Friday, December 30, 2016

What about angels? .......... Parables 530

October 22, 1996

Angels are everywhere. They are fashioned into stick pins, earrings, tie tacks, cross stitch designs and wall plaques. They are the topic of books and poems. Three “angels” even star in a television series. Of course all are “good” angels, who do kind deeds and have beautiful faces.

Far from being figments of human imagination, angels are described in the Bible as created beings who do the will of God and act as His messengers. There are referred to more than 300 times in both the Old and New Testament. Most bring messages to God’s people, some are warnings and others, like those who appeared to the shepherds near Bethlehem, bring good news.

There is a negative category of angels too. Jesus’ disciples excitedly reported, “even the demons submit to us in Your name.” To this, Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven . . . Do not rejoice over this but rather that your names are written down in heaven.” Jesus downplayed their focus on demons but did not deny that they exist.

Fallen angels are not like those people who go astray and we call “fallen angels.” People have hope—Christ promises to save and give new life to any who come to him—but the angels who fell from heaven are not similarly blessed.

Jude 6 says, “And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these He has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day.” These angels are doomed. God “hurled” them out of heaven without offering them a second chance.

The prince of these fallen angels has many names. Revelation 12 calls him, “the great dragon,” “that ancient serpent,” “the devil,” “Satan,” and the “accuser” of God’s people. In another passage of Scripture, Jesus calls him “the liar” and “the father of lies.”

While some say there is no devil, Jesus describes him as an actual personality, a created being who resists God. Others think he is behind every corner and all evil. The Bible keeps a balance. Satan does exist, but we are capable of doing wrong all by ourselves. Furthermore, Satan is not a counterpart to God; he is not all powerful nor does he know all things. He cannot be everywhere. He can disguise himself as “an angel of light” but since God “hurled him out of heaven,” his domain is darkness and lies.

The prophet Isaiah described his rebellion this way: “How you have fallen from heaven, O morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’”

With those expressions of pride, Satan lifted himself above God but his ambition backfired. As Isaiah says, God “brought (him) down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.”

Before he is finally judged, the devil “roams the earth, like a roaring lion.” His main activity is putting untrue ideas in our heads in such a way that we think they are true, even that they are our own thoughts. He is subtle and powerful but we are not helpless. Through studying Scripture, we can learn to detect his schemes. Through “the blood of the Lamb, the word of our testimony and by not loving our lives” we can overcome him.

Christ death and shed blood guarantee forgiveness and eternal life to those who believe in Him. Christians can give testimony to His saving power and we know Satan cannot ruin what God has done for us. Our fear of death is broken. Unlike fallen angels who have been cast into outer darkness, we know when we are “absent from the body, we will be present with the Lord.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

God is organized .......... Parables 529

October 15, 1996 ?

Our visitor mentioned a particular religious group that sends out their door-to-door representatives. He said that the Christian church could take a lesson from their organizational strategies. I responded, “Maybe the Lord organizes the church more effectively than we think,” and told him this story.

More than twenty-five years ago, my sister and family were living in Algeria. During that time, they met a Christian missionary who introduced them to Jesus Christ. My sister says she was excited about her new faith and about returning to Canada. However, she was also a bit apprehensive about finding other Christians. As far as she knew, the only believer in Alberta was a woman who had taught Daily Vacation Bible School (DVBS) when we were children.

After they moved into their home south of Calgary, they selected a church and ventured out that first Sunday. My sister relates sitting down, still nervous about not knowing any Christians, when a woman came and sat beside her. It was our childhood DVBS teacher!

While many people would remark on an amazing “coincidence,” I am convinced that God not only knows our needs and fears, He also knows how to meet those needs and calm those fears. Since He is sovereign, He can use all of His creation and organize it according to His plans. Despite our resistance and rebellion, He can make sure anyone and anything is in the right place at the right time.

As for organization, humanly speaking we like to have visible control. Not only that, we like to impress others with our organizational skills. Yet “God’s ways are not our ways.” He is not as concerned whether we can see what He is doing as much as He wants us to trust Him. If He is God and we believe what He says about Himself, then we do not need to know His organizational strategy. All we need to know is that “He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think.”

This is where faith comes in. Our faith is not in a highly visible map of our future or in knowing life will work out the way we want. Instead, our faith is in God, whether we can see what He is doing or not. As a new believer going to church for the first time in her own country, my sister had no idea that the first Christian she would see would be an old friend. Besides, knowing it would ruin the surprise. Imagine the delight in her Heavenly Father’s heart as He arranged to have that teacher walk into that church, on that day, and sit right beside His new child!

As for making an impression on people with His great organizational ability, God is not into that either. Nonetheless, He is making an impression. Ephesians 3:10 says, “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms . . . “

God uses what appears to be a disorganized body of believers to impress those who rule in the unseen realm—angels and demons. While they are not capable of knowing all that God knows, they are far more aware than we are of what He is doing through His church.

Scripture confirms that these principalities and powers gaze at the church in overwhelmed awe. They know that God is “not the author of confusion” but an orderly, organized God. This one personal story illustrates only a small fraction of His ability to structure events as He pleases.

Most of the time, the visible organization we can see in the church varies from “not bad” to “awful.” However, we know that one day we will see it more clearly. For now, we can trust our Lord and delight in His “coincidences.”

Monday, December 26, 2016

Finishing Well .......... Parables 528

October 8, 1996 ?

A few years ago during the Mexico City Olympics, a marathon runner finished the race so far back that people wondered why he bothered. He gave this reason: “I do not represent my country to start the race but to finish it.”

In any endeavor, finishing well is an accomplishment. No matter what we set ourselves to do, obstacles appear in our path. Sometimes they throw our focus away from our goal. Sometimes they trip us and slow us. Sometimes they put us right out of the race.

Boredom does that to me. I take on a challenge that seems important in the beginning but slow down or quit because my interest level drops. The only way I overcome that obstacle is through making sure of my initial commitment. It also helps to remember that interest levels are like emotions; they come and go. True commitment remains and continues to motivate.

Sometimes I slow down or get sidetracked by other concerns. For instance, if I am in school and a there is a crisis in the family, I will skip classes for the family’s sake. They rate higher on my priority list. Priorities are based on values and include those things we want to maintain or keep in our lives. Our values shape our daily decisions—from what to eat for supper to where we put our check mark in an election. Conflicting values cause problems. They can prevent us from finishing what we start by continually sidetracking us.

Fatigue is another obstacle that delays or prevent finishing. A difficult task drains energy and strains emotions. Stress increases. Stopping for a rest is one way to overcome this obstacle. Another is to learn how to work smarter, not harder.

Losing sight of the outcome can also trip us up, like a knitter who loses the pattern and cannot remember what how the sweater should look. Visualizing results is important so we know where we are going. Otherwise, projects are left unfinished.

According to the Apostle Paul, our race through life is not a simple dash. It is like an Olympic marathon. Our “finish line” is to become perfect reflections of Christ. Since we are not yet what we will be, we strive toward that goal. Running well and finishing well require endurance, but we also have a set of obstacles to overcome if we want to reach our prize.

Mixed priorities can entangle us. As Jesus said, some distractions are like weeds. They choke out our response to the Gospel and prevent God’s Word from producing fruit or results. He defined these weeds as “the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches.” Worry takes our eyes off the loving sovereignty of God and riches easily become an idol and our goal. Either obstacle can choke our faith and slow our progress.

Fatigue, of a spiritual nature, also affects Christians. In our battle against the devil’s lies, the world’s temptations, the lure of our own sinfulness, we sometimes trip, fall and grow tired of trying to win. However, the Bible says, “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Another verse says, “Stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.”

We need to continue with our eyes on God’s promised results and rewards. He assures us that the good we do will have an eternal effect. He guarantees that those who trust Christ will reach heaven. When we do, we will be like Him. What a great reward!

As for boredom, some assume the Christian race is dull, but boredom is seldom an obstacle for anyone who is in the running. When we give our lives to Christ, we become His representatives; we make a commitment to start the race and He makes sure we will finish it.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Death and Despair or Hope? .......... Parables 527

September 10, 1996

Dr. Jack O’Brian Poe, Chaplain of the Oklahoma City Police Department, spoke in Edmonton this past weekend. He told several stories describing rescue operations after the April 19, 1995 bombing in their city. Even over a year later, words from someone who had been there made this tragedy more vivid than did television pictures filmed live as those events happened.

One of Poe’s stories illustrated the difficulty rescuers had with the gigantic task before them. They arrived to save lives but were soon forced to make a mental and emotional shift — there were no living people to rescue. Searching for life and finding none produced despair beyond imagination.

Poe said he, his wife, and others spent hours with workers who came one after another into the Chaplaincy headquarters. They were emotionally traumatized, physically exhausted and unable to go on. They asked for prayer so they could return to the task. Poe stressed that prayer held these devastated people together and kept them doing what had to be done.

Despair even engulfed their search dogs. These animals are trained to bark when they find a living person and whimper if the person is dead. Poe said the dogs whimpered so often that they became depressed and refused to enter the building. To encourage them to get on with their gruesome task, rescue teams had to place some living people in the rubble.

Perhaps in a less literal way, looking for life is a universal endeavor. When we walk into a garden in the spring, we search for new shoots and evidence of growth rather than examine decayed plants or leaves. Because we value life, nurseries are far more appealing than morgues.

The Bible says even the whole of creation yearns for life. He says creation is frustrated by its “bondage to decay.” That is, everything that is now alive is subject to death and decay but even creation, like people, longs to see genuine, lasting life. He puts it like this: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.”

In this context, Paul equates the children of God with genuine, lasting life. He has already explained that after God’s people die, the eternal life they have through Christ is glorious. It lasts. It is so real and so wonderful that even the best we could face while here on earth is nothing in comparison.

It is true that God’s people are also subject to death and decay, but because of life from Christ, they will completely overcome death. The eternal life He gives is true and real. It is a life that cannot die. It is the life that every person, even every living creature longs to have.

Paul celebrates this life. Those who have it, he calls “the sons of God.” Those who do not have it and all else in creation yearns for it, even longs for merely the appearance of those who have life. Creation longs for God’s life-bearing children to come forward, to be seen, to give hope and to share their wonderful life.

Unfortunately, some of creation searches in vain — like the rescue dogs. Our planet, like the Oklahoma Federal Building, seems to be filled with bodies that have no life and those who look for it are filled with despair. They move through the rubble of their existence without any evidence of genuine, lasting life. Their vain search drags them into hopeless depression.

Few physically survived that terrible bombing, but Christ offers hope to all for eternal survival. As people search for true life, Christians need to demonstrate it. We also need to pray with the searchers and for the searchers, so they do not give up. When they do find Christ, who is our Life, their destiny will then depend on their prayers and on their willingness to reach out and grab hold of the Rescuer who will gladly pull them from the bondage of decay.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Unity is possible .......... Parables 526

September 17, 1996

After someone dubbed it “The Unity Train,” Quebec Premier Lucian Bouchard refused to ride it from Edmonton to Jasper with the other leaders. Apparently he did not want to give the wrong impression to his constituents in Quebec.

Political unity is a scarce commodity. It is also rare in other realms. Social workers do not agree on priorities. Business people do not agree on procedures. Married couples do not agree on many things and children argue over which channel to watch. Agreement brings pleasant emotions though some argue if two people agree on everything, one of them is not necessary!

Unity sounds great but is not easily defined. Besides, agreeing on every detail is impossible. Unity depends more on a single purpose or a commitment to agree on one goal. For instance, politicians all want economic prosperity. So do businesspeople. Couples all want happiness for their family. All children want to have fun. However, people who agree on basic goals often disagree on the best way to reach them.

Although God commands unity among His people, it is no secret that Christians have conflicting views. Some argue over petty issues such as the colors used to decorate a sanctuary. Others argue over issues that may seem more important. Yet God puts a greater priority on oneness. Psalm 133 says, “It is good and pleasant when God’s people dwell together in unity.”

The psalmist likens harmony to mountain dew that waters desert cities and to anointing oil used in the Old Testament for consecrating priests. Together, these word pictures suggest that unity is not only refreshing but connected to a commitment.

For instance, those who make a deep commitment to Christ initially find oneness among themselves. This single-mindedness comes from God. 2 Chronicles 30:12 says, “In Judah, the hand of God was on the people to give them unity of mind to carry out what the king and his officials had ordered, following the word of the LORD.”

However, while God gives a spirit of unity, His people are responsibility to maintain it. Otherwise, people of faith become more focused on their differences than their common purpose. God says, “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

When unity is so desirable, why do people fight? Psychologists and analysts give varying reasons, but the Bible says, “Don’t (fights and quarrels) come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it... you quarrel and fight... when you ask (God) you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Selfishness is at the heart of disunity.

Romans 15 says God gives a spirit of unity to those who follow Him but those who follow their own desires have stopped following Him and put themselves outside His promises. Psalm 133 ends by saying “the LORD bestows his blessing, even life forevermore” where there is unity. Conversely, unity is a mark of His blessing on people who have everlasting life. If unity and eternal life are partners and the first is a characteristic of the second, then Christians who fight are making mockery of their own profession of faith. This is why unity is so important. It makes the Gospel more believable, more appealing to others.

Jesus prayed, “May they (His followers) be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved Me.” Without unity, we deny Christ came. When we fight, we are telling the world that God does not really love us.

If Christians want to make Christ known, we must be united. How can we expect our political leaders to have unity if we who claim to know the Source bicker with each other?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Happiness is . . . .......... Parables 525

September 24, 1996
Riddle: What do you have when you aim for and achieve other goals, but if it becomes your only goal, you lose it? The answer: happiness!

Happiness is sometimes described as feeling delighted on the inside over circumstances on the outside. It is pleasure, euphoria, a twinkle in the eye, a smile on the lips. When we are happy, we can endure almost anything — but take happiness away and who can endure us!

No one wants to be unhappy. In fact, we do everything we can to conquer sadness. One source says former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt has this epitaph on her tomb: BEHIND TRANQUILITY LIES CONQUERED UNHAPPINESS.

Apparently Mrs. Roosevelt conquered sadness in her life and became noted for her tranquility. Tranquil people are usually not off in a fog but very realistic. They usually have accepted problems, not determined to get rid of them. The Bible affirms this realistic approach and says only fools and evil people think “nothing will shake me; I’ll always be happy and never have trouble.” Good times and happiness are part of life and fighting that reality only brings perpetual misery. However, the Bible has other things to say about happiness. For instance:

HAPPINESS IS A GIFT. Ecclesiastes 5:19 says, “When God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work — this is a gift of God.”

It is not the wealth and possessions that are the gift but the ability to enjoy them. Some wealthy people cannot enjoy anything. They just want more. Some working people cannot enjoy their labor. They want a different boss or different working conditions, or a bigger paycheck. For them, happiness must come on their own terms. How different are those whom God has gifted with joy in what they have. Their joy is their greatest possession.

BECAUSE HAPPINESS IS FROM HIM, WE SHOULD PRAISE HIM FOR IT. James 5:13 says: “Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.” Christians show their happiness in this unique way. God is the source of our joy and we are compelled to declare His goodness, even sing about it.

SORROW HAS VALUE. While happiness is a believer’s normal state, Scripture reminds us that it is not sinful to be sad. On the contrary, Ecclesiastes 7:3 suggests a radical attitude: “Sorrow is better than laughter, for by it the heart is made better.”

Sorrow is an opportunity to probe the inner self, to examine motives and perhaps discover the roots of our sadness. If God exposes some ungodly attitudes, resentment or other negatives, we confess these as sin and He forgives and cleanses us. Thus sorrow results in a renewed way of thinking. Because God can use it this way, sorrow is greater than joyful ignorance.

Jesus encountered a man who missed the value of sorrow. He was the wealthy young ruler who approached Jesus asking about eternal life. Jesus recognized him as a self-righteous person with wealth at the top of his priority list so told him, “You lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor... then come, follow Me.” When the young man heard this, “he became very sad because he was a man of great wealth.”

At this, the man walked away with unconquered unhappiness. He thought his own good deeds would make him right with God. He insisted his gold and silver remain his own. He did not want to hear God say he could “not be saved by the deeds we do.” He did not want to hear that he “could not worship both God and money.”

Like happiness, eternal life is a gift from God. Neither can be bought, earned or deserved, but both can be received, as long as we hold out empty, open hands.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Five things all people have in common. . . .......... Parables 524

August 20, 1996

Television, books, the Internet, multi-cultural events, travel, immigration, and even radio have made us more aware of the differences in world cultures. Languages and dialects number in the thousands. So do food preferences, modes of transportation and ways to make a living. World views vary as much as genetic makeup and cultural background. We are neighbors, yet so dissimilar. Is there anything that we all have in common?

Billy Graham says all people share five distinctive problems, no matter their culture or where they live. He says everyone struggles with emptiness, loneliness, guilt, a need to believe in something meaningful and fear of death.

Dr. Graham addresses those needs and fears with the timeless message of the Gospel. God’s good news transcends cultures, languages, lifestyles and world views because it is a message from Him to all people of all time.

EMPTINESS is a sense of feeling incomplete, even insignificant and valueless. The things of this world lure us but none of them satisfy us for very long. The Gospel fills that void. In believing, we receive Jesus — who is more than enough to satisfy all our longings. The message itself tells us the value we have in the sight of God; to Him, we are worth the price of His Son. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.”

LONELINESS is the deep desire for intimacy that even our closest relationships fail to satisfy. As Graham says, we have a God-shaped void in our heart. People may seem to fill it for a while but in the long term, only God fits perfectly. To those who believe, Christ becomes a constant companion, One who knows us intimately and allows us to know Him the same way. Further, He promises, “I will never leave you, nor forsake you...”

GUILT is every person’s condition under the high standards of God. While guilt can sometimes be a sense of failing to measure up to our own expectations, that universal guilt that everyone feels at some point in their lives is being guilty before God. When we feel it, no amount of good we can do will counterbalance the deep conviction of doing wrong, even of being wrong. The Gospel is the only lasting remedy for this guilt. Because Jesus died for sinners, God can forgive us — totally. Jesus bore our guilt “that we might become the righteousness of God.”

MEANINGFUL BELIEF. People also want to believe in something meaningful. What could be more significant than faith in God and His Good News? He promises an eternal future and a present “abundant life” to those who do believe and follow His Son.

FEAR OF DEATH is probably the greatest common bond. It is evidenced in the money spent to find cures for diseases, even cosmetics to cover aging, death’s precursor. Some cultures seem to treat “life as cheap” but that is true only in those who take it from someone else. Each person enjoying life wants to remain that way. However, death is one certainty no one can avoid, at least it used to be. Two thousand years ago, Christ died too, but He conquered that great enemy. The Bible says “by His death, He destroyed him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and sets free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”

For those who believe in Jesus, fear is replaced with deep assurance. Though we must go through that dark valley of physically dying, because Jesus walks with us, we know that is not the end but merely a transition to endless life.

Because of these five elements we have in common, Christ is for everyone and the Good News applies to all — all who believe in and follow Him.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

No justice? .......... Parables 523

August 13, 1996

“Outrage,” a recent best-selling book written by a prosecuting attorney, explains five reasons why O. J. Simpson should not have been acquitted. The author describes incompetency by the prosecution. He claims if the evidence against the defendant had been properly presented and handled, the jury would have brought back a guilty verdict.

During a radio interview, this author also said not one reader had offered any disagreement or protest to his statements. The biggest question has been, if O. J. is guilty, how can he walk around smiling? The author says, “I only deal with facts, but if I must speculate, it would have to be that the man is self-possessed and has somehow justified what he has done by thinking Nicole and her friend got what they deserved.”

Some still defend the former football star but in either case, all have to admit a great deal of unfairness and injustice prevails in our world. Where are the competent legal counselors? Where are the judges who can fairly deal with guilty people? The law is such that many criminals are given greater rights than victims. Do not our hearts cry out for justice?

So does the heart of God. Throughout the Old Testament, He exhorted His people to treat the poor fairly, care for widows and orphans, be kind to outsiders and swiftly deal with anyone who violated His laws.

In some eras and under some kings, justice was upheld, but for the most part, human failure stains Biblical history. The innocent suffered and no one but the prophets held oppressors accountable. Even leaders became wealthy by taking advantage of weaker people. Their prosperity was a puzzle to the poor. Why did God allow wicked people such freedom?

David of Israel also had good reason to wonder why. He had been anointed king yet the former king, Saul, would not give up the throne. Instead, Saul continually tried to kill David.

However, David did not fight back. He trusted God, expressing his trust in Psalm 37: “Do not fret because of evil men or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the LORD and do good.... Delight yourself in the LORD and He will give you the desires of your heart.... Commit your way to the LORD; trust in Him and He will... make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.

“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for Him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret — it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land.

“A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace.”

Although David later became king, he already knew justice was a responsibility of leadership and that God eventually would hold unjust people accountable for their actions. In his own situation, Saul was not doing his job, yet David knew God could be trusted. As for himself, he needed to do right, not become anxious or angry.

Today, the title of that book, “Outrage,” expresses how many people respond when justice is ignored or miscarried. The author of Psalm 37 expresses how God’s people should respond. We can do it because God Himself responds the same way. Verse thirteen says He “laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming.” Our rage may pressure our leaders to be more just, but should evil continue to prevail, God’s justice will someday pronounce the true verdict.

Monday, December 12, 2016

No Couch Potatoes .......... Parables 522

August 6, 1996

Dave Barry called it the “Tiny Women Athletes About the Size Of A Toothbrush Flagrantly Defying Gravity Event.” This is women’s gymnastics. Last week, a team of seven from the United States won a gold medal because one of their team did something either very brave or very stupid.

The American team score was close to that of the Russian team, so close that if the final U.S. athlete did not do well on the vault, they would lose. She had two tries. Her score would be based on the best of the two. Up to that point, two of her teammates fell at the end of their vaults. The American win depended on this one little gymnast.

Her first attempt shocked the announcers. She also landed wrong but injured her foot in the process. After a brief discussion with her coach, she went on and made a near-perfect vault. Then she shifted her weight to one leg and collapsed in pain.

The next day, a caller on a talk show said the whole thing was foolish. This young woman put the future health of her body in jeopardy. Her coach should not have told her to go ahead.

Others did not see it that way. This gymnast did not know the scores were so close. For her, it was her turn and the team depended on her to do her best so she did. Her coach carried her to the platform to stand one-legged alongside her teammates and receive her gold medal. She is hailed as a courageous hero, a true representative of the Olympian spirit.

The original Olympic competitions began as early as 700 B.C. and officially ended in AD 394, so were part of the early Christian’s world. Paul used them to illustrate how Christians should live by saying: “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.”

He added, “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 or 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...”

Just like the Olympics, the Christian life is not for couch potatoes nor the undisciplined. Following Jesus Christ requires both self-control and training. Our focus is to obey everything He tells us to do and say no to everything else.

Our race also requires we have a clear goal, move steadfastly toward it and know our opponent. It is not God’s intention that we compete against each other but that each of us concentrates on being like Jesus. Against us are three very powerful forces: the world (all that is against Christ), the flesh (our own sinful tendencies) and the devil (who wants us to fail).

Olympians compete with others, but most of them focus on achieving their personal best. Each is determined to remain calm, whether they lose or win, fail or succeed. They listen to their coaches and persevere toward the finish line. Christians also must determine to reach the goal, listening to our Coach and persevering until we reach our reward.

That final American vault demonstrated the ability to keep going under great pressure. The gymnast’s ankle may never be the same but her strength of character ought to be envied by all, especially Christians. She supported her team, did her part without whining or even hesitating, and earned the prize.

Although we do not earn our salvation like an Olympian earns a medal, we do strive for eternal rewards. Therefore, we must put aside whatever trips us up and run our race with courage and perseverance.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Jesus has been there, done that .......... Parables 521

July 30, 1996

Recently someone asked me to teach them how to use a computer spreadsheet program. I declined on the grounds I’d never used it myself therefore was not qualified to teach anyone else. That would be like engaging a wilderness guide who had never left the suburbs or hiring a chauffeur who had never driven a car.

Credentials are very important when enlisting the help of someone else. If the guide or instructor has no qualifying experience whatsoever, the best they can do is cheer for you. Not that cheerleaders are useless, but they cannot replace experts who know their stuff.

In the area of leadership credentials, Christianity is unique. Those who follow Christ have a teacher and guide in the driver’s seat who has “been there and done that” as far as spiritual experience is concerned. Because of Him, our faith is unique.

This uniqueness is not in that we have only one leader. Almost all other religions are the same. Buddhists follow the teachings of Gautama Buddha, their philosopher and founder. Muslims follow Muhammad, an Arab prophet. The Bahia religion was founded by Mirza Husayn Ali Bahaullah. Taoism dates back to Lao-Tzu in the 6th century B.C. and at the same time, Zoroastrianism began under a Persian prophet named Zoroaster. Smaller cults and sects also have individual leaders, both those that mimic Christianity and others that are more like Eastern Mysticism.

Neither is our faith unique because of our commitment to our leader. In fact, we follow Jesus Christ for many of the same reasons others follow their religions. For instance, we believe His teaching is true, just as others believe in their leaders. We find peace in trusting Him, which others also claim regarding their leaders. The precepts of Jesus work for us, just as others claim the teachings of their leaders works for them.

However, there is one thing about Jesus Christ that sets Him apart — a unique claim made by Him and applauded by those who know Him. No person has ever made the same claim and been able to substantiate it. Not one religious leader or teacher has ever dared to say this about themselves. The claim is that Jesus Christ never, ever did anything wrong. Although He “was tempted in every way, just as we are — He was without sin.”

Sin is much more than murder, lying or envy. Those who sin are acting against God’s will because they have a God-resisting heart. Jesus did not have any such resistance. Instead, He claimed, “I came to do the will of my Father.” His life shows complete obedience to God’s law and complete trust in every area, no matter how difficult the trial.

Perhaps His greatest test occurred when His Father asked Him to go to the cross. Sending Him as a substitute to die for sinners was God’s will. His intention was to “make (Jesus) who had no sin, be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

As the Bible says, some will die for family or friends or good people, but God asked His Son to die for people who were opposed to Him, sinners who resisted Him. Furthermore, He was the only one who could bear our sin and pay its penalty because He had no sin of His own. If He sinned, He would need to be punished Himself.

The Bible says the wages of sin is death. Since Jesus was sinless, He did not deserve what He received on the Cross in our place. Therefore, once the penalty was paid on our behalf, the grave had no power to hold Him — He rose from the dead and lives forever.

That is the uniqueness of Christ and Christianity. We can conquer sin and death because our Leader has not only been there and done that, but also offers the same victory to us!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

True Self-worth .......... Parables 520

July 23, 1996

She is slim, fifteen, with a deep tan and the face and form of a model. She stands every day before her mirror hearing inner voices tell her she is unlovable, unacceptable and incapable. She believes what she hears and is utterly convinced she is ugly.

Unless people feel loved, valued and competent, good looks will not make them feel like “beautiful” people. A low opinion of one’s self goes far deeper than what is seen in a mirror. On the surface, being loved may be counted by how many friends a person has or how many lovers, but most who measure themselves that way still feel unloved, even if they have many friends.

Others measure personal value by the size of their bank account, house or car, or by educational credits or other forms of accomplishment. These standards, while perfectly acceptable as goals, have a fatal flaw toward giving a sense of personal value. They are based on comparison. The savings account has to be larger than . . . or the car newer than... or faster than some other one.

If achievement is the measurement, any athlete will tell you that any ultimate award, gold medal, or trophy loses its glitter. The soul is soon dissatisfied with whatever mark was set or whatever record broken. Either new heights must be reached or self-esteem suffers.

Some say a positive self-worth is simply a decision to like yourself. Perhaps that works for a time, but any personal decision must involve changing one’s values. Self-image must be based on something more substantial than personal opinion.

From God’s perspective, a healthy self-esteem includes balance. Christians know two things. One, we are created in the image of God and have potential to be like Christ. Two, that image has been marred by sin, but through Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, sin can be forgiven, cleansed and conquered. It is in being as God intended that we find our true self-image and enjoy a positive, healthy, yet balanced attitude about ourselves.

In regard to attaining self-esteem through godliness, it is important to understand what godliness is and what it is not. Godliness is not a holier-than-thou lifestyle. Rather, it is refusing to make one’s self the center of all things. Instead, the needs and concerns of others are the priority, just as they are a priority for God.

To be like that, a person needs to understand and experience the love of God. It is unearned, undeserved, and unconditional. Further, it lasts. He says, “I have loved you with an everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3).

When we know His love through faith in His Son, our self-esteem is bolstered. We are set free from trying to win the love of others and then become able to love them as God loves us.

Second, we need to understand our worth. Simply put, we are worth the price God was willing to pay for us — the live of His only begotten Son. This worth is established forever because it is based on an event fixed in history and apart from anything we do or have done.

Third, we need to understand our competence. Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Those who trust Christ can make the same claim. Our competence is not in ourselves but in the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. We need not compare His capabilities with others because there is no comparison. Our sense of adequacy in Him dissolves our fears of failure and defeat.

The girl who hates her image in the mirror can learn to love it and herself by finding a true sense of worth in Christ. She needs to take to Him her fears of being unloved, unworthy and unable because only He can give us a deep sense of pleasure in who we are and who we can be.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Defiance .......... Parables 519

July 16, 1996

City officials might be tempted to add sporting event surcharges just to cover damages caused by post game riots. The problem is that some say rioters are not even fans — they are merely looking for an excuse to damage property and get themselves a new television set or VCR.

With alarming frequency, cities in Europe and even North America are scenes of violence after soccer or other games. Police break up the mobs with riot sticks, horses and tear gas but not before windows are broken and property stolen or damaged. A common attitude among those arrested is general defiance toward authority.

Perhaps this is a negative spinoff from a currently-prized rugged individualism. People like the taste of independence, of “no one is going to tell me what to do.” But, some of them are taking their attitude too far. To them, “freedom” means no laws, no authorities, even no God.

We are shocked by their behavior but such unconstrained, fist-in-the-face defiance does not shock the Lord, who is the ultimate authority figure. Several hundred years ago, He inspired Isaiah to write about us: “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way....”

This verse is only one of many in the Bible that explains human nature apart from God. It says we are universally inclined to do our own thing and to resist authority that says otherwise. From the cradle, we begin making demands. For some, those demands increase into a selfishness that rules their lives until the second ultimate authority, death, finally demands and gets full submission.

Those who turn away from God also defy His commands regarding external controls. Some even say there is no God, nor any ultimate laws or principles by which to live. The Old Testament describes it as “each person does what is right in their own eyes.” When that happens in our day, news headlines testify there are drastic and tragic consequences.

Rioting is only one example. Resistance to authority, even without clenched fists, can hide behind a smile. Children sometimes do it by standing up when told to sit. All sorts of seemingly agreeable people refuse to buckle their seat belts, run red lights, or walk when the sign says wait. Are all declaring: “I will do what is right in my own eyes.”

God’s laws for us include obeying these civil laws and giving political leaders our respect. The Bible says we should even pray for our leaders. Imagine the difference respectful prayer would make in our own emotional state compared with the inner agitation that accompanies our grumbling!

The fact that we disobey law and complain instead of obeying and praying suggests that we do not trust or believe in the sovereignty of God. At least one ancient king, Nebuchadnezzar, had trouble with this. God allowed him several years of insanity until he acknowledged that, “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone He wishes.”

Ordinary people and kings resist God but so did the “religious” elite of Jesus’ day. They accused Him of being demon-controlled and would not obey Him. Jesus described their attitude in a parable: “We will not have this man rule over us.”

Today, people are discouraged from believing in Jesus and in a sovereign God who has the ultimate say-so over our government and our lives. If that is the way we want it, then we ought to be prepared for the consequences. Even if we ourselves do not succumb to senseless rioting, we may need to start wearing bulletproof vests and building bomb shelters to protect ourselves from others who have decided “there is no God” or “even if there is, He will not rule over us.”

Friday, December 2, 2016

Miracles? .......... Parables 518

July 9, 1996

I got out of bed the second morning of June’s three-day downpour and when my foot hit the carpet on our second-story bedroom floor, it made a splash!

Our condominium is on the highest ground in a complex called “The Summit.” Obviously, it is not a place anyone would anticipate a flood, but we had a flood. The property management people arrived, rolled back the carpet and pulled up the underlay. There was water standing about a quarter inch deep over nearly three square yards of sub-floor.

Of course our “flood” is nothing compared to those that wash people out of their homes or the messes of backed-up sewage that fill some basements. The point is, this was a first-hand example for me of an event that crossed the boundaries of ordinary circumstances. When that happens, some even call it a “miracle” but finding yourself floating when “ordinary circumstances” equate with “high and dry,” is not a miracle — it’s more a nuisance.

Today the floor and carpet are dry and the underlay replaced. The cause of this “miracle” turns out to be poor workmanship and improperly installed flashing on a section of a roof overhang. God’s out-of-the-ordinary (but not miraculous) heavy rain and driving wind managed to find the hole made by human error and produce an unnatural event, one that hardly could be blamed on God.

In fact, people are quite skilled at making unnatural events happen all by ourselves. For instance, remember the man who trained a squirrel how to water ski? The photograph was on the front page of a national magazine. There was another one (or maybe the same person) who taught a squirrel how to ride in a little boat. Both go beyond the normal laws of nature but neither qualify as miracles.

Granted, a miracle does cross the boundaries of ordinary events but there is a vast difference between second-story floods, skiing squirrels and true biblical miracles. For one thing, human beings cannot duplicate them.

For instance, Jesus walked on water. The last person to try that is still drying out. Moses parted the Red Sea to let the Israelites pass over to dry land and then called the waters together again and their enemies were drowned. All this happened within an hour or two. Today, we can stop rivers or divide oceans but we need months or years, tons of earth-moving equipment and a great collection of machines and workers.

The miracles in the Bible were unique in that they were by God’s design. He used them to point to His own glory and character. In the case of the Red Sea, God promised He would deliver His people from their bondage in Egypt and take them to a land He would give them. For God, a body of water was not an obstacle but an opportunity to show both the Israelites and the unbelieving Egyptians that He would not let anything prevent Him from keeping His promise.

Jesus walked on water to demonstrate to the disciples, and to us, that He controls the forces of nature — because He is their Creator. As Paul said in Colossians, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by Him and for Him.”

By a great miracle, Jesus proved our world is not a closed system with a fixed set of rules. As the God who created it, He stepped into it, allowing us to see that He is in control, even over the laws of nature that He put in place. If human ingenuity or even error can make unnatural events happen, God who is infinitely wiser and without error can perform miracles.