Our Amazing Race

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There is a popular reality show on television called The Amazing Race.  The objective is easy enough, be the first team to reach the destination and win the prize.  The race is broken down into segments or legs.  Upon completion of a leg the team is presented with a clue as to the next pit stop destination.  The teams are given credit cards to use to purchase travel, and a stipend for food and other necessities along the way.  So ultimately, each participant knows where the next stop is and is given everything necessary to reach their destination.

But…what if the rules were different?  What if the teams were asked to travel a road but they didn’t know where it was leading?  And what if they determined they must be at a pit stop but there were no clues given as to the next destination?  How would the game change if they knew they were in a race but had no idea where the finish line was let alone how to get there?  It wouldn’t make for good TV, that much is certain.  And yet many times as believers in Christ, we are called into similar situations, finding ourselves on a road we aren’t familiar with, one that leads to a place unknown.

Our amazing race is often times more of an obstacle course full of hazards and pitfalls we don’t see coming.  We are put on a path we didn’t choose and have no other option but to stay on the path even in the midst of falling trees, sinkholes, quick sand and venomous creatures.  We may believe we have sure footing and are running at an even pace when suddenly a gust of wind knocks us off our feet and we end up on our backs looking up and wondering what just hit us.  Illness, unemployment, divorce, crime, accidents…our hazards.  They can cause even the most devout Christian to ask why.  David asked God why many times in the Psalms.  “If you appointed me king why am I hiding in a cave?” If I am chosen why am I running for my life?”  “Why have you abandoned me? When will you come to my rescue?”  A man after God’s own heart, asked Him “why” many times.

If you’ve ever been in a nasty storm or blizzard where visibility was zero and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, you will be able to relate to being in the midst of trials so severe you can’t see God in it.  And yet we are compelled to rely on our belief that He is ever-present even when we can’t find Him, even when we can’t determine purpose or direction, even when He leaves us no clues as to the intended outcome. Sometimes we can’t see the path that lies before us-we can only see the next step.  We are told in Psalm 119 that the Word of God is a “Lamp for our feet, a light for our path“, even if only the next few steps are illuminated. We are also given this bit of hope, a rock solid promise and clue, if you will, from Proverbs 3, my translation:

Trust in the Lord with all you have left and don’t try to figure out His purpose with your human mind.  In everything you say and do continue to confess Him as Sovereign Lord and He will give you a path you can navigate.”

Grace for the race, enough light for the next step-sometimes that’s all we’re given.  All we can know for sure is that someone has already run this race for us, long before we came along, and we know it can be navigated and it has an eventual destination.  Peace and blessings.

 

 

 

Cup Runneth Over or Leaking Out the Bottom?

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Can we put aside the Christian facades and be real for a minute?  Believers are expected to live out their lives with a smile pasted on their face as if oblivious to all that’s happening around them, “counting it all joy when facing trials of every nature” as if numb to pain like mindless zombies on Quaalude. But for every believer who truly lives like this, with a cup that runneth over, there’s a believer whose glass is always half empty because of the leaks in it, some due to bad choices but often times due to no real fault of their own.  And try as they might to fix the leaks and minimize the loss, they only encounter additional leaks, like a bad cartoon character using gum to stop a leak in a dam but running out of gum before running out of leaks.

It is hard to not be distracted by the reality of our circumstances. Even the Apostle Peter, whose faith was such that he was the only person to ever walk on water besides Jesus, could not help but notice the waves licking at his feet and the darkness of the watery depth that endangered him to the point of temporarily losing his religion.  This same Peter, the Rock, crumbled in fear when asked if he was one of the disciples of Jesus, to the point of denying all knowledge of Him to save his own skin. Thomas, referred to by some as the doubting Saint, was a man like Peter who lived life for three years in the footsteps of Jesus, heard His messages first hand, witnessed His miracles and sat in on the intimate lessons Jesus taught His disciples.  But when faced with the physical evidence of torture and death that his eyes could not deny, Thomas doubted that Jesus could really do what He claimed He would, and had to be shown physical evidence that in fact Jesus did exactly what He said.  I don’t know about you but I can freely admit I am no Peter or Thomas.  And so the cup leaks.

I am not convinced that God is impressed with our brave fronts or the smiley masks we hide behind when faced with unwanted changes or calamity. In fact it reads in Psalm 34 that “God is close to the broken hearted”. We can sing and proclaim all we want “Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering..” on the outside but there are those times when our spirit fails us, when our drive and passion wane, and just uttering the name “Jesus” is a challenge.

Leaks come in many manifestations-physical illness, unemployment, failed businesses, unwanted divorce, criminal victimization, and those unmentioned “testing of our faith” that all of us need but none of us want. The outward evidence of the Apostle Paul’s faith is recorded-he healed the sick and raised the dead just as Jesus did!  But the inward evidence of his faith told another story.  He had physical ailments that he was never healed of and endured them until his death only by God’s grace.  Ah, and in my Shakespearean voice, there’s the rub.

Those things that God allows into our lives to test us can only be endured by a measure of grace that He gives at the same time.  In a very twisted sense, it’s tantamount to saying I’m going to cut up your arm but I’m leaving you with a year’s supply of bandages and Neosporin so you can treat the wound until it heals. In that light it sounds a bit cruel and not very God-like.  But these lessons have a purpose in bringing out a level of maturity and stability that can only come from a continual determination to keep getting up when you keep getting knocked down. That said, if I were to be completely honest, I sometimes wish God would just grant me a passing grade instead of driving me to acing the test. But that’s not my call.  Apparently He sees things in each of us that when refined, can be useful for His purpose, one we may or may not ever fully know.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a single sincere prayer could stop a leak like flex-tape, that whatever comes our way we could just say the magic prayer, quote the scripture du jour of the day and sprinkle a little faith so we could have fuller cups?  But and alas, God doesn’t work like that.  He sent His own Son into the desert for 40 days for a 3 year ministry.  Do the math-we will have trials of every kind!  But as Paul learned, God’s grace is truly sufficient.  It is the only leak stopper at our disposal and has been proven effective in studies for over two thousand years now. So if your cup truly runneth over, please say a prayer for us who have sprung leaks until such time as we can all be sopping wet and giddy from all the over-flowing spills from our respective cups of blessing.  Peace.

my soul cries out

 

Job’s Story: Restored But Scarred

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I am convinced that the unknown author of the Biblical book of Job simply got the name wrong; surely it’s the Book of Joe. The similarities are to striking to be coincidental, the lessons taught touching nerves that cause us to wince.  Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you believe it should be the Book of Steve or the Book of Cathy because you know too well the pain of living from one calamity to another, waiting on answers that never come, believing for miracles that never come to fruition.

The recording of Job is one of the great mysteries of the faith and one that most of us if honest really struggle with.  It’s tantamount to asking your dad “why” only to hear him respond, “because I said so”.  We in our selfish nature want to attach to this story our understanding of justice and fairness.  Our finite comprehension of God wants to ask the same questions Job’s friends did.  We who read carefully want to inquire of God why it is the He pointed out Job to satan and why He removed His hand of protection from a man that the Bible describes as the most righteous man in all the earth at the time. Surely if Job was not spared what chance do we stand who would hardly be labeled as righteous?  Why must rain fall on both the just and the unjust? Aren’t we supposed to be blessed as believers-to be highly favored and to prosper in all we do?  Isn’t the Word of God unchanging and His promises unbreakable? Or is the hedge of protection around us only so high?  Why must believers suffer great losses here on earth if we are attempting to walk upright before God?  Age-old and still unanswered questions that have always been and will always be.

The story of Job is one that most of us have heard or read so many times that we feel we could tell it ourselves.  It is always preached the same as if the sermon is simply a boilerplate template from Sermons Du Jour that any seminary grad student has access to. But there are aspects to this story when digging deeper that you never hear taught from the pulpit.  One is simply an oversight, that of Job’s wife.  Those who mention her do so with contempt as the devil’s advocate without considering her plight.  For instance, the ten children Job lost, she bore, and a mother’s grief is unbearable. She shared in Job’s wealth so she too suffered in his losses. And when she had lost all her children and her financial stability she alone was left to take care of a husband who was sick and helpless.  Yes she spoke out in anger at a low point in her life, and so have I-many times.  But she remained and endured and is seldom credited for her faithfulness to her husband “in sickness and health, good times and bad”. Much more could be written in her defense.

But while reading the story again, as I often find myself doing during those times when I can relate, I saw something I missed the first hundred times I read the story, something obvious but not noticed before. When Job’s life is preached we usually hear the same outline, Job good, satan bad, Job loses everything, Job repents, God restores Job double for his losses.  The implication is that faithfulness in God always pays off in the end and that everything lost will be restored many times over.  It makes for a feel good Osteen-esque sermon, even though we still can’t get past the human response to question God’s purpose in picking on such a godly man. But this is what I missed and what I want to share in case you missed it as well. Job did not emerge from this fierce Heavenly tug of war without serious permanent scars and painful reminders of his season of loss and torment. First there is the consideration of his physical affliction.  Scripture says that upon satan’s appeal God allowed him to attack Job’s body.  It is recorded that Job was suffering from painful boils from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head.  It also says that Job tried to escape the agony by scraping these boils.  I would never interject what the Bible leaves out, but we do have knowledge of boils through modern medicine and from this we can deduce that these boils, just as they do now, left permanent scars, especially given the fact that Job scraped these, a definite no-no in any modern medical journal because doing so increases scarring. In reading of God’s restoration of Job in chapter 42, no mention is made of Job’s physical healing.  We can assume in time his health was restored but the Bible is silent so we can only apply what we know of these boils now-painful with permanent scarring.  If so, every time Job looked in a mirror he would have been reminded of his epic battle with satan. And if like me many of the same feelings and questions would have surfaced and Job would have to remind himself each and every time of God’s faithfulness.

While Job’s physical state is left somewhat to speculation, there is something else I noticed that is right there as plain as day-something else that would have served as a painful memorial to Job’s battle.  Scripture records that everything Job lost was restored two fold, and that he was even blessed with ten more children, the daughters being described as beautiful beyond belief. But Job is recorded as living another one hundred and forty years after his season of testing.  Here is what I missed.

Everyday for one hundred and forty years Job had to walk past the graves of his first ten children.

We are given a glimpse as to how dearly Job loved his kids.  We know they were adults so Job was a part of their lives for many years and they were a big part of his. We know Job considered their welfare so much that he offered up sacrifices for their sins so God would have mercy upon them in case they stepped out of line with Him. As we read how the story unfolds each messenger comes and relays to Job how his oxen and donkeys were stolen and his servants killed, how his sheep were wiped out by a fire from heaven, how his camels were stolen and those servants also killed, all with  no response from Job. It is only after the last messenger tells Job that his children all perished when their house caved in on them that we read Job became distraught, tore his robe, shaved his head and fell to the ground in grief. It is apparent that Job’s greatest and most unbearable loss was the death of his sons and daughters.

Decorating the graves of our loved ones is a tradition.  Even knowing our loved one is with the Lord we are compelled to visit the place where we laid the shell to rest and to remember the life and reflect on the earthly absence in somber remembrance. Most likely Job’s children were all buried on his property with stone markers that would be evident from a long distance and I would imagine Job would have been compelled to visit, decorate and remember, just as we do today.  Yes Job was restored and his faithful wife was blessed to give birth to ten more children (blessed? that would make 20 natural births). But those who have lost children or spouses are painfully aware that no number of children or any blessing of a new mate will ever erase the memory of those you loved and lost. Through photos, memories and grave stones they exist forever.

Job’s earthly restoration was miraculous and generous, but not complete. He was left with scars, battle wounds and constant reminders of his testing and lived with them for another one hundred and forty years. To be honest I have never liked the story of Job, primarily because I have a hard time getting past my selfish arrogance in questioning God’s fairness and purpose with my finite comprehension. I don’t like or relish the thought of being the battleground God uses to prove a point to satan.  I want to grow in the knowledge of Christ but without the pain that accompanies the testing and refining process. I don’t want my friends looking upon me with pity.  I want to be the one who raises other’s spirits, the life of the party, the happy-go-lucky person with the Teflon persona that nothing sticks to. My desire is to be that person who is blessed on earth by a wealthy God who spoils me with goodness that the preacher describes in his false teaching of prosperity by works. But that is not my life and it’s probably not yours either.

Scripture is clear that we will each be rewarded in a heavenly kingdom.  We are told to lay up for ourselves treasure in Heaven.  We are told that our good deeds are credited to a heavenly account. All indications are that we must live life and endure trials, hardships and losses here on earth without any guarantee of a Job like restoration. We will go through periods, seasons and for some lifetimes of silence from a God we have to trust in the darkest of times and the fiercest of storms. We sometimes have to navigate life when we can’t see our hand in front of our face and can only take one step forward at a time when the winds are blowing directly against us. We have to pray when there are no words, study when there is little desire and believe when all indicators suggest not to. If there was a magic potion or spell to make this process we all face easier, I’d own the world. God knows our doubts, sees our struggles with faith, hears our non-verbal prayers and feels our distress. I wish I couldn’t write these words from personal trials and seasons of my own doubt, but I can and I do. When tears no longer come, when the pain is so intense it causes numbness, when all hope and light seems to have vanquished from your world, God remains.

Just one more observation from this story, one which supports the notion of a heavenly reward and eternal afterlife. Job received back double for all his losses, except his children.  He lost ten but was only blessed with ten, not twenty.  Did God oops?  No. Job realized that portion of his restoration when he was reunited with them in paradise.  God didn’t forget or short change Job, and He won’t forget us even when we are tempted to give in to our own disbelief. We have no other recourse. It has to be so.

 

 

 

 

Fast Food Faith

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We live in a world of convenience and choices, especially when it comes to fast food. Tonight we might prefer a run to the border; tomorrow maybe a double whopper or a pizza-pizza. Sometimes we just crave something sweet and at others a jolt of java to wake us up. Not only do we have choices of where to go but what to  order once we get there.  Some of this, a large order of that, hold the other, just make it my way. And our choices can be amusing.  Give me the double-heart-attack griller with extra cheese, and a large diet soda, just to feel good about my otherwise unhealthy food choice.

What a perfect picture for many who claim the name of Christianity. And yes, I’ll say it-it is never more evident than in a heated political season. A good diet is supposed to consist of generous portions of all the major food groups but many don’t want lean meat unless it is smothered in A-1 or can’t tolerate healthy vegetables unless they are swimming in a rich cheese sauce. Still others live on a diet of sugar alone which causes muscular apathy and a false sense of being full and satisfied when in fact the body is being starved of vital nutrients that will result in catastrophic medical episodes or death. What a dangerous game to play…with the Gospel.

I have come to loathe the political process because it reveals the ugly and inconsistent nature of Fast Food Faith. At no other time is it more evident at how we select certain Christian tenants and precepts but blatantly lay aside others, depending solely on how we can receive the most benefit from elected officials and their administrations. We use terms like the “greater good” or “lesser of two evils” to justify and feel better about voting for someone whose platform smacks in the face of true Christianity, specifically the teachings of Christ. I know, I’ve been guilty for many years. The angst I feel when I see how beloved brothers and sisters turn on each other and even resort to labels and name-calling is something even I can’t adequately portray with words. Worse is the fact that even when pointed out these faithful will have a list of template justifications for their temporary disregard for truth only to be blessing one another come Sunday.  It is little wonder that the world sees our inconsistencies and calls us out on them.

If being Christian is defined as being “like” Christ of “of” Christ, is it for us to select only certain aspects of his character or only glimpses of his glory in our walk, our speech and our actions?  Is our approach to reflecting our faith tantamount to pulling up to a fast food window based on the whims and desires of the moment?  If others see in us a poor or false reflection of the one true and complete Christ are we to be held accountable?  And is the objective of personal faith only to be expressed as an inward benefit and not an outward invitation?  How do we look each other in the eye and exhort others to good works through false pretenses of inconsistency and partial application or worse, scriptural relevance?

It is not my design to bash the church but rather my concern that so many are leaving the church in early adulthood or being turned away from the church through mixed messages and meat smothered in sauce. When I observe my reflection in the mirror I see the ugly truth in my own life.  The call to follow and accurately reflect the glory and the image of Christ is a tall order.  It is only by the restorative works of grace that any of us stand a chance. But if our foundation is selective, if we choose what to believe and what to throw out, then as St. Augustine said above, we are no longer serving God but ourselves.

We are in for a long few months heading up to the election. There will be many opportunities if taken, to show love and light or to cast shadows and doubt, to bridge peace or to usher in discord, to reflect Christ or your personal welfare. It may be an ugly truth, but it can’t be laid aside for the convenience of a campaign and then gathered up again after the election is over.  Too much damage can be done, both to those watching us and those guilty of falsifying the name of Christ.  Just as we choose wisely at the polls, we must choose wisely in our character. It is no the next eight years at stake but an eternity.  Peace.

The Perversion of Social Media Amongst the Flock

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When I was younger we thought two tin cans attached by a string made for great communication devices for our war time games.  If we wanted to catch up with a friend we had to use a land-line telephone-that’s a phone that actually had to plug into a wall for your millennials.  Now we can reach out and touch like never before in real time with friends and family across the oceans by way of social media vehicles and smart phones.  I am an avid user of such media and have to admit that  without it I may have never reconnected with some of my childhood and school friends and caught up on their lives hundreds or thousands of miles apart.  And who doesn’t enjoy watching cat videos to pass the time.

The number of active accounts on social media is mind boggling.  On Facebook alone there were over 1.65 BILLION active accounts as of April 2016!  I would swear some of my FB friends know every last one of them. The potential to reach the masses has never been greater or easier as it is now with everyone having access to these media outlets right on their personal smart phones.  But like any good invention it didn’t take long for some of us to pervert it and abuse it to the detriment of many.  Specifically I am addressing us church folks who have used it to preach false doctrines, perpetuate hate and alienate Christian siblings who have differing views on social, political and religious issues. I have witnessed just within my limited circle of friends how harmful social media can be when used for the wrong purpose.  It can be embarrassing, hurtful and quite frankly, not very Christ-like.

There is a verse, Mark 13:10 that says the Good News must first be preached to all nations.  The worldwide usage of social media may be the very vehicle God intends for us to use to fulfill that requirement. In countries where Bibles are not allowed, study can still be done discreetly on smart phones  by way of URLs to Bible sites.  The Word is going forth by way of social media into areas where Christianity is otherwise forbidden. The impact social media has on spreading the Good News can not and must not be ignored. The potential for people to be pointed to the only source of salvation, Jesus Christ has never been greater. But alas, just as there are those who use the very Word of God to divide and tear down instead of its intended purpose of offering hope, there are those who abuse sites like Facebook to bring harm and disruption and discord among the Church. For me this  a travesty, and one I have been guilty of myself in years past.

If you are concerned about your activity on social media let me suggest the following verses as a measuring stick regarding social media posts:

1 Thessalonians 5:11; “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up…”

Hebrews 10:24; “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works…”

Romans 14:19; “So let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding”

Eph. 4:29; “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths but only what is good for building up”

1 Peter 2:1-24; “Put away all malice, deceit and hypocrisy and envy and slander. Be like living stones used to build a spiritual house…

Exodus 23:1; “You shall not spread a false report.  You shall not join with a wicked man to be a false witness.”  (This is a biggie on social media, sharing uncorroborated posts).

Does this mean we have to type “Amen” to every lame meme that comes into our box, of course not-that is only another form of a false doctrine.  However it does mean that we need to be aware that our social media posts may as well be billboards for the number of people who will come across them in your circle.  There is but one truth, one Holy Gospel and not a myriad of relative truths based on our socio, economic, political or religious persuasion. To cause others to stumble in the faith is irresponsible at best, and to turn someone who is genuinely seeking away from the truth because of a hateful or divisive post is simply unforgivable. Don’t be like I once was, guilty of perverting a tool that should have been used to exhort, not destroy.  Peace.

 

 

 

Just a Vapor in the Wind

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Once again we were recently reminded of the fragility of life and of the uncertainty of days as we said goodbye to another legend long before their three score and ten years were up. We have witnessed an alarming number of deaths just this year of those we were not expecting who seemed to be immortal just by virtue of their contributions that were woven into our mainstream lives.  These are just a few who are gone too early:

Prince, age 57; Chyna, age 46; Gary Shandling, age 67; Joey Feek, age 41; Vanity, age 57; Glen Frey, age 67; David Bowie, age 69; Natalie Cole, age 65.

The most recent mortality tables for the U.S. puts the average life expectancy at 78.8 years and yet we hear daily of tragedies of the not-so-popular people killed by violent acts, auto accidents or heath related issues that never get close to their allotted seventy years of life. As a fifty-four year old man with a few health issues, I am paying attention and considering the fact that I may live to see eighty or I may die on the golf course before I reach sixty.  No one knows for sure save God.

Where do we believers get the three score and ten years idea from?  The Psalmist David says in Psalm 90:10 that “our days may come to three score and ten, or fourscore for some”, score representing twenty years.  But he adds that “the best of them (years) are but trouble and sorrow for they quickly pass and we fly away”.  The older I get the more I can testify as to how quickly the years have gone by.  Through social media I keep in touch with many of my childhood and school friends and I am confounded as to how we can be discussing our grandkids. Time indeed flies.

There was a very popular song written by Kansas called Dust in the Wind which captures this essence.  The first line says “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone.”.  How true.  The author of this song was Kerry Livgren, a Christian who took this right out of the Word.  We read the following in James 4:14:

“Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes”.

Some argue that our days are predestined and that nothing we do can take from or add to the years of our life.  While it may be true that God knows our life expectancy, there are verses left for us that indicate we can play a role in our life span. In 1 Kings we are told that “if we walk in obedience and keep his commands we will be given long life”. and again in Exodus 20, we should honor our father and mother so that we may live long”. The mystery of all mysteries is the shortened lives of those we view as righteous. We are simply called to a life of humility and obedience and service as we await. There is a parable in the New Testament about 5 wise virgins and 5 foolish virgins waiting for the groom to come for them. The wise virgins, not knowing for sure how long they may wait were smart enough to buy enough oil for their lamps should the wait be extended.  The foolish virgins, thinking they had more than enough time found that their lamps burned out too soon and they missed the groom when he came because they had to leave and buy more oil at the wrong time. There is a lesson for us here.  We can’t assume the time we have because of our own false sense of immortality-we can’t wait until tomorrow to be reconciled to God through Christ because we are only in our twenties, thirties or fifties.

So what should my response be when I read of unexpected deaths and consider my own pending mortality?  First I should rest in the knowledge that this life, although it is all I know with my human understanding, is but a short precursor to my REAL life which starts when I begin eternity with my savior, Christ.  We are reminded in the Word that we are just aliens here on this earth waiting for our eternal home. Second, this realization should compel me to make every moment of every day count for something bigger than me.  My kids need to know how much I love them.  They also need to be aware of my faith and my desire that they too be reconciled to Christ while there is time to do so, not knowing for sure what tomorrow brings. Third, I need to find joy in life even when life seems to be amused at my constant struggles.  This is a hard one for me as there are times when I feel like the poor mole in the arcade game Whack a Mole; every time I pop my head up someone is waiting there with a hammer to knock me back down. On these days I must find comfort in uplifting music, charitable work, leisurely activities-anything to keep me occupied so as not to dwell on current circumstances. This chapter may not be going the way I would have written it, but I still know how the story ends-I have to find peace in that knowledge.

The point is simple-look around, read the news, consider your own close circle of friends and acknowledge that no one is guaranteed another day, that no amount of fame or fortune will buy you another minute and that in a split second you or those close to you may be gone from this life. Embrace your mortality and use it as exhortation to live every moment to the fullest and leave no regrets.  Try to find happiness during deep times of sorrow and be conscious off those around you who need your encouragement and your love so they too can overcome their trials.  If the wind blows out your candle, light a bigger one. Be a friend, a mentor, and a road sign that leads to Christ in all you do, say and yes, post. Live life abundantly as to overflow onto others and go out with a bang!  At least that’s my ultimate plan.