Friday, December 24, 2010

Change You Can Believe In

To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example,
that you should follow in his steps.

1 Peter 2:21

Early followers of Jesus were called Little Christs because their newfound faith had transformed their lives for all to see. This odd group of people from all walks of life – rich and poor, male and female, slave and free -- were markedly different from the rest of society. They somehow had grown more caring and generous toward both neighbors and strangers alike, and they willingly sacrificed their time and resources to ease sorrow and correct injustices.

They had abandoned their old, selfish tendencies in favor of Someone much greater. In a word, they were changed.

And that says a lot for their leader -- an obscure rabbi from a distant corner of the Roman Empire who just happened to be God’s own Son. Few recognized that at the time. But because some did and led changed lives while following Jesus, millions in future generations would in turn help to change the world for the better.

Modern-day Christ-followers must too set aside their selfish deeds and desires in favor of following Jesus’ example. Like those first disciples transformed by the words of the Sermon on the Mount, we should recognize that Jesus the Leader was also Jesus the Follower. Christ spoke constantly with His Father (God) in prayer and always sought His guidance.
“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing,” explained Jesus, “because whatever the Father does the Son also does.”
It’s a radical approach that’s just as life-changing today as it was 20 centuries ago. And it’s also an approach that calls for personal action, commitment and sacrifice. But we can’t change on our own. So whether you’ve been following Jesus five years or 55, grasp every opportunity to become more like Him, walk in His ways and see the world through His eyes. Then ask God to fill you with His Holy Spirit – that personal, loving Power Who makes it possible to leave your old self behind and become a new creation. Eventually, through the trials of life and the whispers of His leadings, we’ll become the men and women our Creator always dreamed we could be. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Promise

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

-- Jeremiah 29:11

For several controversial reasons, America’s banking industry has suffered like few others over the last few years. More than 150 banks closed in 2010 alone, accounting for billions of dollars in deposits and countless lost jobs. It’s a sobering and painful situation with long-term, widespread implications. And if it wasn’t for a certain promise, things could be much, much worse.

That promise is the U.S. Government’s guarantee to cover virtually all deposits if a bank fails. Unlike the infamous bank runs during the Great Depression, bank customers today can rest easy knowing that they won’t lose a penny from their FDIC-insured accounts.

This rock-solid guarantee has no doubt stabilized our society because the public knows it can literally take the government’s promise to the bank. There’s no need to panic and lose sleep – even when the worst happens. And although that’s a comforting thought during these rough economic times, perhaps Christ-followers should actually find much greater solace in a promise that’s printed on every dollar bill: In God We Trust.

Trusting in God’s promises extends much wider than just our current financial status and job prospects. His guarantees – found throughout the chapters of the Bible – are eternal. And we can take them all to the bank because of God’s proven track record. For instance, God’s promised through the Old Testament’s Book of Amos that the city of Tyre would be destroyed because of its harsh treatment of Israel. And a few centuries later, the armies of Alexander the Great indeed leveled Tyre’s impregnable fortress walls. God also promised to one day re-gather His scattered peoples from around the globe. About 2,500 years later, God did just that through 1948’s birth of the State of Israel.

It doesn’t stop there. J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists more than 1,800 other promises from God. And no doubt His greatest was fulfilled – again, as predicted centuries earlier – through the birth of the world’s Savior in an obscure outpost of the Roman Empire. It was that first Christmas that God came to Earth to live among His creation in the person of Jesus. This Christ-child was God’s literal Christmas gift to us all.

This fulfillment of God’s Christmas promise was much more than a historic incident. Through Jesus, the devil was defeated and Christ-followers were given the power to live victorious, Spirit-filled lives. What’s more, nearly 20 centuries after His death and Resurrection, these same promises apply to us today. And in these uncertain times, it’s nice to have some sure things we can take to the bank. A prime example of this assurance speaks to us through the tenth chapter of Matthew:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny,” Jesus asked some of His earliest followers. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

That’s our Creator’s promise -- that He cares deeply for each one of us. And what’s more, He knows each of us intimately…even before He formed us in our mother’s womb.

In God We Trust, indeed!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Playing God

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. 

-- Isaiah 43:19

Maybe you've had one of those days. Or weeks. Or maybe you've been dealing with tough times - with your health, job or family -- for longer than you care to remember. Whatever the case, it just doesn't seem fair. In fact, there are times when you wonder if God is in control. Or even if He cares.

Maybe - you think - you could do a better job or running things than The Almighty.

If that's your story, it also happens to be the plot of Bruce Almighty, the 2003 hit movie starring Jim Carrey (as Bruce) and Morgan Freeman (as God). Carrey plays a Buffalo, New York-based TV news reporter who's desperately trying to land a top gig as an anchorman. But when he learns that his rival beat him for the job, Bruce loses his cool on live TV...and in spectacular fashion.

Bruce becomes furious at God because he thinks the situation is unfair. And eventually, God (Morgan Freeman) gets tired of his whining. In response to Bruce's defiance, God allows the obscure television reporter to assume His divinity and see how well he can do with running the world. Of course, Bruce abuses his new powers by using them for his own selfish purposes. He soon grows tired of listening to the millions of prayers coming from around the world. So out of his own misplaced sense of fairness - and maybe laziness - he says YES to every one of them! Needless to say, chaos ensues. And Bruce fails at playing God. Even his girlfriend (played by Jennifer Aniston) leaves him.

Bruce Almighty is only a Hollywood movie. But it still offers a few kernels of Biblical truth. And maybe the biggest truth - which we find in the Old Testament book of Isaiah -- is that God's ways aren't our ways. In fact, God specializes in the unlikely by using the least qualified people to do His will and accomplish great things. For instance, God chose a lowly shepherd boy (who later became King David) to slay the fearsome Philistine giant Goliath. Paul - the Apostle to the Gentiles who wrote many books of the New Testament - was originally a legalistic Pharisee who specialized in arresting and killing Christians. And even Jesus' 12 apostles were a motley crew of characters including fishermen, a tax collector and even a terrorist.

Why does God choose these people instead of the experts, the intellectuals or the otherwise highly qualified? The short answer is that HE CAN. Accomplishing the impossible by using the unlikely demonstrates His power and omniscience. After all, if we could always save ourselves, we'd soon believe that we don't need a Savior.

But of course, we all DO need a Savior - even when life seems to be going fine. So whether life is good or your life is falling apart, are you finished playing God? Let's follow the lead from someone unexpected (Bruce) when he prayed to the Almighty:

"Okay, You win. I'm done. Please, I don't wanna do this anymore. I don't wanna be God! I want You to decide what's right for me! I SURRENDER TO YOUR WILL!"

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Gain from Pain

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.

-- Isaiah 55:8

Parents fear the day that their children first utter the word. But don't worry. It's not one of those cringe-worthy expressions of the four-letter variety.  It's much worse.

It's that little question "WHY?".

Many parents will claim that it's cute (at first). But as their children get older, the repetitious sound of "WHY?" becomes tiresome at best. And especially when it's the response to everything from "Pick up your toys" to "It's time to go to bed."

The issue, of course, is that children don't understand that obeying their parents is for their own good -- even when doing so is uncomfortable, scary or downright inconvenient. When first graders ask why they have to go to school or visit the dentist, they don't appreciate that reading and writing will help them land a job one day...and that good dental habits can protect them from considerable future pain and expense. Kids can't see the big picture.

Some things don't change with time. As adults, we're also quick to ask our Parent (God) "Why?" when it comes to facing the trials of life. And just like our inquisitive first graders, we can't see the big picture of the plans God has worked out for us at the foundation of the world. But whether or not we understand His leadings, it's still up to every Christ-follower to obey them.

That's easier said than done because God often approaches problems and situations in ways that are diametrically opposed to what we see as the obvious solution. For instance, we read in the Bible that we're to love our enemies and treat others as we'd like them to treat us. But such wisdom often conflicts with mankind's Look Out for #1 mindset...even if that wisdom comes from the God Who knows the Big Picture.

Like reluctant children facing a trip to the dentist, we too can face discomfort when following God's instructions. Friends - and even family - can turn their backs or even ridicule us when we live out our faith. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

If this sounds familiar - and frustrating - rest assured that you're in very good company. Just think of what Joseph and Mary (Jesus' parents) endured before their Son's birth. Since they were unmarried, their reputation was under fire because Mary was well along in her pregnancy. They were also under immense stress as they fled for their lives with the Baby Jesus to faraway Egypt. And of course, following God's plan meant the abdication of their personal ambitions.

So whether your 8 or 88, you wouldn't be human if you don't still ask "Why?". But with the faith that's available to us as Christ-followers, we can embrace God's promises for our lives - even if we don't quite understand His plans and see His Big Picture. It's when we believe His promises while facing the impossible that we show God's power. Even when we still need to ask Him why.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Good News - Bad News

Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart, and good news
gives health to the bones.

-- Proverbs 15:30

Let’s say your spouse or your child – or maybe even your boss – approaches you and says: “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.”

How would you react to such a wide-open proclamation? It depends on several factors. For instance, you might be more wary of what your no-nonsense boss has to say than what comes from your playful 8-year-old son. And your guard might also be elevated if your mechanic or plumber was the last person who began a conversation with you that way.

On the other hand, maybe you’re an optimist at heart. For you, this good news/bad news conundrum means just one thing: an opportunity for something better.

About 2,000 years ago, some big news broke in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. And depending on who heard it, the reactions ranged from fear and uncertainty to joy and anticipation. The news, of course, was the birth of Jesus Christ – an event predicted centuries earlier in the Old Testament. And for the faithful who were looking for a Savior to redeem the people from their sins, it was confirmation of God’s love and faithfulness.

For others – like the Romans who occupied ancient Israel – the birth of this so-called “King of the Jews” represented a direct threat to the land’s law-and-order government. King Herod (the hated Roman ruler) was both jealous and afraid. And he did whatever it took (including the murder of the area’s youngest children) to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible.

Centuries have passed since God came to earth through Jesus. But today in 21st Century America, we are still much like the people of ancient Israel. We too know that the Scriptures promise Christ’s return to free His people from sin and right the wrongs of the world. So now comes the question we must all answer: Is His Second Coming good news or bad news?

Like the hypothetical situation with your spouse, child or boss, the answer depends on several factors. Many will greet Jesus’ return with outright hostility because it means submission to Someone greater and the need to relinquish their plans and ambitions. Others – like many of the religious leaders in ancient Israel – will be indifferent. They’ve spent little time considering the return of The King of Kings and its eternal ramifications. But like those who reject Christ totally, this indifferent population will also be forced to bend the knee and confess that Jesus is Lord.

There is of course a third option that’s a bit more realistic: embracing Jesus now before His return – or before we die (whichever comes first). Doing so means rejection of our sinful natures and failed plans in exchange for the opportunity to live life to its fullest through God’s power. And better yet, it means an eternity of joy in His kingdom after the completion of our brief life on Earth.

How we respond to God’s Good News would seem to be a no-brainer. But the Scriptures tell us that most people will fail to take up God on His most generous offer. What about you?

“Come on now, let’s discuss this!” says the Lord. “Though your sins are bright red, they will become as white as snow. Though they are dark red, they will become as white as wool.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Be Prepared

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.

-- Luke 12:38

One of the greatest catastrophes in recorded history occurred the day after Christmas in 2004. The warning signs were there. But most of its victims either didn’t recognize them or heed them.

The day began pleasantly enough with families spending the morning strolling along tropical Asian beaches. Suddenly, a magnitude 9.3 earthquake – as powerful as 23,000 Hiroshima-style atomic bombs – struck near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The resulting tsunami (“tidal wave”) rose to the height of an 8-story building and struck 11 nations along the Indian Ocean. More than 200,000 people died.

Seismic equipment did detect and record the earthquake that day. However, the region had no tidal gauges or sensors to verify the triggering of a tsunami. And even if it had them, there was no way to warn everyone to flee the shore.

Out of this tragedy came stories from the few who recognized the calamity’s warnings and were able to save themselves and sometimes others. The Associated Press reported that one Indian national saved 1,500 of his fellow villagers after spotting the ocean’s dramatic recession from the shoreline. A student vacationing in Thailand saved herself and her family after recalling a lesson about tsunamis and their warning signs. And for reasons debated by scientists, many animals somehow sensed the disaster and fled in time to higher ground.

Disasters – whether natural or manmade – happen every day. They’re often unpredictable. And there’s no guarantee that we can actually save ourselves, our family or property from the resulting destruction – even if we do recognize the warning signs. But today, there are warning signs of a much greater world-changing event that could strike in 100 years. Or maybe even tonight.

God promises us through the Bible that one day, a Savior (Jesus) will return to right all the wrongs of this world, save and reward those who believe in Him, and send all others to an eternity of torment. No one knows the exact time or day of Christ’s return. But many of the Bibles prophesies about the matter have already been fulfilled, such as the relatively recent one about the re-birth of the State of Israel.

Yes, Jesus could return in five minutes or in 500 years. But either way, we still must be prepared. That’s because none of us knows when our own time on Earth will be over. Check the news on the Internet, television or the paper and you’re bound to find stories about people killed suddenly in accidents, during crimes or by sudden illness (like a stroke or heart attack). Like the victims of the tragic 2004 tsunami, they had no idea that that day would be their last.

So this brings us to the obvious question: Are you prepared to meet your Maker? Your answer has eternal consequences. “So you also must be ready,” Jesus warns, “because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Our God is a God of justice. And since we’ve all failed to live up to His standards, we all deserve the death penalty that Jesus endured for all who would believe in Him. So how can you be assured that you’ll spend eternity with God rather than without Him? The Apostle Paul offers this assurance:

“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

What's in a Name?

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

-- 2 Corinthians 6:14

Since the beginning of recorded history, names have defined our personal traits, our professions and even our family lineage. For instance, the name David means beloved. Catherine means pure. And if your name happens to be Cooper McDonald, it means you’re Donald’s son, the barrel-maker. Choosing the right baby name is therefore one of the most important decisions that parents will make. After all, saddling a child with the wrong moniker can result in a lifetime of ridicule and burden. (Or at least a few giggles.) Just ask Ima Hogg (the daughter of a Texas governor) or Shanda Lear (of Lear Jet aircraft fame).

Going to God for His guidance – rather than a website found on Google – is always a smart move when naming a child. But there are some other critical decisions that come later in life that are arguably more important. And ignoring God’s Word in these matters can lead to much greater trouble and heartache than choosing an awkward baby name.

The first issue involves career choices. It’s the answer to that timeless question every parent asks their child: What do you want to do when you grow up?

God guides us about this in several ways. First, we need to look at the gifts and talents He’s given us. For instance, the ability to make friends and persuade others could mean success in sales and marketing. An interest and 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: The second life-changing question involves 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. On the other hand, the standard for choosing the right mate is more clear-cut: the lucky guy (or gal) should be a committed follower of Jesus Christ.
“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.”

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 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.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Storm Warning

You may be poor and young. But if you are wise, you are better off than a foolish old king who won't listen to advice.

- Ecclesiastes 4:13

It’s considered one of the worst natural disasters in United States history, leaving up to 12,000 people dead in its wake. And if not for the repeated warnings of one brave civil servant, the toll could have been even higher.

The infamous Hurricane of 1900 struck Galveston, Texas on September 8 with estimated winds approaching 140 miles per hour and a storm surge of nearly 16 feet. Dr. Isaac Cline, Galveston’s weather bureau manager, knew that the hurricane had crossed Cuba. And storm warnings were already issued for several southeastern states. But although he lacked our modern satellite weather forecasting tools and was uncertain about the approaching calamity, Dr. Cline soon became suspicious of the signs he saw in the sky and the waters. A day before the storm, he decided to raise the official storm warning flags on Galveston’s Weather Bureau building. And for the next several hours, he personally warned people on the beach to seek higher ground. Dr. Cline’s last telegraphed message to reach the outside world was, "Gulf rising rapidly; half the city now under water."

There’s no way to know how many Galveston citizens lived because they heeded Dr. Cline’s warnings. But we can see in hindsight that the signs for catastrophe were there. And that’s often the way it is with history-changing events…and even for events a bit closer to home. So let’s consider the warning signs in our own lives.

Is God trying to alert you about a storm on your own personal horizon?

Maybe it’s about your marriage, your kids, your job…or even that risky investment you’ve been considering. But whatever it is, it’s likely that His warnings aren’t a complete surprise. The problem is that we have a strong tendency to put off what’s unpleasant until the very last minute. Or sometimes not until it’s too late. And by then, the damage – often permanent – is done.

Our excuses are remarkably consistent. We’re either too busy or we don’t think the issue is a big deal. We also like to play God by pretending that we already have a handle on the situation, such as with drugs, gambling or drinking. But your family, friends – and most importantly, God – know otherwise.

How should we respond when God sends us a warning? The best answer is the simplest one: face up to it NOW and deny the natural tendency to wait until later.

The people of Galveston found out the hard way. After suffering damages exceeding $700 million in today’s money, they decided to plan for future hurricanes by constructing a massive sea wall and raising the grade of the entire island by several feet. Likewise, we should also be prepared for the storms of life by looking out for God’s warning signs. A little discomfort and inconvenience today can save us from a lifetime of hurt tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Sign Language

The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.

-- Proverbs 12:15

Hollywood movies are rarely sources of Biblical truth. But Bruce Almighty is a refreshing exception to the rule.

Grossing nearly $500 million worldwide in ticket sales, the 2003 comedy stars Jim Carrey as a popular Buffalo, N.Y.-based television reporter with lots going for him – particularly his lovely girlfriend, played by Jennifer Anniston. But after enduring the worst day of his life, Bruce boils over with rage and declares to the Almighty that he can do a better job being God than God Himself.

One of the movie’s best scenes depicts Bruce demanding a sign from the Lord. And God answers by giving him several obvious ones – a construction sign, flashing lights and even a phone call – within a matter of minutes. But because Bruce is blinded by anger and disbelief, he can never grasp them except in hindsight.

Sound familiar? At one time or another, we’ve all asked God for a sign or a word to get us through a difficult situation. We really want Him to write out His will for us in the sky, speak to us in a booming voice or have one of His angels send an E-mail. But that’s usually not God’s way of communicating to His followers. And even if it were, would we have the eyes to see His signs or the ears to hear them?

God does, however, speak to us in many different ways. And they’re often well-timed warnings as we’re heading down the wrong path in life. One way God tries to get our attention is through the example of others. For instance, if your next door neighbor were tried and convicted for tax evasion, would it make you think twice if you were considering committing the same crime? God also speaks to us through Scripture. When you ask Him for guidance (and often when you don’t), Bible passages that you may have read or heard many times before can become crystal clear or take on new significance. And what about the times when a friend, family member, co-worker or even a stranger takes you aside to tell you something straight out of left field. If it relates to something that hits too close to home, chances are that God is using that person as His messenger of truth.

As Christ-followers, we need to be on the lookout for God’s warning signs before we make a poor choice about a relationship, career move or any other life-changing issue. After all, He sees the big picture that we can’t. And He wants only the best for us.

Is God trying to get your attention? If so, He probably isn’t doing it with a personalized flashing neon sign. Instead, His warnings are more likely to come through the words of a caring friend, the experiences of a family member or even scenes from a good Hollywood movie. But whatever form His message takes, open your eyes, ears and heart to it. We happen to worship a personal God Who cares. And what’s more – as Bruce quickly learned from his face-to-face encounter with the Almighty – He’s a God who knows you by name.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Why We Serve

In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' "

-- Acts 20:35

Why is it so important for Christ-followers to serve others?

First, we live in an upside-down world that collides with God's vision of perfection. And unfortunately, it’s been that way to one extent or another from nearly the beginning. Murder, adultery, theft, lying and every other sin are hardly new. But something strange and unsettling has happened over the last few decades. As mankind supposedly becomes enlightened through more education and “tolerance” of once forbidden topics and behaviors, societal corruption has actually mushroomed. What was once considered evil is now good. And what was once considered righteous, society now condemns it as bigoted.

It’s in these dark times that we should recall Jesus’ admonition to some of His earliest followers:

“Make your light shine,” He said, “so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.”

We’re living in strange and uncertain days, to say the least. So as Christ-followers, we’re to share our faith in God’s ultimate control by being Jesus’ hands and feet on earth: to serve. He calls us to help prepare His kingdom by making the most of the different gifts and talents He’s given us. And it’s as we help our neighbors and community that we can live out our own stories about the One who changed everything when we needed it the most.

“In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served,” Jesus explains. “He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people."

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. We might show it 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 an assisted living center.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Be Like Mike

God has also given each of us different gifts to use. If we can prophesy, we should do it according to the amount of faith we have.

-- Romans 12:6

Did you ever want to Be Like Mike ? If you grew up in the 1980s or ‘90s, chances are you did.

The “Mike” in question is of course Michael Jordan, one of the best (many say the greatest) basketball players of all time. His astonishing NBA career includes accolades as an NBA Rookie of the Year, a five-time NBA Most Valuable Player, a six-time NBA Champion and a 14-time NBA All-Star. When he retired after the 2002-03 season, the University of North Carolina graduate held the NBA's highest scoring average of 30.1 points per game.

Michael Jordan’s remarkable athleticism and talent combined to render an incredible Hall of Fame career that basketball fans will no doubt remember for decades. And his lead-by-example work ethic helped bring the NBA Championship to Chicago six times. So it’s no surprise that the 6’6” superstar was a top NBA draft choice. After all, the scouts had good reason to know that Jordan could soon revolutionize the game.

That makes sense in basketball. But what’s much more surprising is that God tends to pick His team – the Christ-followers around the world known as The Church – quite differently. His ways aren’t mankind’s ways. And He often chooses the least likely people to serve Him and accomplish the remarkable things that conventional wisdom deems impossible.

The Bible is full of familiar examples. Moses was a stutterer who once murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. King David – one of the most powerful rulers on Earth – was once an obscure shepherd boy. The Apostle Peter actually denied knowing Jesus three times in public. And Paul – the Apostle to the Gentiles who authored much of the New Testament – once dedicated himself to catching, arresting and killing Jesus’ followers before the new faith could spread across the Roman Empire. Their common denominator? All four of these real-life heroes were weak: either physically or spiritually. The unlikely is the way God likes it.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength,” writes the Apostle Paul. “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.”
The point here is that you don’t have to slam-dunk a basketball or score 30 points a game to make a big difference on the God Squad. In fact, every Christ-follower – strong or weak – is called to be Jesus’ hands and feet on earth while we wait for His return or that day when He calls us back home. 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. So rather than striving to Be Like Mike, it’s much more important that we follow Christ.

“In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served,” Jesus explains in Mark 10:45. “He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Special Delivery

Who would have believed what we heard? Who saw the Lord's power in this?

-- Isaiah 53:1

Before FedEx, UPS and E-mail, there was Special Delivery.

Between 1885 and 1997, the Post Office offered this popular service, which involved a letter’s delivery from the local branch directly to the recipient (rather than through the mailman’s standard route). And Special Delivery postage – not surprisingly – cost several times more than the price of a regular First Class stamp. That’s because the Post Office would dispatch a dedicated courier – sometimes on bicycle – to hand-deliver the letter to ensure its important message reached the addressee.

What was so special about Special Delivery? Today, we live in an age of instant messaging, Tweets, E-mail and Facebook. We can take a cell phone from our pocket and call almost anyone in the world at any time. But back in the day before jet airplanes and the Internet erased the miles between New York and California, Special Delivery was the way to go to quickly spread the word about the “big stuff” -- that very special life-altering news covering topics like marriage, birth, death or even a job offer.

As Christ-followers known collectively as The Church, we also have a very important message requiring special delivery. Ours is the Gospel, which translated from Greek means Good News. And what is this good news that distinguishes us from everyone else on Earth? It’s that God’s own Son – Jesus – has paid the heavy price for all of our wrongdoings by dying a criminal’s death on cross. And then three days later, He fulfilled the prophesies written about Him centuries earlier by rising again to life. This means that everyone who accepts Jesus’ free gift of salvation is a new creation (“born again”) in God’s eyes. We don’t deserve it. But it’s our faith in Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior that wipes the slate clean, enables us live our lives anew and have an eternal future with God.

Now that IS some Good News. And Christ-followers and the Church are called to be its Special Delivery couriers. But how?

The most obvious way is to deliver this message during our worship services and personal interactions with non-Believers. But that’s not all. Christ-followers are also to spread the Word by being 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. In short, we’re to serve others by following Christ’s example.

“Make your light shine,” Jesus explained, “so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.”

When we serve, it’s not about us – it’s instead about Him and His promise of a new life. So as Christ-followers, let’s turn our faith into action – and deliver the Good News – by accepting Jesus’ invitation to help brighten a dark, dying world that’s so much in need of guidance, truth and love.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Home Cooking

You are not the same as those who do not believe. So do not join yourselves to them. Good and bad do not belong together. Light and darkness cannot share together.

-- 2 Corinthians 6:14

Do you watch any of those TV shows where gourmet chefs compete against other kitchen maestros to fix that perfect dish for a panel of merciless food critics – and all while the clock is running and the camera is rolling? One recent contestant on Chopped succumbed to the pressure when he mistook a cup of salt for a cup of sugar. It could have happened to anyone. After all, they’re two common kitchen ingredients that look the same. But because the chef chose the wrong one in the heat of the moment, the result (his dessert) was a disaster. And the judges were totally unforgiving.

The careless cook might have gone on to win the entire contest had he prepared by organizing his key ingredients and utensils. But his good intentions weren’t enough to take him to the winner’s circle. Likewise, the same principles apply to successful, long-lasting marriages. Good preparation and technique pay off in the end. But if one or two ingredients are missing or switched, the results (an unhappy marriage between resentful spouses) are often disastrous.

What’s does God have to say about all of this? To continue with the kitchen analogies, He’s supplied Christ-followers with a simple blue ribbon recipe for serving up a masterpiece.

It starts with selecting a God-honoring spouse before you ever walk down the aisle. Is he or she a committed Believer who has entrusted his or her life and salvation to Jesus? And more importantly, have you asked God in prayer about what He thinks of your choice?

These aren’t throw-away questions. Marrying a non-Believer can actually pull you away from God – or at a minimum prevent you from experiencing God’s intended level of intimacy for your union. And of course, there’s that final critical ingredient: a lifelong covenant between husband and wife that places Jesus at the center of the marriage. Yes, a Christ-centered marriage actually involves three parties. As the wise writer of Ecclesiastes observed centuries ago:

“Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”
That's the secret sauce for making marriage work. It's not particularly complicated. But don't be deceived: marriage is never easy -- even under the best circumstances. It takes work, perseverance and plenty of shared faith. But as with everything that follows His will, He'll bless and honor your marriage when you both reach out and honor Him.

Are you both committed to putting Jesus at the center of your marriage? Now you’re cooking!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Great Expectations

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

-- Genesis 2:24

Call it buyer’s remorse.

You watched the slick commercials, visited several showrooms and did plenty of research on the Internet. After all, it's not every day that you spend thousands - or maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars - on an expensive purchase that will literally change your life. Maybe you bought a new computer, a car or even a house. And maybe it even lived up to your expectations. At least for a while. But in most cases, the glitz and glamour wear thin. You see newer models with even better features in the stores. And you can't help but wonder if you should have waited. Or even if you made a mistake.

That's a natural human response. But what happens when your life-changing transaction is a marriage? You don't trade in your spouse for a better model after the 50,000-mile warranty expires (regardless of what popular culture says).

Brides and grooms bring plenty of expectations to the altar. And some of them are even realistic. But most aren't. The fact is that the stresses of everyday living tend to quickly put reality into sharp focus. Monthly bills, vacillating careers, family issues and mortgage payments can bring out the side of spouses that never emerged during those fun dinner dates and nights at the movies.

(Enter the "for better or for worse" part of your vows!)

So what's the secret for returning to the "for better" part of marriage? The first and most important step is to make sure both you and your spouse are on the same spiritual wavelength. That means making God - through your shared faith in Jesus Christ - the third trusted partner in your marriage. After all, every marriage faces difficulties because life is so full of pitfalls and hairpin turns. It takes plenty of prayer and trust when a family member is ill, you lose your job or someone wrecks into your new car.

The second critical step is to manage your expectations and understand that no matter how hard you try, you can't - and shouldn't - change your spouse. And then understand that your spouse will evolve over time through the experiences and challenges God introduces along his or her life-journey. This might sound a bit unsettling. But would you really want your spouse to act and think like a 25-year-old when he or she is 50?

A solid, growing faith in Jesus is one thing that should remain constant in a strong marriage between Christ-followers. But even in the best of circumstances, husbands and wives often fail to meet their spouses' expectations. When that happens - and it always will - remain faithful, forgive your spouse and trust God. Christ-followers are only human. And that means marriage will never fully complete us. But God can if we only ask Him.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Absent Without Leave

In the same way, a husband should love his wife as much as he loves himself. A husband who loves his wife shows that he loves himself.

-- Ephesians 5:28

Employees call it playing hooky, taking a mental hygiene break or simply calling in sick. Their employers, however, call it absenteeism: those occasions when employees don’t show up at work because of illness, injury, scheduled time away or any other reason. But whatever you call it, absenteeism is costly. Studies from the Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics say direct annual losses exceed $40 billion.

That’s an eye-opener. But human resources professionals actually face a problem with a much higher price tag. Presenteeism occurs when employees come to work when they’re sick or otherwise unable to perform to their usual standards. They’re technically on the job. But they really shouldn’t be. After all, sick employees can compound the issue by infecting their co-workers, customers and even clients. Annual loss estimates from presenteeism in the United States reach $250 billion!

These losses are astounding. But did you know there’s another type of presenteeism that’s even more devastating? It’s not an illness spread through a corporate office building or passed behind the counters of a fast food restaurant. Instead, it’s a common affliction found in homes across America that damages and destroys relationships and tempts families to turn away from God.

It’s a sin called passivity. Not to be confused with laziness, passivity often appears in men who come home from the office each day and use the TV, Internet or computer games to tune out their spouse and children. They’re at home. But they’re not really there when their loved ones need them the most.

It’s easy to see how this activity (or lack thereof) can corrode personal relationships. But to God, it’s even worse. That’s because He calls Christ-following men to lead their households, love their wives and raise their children in His holy ways.

Domestic passivity is hardly a benign problem. And make no mistake: the devil is behind it. Satan knows that he can take over the home if he can take out the husband. And when husbands abdicate their responsibilities and abandon their families, the lasting societal damage is enormous.

It’s a serious illness that calls for strong spiritual medicine. First, men must recognize their sin and repent of it. And then through prayer – preferably with their spouse – they must seek God’s forgiveness through Jesus and the strength to once again lead their households in His ways.

The Old Testament hero Joshua addressed the issue this way:

“But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living, he told the Israelites. “But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Missing In Action

I will get up now and go about the city,
through its streets and squares;
I will search for the one my heart loves.
So I looked for him but did not find him.

-- Song of Songs 3:2

It’s probably safe to say that electricity – particularly electric lighting – is the one convenience that we most take for granted in 21st Century America. We simply flick a switch, and there it is… until a storm rumbles through town and plunges us back into utter darkness.

We can thank Thomas Edison for showing us the light. But contrary to popular belief, he didn’t invent the light bulb in 1879. What he did was discover an economical, long-lasting filament that made electric lighting practical.

And it wasn’t easy. The famous inventor tried literally thousands of different materials before he finally found one that wouldn’t burn out in seconds. Edison eventually solved the dilemma by placing a carbon filament in an airless bulb. And a few months later, he improved his design by using a bamboo-derived filament that could last more than 1,200 hours. The rest, as they say, is history.

Thomas Edison’s tireless quest for the perfect light bulb filament is much like our search for the perfect marriage. A man and a woman might seem to be compatible, share the same interests and have even dispositions. But if they’re missing certain vital elements (like Edison’s long-lasting filament and airless bulb), the relationship can burn out too soon… or fail to ignite at all.

So what are they? When it comes to God’s plan for marriage, those elements are a shared spiritual awareness and the concept of total exclusivity.

Maybe it’s a cliché. But the Christ-following husbands and wives who pray together really DO stay together. For them, their wedding vows weren’t just pleasant-sounding words repeated in a church sanctuary on some Saturday afternoon. “Until death do us part” meant just that. Plain and simple. And their life-long marriages reflect it.

Total exclusivity points to God’s desire that we never compare our spouse with another. And unfortunately, this is easier said done. We live in a society that worships celebrity – the “beautiful people” we follow on TV, the movies, gossip magazines and the Internet. We also fall for their Hollywood-produced, Photoshopped images of perfection. Their reality, however, may be much closer to the ravages of drugs, alcohol and abuse. But we prefer to accept only the illusions. And when our spouses can’t live up to them, disappointment grows. And our marriages suffer.

Is your marriage missing…something…but you’re not sure what? The first place for you and your spouse to find it is at the foot of the Cross – that quiet place where Jesus paid for your failures and mine. As the author of Hebrews reminds us:

“We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete.”

Sunday, September 5, 2010

In the Long Run

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

Our faith journeys as Christ-followers are marathons, not sprints. But as with any expedition over winding roads and rugged terrain, weariness is bound to set in. Long distance runners call it The Wall. It’s the 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. Others meanwhile will drop out of the race in defeat and exhaustion.

As Christ-followers, we face our own wall each day as we try to live up to God’s calling. We begin to tire as we battle against 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 often tempted to go back to the 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 ongoing struggle, fatigue eventually overcomes us.

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

So 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 instance, 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, there are plenty of hills and rough road ahead. 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 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 step brother 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 make it to the finish line in this long distance race called life? You can persevere. And all you have to do is ask.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pride and Prejudice

Our foolish pride comes from this world, and so do our selfish desires and our desire to have everything we see. None of this comes from the Father.

-- 1 John 2:16

Are you one of those do-it-yourselfers?

You know – one of those folks who can do it all without help from the experts. Whether it’s fixing a leaky faucet, changing your car’s oil or installing hardwood flooring, no professionals are needed – or even wanted on your job site!

There’s definitely a certain pride factor involved when you do it yourself and do it right. Who can deny the satisfaction from viewing a shiny polished car, a lush manicured lawn or a tiled kitchen backsplash? And that goes double when you put hours of hard work into your efforts. Yes, you should be proud.

Or should you?

Maybe taking pride in a job well done is OK to a point. But as Christ-followers, we need to understand that pride is actually one of those lures that can hurt us badly if we don’t watch out.

At pride’s root is our love of the world’s values rather than our devotion to God. And pride also happens to be a disease with some nasty side effects. One symptom is far-sightedness: we tend to see pride in others but not in ourselves. Our heads then grow and our minds shrink. And eventually, we reach the point where we actually think we’re strong and smart enough to do it all; all while forgetting that God is the only true power and source of our successes. We become arrogant, vain, stubborn and defensive. And we may even develop a strange sense of satisfaction when others – often our closest friends – face difficulties or tragedies in their lives.

These painful symptoms can last for days or even years. But we’ll eventually reach the point when God lets us crumble and fall flat after some unforeseen situation or circumstance. It’s called the pride before the fall. And it’s only when we’re struggling helplessly in the debris that we finally regain our senses and return to Him.

Like the common cold, we’re all bound to catch the pride bug every once in a while. But what’s the best way to battle this infectious disease once it’s set in? First, it’s not about adopting an artificially low self-esteem or a terminal woe-is-me attitude. Instead, it’s all about replacing deceptive self-confidence with reliable Christ-confidence. Our best strategy is to always put God first in our lives and remember that we can do nothing without Him. Always give the Lord all credit for your blessings and successes. Help others through their struggles. And then remember that God chooses and uses humble people to do great things in the world.

The Bible sums it up with some solid advice: "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up."

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tongue Tied

The tongue is like a spark. It is an evil power that dirties the rest of the body and sets a person's entire life on fire with flames that come from hell itself.

-- James 3:6

Did the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 start—as the legend says—when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern? Or did it begin when a one-legged man slipped on Mrs. O’Leary’s wet barn floor and dropped his lit pipe into some hay or wood shavings?

Except to history buffs and insurance agents, the answer doesn’t matter. But the aftermath – whatever its cause – was indeed horrific: nearly $200 million in property damage, 300 people dead and another 100,000 homeless. And all it took was a single spark.

James—the half-brother of Jesus—taught much the same lesson in his New Testament book written to some of the earliest Christ-followers. But instead of the destruction wrought from a tiny flame, James described the incredible power of the human tongue. Although it’s only a small part of the human body, our tongues have the power to change lives: to uplift and destroy, and to bless and curse.

We know this all too well through our life experiences. How many times have we uttered something inappropriate—or maybe downright mean-spirited—that seemed to come out of nowhere? Saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment to the wrong person has cost people their careers, marriages and reputations. And the sad fact is that our words reveal what we really think deep down inside. They’re a reflection of our heart.

Not only can our poison tongues inflict damage at any time, the damage can take several different forms. Whether it’s through gossip, lying, sarcasm, cursing or taking God’s name in vain, we don’t lack for words we wish we could take back.

Back in World War II, the U.S. Government printed posters with the headline, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” The message was that spies can pick up careless—although seemingly innocent—gossip about Allied troop movements, ship launches and other secret information. And when such information reaches the enemy’s ears, the result is often carnage, death and destruction. Likewise, all Christ-followers must watch their tongues to avoid causing needless, irreparable damage to relationships and reputations. Our words should instead lift up rather than put down. The Apostle Paul put it this way:

“When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you.”

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Seeing is Believing

But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

-- James 2:18

Ever had a home or office computer infected by a virus, worm or malware? If so, you know that helpless feeling when your machine crashes, freezes or slows to a maddening crawl. And soon enough, that once top-of-the-line PC becomes nothing more than an expensive plastic paperweight.

But don’t give up hope quite yet. There’s powerful software from reputable companies that not only cleans out such infections, it helps prevent future problems by fixing unrelated computer performance issues like defragmentation and registry errors. What was once a dead or crippled computer can actually become better than new. The before-and-after is often remarkable. And that precious $79.99 spent on the anti-virus software looks like a bargain in retrospect.

Every Christ-follower for the last 2,000 years can recognize this modern day cyber-illustration. Like a crippled machine made whole again, Christ-followers become born again once they accept Jesus Christ through faith as their Lord and Savior. We start over at that point with a clean slate with God – now ready to do good works to advance His kingdom. Think about it: everything we’ve done wrong throughout our lives – none of it will be held against us after we leave this life on earth! All the pitiful ways we’ve treated others, the lies we’ve told and the potential we’ve wasted over the years; it’s all forgiven because Jesus paid the price and died for us on the cross.

So we’re now free and have an incredible future with God because of our faith in Christ. But this is much more than a simple intellectual exercise. Instead, authentic, faith-filled Christ-followers must demonstrate tangible changes in who they are, what they think… and especially what they do.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, provides this spot-on illustration:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Of course, we’re not saved from the punishment we deserve because of any good deeds (“works”) we might do. If that were the case, it would be possible to earn our way to God’s acceptance. The fact is that our feeble efforts and good intentions are never enough; there’s nothing we can do except follow God’s plan of salvation and accept His free gift of freedom through Jesus Christ.

Rather than being saved BY our own good works, our faith leads us to being saved FOR doing good works. Christ-followers are therefore to be Jesus’ mouth, eyes, hands and feet in our community and around the world – and all to demonstrate God’s power to change lives and put His love in action.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Truth or Consequences

We have a chief priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses. He was tempted in every way that we are, but he didn’t sin.

-- Hebrews 4:15

It sounds like something found deep in the jungles of Africa, the Amazon rainforest or maybe even on another planet. It’s a carnivorous plant called the Venus fly trap that’s found only in the bogs of North and South Carolina near Wilmington.

Maybe carnivorous is a bit misleading; Venus fly traps don’t catch and feed on squirrels or small rodents. But they do feast on flies and other insects. This remarkable plant’s secret lies in its attractive colors and outstretched, nectar-scented pads. When an unsuspecting insect lands on the plant, sensors ready its trap to shut. But by intelligent design, this takes more than a single motion. It’s only after a second sensor activates that the Venus fly trap snares its winged victim within 0.1 seconds! (The plant’s double sensor mechanism helps prevent accidental activations from wind, raindrops or fallen leaves.) Powerful fluids then fill the sprung trap, which dissolve the prey into usable nutrients within about 10 days. The cycle later resumes with the Venus fly trap re-opening its pads to repeat the lethal deception.

Everyone – including Christ-followers – can learn one or two things from the Venus fly trap. But maybe it’s really more about learning from the hapless fly.

God seeks to grow and strengthen our spiritual lives by putting us through trials and tests to make us more like Him. On the other hand, it’s the devil who seeks to destroy our spirit by tempting us to sin against God and His will for us. The devil begins his attack by latching onto our natural desires and weaknesses. We then begin to minimize the temptation’s risks while devising intricate plans for yielding to the enticement. Unfortunately, it’s often too late by this point. Like a cancer, that seemingly innocent temptation has metastasized into outright disobedience to God. And the trap is sprung, leading to the dire consequences of spiritual – or even physical – death.

No stranger to temptation and sin, the apostle Peter warned the early followers of Jesus about the dangers that stalked them.

"Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour,” he wrote in 1 Peter. “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”
The fact is that temptations are part of the human experience. And like the Venus fly trap, they’re incredibly appealing with little hint of danger. So to resist them successfully, we need to understand their source – the devil – the one called the father of lies. We must also visualize the consequences of our contemplated actions. And then there’s the most important step of all:

“Surrender to God!” urges James, the brother of Jesus. “Resist the devil, and he will run from you.”

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Built to Last

Training the body helps a little, but godly living helps in every way. Godly living has the promise of life now and in the world to come.

-- 1 Timothy 4:8

Long before Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti began to dominate American highways, Mercedes-Benz was the leading brand of imported luxury automobiles. They were – and still are – relatively expensive when compared to your run-of-the-mill Chevy, Toyota or Honda. And with some Mercedes sedans starting at around $40,000, these expertly-engineered vehicles are out of reach for most drivers. But for those who can afford them, their technological excellence is just the point. They do cost a lot. But they’re built to last.

One way Mercedes-Benz builds a reputation for excellence is through its High Mileage Award. First introduced in the 1960s, this citation recognizes those Mercedes-Benz vehicles confirmed as literally going the distance by reaching the 250,000, 500,000, 750,000 and 1 million-kilometer marks. Proud owners are quick to attach the award’s iconic Star and Laurel radiator grill badges to their automobiles.

Like expensive, well-engineered vehicles, Christ-followers are also made to endure long journeys on roads that are rarely straight or smooth. But our journeys are those meant to test and grow our faith, and ultimately take us to our eternal destination.

The Bible tells us that those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior can expect their fair share of bumpy roads with unsettling hairpin turns. In fact, they can count on it. Maybe it's a layoff at work, an illness in the family or an unanticipated budget-busting expense. Whatever it is, we can respond by either giving up or by depending on our faith in God to see us through. Real faith will remain strong to the end. But what's false is bound to fail.

Thankfully, life’s not always about dodging potholes and head-on traffic. So while we’re traveling on our individual journeys, we need to take time to enjoy the ride God has given us and ask Him for the wisdom to do His will along the way. And of course, we need to focus on the prize. Not a shiny metal badge adorning a radiator grill – but the crown of life that awaits us when we cross the finish line. “Well done, good and faithful servant” are the incredible words every Christ-follower should long to hear that day from their Creator.

So are you spiritually fit for the long haul? The Apostle Paul had his own perspective.

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training,” he explains in 1 Corinthians. “They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Comeback Kid

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

-- John 4:13

Playwright Oscar Wilde was right on the money when he noted that experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes. Whether it’s on the job (a missed deadline) or in the home (left the water running in the tub), mistakes can be both costly and painful. But consider the pain when the mistake is made in front of an audience of millions.

In the 1972 Summer Olympics, Finnish runner Lasse Viren tripped and fell during the 10,000-meter race when he tangled his feet with American gold medalist Frank Shorter. That would have been the end of the story for most athletes. But Viren did the unthinkable: he got off the ground, resumed the race and caught the runners who had passed him. And then on the final lap – he not only passed his competitors – he literally left them in the dust and crossed the finish line alone. Many sportswriters consider Viren’s performance to be one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic history.

Maybe your own mistakes aren’t of Olympic proportions. But they might feel like it. After all, how many times have we made such huge mistakes in life that it seemed like the end of the world? We feel like we’ve blown it. It’s over. And we’ll never get back.

Life-changing mistakes can cover a lot of territory. They might affect our personal relationships, careers or even spiritual lives – maybe all of the above. But the good news for Christ-followers is that we worship a God who not only knows what we’re going through, but a God who cares. He’s also a God of second (and third, fourth, etc.) chances.

The apostle Peter learned this lesson when he asked Jesus, "How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?" Jesus answered, “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!”

If we’re to be so forgiving when others offend us, think how patient God is with us when we make mistake after mistake. And Peter knew a thing or two about making mistakes. In fact, after Jesus was arrested and the apostles had scattered in fear, Peter emphatically denied that he even knew Christ. And not just once – but three times!

Within hours of His arrest, Jesus was tried and convicted on false charges. And then He suffered a horrific, painful death – in our place – through His crucifixion between two common thieves. Crushed by guilt, Peter believed his life was over. If anyone had blown it, it was him. But Christ had other plans for His apostle of little faith. We read early in the Book of Acts that Peter – now filled with the Holy Spirit – boldly defied the same religious authorities who had earlier condemned Jesus to death. So as we search for our own comebacks from failure and pain, let’s take Peter’s testimony about his Master to heart:

“In no one else can salvation be found,” he proclaimed. “For in all the world no other name has been given to men but this, and it is by this name that we must be saved!”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Rough Road Ahead

We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes our faith complete. He endured the shame of being nailed to a cross, because he knew that later on he would be glad he did. Now he is seated at the right side of God's throne!

-- Hebrews 12:2

The Christ-follower’s faith-journey is often compared to travel along an uneven, winding road or a perilous climb up a craggy mountainside. After all, we never know what’s around the bend or over the next hill. Our vision is limited. And it’s all too easy to lose our footing on the steep inclines and fall back a little.

An excellent illustration of this eternal lesson involves a beautiful spot in the Blue Ridge Mountains called Crabtree Falls. Located about a half hour’s drive past Charlottesville, Virginia, it demands a strenuous hike once you finally park your car. But it’s very much worth it; the view is spectacular.

Like our faith-journey, the narrow, rocky trail leading to the waterfall leaves little margin for error. There’s even a sign at the water’s edge that warns hikers to stick close to the path. Several people – the sign explains – have died after slipping on the moss-covered rocks. Rather than keeping their eyes on the marked trail, these unfortunate adventurers apparently decided to take a detour. Their way might have promised fun and adventure at the time. But ultimately, it delivered only tragedy.

“There is a way that appears to be right,” we’re warned through the Old Testament book of Proverbs. “But in the end it leads to death.”
God – like that sign posted at the waterfall’s edge – urges us to stay on the path that leads to the intended destination. But as obvious as that sounds, life’s problems, temptations and tragedies seem to wait for us around the next bend. And we always trip after compromising our principles with the world’s values. It’s then that we fall down and wonder why God permitted our problems in the first place.

Rather than potholes, loose rocks and hairpin turns, the hazards along our faith-journey involve unemployment, broken relationships, missed credit card payments, and chronic disease. Our task is therefore to focus on our Guide and remember that we worship a God who’s much greater than our circumstances. He’s led us safely through the rough times before…and so He can do again today. And through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus, God has already defeated our greatest life-hazard: sin.

Is your faith-journey getting a little too rough? If it’s not now, it will later. But let’s be encouraged by that famous rhetorical question from Paul, Jesus’ Apostle to the Gentiles: “If God is for us,” he wrote, “who can be against us?”

Following Jesus is you guarantee for reaching the goal of your faith-journey. The trip – as well as the view -- will be unforgettable!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Fear Today, Gone Tomorrow

Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."

-- Mark 10:27

Exploding budget deficits. Government corruption. Mounting unemployment.

It seems like most news headlines these days involve some painful issue involving the economy or politics. There's escalated rhetoric about war in the Middle East. And no one knows how to stop that disasterous oil leak in the Gulf. So is it any wonder that some people literally fear what tomorrow will bring? After all, the future won't get any brighter. (That is, if you believe what the media keep repeating 24/7 on cable TV and the Internet.)

Of course, bad economic news isn't anything new in America. After the good times of vigorous spending and low unemployment, our economy invariably hits rough waters. That's when people grow wary and start cutting back on their spending. And soon enough, simple talk about recession turns into the real thing.

Thankfully, not everyone listens to the gloom-and-doomers. For instance, consider Kellogg's Rice Crispies, Hyundai automobiles, Kraft Miracle Whip and the Apple iPod. They're all extremely successful products that were introduced during economic downturns. How different would things be today if these companies had listened to their fears, followed conventional wisdom and decided against taking a risk?

Few would have blamed them had they played it safe. After all, fear and uncertainty come naturally when times get rough. God can seem far away. And we can feel discouraged and abandoned because we don't feel His presence. What's more, it doesn't help when the devil continues to talk us out of taking that first step of courage. But the truth is that God knows the plans He has for us. He also sees us for what we can become and not for who we are at the moment. Let's look at the Bible for some examples.

King David - one of the most powerful rulers in history - started out as an obscure shepherd boy. And Moses was a poor speaker who stuttered, yet God chose him to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of slavery. Then there's the Apostle Peter. He was a simple fisherman who actually disowned Jesus three times when things got tough. But God still picked him to lead the growing band of Christ-followers in Jerusalem.

Whatever we fear, the important thing to remember is that we don't face it alone. In fact, it's when we're in God's presence that we're 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.

"I say this because I know what I am planning for you," says the Lord. "I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you. I will give you hope and a good future."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Catch Me If You Can

As Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said, "Here is truly an Israelite. There is nothing false in him."

-- John 1:47

Forget big budgets, A-list actors and Oscar-winning directors; it’s often the quality of the script that decides a movie’s success or failure. But the chances for box office gold are often much better when the screenwriter bases his or her work on actual events.

Consider Catch Me If You Can, the popular 2002 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. DiCaprio played the ultimate imposter, Frank William Abagnale, Jr.

Jailed in France, Sweden, Canada and the United States for passing bad checks and other crimes, Abagnale was able to talk his way out of just about anything. When his ex-girlfriend obtained a business card from an inspector of the US Bureau of Prisons, the conman used it to convince the guards that he was a real prison inspector. And remarkably, the guards responded that they had known it all along! Soon, the imposter was a free man.

One of Abagnale’s most famous cons involved impersonating an airline pilot. This enabled him to cash bad checks at banks because tellers considered pilots to be credible and respected professionals. Another of his scams involved impersonating a physician!

The FBI eventually caught up with the brazen imposter. And following his release from prison, Abagnale eventually went straight and established Abagnale and Associates, where he today consults for clients (including the US Government) on the topics of forgery, embezzlement and secure documents.

"To look at him, you wouldn’t think he could steal a postage stamp,” remarked Leonardo DiCaprio after meeting Abagnale. “But he has an almost unconscious way of engaging you with his eyes, with his energy and with his intelligence."
Frank Abagnale’s story is both fascinating and shocking. How could a dime-a-dozen conman garner so much respect and admiration from so many unsuspecting people? Unfortunately, the same thing happens every Sunday morning in churches around the world. And while smooth-talking individuals aren’t posing there as airline pilots or doctors, it’s no-doubt that there are imposter Christ-followers in the congregations. They know all the right things to say and the right groups to attend, and they’ve often played their roles for years because it’s what their spouse, close family or neighbors expect. These frauds fool just about everyone on Sundays. But it’s a far different story the other six days of the week. And that’s to be expected: their hearts are far from God. And God isn’t fooled for a moment.

Does this strike too close to home?

If you’re tired of looking over your shoulder in a Catch Me If You Can existence, you too can go on the straight and narrow and have a fresh start in life. It starts with dropping the disguise and asking Jesus in faith to clean you both inside and out. Through Him, you can be filled with God’s vital spiritual authenticity – that Power that enables all true Christ-followers to be his literal hands and feet in a dark, dying world. And rest assured that your transformation won’t come a moment too soon. After all, these are days when God looks for those willing to live out His purposes. And not as a matter of grudging duty, but instead because of deep – and authentic – devotion.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Judge Not

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

-- Luke 6:37

Have you ever been accused of intolerance?

If you’re a Christ-follower who’s open about your faith, then you probably have – or soon will be. Turn on the TV or surf the Internet a while. You don’t have to look hard to find articles or videos featuring Hollywood celebrities or “open-minded” journalists who point their fingers and use the dreaded “I-Word” against Christians.

But depending on the situation, is intolerance always such a bad thing? Many see Christ-followers – and Christianity in general – as very intolerant and holier-than-thou. For instance, Jesus declared Himself to be the exclusive path to God.

"I am the way and the truth and the life.” He said. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This bold proclamation defies today’s all-inclusive, politically-correct atmosphere. After all, it hurts people’s feelings and suggests that some faiths are better than others. But mankind’s demands for fairness and open-mindedness are irrelevant; Jesus has no tolerance for false, second-rate gods and allegiances.

As Christ-followers, we have open access to God’s truth through the Bible, prayer and even wise counsel from fellow Believers. We should therefore have less trouble than others with telling right from wrong. But actually doing so is another matter. And this opens us up – and often rightfully so – to charges of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. That’s because the world is not only watching us, it’s comparing our Sunday morning words to our Monday through Saturday actions.

When you point your finger at someone else, your other four fingers point right back at you. We therefore need to look closely in the mirror before accusing others. Are your own words, thoughts and deeds beyond reproach? Jesus was right on the mark when He said we must remove the plank from our own eye before removing the speck from our neighbor’s eye. We also need to consider the person in need of guidance. Is he or she already a fellow Christ-follower? Or is the so-called “sinner” someone who never signed up for Jesus’ walk of faith in the first place?

The answer determines the proper response. But either way, Christ-followers must still hold themselves to much higher standards of behavior. And on the flipside, we need to let God be the judge of others outside the faith. He knows the whole story; we’re hardly in the position to condemn anyone.

So forget tolerance; it’s love that’s the core value of Christ-followers. Love must therefore be our motivation in whatever we say or do. As the Apostle John reminds us, “God is Love.”