable was their over-the-top scripts and theme music that saluted the accomplishments of such working-class heroes as "Mr. Backyard Bug-Zapper Inventor," "Mr. Jelly Donut Filler" and "Mr. Driving Range Ball Picker-Upper."

"Without you, Mr. Giant Foam Finger Maker, our teams would be in sixth or seventh place," proclaimed the announcer.

Great American Heroes, indeed. Number OneAnd although these commercials were absurd, their celebrations of the Average Joe were in many ways on the mark--at least when it comes to Jesus' viewpoint. For example, society tends to honor sports stars, musicians, actors and politicians as heroes. And there are times when firefighters, police officers and others are lauded (and deservedly so) for their bravery. But Jesus tells us that reality differs from the world's conventional wisdom regarding heroism. From his perspective, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

What does that mean? The world defines the successful of our society as those who do what it takes to get to the top and stay there. And in many cases, they see the end (prestige and fame) as justifying the means. But for true Christ-followers, this so-called road to fortune is nothing but a dead end to ruin.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with achieving success in business or making lots of money. The trouble comes when wealth, fame and power become the focus of our lives. And rather than being blessings to benefit ourselves and others, they can actually become addictions that enslave us.

What does it look like for a Christ-follower to achieve success? The answer lies in descending the world's ladder of greatness into humility and servant leadership. Serving our neighbors--those next door, in the next cubicle and in the next continent--becomes more of a joy than a chore. And ultimately, the way we live our life Monday through Saturday looks much like how we live it on Sunday.

Maybe you'll never get your own TV commercial like "Mr. King of the Karaoke Mike" or "Mr. Souvenir Snow Globe Maker." But rest assured that the honors will be much greater once you invite Christ to use your gifts and talents to help build his kingdom right here on earth. 

Great American Heroes, indeed.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Join the Family

"'In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,' declares the Lord Almighty."

-- Zechariah 3:10

When you were growing up, were you one of the popular kids in school? Or were you, like many people, a bit awkward and introverted? And at recess, were you one of the first ones picked for the team--or were you the odd man out just about every time?

Some things don't change, Invitationwhether it's on the playground or in the office park. How many times have you been turned down for that big promotion or lost out to another job candidate? And has the boss ever criticized your sales presentation in front of your co-workers? Rejection can be brutal.

If this strikes close to home, there's some very good news--even for those of us who were never asked to the senior prom or chosen for the varsity debate team. And it's much more important and lasting.

God--the most powerful and loving Presence in the universe--not only knows everything about you, he knew you before you were even born. Your name is written on his hand. And he's also chosen you as his heir. So once you accept his Son--Jesus--as your Lord and Savior, you become his adopted child. And as God's child and heir, you'll share in quite an inheritance to enjoy for eternity.

That's a lot to look forward to once God calls you to join him. But you don't have to wait until then to enjoy some of the family benefits. And one of them is the privilege of knowing God in a personal relationship. Through prayer, you can come to him directly with your joys, needs and sorrows. It's this close, ongoing bond that helps you overcome the rough spots that you're guaranteed to face throughout life.

Jesus taught his disciples that God isn't a strict, unknowable taskmaster who waits to zap us when we do wrong. Christ instead revealed that our Creator is a warm, reassuring and loving Father in the best sense of the word. And to the amazement of all who heard him, Jesus even referred to God as Abba--a child's word that translates into English as daddy. 

The incredible truth is that God has chosen you and me as his adopted children. And just as with Jesus, he wants nothing more than to hear you respond, "Yes, Abba!"