Saturday, April 25, 2009

Can You Relate?

Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

-- Ecclesiastes 4:12

You know who they are.

Maybe they’re a co-worker, neighbor or even your uncle. They’re the ones who always seem to know who to call for impossible situations. Like the time you needed a pair of concert tickets or a decent plumber to fix a broken pipe late on a Sunday night. He (or she) always comes through for you. You won’t soon forget that super mechanic he recommended. And how about that Nintendo Wii he found for your child last year – just when you were sure that all the stores had sold out?

No doubt it’s wise to keep these special folks high on your Christmas card list. They’re the people who know someone who knows someone. Simply put, they have connections.

And so do we as Christ-followers. That’s because ours is a faith that embraces relationship over religion. Specifically, there’s the ultimate parent/child relationship between us and God. It’s a bond only made possible through Jesus’ death on the cross – a punishment that we all rightly deserve for our lifetimes stained by personal failures and shortcomings (collectively known as “sin”). But since we’re connected with the right Person (Jesus), He’s already paid the price to save us from this certain death. Christ has fixed us up so well in fact that we’re now literally heirs to His Father’s Kingdom.

(Talk about connections!)

That’s the primary relationship we enjoy as Christ-followers. But God also wants us to take pleasure in close relationships with travelers on the same faith journey. That means gathering with fellow believers on Sunday mornings to worship, celebrate and praise Him. And then there are those other important occasions like weekly Small Group meetings. They’re friendly, informal get-togethers where Christ-followers and seekers come together to pray, play, learn, laugh and grow. Think of Small Groups as friends in faith that “do church” together in homes throughout our community.

So how are your relationships these days? Do you know someone who knows someone? Are you really connected?

You need to be because Christ-followers weren’t made to go it alone. After all, life is full of breaks, bruises and impossible situations that need fixing. We know we can’t do it ourselves. Which is why it’s so good to know that through Jesus, we don’t have to.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Training Camp

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

-- 1 Corinthians 9:25

There’s something strangely appealing about rooting for the underdog. So maybe that helps to explain the lasting popularity of Rocky and its many sequels.

If you’re one of the dozen or so people in America who have never seen this modern-day cinema masterpiece, Rocky is essentially the Old Testament story of David and Goliath set in run-down 1970s Philadelphia. Rocky Balboa is a washed-up, down-on-his-luck boxer who gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight the reigning heavyweight champion of the world named Apollo Creed. The match is simply a stunt dreamed up by Creed’s public relations machine, and no one gives Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) much chance of surviving the fight’s early rounds.

No one takes the match seriously. Except for Rocky. And as he begins to prepare and reaches milestone after milestone, even his skeptical girlfriend, co-worker and trainer begin to believe there might be at least a glimmer of hope.

Rather than the dramatic – but somewhat unrealistic – fight scene, the footage of Rocky’s unorthodox training regimen is arguably the best part of the movie. We see the blue collar boxer working out in the local meat processing plant, strengthening his body by drinking (yeech!) a raw egg breakfast cocktail and then building his endurance by jogging through the mean streets of Philadelphia. The sequence ends triumphantly as Rocky races up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, raises his arms in victory and surveys his beloved City of Brotherly Love.

At first glance, good’s ability to triumph over evil is Rocky’s lesson for movie-lovers. But the less obvious New Testament message is the value of training and discipline in our lives. As Christ-followers, we need to develop and use the gifts and talents that God has given us to make a positive difference in our community and world. For instance, we’re called to explain the basis of our faith to anyone who asks us. But how can we answer questions from a neighbor or co-worker if we don’t set aside time each day to read and study the Bible and know what we’re talking about? This type of spiritual training is also a great way to grow closer to God by develop the ability to listen for His voice. And in turn, it helps us to discern right from wrong when faced by those modern day scenarios that are so rarely black or white.

Rocky Balboa’s chilly, early morning jogs through Philadelphia’s rugged streets also remind us about the critical need for endurance in our spiritual journey. The road we travel as Christ-followers is anything but straight and easy. As Jesus advises, “Enter through the narrow gate. The gate is wide and the road is wide that leads to hell, and many people enter through that gate. But the gate is small and the road is narrow that leads to true life. Only a few people find that road.”

Rocky is much more than a classic underdog tale: it also conveys a key biblical principle. It was the blue collar boxer’s steadfast adherence to a grueling diet and training regimen that helped him become a great champion. Likewise, it takes focused training, discipline and endurance for Christ-followers to become the great faith-driven people God envisions us to be.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Love Languages

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

-- Isaiah 40:11

What’s your love language?

According to relationship expert and counselor Gary Chapman, husbands and wives show their love for one another in distinct ways. Some show it through words of affirmation or acts of service while others speak it through physical touch or quality time. And not surprisingly, another popular marital love language involves giving or receiving gifts.

We learn through the Bible that God also shows His love in several different ways. Think about the famous story of the Prodigal Son, where the loving father welcomes back his wayward – and totally undeserving – child with open arms. Or what about the shepherd who searches tirelessly for a single missing sheep? When he finally finds it, he returns it triumphantly to the rest of the flock.

Jesus also paints this remarkable word-portrait of love, which the agrarian people of His day would have recognized immediately:

“I am the good shepherd,” Christ tells us in the Gospel of John. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

Jesus also told His disciples about the man who sells all his possessions to buy a field. But not just any ordinary field, but one holding buried treasure. The cost to buy the land was staggering, but the man does whatever it takes to gain the prize.

And that’s how God loves us. He’ll go to any lengths to bring you and me into His family. Perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament (John 3:16) 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 all our wrongdoings -- past, present and future. We rightfully deserve death because of how we’ve lived our lives. But God’s love offers us joy and happiness if we’re only willing to accept it. By living on Earth among everyday people and then dying for our sins, Jesus has already paid the ultimate price.

Yes, the limits of human vocabularies keep us from fully describing the meaning and implications of how God cherishes His children. We can only skim the surface of this deep and vast ocean. But maybe it’s really not that difficult. After all, it takes only three simple words from the Book of 1 John to sum up the Creator’s love language:

God is Love.