Friday, December 23, 2011


One of the highlights of Christmas for most people is unwrapping the Christmas presents. Whether you are a child waiting to tear into the packages or a parent or grandparent who is delighted to watch the excitement, unwrapping presents is great fun. Some people go to great lengths with wrapping. Some are perfectionists making sure that each corner is square and perfect. Some are creative looking for different ways to wrap and decorate the presents. And some are mischievous. Have you ever gotten a present that was wrapped in multiple layers of paper and boxes? Inside each box is another, smaller wrapped box. My opinion is that the giver gets far more delight out of the present than the recipient.
                 God has given us the greatest present of all when he sent Jesus into our world. But God didn’t just extend his gift. He wrapped it in multiple layers of meaning and wonder. Today, on the threshold of Christmas, I would like to spend a little time unwrapping the Christmas story.
                 God wrapped his gift in prophecy. Prophecy is a little like giving hints to what might be in a Christmas present. When I was a boy we used to try to get my parents to give us hints about Christmas presents. We were never very successful. Throughout human history God dropped prophetic hints about the gift he was sending. He used prophecy to foreshadow what he was going to do in the world.  The prophet Isaiah gave two significant clues about the coming gift.
                Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
                Isaiah 9:6-7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.  The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
                God wrapped his gift in mystery. I remember the year my Dad gave us .22 rifles. We knew Dad had something big in mind but we didn’t know what it was. On Christmas morning we gathered around the Christmas tree and passed out all of the presents. After everything was unwrapped my Dad said, “Oh there’s one more thing. Go look in the front closet.” We raced each other over to the door and when we opened it there were three long packages. We eagerly ripped into the paper and uncovered brand new .22 rifles.
                God had some surprises up his sleeve when he sent Jesus into the world. He chose to use a virgin named Mary to carry the precious gift. He convinced a young carpenter that God was in the midst of this. He manipulated Caesar to move Mary and Joseph to the right place for the birth. He had Jesus born in obscurity, in a stable. His first crib was a manger.
                God was not done with his surprises. He chose to announce the arrival of his gift to common shepherds. He pulled out all the stops to announce Jesus’ birth by sending an angel army.
                God wrapped his gift in humanity. For children Christmas presents are only a dream until they are allowed to open them and hold them in their hands. Until that time they remain a tantalizing mystery. God made his gift tangible. The Jews had always known that God was present with them. They could look back to the pillar of cloud and of fire that led the children of Israel through the wilderness. But God was always distant and unapproachable. In fact they were prohibited from coming too near to God’s presence. All of that changed at Christmas.
                John says it best in John 1: 14. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. The Apostle Paul expanded on the nature of the gift in Philippians 2:6-8. Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!
                God wrapped his gift in eternity.  Some gifts tend to excite for a moment and then quickly fade. Every year I look for some small toy to put in my kids stockings that is just for fun. One year I gave them penny racers. We had fun with them for a few hours until the novelty wore off. But other gifts tend to grab our attention and hold on tenaciously. They are special gifts that tap into some deep desire that we have. I remember when I got my first real bicycle. It was more than just entertainment, it was freedom.
                God’s gift was not a momentary wonder. He sent Jesus into the world to change the world forever. Although Jesus’ journey began in humble circumstances it didn’t end there. Jesus shook up his world and continues to shake up ours. The true value of the gift is summed up in John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
                I look forward to Christmas when my family will be gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents. I am anticipating the delight of that time. But what is far more important is that we have unwrapped the greatest gift of all, our relationship with Jesus. It is that great gift that gives meaning to everything else.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


When is the last time that you really experienced joy? A couple of weeks ago, as I was struggling with some discouraging things, I prayed that I would not miss the joy of this season. Little could I have imagined how God would answer that prayer. I came home one afternoon to find a package from Amazon. At first I thought it was something that I had ordered so I quickly opened it. What I found took me by surprise. It was a leather cover for a Kindle Fire. There was no note in the package, so I had no idea who sent it. What is even stranger is that I don’t own a Kindle Fire. Why would someone send me an expensive cover for something I don’t have? Later that week we had some people over for dinner and I shared the mystery with them. We all joked that I should start watching for the Kindle to show up. This past Monday we went out to do some shopping and enjoy the Christmas decorations. When we arrived back home there was a small pile of packages on our front step. When I picked them up I noticed that one was from Amazon. With trembling hands I opened it to discover a brand new Kindle Fire. There was a simple note enclosed: A gift of encouragement from a Christian Friend. I was overwhelmed. Later that day I discovered the identity of the sender. Since then my heart has been bubbling over with childlike joy and delight.
                A long time ago a group of shepherds huddled around a fire out in the field at night watching a flock of sheep. They had no great expectation for the night. They had done this hundreds of times. They hoped the night would be quiet and uneventful. Experiencing joy was probably not even on their minds. There wasn’t much joy for a shepherd. Because of the nature of their work, they tended to live on the fringe of society. Unable to keep all of the religious rules of the day, they were excluded from worship in the Temple. Ironically, these shepherds may well have been tending sheep that were destined to become sacrifices at the Temple. They could tend the sacrificial lambs but were not allowed to participate in the sacrifices themselves.
                Something unusual happened to change their lives that night. You could say that joy showed up literally out of the blue. While they were watching their sheep an angel of the Lord appeared to them with unbelievable news. At first the experience was anything but positive. When the angel appeared the shepherds were terrified. But the angel had come not to condemn them but to bring them joy.
                        But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." Luke 2:10-12 (NIV)
                At first the shepherds could not believe what was happening. Why would God send such a message to us? This must be a mistake! But it was no mistake. God made sure that they knew that this gift of joy was for them. After the angel left them they were so filled with joy that they had to act. They left their sheep and rushed to Bethlehem to find the baby.
                Can you imagine how startled Mary and Joseph must have been when these shepherds showed up at the stable? Their excitement had to be both surprising and contagious. As their story tumbled forth Mary and Joseph found themselves caught up in this new joy. With wide-eyed awe the shepherds gazed upon this newborn King.
                One of them may have suddenly remembered the sheep. As if awakening from a dream they hurried from the stable and headed back to the field. But they could not contain their joy. They had received the greatest gift of their lives. They had been eye-witnesses to the birth of the Messiah. Everyone they passed was bombarded by their enthusiastic account of the night’s events.
                Much of the Christmas season focuses on giving and receiving gifts. These tangible expressions of love do bring joy, for a time. But the greatest joy is to be found in meeting the Savior. Much later, Jesus was talking with his disciples when he gave them these words of encouragement. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. John 15:11 (NIV) The true joy of Christmas doesn’t last for just a season. It lasts for all of eternity. 

Saturday, December 17, 2011


Many of us have experienced the truth of the phrase “timing is everything.” You buy a stock one day too soon and watch it tumble the next day. You wait one more day to buy gas only to have the price jump 10 cents a gallon. Or you carefully watch the market and buy your plane tickets just before the price jumps. Timing can make a big difference in the outcomes of our actions. Good timing brings about a positive outcome. Bad timing yields a negative outcome.
            In Galatians 4:4-5 Paul tells us that when it comes to the birth of Jesus God had perfect timing. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” In what ways was the time right for Jesus to come into the world?
            The time was right because Rome was in control. Rome’s domination of the “known” world set the stage for the birth of the church and the spread of the gospel. It was the decree of Caesar Augustus that placed Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem at the right time for Jesus to be born there. That is only the tip of the iceberg of the role Rome played in the spread of the gospel.
            Rome brought relative peace to the world through its powerful army. Rome developed an extensive system of good roads that allowed for easy and safe travel throughout the empire. Greek became the common language that was able to bridge the gap between cultures and people groups. When the time was right God sent his son.
            The time was also right because people where hungry for God. There is evidence that throughout the known world there was a general anticipation that God was about to break into the world in a new way. The Magi sensed that excitement when they saw a special star in the sky and traveled a great distance to see the baby Jesus. The Jewish people were aching for a word from God. It had been 400 years since the last genuine prophet in Israel. Simeon expressed that ache when he took Jesus in his arms in the Temple and blessed him. When the time was right God sent his son.
            The time was right because the world had become a very dark place. False gods abounded. Ritual had replaced religious vitality. There seemed to be no hope for the future. People were living only for the day. People were in desperate need of a savior. When the time was right God sent his son.
            The time is right again to welcome Jesus into our world. Our world is again a very dark place. As Jesus said in John 3:19, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil”. Many today are living in darkness and despair. The message of Christmas can offer people hope. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14
            Just as in the days of Rome we have unprecedented opportunity to spread the gospel to our world. English has become a universal language that allows people to communicate across cultural barriers. The internet and high speed communication has made it possible for the gospel to be sent anywhere in the world. Transportation is readily available to almost anywhere in the world.
            Many people today are hungry for a genuine connection with God. They are turning to all kinds of avenues that promise what they cannot provide. But we have the message of hope and of grace. When the time was right God sent his son into the world. And still today God sends his son into the hearts of all who will embrace him.
            God’s timing is perfect. No matter what happens in our crazy world God is still present and he is still reaching out to a hurting world with love of grace. That is what Christmas is really all about.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011


In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:1-5, 14 (NIV)

                The birth of Jesus is an amazing story. It is filled with mystery, surprise, romance and intrigue. Matthew and Luke tell us about Mary’s dilemma and the courage it took for her to trust God. They introduce us to Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi and King Herod.  They establish Jesus’ place on the timeline of human history. Together they weave the Christmas story that millions know and love.
                John gives us a very different picture of Christmas. He doesn’t begin his story in Nazareth or in Bethlehem. He begins his story before the creation of the world. Before there was a carpenter shop in Nazareth or a stable in Bethlehem or a throne in Jerusalem Jesus was. All that we know to be real came into being through the power of “The Word”. It was Jesus who gave form to our world. It was Jesus who breathed life into our world. And it was Jesus who invaded our world.
                One of the most powerful passages in the Bible is John 1:14. “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” The creator of all that there is became a part of his creation. The all-powerful God choose to become frail and vulnerable. The all-knowing God chose to discover the world through the five senses of a baby boy. The unlimited God chose to confine his glory to a single point on the map.
                Paul tries to put things in perspective for us in Philippians 2:5-8. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! In Colossians Paul tells us that all the fullness of God was wrapped up in the flesh and blood person of Jesus.
                So let us go back to Bethlehem. A scared young girl endures the painful process of giving birth to her first-born child. She doesn’t get to do this in the pristine surroundings of a clean hospital room. No, she must face this experience in a crude stable. Her only attendant is a rough carpenter who was probably more scared than she was. Sometime during the night the natural process took its course. She cleaned up the baby as best as she could and wrapped him tightly in clothes. Then she held him in her arms. How small he looked; how fragile. Little did she know that she held an armful of eternity. The one who created the universe was lying in her lap. The one who breathed life into our world would draw life from her. The Word became flesh.
                I stand in awe of the miracle of Christmas. Of all of the ways God could have chosen to redeem this fallen world, he chose to send Jesus as a baby. Rather than breaking into our world in a moment of power and glory he chose the slow process of a child growing stronger day by day, year by year, until the time was just right. But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. [Galatians 4:4-5 (NIV)]

Wednesday, December 14, 2011


So what can we learn from Paul about finishing our race well? The first thing is to learn to focus on Christ and not others. All of us are influenced by the attitudes and opinions of the people around us. We all want to be liked and accepted. This basic desire will sometimes cause us to stumble, if we compromise our faith to please people. There is only one person that we need to please; and that is Jesus Christ. Keeping Jesus in the center of our focus will keep us on track. It will also, at times, make us be out of step with the world around us. When Paul was faced with giving in to the pressure of his peers or following Jesus he chose Jesus every time.
            Another thing we can do is pace ourselves. When we are young and just starting the race we are full of enthusiasm and energy. That is great, but it needs to be managed wisely. When I was in college a group of people came on campus and tried to persuade us to leave school and “do ministry right now.” They saw our training as a waste of time. They were wrong. God is never in a hurry. He has designed each of us with a unique set of gifts, talents and abilities. He intends to use those to advance the Kingdom of God in the world. Many of those abilities need to be developed and shaped. That takes time. Remember that Moses spent 40 years on the back side of the dessert before he was ready to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Jesus spent 30 years preparing for a three year ministry. Paul spent three years in study after his conversion before God sent him out to reach the Gentiles. Let God set the pace for your life, then follow it. Sometimes the pace will seem very slow. At other times you will feel like you cannot keep up. Trust Him. He knows the course that you have to run and the best way for you to run it.
            Resist the distractions of the world. Satan is great at grabbing our attention with the new, the trendy, the glamorous, the enticing. He knows our weaknesses and he is more than ready to exploit them. We need to constantly be on our guard against these often subtle attacks. Like a runner who glances to the side during the race, these distractions can trip us up. Our best defense is to know ourselves well. Invite the Holy Spirit to reveal your vulnerabilities so that you can take steps to guard yourself in those areas. Satan loves it when Christians think they are immune from the temptations of life. He smiles and waits for his opportunity to entangle them. Early in my ministry I counseled with a couple who were preparing for marriage. As I always do, I brought up the subject of divorce. They did not want to talk about it. They boldly proclaimed that that would never happen to them. Sadly, what would never happen was exactly what did happen. We must constantly be on our guard. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)
            Above all persevere. To persevere does not mean that you will never stumble. The truth is that we will all stumble at different points in our race. It is when we stumble that the true strength of our faith is tested. Those who are strong in their faith will pick themselves up and keep running. Those who are weak in their faith will crawl to the side and give up the race. The true measure of our faith is not what we do when we are winning but what we do when we fail. Paul told the believers time and time again to persevere.
            Paul wrote to Timothy to keep going and not give up the race. This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. [1 Timothy 4:9-16 (NIV)]
            No runner is in competition all of the time. Much of their time is spent in training so that they can perform their best during the race. The same is true in the Christian life. Although we must always live up to our calling, God uses much of our “normal life” as a training ground for the spiritual races ahead of us. As we face each of these races we need to determine to finish well every time.
            Usain Bolt is a very gifted runner from Jamaica. He has set world records in the 100m and the 200m races. But I was disappointed in him at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. He won gold medals in both the 100m and 200m, but he did not give his best. In the 100m race, with a commanding lead, he pulled up short of the finish and coasted to the win. We cannot afford to do that in life. Paul ran hard all the way to the end. None of us know when the finish line of our race will come, so we need to keep pressing forward.
            Paul did not want to forfeit the race at the end. He broke the tape in full stride. He challenges us to do the same. Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. [1 Corinthians 9:24-27 (NIV)]

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


"I'm going to go out a winner if I have to find a high school race to win my last race."
- Johnny Gray

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)

            The end of any race is the most critical part of the race. A person could run an excellent race, but if they stumble and fall at the end the race is lost.

            When I was in High School I ran the 2-mile race in track. There is one race that will always stand out in my mind, which took place in my Senior year. I usually finished at the back of the pack. My goal for every race was not to be last. On this occasion I determined that I was going to go for broke. When the gun went off I took the lead at a sprint. For two laps I held the lead. I could hear my coach cheering wildly as I passed him. But at lap three I began to fatigue. My legs became heavy and my pace eased up. Soon I was being passed by runner after runner. When I crossed the finish line after lap 8 I was dead last, by a long way. It’s not how you start the race that counts; it’s how you finish the race.

            Unfortunately today many Christians are not finishing the race of life well. Too many prominent Christian leaders have stumbled and fallen just as they were approaching the finish line. Often, when the lead runner falls, a number of those following fall as well.

            The Apostle Paul set a very different example for us. Paul not only finished well, he finished strong. Paul had many opportunities to drop out of the race. After his conversion experience, he found himself as an outsider. The community of the Pharisees rejected him and even tried to kill him for his new faith. The infant church distrusted him and was afraid to let him in. It would have been very easy for him to give up before he ever got started, but he did not. Barnabus could see the genuineness of Paul’s faith and took the risk to stand up for him. Because of Barnabus Paul was welcomed into the community of believers.

            It became clear to Paul that God was calling him to a pioneer ministry among the Gentiles. Along with Barnabus he risked doing what others had not and he started churches among non-Jews. This did not win him any friends, at least not right away. He had to battle for these new churches. Just as Barnabus had stood up for Paul, Paul stood up for the Gentile believers. He confronted the church leaders in Jerusalem with the radical idea that God’s grace is open to everyone. The Apostle Peter came to Paul’s aid and helped to open the door.

            You would think that after he had secured the approval of the church leaders in Jerusalem that things would go more smoothly for him. That is not how it worked out. He faced opposition at every turn. In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth he reluctantly revealed just how hard the race had been for him.

            To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that! What anyone else dares to boast about--I am speaking as a fool--I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? [2 Corinthians 11:21-29 (NIV)]
            I often wonder how Paul kept going. I’m afraid that I would have given up long before the end. What kept Paul going was that he never lost sight of the goal. All the obstacles that threatened to trip him up where only temporary inconveniences. All that matter to Paul was that he finished well. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)]
            Paul never broke stride clear to the end of his race. Late in his life, while he was in prison in Rome, he wrote an encouraging letter to the church at Philippi. He set an example for them to not give up the race short of the goal.
                I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. [Philippians 3:10-16 (NIV)]
            Finally as the finish line came in view Paul wrote to his son in the faith Timothy. For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NIV)]
            Paul never gave up. He gave his best all the way and finished strong. He set an example for all followers of Jesus Christ. 

Friday, December 9, 2011


I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

Paul had an unshakable confidence in the power of God. He knew that he was limited in what he could do on his own, but that God was not limited in what He could do through Paul. Paul saw obstacles as opportunities to demonstrate the power of God. Paul had an enormous vision, a God sized vision. He was going to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, all the Gentiles. Instead of focusing on what he couldn’t do he focused on what God could do. The result was monumental.

            In life we can let obstacles immobilize us or energize us. We can choose to say I can’t or say I can by the power of Christ. So let’s get practical.

            View the challenges of life as temporary. Every crisis, every setback, every disappointment looks life shattering at the time. Yet the crisis will pass, the setback can be overcome, the disappointment will fade. As followers of Jesus we know that this life is important and meaningful, but it is not the end of the story. When we live with our eyes fixed on eternity the bumps in the road along the way seem much smaller. The events of this life are the tools God uses to shape our character and to refine our souls. What is most important is what is happening within us, not what is happening around us. In Luke 12:15 Jesus reminds us that our life is not measured by the externals of life. “Then he said to them, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."

            Don’t give up before you start. We have all done it. We look at a challenge and, almost automatically, say I can’t do that. When I was growing up I loved baseball. I still do. We played baseball in our backyard all of the time. But when I looked at being on a Little League team I said to myself I can’t do that. So I didn’t even try. Looking back I regret that decision, not because I could have been good, but because I missed an opportunity to experience playing on a team. Several years ago if you had told me that I would run a ½ marathon I would have said I can’t do that. But in 2010 I ran my first ½ marathon and I did it again in 2011. What holds us back is not our lack of ability but our lack of confidence. To be fair, there may be some things that at this point in your life you simply cannot do. We all have limitations. But they are far fewer than what you think. It is better to try and fail then to never even try. Even if you fail you have gained a valuable experience that you can use in some future challenge.

            If you can’t find a way through a challenge find a way around it. During the Normandy invasion in WWII the allies began to systematically push back the German lines. Along the way they would encounter some small pockets of stiff resistance. Instead of stopping their forward movement they simply bypassed and isolated those pockets. Later they were able to go back and “clean up” what they had left behind.

            When Paul would go to a new community he would start at the synagogue. He would present the Gospel message to the Jews first. In most cases they rejected his message. He didn’t give up. No, he just went next door and began preaching to whoever would listen. In this way he was able to start churches even in some of the most resistant communities. As the old saying goes, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Some challenges in life just need to be sidestepped. In many cases once we have moved by the challenge it becomes minimized.

            Trust Christ to use every circumstance for your good and His glory. Sometimes we glibly throw around Romans 8:28. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We use it as a Band-Aid when other people are going through a difficult time. Yet when it is our turn to face the music we are not so sure that it is really true. How we face the trials of life is one of the greatest measures of the depth of our faith. Paul was able to see God’s hand is every situation he faced. We can to. It doesn’t mean that we need to somehow find something good about the situation. No, we need to look for the good that God will bring about because of the situation in our lives.
            The summer before I entered college I enrolled in a three-week wilderness adventure experience sponsored by the college for incoming freshmen. If I would have known in advance what I would be asked to do I probably would not have participated. I am so glad that I did. I learned that I could do things I never thought I could do. Near the end of our experience we hiked to the top of a ridge. When we arrived at the top we were informed that we would be rappelling down the 150 foot face. I am not a huge fan of heights. My heart sank but I knew that I had to do it. I will never forget the fear I felt when I took that first tentative step over the edge. I immediately fell and just as quickly was caught. Once I regained my footing I found that I could indeed do it. The challenge was not over though. Once I reached the bottom I was told that I had to climb back up. I fell three times as I attempted the climb, but I made it to the top. I can’t was transformed into I did!
            So the next time you find yourself saying, “I can’t”, stop and ask yourself this question. Is this really beyond my ability or just beyond my will? Then follow that with another question. Even if this is beyond my ability is it beyond God’s ability? Remember that God can do immeasurably more that we ask or imagine. Let God lead you beyond your limits and discover just how far He can take you. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars
- Les Brown

"Man imposes his own limitations, don't set any"
-Anthony Bailey

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (NIV)

            One of the most powerful phrases in the English language is “I can’t!” That little phrase has the power to immobilize. “I can’t” will keep you from learning new things or facing new challenges. “I can’t” will keep you tightly closed up in an increasingly smaller and smaller world. “I can’t” shuts doors, bolts windows and pulls down the shades.

            Until the early 1950s running a sub-four minute mile was thought impossible. This was true until May 6, 1954. On that day at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, England, a 25-year old English medical student did the impossible. He crossed the finish line with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds before a crowd of 3,000. His name was Roger Bannister. Just 46 days later Australian John Landy broke Bannister’s record with a time of 3 minutes 57.9 seconds. That was not the end of the story. On August 7, 1954, at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, B.C., Bannister and Landy faced off in a head to head race. They were the only two running. Landy held the lead through 3 ¾ laps. At the final turn Landy looked over his left shoulder and Bannister blew by him on his right. Bannister crossed the finish line in 3 minutes 58.8 seconds with Landy 0.8 seconds behind. In just three months the seemingly impossible was accomplished four times by these two men.

             Since that amazing breakthrough in 1954 the record for the mile has been broken 17 times. The current world record for the mile stands at 34:43.13, held by Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco.

            In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing the world witnessed another amazing example of breaking free of the power of “I can’t”. It took place in the marathon, the ultimate test of running endurance. The race took place on a very hot August day. The TV commentators remarked before the race that they felt there would be a slower pace due to the extreme heat. When the gun went off a small group of men quickly took the lead. They set a grueling pace for the conditions. The commentators remarked that they would never be able to maintain that pace. As each mile ticked by everyone waited for the lead runners to fade, but they keep their pace. At mile 20 or so the lead group was down to five or six runners. It became evident that they were at a record setting pace. There was growing excitement in the voices of the commentators who still expected the runners to fade. As they neared the stadium the lead runners didn’t fade, they increased their pace. Three men were neck and neck during the last mile. The camera switched to inside of the stadium. A lone runner broke onto the track to the cheers of the crowd, then another and another. Samuel Kamau Wanjiru of Kenya crossed the finish line first with a time of 2 hours, 6 minutes and 32 seconds, breaking the old Olympic record by 3 minutes. He was followed closely by Jaouad Gharib of Morocco with a time of 2:07:16, also breaking the old record. But the drama of the race was not over. The third runner Deriba Merga of Ethiopia entered the track with just one lap to go. Everyone was cheering him on because they could see that he was spent. Then out of the shadow of the tunnel a fourth runner emerged. It was Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia. He began to push hard and before Deriba could reach the finish line Tsegay passed him and grabbed the Bronze medal. The difference in their times was 21 seconds. Everyone said that the record could not be broken on that day. Everyone said those top runners could never maintain their pace for the whole race. Somebody forgot to tell those courageous runners who pushed harder than anyone thought possible to do what everyone thought could not be done.

            What are you not doing because you have been convinced you can’t? What would you do if you knew you could? In life and faith we need to resist the temptation to give in to “I can’t”. When I was young, whenever I would say I can’t my Aunt Mil would respond with, “I can’t means I won’t.” I never liked that response, but she was right. When I decide that I can’t do something I won’t even try.

            The Apostle Paul faced many challenges in his life. He faced opposition almost everywhere he went. He was kicked out of towns, thrown in jail, stoned, beaten and other unpleasant things. He could have said, God I just can’t do this anymore. But that was not his response. Instead Paul continued to say I can.

            Paul learned that even when he was weak from a human stand point he could be strong in Christ. God gave him the ability to rise above his circumstances. He didn’t just make the best of a bad situation. He sought God’s best in every situation.

            When we are in the middle of a situation we lose our perspective. The circumstance before us looms so large that we can’t see anything else. When everything is going well we become complacent in our faith. We start to put our faith in our own ability or in our resources. Our goal becomes maintaining our comfortable life. If something happens that shatters our comfortable life we panic. We start complaining and may even feel sorry for ourselves. If the situation persists we can descend into despair. This leads to a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

            Jim Collins in his book Good to Great tells the story of Admiral Jim Stockdale. Admiral Stockdale was a POW during the Vietnam War. He was imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton for eight years. During his years of imprisonment he faced cruel treatment at the hands of his captors. He was tortured 20 times. Yet he survived. When asked how he did it this was his response.  You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” (Good to Greast page 83) Collins called this the Stockdale Principle. Long before Admiral Stockdale the Apostle Paul lived out the Stockdale Principle.

            Paul knew how to view his current situation. Paul assured his audience that he had been on both sides of the equation. He had tasted prosperity and poverty. What made Paul different was that he was able to step away from these situations and gain a proper perspective. Paul understood that the circumstances of life didn’t have to define him. He did have the ability to rise above those circumstances.

            Paul’s focus was not on what he had or didn’t have. He focused on finding contentment in every situation. How could he do that? He often found himself in overwhelming situations that would shake the resolve of even the strongest person. Paul looked beyond the circumstance to Christ. Paul was not denying his reality. In fact Paul was the consummate realist. He knew that he could face every situation because he was secure in Christ. He was willing to trust Christ to empower him to handle whatever might come his way. What allowed him to have this resolve was his conviction that his life was wrapped up in the resurrection power of Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20 (NIV) Paul knew that whatever happened to him in life he would ultimately come out the winner. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


He bid me come and follow him
And so I fell in line
Not out of fear or duty grim
But with a joy sublime

He led me through a sunny field
Our pace was strong and fast
I looked to linger but had to yield
These days they will not last

The sky turned dark with swirling clouds
My fear began to rise
The wind and rain began to blow
The storm it masked my cries

He reached his arm around me
He pulled me to his side
The storm will soon be over
In me you can abide

The path led to the desert
The air was dry and hot
My strength began to waver
I struggled with my lot

Again he called me to him
His strength became my shade
He offered living water
Again my fear did fade

We entered in a tunnel
The way seemed dark and drear
The journey’s almost over
His words were sure and clear

The light broke all around us
I could not trust my eyes
Welcome home my son, he whispered
Midst angels joyous cries

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What does it mean to have faith in Jesus?

I visited a friend the other day who is battling cancer. He raised the question, what does it really mean to have faith in Jesus? How would you answer him? When a person is faced with the possibility of their imminent death many of the answers we usually give seem hollow. I could not promise hi m that he would be healed or that his life would be better by putting his faith in Christ. I could not talk about finding purpose and direction in life, the way we often do when sharing our faith. So when all of the superficial things of life are stripped away, what does it mean to have faith in Christ? Here are a few of my thoughts.
                Having faith in Christ is looking beyond the immediate to a higher reality. My friend’s situation reminds me that, at best, this life is temporary and fleeting. James tells us that our life is like a mist; here one day and then gone the next. Having faith in Christ is affirming that this life is only the prelude to something more. The writer of Hebrews defines faith in this way; “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” [Hebrews 11:1 (NIV)] Our hope is in the salvation that Jesus offers to us. Jesus came to inform us that we were created to live in an eternal relationship with God. Sin has broken that relationship and so we need a Savior. Jesus is that Savior. Although we cannot see Jesus in tangible form we can have confidence in God and his word. As Jesus told Thomas, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." [John 20:29 (NIV)]
                Having faith in Christ is taking him at his word and acting upon it. Jesus invites us to trust him. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. [John 14:1 (NIV)] Trust is the ability to have confidence in another even when the evidence is against us. To truly have faith in Jesus means letting him have control of your life. That is a scary thing. All of us want to be in charge of what happens. When we feel like we are losing control we fight hard to regain it. Jesus said that to follow him in faith is to let go of control; to trust him to lead. “Then he said to them all: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” [Luke 9:23-24 (NIV)]
                Having faith in Christ is believing that God loves me. To say that God is love is one thing, but to believe that God loves me, personally and individually, is something else. God sent Jesus into the world to demonstrate the extent of His love. Jesus lived out that love as he encountered people one-on-one. The woman at the well, Nicodemus, the man born blind are all tangible evidence that God cares about individuals. Genuine faith is believing that Christ loves me even when my world is crumbling. Paul expressed that kind of faith in his letter to the Corinthians. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NIV)]
                Having faith in Christ does not mean that we don’t have questions and doubts. Even the men who were closest to Jesus were plagued with doubt from time to time. When Jesus declared his awesome promise that he was going to prepare a place for us in heaven, Thomas expressed his uncertainty. Thomas said to him, "Lord, we don't know where you are going, so how can we know the way?" Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. [John 14:5-6 (NIV)] After Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to the disciples huddles in the upper room, Thomas again expressed doubt because he wasn’t there. Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it." [John 20:24-25 (NIV)] Even after Jesus had appeared to the disciples on several occasions, there were still some who were filled with questions. Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. [Matthew 28:16-17 (NIV)] If the disciples could have questions, then we should not be surprised when we experience doubt. Doubt can be a catalyst for an even greater, deeper faith in Christ.
                What does it really mean to have faith? Faith is not just wishful thinking. Faith is choosing to firmly believe Christ even when we don’t have all of the answers. Genuine faith never gives up. It is a journey that leads us through many different experiences. Each experience shapes our faith. Faith is a guide that leads us ever forward toward maturity in Christ. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Another thing we can do to win the battle for our mind is to pray with focus. We have all had the experience of day dreaming. Our mind becomes unmoored from the immediate situation and begins to float freely over a sea of miscellaneous thoughts. If this happens at school or at work we likely will be brought back to reality by someone telling us to focus.

            Satan can use an unfocused mind to lead us into all kinds of places that we should not visit. By doing this he leads us away from our awareness of God’s presence. He even does this when we try to pray. I have often had the experience of beginning to pray only to awaken a few minutes later to the reality that my mind was really a thousand miles away. At those times I have to consciously recapture my mind. An unfocused mind inevitably wanders.

            Paul tells us to be alert as we pray. To be alert is to be aware of our surroundings. What is going in my world, my life and my heart? Why is this so important? It is important because our life depends upon it. Annually there are 5,800 traffic deaths and 515,000 injuries due to distracted driving. A few seconds of inattention can be fatal. The impact of having a distracted mind is just as costly spiritually.

            When we are inattentive in prayer we often miss God’s promptings in our heart. We go through the motions of prayer without fully engaging. When we have a distracted mind we make decisions that are less than the best; decisions we often regret later. How many times have you found yourself asking, what was I thinking? The truth is you were not thinking clearly at the time.

            So what does it mean to be alert in prayer? It means paying close attention to where you mind drifts in prayer. During prayer it is common for thoughts to come into our minds seemingly out of nowhere. When this happens, rather than trying to ignore them, we need to stop and examine them. Is this thought from Satan or from God? Some thoughts we know instantly are wrong. These thoughts need to be captured and brought before God’s throne. I cannot hide my thoughts from God. It is better to deal with these negative thoughts. God my mind keeps going to this lustful thought. I confess that to you and ask you to replace that thought with your thoughts. Many times when we pray our minds drift to things we are struggling with. I have learned that this is God’s way of bringing something He wants to deal with to the forefront. I may want to hide the struggle or handle it myself, but God wants to talk about it. We also have to be alert to the times when we slip into auto-pilot. We can pray “acceptable prayers” without ever really being involved. The familiar words flow from our mouth but there is really no substance behind them. In all of these cases and more we need to be aware of what is going on and invite God to take control.

            Being alert is not limited to our formal times of prayer. We need to be alert to all that is going on in us and around us all the time. Our enemy is always looking for some opportunity to take advantage of us. “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” [1 Peter 5:8 (NIV)] We must constantly be on guard.

            Be alert to what is going on physically in your body. We often ignore the warning signs that God has hardwired into our bodies for our good. When we are tired and worn down physically we become vulnerable.

            Be alert to the circumstances around you and primarily how you are responding to them. Our emotional response to our circumstances is a good indicator of what is going on inside of us. Be ready to examine why you respond to certain situations they way you do. Don’t accept your emotions as the final word on the situation. Challenge yourself. Am I responding as Christ would have me respond?

            Be alert to the ebb and flow of your life. Are you beginning to settle into unhealthy patterns? Are you drifting away from Christ or intentionally moving toward Him?  Are you becoming more or less loving, caring, joyful? The time to make course corrections is early on. Being alert to what is happening in our life allows us to take action before we crash.

            Along with being alert we need to be intentional. Paul told the Ephesians to be alert and keep on praying for all the saints. Paul was challenging them to be focused in prayer.

            Generic prayers are the norm for most of us. We pray in non-specific terms that sound good but have no substance. We all need to learn to pray with more focus. Instead of asking God to bless Jim, pray that God will help Jim find a job that matches his gifts and abilities. Instead of asking God to bless the missionaries, pray by name for the family in Africa that is working to build an orphanage for AIDS victims. Ask God to supply the $20,000 they need and to clear the way with the local authorities so they can begin construction. You get the idea.

            When we pray generic prayers we have no way of knowing if God answered our prayers. But if we pray specifically we can rejoice when we see God answer our prayer in a specific way. We can be bold when we come to God. He invites us to be bold. He wants us to make God-sized requests so that we can experience His power and glory.

            There are many ways that we can be more intentional in how we pray. One classic way is to follow a set pathway. This gives you the structure to organize your prayers in a positive way. One such pathway is ACTS; Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. This framework allows you to plug in your personal items without skipping over important aspects of prayer. An ACTS prayer may go something like this. “Father I am in awe of the wonder of your creation. Today I was able to witness the sunrise and it was amazing. The corn in the fields by my house grew another foot this week. Your creative genius overwhelms me. I had another encounter with Sally today and I was rude to her. I confess that my attitude was wrong. Please forgive me. I want to thank you for the job you have provided to me. I really enjoy using my talents in that way. I need wisdom in dealing with a difficult situation at work. Give me your perspective on the situation and your heart for the people involved. Thank you your love and your grace. Amen.”

            Another way to be focused in prayer is to use a prayer journal. Record the items that you want to pray about along with the date. Then watch for God to answer. When you become aware of His answer write it down along with the date. Writing out your requests makes them more tangible. Recording the answers makes you more aware of God’s presence in your life.

            Paul’s point is focused not on the method that you use, but on keeping your prayer life vital and active. Don’t let prayer become a routine.

            We all engage in mind games. Some are frivolous giving us a break from the routine of life. Some are designed to sharper our minds. Some are destructive leading us in the wrong direction. Keeping our minds centered on Christ is the ultimate mind game. It is the only one that can save our soul. 

Friday, December 2, 2011


We can win the battle for our minds by praying on all occasions. As we go through our daily lives prayer is not always uppermost in our minds. In fact, prayer for many of us is an afterthought. We face some challenge and muddle through the best we can only to turn to prayer as a last resort. It is not that we don’t believe in prayer, we just aren’t dialing into it all of the time.

            Part of the struggle we face is the overwhelming pressure we face to be self-sufficient. We are being told all of the time that we need to set our own course, steer our own ship, make our own decisions. Asking for help, even from God, is seen as a sign of weakness. So we see prayer as our last resort not our first step to facing the challenges of life.

            There is another thing that gets in our way. We tend to compartmentalize our lives. We have a work compartment, a family compartment, a fun compartment and a spiritual compartment. Prayer belongs in the spiritual compartment, so we use it only on spiritual occasions. It doesn’t seem to apply when we are deciding how to spend our money or where we should live or how we should address issues at work. Of course I am making a rash generalization but you get the point. In practice we relegate prayer to specific times and places.

            When we relegate prayer to the margins of our lives we open our minds to all kinds of attacks from Satan. He is the master of playing mind games. We face some difficulty at work and discouragement settles into our mind. We contemplate some financial opportunity and greed begins whispering in our ear. We feel hurt by another person and bitterness and revenge take center stage. When we leave our minds unguarded all manner of unwelcome guests find their way in.

            Paul tells us the safeguard against this invasion is to face every situation with prayer. Pray on all occasions. There is never a circumstance or situation where prayer is not appropriate. Pray with all kinds of prayers and requests. There is not just one way to pray. If we understand that prayer is a two-way conversation with God then we are not limited in how we express our prayers. There are no special words we need to use. There is not special posture we must assume. There is just the honest expression of our thoughts and concerns to God. Our prayers can be long, short, silent, shouted, sung and even written. However we are best at expressing ourselves that is how we should approach our Heavenly Father.

            Writing to the believers in Thessalonica Paul told them the following. “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV) I have often read these short verses with both a sense of confusion and amusement. Paul seems to be telling us to do the impossible. I cannot do anything always or continually, unless it is breathing. Paul’s statement is not as unattainable as it may seem at first glance.

            Paul is really talking about the attitude of our hearts. He instructs us to train our minds to be in constant communion with God. Don’t let discouragement or bitterness reign in your heart. Instead embrace the joy of the Lord, which goes beyond the circumstances of life. Don’t leave your mind vulnerable to the negative messages of the world but constantly let Christ help you make sense of every situation. Don’t focus on what you don’t have but develop an attitude of gratitude.

            Our minds are never truly at rest, even when we are sleeping. Our minds are constantly taking in data, sifting through it and making choices based the information we have. Over the years we unconsciously develop filters that help us with this process. Some of these filters are positive and some are negative. By consciously centering our minds on Christ these filters can be transformed to allow us to see the world from His perspective. With practice it becomes natural for us to include Christ in out thought processes. So instead of seeing prayer as our last resort it becomes our first response to the multitude of challenges we face every day. 

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


"You have to forget your last marathon before you try another. Your mind can't know what's coming."  
- Frank Shorter

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.
Ephesians 6:18 (NIV)

            Yogi Berra is credited with this wonderful quote. "Baseball is 90% mental, the other half is physical." Although Yogi’s math is off he understands a significant truth about life. Everything that we do outwardly is born in our minds. If we believe that we cannot do something we will not do it. If we believe we can do something we will overcome enormous obstacles to make it happen.

            I often play mind games with myself when I go running; especially if I really don’t feel like doing it. I will tell myself that I will run to this spot and see how I feel. Or I’ll tell myself if I am at a particular time at this spot I’ll keep going or turn around. These things really have nothing to do with my actual physical condition. They have to do with my attitude. These little mind games often are enough to get me moving.

            We play mind games with ourselves every day. If we are having a particularly difficult time at work we may steel ourselves by looking forward to lunch or to the weekend. If we are struggling to lose weight we might rationalize one thing against another. For example we tell ourselves, I will eat this chocolate donut now and walk an extra mile after work. We play mind games with our relationships. We set up all kinds of scenarios about how the other person should act or react. We draw conclusions about motive and intent without ever engaging the other person. These mind games literally shape our everyday world.

            Not all mind games are negative. In fact positive mind games are just as powerful to shape our lives as negative ones. If I can envision a positive outcome to a situation then I am more likely to attain that outcome. If I begin my work day expecting to be productive I will be. If I expect good things from other people I usually find them.

            In his letter to the Philippians Paul stressed the importance of focusing our minds in the right direction. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.” [Philippians 4:4-8 (NIV)] Whether our minds are at peace or in turmoil is dependent upon what we choose to dwell on.

            I have found that running is a great time to think. The normal distractions of life are eliminated. After I have found my pace, my mind is free to focus on other things. I often use running as a way to process things I am struggling with. I also use running as a time to pray. Prayer is a powerful tool that God has given to us to capture and control the mind games we all play. When we tap into this powerful tool we are able to gain a godly perspective on life. This doesn’t come naturally or easily. That is why we often struggle with prayer. In fact prayer can often become a battle ground; a struggle to see who and what will gain control of our minds. “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” [2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV)]
            You could say that prayer is the ultimate mind game. Prayer is a dialogue with God. It is not just wishful thinking or even positive thinking. It is bundling up all of the cares, concerns and desires that clamor for our attention and offering them to God. Prayer is inviting God to work in our lives, even more than that, to be in charge of our lives. Prayer is not just unloading our minds but allowing God to speak into our minds. Whether we pray out loud or in silence the action is happening within our very souls. We are consciously inviting God to be an active participant in our world. Rather than carrying the burdens of life all alone we are inviting God to carry the burden with us. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)]

            There are some positive steps we can take to win the battle for our minds and ultimately our lives.

            The first thing we can do is pray in the Spirit. Have you ever found yourself involved in some activity outwardly but not engaged inwardly? We have all had that experience at some point in your lives. Maybe even right now. Human beings have the remarkable ability to be physically involved in some activity and have their mind in a different universe. Our body goes through the motions while our mind freely roams somewhere else. This can happen at work, at home, at church, even driving the car.

            When Paul tells us to pray in the Spirit he is challenging us to be fully engaged when we pray. We all know what it is like to have a conversation with someone but not be fully engaged. We are physically present but our mind is somewhere else. We can, and often do, experience this in prayer. The Holy Spirit is our advocate with God and our pipeline to God. As we pray we need to be fully aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit. We are not just speaking words into the air, but we are holding a conversation with a real person, the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus left this earth he promised to send his Spirit to be with us. He is the very presence of God in our lives. To be in the Spirit therefore means to be in active cooperation with him.
            The Spirit plays a very significant role in our lives. After we receive Jesus’ invitation to be His disciple the Spirit takes up residence in our lives. He becomes our constant companion and guide. His role is to lead us to Christ. “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” [John 14:26 (NIV)] Many times when we pray our focus is on us and our needs. Our prayers can become just a wish list of things we want God to do for us. When we invite the Holy Spirit to guide us in our prayers they become more centered on Christ and less on us. This does not mean that God doesn’t care about our needs. He does. Jesus himself told us to bring our requests before God. The difference is that the Holy Spirit helps us sort out what is only self-seeking from what will help us grow in our faith. As someone once said, God does not want to make us happy, he wants to make us holy.

            There are two ways that I can approach prayer. I can approach prayer in my spirit. My spirit is often like a spoiled child who demands to have his way. It is not that my spirit is completely evil, but it is tainted by evil. If I approach God only from my perspective I will have a very hard time seeing Him at work in my life. On the other hand I can approach prayer in the Spirit. When I do this I consciously submit my will to the will of God. The content of my prayers may not be substantially different but my perspective will be. I intentionally allow the Holy Spirit to reshape my thoughts and words to conform to God’s will for me. “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” [Romans 8:26 (NIV)]  

            When I pray in the Spirit I can be totally honest with God. I don’t have to bargain or play games. I can freely unburden my mind and my heart to Him knowing that He will act on my behalf. When I pray in the Spirit, I release the perceived right to determine the outcome. Instead of telling God what He needs to do, I submit my requests to Him and trust Him for the best answer. To pray in the Spirit is to acknowledge that God is God and I am not. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

Is There Room in the Middle for Me?

What’s Your Dominant Side?

If the left side of the brain controls the right side of our body,
And the right side of our brain controls the left side of our body,
Then only left-handed people are in their right mind.

                We are all fully aware that we have a dominant side to our bodies. We are either right-handed or left-handed. There are a few “balanced” people who can function equally well from both sides; we call them ambidextrous.  Although we notice it most with the use of our hands, our whole body reflects this “one-sidedness”. I noticed this on one of my runs. I became aware that I was pushing off harder with my right leg than my left leg. I made a conscious effort to balance the effort on both legs, but I was unable to sustain it. My right leg is definitely stronger than my left leg.
                There are many of these dichotomies in life. In a general sense we can divide people into extroverts and introverts. In simple terms an Extrovert gains energy by being around other people. On the other hand an Introvert gains energy by being alone.  Both kinds of people can be very social but they respond to social settings differently. Just as the scale tends to tip toward people being right-handed, the scale tends to tip toward people being on the Extrovert. Most people will find themselves somewhere in the middle. These people are called ambiverts.
                In a similar way there is a tendency for people to be directed by emotions or reason. For some people, their first response to most situations is to respond emotionally. For other people, their first response to most situations is to respond thoughtfully. Most people respond with some combination of the two.
                What I want to do is establish two important points. First, everyone tends to lean to one side or the other of the continuum. Second, while some people live at the extremes of the continuum, most people live somewhere in the middle. Even in our physical bodies, the difference between our right and left side is not so great that they cannot function together in a coordinated effort.
                When it comes to theology, one of the dichotomies is Law vs. Grace. On the Law side of the equation a heavy emphasis is placed on doing the right things. Sometimes this is referred to as “works righteousness”. In an extreme form it demands that a person live under all the Old Testaments laws. In a more common form, being a Christian is seen as carefully keeping a set6 of rules regarding a person’s conduct. A good Christian does not do certain things and definitely does other things. On the Grace side of the equation a heavy emphasis is placed on freedom. An extreme expression of this would say that it doesn’t matter how we live our lives. We can do whatever we want to do because God’s grace has covered us. A more common expression of this is to downplay lifestyle issues as less important than what a person believes. What I would like to suggest is that there is a place in the middle that is where God wants us to be. You could call it being spiritual ambidextrous or a spiritual ambivert.
                Jesus lived in the middle between Law and Grace. He always upheld the Law but also demonstrated grace freely. The clearest display of Jesus’ law side is found in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. Jesus walks through the demands of the Law and applies them in even stricter terms. He made it clear that it was not enough to keep the Law outwardly but that a person had to keep it in his heart as well. Matthew 5: 17 makes it clear that Jesus did not intend to do away with the Law. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” [Matthew 5:17 (NIV)] On the other hand Jesus demonstrated grace. The story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 is an example. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to openly condemn the woman because the law demanded it. Jesus challenged them with their own sin, then forgave the woman, but not without a challenge as well.
                When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there.  Jesus straightened up and asked her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" "No one, sir," she said. "Then neither do I condemn you," Jesus declared. "Go now and leave your life of sin." [John 8:7-11 (NIV)]
                Jesus offered grace without compromising the true intent of the Law.
                The Apostle Paul took a similar stand. We often think of Paul as the Apostle of Grace. Indeed he fought a constant battle with those who would impose Jewish Law on all believers. At the same time Paul challenged those who wanted to turn our freedom in Christ into license. What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? [Romans 6:1-2 (NIV)] In 1 Corinthians Paul reminds his readers that how we live our lives matters. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"--but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.
[1 Corinthians 10:23-24 (NIV)]
                Our faith also tends to have a dominant side. We either lean toward Law or Grace. We tend to either focus on rules for Christian living or on the freedom we have in Christ. The Pharisees focused on the rules. The disciples focused on freedom. We will naturally lean more heavily to one side or the other. We will also wonder about the spiritual health of those who lean in the opposite direction.
                Dietrich Bonheoffer, in his book Life Together, counsels us to be careful that our dominant side does not cancel out our other side. Spiritually we need both sides of the equation to be whole and healthy followers of Christ. We need to learn to be spiritually ambidextrous. 

Friday, November 25, 2011


Paul was able to rejoice in his thorn in the flesh because he saw the power of God at work. His weakness was an opportunity for people to see that the power of God is real. He came to realize that his real strength was found in tapping into the eternal power of the Living God. The more Paul was able to step aside and let God work the stronger he became.

            Our weakness is an opportunity for God’s power to show through. God has given us incredible abilities that allow us to face a variety of situations. At our best we can tackle complex problems with skill and confidence. I believe God is pleased by that, but God is not always honored by that. It is not that the individual believer is leaving God out of the picture. She may be actively giving the credit to God for her success. But from the outside, from the perspective of the unbeliever, it is only a case of a competent person using their talents well. Our strength can get in the way of people seeing God at work. But when we are weak a different story emerges.

            Brian was a pastor in Nebraska. He had a successful ministry in a solid church. People were blessed by his preaching and teaching. Then his health began to deteriorate. He was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment. He became physically weak and was unable to do all the things that he normally did. Brian could have become discouraged and even bitter. I’m sure that he had more than one session of pleading with God. But Brian tapped into an inner strength that turned his situation into a demonstration of God’s power. Brian used very cancer treatment as an opportunity to declare the glory of God. While the doctors and nurses attended to his physical needs he would joyfully tell them of his relationship with Jesus and the hope he had for the future. Out of his weakness Brian demonstrated the power of God to overcome. Brian lost his battle with cancer but left behind a legacy of hope. He ran his race all the way to the end. At his funeral many of those doctors and nurses testified to the joy Brian radiated in a dark situation.

            When Paul says that when I am weak then I am strong he wasn’t negating the gifts and talents God had given to him. He was acknowledging that he could accomplish only so much on his own. At the end of his abilities the power of God took over to do amazing things.

            God wants us to us our gifts and our talents to their full potential. But he doesn’t want us to become enamored with them. Instead he wants us to surrender them to him so that he can use them in ways we never could. The cry of a true follower of Jesus is not look how great I am but look how great God is. The very breath I take is a gift from God. The more I embrace the reality that I am powerless on my own the stronger I become.

            When the pain comes, as it inevitably will, the temptation is to stop running. At the end of the Living History Farms Race there is a long incline. It is a real killer after you have already run 6 miles. Half way up the hill I was laboring; struggling to keep moving forward. I was really tempted to stop. A young lady came running up from behind me. She could tell I was having a hard time. As she passed me she said, “You’re doing great. Keep it up. You’re going to make it.” I smiled back and kept on fighting for the top. Over the past 30 years I have faced many painful and discouraging times. I have been tempted to pull out of the race. It is at those times that Jesus runs next to me and assures me that we can do this together.

            We can let the struggles of life defeat us or we can see the struggles of life as an opportunity to experience the power of God. God’s grace is sufficient for every situation we face. We can keep on running even when it hurts.

            “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”