Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012 - #3

This book review was published in April of 2012 and has consistently been high on the hit list. It is especially relevant in light of the difficulties south of the border. This book is definitely worth the read.

Book Review: "The Harbinger"
theharbingerIf the author is right, this is a truly frightening book with profound implications. Jonathan Cahn, a Pastor and Messianic Jew, has written, in narrative form, a book that connects the recent crises in America (9/11; Wall Street) with Biblical prophecy.

I must admit that I tend to be somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to this type of thing. I have seen and heard more than my share of kooks and wing-nuts in my time. However, I do believe that Jonathan has seen something here that is real - the convergence of the details is far too precise to be accidental. Look up the details for yourself.

Here it is in a nutshell. "The Harbinger" is a prophetic book, written to reveal that the United States is under the judgment of God because it has turned away from its dependence upon Him, and has given itself to idolatry, carnality, selfishness and pride. It is a call to repentance for America, and it's pretty convincing.

The book is written as a novel, though with actual events, and keys around an ancient prophecy found in Isaiah 9:10 -
"The bricks have fallen,
But we will rebuild with hewn stone; 
The sycamores have been cut down, 
But we will plant cedars in their place." 
These verses refer to the response of the nation of Israel after an attack by the Assyrians. The attack was allowed by God as a warning for the nation to return to Him. Instead, their answer was that they would build again, stronger than before. They would not turn back to God but would, instead, defy their enemies in their own strength.
"The Harbinger" speaks of a number of remarkable similarities between the two, but also, a converging of the two events, applying ancient meaning to recent happenings. The word "harbinger" means warning or sign, and there are actually a number of signs that are given.
Using his understanding of Jewish culture and Biblical tradition Cahn makes a convincing case.
  • America's leaders actually quoted Isaiah 9:10 in speeches related to 9/11, not realizing that they were speaking judgment on their own nation. They did this on three separate occasions, including the day after 9/11 by the Senate majority leader. "By the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established." (Deuteronomy 19:15)
  • Some bricks that fell from the Twin Towers took down a sycamore tree on grounds adjacent to Ground Zero.
  • The roots of the tree became a memorial and a symbol of defiance.
  • A cedar tree was planted in its place.
  • A hewn stone was symbolically placed at the site of Ground Zero, accompanied by a ceremony.
  • Biblically, judgment tends to take place where the original covenant (agreement) took place.
  • When the United States began, New York City was its capital.
  • On April 30, 1789, George Washington became President and the first official government was established at Federal Hall (at Wall Street). On that day, Washington declared: "The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself hath ordained."
  • After his inauguration, Washington lead a procession of his government to a little stone church just blocks away to pray a blessing on the nation. The entire nation had received a pronouncement to attend church and pray for the country at the same time.
  • The church where they prayed was at the site of 9/11 - the only small building in close proximity that was left standing after the collapse of the towers. The sycamore tree was in the church yard. The church is now a museum of sorts.
  • At the time of the inauguration the church grounds extended through the site of the twin towers.
  • When the towers fell, the impact was felt for miles; the foundation of the old Federal Hall was cracked by the force. 
  • The Founding Fathers recognized that the United States would only be blessed and protected by God if the nation obeyed His commands.
  • God is a God of order and uses specific days to convey a message.
  • On a specific day (the 29th day of the Hebrew month Elul) every seven years the Jewish nation was commanded to release all debt, It was called "The Lord's release" or "Shemitah."
  • The greatest single stock market crash in Wall Street history, up to that time, took place on the 29th day of Elul - September 17, 2001.
  • Seven years later to the day, in the Jewish calendar (the 29th of Elul again), on September 29th, 2008 that record was beaten as the stock market plunged again. It fell 7 percent in one day. It dropped 777 points, precisely 7 years from the previous event by the Jewish calendar on the day of "Shemitah." 
"So then the two greatest Wall Street stock market crashes not only happened on the same day on the biblical calendar, and on the one day of the biblical year ordained to wipe away credit and debt, but each one fell seven years apart on the exact once in seven years occurrence of that one Hebrew day. It's beyond amazing..."     
Judgment is intended for warning. God's desire is always for people to turn back to Him, witness the case of Nineveh, the great city of the Assyrians, that repented after Jonah preached to them. This is God's desire for all of us.

In 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 God spoke to Solomon on the occasion of the dedication of the temple and told him what the nation was to do should they fall under judgement. It's something we would all do well to heed: "When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land."

By the way, the fact that the book refers to judgment in no way implies that Al Qaeda was right. They are morally culpable for their actions, just as the Assyrians were who attacked ancient Israel. They simply played a part in this drama.

There is obviously much that I left out, for the sake of space, but I encourage you to read the book for yourself and make your own decision. I include here a link to a site that converts our calendar to the Jewish calendar. At the very least, this novel provides an opportunity for sober reflection.

Related Articles:
Book Review: "Why Jesus?"
Some Books Worth Reading
The Manhattan Declaration
"Truth" - by Ravi Zacharias


Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012 - #4

This article seems to have some staying power. It was actually a reprint on one first published in August of 2011. What that tells me is that all of us have baggage that needs to be dealt with properly - sounds like a good New Years resolution.

"Take Out The Trash" - The Principle of Transformation

Part 2 of 6
This series is based on the last chapter of the book Good to Great in God’s Eyes by Chip Ingram. The first subject dealt with the principle of priority – “Put God First.” We looked at the reasons why God has to be at the center of any meaningful change in our lives.

Today I'm writing about taking out the trash, or the principle of transformation. How is it that we can be changed from the person that we’ve been into the person we want to be? Is change even possible? Many people would say that it’s not. You are who you are and you’re stuck with it.

What is it that makes us what we are, anyway? Is it genes? Is it our upbringing? Is it the experiences we’ve had; the trauma we’ve endured or the examples we’ve seen? The truth is that it’s all of these things and none of these things. All of these have a bearing on the kind of people we’ve become. But I can show you people who’ve been raised in the same home, been through the same things, had the same type of upbringing and yet are radically different. So, what is it?

I believe that much of who we are is based upon what we do with what we’ve experienced, and that is dictated by the way that we think. The principle of transformation comes straight out of Romans 12:2: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” There's a negative command in that verse that literally says to stop being conformed, or molded, to this world. Quit allowing the world system — its ideas, images, and values — to shape who you are. Get the trash out of your life.

This world and its systems have a powerful affect on the way that we think. If we’re not careful, we just gradually absorb messages over time and begin to accept them without thinking about whether or not they’re true. What are the lies that we believe? Many women believe that they have to look like Barbie; that they will never be good enough for someone to love them; or that they’re stupid, or fat and ugly; or that they are worthless or a lousy mother or wife. Many men believe that they will never amount to anything; that they’re a failure; that money or work equal love; that no matter what they do they’re not good enough.

That message might have come from the media or from a family member, from our friends or from a misguided teacher. It probably came from someone who didn’t intend to give you that message, but it’s there just the same. No matter what you do, that message that is recorded in your mind just keeps cropping up, keeping you from moving forward.

It’s not just those personal messages either, there are also truth claims that people accept, without thinking, that have a way of cluttering up our minds and confusing us. These are cultural assumptions that go unchallenged, and often leave us believing a lie. A famous Canadian example is the unimpeachable value of tolerance. Now I’m all for tolerance, by the original definition. What it used to mean was that you tolerated people who were different from you and allowed them to practice their beliefs in freedom. But what it’s grown to mean in today’s culture is quite different. Today any questioning of the truth claims of another person or religion makes you intolerant. A fall-out from that is that a great many people have lost the ability to think critically; to use reason. One of the lies I hear repeated often is that all religions are basically the same. That is not even close to being a true statement, but many accept it as fact.

So what are we to do with the messages in our minds that don’t belong; that are actually harmful? How do we change this? The first thing we need to do is to stop allowing the wrong sources to program our thinking. It’s the first rule of holes: when you’re in one – stop digging.

The second thing we need to do is to replace the lies with the truth. In 1 Corinthians 13:11 Paul says, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” In the Greek, it’s far more expressive. It basically says that he abolished and did away with the childish thinking.

In a modern analogy, it’s like going through all of the old files on your computer and getting rid of the unnecessary ones that you never use anymore. There are some files that just take up space and slow the system down. There are others that can actually be harmful, like viruses, and the longer you allow them to hang around, the more damage they cause you. They can sometimes make the whole system crash. GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out).

A lot of people can identify the thinking that has gotten them messed up, but don’t know how to change it. In the second part of Romans 12:2 Paul tells us how. Remember, the first part is a negative command, basically to stop allowing the world to force you into its mold.

That's followed by a positive command to allow God's Word to renew and transform you — to cause a metamorphosis, the same word used for the transfiguration of Jesus. Grammatically, this command is in the passive voice; God does it, but we allow it. We let our minds be transformed from the inside out so we can be people who prove and experience the will of God. Our lifestyle begins to demonstrate God's will — that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

Chip Ingram shares a story that illustrates the reality in far too many lives: "In my first pastorate in Kaufman, Texas, an older man who looked like he'd been through a lot came to church. His shirt was dirty, he looked and smelled like he hadn't taken a bath in six months, and he was hungry. We gave him some food, and the next week he brought his wife, who was in just as bad a condition as he was. After the service, they said they needed some money for electricity and other necessities."

"The church had a fund to help people, so I offered to go out to their house and visit. Theresa and I drove out in the country and found a house that didn't look very bad at all. A couple of horses and about five or six dogs in the yard all looked pretty healthy. But when we entered the house, I almost threw up from the stench. Garbage was on the floor, a container of something that had spoiled was left open, and cans of cat food for the nineteen cats running around the kitchen were spread out everywhere. The shades were pulled down, and he, his wife, and a very elderly woman sat in near darkness. I wondered how they could tolerate such nasty conditions, but when people live around trash long enough, they get accustomed to it. It starts to seem normal. We get used to a nauseating stench if we breathe it long enough."

I find that there are a lot of people like this. The mess that they're in has become "home." They know, at least on some level, that it's not good, but they have been there for so long that the possibility of change is foreign to them. God specializes in changing lives and giving fresh starts. He's prescribed clear directions for us - "be transformed by the renewing of (our) minds."

The first step on almost anyone's list is to admit that we have a problem. Once we understand that and identify the lie that we've been believing, we need to counteract it with the truth. It was Jesus, who said in John 8:32, "Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

Here's a sensitive question - what is it in your life that needs to change? What are the habits, lies, and attitudes that you need to take to the curb? There may be more at stake than you realize. For some, the decisions you make can not only improve your life, but the lives of those around you. Some lies (and some sins) are generational. Someone started it, and someone needs to end it. Let that someone be you.

As J. Michael Straczynski said, “People spend too much time finding other people to blame, too much energy finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives.”

Related Posts:
“Put God First” - The Principle of Priority
Developing Great Habits
Who I Am Makes A Difference
Are You Listening?

Top 5 Blog Posts of 2012 - #5

This post was published back on January 27th of 2012. It's one of my favorites. I'm glad so many felt the same way.

I've been reading a great book lately by John Ortberg called "The Me I Want To Be." John is a pastor in California and formerly a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago, where I first heard of him. He's a great communicator and does a great job of making complicated issues understandable for the rest of us.

In his chapter called "Think Great Thoughts" he talks about learning how to monitor our thought patterns. For years now I've been speaking about the Biblical mandate to "be transformed by the renewing of your mind," so this was particularly enlightening to me. It's amazing how much our thought patterns control us, and also how we can deliberately reshape those patterns to make positive change. Here's a great illustration John uses:

Excerpts from a Dog's Diary
8:00 am - Dog food! My favorite thing!
9:30 am - A car ride! My favorite thing!
9:40 am - A walk in the park! My favorite thing!
10:30 am - Got rubbed and petted! My favorite thing!
12:00 pm - Lunch! My favorite thing!
1:00 pm - Played in the yard! My favorite thing!
3:00 pm - Wagged my tail! My favorite thing!
5:00 pm - Milk bones! My favorite thing!
7:00 pm - Got to play ball! My favorite thing!
8:00 pm - Wow! Watched TV with the people! My favorite thing!
11:00 pm - Sleeping on the bed! My favorite thing!

Excerpts from a Cat's Diary:
Day 983 of my captivity. My captors continue
to taunt me with bizarre,
little dangling objects.
The only thing that keeps me
going is my dream of escape.

Two animals, identical circumstances; totally different experiences. The point is that the focus of our thoughts has a great deal to do with our outcomes. On what do you focus?

I speak to people often whose focus is on their problems and how life has done them wrong. Their mindset filters out any of the good things that may be happening around them and, instead, picks up on, and magnifies, any real or perceived slight. Over their lifetime they have unwittingly helped to create a reality for themselves that is far worse than it needs to be.

This is now scientifically verified. As Ortberg writes, "Even twenty years ago, researchers thought the adult brain was genetically determined and structurally unchangeable. But they have since found that even into adulthood the brain is amazingly changeable - it has neuroplasticity. Which synapses remain and which ones whither away depends on your mental habits. Those that carry no traffic go out of business like bus routes with no customers. Those that get heavily trafficked get stronger and thicker. The mind shapes the brain. Neurons that wire together fire together. In other words, when you practice hope, love or joy, your mind is actually, literally, rewiring your brain!"

It stands to reason then, that Scripture would speak to this. Colossians 3:2 tells us, "Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things." One of my life verses, Philippians 4:8 says, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things."

Ultimately, how we choose to think is up to us, which is why we can point to people of similar backgrounds who chose radically different paths. Your past, your circumstances, your family background doesn't need to define your future. What I have found helpful is to use God's Word as a filter through which I can interpret events. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 - "'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Or Romans 8:28 - "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

So, here's a question, where are your thought patterns taking you? Again, Ortberg writes, "As a general rule, our emotions flow out of our thoughts. Discouraged people tend to think discouraging thoughts. Worried people tend to think anxious thoughts." Conversely, positive people tend to think positive thoughts. Why not begin today to take charge in this area? Think better thoughts to start moving in a better direction.

Related Articles:
Developing Great Habits
“Put God First” - The Principle of Priority
"Take Out the Trash" - The Principle of Transformation
"Write It Down" - The Principle of Clarity
"Turn It Off!" - The Principle of Restoration
"Do It Now" - The Principle of Inertia

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rumors of Hope

It's not only the events this week in Newtown, Connecticut that should affect us. The world is full of tragedy and suffering. Children die every day of hunger and malnourishment. If you've traveled to the third world or witnessed tragedy you've likely seen the pain on the faces of helpless parents or orphaned children and asked "why?"

Yet in the midst of all of this, we are called to care; called to love; called to serve. We're called to make a difference. That may seem like a daunting task - after all, how can we fix problems on such a grand scale? But, as Mother Teresa said, "If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one." I admired her so much for her attitude and her dedication. She also said, "What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family."

We who call ourselves by Christ's name cannot allow ourselves to sink into despair, which is the surrender of hope. Every day we have an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the people around us. In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus taught us this lesson in The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. He said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ "The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"

There is a light in the darkness; there is a peace in the midst of the storm. As theologian Carl F. Henry wrote about Jesus: "He planted the only durable rumor of hope amid the widespread despair of a hopeless world." Go and do likewise. 
I end with a prayer written by Max Lucado.
Dear Jesus,
It's a good thing you were born at night. This world sure seems dark. I have a good eye for silver linings. But they seem dimmer lately.

These killings, Lord. These children, Lord. Innocence violated. Raw evil demonstrated.

The whole world seems on edge. Trigger-happy. Ticked off. We hear threats of chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Are we one button-push away from annihilation?

Your world seems a bit darker this Christmas. But you were born in the dark, right? You came at night. The shepherds were nightshift workers. The Wise Men followed a star. Your first cries were heard in the shadows. To see your face, Mary and Joseph needed a candle flame. It was dark. Dark with Herod's jealousy. Dark with Roman oppression. Dark with poverty. Dark with violence.

Herod went on a rampage, killing babies. Joseph took you and your mom into Egypt. You were an immigrant before you were a Nazarene.

Oh, Lord Jesus, you entered the dark world of your day. Won't you enter ours? We are weary of bloodshed. We, like the wise men, are looking for a star. We, like the shepherds, are kneeling at a manger.

This Christmas, we ask you, heal us, help us, be born anew in us.

Your Children
Related Articles: 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Where Is God When You Need Him?

This is a reprint of a post originally written in July, 2012. It seemed appropriate in light of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. May God bring peace to all affected by this horrible tragedy.

It's a question I've heard a lot. It comes in different forms but it's basically the same sentiment being expressed: why did this happen to me? If God is so good, then why...? If God can do anything, why didn't He stop my brother, mother, father, son or daughter from dying? Where is God when I needed Him?

It's not a new question. It's been asked from the dawn of time. It was asked by Job - in the oldest book in the Bible. It was asked by King David, a "man after God's own heart." It was asked by Jeremiah, and it's being asked by many today.

The reason that the question is asked is because we're human, and we don't like pain. It's asked of Christians because we believe that what the Bible says is true: that evil is evil; that God is all good; and that God is all-powerful. The argument from some is that one of those statements must be false. Either there's no such thing as evil, as some Eastern religions would teach (evil is an illusion), or God is not all good, or God is not all-powerful. It's called the trilemma.

But when we actually look a little deeper in the Bible we find the answers revealed in the story of mankind. The Bible teaches us that evil is evil, but it doesn't belong here. The world was not created with evil; we were placed in a world without evil, but rebelled and chose our own way. The Bible teaches that God is all good - and He created each of us with freedom of choice. That freedom comes at a cost - sometimes we choose poorly and a price must be paid, often by innocent others. The Bible also teaches that God is all-powerful, but, for a time, allows us to face the consequences of our choices and to, perhaps, change course and find our way home.

So, the Biblical response to the question can be answered with three statements.

  • All is not as it should be. We live in a fallen world - a world at war. The Biblical view begins with a protest: "This is not right!" We see this as Jesus Christ, the Son of God, stood before the tomb of His friend, Lazarus and wept (John 11). Many find this an odd verse, seeing that Jesus was about to raise Lazarus from the dead. But I believe He wasn't weeping for Lazarus. I believe He was weeping for Mary and Martha, the grieving sisters of Lazarus, and for each of us who suffer pain and abuse. He wept because this was not the way that the world was intended to be. When we weep, we echo the sentiments of Jesus at this moment - this is not the way it was meant to be.
  • We are not abandoned. Part of the beauty of Christianity is that it reveals a God of compassion who enters into our suffering and becomes one of us. Jesus is a suffering Savior first. As has been said by others, Christianity has the only God with scars. He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. Like David wrote in his beautiful Psalm 23, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me." It wasn't just words either. Jesus Christ willingly went to the cross accomplishing redemption for lost humanity. The cross also brought about healing to broken and wounded humanity. It was and is a message of hope in a sometimes dark world.
  • He will make all things right. It sounds trite, but it is true that our perspective is limited, and God sees things much differently than we do. The world is a hard place; sometimes bad things happen to good people, but that doesn't mean that God doesn't care. He has promised that one day all will be made right. Jesus declared, "I make all things new." We long for justice - and justice will be done. We long for what the Jews call "Shalom" - the peace of God. It is the coming of the Kingdom of God into our world. There is a sense in which this Kingdom is to come - some day, heaven. But there is also a sense in which it comes now, in the victories that we can gain right here, right now.       
God calls us to live our lives in light of two very different realities. One is that we live in this fallen, messed up world, and we're to make of it the very best that we can. The second is that we recognize that we are made for eternity, and the way that we live can affect eternity. So to make the most of our lives is to help others become all that they were created to be. St. Francis of Assisi had it right when he wrote these famous words:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen 
Where is God when you need Him? He's right there with you. No matter what you're going through, He is there. The greater question for most of us is where are we when God calls us to make a difference?

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Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Mere Apologetics

Book Review: "Mere Apologetics: How to Help Seekers and Skeptics Find Faith," Alister E. McGrath, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012. 197 pages.

Alister McGrath is the president of the Oxford Center for Christian Apologetics in London, England and regularly engages in debate and dialogue with the leaders of the New Atheist movement. I read this book at the suggestion of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in preparation for this year's Summer Institute. It is written as an introduction to Christian apologetics (taken from the Greek "apologia," meaning defense.) So apologetics is simply a defense of one's position, in this case, the Christian faith.  

McGrath begins by explaining that there are three basic tasks for an apologist: defending, commending, and translating. In defending, the apologist is dealing with barriers that have been erected to faith, whether misunderstandings, misrepresentations or existential issues. In commending, the challenge is to help the audience (whether 1 or 1,000) grasp the relevance of the Christian message. Finally, in translating, the goal is to relate the core ideas of the faith in language and story that makes sense to the hearer.

The second chapter - "Apologetics and Contemporary Culture" looks at the cultural context within which we must function. An approach that may work well in one culture will likely not be as effective in another. So, the challenge is to understand the culture; to be able to determine the common framework through which our audience views the world: ie. modernism and  post-modernism, and to adjust your approach accordingly.

He then deals with the theological basis for apologetics, that there is an important, yet limited role for apologists in helping people find faith. "Apologetics is grounded in a deep appreciation of the intellectual capaciousness and spiritual richness of the Christian faith." It is not about formulas and systems; nor wisdom and reasoning, but simply in helping to break down barriers to faith. It is God, ultimately, who transforms lives.

Next is a section on "The Importance of the Audience." An individual or group's background can differ from another's in many ways, so the method may need to be different as well. We see this modeled in the New Testament as Peter preached to the Jews in Acts 2 using one line of reasoning and reference; and Paul spoke to the Greeks in Acts 17 using another one entirely. They both ended at the same place - Jesus Christ - but they began from different points. We need to ask what our audience believes and why.

Chapter 5 speaks of "The Reasonableness of the Christian Faith." The Christian worldview is truly unlike any other in its capacity to explain things as they are. As C.S. Lewis said, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." There are two ways to demonstrate the reasonableness of the Christian faith. One of them is by showing that there is a good evidential base for the core beliefs of Christianity. The second is by showing that the Christian faith makes more sense of reality than its alternatives.

McGrath then deals with "Pointers to Faith" or approaches to engaging others. "Reality is emblazoned with signs pointing to the greater reality of God. We need to connect the dots and see the overall picture." Some of those signs include: Creation - the origin of the universe; the appearance that the universe is designed for life; the structure of the physical world; the universal longing for justice (morality); the spiritual nature of mankind; our appreciation of beauty, etc...Where do these come from? Apologetics helps to point people to the source.

"Gateways for Apologetics" follows logically from the previous chapter - it's all about opening the door to faith. Many people have never considered the claims of Christianity, may even be antagonistic, and would be more likely to respond to one approach over another. So, what are the gateways? The first is explanation, which requires an ability to share the basics of the faith. The second is argument - building a rational case leading to faith. Examples include the argument from design or the argument from morality. The third gateway is stories. This approach is particularly useful in dealing with postmoderns, who have a tendency to reject an appeal to reason. The final approach mentioned is images, which builds upon the previous model. Postmoderns tend to prefer pictures, not words, in their communication. C.S. Lewis was a master at these last two gateways.

The last chapter before the conclusion is "Questions about Faith." This deals with helping people at the point of their own stumbling. Some have had bad experiences with Christians; others may be from a Muslim background and stumble at the church's history of the crusades. Many stumble at the question of evil. What are the keys to dealing with someone with real questions? Be gracious. Look beyond what is said to the real question. Don't just give prepackaged answers; be genuine. Learn from other apologists.

This book provides help for those trying to develop their own skills as an apologist. It is not so much a list of arguments to use, but rather it is a guide to help to develop and refine one's approach. I'll end with some good common-sense advice from McGrath: "Before we can answer the questions others ask about our faith, we need to have answered them for ourselves."

Related Articles:
Book Review: "Why I Still Believe"
Book Review: "Has Christianity Failed You?"
"Truth" - by Ravi Zacharias
Book Review: "Why Jesus?"
Are Christianity & Science Incompatible?


Friday, November 09, 2012

Book Review: Who Is This Man? Review: "Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus," Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012. 219 pages.

When you have such notables as Max Lucado, Patrick Lencioni, N.T. Wright, Phillip Yancey and Dallas Willard writing testimonials and Condeleeza Rice providing the foreword, you know you're in for a treat! I may have found another new favorite book. Leave it to John Ortberg to hit it out of the park.

I grabbed this book when I heard John mention it at this year's Leadership Summit. I was intrigued by the question that is implied by this book: what would this world look like without Jesus? What difference did He really make? As Ortberg shares, our world would be barely recognizable without his influence.

Jesus is the ultimate paradox. Born in obscurity to an oppressed people, never traveling more than 200 miles from his home, rejecting the normal avenues to power, limiting his public ministry to only three years, being struck down in his prime: none of these hint of a world-changer. Yet, as historian H.G. Wells wrote, "The historian's test of an individual's greatness is 'What did he leave to grow?' Did he start men thinking along fresh lines with a vigor that persisted after him? By this test Jesus stands first."

Ortberg shares a myriad number of ways that Jesus has impacted our world for the better - many of which would surprise our secular world which has lately been studiously trying to erase any vestige of him. The rise of Western Civilization is largely due to the principles taught by Jesus in his public ministry. We can begin with the promotion of human dignity which changed the way that society treated women and children.

While some cultures may have valued women and children, it was Jesus' followers who spread those values to the world. Before Christ, in the world  ruled by Rome, women were viewed as chattel, children were often abandoned to die if they were born weak or the wrong gender (read female). Jesus accepted women as disciples, and the church which he established became the first egalitarian organization on earth, according to historian Thomas Cahill. All were welcomed and valued. Abandoned children were adopted by Christians because Jesus had taught them that each of them were created in God's image and were loved by Him. It was Christ-followers who established the first orphanages.

Mother Teresa
When plagues struck cities, the healthy would leave the sick to fend for themselves. It was Jesus' followers who would go and care for them, nursing them back to health and caring for them until their death. They cared because Jesus taught that caring for the hurting was a reflection of loving him. They established the first hospitals that even cared for the poor and they advanced the medical profession. Christ-followers like Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa, in turn, left their imprint on society.

Because Jesus valued children, Christians began to teach them - all of them. Education was restricted in Roman culture to children of the wealthy and privileged. Christians taught children of the poor and slaves alike, wanting to help them to serve God with their minds as well. Philosopher Mark Nelson writes, "If you ask what is Jesus' influence on medicine and compassion, I would suggest that wherever you have an institution  of self-giving for the lonely (and for practical welfare of the lonely), schools, hospitals, hospices, orphanages for those who will never be able to repay, this probably has its roots in the movement of Jesus."

The first universities found their impetus in the monasteries. Christ-followers devoted their lives to study - not just of Christian works, but of the classics and pagan works as well. In fact, after the sacking of Rome, it was these Christian communities, particularly in Ireland, that preserved the great works of ancient literature for future generations. Christ-followers established the first universities, like Oxford in the 13th century, whose motto is taken from Psalm 27:1 - "The Lord is my light." The Sunday School movement was largely responsible for the foundation of the first public schools. The first law to require mass universal education was also enacted by Christ-followers - the same ones who founded Harvard and Yale and William and Mary and Princeton, etc...

It was Christian missionaries who found languages that had not been committed to writing and who devoted their lives to doing so. They compiled the first dictionaries, wrote the first grammars and developed the first alphabets. It was Methodist missionary, Frank Laubach who was called "the Apostle to the Illiterates. He traveled to more than a hundred countries and his organization developed primers in 313 languages.

Contrary to popular thought today, Christianity was largely responsible for the development of modern science. As Alfred North Whitehead, one of the dominant thinkers of the twentieth century asked, "What is it that made it possible for science to emerge in the human race? It's the medieval insistence on the rationality of God." The vast majority of the pioneers of science were believers in Christ, men like William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Copernicus, Blaise Pascal, Joseph Priestley, Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton, etc...

The book also deals with Jesus' influence on government and the arts, technology, architecture, marriage and the family and so much more. As Yale historian Jaroslav Pelikan wrote, "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of the history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?" How much, indeed.

Whether you are a skeptic or a Christ-follower, I recommend you read this book. It will change your thinking of this man called Jesus, the one I am so blessed to call my Saviour.

Related Articles:
Book Review: I Am A Follower
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The Power of the Mind
Book Review: "Why Jesus?"
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Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book Review: I Am A Follower

Book Review: "I Am A Follower - The Way, Truth and Life of Following Jesus," Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012. 288 pages.

Leonard Sweet is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University (NJ), a Distinguished Visiting Professor at George Fox University (OR), and a weekly contributor to and podcast "Napkin Scribbles." He has authored numerous articles, sermons and close to fifty books.

In brackets on the lower corner of the cover of Sweet's book is this line: "It's never been about leading." This sums up the main theme of the book. Leonard Sweet is not a fan of the leadership or church growth movements in the church and writes this book, seemingly, as a counterpoint to those trend. It is a warning to those who would break Christian leadership and church growth down to a series of principles and best practices. He begins by drawing attention to the video below as a modern parable of following Jesus.

As I read this book, I must admit I wrestled with a lot of what he was saying. I have gleaned a lot from the church leadership movement and, as a confession, even have my own leadership blog. In spite of that, I tried to read with an open mind, respecting Sweet's reputation. I'm glad that I did.

While I would have preferred a less polarizing approach - not everything taught in Christian leadership circles is wrong - I thoroughly agree with his presupposition that all of us are called to follow Christ. Each of us are called to simply follow Him, wherever He may lead, and whatever it may cost. As he says, "The longest distance in the universe is the distance from zero to one." (p.9)

As a scholar and, at heart, a poet, Sweet creatively builds his case that the problem in the church is not leadership, but discipleship. It's not about leading, but following; not about learning principles, but laying down rights. He does this in three major sections.

Via: The Way - This speaks of being on the right road; to join with Christ in a life-long journey of His choosing. He writes of how we in the church have often made Christianity about a decision rather than a lifestyle, and compares this with the reality of the early church. Jesus' way is much different than any other before or after: Jesus calls us to leave all and follow Him, anything less is compromise.

Verita: The Truth - This section deals with Jesus' exclusive claims to truth. In a world of tolerance and relativism, Jesus speaks the truth that all other claims to truth must bow to His ultimate truth. Each of us must lay down our claims and our preferences, whatever they may be. "The distance to the cross is the same for each of us. The distance to the tomb and the cost of getting there are different for each one of us." (p. 153)

Vita: The Life - I liked this section the best. It speaks of incarnational living. What does it mean to allow Christ to live in and through us? It also speaks of the challenge in the church to make disciples, not simply attenders. "First followers live a life of risky and sticky faith. As they live their Jesus story, they also dream a Jesus world and help launch it into being." (p. 206)

Each section includes a study guide for use with group discussion.

He concludes with an epilogue which refers to another video, which can be viewed by clicking on this link. His point in sharing this is that a Christian's life ought to reflect the joy that comes from the privilege of living life with Jesus Christ. We get to do this together, and that's a good thing. "The greatest developmental task of life is to discover your song and sing it ravishingly to the glory of God." (p. 258)

I did enjoy this book, although I feel that some of the criticism of the church leadership movement is unwarranted and unnecessary. Any church leadership conference that I've attended has taught that Christian leadership is, first and at its heart, servanthood. Paul said, "Follow me as I follow Christ." I believe that this is the gist of what Leonard Sweet is trying to express. Where church leaders have abandoned this follower-first principle, Sweet is dead on in challenging them. This book is a great reminder to be sure that I'm not doing my own thing in Jesus' name. The agenda is His to set; not ours.

Related Articles:
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Monday, October 01, 2012

Motion 312: Point - Counterpoint

It was Thomas Edison who said: “Five percent of the people think; ten percent of the people think they think; and the other eighty-five percent would rather die than think.”I think we need to change that.

I enjoy all kinds of different news outlets: magazines, television, radio, the web. I even like a good civil debate every once in a while. I also like to read from different perspectives, if only to try to understand people better. I have found, however, that a great many people only get one side of the story. In light of that, I decided to start something a little different on my blog, something I'll call "Point - Counterpoint." 

In these blogs I will post links to articles on the same subject from 2 or 3 different perspectives. Please note that I do not necessarily endorse the articles presented. (If I endorsed all of these divergent opinions I'd be worried for my mental health.) What I would like to do is to try to give you a sampling of the writing from a broad spectrum of viewpoints.  

The first subject will be the distinctively Canadian brouhaha over Bill 312, recently defeated in the House of Commons. This has been the matter of a great deal of debate in Canada, much of it from people with no idea what the Bill says, or what the law currently states. So we'll begin with a presentation of the Bill itself. Here it is in its entirety:  

"That a special committee of the House be appointed and directed to review the declaration in Subsection 223(1) of the Criminal Code of Canada which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth and to answer the questions hereinafter set forth;

that the membership of the special committee consist of twelve members which shall include seven members from the government party, four members from the Official Opposition and one member from the Liberal Party, provided that the Chair shall be from the government party; that the members to serve on the said committee be appointed by the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs and the membership report of the special committee be presented to the House no later than 20 sitting days after the adoption of this motion;

that substitutions to the membership of the special committee be allowed, if required, in the manner provided by Standing Order 114(2);

that the special committee have all the powers of a Standing Committee as provided in the Standing Orders; and

that the special committee present its final report to the House of Commons within 10 months after the adoption of this motion with answers to the following questions,

      (i)            what medical evidence exists to demonstrate that a child is or is not a human being before the moment of complete birth?,

   (ii)            is the preponderance of medical evidence consistent with the declaration in Subsection 223(1) that a child is only a human being at the moment of complete birth?,

 (iii)            what are the legal impact and consequences of Subsection 223(1) on the fundamental human rights of a child before the moment of complete birth?,

 (iv)            what are the options available to Parliament in the exercise of its legislative authority in accordance with the Constitution and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada to affirm, amend, or replace Subsection 223(1)?"  

The following are three articles written from different perspectives. 

The first is by Heather Mallick of the Toronto Star: Citizenship Minister Jason Kenney wants MPs to decide when human life begins

The second is by Monte Solberg of the Toronto Sun: A discussion we cannot discuss. 

The third is by Monique David of the National Post

Quebec media toes the pro-abortion line in denouncing Ambrose

Full disclosure: I have strong opinions on this subject and have written on the topic a number of times. Your opinions are welcome.

Related Articles:
Motion 312 and the Quest for Justice 
Why the abortion issue won't go away 
Canada Now an Abortion Destination
No Justice in Canada for the Unborn

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Motion 312 and the Quest for Justice

Last week my wife and I spent two days in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, visiting the battlefield where the greatest battle of the American Civil War was fought and where President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address. We then spent two days touring the monuments of Washington D.C., including the Lincoln Memorial and the Holocaust Museum. Both stops on our trip provided their share of moving experiences and gave us a glimpse into a different time, but one with similar challenges.

As I read the Gettysburg Address my mind was drawn to what I view as the greatest injustice of our time. In Lincoln's day it was the slave trade. In our day it is the abortion industry. What would a Canadian Lincoln say today? I can't say for sure, but here's my best attempt.

In 1867 our fathers constituted a new nation on this continent - the Dominion of Canada. Psalm 72:8 was selected as a verse from which the name of the new country would be derived. Referring to a future Messianic king, Solomon wrote “He shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” (Psalm 72:8) Our nation was founded by people of faith, who recognized God as the source of life, and the giver of freedom.

In 1982, as our nation established a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, included prominently among those rights was that "everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person..." Canadian men and women have laid down their lives to defend these rights, and to build a nation that has been known as a bastion of freedom and peace. Yet, in the midst of our peace-keeping and our defense of freedom we hear a barely audible cry from one segment of our society which has been denied those same rights which we all hold sacred.

Every year in Canada more than 100,000 people meet their demise at the hands of medical professionals who took an oath to do no harm. These human beings have no voice to defend themselves. With the inability to speak for themselves, they have even been stripped of their status as human beings, in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Every effort to speak our on their behalf is met by extreme opposition by those who ought to be raising their voices to protect rather than destroy. As a nation, we have chosen to turn a blind eye to the plight of these multiplied thousands. Where are our leaders with the courage of their convictions?

In the heat of wartime, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all American slaves would be "thenceforward and forever free." The moment had arrived for stating the obvious: among other issues, the Civil War was about the freedom of a people from the tyranny of slavery. Lincoln was the lightning rod for all of those who benefited from this obscene practice. We look back and shake our heads that anyone could have believed that it was their "right" to keep another human being as a slave.

It is my firm belief that we will look back, not many years from now, and hang our heads in shame that we allowed the despicable practice of abortion. We are at the place in our culture today that we cannot even have a civil discussion. In our popular media we don't refer to them as babies, they are human embryos or fetuses. We only call them babies when the mother wants them. A few years ago they were blobs of cells, but advancements in science have put the lie to that line of reasoning. Yet the truth is hidden from the public consciousness. A large percentage of Canadians actually believe that there is a law restricting abortion in Canada! We have been without one since 1982 - the only civilized country in the world with that distinction. 

While researching this article I searched for abortion methods in Canada and came across this site:  The clinical language used conceals the fact that living human beings are usually torn limb from limb as they are being suctioned from their mother's womb. This is the case for some 90% of abortions in Canada. The realities of abortion are far from clinical, and almost always stops a beating heart. 

M.P. Stephen Woodworth
Shamefully, none of the major political parties in Canada have leadership that will speak out in favor of the protection of the unborn. In fact Prime Minister Stephen Harper, (yes, the one that many media claim has a secret agenda to outlaw abortion) has spoken out against Motion 312, a Private Members Bill by one of his own Members of Parliament, Stephen Woodworth. He has also publicly stated that this bill will not be supported by the government, assuring its demise. What is the purpose of the Bill? To review the section of the Criminal Code which states that a child becomes a human being only at the moment of complete birth. It is a 400 year old law based on 400 year old science! Yet the entrenchment of abortion rights are so concretized that we cannot even have a discussion about the obvious.

How long will it be until people are willing to open their eyes, and what will it take to create the moral will to right this horrible wrong? If you are a student of history, you are aware that many cultures have sacrificed their children to their idols in order to curry favour in the form of good crops or protection in battle. We marvel at their ignorance and their cruelty. Yet our "modern civilization" has continued this practice by sacrificing our children on the altar of convenience and pragmatism. May God have mercy on us.

Related Articles:
Can We Talk? I Guess Not.
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Friday, September 14, 2012

Why is Youcef Nadarkhani Free?

While I was on vacation, I heard the news that Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani had been released from the Iranian prison that held him captive for three years. That was September 8th. This was great news for the many people, including myself, who've been praying for his release since we heard of his plight. But why is he free, I was asked? We prayed, tweeted, and petitioned, but why now?

There are a lot of different factors at play here and, while this event means the world to Nadarkhani and his family and friends, it does not change the fact that people are being held in prison for their faith around the world - including still in Iran. In fact, some would say that Pastor Youcef may be in greater danger now than he was when he was being held in prison. It is all too common for Christian leaders to simply "disappear" one day and never be seen or heard from again.

The official word out of Iran was that Nadarkhani was acquitted by a court in Rasht after having been sentenced to death for abandoning Islam. He was, however, convicted of evangelizing among Muslims, a crime with a 3 year prison sentence - time he had already served. So he was released. But why now? And why the about-turn after repeated appeals that failed and even resulted in the imprisonment of his lawyer? I don't pretend to know the answers, but here are some talking points.

  • Iranian Prime Minister Ahmadinijad will be speaking at the United Nations in New York on September 26th. It makes sense that Iran would want to get this high profile case out of the news before his appearance. Nadarkhani's cause has been taken up by numerous world leaders and Iran can use all the good P.R. they can get. On the other hand, Iran has not shown much concern for international opinion.
  • It may be that Iranian leaders simply wanted to put an end to the public attention Youcef's case has been drawing, and they didn't want the negative attention his execution would bring. They were able to save face by convicting him of evangelizing among Muslims. Again, hopefully this does not result in a less formal or less public form of Islamic "justice."
  • There may have been disagreement among Iranian leadership as to what to do with Nadarkhani. His lawyer, Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, argued in court that Iran, as a signatory to several international treaties, was required to allow freedom of religion.The idea that Iran allows for freedom of religion is a joke, not only in Iran but in any nation using Sharia law. 
The bottom line is that we really don't know the official machinations that resulted in Youcef's release. We do celebrate and rejoice with him and his family regardless and I do look at it as an answer to prayer. He has stated his intention to continue with his pastoral ministry, so I cannot believe that his troubles are over. Perhaps now, though, attention can turn to others who are suffering a similar fate as Nadarkhani was.

According to CIA's World Factbook, Christians, Jews and Hindi face relentless persecution. And according to the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), the group largely responsible for bringing public attention to Youcef's case, another Pastor, Farshid Fathi, has been locked up in Iran’s Evin prison since December 2010 for what the ACLJ describes as practicing his Christian faith.

He was distributing Bibles in Iran's language of Farsi, and thus was accused of  “actions against national security.” The prison is notorious for its horrid conditions, physical and psychological torture, violent interrogations and sleep deprivation. He is one of many Iranian Pastors paying a high price for his faith.

What is the answer? I don't know. What I do know from history is that the church has often grown the most during times of persecution - witness the initial growth of the early church after persecution broke out in Jerusalem. In fact, throughout history, persecution in some form or another has been the norm. The church in Iran has been experiencing "explosive growth" says Open Doors, a ministry serving the persecuted church. While we must continue to pray for the wrongfully imprisoned, and work and speak out for justice, always remember that God often uses the most difficult situations to advance His Kingdom.

Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani (c) embracing his wife and children after being released from prison near Rasht, Iran, on Saturday, September 8. Photo: Church of Iran for BosNewsLife
In a letter to his church from prison, Pastor Youcef wrote, "Let us remember that sometimes the leap of faith leads us towards some impasses. Just as the Word led the sons of Israel leaving Egypt toward the impasse of the Red Sea. These impasses are midway between promises of God and their fulfillment and they challenge our faith. Believers are to accept these challenges as a part of their spiritual course." I admire his faith and thank God for his freedom.

Related Articles:
Iranian Pastor Sentenced to Death - Update
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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sometimes It's Okay To Lean

This is a follow-up on my previous post on the Olympics. There have been some great, inspiring stories that have emerged from the Olympics. One great example took place in the Barcelona Games of 1992. A British 400 meter runner by the name of Derek Redmond was competing in the semi-finals. Watch what happens:  

There are some great lessons here for all of us.

We need each other. Some people think that needing other people is a sign of weakness; far from it. Each of us were created to function better in community. There are times when our best efforts, while inspiring, just are not enough. There are times when life knocks us down and we just don't have the strength to get up on our own. In those times, especially, we learn to thank God for friends.

I like what Kurt Vonnegut said: “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” 

In hard times, we learn who our friends are. The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells the story of a young man who demanded his inheritance early and then left home on a great adventure. As long as he had money, he had friends. But when the money ran out, he quickly found out they weren't real friends at all. Real friends walk in when the fake ones walk out. Who is there for you when no-one else is? Hold on to them tightly. If you're having a hard time finding anyone to be there, remember what God says: "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Sometimes the reward comes from finishing the race. Very few people remember who won that 400 M race, but anyone who saw it will always remember Derek Redmond and his father struggling over the finish line. We felt his pain when he pulled up with the hamstring injury; and then we cheered for him when he struggled to finish on his own. Finally, when his father broke through security to help him, everyone urged them on.

Why? I think because we all relate to hard times. Each of us has been in a situation when, in spite of our best efforts, everything went against us. We know how hard it is to suck it up and keep on going. We know how hard it is to watch those we love suffer. And, yes, we all know that there are times in our lives when we need the support of those around us. Sometimes it's okay to lean.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

There's More to Life Than Gold Medals

The Olympic Games of London have come and gone. I, like many others, spent way too much time watching sports I would never otherwise watch because, well, it's the Olympics. Even with the doping scandals and the bribery rampant in the IOC, the Games still represent so much that is good about sport.

Being Canadian, we've learned to celebrate personal bests rather than gold medals. In fact, a tongue in cheek motto I've heard recently is "bronze is the new gold." Our medal haul was 1 gold, 5 silver and 12 bronze, placing us 13th in the world as a nation - just one short of our goal.

I have to admit to a little bit of frustration watching my fellow Canadians fall "just short," or, in some cases, be disqualified or completely underachieve. For a competitive guy, that can be a little hard to take. But every once in a while I'm reminded that it's not all about winning.

When we consider some of the greatest moments in Olympic history, what comes to mind? Yes, there is Usain Bolt and his sprinting golds and Michael Phelps and his dominance in the pool. But there are also unforgettable stories of those who finished far behind that have grabbed our attention because of what they represent: commitment, dedication, perseverance.

I'm reminded of the story of John Stephen Akhwari, a little known Tanzanian runner, who competed in the marathon in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Momo Walde won the marathon gold. One hour later, Akhwari entered the Olympic stadium – the last man to do so. Wounded after a fall and carrying a dislocated knee, he hobbled up to the track for one last push to the finish. He finished to a thunderous applause by a small crowd which will always remember that moment. It was later written of his perseverance – "Today we have witnessed a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit. A performance that gives true dignity to sport – a performance which lifts sports out of the category of grown men playing in games." But Akhwari was far more modest. When asked why he did not quit, he replied, "My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race."

There's something to be said for finishing in spite of whatever challenges you face. This is even more true in our day-to-day life. It's not always easy and the sun doesn't always shine. Sometimes we get sick, we lose our job, we're faced with unforeseen problems and life just gets hard. What do we do?

We can choose to quit and play the blame game, but what's the good in that? An old family maxim says, "It's a good life if you don't weaken." It's a little simplistic, but the point is that sometimes you just have to keep going in spite of it all.

I'm reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 6:9, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Akhwari may not have won his race, but he certainly won the respect of a worldwide audience. He had every reason to quit, yet he continued.

You may feel as though you are reaching your limit. You may have encountered difficulties that have rocked your world. It does not mean that you are defeated - sometimes you win just by finishing the race. What is it that helps you to continue even when the road is long and hard? What is it that keeps you going when you feel like quitting? Focus on those things, and finish the race.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Help In Hard Times

A lot of people I know are going through very hard times right now. It may be sickness, trouble with the kids, marriage issues, financial problems or a host of others. Because of my role as pastor, I get to be a sympathetic ear and offer a little bit of advice. In spite of the wide variety of issues, I've found that there are some commonalities that apply to all of us. This may appear to be more of a sermon than an article. No apologies - it just came out that way. 

The words of Jesus ring as true today as they did when He first spoke them. He said in the first half of John 16:33, "In this world you will have trouble." I meet a lot of people who appear surprised that life is difficult, but we shouldn't be. In fact, we really should expect problems. We live in a fallen world with fallen people and we experience pain because of both of those realities. Jesus speaks of another reason.

In John 10:10 He says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." A lot of people have a hard time with the idea of Satan or the devil, but Jesus was very clear that he is real. It's very difficult to look around us today; to read the newspaper or watch the CNN headlines and deny the reality of evil. The Bible further teaches that that there are spiritual forces which are at work in our world beyond what we can see. If what Jesus said was true, we can ask some questions to provide clarity about whatever we might be facing. 

What is the enemy trying to do? 

For some of you, the enemy's goal is to destroy your family. He may do this by using the wounds and hurts of the past to create new tensions and battles today. Our culture has become more and more selfish and less and less responsible. We like quick fixes and easy answers. Life doesn't work that way. Often the enemy finds willing allies in our very own homes - sometimes even us - because we have drifted away from a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was so insightful when he wrote about dealing with evil: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It's important to try to step back and look at the big picture. What is at the root of the problems you face?

What is God trying to do?

What we often miss is that God is not surprised by what we're going through. He is very aware of every situation in our lives and is wanting to bring about an outcome that works out ultimately for our good - if we love Him (See Romans 8:28). Jesus said that He has come that we "may have life, and have it to the full." We see examples of what He meant throughout the New Testament as we see descriptions of the life He intended.

In the midst of our challenges, for example, He has offered us His peace. Where there is division, his goal is reconciliation. Where there is bitterness, his aim is forgiveness and healing. Where there is deception, He offers truth; where there is hate, love. He has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. So, whatever we're going through we need to ask ourselves, "where is God in all of this?" To paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, "God is there, and He is not silent." Look for Him and listen.

What should we do?
In light of these two realities - that the enemy seeks to destroy and that Christ comes to give life - what, exactly, are we to do? Our primary responsibility, if we want the best of what God has for us, is to align ourselves with His purposes. As Jesus was speaking to ordinary people with real-world needs, He said in His Sermon on the Mount, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33) This speaks of priorities.

We must remember that God made us, designed us, loves us, and knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what the future holds, knows our strengths and weaknesses; our gifts, talents and abilities, and what will meet our deepest needs. In light of all of this Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."  (Matthew 22:37) This proper alignment enables us to do the right thing even in difficult situations, recognizing that it is God who is at work within us. It might not shield us from pain - life is just hard sometimes - but it can help our perspective, and enable us to see that God can bring good out of bad situations.

As we apply ourselves to this primary relationship through prayer and application of His Word to our lives, we find that there is a foundation of principles upon which we can build our lives. We find direction when the way seems unclear. We find supernatural resources that are provided as necessary. But here's the kicker - there are no short cuts.

Jesus' call to each of us is to "Take up our cross and follow Him." (Matthew 16:24-25) This speaks of obedience regardless of the cost. It means doing the right thing even when we don't feel like it; even when no-one else seems to be. Jesus didn't promise that His way would be easy, but that it would lead to life. Too many people have selective hearing when it comes to the clear teachings of Scripture. They want to pick and choose which parts of it they will adopt and which they will ignore. Yet they expect that all will go well with them. Jesus never promised that.

Hear what Jesus said as He concluded His Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

If there's a storm brewing in your life, the first thing you might want to do is to check and make sure that you're building on the right foundation. If you're not, the good news is that God allows U-turns. You can start today to set things right. I've been privileged to watch marriages and families restored and crises averted as people have asked the simple question, "God, what should I do?" It's a great place to start. Go and do likewise.

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