Saturday, October 31, 2009

Why We Serve

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don't do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you?

-- James 2:14

In 1942, the U.S. Government premiered the first in a series of seven films called Why We Fight. Produced by legendary Hollywood director Frank Capra, these powerful motion pictures were meant to educate our armed forces and the general public about the causes of World War II and the principles on which the nation was fighting it.

As Christ-followers, we’re also facing many powerful enemies. Just turn on the television, go to the movies or pick up a magazine. It’s not hard to find themes that actively attack Christianity and those who are too “narrow-minded” and “intolerant” to believe that every action, lifestyle and preference is relative. Our society has even fallen to the point where the word “Christian” has become an insult to too many people who just don’t know any better (and unfortunately, to too many who do).

But it’s the world – not Jesus and His teachings – that’s upside down. For many of today’s celebrities, musicians and sports stars, breaking the law and going to jail is actually a career move. But if a Christ-follower -- real or in name only -- slips up and does something wrong, the words hypocrite and judgmental quickly follow. It’s in these dark times that we need to remember Jesus’ admonition to some of His earliest followers – those who daily faced much more than an unflattering newspaper article or slanderous motion picture:

“Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.”
What does Jesus mean by light? It’s really that “spark” or inner Power that God grants each Christ-follower for demonstrating His goodness through their words and actions. It might be shown by helping an elderly neighbor by running a much-needed errand. Or volunteering to manage a co-worker’s project when he or she is struggling to finish an earlier assignment. Or it might even involve cleaning up a community park or visiting residents at a local assisted living center.

For Christ-followers, the question isn’t why we fight. After all, Jesus already won the battle against evil – and even death – when He died on the cross and came back to life three days later. It was all predicted in the Old Testament centuries earlier. Instead, we might ask why we serve.

The answer is that we’re to be Jesus’ hands and feet on earth while we wait for His return or that day when He calls us back home (whichever comes first). Until then, God wants us to help prepare His kingdom by making the most of the different gifts and talents He’s given each follower. And let’s not forget the other part of the equation: serving others makes us more like our Teacher, Jesus. We’re always to follow the Leader:
“In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served,” Jesus explained. “He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people."
When we serve, it’s not about us – it’s instead about Him and His creation. So as Christ-followers, let’s turn our faith into action by accepting Jesus’ invitation to help brighten a dark, dying world that’s so much in need of guidance, truth and love.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Worth a Shot

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

-- 1 Corinthians 1:27

These days it’s Swine Flu. Seventy-five years ago it was polio. But before 1800, one of the most feared threats to public health was smallpox -- a powerful and often fatal disease cited by some authorities as causing the downfall of the Aztec and Incan empires. But that all changed in 1796 with Dr. Edward Jenner’s highly improbable – yet successful – experiment that eventually lead to the scourge’s demise.

The breakthrough came after Dr. Jenner observed that milkmaids who caught cowpox (a similar but non-fatal disease) never caught deadly smallpox. The English physician then did the unthinkable: he took matter from the hand of a milkmaid infected with cowpox and injected it into a healthy, eight-year-old James Phipps. Not surprisingly, the boy eventually contracted cowpox from this vaccination. But then came the second part of the experiment – one that logically should have killed the youngster. Forty-eight days after administering the first inoculation, Dr. Jenner injected James with smallpox – the same lethal disease that had wiped out millions over the previous centuries. But rather than suffering a predictable fate, the boy remained healthy.

Dr. Jenner’s remarkable triumph over death, disease and disfigurement occurred despite the conventional wisdom of the time. His story also reminds us of other victories – the remarkable ones God shows us by accomplishing His will though the most unlikely people, places and circumstances. For instance, God chose someone with a speech impediment (Moses) to tell one of the strongest rulers on Earth (Pharaoh) to free the enslaved Israelites. God also chose a small shepherd boy (David) to defeat Goliath – the feared Philistine warrior who was taller than many modern professional basketball players. David later became Israel’s greatest and most powerful ruler. God even called him “a man after His own heart.”

This unlikely pattern continues in the Bible through the upside down way of Jesus. The Gospels tell us that Jesus’ first followers were anything but the cream of society. Some were lowly fishermen, one was a hated tax collector and another was who we might today describe as a terrorist. Jesus also chose Paul to spread God’s plan of salvation through both personal evangelism across far-flung lands and by writing several books of the New Testament. And why was Paul an upside-down choice? Before Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, Paul (then known as Saul) was a feared religious leader who specialized in hunting down and killing Christians!

Then there’s the most up-side-down choice of them all. Knowing that His people were doomed because of their sinfulness, God willingly chose to come to Earth in the form of a man (Jesus), live a perfect, sin-free life, and then be executed on a cross to pay the penalty we all deserve. Out of hate, fear and ignorance, the Creator was killed by His creation – mankind. But that’s hardly the end of the story. Just days after His unjust crucifixion, Jesus fulfilled the predictions written in the Old Testament centuries before when God raised Him from the dead to prove that He was indeed the Savior of mankind.

And as improbable and upside-down as it might seem, Jesus invites us today to accept this same power that raised Him from the dead and use it to establish God’s kingdom on Earth – one unlikely person at a time. Sound improbable? Let’s remember the famous words of the Apostle Paul, who readily called himself “the Chief of Sinners”: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And so can we all today.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Liberty or Death

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.

-- 1 Corinthians 9:19

What better symbolizes our nation and its ideals of justice and freedom than the Statue of Liberty? Constructed in France, disassembled and then shipped to New York in 214 crates, “Lady Liberty” was re-assembled and later officially dedicated in October 1886. Since then, the statue has inspired millions around the world to experience freedom by immigrating to the United States and escaping the hardships or persecutions they faced in their mother countries.

Today, Americans enjoy countless rights and privileges protected through federal, state and local laws. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution even guarantees our freedom to worship God as we see fit. But if we look at things through the upside down way of Jesus, no one (of any nationality) has any real freedom at all. The truth is that we’re all slaves!

Regardless of what’s written in our Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence, everyone without exception is a slave to someone or something. They might not have literal chains around their ankles. But they still lack God’s perspective of true freedom. As Jesus put it so bluntly, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.”

This sin represents slavery to the world’s values. And it comes in many forms. It might be slavery to money and possessions, pleasures, fame, a career… or even to religion itself. But whatever form it takes, the sin boils down to substituting false, manmade gods for the One and Only True Creator.

Christ-followers are also slaves. But the big difference is that they willingly choose to give up the temporary things of this world for the true freedom gained from an eternal relationship with Jesus.

“Don't you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey,” asked the Apostle Paul, “whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?

Paul shows that our choice is one of liberty or death; to follow Jesus or to follow sin.

Maybe this choice isn’t as hard as it seems. The fact is that none of our earthly possessions is really ours or can be counted on to last. We can lose our jobs unexpectedly through layoffs or “downsizing,” and our homes and property through a natural or manmade disaster -- or even foreclosure. Serious health issues can arise at any time. And let’s face it: the mortality rate for everyone is 100 percent. No one gets out of here alive.

The fact is that we WILL lose it all -- one way or the other. And unfortunately, most people choose to do so through their slavery to sin. But there is a far better and much more satisfying choice: becoming a lifelong slave of a very kind master by accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” He invites us. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

The choice is yours.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Honor Roll

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward.

-- Matthew 10:42

Maybe you’re among the millions of television viewers who switch channels or leave the room when a commercial interrupts a favorite TV show. After all, those ubiquitous advertisements for Hamburger Helper, Glade room freshener and Cottonelle bath tissue can get old quickly. But that’s not the case for a select few commercials: particularly those running during professional football games. And it’s all taken to the extreme during the Super Bowl. Advertisers spend millions of dollars on 30-second spots that often are as imaginative and entertaining as any well-written sitcom. And if the commercials happen to have little or nothing to do with their sponsors, so much the better.

A few years ago, one company launched a series of commercials called “Great American Heroes.” Each ad recognized those faceless individuals who labor 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. And although these commercials were absurd, their celebrations of the Average Joe were in many ways on the mark – at least when it comes to the upside down way of Jesus. For instance, society tends to honor sports stars, musicians, actors and politicians as heroes. And there are times when firefighters, police officers or others are lauded (and deservedly so) for their bravery and heroics. But Jesus tells us that the reality is quite different than the world’s conventional wisdom regarding heroism. From God’s perspective, the last shall be first and the first shall be last.

The world defines the successful of society as those who do what it takes to get to the top and stay there. And in many cases, the ends (success and fame) justify the means. But for true Christ-followers, this so-called road to success is nothing but a dead end.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with achieving success in business or making a lot of money. The trouble comes when wealth, fame and power become the focus of our lives. Rather than worshipping and living our lives for the Creator, we risk worshipping a flawed creation that eventually will fall apart.

So what does it mean for a Christ-follower to achieve success? In Jesus’ upside down way, the answer lies in actually descending the world’s ladder of greatness into humility and servant leadership. Serving our neighbors – those next door, in the next office cubicle and in the next continent – becomes not a chore but a joy. And a way of life.

Maybe you’ll never get a television 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 live through you and use you to help build His Kingdom right here on earth. And that’s the way it’s happening every day: one committed follower at a time.