Saturday, September 23, 2017

All In the Family

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

-- John 13:35

As Christ-followers, we're often reminded about the importance of helping our neighbors and showing compassion to strangers. Jesus taught this principle through The Good Samaritan: one of the most familiar stories of the Bible. 

We read that a traveler was once attacked by robbers and left for dead by the roadside. A priest saw the wounded man but elected to pass him by. Later, a Levite (a member of one of the tribes of Israel) also saw the man sprawled on the ground. And he too avoided him. HandsBut when a Samaritan--a member of a despised ethnic group--happened to come by, he bandaged up the injured stranger, checked him into a motel and even prepaid the bill!

Two supposedly "good" people had a chance to help the helpless, but they went out of their way to do nothing. Instead, it was the "despised" Samaritan who actually found God's approval because he had shown practical compassion to his neighbor (a total stranger).

Although that's a lesson we all need to learn and live by, helping neighbors and strangers isn't always easy. We too often let selfishness and pride get in our way, and we don't want to get our hands dirty. Then we end up like the supposedly "good" people in Jesus' story. But let's consider the other side of the coin: how are we showing compassion to our fellow Christ-followers: not strangers--but instead other Believers?

The moment we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we become a member of an enormous family of faith spanning race, nationality, gender and generation. We may be very different, but it's our faith in Jesus that bridges the gaps. For all of us, Christ is at the core of our thoughts and motivations. And we all share a common eternal destiny and a loving Father.

This truth sets apart Christ-followers from all others in the world. But since the world is watching us and questioning our motives, we must demonstrate lives of authentic compassion.

How? It's by celebrating each other's triumphs, mourning each other's losses and sacrificing our own selfish interests that we exhibit much more than transformed lives and ongoing spiritual growth. Above all, we need to follow Jesus' example: one where the word love is an action lived out every day through a changed heart. And not just for strangers and neighbors, but for other Christ-followers as well.

That's how the world will know that we're all in the family of God.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

One of a Kind

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

-- Genesis 1:27


Is it science fact or science fiction? Here's a weather-related idea that many people accept as gospel:

Since the beginning of time, every snowflake that has ever fallen is unique. Each one is different with a one-of-a-kind design.

It raises a good question: Out of the trillions of snowflakes that have formed over the centuries, who can prove that one from an 1896 Virginia flurry isn't the twin of another from a Russian blizzard two centuries earlier?

There's really no way to know for sure. SnowflakeAnd in fact, it turns out that snowflakes aren't quite so different after all. An article on the Smithsonian.com website reports that there are just 39 types of solid precipitation, and snowflakes fall in one of only 35 shapes. Meanwhile, a Vox.com article explains that certain flakes tend to form at particular temperatures, humidities and even locations.

Although there could have been two (or maybe even billions) of duplicate snowflakes over the years, there's no question that God has made every human being unique and in his own image. Moreover, we are both loved and precious in his sight.

"Two sparrows cost only a penny, but not even one of them can die without your Father's knowing it," Jesus tells us through Matthew's Gospel. "God even knows how many hairs are on your head. So don't be afraid. You are worth much more than many sparrows."

God--the most powerful and loving Presence in the universe--bought you and me at an incredible price: the life of his Son. Since we can never repay what we rightfully owe for all the bad decisions, broken relationships and damage we've wrought throughout our lives, Jesus paid it himself by dying in our place on a cross between two common criminals. He didn't deserve to be there. But God loves us so much that he went to extraordinary lengths so that we can be with him forever.

"If any of you has 100 sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won't you leave the 99 in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it," Jesus asks through Luke's Gospel. "And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, 'Let's celebrate! I've found my lost sheep.'"


Yes, regardless of our differences, God is willing to do whatever it takes to bring you and me home. With the hefty price of our sin paid long ago, the only thing that's left for us is to accept his free gift--and then live out our lives accordingly to show a skeptical world that we're truly one of a kind.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sunday Best

I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

-- John 17:23


Maybe you grew up attending a traditional church. That might have meant getting up early on Sunday mornings, eating breakfast with the family and then rushing to put on your Sunday best--those clothes and shoes you only wore to church and on very special occasions. Then it was time to get in the car, drive to the service and listen to the preacher, choir and organist do their things.

Millions of people feel closer to God in
Unitysuch a traditional church setting--one often characterized by stained glass windows, choirs, sanctuaries and sacred organ music. To them, wearing their Sunday best is yet another way to set apart the day and glorify God.

Other Christ-followers have a different perspective. Meeting in diverse locations ranging from storefronts to movie theaters, some contend that the formalities of a traditional church service can actually hinder authentic worship. Rather than the traditionalists "being themselves" on Sunday mornings, these critics suggest that there are many who wear a special suit of clothes on one particular day of the week--and all while looking and living quite differently on the other six.

There are valid arguments on both sides of the issue. But regardless of worship-style preference, there's no doubt that we must avoid the trap of paying God mere lip service rather than living out our faith through deeds and lifestyle. Yes, an awe-inspiring church sanctuary can be a place of worship and prayer. But so are the workplace, gym and supermarket. The point is that wherever we go each day, our place of worship should follow.

What type of worship does God honor?

Among other things, it generally consists of singing praise songs, teaching God's lessons through the Bible, and acknowledging how he blesses our lives through the revelation of his son, Jesus Christ. We also seek forgiveness for how we've fallen short of our Creator's standards, and we celebrate Christ's death and resurrection on our behalf through that symbolic meal called Communion or The Lord's Supper. And it doesn't end there. Outside of the weekly service, we must also worship God in unity by being Jesus' hands, feet and eyes in our community. We should likewise do our 9:00 AM-5:00 PM jobs as if God--rather than a human being--were our boss.

Christ-followers might not agree on every aspect of worship, but there's one thing that should always make us one: Christ himself. The Apostle Paul makes the case through his letter to the church in Ephesus:

"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

No Question About It

Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her.

-- 1 Kings 10:3


You've got questions. We've got answers.

That's was the familiar catch-phrase of Radio Shack--for years the place to go if you had questions about consumer electronics. Whether you needed help with fixing a wire on your stereo or buying your first personal computer, "The Shack" was your one-stop shop. You could even get advice about remote control race cars, CB radios and TV antennae installations.

How times have changed. These days, Google is the online resource for questions about just about anything. Forbes.com reports that the popular website processes over 3.5 billion search queries each day! And while going to Google and its competitors is fine for some mundane questions, going to God for guidance--particularly concerning the critical issues of life--is not only wise, it's essential for Christ-followers.

Your choice of career is a good example. In other words: What should you do when you grow up?

God guides us here in several ways. First, we need to look at the gifts and talents he's given us. For example, the ability to make friends and persuade others could mean success in sales and marketing. A love of nature could lead to a career as a scientist or veterinarian. And a natural affinity for mathematics could mean hefty paychecks as an engineer or software designer. But whatever job you take--no matter how big or how small--the question to ask is whether or not it honors God. As the Apostle Paul wrote in the third chapter of Colossians: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

Other life-changing questions involve marriage. Specifically, should you get married? And if so, to whom? On the first point, either choice is acceptable. Paul advocated the single life for some Christ-followers. But for others--depending on their circumstances--marriage was the best option. Meanwhile, the standard for choosing the right mate is more clear-cut: The lucky guy (or gal) should be a committed follower of Jesus Christ.

That's Biblical guidance that can save you years of pain, heartache and regret. And the saying is corny but true: The couple that prays together, stays together. Or as God warns us through the Book of 2 Corinthians, we shouldn't be yoked to unbelievers. It's true that the daily example of a Christ-follower can be a positive witness to his or her unbelieving spouse. But in many cases, differing spiritual beliefs lead only to frustration, confusion and conflict.

Whether it's the big questions in life or the seemingly insignificant ones, you can seek God's will through prayer, Scripture and advice from trusted believers. We worship a God who calls us his sons and daughters. And like the loving parent that he is, he always wants to hear questions from his children.

"We are certain that God will hear our prayers when we ask for what pleases him," we read in 1 John. "And if we know that God listens when we pray, we are sure that our prayers have already been answered."

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Time to Reflect

But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

-- Exodus 9:16


This week's solar eclipse was an eye-opening reminder of our Creator God's greatness and power. If you'd like another, look no further than the remarkable images of distant stars and galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched into space in 1990 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, the Hubble can take crisp photos of incredibly distant objects because it orbits above Earth's atmosphere--a barrier that can block and distort light reflected by the mirrors of conventional ground-based telescopes.

But you haven't seen anything yet. Space CrossResearch organizations from the United States, Australia and South Korea have joined forces to work on the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). And when the 80-foot GMT is commissioned in 2022 from its location in Chile, its seven huge mirrors will help render images 10 times sharper than Hubble's!

It takes just a tiny point of reflected light from a telescope's mirror to change our notions about the universe. But when there are barriers--such as the atmosphere in the case of astronomy--we can miss the big picture or be misled by a distorted image. 

This principle also applies to how we live out our lives. "I am the light of the world," Jesus told the people. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." As Christ-followers, our lives are to always reflect Jesus' love in action. But we too face barriers. The world teaches us to beat the competition, climb the corporate ladder and keep up with our neighbors (and then leave them in our dust). We need the biggest, the fastest and the shiniest. And most of all, we can't forget that it's not bragging if we can back it all up.

But Christ has a different viewpoint: To be first, we must be last.

This bold perspective sheds a new light on things. And that's just the point. How much better would this world be if his people were to adopt a servant's attitude and put the interests of others before their own?

Jesus answered this question through his own example. First, he willingly surrendered all the advantages he had as God's only Son. He entered the world through the most humble of circumstances--a birth among farm animals in a filthy stable. When he grew older, he learned to make a common-man's living as a carpenter. Of course, Jesus could have lived in splendor as the King of Kings. But instead, he chose a nomadic existence for teaching the Good News of salvation to his people.

That's quite a life lesson. And it was one taught by the One with a humble servant's heart. He's the same One who came to serve rather than to be served. And he's the only One whose sacrifice for our sakes is counted worthy.

How can we mirror Christ's life through our own lives? Jesus says it all starts by accepting him as our personal Lord and Savior. As he told the respected religious leader one night several centuries ago, we must be born again.

The fact is that we are nothing without Jesus and can do even less by ourselves. But when we fully surrender our lives to God, it's through this brilliant Light of the World that we find our purpose in life.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Unchained

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

-- 2 Corinthians 5:17


The fifth chapter of Mark's Gospel begins with the story of a man who faced some serious problems. Or perhaps a legion of problems is a more accurate description of his plight.

This tormented soul had been exiled from the community to live out his remaining days in a cemetery near Lake Galilee. The man was literally overcome by demons. And so total was his possession that he used supernatural strength to repeatedly break the chains and smash the leg irons that the townspeople had used to confine him.

"No one could control him," we read. "Night and day he was in the graveyard or on the hills, yelling and cutting himself with stones."

And that would have been the end of Chainthe man's bizarre narrative. But then along came Jesus and his disciples from their voyage across the lake. Recognizing that Christ was literally God in the flesh, the demons that possessed the man begged him to postpone their own eternal fate and instead allow them to infest the vast herd of pigs that roamed the hillside. Jesus agreed. And the demons immediately fled from their victim.

Fast-forward now to 21st century America. When a celebrity, sports star or even a neighbor faces the consequences of alcohol, drugs, anger-management issues or some other destructive force, count on someone to observe that they struggled with their share of demons. Sometimes that's a figure of speech. But literal demons really can torment people and do their best to make their victims' lives a living hell.   

The fact is that everyone has their share of demons to one extent or another--even Christ-followers. And even though we've accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, asked him for forgiveness and then received it, we still can slide back into those bad habits and behaviors that we thought we had left far behind. 

So what's the problem? Doesn't the Bible say that becoming a Christ-follower makes you a new creation?

Indeed it does. But our transformation is a work in progress on God's timetable. Although it can happen immediately, shedding our personal demons often takes place bit by bit and day after day along our faith journey. Also, keep in mind that our journey's pathway is narrow, twisting and full of unexpected hairpin turns. And it's when we take our eyes off the destination and listen to our demons that we wind up in the ditch.

Let's finish by considering the life-lesson of the Apostle Paul--the Christ-follower who wrote much of the New Testament. In his 2,000-year-old lament that sounds uncomfortably familiar to modern ears, Paul complains that he continues to do the very things he despises. Yet at the same time, he fails to do the things he knows he should accomplish.

If this great Apostle to the Gentiles had so many problems with sin and temptation, what hope can we have of breaking free from our own chains? Well...quite a bit! As Christ-followers, we don't have to accept sin's dominance in our lives. It all comes down to our ultimate trust and dependence on a Power much greater than ourselves.

"What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" asks Paul. "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Putting Love Into Action

Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.

-- Psalm 17:7

When asked by one of the Pharisees--a strict religious sect--to name the greatest of God's laws, Jesus astounded his audience by the simplicity and clarity of his response:

"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," Jesus answered. "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

So in just a few brief sentences, Jesus summarized the core message of Scripture: that God's love, translated into beneficial motivations and actions through our faith in Jesus Christ, is an unstoppable, world-changing force.

This is a difficult concept for many because Love in Actionthey equate "love" with that squishy word associated with weddings, chocolates and Valentine's Day. But Jesus wasn't talking about that fleeting, awkward emotion. Instead, he's calling his followers to walk in step with him by putting their love into sincere, tangible action. And this can come in a wide variety of forms--everything from helping an elderly neighbor get their groceries to revealing God's light to total strangers through a prison ministry. It could also translate into changing a co-worker's life by showing him or her how Jesus has changed your own. The possibilities and potential are endless.

How does God demonstrate his love?

There's the famous Bible story of the Prodigal Son, where the loving father welcomed back his wayward--and totally undeserving--child with open arms. Or what about Jesus' parable of the shepherd, who searched tirelessly for a single missing sheep? When he finally found it, he returned it triumphantly to the rest of the flock. Christ also told his disciples about a man who sold all his possessions to buy a field. But it wasn't just any plot of land. Instead, it was one that held buried treasure. The cost to buy the field was staggering, but the man did whatever it took to gain the precious prize.

Those are a few illustrations of how God loves you and me. In fact, he'll go to any length to bring us into his family. John 3:16--perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament--tells us that God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son (Jesus) so that those who believe in him will have eternal life. God willingly let Jesus suffer and die to pay for our wrongdoings--past, present and future. We rightfully deserve death because of how we've lived our lives and broken our Creator's laws. But God's love offers us joy and happiness if we're only willing to accept it. It was by living on Earth among everyday people and then dying for our sins that Jesus, who was literally God-in-the-flesh, paid the price to redeem us.

The limits of human vocabulary prevent us from fully describing the meaning and implications of how God loves and cherishes his children. We can only skim the surface of this vast and deep ocean. But maybe it's really not that difficult. After all, it takes just three simple words from the book of 1 John to sum it all up: God is Love. And it's when we live out our faith by putting his love into action that we can make all of the difference in the world.