Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Good Shepherd

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

-- Isaiah 1:17

If you're one of the millions of Americans these days who are considering a career change, how about becoming a shepherd?

Although the number of job openings for shepherds has dropped over the last several decades, it appears that good help is still hard to find. In fact, it's not uncommon for ranchers, farmers and landowners to import experienced shepherds from other nations where sheep-and-goat management is a thriving enterprise. If you still think that you're up to the task, understand that shepherds are responsible for protecting their flock against vicious predators including coyotes, wolves, mountain lions, bears and even domestic dogs. They must also monitor their sheep for illness. What's more, an experienced shepherd is expected to shear up to 125 ewes a day without nicking or cutting the animals' skin.

Above all, a shepherd's primary responsibility Sheepis the safety and welfare of their flock. And since so many different things can happen to the sheep under their watch, they must expect the unexpected, be courageous and do the right thing.

Doing the right thing isn't just the right thing to do, it's also a biblical principle for Christ-followers. As we read in James 4:17, "So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin."

Doing the right thing often calls for bravery. While we may never face a powerful army on the battlefield, we might have to take on societal opponents like injustice, crime or discrimination. We have no hope of defeating them on our own. However, we should be encouraged that God specializes in empowering average Joes and Janes to do the extraordinary against overwhelming odds.

For example, the Old Testament tells us that David--at the time an obscure shepherd boy and musician--protected his nation by killing the giant Goliath with a single stone launched from his slingshot. It was this same David who eventually became the mighty King of Israel and the one God called "a man after My own heart." Likewise, a fisherman named Peter once dove into the deep end (literally) when he accepted Jesus' call to walk on water. But after doubting his own abilities, Peter began to sink beneath the waves. Christ, however, saved him once the struggling follower called out in faith. This same Peter--who would eventually deny Jesus to others three times--ultimately became a bold preacher of The Way (the Good News about his Savior, Jesus Christ). Two books of the Bible also bear Peter's name.

As Christ-followers, we can take heart as we proceed through the peaks and valleys of our faith-journeys. While the world is indeed a scary place, God doesn't expect us to solve all of its problems. Instead, it's by seeking and embracing his power in faith that we can make a world of difference. And it all starts when we--like The Good Shepherd we worship--seek and do the right thing.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The A-Team

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

-- Matthew 16:18

What do The Dirty Dozen, The Bad News Bears and The A-Team have in common? These late-night cable TV staples share the same general plot about a group of unlikely misfits who--one way or another--work together to overcome significant obstacles and achieve victory. They face numerous setbacks along the road. But they eventually rally behind their leader, beat long odds and accomplish the improbable. It's a classic, feel-good storyline that never seems to grow old.

And it really IS an old storyline: at least 2,000 years-old, to be specific.

The "script" here is the New Testament, A-Teamthe second half of the Bible. Much of its real-life plot also revolves around a group of unlikely characters who learn from their all-knowing leader (Jesus) to alter history. We read in the Gospels that these mundane individuals were Christ's hand-picked followers. Some were fishermen, one was a tax collector and another (Simon the Zealot) might be considered a terrorist by today's standards. 

The apostles were a dubious group for such an important assignment: changing the world for Christ's kingdom one person at a time. But since it's a mission that continues to this day through The Church--the collective term for everyone who claims Jesus as their Lord and Savior--maybe it's not so surprising that God still chooses society's outsiders and those who tend to fade into the crowd.

Some modern-day Christ-followers work for insurance companies, supermarkets, retail stores and banks. Others are homemakers, sales representatives, police officers and marketing executives. And many are between jobs, retired or work part-time. But for all of their differences, there's a common denominator. It's a fervent belief in Jesus--God among us in human form. And it's this same faith that helps them share the joys and overcome the many struggles, disappointments and even tragedies encountered along their unique faith-journeys. These Believers have also learned another vital lesson: their own strength and wisdom is worth little towards surmounting the world's obstacles. But this is actually to their advantage.

"That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties," the Apostle Paul wrote. "For when I am weak, then I am strong."

And indeed God does much with the weaknesses of Everyday Joes and Janes. Families are fed, clothed and housed through their contributions and work in local food pantries, the Salvation Army and similar organizations. The sick are cured through the efforts of healthcare professionals who also happen to trust Jesus. And still other Christ-followers teach the illiterate to read and the undereducated to gain critical life- and job-skills.

That's a very brief list of the ways Jesus changes the world when the Church serves as his eyes, hands and feet. As the A-Team's leader--Colonel Hannibal Smith--so aptly puts it in every episode: "I love it when a plan comes together!"

And no doubt so does God.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

All Kidding Aside

From birth I have relied on you; you brought me forth from my mother's womb. I will ever praise you.

-- Psalm 71:6

Maybe you read that controversial editorial a year or so ago that went viral. It wasn't about politics, the economy or even a celebrity or sports team. Instead, the author expressed his deep concern about our nation's children. He wrote that they no longer had good manners, they showed no respect for their elders and they reflected negative societal influences, violence and danger.

"What will become of our children?" was the writer's rhetorical (but sincere) question. His opinion was that without drastic change and direction, their future would be quite bleak.

Maybe a little background here will put things into perspective. Yes, this editorial appeared in the media a few years ago. But actually, it was more than just a few. In fact, many more.

How about in the 1840s!

It all goes to show that some issues are Childrentimeless. And when it comes to showing concern for our children, that's a very good thing. Children--as the saying goes--are our future. And the Bible tells us that respectful, obedient children don't just happen by accident. Godly parenting involves intentional actions and instruction. Consider what the Book of Deuteronomy from the Old Testament says to parents about emphasizing God's ways to their kids:

"Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up."

Children not only look for boundaries of acceptable behavior, they crave direction and seek love and approval. It's when they don't get enough from their parents that they can act out, perform poorly at school and gravitate toward the wrong crowd and bad influences.

So what's a parent (new or veteran) to do?

First, understand that parenting is privilege rather than a burden. And second, remember that God is our heavenly parent. That means that we as human parents have the great responsibility of playing his role in the child-raising process. Therefore, we need to follow God's example for raising us: Give your children unconditional love, apply consistent discipline and give them spiritual direction. What's more, we must lead through our own positive attitude and outlook on life.

No one said that parenting is easy. But in a society that's quickly turning its back on God, being a mom or dad is arguably the most important job in the world--and one that has literal world-changing consequences. 

Saturday, September 23, 2017

All In the Family

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

-- John 13:35

As Christ-followers, we're often reminded about the importance of helping our neighbors and showing compassion to strangers. Jesus taught this principle through The Good Samaritan: one of the most familiar stories of the Bible. 

We read that a traveler was once attacked by robbers and left for dead by the roadside. A priest saw the wounded man but elected to pass him by. Later, a Levite (a member of one of the tribes of Israel) also saw the man sprawled on the ground. And he too avoided him. HandsBut when a Samaritan--a member of a despised ethnic group--happened to come by, he bandaged up the injured stranger, checked him into a motel and even prepaid the bill!

Two supposedly "good" people had a chance to help the helpless, but they went out of their way to do nothing. Instead, it was the "despised" Samaritan who actually found God's approval because he had shown practical compassion to his neighbor (a total stranger).

Although that's a lesson we all need to learn and live by, helping neighbors and strangers isn't always easy. We too often let selfishness and pride get in our way, and we don't want to get our hands dirty. Then we end up like the supposedly "good" people in Jesus' story. But let's consider the other side of the coin: how are we showing compassion to our fellow Christ-followers: not strangers--but instead other Believers?

The moment we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we become a member of an enormous family of faith spanning race, nationality, gender and generation. We may be very different, but it's our faith in Jesus that bridges the gaps. For all of us, Christ is at the core of our thoughts and motivations. And we all share a common eternal destiny and a loving Father.

This truth sets apart Christ-followers from all others in the world. But since the world is watching us and questioning our motives, we must demonstrate lives of authentic compassion.

How? It's by celebrating each other's triumphs, mourning each other's losses and sacrificing our own selfish interests that we exhibit much more than transformed lives and ongoing spiritual growth. Above all, we need to follow Jesus' example: one where the word love is an action lived out every day through a changed heart. And not just for strangers and neighbors, but for other Christ-followers as well.

That's how the world will know that we're all in the family of God.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

One of a Kind

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

-- Genesis 1:27


Is it science fact or science fiction? Here's a weather-related idea that many people accept as gospel:

Since the beginning of time, every snowflake that has ever fallen is unique. Each one is different with a one-of-a-kind design.

It raises a good question: Out of the trillions of snowflakes that have formed over the centuries, who can prove that one from an 1896 Virginia flurry isn't the twin of another from a Russian blizzard two centuries earlier?

There's really no way to know for sure. SnowflakeAnd in fact, it turns out that snowflakes aren't quite so different after all. An article on the Smithsonian.com website reports that there are just 39 types of solid precipitation, and snowflakes fall in one of only 35 shapes. Meanwhile, a Vox.com article explains that certain flakes tend to form at particular temperatures, humidities and even locations.

Although there could have been two (or maybe even billions) of duplicate snowflakes over the years, there's no question that God has made every human being unique and in his own image. Moreover, we are both loved and precious in his sight.

"Two sparrows cost only a penny, but not even one of them can die without your Father's knowing it," Jesus tells us through Matthew's Gospel. "God even knows how many hairs are on your head. So don't be afraid. You are worth much more than many sparrows."

God--the most powerful and loving Presence in the universe--bought you and me at an incredible price: the life of his Son. Since we can never repay what we rightfully owe for all the bad decisions, broken relationships and damage we've wrought throughout our lives, Jesus paid it himself by dying in our place on a cross between two common criminals. He didn't deserve to be there. But God loves us so much that he went to extraordinary lengths so that we can be with him forever.

"If any of you has 100 sheep, and one of them gets lost, what will you do? Won't you leave the 99 in the field and go look for the lost sheep until you find it," Jesus asks through Luke's Gospel. "And when you find it, you will be so glad that you will put it on your shoulder and carry it home. Then you will call in your friends and neighbors and say, 'Let's celebrate! I've found my lost sheep.'"


Yes, regardless of our differences, God is willing to do whatever it takes to bring you and me home. With the hefty price of our sin paid long ago, the only thing that's left for us is to accept his free gift--and then live out our lives accordingly to show a skeptical world that we're truly one of a kind.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sunday Best

I in them and you in me--so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

-- John 17:23


Maybe you grew up attending a traditional church. That might have meant getting up early on Sunday mornings, eating breakfast with the family and then rushing to put on your Sunday best--those clothes and shoes you only wore to church and on very special occasions. Then it was time to get in the car, drive to the service and listen to the preacher, choir and organist do their things.

Millions of people feel closer to God in
Unitysuch a traditional church setting--one often characterized by stained glass windows, choirs, sanctuaries and sacred organ music. To them, wearing their Sunday best is yet another way to set apart the day and glorify God.

Other Christ-followers have a different perspective. Meeting in diverse locations ranging from storefronts to movie theaters, some contend that the formalities of a traditional church service can actually hinder authentic worship. Rather than the traditionalists "being themselves" on Sunday mornings, these critics suggest that there are many who wear a special suit of clothes on one particular day of the week--and all while looking and living quite differently on the other six.

There are valid arguments on both sides of the issue. But regardless of worship-style preference, there's no doubt that we must avoid the trap of paying God mere lip service rather than living out our faith through deeds and lifestyle. Yes, an awe-inspiring church sanctuary can be a place of worship and prayer. But so are the workplace, gym and supermarket. The point is that wherever we go each day, our place of worship should follow.

What type of worship does God honor?

Among other things, it generally consists of singing praise songs, teaching God's lessons through the Bible, and acknowledging how he blesses our lives through the revelation of his son, Jesus Christ. We also seek forgiveness for how we've fallen short of our Creator's standards, and we celebrate Christ's death and resurrection on our behalf through that symbolic meal called Communion or The Lord's Supper. And it doesn't end there. Outside of the weekly service, we must also worship God in unity by being Jesus' hands, feet and eyes in our community. We should likewise do our 9:00 AM-5:00 PM jobs as if God--rather than a human being--were our boss.

Christ-followers might not agree on every aspect of worship, but there's one thing that should always make us one: Christ himself. The Apostle Paul makes the case through his letter to the church in Ephesus:

"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."

Saturday, September 2, 2017

No Question About It

Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her.

-- 1 Kings 10:3


You've got questions. We've got answers.

That's was the familiar catch-phrase of Radio Shack--for years the place to go if you had questions about consumer electronics. Whether you needed help with fixing a wire on your stereo or buying your first personal computer, "The Shack" was your one-stop shop. You could even get advice about remote control race cars, CB radios and TV antennae installations.

How times have changed. These days, Google is the online resource for questions about just about anything. Forbes.com reports that the popular website processes over 3.5 billion search queries each day! And while going to Google and its competitors is fine for some mundane questions, going to God for guidance--particularly concerning the critical issues of life--is not only wise, it's essential for Christ-followers.

Your choice of career is a good example. In other words: What should you do when you grow up?

God guides us here in several ways. First, we need to look at the gifts and talents he's given us. For example, the ability to make friends and persuade others could mean success in sales and marketing. A love of nature could lead to a career as a scientist or veterinarian. And a natural affinity for mathematics could mean hefty paychecks as an engineer or software designer. But whatever job you take--no matter how big or how small--the question to ask is whether or not it honors God. As the Apostle Paul wrote in the third chapter of Colossians: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

Other life-changing questions involve marriage. Specifically, should you get married? And if so, to whom? On the first point, either choice is acceptable. Paul advocated the single life for some Christ-followers. But for others--depending on their circumstances--marriage was the best option. Meanwhile, the standard for choosing the right mate is more clear-cut: The lucky guy (or gal) should be a committed follower of Jesus Christ.

That's Biblical guidance that can save you years of pain, heartache and regret. And the saying is corny but true: The couple that prays together, stays together. Or as God warns us through the Book of 2 Corinthians, we shouldn't be yoked to unbelievers. It's true that the daily example of a Christ-follower can be a positive witness to his or her unbelieving spouse. But in many cases, differing spiritual beliefs lead only to frustration, confusion and conflict.

Whether it's the big questions in life or the seemingly insignificant ones, you can seek God's will through prayer, Scripture and advice from trusted believers. We worship a God who calls us his sons and daughters. And like the loving parent that he is, he always wants to hear questions from his children.

"We are certain that God will hear our prayers when we ask for what pleases him," we read in 1 John. "And if we know that God listens when we pray, we are sure that our prayers have already been answered."

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Time to Reflect

But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

-- Exodus 9:16


This week's solar eclipse was an eye-opening reminder of our Creator God's greatness and power. If you'd like another, look no further than the remarkable images of distant stars and galaxies taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Launched into space in 1990 aboard the space shuttle Discovery, the Hubble can take crisp photos of incredibly distant objects because it orbits above Earth's atmosphere--a barrier that can block and distort light reflected by the mirrors of conventional ground-based telescopes.

But you haven't seen anything yet. Space CrossResearch organizations from the United States, Australia and South Korea have joined forces to work on the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). And when the 80-foot GMT is commissioned in 2022 from its location in Chile, its seven huge mirrors will help render images 10 times sharper than Hubble's!

It takes just a tiny point of reflected light from a telescope's mirror to change our notions about the universe. But when there are barriers--such as the atmosphere in the case of astronomy--we can miss the big picture or be misled by a distorted image. 

This principle also applies to how we live out our lives. "I am the light of the world," Jesus told the people. "Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." As Christ-followers, our lives are to always reflect Jesus' love in action. But we too face barriers. The world teaches us to beat the competition, climb the corporate ladder and keep up with our neighbors (and then leave them in our dust). We need the biggest, the fastest and the shiniest. And most of all, we can't forget that it's not bragging if we can back it all up.

But Christ has a different viewpoint: To be first, we must be last.

This bold perspective sheds a new light on things. And that's just the point. How much better would this world be if his people were to adopt a servant's attitude and put the interests of others before their own?

Jesus answered this question through his own example. First, he willingly surrendered all the advantages he had as God's only Son. He entered the world through the most humble of circumstances--a birth among farm animals in a filthy stable. When he grew older, he learned to make a common-man's living as a carpenter. Of course, Jesus could have lived in splendor as the King of Kings. But instead, he chose a nomadic existence for teaching the Good News of salvation to his people.

That's quite a life lesson. And it was one taught by the One with a humble servant's heart. He's the same One who came to serve rather than to be served. And he's the only One whose sacrifice for our sakes is counted worthy.

How can we mirror Christ's life through our own lives? Jesus says it all starts by accepting him as our personal Lord and Savior. As he told the respected religious leader one night several centuries ago, we must be born again.

The fact is that we are nothing without Jesus and can do even less by ourselves. But when we fully surrender our lives to God, it's through this brilliant Light of the World that we find our purpose in life.

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."