Saturday, October 24, 2015

Extra Innings

Whatever mission Saul sent him on, David was so successful that Saul gave him a high rank in the army. This pleased all the troops, and Saul's officers as well.

 -- 1 Samuel 18:5
It's just about time again for the World Series. And if you're a baseball fan--especially a fan of old school baseball--then you're probably familiar with Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig.

Nicknamed Iron Man, Gehrig was a outstanding player who combined power with average. When his Lou Gehrigcareer was cut short in 1939 by the fatal disease that would eventually carry his name, Gehrig had hit nearly 500 home runs, driven in almost 2,000 RBIs and racked up a .340 batting average. But in spite of these impressive numbers, the New York Yankee first baseman is perhaps best known for his streak of playing in 2,130 consecutive games. Decades passed before Baltimore Orioles legend Cal Ripkin, Jr., finally eclipsed this remarkable feat.

In an era before modern sports medicine, Gehrig no doubt played an inning or two while hurt, sick or even exhausted. But he carried on for the good of his team. And his dedication, selflessness and love of the game sustained him for 16 seasons while leading the Yankees to victory after victory. He succeeded in baseball because he had the strength to go the extra innings. And it's in much the same way that God's grace sustains each Christ-follower throughout their long journey of faith.

A misconception among some Believers is that God only bestows His grace the moment they give their lives to Jesus. And after that (they reason) our Creator steps back into the cosmos to watch in silence. But the Bible tells us that God doesn't leave us on our own. Just as our lives as Christ-followers are marked by twists and hairpin turns along an often rugged path, God continues to spread His grace along the way. And it's a good thing. Because from time to time, we'll all need spiritual renewal as we grow in what it means to walk in Jesus' footsteps. Even the apostles--the ones who personally witnessed Christ's life-changing miracles--asked the Lord to increase their faith. So we're in good company.

The apostles were both physically and spiritually drained after abandoning their livelihoods and then following Jesus for three years, And when their Master was arrested, tried and crucified, they scattered in fear for their lives--just as Jesus had predicted. But they would soon experience renewal the night Jesus reappeared to them. John the Apostle described the scene this way:

In the evening of that first day of the week, the disciples had met together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood right in the middle of them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he showed them his hands and his side, and when they saw the Lord the disciples were overjoyed. Jesus said to them again, "Yes, peace be with you! Just as the Father sent me, so I am now going to send you."

These early Christ-followers could now continue with their world-changing mission. What's more, they had renewed confidence. And not in themselves, but in God alone. It was through Him that they had the faith to both accomplish and endure.

Like a weary baseball team that taps into their talent and willpower to finally clinch the World Series, Christ-followers must depend on a special power to get them through those difficult extra innings of life. We know it to be God's sustaining grace, made possible through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. And if you'll bear with a final baseball analogy, it's the power that guarantees we'll one day be safe at home.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where's the Beef?

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
"Where's the Beef?" was one of the most popular catchphrases of the 1980's. It originated from a Wendy's commercial depicting an outspoken grandma (played by 83-year-old Clara Peller) and her two elderly friends at a fast food restaurant. As the ladies inspect their meal--a burger they no doubt ordered after seeing it hyped on TV--they observe: "The bun is very nice...a nice fluffy bun." It's then that Clara asks the obvious question about the tiny piece of fried meat that's nearly hidden by the bread:

"Where's the beef...Where's the beef?!"

More than 30 years later, people still ask, Hamburger"Where's the beef?" when they want to see claims backed by solid results rather than empty words. And it's also a question that's as valid for Christ-followers (known collectively as The Church) as it is for a hamburger restaurant. As believers, we're able to make remarkable claims about how our Savior--Jesus--has changed our lives and is changing the world. But if the public perceives our lives as no different than anyone else's--and maybe even worse--they have a right to be skeptical and point at our hypocrisy.

Centuries before Clara Peller posed her famous question, James, the half-brother of Jesus, used a related illustration to help separate the steak from the sizzle:

What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a 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.

Likewise, the Apostle Paul makes the point in Romans 3:20 and Ephesians 2:8 that we're not saved from the penalty for our sins 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 His 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 be being saved FOR doing good works. The Church is therefore to be Jesus' mouth, eyes, hands and feet in the community and around the world--all to demonstrate God's power to change lives and put His love into action.

Now there's the beef!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

You Must Be Mistaken

But he went off and began to talk a great deal about it in public, spreading his story far and wide. Consequently, it became impossible for Jesus to show his face in the towns and he had to stay outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from all quarters.

 -- Mark 1:45
The famous playwright Oscar Wilde was right on the mark when he quipped that experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes. Whether it's on the job (missed a deadline) or on the home front (missed the school bus), a mistake can be embarrassing, costly and sometimes even painful. But consider the implications when it's made in front of an audience of millions.

In the 1972 Summer Olympics, Finnish Mistakerunner Lasse Viren tripped and fell during the 10,000-meter race when his feet tangled with those of 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 Olympics history.

Maybe your mistakes haven't been ones of Olympic proportion. But they probably seemed like it. After all, how many times have we all made such huge blunders that it looked like the end of the world? We felt like we'd blown it. It was over. And we'd never get back to where things were.

Such life-altering experiences can cover lots of territory. They might test our relationships, careers or faith...and 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 knows us by name. Moreover, he's a God of second (and third and 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?" The Savior responded, "Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!"

If we're to be so forgiving when others make the mistake of offending us, think how patient God must be when we continue to fail him day after day. Peter certainly knew a thing or two about that. In fact, after Jesus was arrested by the authorities 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 detention, Jesus was tried and convicted on false charges. And soon he would suffer a horrific, painful death--as a substitute for you and me--through his crucifixion between two common criminals. Crushed by guilt, Peter believed that his own life was over. If anyone had blown it, he was the man. 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 experience the pain, doubt and self-condemnation that arise from our own mistakes and shortcomings, let's take to heart Peter's uplifting testimony about his Master:

"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!"

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Making a Difference

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

Have you ever wondered if Christianity really makes a difference? And would life be any different today if Jesus had never arrived 2,000 years ago?

These are just two of the questions that a skeptical world raises about The Church and the Christ-followers that comprise it. This unbelief is nothing new. In fact, the doubters and critics have been around since Jesus' death and resurrection. But their questions deserve honest answers.

Several years ago, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcomb Crosscollaborated to write What If Jesus Had Never Been Born, a thought-provoking book that addresses these issues head-on. In it we read that without Jesus, there would be no Church. This is the same organization that helped end slavery, cannibalism and the killing of children--all permissible practices at the time in their respective cultures. And if Jesus had never been born and there were no Church, the world would likely be less educated. That's because Christian missionaries replicated many of the world's languages on the printing press to help the people read the Bible. Moreover, all but one of the first colleges in Colonial America were Christian institutions. Harvard was even founded on this statement:

"Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3."

If Jesus had never been born, there would also be no Church to promote the biblical principles of free enterprise, private property rights and the worth ethic. It's because our federal government was largely founded by Christ-followers that The Declaration of Independence cites self-evident truths and unalienable rights from the Creator. Our nation also recognizes the rule of law rather than the authority of man--a concept traced back to the Old Testament and the Ten Commandments. Even the slogan embossed on the Liberty Bell comes from the Bible:

"Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof..."

The truth is that Christianity HAS made a difference. Today, Christ-followers continue to change the world in both small ways and large, such as by delivering meals to shut-ins and providing housing for the homeless. Samaritan's Purse, the Christian relief organization headed by Franklin Graham, also distributes Christmas packages each year as a direct expression of Christ's love for the world's children. His organization also helps thousands of refugees cope with man-made and natural disasters, such as the April 2015 earthquake that devastated Nepal.

Our world would be a much different place without Christianity. But what The Church must never forget is the Source of this difference:

"I am the vine; you are the branches," declares Jesus.
"If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."