Saturday, August 24, 2013

Up for the Challenge

For a long time now--to this very day--you have not deserted your fellow Israelites, but have carried out the mission the Lord your God gave you.

-- Joshua 22:3  

John Glenn accepted challenges that few would dare to even consider. The Ohio native joined the Marines, became a fighter pilot and completed nearly 150 combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. Glenn also set a world speed record as a military test pilot and later became an executive at Royal Crown Cola. Years later and still hungering for the challenges of public service, he successfully entered the cutthroat world of national politics through his election to the United States Senate in 1974.

Such accomplishments alone would shine bright on any resume. But Glenn is best known Challengefor something else: saying yes to the challenge of becoming the first American to orbit the earth. Asked later what he was thinking as he sat high atop the NASA rocket that would blast him into space, he replied: "You're thinking you're sitting on top of the most complex machine ever built by man, with a million separate components, all supplied by the lowest bidder."

John Glenn's willingness to accept and overcome great challenges made him a national hero. But while most of us will never become a senator, travel to outer space or run a corporation, we'll still face crucial tests in life. They're challenges that demand hard answers. And the most important one of all is whether or not we'll follow Jesus completely.

God's call comes in many different forms and touches our career, family, money and just about anything else we hold dear. And it can also defy human logic. Let's consider the famous Old Testament story about Abraham and Isaac. After years of fervent prayer, Abraham's wife Sarah finally became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac--even though the couple was very old. Abraham and Sarah were thrilled and grateful for their long-awaited child. But then came God's call.

"Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah," He told Abraham. "Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about."

It was a shocking demand. But it also seemed senseless to Abraham because God would never ask for something so precious. (Or would He?)

Even so, Abraham obeyed God in faith, took Isaac to Moriah and built a sacrificial altar. But there's a happy ending to the story. Just as Abraham raised his knife to slay Isaac, one of God's angels called out.

"Don't hurt the boy or harm him in any way!" the angel said. "Now I know that you truly obey God, because you were willing to offer him your only son."

Being a faith-filled Christ-follower often means that we must venture into the unknown. Let's remember, however, that God's plans and promises (the "Big Picture") always extend beyond our immediate line of sight. Human knowledge is limited. But what we do know is that He'll always provide for us when we say yes to Him. And not necessarily with what we want or expect, but instead with what we really need to be up for the challenge.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Good News, Bad News

The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." 
They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good.

-- Psalm 53:1   

Have you settled things with God?

No matter who you are--young or old, male or female--that's the question that everyone faces. Because one day or another, we'll all leave this world, meet our Maker and answer to Him for the lives we've led. It's the ultimate equalizer: we all either die in faith or die in sin. But for Christ-followers, having faith in Jesus means there's absolutely nothing to fear when we reach the end of our earthly existence. The Apostle Paul explains it this way:

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering."

That's amazing news with implications Newspaper2that many people either don't know about--or say they don't want to know about. And although the choice of spending eternity in either heaven or hell is stark, it's apparently not a major concern these days. A recent Baylor Religion Survey revealed that only about 51% of Americans "absolutely" believe in hell while 62% have the same degree of certainty about heaven. Data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life rendered similar results, with 59% of Americans believing in hell and 74% in heaven.

Why such low numbers? According to Kurt Selles, director of the Global Center at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School, the real issue is reluctance in churches to portray Jesus Christ as the exclusive way to God. In two workshops held at the Beeson Pastors School, Selles asked the attendees if they had ever preached a sermon about hell.

"Nobody had," he reported.

Jesus, on the other hand, was never deterred by the prospect of offending others. It's in John 14:6 that we read this clear-cut declaration from our Savior: 

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

The Gospels tell us that many people DID accept this bold message, but most did not--particularly the religious leaders and supposed experts of God's Law. Now, fast-forward to the 21st Century, and it's plain to see that few things have changed. There are still plenty of "enlightened" people who claim that Jesus' message is both judgmental and intolerant. And besides--they're quick to assure us--everyone knows there are many ways to God.

At least that part is true: every path eventually DOES lead to God. But the devil is literally in the details since every path (except one) also leads to His judgment and eternal condemnation.

"Enter through the narrow gate," Jesus warns us. "For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it."

Successfully navigating this winding, narrow path called life calls for putting our faith in Jesus alone. No matter how much the world disputes this fact, it remains the ultimate Good News that God first proclaimed in ages past--and invites us still to share today.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Friends In High Places

"Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me."

-- Matthew 10:40   

You know who they are.

Maybe they're a co-worker, that neighbor down the street or even your brother-in-law. They're the ones you call when you're up against an impossible situation. Like the time you needed a pair of tickets to that sold-out concert. Or a reliable plumber to fix a broken pipe on a Sunday night. You won't soon forget that affordable mechanic they recommended. And how about that iPad they found for your child last year...just when you were sure it was sold out?

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

And so do we as Christ-followers. That's because ours is a faith that embraces relationship over religion. Specifically, there's the ultimate parent/child relationship between us and God. It's a bond that's only made possible through Jesus' death on the cross--a penalty we all rightly deserve for our lifetimes stained by personal failures and shortcomings (also known as "sin"). But since we're connected with the right Person (Jesus), He's already paid the price to save us from a certain death and eternal punishment in hell. What's more, Christ has us covered so well that we're literally heirs to His Father's Kingdom.
That's the primary relationship we enjoy as Christ-followers. But God also wants us to make relationships with others so that they can begin traveling on their own faith journey. That means introducing them to Jesus, sharing His story and relating how His death on the cross means a whole new life here on earth...and later in eternity. And when these soon-to-be believers come to those inevitable rough patches in life, they'll always know Who to call.

How do we get the ball rolling? One of the best ways is to begin praying for people by name. They can be our family members, co-workers, neighbors, political leaders, the unsaved--and particularly our enemies. Later on, don't be surprised if God opens up some circumstances where we'll be the answer to somebody's prayer.  

Jesus set our example when he sent out some of His followers to spread the Good News (the Gospel) to Jewish communities near Jerusalem:

"Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel," He told them. "As you go, proclaim this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give."

Here was a time Jesus instructed His followers to actually be the answer to someone's fervent prayers in the midst of difficulties and pain--and use their connection with Him to do the seemingly impossible.

Do you have friends in high places? As the saying goes, it's not always what you know that counts in life. It's Who you know that makes all the difference.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Call of Duty

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.

-- Isaiah 1:17    

A vital part of the human experience involves situations that call on us to do the right thing--even if it could be costly, unpopular, uncomfortable or inconvenient. For example, a judge in western Pennsylvania recently decided to spend the day in the county courthouse. While that sounds like it should have been business as usual for her, Judge Linda Fleming happened to join 119 of her fellow citizens who had also reported for jury duty. In the end, she wasn't seated as a juror because an attorney objected to her presence in that capacity. Nevertheless, Judge Fleming was determined to do her civic duty and serve--or at least make herself available--rather than use her position as an excuse to avoid it.

Doing the right thing isn't just the right thing to do, it's also a biblical principle. As James 4:17 puts it, "So whoeverSalute knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."

There are times when doing the right thing takes courage. We might never face a powerful enemy on the battlefield, but we might take on different kinds of opponents--like injustice, crime or discrimination--that we have no hope of defeating on our own. The good news for Christ-followers is that we're called by our Creator to be strong and brave. And we're not alone against what might threaten us. In fact, we can be encouraged by all the average people (like you and me) who God has empowered to do the extraordinary against overwhelming odds.

For example, David--then an obscure shepherd boy--killed the giant Goliath with a single well-placed stone from his slingshot. It was this same shepherd boy who eventually became King of Israel and the one God called "a man after My own heart." Likewise, the Apostle Peter literally dove into the deep end when he accepted Jesus' call to walk on the water. After Peter began to doubt, he began to sink. But Jesus saved him once His struggling follower called out in faith. This same follower--who would eventually deny Jesus to others three times--ultimately became a bold preacher of what the Book of Acts describes as The Way (the Good News about his Savior, Jesus Christ). Two books of the New Testament also bear Peter's name.

As Christ followers, we can take heart. It might be a scary world out there, but God doesn't expect us to solve all the world's problems. Instead, it's by seeking and using His power in faith that we can make a world of difference. And it all starts when we do the right thing.