Sunday, July 31, 2016

Follow the Leader

So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

-- Luke 5:11

Picture one of those nights that even experienced drivers fear. 

It's extremely dark, and it's raining so hard that you can barely see over your car's hood. The fog and mist have rolled in. And you don't dare slow down or pull over to the roadside. It's a multi-car accident just waiting to happen.

So what can you do to make it safely to your destination? When it's raining cats and dogs, sometimes the best move is a serious game of Follow the Leader. That means following the dim red taillights of the vehicle in front of you and matching the driver's every turn. When he taps his brakes, you do, too. And if he bears right, you don't ask any questions. That's because you know he can already see what's up ahead. Things can get dangerous if you try to make it on your own. So ultimately, it's a matter of trust.

Isn't this a picture of what it means to be a Christ-follower? The Bible reveals that Jesus asked his disciples to follow him into storms, hostile crowds and towns full of religious hard-liners. These situations were dangerous and scary. But like the lead driver on the highway, Jesus knew what was ahead. And he led those who believed in him to experience life in its fullest.

That was fine 2,000 years ago. But what does it mean to follow Jesus in the 21st Century?

What was true back then is still true today. It starts with following Jesus' examples of growing closer to God through regular prayer, Bible reading, worship and gathering with other believers. We can also imitate him by being a friend to the weak and helpless, sharing our material blessings and being an advocate for justice. That, too, can be scary at times. But it's all meant to help us experience life as our Creator meant it.

How are you doing so far on your faith journey? Whether the skies along the way have been dark and stormy or sunny and clear, the same wisdom applies: Stay on the narrow road and follow the Leader! 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Gold Standard

He has declared that he will set you in praise, fame and honor high above all the nations he has made and that you will be a people holy to the Lord your God, as he promised.

-- Deuteronomy 26:19

What makes a dollar bill worth more than the paper it's printed on?

It's really nothing more than the U.S. Government's assurance that we can trust them to back it up. Before 1933, our nation's monetary policy was based on the gold standard, which meant you could exchange a paper dollar at the bank for a dollar's worth of gold. But the Great Depression changed that. Seeking ways to inflate the nation's money supply, increase spending and get the economy moving, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the confiscation of gold coins and gold Gold Coincertificates in denominations greater than $100 in exchange for other money. In theory, a dollar bill (Federal Reserve Note) was still backed by a dollar's worth of gold or other tangible assets at the U.S. Treasury. In 1971, the government officially abandoned the gold standard. And ever since, the dollar is backed only by its assertion that our currency is the nation's legal tender "for all debts public and private."

This rock-solid guarantee has stabilized our nation over the years because the public knows it can literally take it to the bank. And although that's a comforting thought during these rough economic times, Christ-followers should find much greater solace in another promise that's printed on every dollar bill: In God We Trust.

God's promises extend beyond our financial status and job prospects. Not only are they eternal, we can count on them because of his proven track record of meaning what he says and saying what he means.

J. Barton Payne's Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy cites more than 1,800 promises from God. And no doubt the greatest was fulfilled--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. God was here with us in the flesh!

The fulfillment of this promise was much more than a footnote in history. Through Jesus, the devil was defeated and Christ-followers were given the power to live victorious, Spirit-filled lives. What's more, centuries after his death and resurrection, these same promises and assurances still apply to us today. Let's consider this familiar passage from the tenth chapter of Matthew's Gospel:

"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."

It's a reflection of our Creator's deep concern and love. In fact, he knows every one of us intimately--even before he formed us in our mother's womb. So does God really care about our troubles? Rest assured that his promises are worth more than any amount of gold. And you can take that to the bank!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

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

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar in 2016 for his performance in The Revenant. But 15 years earlier, he wowed audiences playing the ultimate impostor, Frank William Abagnale, Jr., in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

Jailed in France, Sweden, Canada and the United States for passing bad checks and other crimes, Abagnale could 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 actually a prison inspector. Soon, the fraud was a free man and back on the streets.

One of Abagnale's most famous cons Catch Me If You Caninvolved impersonating an airline pilot. This enabled him to cash bad checks at banks because tellers considered pilots to be credible and respected professionals. And in yet another scam, Abagnale convinced several people that he was a physician!

The FBI eventually caught up with the brazen criminal. Following his release from prison, Abagnale went straight and established Abagnale and Associates, where he today consults for clients--including the US Government--on issues related to 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 disturbing. How could a dime-a-dozen con artist garner so much respect and admiration from so many unsuspecting people? Unfortunately, the same question can be asked any Sunday morning at churches around the world. While smooth-talking individuals aren't there posing as airline pilots or doctors, there are impostor Christ-followers in the building. They know all the right things to say and the groups to attend, and they've often played their illicit role for years because it's what their spouse, family or neighbors expect. These imitators fool just about everyone on Sundays. But it's a far different story the other six days of the week. Their hearts are far from God. But our Creator isn't deceived for a moment.

It's tiring to even imagine, but many people actually prefer wearing the mask of religion rather than being clothed in an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ. How about you? If you're sick 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 begins with dropping the disguise, asking The Savior to clean you both inside and out--and then living out the power of God's love in authenticity.

"Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink," Jesus assures us. "Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them."

Is it time to let him catch you? After all, he can.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Treasure Hunt

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near.

-- Isaiah 55:6

What would life be like if everything of value were handed to us and we never had to work for anything?

For example, what would happen if we got straight A's in school without ever studying? Or what if we landed a high-paying job but had no real responsibilities?

Getting everything on a silver platter Treasuremight be nice for a while. But without experiencing challenges, responsibilities and even tragedies, we'd soon become lazy and self-centered, and ultimately fail to reap many of life's greatest rewards. Just ask anyone who worked their way through college or took a second or third job to pay the mortgage or send their child to a better school. It can be a struggle. But it can also pay off big time in the end.

It's true that we can reap great rewards and satisfaction through diligence and hard work. On the other hand, we can never work hard enough or do enough good deeds to earn our way into God's good graces. It was only Jesus' death on the cross that paid that high price. But this doesn't mean we're free of responsibilities. In fact, Christ-followers are called to live lives that reflect his love in action: in our community, in the workplace, at church--and of course--at home.

"I am the vine; you are the branches," Jesus tells us through John's Gospel. "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." The implications are obvious: finding Christ and following him can lead to spiritually enriched, transformed lives that can move mountains.

Jesus' first followers were willing to travel hundreds of miles through deserts and rugged terrain to find him. They were called the Magi, but they're better known as the Wise Men or the Three Kings. Some scholars suggest that they were astrologers from Babylon (ancient Iraq) who were familiar with Old Testament prophesies about the Jews' long-awaited Messiah. As God had planned it centuries earlier, a very special star appeared to them in the nighttime sky. It was a sign that was both astounding and unmistakable: a road map for finding the king of Kings. And follow it and find him they did!

The Magi's journey holds lessons for modern-day Christ-followers like you and me. The first is that following God can be dangerous and demanding. And sure enough, our faith-journeys are full of hairpin turns and steep hills rather than smooth stretches of superhighway. The Wise Men's trek also reminds us that we will find him--the Pearl of Great Price--if we search diligently through faith. After spotting Christ's star in the sky, the Wise Men grasped their life-changing opportunity, stayed on the rough path and ultimately discovered the Savior.

There really is treasure to be found if we're willing to accept Jesus' invitation, take that first step and start the hunt. Our hands are sure to get dirty. And we'll get a scrape or two along the way. But the incredible rewards that await us make it all worth the effort.

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you," Christ assures us. "For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened."

Saturday, July 2, 2016

You Be the Judge

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. Just turn on the TV or surf the Web for a while. You won'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 example, Jesus identified himself as the exclusive path to God:

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

This bold proclamation defies today's Gavel2all-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 and good from evil, and living our lives accordingly. 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 deeds.

When we point our finger at someone else, our other four fingers point back at us. We therefore should look closely in the mirror before accusing others. Are our own words, thoughts and actions 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 must 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 our actions. But either way, as Christ-followers, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of behavior. Likewise, we need to let God be the judge of others outside the faith. He knows the whole story, and we're hardly in the position to condemn anyone.

Regardless of what the world has to say these days, let's forget the concept of tolerance. It's instead love that should be our core value as well as our motivation in whatever we say, think or do. The Apostle John sums up this vast principle in just three small words: God is Love. So with this in mind, let's hand over the gavel and let our Creator be the judge.