Saturday, August 19, 2017

Unchained

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!

-- 2 Corinthians 5:17


The fifth chapter of Mark's Gospel begins with the story of a man who faced some serious problems. Or perhaps a legion of problems is a more accurate description of his plight.

This tormented soul had been exiled from the community to live out his remaining days in a cemetery near Lake Galilee. The man was literally overcome by demons. And so total was his possession that he used supernatural strength to repeatedly break the chains and smash the leg irons that the townspeople had used to confine him.

"No one could control him," we read. "Night and day he was in the graveyard or on the hills, yelling and cutting himself with stones."

And that would have been the end of Chainthe man's bizarre narrative. But then along came Jesus and his disciples from their voyage across the lake. Recognizing that Christ was literally God in the flesh, the demons that possessed the man begged him to postpone their own eternal fate and instead allow them to infest the vast herd of pigs that roamed the hillside. Jesus agreed. And the demons immediately fled from their victim.

Fast-forward now to 21st century America. When a celebrity, sports star or even a neighbor faces the consequences of alcohol, drugs, anger-management issues or some other destructive force, count on someone to observe that they struggled with their share of demons. Sometimes that's a figure of speech. But literal demons really can torment people and do their best to make their victims' lives a living hell.   

The fact is that everyone has their share of demons to one extent or another--even Christ-followers. And even though we've accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, asked him for forgiveness and then received it, we still can slide back into those bad habits and behaviors that we thought we had left far behind. 

So what's the problem? Doesn't the Bible say that becoming a Christ-follower makes you a new creation?

Indeed it does. But our transformation is a work in progress on God's timetable. Although it can happen immediately, shedding our personal demons often takes place bit by bit and day after day along our faith journey. Also, keep in mind that our journey's pathway is narrow, twisting and full of unexpected hairpin turns. And it's when we take our eyes off the destination and listen to our demons that we wind up in the ditch.

Let's finish by considering the life-lesson of the Apostle Paul--the Christ-follower who wrote much of the New Testament. In his 2,000-year-old lament that sounds uncomfortably familiar to modern ears, Paul complains that he continues to do the very things he despises. Yet at the same time, he fails to do the things he knows he should accomplish.

If this great Apostle to the Gentiles had so many problems with sin and temptation, what hope can we have of breaking free from our own chains? Well...quite a bit! As Christ-followers, we don't have to accept sin's dominance in our lives. It all comes down to our ultimate trust and dependence on a Power much greater than ourselves.

"What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?" asks Paul. "Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Putting Love Into Action

Show me the wonders of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you from their foes.

-- Psalm 17:7

When asked by one of the Pharisees--a strict religious sect--to name the greatest of God's laws, Jesus astounded his audience by the simplicity and clarity of his response:

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment," Jesus answered. "And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

So in just a few brief sentences, Jesus summarized the core message of Scripture: that God's love, translated into beneficial motivations and actions through our faith in Jesus Christ, is an unstoppable, world-changing force.

This is a difficult concept for many because Love in Actionthey equate "love" with that squishy word associated with weddings, chocolates and Valentine's Day. But Jesus wasn't talking about that fleeting, awkward emotion. Instead, he's calling his followers to walk in step with him by putting their love into sincere, tangible action. And this can come in a wide variety of forms--everything from helping an elderly neighbor get their groceries to revealing God's light to total strangers through a prison ministry. It could also translate into changing a co-worker's life by showing him or her how Jesus has changed your own. The possibilities and potential are endless.

How does God demonstrate his love?

There's the famous Bible story of the Prodigal Son, where the loving father welcomed back his wayward--and totally undeserving--child with open arms. Or what about Jesus' parable of the shepherd, who searched tirelessly for a single missing sheep? When he finally found it, he returned it triumphantly to the rest of the flock. Christ also told his disciples about a man who sold all his possessions to buy a field. But it wasn't just any plot of land. Instead, it was one that held buried treasure. The cost to buy the field was staggering, but the man did whatever it took to gain the precious prize.

Those are a few illustrations of how God loves you and me. In fact, he'll go to any length to bring us into his family. John 3:16--perhaps the most famous passage in the New Testament--tells us that God loves the world so much that he gave his only Son (Jesus) so that those who believe in him will have eternal life. God willingly let Jesus suffer and die to pay for our wrongdoings--past, present and future. We rightfully deserve death because of how we've lived our lives and broken our Creator's laws. But God's love offers us joy and happiness if we're only willing to accept it. It was by living on Earth among everyday people and then dying for our sins that Jesus, who was literally God-in-the-flesh, paid the price to redeem us.

The limits of human vocabulary prevent us from fully describing the meaning and implications of how God loves and cherishes his children. We can only skim the surface of this vast and deep ocean. But maybe it's really not that difficult. After all, it takes just three simple words from the book of 1 John to sum it all up: God is Love. And it's when we live out our faith by putting his love into action that we can make all of the difference in the world.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Mission Possible

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me 
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

-- Luke 4:18-19

Many companies and organizations have a mission statement, which is a written declaration that presents their purpose, work and goals. For example, CSX Corporation strives to "...be the safest, most progressive North American railroad, relentless in the pursuit of customer and employee excellence." Levi Strauss & Co.'s mission statement says, "People love our clothes and trust our company. We will market the most appealing and widely worn casual clothing in the world. We will clothe the world." Meanwhile, The Hershey Company--the manufacturer of delicious treats such as Twizzlers, Hershey's Kisses and Reese's peanut butter cups--gets right down to business with its stark mission statement: "Undisputed Marketplace Leadership."
Mission
A common denominator here is the principle of return on investment, primarily to the organization's customers and stockholders. After all, the companies understand that they would not exist without their benefactors' ongoing confidence and support. Likewise, their backers expect to see positive results in one form or another.  

Jesus once told a story about a master who gave each of his three servants a considerable amount of money ("talents") to invest while he was away on an extended trip. After a while, the master returned to claim what was his. He was very pleased with the first two servants, who had invested what he had given them. Their efforts resulted in doubling the master's money. But it wasn't so with the third servant, who feared his master's stern reputation and the potential for loss. So instead, he played it safe and literally buried the money in a hole in the ground. The master was displeased, to say the least! Instead of commending the servant's regard for safeguarding his resources, he was furious because the servant had wasted the opportunity to invest and multiply his treasure.

That's where Jesus' mission statement for his followers enters the picture. God has given us various resources, skills, opportunities and circumstances for investing in the spiritual lives of others. They could be as close as your spouse, sibling or child. But they might be a co-worker, neighbor or someone who's put in your path at a most unexpected moment.

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you," Jesus told his apostles, "and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

How are you using the talents God has given you? Are you investing them boldly in the lives of others--or are you simply playing it safe? It's through Jesus that our mission is possible.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Signs of the Times

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

California might come to mind when we think of places where earthquakes are common. But did you know that Yellowstone National Park, which straddles Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, experiences hundreds of them each week? What's more, the area sits atop a so-called supervolcano, and it's been 70,000 years since it last erupted. Then there's the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), which covers parts of seven states from Illinois to Mississippi. During the Winter of 1811-12, it experienced 15 tremors with estimated magnitudes of 6.5 to 8.0. That's on par with the 1989 San Francisco, 1994 Los Angeles and 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquakes. Seismologists report that the NMSZ appears to be 30 years overdue for a magnitude 6.3 quake, which could cause billions of dollars of damage and perhaps thousands of injuries and deaths.

Disasters, whether natural or manmade, Hour Glasshappen 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 recognize their warning signs. But today, there are cautions of a much greater world-changing event that could strike in 100 years, 20 years, 2 weeks 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 place their faith in him, and direct all others to an eternity of torment. No one knows exactly when he'll reappear. But many of the Bible's prophesies on the matter have already been fulfilled, such as the relatively recent prediction about the re-birth of the State of Israel. There's actually nothing to stop his Second Coming in our lifetimes.

Yes, Jesus could return in 5 minutes or in 500 years. But either way, we must be prepared. That's because none of us knows when our time on Earth will expire. Check the news on the Internet, television or the paper, and you're bound to find stories about deaths through accidents, crimes or sudden illness (such as a stroke or heart attack). Like the victims of a tsunami, they had no idea that the day would be their last.

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 us, "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 penalty that Jesus endured on the cross--for our sake--about 2,000 years ago. So whether we leave this life from a natural disaster or naturally through old age, the question remains: How can we be assured that we'll spend eternity with God rather than forever without him? The simple answer is not a particular action we can take, but rather a certain Person we must trust:

"I am the way, the truth, and the life!" Jesus assures us through John 14:6. "Without me, no one can go to the Father."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Passing the Test

He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times..."

-- Matthew 16:2-3

If you're a fan of Star Trek, you'll be happy to know that filming is underway for the next installment of the popular movie franchise. Star Trek 4 is scheduled for release sometime in 2018. And rumor has it that the plot involves Captain Kirk crossing paths with his father, the young Star Fleet commander who sacrificed his life in the 2009 Star Trek reboot to save his newborn son and the Federation fleet.

Speaking of the first Star Trek reboot, Star Trekthere's a scene where Kirk--then a brash Star Fleet Academy cadet--must undergo a computer-simulation exercise called the Kobayashi Maru Test. Designed by Mr. Spock, the test places Kirk in a no-win scenario as the commander of a starship facing the overwhelming force of aggressive Klingon warbirds.

Kirk remains calm while the imaginary Klingon spacecraft open fire. He even munches an apple from the comfort of the captain's chair as his exasperated crew wonders aloud if their leader will take action amidst the chaos. Star Fleet Academy observers also question if the cocky cadet takes the situation seriously. But just at the protective shields of Kirk's vessel are about to give way, the Klingon attack grinds to a halt. Then, it's the Klingons' shields that begin to fall. And with a few well-aimed photon torpedoes ordered by Kirk, the enemy ships are quickly destroyed.

The Kobayashi Maru Test was meant to gauge Kirk's response to impending defeat in an unwinnable situation. But since he had reprogrammed the simulation and re-written its conclusion, he could remain confident in the midst of circumstances that no previous cadet had overcome.

"I don't believe in no-win scenarios," Kirk later explained. And why should he? After all, he already knew the story's outcome.
 
Maybe our world isn't under attack from a squadron of Klingon warbirds. But a quick check of the news headlines reveals considerable turmoil in our midst. Thank God (literally) that we don't have to rely on our own cleverness to overcome it. The good news is that our Creator is in control of our crazy environment of politics, unemployment, revolutions and corruption. Maybe that's hard to believe. However, God's Word (the Bible) explains that he had it all figured out thousands of years ago--even before the world was formed. He knew which of us would be his followers. And he knew that his creation would need a perfect Savior to deliver us from the consequences of our misdirected lives.

The timing had to be perfect. And so it was. Centuries after the Old Testament had promised his arrival, Jesus was born in an obscure village called Bethlehem--exactly as predicted. Later, prophesy after prophesy would be fulfilled during Christ's brief ministry through his remarkable words and deeds.

Why does this matter to Jesus' modern-day followers? Throughout our trials big and small--and when our world seems to be crumbling around us--we can rest assured that God's plans are always trustworthy and on schedule, even when we don't understand what's happening. We can't see things through his perspective. But since he wrote life's first chapter, last chapter and everything in between, we can be confident that God already knows how our stories will turn out. Moreover, he's the author of a happy ending for those who love him and trust in his Son. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shades of Gray

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

-- Micah 6:8


One of the great misconceptions about Christianity is that it's all about rules and regulations. Yes, it's true that the Old Testament has over 600 of them, covering everything from proper animal sacrifice to priests with disheveled hair. What's more, the Jewish religious authorities added many others over the years through their oral traditions. Maybe the intentions were good. But the burden was heavy. Who could ever please God by following them all when there were too many to even remember?

"Until the time of John the Baptist, people had to obey the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets," Jesus explained to his followers. "But since God's kingdom has been preached, everyone is trying hard to get in."

God's Word was perfect. But Jesus got Decisionto the heart of its true meaning. When an expert in the Law asked Christ to name the greatest of the 10 Commandments, the Lord answered:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Christ-followers who stick close to this principle are likely to travel far down the road of Spirit-filled living. But there are still issues and situations--so-called gray areas--that the Bible doesn't specifically cover. Examples include issues with personal relationships, styles of worship, food and drink, and types of entertainment. Although the Apostle Paul never considered questionable Internet sites and pay-per-view movies, he was no stranger to debatable issues in his own day that pulled the church away from what was (and still is) most important: the Good News about Jesus. Paul advised early Christ-followers that their newfound faith in Jesus gave them liberty.

"Everything is permissible," he explained. "But not everything is necessarily beneficial."

In other words, just because we CAN do something doesn't necessarily mean we SHOULD do it. But this spawns an obvious question: How do we know if a particular gray area is OK?

We first need to determine if the proposed activity could be a problem to those who see us do it. For example, would it build up or hinder the faith of another Christ-follower if they saw you buy a ticket for an explicit R-rated movie? And on the same note, would the activity benefit you spiritually or physically? Just because you CAN eat a bucket of fried chicken and a carton of chocolate ice cream doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

Our faith in Jesus has given us the freedom to live enriched, fulfilled lives. But this same liberty isn't a license to sin. That should be the last thing in our mind. Above all--whatever we choose to do--we need to do it for God's glory. Because after all, the world is watching.

"A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house," Jesus tells us. "Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven."

The fact is that Christianity is much more about relationships than rules. And it's when we focus on loving God and our neighbors through what we say and do that the vivid colors of life emerge from the gray. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Soul Food

The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.

-- Proverbs 16:26


What's your idea of a great meal?

For some folks, a grilled steak, baked potato and tossed salad always hit the spot. Others love pizza, Chinese or seafood. And let's not forget those who crave vegetarian. 

Our tastes and taste buds might vary widely, but its hunger that unites us. Likewise, we all share another type of appetite that has nothing to do with cheeseburgers and ice cream. It's the spiritual hunger that's hard-coded in our SteakDNA. Inside, everyone has a gnawing desire to fill a gaping internal void. Some try through negative pursuits involving drugs, alcohol, compulsive spending or gambling. Others rely on long hours in the office or escaping reality through online gaming, television or even travel. But after the thrill is gone, the hunger always returns. And there's never any satisfaction.

Jesus addressed this spiritual starvation by proclaiming (and proving) himself to be the "food" that everyone craves. It's when we accept him as our Lord and Savior that he fills the void and nourishes our lives. We just need to be willing to ask, listen and obey.

Spiritual hunger isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we all need a drive--a certain level of intensity--to continue developing as Christ-followers. That's because the old saying is true: life is a journey rather than a wide spot in the road. God has so many things for us to see, experience and comprehend during our brief existence on Earth. That's how we grow and mature into Jesus' likeness. 

Unfortunately, too many Christ-followers become spiritually malnourished because they stop seeking meaning in their lives. The solution is to grow in faith by making the most of the people, places and situations that we encounter each day. That means developing our spiritual muscles through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, small group participation and other positive habits. After all, there's nothing like a good workout to whet ones appetite.

Are you hungry for more than bland, mundane existence? There's plenty of good stuff on the menu:

"I am the bread of life," Jesus declares. "He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Start Spreading the News

Jesus isn't here! He has been raised from death. Remember that while he was still in Galilee, he told you,
"The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross. But three days later he will rise to life."

-- Luke 24:6-7


If it bleeds, it leads.

That's the old saying in the news business. Turn on the TV or check the headlines on the web, and you're bound to come across story after story about alleged political corruption, financial hardship, job layoffs and degenerate human behavior. The fact is that the media thrives on bad news and hyping the worst possible scenarios. After all, good news rarely drives ratings or attracts clicks.

Positive headlines also don't paint an Newsunrealistic, gloomy picture of our circumstances. For example, bad economic news can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies when people becomes too scared to buy a much-needed automobile or even a new pair of shoes. True, too many people really are struggling these days with difficult life challenges. But unemployment, crime, sickness and death have been part of the human experience for centuries. There's nothing new under the sun.

But enough with the depressing headlines. How about spreading some good news for a change?

As Christ-followers, our Good News (The Gospel) is that Jesus paid the price for our sins (past, present and future) when he died in our place on the cross. Then, just as predicted centuries earlier in the Old Testament, God resurrected him to life to forever defeat the power of sin and death in our lives. It's this same power that will one day raise all Believers to eternal life and joy with our Creator.

"Death has lost the battle!" proclaimed the Apostle Paul. "Where is its victory? Where is its sting?"

Does this Good News sound a bit too good to be true? If so, you're not alone. Even some of Jesus' closest followers found it hard to believe when they heard reports--just days after witnessing his crucifixion--that he was actually alive. Let's consider this encouraging passage from the Gospel of John, which details the skepticism (and later amazement) of an apostle known to this day as "Doubting Thomas":

Although Thomas the Twin was one of the twelve disciples, he wasn't with the others when Jesus appeared to them. So they told him, "We have seen the Lord!"

But Thomas said, "First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won't believe unless I do this!"

A week later the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas was with them. Jesus came in while the doors were still locked and stood in the middle of the group. He greeted his disciples and said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and look at my hands! Put your hand into my side. Stop doubting and have faith!"

Thomas replied, "You are my Lord and my God!"

Jesus said, "Thomas, do you have faith because you have seen me? The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!"

Are today's headlines getting you down? Now's the time to start spreading the Good News.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

All That Glitters

These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

-- 1 Peter 1:7

You've seen the commercials.

They're the ones that invite you to trade in your gold jewelry for quick cash. And with the price of gold these days exceeding $1,200 per ounce, the promise of easy money might be irresistible. But while you're rummaging through your jewelry chest for that ugly necklace from your great-aunt, don't forget the old saying: All that glitters isn't gold. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that when it comes to gold jewelry, what you see isn't always what you get.

The proof is as close as your ring finger. GoldThat's because most gold jewelry is marked with a karat rating of 10k, 14k or 18k: the higher numbers indicating the greater corresponding purities of the precious metal. But since the purest gold (like 24k) is very soft--and not to mention very expensive--goldsmiths mix it with other metals so the resulting alloy will stand up to everyday wear and tear. One of the most popular gold ratings, 18-karat, is 75% gold mixed with a 25% alloy of silver, copper or both. A lower-purity gold with a more affordable price tag is 14-karat. And then there's 10-karat gold--generally the lowest purity that can still be referred to as gold. About 60% of a 10-karat gold ring represents metals other than gold! Then things really get dicey when it comes to the gold-filled and gold-plated jewelry sold on cable shopping channels and late-night TV.

The bottom line is that gold jewelry can look dazzling to the untrained eye. But Jesus--who's the Master Artisan--is quick to spot cheap imitations and showy, overpriced pieces that aren't what they seem. And he's looking at people rather than jewelry!

Christ aimed some of his most stinging criticisms at the so-called religious people who said all the right things, appeared to be spiritual and made a show when giving their weekly church offerings. They looked fine on the outside. But Jesus was able to scrape off their shiny golden veneer to reveal the ugly base metal of their hearts.

He called them hypocrites.

Christ would likely use this same term for some modern-day church-goers. After all, they've worn their Sunday-finest mask for so long that they think it's natural. But there's good news for those who truly desire genuine transformation and a new life through faith in The Savior. God specializes in forming beautiful and useful examples of his handiwork from raw materials exposed to the intense heat of daily trials and tribulations. And it's when life gets super-heated that our impurities are finally burned away. This trial-by-fire leaves only high-quality gold--the precious metal that's pure and pliable enough to be formed into the effective Christ-followers that our Creator both values and desires.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Lawn and Garden

I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you.

-- Genesis 17:6

Recorded during a time when the livelihood of most people involved agriculture, the Bible is full of references to the planting, harvesting and storage of crops. The crowds that followed Jesus from village to village were certainly familiar with the imagery of fruitfulness in his parable called The Sower. They knew a thing or two about cultivation. After all, their ability to grow and harvest a thriving crop each year could mean the difference between starvation and having plenty.

A related theme in the Bible is that of Harvestmankind's need for a thriving relationship with its Creator. Without him, nothing--either spiritual or physical--can grow.

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener," Jesus tells us through John's Gospel. "He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful."

Christ then added this caution:

"I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples."

Warm weather is here, and folks are flocking to lawn and garden centers to buy the tools, fertilizers and other supplies to make their gardens thrive. They know that with enough time and effort, the harvest can be both remarkable and satisfying.  
    
The same goes for cultivating our spiritual lives, which also takes time and effort. But unlike a plot of vegetables that eventually withers and dies with the first frosts of autumn, spirit-filled lives rooted in a solid relationship with God will thrive and produce much fruit--and all with eternal benefits.

Are you cultivating a fruitful, personal relationship with your Creator--and are you helping others do the same? Work awaits us in the fields. So as we gather our spiritual gardening tools for the task at hand, let's consider these familiar words of Jesus from Matthew's Gospel:

"The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few."

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hitting the Wall

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

Long-distance runners call it The Wall. It's that 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. But those who are unprepared will drop out of the race in exhaustion and defeat.

As Christ-followers, we face our own wall each day as we try to live up to the calling for holiness--or being conformed to all things to God's will. That means we must be set apart by living by our Creator's standards rather than the world's expectations. But too often we tire as we fight 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 tempted to go back to our 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 long battle, fatigue tends to set in.

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

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 example, 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, steep hills and rough road lie ahead of us. 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 personal 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 stepbrother 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 overcome the obstacles in this long-distance race called life? All you have to do is ask for it in faith.  

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Fixer Upper

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

-- Ezekiel 36:26 

Although home renovation is hardly a new concept, the related house-flipping industry has more recent origins. And it's flourished over the last 25 years--particularly following the Great Recession and the 2010 home foreclosure crisis. 

The principle behind flipping is to buy Hammera foreclosed or otherwise "distressed" property at a bargain-basement price, fix it up quickly and then sell it for a nice profit. HGTV's popular television series The Fixer Upper follows Waco, TX-based Chip and Joanna Gaines as they renovate the worst homes in the best neighborhoods. The results from their shared efforts are nothing less than spectacular. What were once useless eyesores become cherished homesteads.

Every Christ-follower is linked to this illustration. Like run-down properties made whole again, we become born-again creations once we accept Jesus through faith as our Lord and Savior. We start life over with a clean slate--now ready and able to do good works to advance God's Kingdom. Think about the implications: All of our failures and everything that we've done wrong throughout our lives is forgiven. And it's all because Jesus paid that heavy price and died in our place on the cross!

As new Christ-followers we become transformed in the way we live, the way we see the world and the way we look toward the future. But like a weather-worn house with a bad foundation, our renovation takes time, and it's on the Master Builder's timetable. What's more, we can't expect quick and easy results.

God--like those professional home pros that we see on TV--enjoys transforming the worthless into the worthwhile. And he tends to accomplish his plans in some unlikely ways and places through some even more unlikely people like you and me.

"Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" our Creator proclaims through the Book of Isaiah. "I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Smoke and Mirrors

An honest witness does not deceive, but a false witness pours out lies.

-- Proverbs 14:5 

Slot machines and concerts may draw the big crowds in Las Vegas, but magic acts like Criss Angel, David Copperfield and Penn and Teller can be the hottest tickets in town. Their clever illusions and sleight of hand are designed to trick the eye--and all while deceiving the audience that it's possible to make an elephant disappear into thin air. The crowd knows that there must be a trick, yet they still want to believe the incredible. Meanwhile, the magician never reveals the truth: the secret behind the hocus-pocus.

A very different kind of revelation is that split second when one's eyes are opened to a spiritual truth that changes everything. For Christ-followers that can happen when God shows us that we're going down the wrong path in some area of life. Then there's the ultimate eye-opener: when non-believers finally awaken to their need for Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. That's not just life changing--it's literally eternal.

When God's light breaks through, the Magictruth is revealed and we can finally see. Unfortunately, much of the world still chooses to remain deceived and enjoy the utter darkness of its existence. Meanwhile, Christ-followers who are open about their faith are accused of narrow-mindedness, bigotry or worse. Just surf the web or watch TV. You don't have to look hard to find articles or videos featuring Hollywood celebrities or so-called progressive journalists who point their fingers at "intolerant" Christians.

But depending on the context, is intolerance such a bad thing when the truth is at stake? After all, Jesus hates sin and declares himself to be the exclusive pathway to God. "I am the way, the truth and the life," he says. "No one comes to the Father except through me."

That's not very tolerant of God's Son. And his bold proclamation defies today's inclusive, politically correct environment. After all, it hurts feelings and suggests that some faiths are better than others. But society's demands for open-mindedness and equality are irrelevant. Jesus has no tolerance for their false gods and deceptions.

God's truth is near for those who truly seek it. And we have open access to this living water through the Bible, prayer and even wise counsel from fellow Believers. With such vast resources at hand, we should have less trouble than others with telling right from wrong and discerning the truth. But actually living this out is another matter. And that opens us up--and often rightfully so--to allegations of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. That's because the world is watching. And It's comparing our Sunday-morning words to our weekday deeds.

So are our words, thoughts and deeds little more than smoke and mirrors...or are we living on rock-solid faith? Let's not be deceived.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Gospel Truth

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

-- 2 Timothy 3:16-17 


Can we really believe what's in the Bible? And is all that stuff about Jesus rising from the dead really true?

Those are lofty questions with eternal consequences. But who really knows the truth? After all, some people say that the Bible is too old to be relevant in the 21st Century. Others doubt the possibility of all the miracles it reports. And still others claim that the Bible is no greater than the scriptures used by other faiths.

With so many legitimate concerns out there, what makes the Bible stand out above every book ever written?

First, the Bible claims to be God's word. TruthBut moreover it backs up its claims with hundreds of prophesies (predictions) about events that actually happened decades or centuries later. For example, the Old Testament records in detail God's plan for saving mankind through a Messiah. The prophet Micah wrote that the Savior would be born--in of all places--an obscure Middle Eastern town called Bethlehem. And as we read in the New Testament, Jesus fulfilled these prophesies in person through his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. And he did so to the letter!

Historically and scientifically accurate, the Bible is also the most studied and critiqued book in history. Try as many have, no one has been able to disprove its claims. Luke, the physician who wrote the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, also wanted the real scoop. So he interviewed the people who knew Jesus best and could attest to his reality. Let's consider the opening lines of Luke's first book:

"Many people have tried to tell the story of what God has done among us. They wrote what we had been told by the ones who were there in the beginning and saw what happened. So I made a careful study of everything and then decided to write and tell you exactly what took place. ... I have done this to let you know the truth about what you have heard."

The Apostle Peter--someone who knew Jesus personally--also reassures us through his own testimony:

"When we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, we were not telling just clever stories that someone invented," he wrote. "But we saw the greatness of Jesus with our own eyes."

It all adds up to a mountain of convincing evidence that would stand up in court. So as Christ-followers seeking to grow in our faith, what's our response to this awesome reality?

First, we should take time each day to read and memorize God's word. After all, it's his message to us that covers just about every facet of life. And of course, we also need to obey it--even if it doesn't make sense at the time. What's more, we should delight in it because we know it's the source of truth for our life. And this all leads to our final response: trust.

Indeed, God's word to us through the Bible is trustworthy. And who better to confirm that than someone who very much believed it himself: Jesus. Luke's Gospel tells us that Christ even launched his public ministry by reading passages from the Book of Isaiah. A tiny Jewish congregation was the first audience for these stunning words of new-found meaning. But Jesus also meant them for everyone--even those today--with ears to hear them:

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Racing Fuel

Are you so irrational? After you started with the Spirit,
are you now finishing up with your own human effort?

-- Galatians 3:3 

Last week, Kenyan Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge nearly made history in his attempt to complete a marathon in less than two hours. Although he beat his personal best time for the 26.2-mile race, he still finished 26 seconds short of the goal at the Formula One race course in Monza, Italy. 

Completing such a grueling competition (let alone winning it) involved much more than practice runs and stretching exercises. Successful marathoners also adhere to a special diet to ensure that their bodies have enough fuel to carry them the distance. They understand that eating the wrong foods can mean the difference between crossing the finish line and dropping out in exhaustion with miles still left to go.

For Christ-followers, this principle applies Runnerbecause our faith-journeys are also marathons. The difference is that our racing fuel pertains to the spiritual foods we consume through our choice of friends, movies, music and other media. On the way to crossing life's finish line, we should strive to produce the fruit of the Holy Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But if we're constantly feeding on negative influences, we shouldn't be surprised if we follow our old sinful natures from time to time. Expressions of jealousy, bitterness and frustration are common examples of what can happen when we fail to consume the right spiritual fuel for going the distance.

As the Apostle Paul told the Galatians, "Our sinful selves want what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit wants what is against our sinful selves. The two are against each other, so you cannot do just what you please."

It's obvious that every Christ-follower--just like every runner in an Olympic marathon--needs to prepare for the long and demanding race ahead of them. But rather than carb-loading to maximize the storage of energy in our muscles, we should instead follow a determined spiritual routine that will help see us to victory.

First, let's start with constant prayer and a continual awareness that we can't make it without the Holy Spirit living within us. Rather than living one day at a time, we're to proceed moment by moment. Second, we must deliberately filter our thinking. Do the movies we watch, the websites we visit and the friends we make feed our spirit or our sinful nature? And finally, we must die to ourselves every day by staying alert for traps and obstacles that could run us off the track. It's in 2 Timothy that Paul writes about the payoff for his own faith-journey through a rigid spiritual diet and rigorous training regimen: 

"I have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. At last the champion's wreath that is awarded for righteousness is waiting for me. The Lord, who is the righteous judge, is going to give it to me on that day. He's giving it not only to me but also to all those who have set their heart on waiting for his appearance."

The old saying is true: You are what you eat. So whether you're a brand-new Christ-follower or you've been a believer for years, consume only the life-giving fuels that will take you the distance and over the finish line.