Monday, January 30, 2012

Run Forrest, Run!!

    For as long as he could remember, Jimmy always wanted to run in a marathon. He grew up around a few marathon runners, had witnessed a few marathons, and loved hearing the stories of great battles that had occured within various marathons over the years. Battles where runners would trade leads back and forth throught the entire race, each of them refusing to give up or give in. He could feel his heart race when others would describe the sheer determination it had taken them to keep pushing forward once they had hit "the wall" - that invisible point when the body wants to shut down, but the heart, mind, and will refuse to give up and just keep pushing.
    His favorite type of stories along those lines were the stories where the guy nobody saw coming somehow pulled off a miracle upset over the guy everyone was sure would win. The classic underdog story. He always dreamed that someday he'd be that guy. The one who strained past the favorite with one last great burst of speed, turned the corner and broke the ribbon with his chest as the other runners looked on in shock, wondering who he was and where he had come from.
     One day, it looked like Jimmy was going to get his chance. It was the cold of January when he found out that a marathon was going to take place in his home town during the summer. This wasn't just any marathon. This was the mother of all marathons. Some of the best runners in the world would be coming to his town to compete. If there was any marathon worth running, this was it. He couldn't wait to sign up for it, and did so as soon as possible.
    For the next six months, he stuck with his own training method. His theory was that constant running would beat him up and wear him down, leaving him with nothing left come marathon time. Besides, he didn't really have the time. So instead of running, he would simply watch others as they trained. He'd ask them questions about how to run the race. He'd watch how they ate. He even bought a membership to the local gym so he could sit in the back and observe as they cross-trained on various equipment.
   The day of the race, he stopped on his way to the starting point and bought himself the best pair of running shoes money could buy. He was absolutely convinced that his training would pay off, and when it was all over, everyone would be asking this kid who came out of nowhere how he had done it.
   He stood by the starting line, and listened eagerly for the gun. As soon as it fired, he took off running as fast as he could. He almost immediately became lost in the middle of the pack, and just ten minutes into the race, he began to feel his legs cramp up. "This must be the brick wall they all talk about." He thought to himself. "I'll be ok. I just have to push through this."
   Within a few more minutes, his legs began to feel like rubber. He watched in horror as runner after runner shot past him and he dropped further back in the pack. Before long, senior citizens were shoving him out of the way. He could feel blisters beginning to form on his heels, and before he knew it, the only person behind him was the guy driving the car, marking the end of the marathon.
   He eventually began walking because he simply couldn't run anymore. As the day turned into night, he finally stumbled across the finish line. With the exception of a few kind-hearted people who stayed to cheer him on as he crossed, the parking lot at the end of the race was deserted. He was glad that he finished, but he knew that his plan had failed him miserably. He sat down on the curb and took off his new shoes, overwehlmed with regret.
   Nobody would ever attempt to train for a marathon like Jimmy did, would they? I mean, that would make no sense whatsoever. It might even be considered insane to even imagine we'd win with that type of training.
   So why do we take the same approach to our faith? Why do we go to church every Sunday, if we even make it there at all, and sit and listen to stories of the great people of faith week after week? People like David, or Moses, or Samson, or Paul. Sure, we're inspired by their stories. We imagine how we'd react to the trials they faced. We imagine ourselves rising to the challenge and becoming heroes of the faith as well. Then we go home..........For the rest of the week, our prayer life is limited to maybe a few minutes here or there. Our bibles, if we even own one, sit on shelves collecting dust, unread for days, weeks, months, or maybe even years.
    This week, Steve spoke on living a life of purpose - a life with a distinct and well thought-out game plan. A life with a mission statement attatched to it. I believe that somewhere in the back of his mind, he might have Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27.

"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 someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize."

   We can't all finish in 1st place, but we can all finish as winners in God's kingdom. All we need to do so is have a good game plan, a sense of determination to live a life of purpose. God's true purpose for our lives can only be found in His word, and through how He answers us when we pray to Him. You see, even the people you know who have the greatest faith you've ever seen need to spend time in prayer and in God's word every day. If they stop this habit for ant length of time, they stop being great people of faith.
   We only get one marathon.........let's run it with purpose. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sing with me....."I'm strong to the finich, cuz I eats me spinach"

   I fully understand that saying what I'm about to say is going to make many of you sit back and say......."Woah............He's really old." That risk being fully understood, I'm going to say it anyway. When I was a kid, I really liked the old "Popeye" cartoons. Why? Well, he was this guy who was just a normal everyday guy. He made mistakes all of the time, but he always just seemed to want to do what was right.
   He was surrounded by quite an odd cast of characters. There was Wimpy, who always wanted to eat hamburgers, but never had the money to pay for them. Even though he was a bit of a freeloader, Popeye always seemed to be there to help him out.
   There was Bluto, an arrogant blow hard of a guy who always wanted to put an end to Popeye. No matter how hard Popeye tried to work with him and be reasonable, Bluto would always react by doing the most obnoxious things.
   Then there was Olive Oyl, Popeye's sweetheart. No matter what she did, he always looked at her as being the most beautiful girl (or "goyl") in the world. He absolutely adored her, and she absolutely adored him.
   Oddly enough, whenever Bluto really wanted to get to Popeye, he would always go after Olive Oyl. Why? Because he knew that she was the most important person in Popeye's life.
   As we watched those old episodes, we all waited for that one moment. You know the moment. It was when Popeye had finally taken all that he could, and popped open his can of spinach. We all knew that as soon as he got his hands on that spinach, Bluto was done for. We watched Popeye getting punched, kicked, knocked out, ripped off, etc., all the while just trying to be a nice guy and to be reasonable. I don't know about you, but I always wondered why he didn't just eat spinach all the time. I mean, why wait until everything went south before doing the one thing that could've changed everything from the start?
   We could all relate to his dilemma on some level. I mean, most of us really try to do what's right, don't we. And in doing so, we've all come up against those who try to take advantage of our kindness, or who see our kindness as a weakness to be exploited for their own benefit.
    Sometimes we look at the world around us and we think it's lost it's collective mind. As believers, we try to point out the wisdom of following Christ only to be mocked and rejected by a world gone mad. Why is that? 1 John 4:4-6 gives us the answer:

"You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.  They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit[a] of truth and the spirit of falsehood."
   So, what does Popeye have to do with 1 John 4:4-6? It's the very first line. "You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world." Right there is where we find our "Can of spinach."
   Forgive me for comparing our faith to a cartoon, but it's very true, isn't it? If we are believers, we have the Spirit of God Himself dwelling within us. Does that make us God, or does that make us perfect, or better than anyone else? By no means. We are still very much human, and very capable of absolute failure at any given moment. But His Spirit within us gives us insight and understanding that the world doesn't have.
   It also gives us one of the most powerful tools we could ever imagine - the ability to overcome anything we might ever face. How do we overcome this? By holding on to an eternal perspective which tells us that no matter what the world might throw at us, we will spend eternity with Christ enjoying the rewards given to us due to the faith that we held in Him during those moments of trials and tribulation, when the world punches us, kicks us, rips us off, or even goes after out "Olive Oyl" just to get to us.
   That's the good news, but here's something even better: We don't have to wait until the crap hits the fan to "eat our spinach." We can do so any time, any day, at any given moment by just taking the time to spend time in prayer and study, asking God to speak to us and show us what we need for that day, time, or moment.
   As Steve said on Sunday, (Or how I'll paraphrase it) "The amount of spiritual strength we feel in our daily lives is directly related to how much time we spend in study and prayer." Take time to get into heartfelt prayer, and into your bible every day. Even if it's just for 15 minutes before you start your day, it can make as much difference in your life as an endless supply of Popeye's spinach. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Aint no mountain high enough

   A few years ago, I took a trip to Colorado. I must say, it's one of my favorite states to visit. Being born and raised in Illinois - the most boring state in the country when it comes to natural scenery, with the exception of Iowa......or Indiana......or Nebraska - I've always been amazed at the natural beauty of that state. Every twist and turn of the many mountain roads seems to open up a new view, each one being more beautiful than the last.
   I remember many times when I literally pulled over, stopped my car, and got out to take a long look at the landscape, finding myself completely in awe of what my eyes were taking in. It was at those times when I truly understood the words: "Of purple mountain's majesty" in "America the Beautiful."
   As I was sitting in my living room with a cup of coffee the other day, I began to think about how any snapshot we might see of that beautiful scenery could be compared to our lives in a few different ways. We all have our mountains and valleys, don't we? We've all experienced those times when we felt like we were on top of the world, and we've all experienced times when we felt as though we were in some deep, dark valley with no hope of getting back to the mountaintop. We've seen those times through the experiences we've faced. Maybe we've accomplished something incredible, or failed miserably, leading us to those mountaintops or valleys.
    On a more personal note, we all have our own mountians and valleys in our hearts and minds. Because of where we've been and what we've experienced, we might tend to believe that it would be impossible for us climb a mountain placed before us. We look up at the size of the mountain and think there's no way, it's just too much. Or we might feel as though we've spent so much time in the valley, we should just remain there. After all, it's comfortable there, and if that's where we are, nobody will ask us to put forth the kind of effort it would take to pick ourselves up and climb that mountain.
   Within our relationship with God, we can once again see these mountains and valleys. Maybe we can't see them, but He does. Maybe we have mountains we've placed in our hearts and minds that keep Him from working in our lives the way we should be allowing Him to. Or maybe we have placed valleys there when we believe that we're not worthy, that we could never be used by Him. We're just not good enough, or He just doesn't care enough about us.
   What brought this to my mind was reading Isaiah 40:3

"A voice is calling, "Clear a way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God."

   I have read this verse, as well as a few others which said similar things, and I've always wondered what they meant. I've been inspired to try to do this without fully understanding how. The funny thing is that when I've thought about those verses and tried to make it happen, I've always done so with the perspective of looking outside of myself. I've done so by looking at the world around me and asking where I might be asked to straighten something out, or make something smooth or right. What never occured to me was that I needed to take this approach on the inside.
   You see, I have mountains and valleys in my own heart and mind that prevent me from fully trusting God as He works in my life.
   Steve spoke yesterday about "Total surrender." Giving God all of our issues, cares, concerns, hopes, and dreams, and then trusting Him with where He's leading us through the various trials in our lives. Sure, God could just step in and wipe all of those mountains and valleys away with one swipe of His hand. But if He did, what would we learn about ourselves in the process? What would we learn about Him?
   If we truly "Clear a way in the wilderness of our lives for the Lord," He might place us in the valley for awhile as we wait upon Him, but when we once again find ourselves on the mountaintop, it will be because He placed us there. I, for one, can't think of a more beautiful place to be.


Monday, January 9, 2012

Be careful what you ask for

   I read a story this morning about two women from the same family who found out on the same day that they were both pregnant with their first children. One of them was a young woman, I'm guessing 20-ish, while the other was much older, I believe in her 60's.
   The older woman and her husband had wanted a child for many years. They had tried and tried with no luck. They had even prayed about it more times than they could remember, asking God to bless them with a child of their own. They had seen many other family members grow up, get married, and raise families while they seemed to be cursed in this area. It broke both of their hearts for a very long time, and they couldn't understand why they weren't allowed to experience the same joy they had seen countless others experience.
   The younger woman was taken by surprise for a very different reason. She was engaged at the time, but wasn't yet married. She and her fiance' hadn't had any time at all to plan for a child, nor were they prepared for the news when it came.
   The younger woman went to visit her older relative once she had heard the news, and the families stayed together for a few months. As they talked more and more about their pregnancies and the children who would be given to them, their excitement grew exponentially. They both agreed that they had been truly blessed by God.
   The delivery date came, and both women gave birth to healthy baby boys. Those babies grew up to be outstanding men, both of whom reached adulthood basing their entire lives upon their faith. They never looked to do anyone harm. In fact, they were faithful, honest, trustworthy men who shared an intense drive to always do what was right, to speak the truth, and to always help others when they were truly needed.
   The story takes a bit of an alarming turn, because when they were in their early 30's, both men were brutally murdered, just a couple years apart, by people who had falsely accused them of wrongdoing.
   The younger mother was actually forced to watch the murder of her son, but was unable to stop it from happening.
   As the younger woman was asked later for her view on where the events of where her life had taken her, she said that she had been truly blessed. While I'm quite certain that her human side longed for simpler days when she could hold her son in her arms, she had absolute faith in God's plan for her life in this world, as well as in the world to come. The older woman also agreed about the events of her own life.

   Who were these two women, and where does that kind of faith come from?

   The younger woman was Mary, the mother of Jesus. The older was Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, who was beheaded for offending Herod's wife by speaking the truth. The story begins in Luke Chapter 1.
   So where does this kind of faith come from, that a mother could witness the brutal murder of her son, and while her heart broke in ways we could never imagine, she was still able to cling to her faith that God was in control? Did she love her son any less than other mothers have? Was she somehow damaged inside, disconnected, mean, or uncaring? No. So where does that kind of faith come from?
   It comes from 2 words.......Eternal perspective. It comes from the knowledge and wisdom in understanding that all that we have belongs to God. We are blessed with these things, whatever they are, while we are here on earth. But everything we see was given to us by God, will be used by God to fulfill His purposes, and can be taken away by God at any given moment. It doesn't matter what it is. Our health, our homes, our cars, our clothing, our food, our families, our money, our gifts, talents and abilities, it all belongs to God.
   We sometimes look around at what we've been blessed with, and we feel as though we've earned it, it's ours, and nobody can take it away. While it's fine to be proud of our accomplishments, that's a very earthly perspective. It's a perspective that will cause us to become angry or bitter with God if He indeed takes those things away. It's a perspective that will eventually cause us to make little idols of those things, spending all of our days in an effort to keep, protect, or maintain them. And if we were to lose them, we would feel as though we had lost everything.
   But what if we gave them to God now, while we still have them? What if we asked Him to show us how He would ask us to use them for His glory? What if we readily admitted that all of it belongs to Him, so while we have these things we will be incredibly thankful for all of them, knowing that He could take all of them away tomorrow?
   I'll tell you where that would lead. It would lead to a life of incredible peace and contentment, no matter what our circumstances may be. I'm not talking about a fatalistic view of life, where we shouldn't get too excited about anything because in the end, we're probably going to lose it anyway. I'm talking about the freedom to enjoy those things with all of our hearts because we see all of them as beautiful gifts from God Himself.
   There are literally thousands of self-help books on the bookstore shelves these days that try to direct us to a happy, peaceful, joyous life in the midst of the mayhem and chaos. How ironic that the answer has been right in front of us throughout all time.    

Monday, January 2, 2012

Am Mayan the right page??

   Alright, here we are, in 2012. I know that all of you have heard about the Mayan calendar, and how it apparently comes to an end this year. This has led to a great deal of debate over the fate of mankind. Some of you believe it to be true. Others of you think it's hogwash. But my guess is that most of you, just like me, really don't know if it means anything or not.
   I truly have no interest in the Mayans, their beliefs, their history, or why their calendar is even in the news. Personally, my only thought on this is I believe that whether it's true or not, it's a very good thing for us to be confronted with the thought that it's possible. Why? Because all of us have heard catchy phrases throughout our lives such as "Live every day as if it's your last." We can all agree wholeheartedly that if we could live by those words, our lives would be very different in the days, weeks, months, or years ahead.
   When we ponder the idea that this could very well be the last year of our lives, it truly changes our perspective on what's important, and what is meaningless. If we truly believed that it was true, we'd be forced to take our thoughts captive, to focus on the things wich are truly valuable and meaningful, and dismiss the things that distract us. More than that, even if we didn't believe it entirely, we would still be open to the possibility that it could happen, and therefore make even small, simple changes in our behavior and thinking patterns that have held us back in the past. We'd want to be as productive as possible, and do the good work we've always known we should be doing, but have continually put off until tomorrow.
   It would give us the exact mindset that Paul talks about in Philippians 3:12-15:

  "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, 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"

   Those of you who know me well know that for the past year or so, I have encouraged everyone who might listen to learn what your specific gifts and talents are, and to put them to use in doing the work God has placed before all of us. Just as Paul said here, I do not believe for one second that I have reached my full potential, or that I have accomplished what it is I've been placed on this earth to accomplish. But I press on, many times through a wall of doubt in my own abilities, many times through sadness, or loneliness, or myriad other difficulties that each and everyone of us face every day of our lives.
   What keeps me going in this? The faith that God is God, and I am not. No matter what my life looks like, no matter how confused I may be at times, no matter how much I wish things had been different in my life, or that things might change to how I'd like my life to look and feel at this time, God is still absolutely in control.
   If this debate over the Mayan calendar causes all of us, in some small way, to refocus our minds, our heats, and our lives, then I believe it's one of the best stories to ever come out of the media. Because of my faith that God is absolutely in control, I refuse to face this coming year with any sense of fear or hesitation. After all, if this is our last year, I have no doubt that God will make it one with incredible eternal consequences. And speaking for myself, if it's this year, next year, or 30 years from now, I want to hear Him say "Well done, my good and faithful servant."