Sunday, July 26, 2015

Flavor of the Month

For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

 -- Romans 6:14
There's a popular school of thought that one's choice of faith, whether it be Christianity, Islam, Judaism or something else, is little different than one's choice of ice cream. Whether it's vanilla, strawberry, chocolate or pistachio, the flavor really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It's all just a matter of personal preference and taste.
God's message to us through the Bible, Ice Cream2however, reveals that our choice is actually one between night and day...and life and death. Author Philip Yancey once wrote about an incident that illustrates this important truth. There was a conference held in England where theologians debated which belief was unique to Christianity. Some faiths held to the resurrection of the dead. And still others described their gods as coming to earth in human form. But after much heated discussion, C.S. Lewis--the noted author of Mere Christianity, The Chronicles of Narnia and other Christian classics--wandered into the room.

"What's all the hubbub about?" he inquired.

When his colleagues disclosed their contentious topic, Lewis was quick to reply.

"Oh...That's easy," he said. "It's grace."

What exactly is grace and why does it matter? Grace is God's free gift to folks like you and me who don't deserve it. And there's nothing we can do to earn it. We just need to accept it, embrace it and live it with transformed lives through our faith in Jesus Christ. It's with grace that we not only survive, but thrive.

The saying goes that religion is all about striving to do great things to please God, while Christianity is all about the great thing that God has already done for us. It's also through religion that we might imagine God warning us: "Work hard and be good so that you can be saved." But when we turn our lives over to Jesus, His actual loving message to us turns things on their head: "You have been saved. Now go out and do good in My name."

Regardless of what the world says, our choices--particularly those involving faith--have consequences. We can either put ours into man-made religions where we face eventual exhaustion through our failure to achieve, or into a God-made relationship where the price for our salvation was paid long ago. All we have to do as Christ-followers is to accept His remarkably gracious invitation and let Him live through us.

"...My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," explains the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians. "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Goal-line Stand

If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may 
know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people."

 -- Exodus 33:13 

Called the NFL's Greatest Ironman, Jim Marshall was a defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings from 1961-79 and played in 282 consecutive games. Marshall is also remembered for his invaluable role on Minnesota's fearsome Purple People Eaters defense and ranks second in the Vikings' record book with 127 sacks. What's more, the two-time Pro Bowler held a long-standing NFL record for career fumble recoveries--one of which is blamed to this day for keeping him out of his sport's Hall of Fame.

In an exciting match-up against the rival San Francisco 49ers, Marshall scooped
up the ball fumbled by running back Billy Kilmer and galloped 66 yards to the end zone. But inexplicably, he had turned the wrong way after grabbing the pigskin. Instead of scoring a brilliant defensive touchdown for the Vikings, Marshall actually handed an embarrassing 2-point safety to his opponents!

When it comes to navigating our life journeys, maybe we're all a bit like Jim Marshall was that day. Our sense of direction tends to malfunction, and we can easily lose sight of the goal line. For example, we're confused about which college to attend, which spouse to marry and which job to take. These are all issues that we shouldn't take lightly. And making poor choices can turn us in the wrong direction for years to come.

Discerning God's will can quickly place us back in bounds. But how do we do that? First, let's look at what NOT to do. The world tells us to follow our hearts and "be true to ourselves." But that's in direct opposition to biblical truth because we're first to be true to our Creator. "Who can understand the human heart?" we read in Jeremiah. "There is nothing else so deceitful; it is too sick to be healed."

Let's now look at Jesus' example as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion. Christ had to make the ultimate life-and-death decision. And he asked God if there might be some other way to achieve the eternal plan that had been set in motion at the foundation of the world. "Father, if it is possible, don't let this happen to me!" Jesus petitioned as he literally sweated blood. "Father, you can do anything. Don't make me suffer by having me drink from this cup. But do what you want, and not what I want."

The clear lesson is that surrendering completely to God's will is our first step to knowing it. When we do, God's answer can be eye-opening. And we shouldn't be surprised if he responds through an opportunity or situation that has never before occurred to us. Our ways--God says--are not his ways. And his thoughts are not our own.

So what's our next play? Let's consider the words of Proverbs 19:21 to keep us focused on the goal:

"Many are the plans in a person's heart. But it is the Lord's purpose that prevails."

Saturday, July 11, 2015

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 new-found 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 injustice.

They had abandoned their old, selfish Forgetendencies 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 natures in favor of following Jesus' example. Like those first disciples transformed through 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 for 5 years or 55, grasp every opportunity to become more like Him, walk in His ways and see the world through His eyes. What's more, 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 scorching trials of life and the gentle whispers of His leadings, we'll become the men and women our Creator desires us to be. That's change we can believe in.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

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 iconic monument has inspired millions around the world to tasteStatue of Liberty freedom and escape the hardships and persecutions they faced in their mother countries. 

Americans today 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 true freedom. The truth is that we're all slaves! 

Regardless of what's written in our Bill of Rights and 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 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, pleasure, fame, a career...or even religion. But whatever form it takes, sin boils down to substituting false man-made gods for the One and Only True Creator.

Christ-followers are also slaves. But the big difference is that they willingly choose to abandon themselves in exchange 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's question reveals that our choice is one of liberty or death; to follow Jesus or to follow sin.

That's a tough decision for many. But 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 so-called downsizing, and our homes and property through a natural or man-made 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 day will come when we WILL lose it all, one way or the other. And unfortunately, many people will experience it through their slavery to sin. But there's a far better and much more satisfying alternative: becoming the slave of a very kind Master by accepting Jesus' offer of eternal life and 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."

We're all slaves to one master or another...but the choice is ours: Liberty or Death.