Just Keep Running

18s0e9b92ewrgjpg

The other morning, I went for a walk around my neighborhood. As I made my way down the street, I noticed a couple of runners coming towards me. I stepped aside as they passed and I noticed they were teenagers. I didn’t think anything of it until a couple of minutes later when three more headed my way. I again stepped aside and put two and two together and realized it must be track practice or something. As I kept walking, I noticed one last runner. He was a bit behind all the others and all by himself. His running was much more labored and his facial expressions revealed his struggle. For a brief second or two I felt bad for him. But then his dedication inspired me. Although he wasn’t as fast or as smooth as the others, and even though he lagged behind his teammates, he kept running.

As I passed him, I couldn’t help but see a picture our lives in his morning run. As we run the race of life, many run faster than we do. They run smoother and more eloquently than we ever could. They seem to stride effortless and keep moving forward while we stumble and stagger around. And, as they glide ahead, we labor and struggle as we try to keep moving forward. We fall way back of the pack all the while wondering if the race is worth it. But, we have to keep running.

The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1 ESV).  His words remind us that the Christian  life calls for endurance. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s a cross country race with hills and valleys and twists and turns. The terrain is difficult. The challenge is real. Our lungs burn and our legs ache. But, we must keep running. Don’t worry about how far behind the others you are. Don’t give up because your pace is slower. Don’t quit because your form isn’t as good or your stride isn’t as graceful. Don’t stop. Dig deep. Breathe hard. Put one leg ahead of the other. Just keep running.

I Am Barabbas

gavelIn the classic movie Spartacus, Kirk Douglas plays a slave who leads a revolt against the Roman Empire. When he and his men are finally caught, the Roman authorities want the ringleader of the rebellion and they ask who is Spartacus? As Douglas stands to identify himself as the leader, man after man stands saying “I am Spartacus.”

The New Testament tells us of another insurrectionist…a man by the name of Barabbas. He too had broken Roman law and rebelled. He had revolted against the Empire, robbed, and murdered for his cause. He had now been caught, tried, and found guilty. He was condemned to death because of his transgressions. No appeal was left for him. It was only a matter of time and time was running out.

Inject into that equation, a man by the name of Jesus. He also had been arrested, but the Roman Governor Pilate found no guilt in Him. Torn between political pressure and his own investigation, Pilate attempted to placate the angry mob by offering them a choice between Barabbas and Jesus. The crowd called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. Many suggest that Jesus would be hung on the cross prepared for Barabbas. An innocent man died in the place of one guilty and condemned.

I am not Spartacus, but I am Barabbas. I have rebelled against the sovereign Creator of the universe. I have revolted against Him and gone my own way (Isaiah 53:6). I have taken what is His and used it for myself. I have murdered in my heart by being angry in unjust ways (Matthew 5:22). I too am guilty, and my guilt justifies my condemnation. Death is a certainty. But thankfully, Jesus died in my place. The innocent bore the punishment of the guilty.

The Bible says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18, ESV).

I am guilty. I am condemned. But, Jesus took my place. He paid the price for my sin. He died that I might be set free. I am no longer dead in the trespasses and sins in which I once walked (Ephesians 2:1-2). I am alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).

I am Barabbas. And so are you. We are all guilty and condemned. Yet, God in His great love for us provided a substitute. An innocent man died in our place. Our debt has been paid. Our crimes have been paid for. Justice is done and the sentence has been carried out. We have been released from the power and the penalty of sin. In Christ, we are free. In Him, we are alive. Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.

Getting Things Done

7e67fc67bcfd578da574731d43df9dd5Business leaders talk about productivity. Politicians talk about advancing their agenda. Students talk about finishing their homework and parents talk about just getting through the day. At heart, they’re all saying the same thing. They’re talking about getting things done.

When it comes to this idea of getting things done, I was struck this morning while reading my Bible by the contrast between the stories I read. Three stories about three different sets of people separated by time and contexts. Yet, all of their stories intersected in my mind at a single point.

In the book of Genesis, we read the story of Joseph. He was a young man sold into captivity by his jealous brothers. Upon arriving in Egypt, he became the household manager of a man named Potiphar. And, despite his circumstances, Joseph flourished in that role. The Bible tells us why. It says, “His master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD caused all that he did to succeed in his hands” (Genesis 39:3, ESV).”

Moving forward several pages and hundreds of years, we come to the book of 1 Samuel. There, Samuel tells us the story of David, a young shepherd boy who was anointed the future king of Israel. In between his shepherding and reigning, David served Saul, the present King of Israel. And, like Joseph, David was very successful at it. The Bible again tells us why. It says, “And David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him” (1 Samuel 18:14, ESV).

Moving forward yet again, we come to the life and times of Jesus as presented in the gospel of Mark. While Jesus was revealing His glory as God to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, His disciples below were failing to heal a young boy. As Jesus came down from the mountain, He did what His disciples could not. They later asked why they had failed to do something they had been called and equipped to do. Jesus tells them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29, ESV).

Three sets of characters in three different times in three different contexts, yet one recurring theme. Our successes come from God. When we live yielded and surrendered lives, dependent upon God and His power, we achieve far more than we can in our own power and strength. Joseph prospered because God was with him. David succeeded because God was with him. The disciples failed because they relied too much on themselves and not enough on God.

So, let us rest in the power God provides. Let us lean on Him for guidance and strength in the daily affairs of our lives. Let us look to God rather than trust in ourselves. After all, He is far more able than we are, and it’s through Him that we really get things done.

 

Tips to Improve Your Prayer Life

prayer20on20rock20silhouetteWe see throughout Scripture the importance of prayer. It is called for and modeled by Old Testament saints and prophets alike. Likewise, Jesus not only calls us to prayer, He also teaches us to pray and models for us a life of prayer. The early church was filled with praying believers.

So, with that said, let’s take a moment to look at some simple steps that can help strengthen our prayer lives.

Establish a time and place so you can get alone and eliminate distractions. It’s best if we can carve out some time each day to spend alone with God free from distractions. So, find the time that works best for you. People are seen praying throughout the Bible at different times and in different postures. God is more concerned that we spend time in prayer than what time we pray and He’s more concerned with the posture of our hearts than our bodies. Whatever hour might work best in your life, set it aside and make it a priority. Turn off the television and put your phone away. Try to eliminate as many distractions as possible so you can spend some time connecting with our Heavenly Father.

Remember that prayer is communication. It’s a conversation with God. For many of us, we try to find a balance between conversation and reverence/respect. Because we do, we tend to drift into “prayerspeak.” Through the years I’ve heard many people talk one way and then pray another. It’s like they’re speaking an entirely different language. Try to avoid this.

2013-10-02-lord-just1

original carton can be found here and is from the site Adam4d.com

As you pray, spend some time in silence. Allow God to stir in the stillness of the moment. It’s often in our quiet moments of reflection that God brings things to our mind to challenge and comfort us.

Speak openly and honestly with God. Don’t try to impress Him. He knows our feelings and emotions. He knows if we’re afraid or anxious. He knows if we’re angry. Acknowledge to Him and ask Him to help you move through those feelings. When we read the Psalms, we see the struggles of the psalmists. We also see the struggles of the prophets as they confessed they didn’t understand what was going on around them. Let’s strive to avoid the dangers of pretentious praying (Matthew 6:5-8). As we do this, it is helpful to remember that the Spirit prays with us and for us (Romans 8:26).

If we’re honest, we know that sometimes our prayer life becomes stale. We run out of things to say or we just repeat the same things over and over. Here are a few suggestions that can help us move beyond this.

  • Use the ACTS acronym – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication
  • Follow the pattern Jesus puts forth in The Model Prayer (Matthew 6:9-15)
  • Pray Scripture, particularly Psalms – Donald Whitney has written a marvelous book on this entitled Praying the Bible (as a matter fact, anything by Donald Whitney is worth reading).
  • Perhaps it might help you to write our your prayers or to record them in a journal. You can do this in a hard copy or digitally. Day One, Evernote, OneNote, or any word processor (Word, Pages, Google Docs) can be a great tool for this.
  • Learn to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Take advantage of the moments here and there and pray whenever something…or someone comes to mind.
  • Pray through your calendar.
  • Prayer walking. Walk through your neighborhood praying as you go. This is a great way to pray for the people around you. Pray 4 Every Home is a great resource you can use in this endeavor.

Whatever method or plan, time or posture, tool or resource, the important thing is to pray. So, spend some time today connecting with God through prayer.

How to Study the Bible

We all want to grow in one way or another. And, many of us look at the new year as an opportunity to make a some changes in our lives. So, with that said, it seems like a good time offer a few suggestions to help us grow in our spiritual walks.

A great place to start deepening our relationship with God is by spending time in His Word. We know that the Scripture provides what we need for spiritual growth (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In the pages of the Bible, we learn about Jesus and the plan of redemption (Luke 24:27). We learn how we need to live and move forward in life (Psalm 119). We grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord (2 Peter 3:17-18). We learn to distinguish truth from error and we see more clearly the areas of our lives that need changing (Hebrews 4:12).

First thing to do is to get a Bible. By that, I mean get a Bible you will use. Get one with print big enough you can see. Get one you can understand. There are a number of really good translations available. I usually recommend the English Standard Version (ESV) or the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). In addition there are a number of digital options that are good as well. Olive Tree, YouVersion, and the ESV app are all great tools you can use on your phone or tablet. Furthermore, you may find a study Bible a helpful resource and once again the ESV Study Bible or the HCSB Study Bible are hard to beat.

Second, get a plan. You can find a number of reading plans tailored to your goals. You can read the Bible through in a year or over the course of two years. You can read the New Testament through in a month or two. There are no limits to the suggestions. A month or so ago, Justin Taylor wrote about a number of great options on the Gospel Coalition Blog.

Third, set a time where you can minimize distractions and invest your time in reading. Find the best time for you whether it’s morning, evening or late night. To start, the length of time is not as important as the consistency.

Fourth, pray to seek the Lord’s help in understanding and applying what you read. The Holy Spirit is our helper as we spend time in the Word (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 2:12).

Fifth, read. As you read, interact with the text. Ask questions like who, what, when, where, why, and how as you move through the text. Underline things and take notes. Jot down your questions, observations and insights. Converse with others about your readings, including your questions and insights. Get their input and seek their prayers about what God has laid on your heart.

Finally, live out what you learn. Reading the Bible is not primarily an intellectual exercise. By God’s grace, we are to apply the things we’re reading to our lives every day.

 

Grace Upon Grace

abundanceWe hear quite a bit about the “prosperity gospel” today. That’s the belief advocated by many (particularly on television) that says God wants you to have health and wealth in abundance. And, if your faith is strong enough, He will bless you with those things. You name and you can claim it.

This is simply a false teaching. Yes, every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17). Yes, God meets our needs (Matthew 6:33), both physical and material. Yes, He is the One who brings healing to our lives. But this view that God is nothing more than a cosmic ATM is simply wrong. It completely ignores the fact that Jesus died naked and penniless. His closest followers were martyred for their faith. The early church was characterized by its spiritual power, not its material wealth. Sadly, this false teaching presents a corrupted view of God and dismisses the reality of the trials we face in life.

We could talk at length about the role suffering plays in our lives as believers. And, perhaps we’ll look at that another time. But for now, I do want to highlight one thing God does give to us in abundance. It’s far greater and far more needed than health or wealth. It’s grace. The Apostle John writes, ” For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16 ESV).

God gives grace in abundance. Abundant grace to cover our sin. Abundant grace to move us through trials. Abundant grace to raise us above yesterday’s hurts and failures. Abundant grace to move us confidently into an uncertain tomorrow. And, abundant grace to deal with all the circumstances of today. Let us be thankful  for that fact that through Jesus, we have received grace upon grace. For grace is definitely something He gives in abundance.

Drop Your Blanket

 

linus-van-peltI love the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Fifty years ago, this tale of one follicly-challenged boy’s quest for the true meaning of Christmas debuted on national television. My favorite part is when his pal Linus explains to him what Christmas is all about. What I love about the scene is that Linus drops his faithful security blanket as he quotes the biblical account of Jesus’ birth and explains the true meaning of Christmas. It is a subtle reminder of the hope the season offers.

The passage Linus quotes comes from the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. It says:

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-14 ESV)

Christmas is indeed good news. Many scholars would suggest that Jesus was probably not born on December 25. Before we react too harshly to their assessment, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t really matter when Jesus was born. What matters is that He was born.

It does seem strangely appropriate, however, that the early church chose the darkest time of the year to celebrate the coming of the light of Jesus. In the midst of the cold, dark winter we remember that there’s hope. God has invaded our world. A child is born and this is good news. It’s a message of hope for all people. God has fulfilled His promise and the Messiah has come. The darkness won’t last forever. The cold winds will one day cease. The brokenness and heartache of this life will come to an end. The bleak harsh reality of sin and death has been overcome. This news brings us great joy. How can we not help but join in with the angels and sing “glory to God in the highest?”

Don’t let the darkness of life’s winter overwhelm you. Take heart. There’s good news. A savior is born and His name is Jesus. Light has come into the world. Deliverance is nigh. So, let go of your fears and doubts. Stop being anxious. Instead, drop your blanket and rejoice!

 

Speaking through the Ages

 

bible-sunset-2

It’s amazing to me the way God speaks through His Word. Sixty-six books written over the span of hundreds of years by scores of authors in a myriad of different contexts and circumstances all with one central theme.

I was reminded of this yet again today. This morning, I was reading in the Old Testament book of Daniel and the New Testament book of Hebrews. At first glance, it seems like these two book have little in common. One centers around a man’s life while in exile in a place very foreign to him and the other stresses the superiority of Christ. They were written hundreds years apart in very different circumstances. Yet, upon a closer look, they both emphasize the importance of faithfulness in the face of temptation and pressure to do something else.

Throughout the book of Daniel, we read of a quartet of young Jewish exiles who are growing up and growing old in Babylon. Over the years, they forsake the king’s food, refuse to bow down and worship his statue, and hold fast in the worship of their God in face of constant threats and opposition. The culture around them pushes them to worship one way, yet their hearts remain true to the one true God.

The book of Hebrews is also written to people being pressured to forsake their faith in Jesus. They are being beckoned to walk away and to worship in some other way. The author of this letter goes to great lengths to encourage his readers to hold fast to Jesus because He is superior in every way to anything they had ever known.

The correlation between these two very different writings struck me afresh this morning as I read of Daniel’s insistence to continue to pray to God in the manner in which he was accustomed. He did so knowing it would jeopardize his life. He refused to waver in his faith. He clung to what he knew to be right, even in the face of an incredible amount of pressure. As he did so, God not only delivered him from the lion’s den, but He also revealed to him a vision that concluded with this promise:

“And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.’” (Daniel 7:27 ESV)

Daniel stood fast and drew encouragement by the promise that God would prevail.

As I turned several hundred pages (and several hundred years ) forward in my Bible to the book of Hebrews, I read of the marvelous provision of Jesus and its sole sufficiency to save us from sin and judgment. Despite pressure to look in some other direction, Hebrews reminds us to cling to Jesus and to salvation only He can offer. And, it challenges us to encourage others to do the same, especially in times where pressure mounts to do otherwise. Towards the end of the tenth chapter, the author writes:

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:19-25 ESV, emphasis added)

The pressure to walk away is real. The voices calling us to quit are loud. The temptation to give up is alluring. Constantly struggling against the winds of culture can be tiring. Yet, Daniel’s example challenges us to press on and to hold fast, even in the face of opposition. His vision encourages us with the hope of Jesus’ ultimate victory. The words of Hebrews remind us that Jesus is sufficient to bring us into right relationship with God and because of Him, we can stand with confidence. So, we should encourage one another to hold fast even in the midst of the difficult days in which we live.

So, draw strength from these words. Be encouraged by them. Words written hundreds of years apart by different men in the midst of different circumstances, yet united in a message of hope and deliverance and in the encouragement that offers.

 

That’s Life

My iPhone has an app on it that measures how much I exercise. Some days, I do really well and the app plots a point near the top of a graph. Other days, I don’t do so well and the app plots a point near the bottom of the graph. Most weeks, my graph looks like a roller coaster ride with some really good days tossed in with some really poor ones. When I look back over any given week, I can see some great highs and some disappointing lows.

If my phone had an app to measure my life and ministry, I imagine it would look about the same way. There would be some ups and there would be some downs. Peaks and valleys. Highs and lows. We’ve all experienced them. We know what it’s like to be on top of the mountain on one day and plunged into the valley the next. Perhaps Sinatra said it best when he said, “That’s life, that’s what all the people say, you’re ridin’ high in April, shot down in May.” All of us can identify with this roller coaster ride.

Perhaps no one knew this like Paul. When we look at his life and ministry, we see a man who was a great missionary and church planter. He carried the gospel around the Mediterranean world planting churches, training leaders, and discipling believers. In addition, in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, we read that he has this awesome experience where he is carried into the presence of Christ and given great visions. These are definitely some mountain top moments.

But Paul’s life wasn’t all tremendous victories. He had setbacks and challenges along the way. As he traveled the world carrying the gospel, he was rejected and ridiculed. He was threatened and beaten, arrested and tried. In this passage in 2 Corinthians, he tells us that God has given him a messenger of Satan…a thorn in the flesh to afflict him and keep him humble. We’re not sure exactly what that thorn was, but it was severe enough that Paul prayed more than once to remove it.

Like Paul, we too know that highs and lows of life and ministry. Our struggles may come in different shapes and sizes, have different names, and come for different reasons than the one that afflicted Paul, but they come nonetheless. And, like Paul, we often know what it is to cry out to God for the removal of these thorns only to be met with a silence we don’t understand or an answer we don’t want to hear. When that happens, we need to understand something. Like Paul, sometimes God leaves our contexts unchanged so that He can grow us and demonstrate His power in the midst of them.

Jesus did not leave Paul with a simply no. He assured him…as He assures us that “His grace is sufficient.” When we talk about grace, most of us understand what I’ll call “saving” grace. We know that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Furthermore, we know too that we have “sustaining” grace. That is the grace that saves us keeps us saved. But along with these saving and sustaining aspects of grace, there is also grace for living. Grace doesn’t just usher us into the presence of God to leave us on our own. Grace strengthens us as we live our lives every day. It is in our weaknesses that Christ’s power is made perfect.

Don’t give up in the midst of your struggles and setbacks. Remember that His grace is sufficient. In our weakness, His power is made perfect. The challenges and difficulties are real, but Jesus is there in the midst of them all. Let us remained anchored in the grace He provides.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV)

Church is Messy

If you spent any time in church as a child, you probably learned this rhyme: “Here’s the church. Here’s the steeple. Open the doors. Here’s all the people.” It was usually accompanied by hands held together (the church) with index fingers pointed heavenward (the steeple) and thumbs forming the doors. The rest of the fingers interlocked on the inside to form the people. It was kind of like Sunday School gang signs or something.

When we look at the Bible, we understand that the church is not a building or a steeple. It’s people. People who are indeed interlocked together in Christ. And, because the church is people, church can often be messy. It’s never as neat and as ideal as we’d like it to be. We’d like things to run in perfect harmony, but they seldom do. Despite the clear teaching of Scripture and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit, church is sometimes…often times less than ideal. As fallen people, we say and do things that often hurt instead of help. We become embittered, angry, and unforgiving. Feelings get bruised, egos get hurt, and by the time we’re done we’re left with one big mess. And then, we look around for someone to blame.

Sadly, we learn that Satan relishes these messy times (sometimes, he may even be the instigator behind them). The evil one has a way of making our messes even bigger. He pokes and prods and stirs things up in the lives of people…in the life of the church until our little messes are big, and our big messes are enormous. We understand that as believers, we are far too prone to give in to the old nature and sin on our own. We don’t always need any pushing or goading. We usually do a fine job of sinning by ourselves. So, understand that this isn’t a treatise simply saying that the “devil made me do it.” He didn’t. He does, however, have a way of working when we are the most vulnerable. He may be at his most aggressive after a great victory in our lives or during a season of great struggle. Regardless of the context, we can all attest to the fact that Satan has a way of cashing in on his opportunities.

Paul reminds us that our struggle is not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). While the struggles we face may have names and faces and personalities, there is often a spiritual dimension involved that we do not see. Satan is indeed working within the walls and behind the doors of the church to break up those interlocking people. He desires to break them apart and thus weaken the testimony and the ministry of the church. Simply stated, he works to derail and distract the people of God from being the church.

So, what are we to do in the midst of our mess? For one, we must look to God in prayer (Ephesians 6:18). We cannot overcome a spiritual struggle with physical strength. Prayer is essential in times like these. We must also strive clean things up as quickly as we can. Gossip doesn’t help. Nor does speculation. Taking sides just makes things worse. In the messes we make, there are no real winners and losers. Instead, by God’s grace, we love and we forgive our way through these things. We confess and ask God to help us clean up and move forward the best that we can. We hold to the truth of Scripture and work diligently to live it out daily. Finally, we affirm our unity. We’re together in this thing called church…even when’s it’s messy. Especially when it’s messy. We’re interlocked. We’re together. We’re one.

At the end of the day, the church (building) and the steeple and the doors don’t matter. The people…the real church does. We’re the ones redeemed by the grace of God to live lives that bear witness to Him. And they can, even in the messes we make.