THE RACE (Hebrews 12:1-2 – Part 1)

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. [Hebrews 12:1-2 (NLT)]

peonyIn a recent Pearls Before Swine comic (drawn by Stephen Pastis), Rat asked Pig if he would be getting out of bed that day. Replying no, the sweet little swine explained, “I fear the big bad world and want no part of it.” When Rat told him he couldn’t stay in bed forever, Pig disagreed. “I have a bed, a bathroom, and a food delivery app that I’ve asked to just throw my food through the window.” In the next frame, we see Rat snug in bed with his friend and asking to borrow a pillow. I understand. There certainly are days in this crazy world of ours that we’d all prefer to just snuggle under the covers and never have to get up to face the challenges of the day, especially if DoorDash would deliver bedside. That, however, is not an option.

In Hebrews 12, the writer compares the Christian life to a footrace. Agōna is the Greek word used for race and means contest or struggle. If the word looks familiar, it’s because agōna is the source of our English word agony, meaning torment, intense mental or physical suffering (and even torture). Our race is not meant to be a life spent safe in bed. Rather than a fifty-yard dash, the Christian’s life is more like one of those mud obstacle races in which people roll in muddy pits, wade through ice water, haul heavy sand bags, leap over fire, climb ropes and nets, scale giant walls, and army-crawl under barbed wire. There’s going to be some agony!

Unlike Pig and Rat, we don’t have to drop out of the race because we think it’s too challenging. We know that perseverance in trouble is doable because of the great cloud of witnesses who actually did it: people like Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David. None of them knew when their severe trials would be over and yet they continued their journeys in faith.

It’s not just in Scripture that we find these witnesses. Serving in India for 41 years without ever taking a furlough, missionary William Carey preached for seven years before he baptized his first Hindu convert. Then, after laboring twenty years translating Scripture into several Indian languages, all of his work went up in flames when a fire tore through his printing plant and warehouse. Yet, Carey faithfully endured as did Corrie ten Boom, who lived through the hell of a Nazi concentration camp but survived to tell her story of unfaltering faith and hope in God. In spite of being a quadriplegic for over 53 years and enduring chronic pain and two bouts of cancer, evangelist, author, and advocate Joni Eareckson Tada continues to run God’s race (only from a wheelchair). The many months of a pandemic, political unrest, and financial challenges seem like a walk in the park compared to what others have undergone before us.

Lord, as this new year begins, guide us so that we look not to the long course or rough track, not to our own strength or to the strength of the enemy, but to only to you and the examples of those who faithfully ran or continue to run the race you set before them. Rather than listening to the discouraging voices of the world around us, let us hear your voice of encouragement and hope. Give us strength to endure the race you’ve given us and the vision to see past our struggles.

 If you look at the world, you’ll be distressed. If you look within, you’ll be depressed. But if you look at Christ, you’ll be at rest. [Corrie ten Boom]

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. … God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. [James 1:2-4,12 (NLT)]

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IT’S CONTAGIOUS

With his great power the Lord warned me not to follow the road which the people were following. He said, “Do not join in the schemes of the people and do not be afraid of the things that they fear.” [Isaiah 8:11-12 (GNT)]

great blue heronKnowing that God’s people must be fully committed to their cause in battle, Deuteronomy 20 provided several exemptions from combat. An anxious man wouldn’t have his mind on battle and could make blunders that might endanger the entire army. Because men too preoccupied with concerns at home wouldn’t fight wholeheartedly, those who were engaged to be married, had built a house and not yet dedicated it, or planted a vineyard and not harvested it were released from service.  Moreover, anyone who admitted to being afraid was also sent home. This was done to keep their negativity and fear from infecting the entire army’s morale. A small army of faithful men was better than a large army of worried, frightened or fainthearted ones.

While the anxious and fearful soldiers were sent home, it’s not so easy to avoid those kinds of people in our daily lives. We all know people who seem to carry a dark cloud of pessimism over their heads. It doesn’t just rain on their parade—negativity pours down on everyone else’s, as well.

Several years ago, a friend’s husband had a slight cough. By the time she was done fretting about it to family and friends, she was sure it was bronchitis which would lead to pneumonia which would mean hospitalization. This led another family member to be sure the man’s death was imminent and funeral plans needed to be made. The wife’s negativity and fear were far more contagious than the man’s cough which, incidentally, never turned into bronchitis and is now long forgotten.

I’m not Pollyanna and I know that some coughs do lead to pneumonia, not all biopsies come out benign, bad things happen to good people, not everyone recovers from COVID, and not every story has a happy ending. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to put up my umbrella at the first cloud or focus on the storm rather than pray for a rainbow! Whether my glass is half empty or half full, I know that God will make sure I have all that I need in it.

The Old Testament advice is simple: stay away from the faint-hearted, pessimistic and fearful lest they infect you with their lack of faith. While we can be protected from measles, chicken pox, pneumonia, and even coronavirus, there’s no vaccine for panic, negativity or anxiety and they’re far more contagious than any virus! When dealing with a communicable disease, medical experts advise us to wear a mask, wash our hands, keep our distance, avoid crowds, and get vaccinated. Pessimism and fear are as infectious as COVID and, since there’s no vaccination for them, we can avoid exposure by washing our hands of doom scrolling, socially distancing ourselves from the “Debbie Downers“ of life, and avoiding groups of grumblers and faultfinders. Rather than being infected by pessimism, complaint or anger, let us prevent contagion by trusting in the Lord and choosing faith over fear and gratitude over grievance.

Fear is catching. He whose heart fails him makes his brethren’s heart to fail, like his heart. [Matthew Henry]

In conclusion, my friends, fill your minds with those things that are good and that deserve praise: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and honorable. Put into practice what you learned and received from me, both from my words and from my actions. And the God who gives us peace will be with you. [Philippians 4:8-9 (GNT)]

Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you. [Ephesians 4:29 (GNT)]

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THE BACK BURNER

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. … Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end. [Ecclesiastes 3:1,11 (NLT)]

red-bellied turtleWhen we spent winters in the mountains, our early morning walk took us by a gourmet restaurant. Occasionally, we’d get a whiff of a delectable mouth-watering aroma as we passed. What we smelled was a large pot of roasted beef and veal bones that had simmered on the back burner overnight. In this day and age of microwaves, Instant Pots, mixes and prepared foods, it’s difficult to understand a chef simmering stock for over 12 hours to concentrate it into a rich demi-glace. That, however, is how the restaurant’s chef gets the flavorful base she uses in her delicious sauces.

Sometimes prayer is like making stir-fry: put the ingredients in a hot wok, stir, and get quick results. Other times, prayer is more like making a demi-glace. We put it all together and then let it do a slow simmer on the back burner with just an occasional check to skim off the fat or impurities. Back-burner prayers are those far-reaching ones that take a long time coming, like the restoration of a ruptured relationship, the salvation of a child, a loved one’s sobriety, or a prodigal’s return.

When we put our prayers at a low simmer on the back burner, we trust God to do the work. As tempted as we are to fret, panic, meddle or intervene, God really doesn’t need us to keeping lifting the lid, stirring the pot, or adding ingredients. In fact, if we were making a demi-glace, our stirring would just slow things down by making the stock cloudy and greasy. The same thing usually happens when we try to do God’s job for Him!

I think of Sarah. Rather than leaving God’s promise of a child to simmer on the back burner until the time was right, she decided to stir the pot by giving Hagar to Abraham. Her interference didn’t turn out well for anyone! On the other hand, David, who’d been a teen when anointed king by Samuel, spent at least fifteen years waiting for the crown. Twice during that time he passed up the opportunity to speed things along by killing King Saul. Instead, he chose to trust in God’s timing saying, ”Surely the Lord will strike Saul down someday, or he will die of old age or in battle.” [2 Samuel 26:10]

God answers our prayers the moment we speak them; it’s just that we don’t immediately know His answer. It could be “Yes!” or, if what we asked isn’t in His will, “No!” After all, God might have something better in store for us! Sometimes, however, God’s answer is, “Not right now!” Those prayers go on the back burner to simmer until God’s time is right (or He tells us, “No!”)

Putting prayers on the back burner doesn’t mean we stop praying them any more than putting that stock pot on the back burner means the chef turned off the stove or forgot about it. It simply means that we have given our prayer over to the fullness of God’s time.

Persistent praying never faints or grows weary. It is never discouraged. It never yields to cowardice. It is motivated and sustained by a hope that knows no despair, and a faith that will not let go. Persistent praying has patience to wait and strength to continue. It never prepares itself to quit praying, and it refuses to get up from its knees until an answer is received. [E. M. Bounds]

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think. [Ephesians 3:20 (NLT)]

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POSSIBILITIES

He [Jesus] asked, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many? [John 6:5,7-9 (ESV)]

great egretTwo disciples, Philip and Andrew, are mentioned in John’s account of the day Jesus fed over 5,000 with a boy’s lunch. When Jesus asked Philip where they could find food enough for all of the people, the right answer would have been, “Lord, you have the power to feed them all.” Instead, Philip, who may have been the first century equivalent of an accountant before following Jesus, immediately did a feasibility study and figured the massive expense. Ignoring the solution standing in front of him, he only saw impossibility.

On the other hand, we have Andrew. Perhaps before becoming a disciple, Andrew was the equivalent of a corporate recruiter; Andrew looked for potential and promise. The first thing he did after deciding to follow Jesus was to get his brother Simon and bring him to the Messiah. When faced with a hungry crowd, Andrew simply scanned the countryside to see what assets were available. Even though he knew the boy’s lunch wasn’t enough to feed a multitude, seeing its potential, he offered what little food there was to Jesus.

One disciple saw why something couldn’t be done while the other saw possibility in a meager offering. Philip saw only what was missing but Andrew saw the assets around them. One said there wasn’t enough and the other, even knowing it wasn’t sufficient, offered what little there was and expected Jesus to make it enough.

Nearly three years ago, a handful of people gathered in a park gazebo and started a church. The Philip in us looked at what we had and figured it was impossible—too little money and too few people. Even though we knew it wasn’t enough, the Andrew in us heard Jesus’ call and faithfully presented what we had to Him. In Jesus’ hands, our insufficiency became more than enough. Even though COVID-19 has prevented us from meeting in-person since mid-March, we’re on solid ground financially and able to tithe our funds to those in need. Our on-line services and App have kept our church family connected and enabled us to spread the message to thousands all over the world. Perhaps it was for such as time as this that God took our not enough, multiplied it, and enabled us to feed so many.

When God calls us, we often answer His call by seeing only what we’re lacking—whether time, energy, experience, people, money, or something else. The question, however, isn’t how we’ll respond with so little but what God will do with what we have! God’s math isn’t like man’s. The One who multiplied five barely loaves and two fish to end up with food enough to feed a multitude can multiply potential in amazing ways. As Andrew did with the boy’s meager offering, let us offer what we have and trust God to make it sufficient.

When they laughed at St. Theresa when she wanted to build a great orphanage, and had but three shillings to begin with, she answered, “With three shillings Theresa can do nothing; but with God and her three shillings there is nothing which Theresa cannot do.” Do not let us imagine, then, that we are too poor, or too stupid, or too ignorant, or too obscure to do any real good in the world wherein God has placed us. [Frederic Farrar]

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. [2 Corinthians 9:8 (ESV)]

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LOST AND FOUND

After three days they found Jesus sitting in the Temple with the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. … When Jesus’ parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, “Son, why did you do this to us? Your father and I were very worried about you and have been looking for you.” Jesus said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [Luke 2:46-49 (NCV)]

nativity

Last month, during my pre-dawn walks, I enjoyed seeing the bright holiday lights decorating many of our community’s homes. One morning, I passed by a beautifully lit arbor surrounding a nativity scene. Even though the twinkle lights and star didn’t fully illuminate the figures below them, I took a photo and hoped that a little Photoshop magic would result in a picture for a future devotion. When I finally got around to editing the photo, I discovered that Jesus was missing from the scene!

The missing baby reminded me of when my daughter’s family visited us several years ago. The young cousins were playing together at my son’s home. While the adults talked, the girls investigated the many toys in Mali’s toy chest. When Bree discovered parts from the Fisher Price Noah’s ark and nativity sets, she and Mali started rummaging through the box to find their various pieces. Bree started explaining the two stories to her younger cousin as they organized the figures. After digging to the bottom of the box, they realized one figure was missing. The girls jumped up and frantically dashed through the house toward Mali’s bedroom shouting, “We’ve lost baby Jesus!” Fortunately, after a thorough search, the missing baby was found among a few dust bunnies under Mali’s bed.

Mary and Joseph lost Jesus after they’d been in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The city’s population had quadrupled as caravans of Jews from all over came to observe the holiday. Somehow, in the mayhem of people gathering to return to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lost track of their boy and left Jerusalem without Him. Perhaps the people with the missing figure in their nativity had overlooked Jesus in a dark corner of their attic or lost him in the confusion of cartons and crates when they came to Florida. Like Mary, Joseph, and the little cousins, they didn’t notice they’d lost Jesus until they wanted Him! The same thing can happen to us in the challenges and chaos of our busy lives. Sometimes, we forget to bring Jesus with us and don’t even notice He’s missing until we need Him.

It’s important to remember that even though Mary and Joseph lost Jesus, they didn’t lose their relationship with Him. He remained their son but, by leaving Him behind, they lost His presence. The same thing can happen with us. When we lose Jesus, we don’t lose the salvation that comes with our relationship but we do lose His fellowship, our sense of His presence, and His peace and joy.

When the sheep can’t find the shepherd, it’s not the shepherd who is lost. The good shepherd is exactly where He belongs; it’s the sheep that have strayed. In actuality, Mary and Joseph were the ones who were lost, not Jesus. He was where He belonged—in His Father’s house studying God’s word. Our Lord promises He’ll never leave us but that pesky thing called free will allows us to leave Him and walk off on our own. When we feel empty or alone, when we wonder where Jesus is in our trouble, Jesus hasn’t forgotten about us. We are the ones who forgot and lost Him!

Yesterday, I walked by the house with the missing baby Jesus and was pleased to see that he’d been found and was in his rightful place. When Jesus is missing in our lives, like Joseph, Mary, Bree, Mali, and the people with the nativity scene, we must search until we find Him. Rather than looking in dark corners or under the bed, the first place to look might be where we’d expect to find Him—in His Father’s house and in His word.

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord. [Jeremiah 29:13-14a (NLT)]

Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. [Psalm 105:4 (NLT)]

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GOD SHOTS

Give thanks to the Lord of lords. His faithful love endures forever. Give thanks to him who alone does mighty miracles. His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 136:3-4 (NLT)]

sunflowerAfter hearing people say, “It’s a miracle!” regarding the speedy development of the COVID-19 vaccines, I began to wonder what constitutes a miracle. In his book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem defines a miracle as “a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself.” I’m not a theologian but his definition seems to qualify a miraculous event by its infrequency and awesomeness rather than its nature. By his definition, last month’s “great” conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn might qualify. It certainly was awesome and, since that hasn’t happened at night for nearly 800 years, it certainly qualifies as uncommon. It was, however, predictable and the two planets will be even closer together the night of December 25, 2874. I prefer Pastor Taylor Krug’s definition:  “A miracle is a particular event that occurs within the natural world that cannot be sufficiently explained with a perfect science and an exhaustive understanding of the cosmos.”

Yet, even with Krug’s definition, I can’t clearly draw the line between an amazing inexplicable incident and a sure-fire miracle. Sometimes people, places, and things intersect in extraordinary and mystifying ways. I have a friend who calls these profound happenings that defy explanation “God shots.” While writing about the SK8 church yesterday, I thought of the bizarre coincidences that brought us together.

Our association with the ministry began with a haircut. When my hairdresser closed shop, I picked a new salon from the phone book and took the first available appointment. Because of a last minute conflict, I had to reschedule and got a different stylist. We talked while she worked and our exchange took an unusual turn toward Jesus and our mutual faith. Then, for some odd reason, the conversation turned to our family business. Learning we make a product for skateboards, she told me about her involvement in a skateboarder ministry. The next morning, the coffee shop barista recognized our company logo on my husband’s cap and told us her dad had started a SK8 church. Almost immediately, her father came in to post a SK8 church notice on the bulletin board. We introduced ourselves and our association began—all because of a haircut at a randomly selected salon and a baseball cap. While not miraculous, I think that qualifies as a God shot.

During the years, we continued to see these God shots at SK8 church. Someone totally unrelated to the ministry or skateboarding was given a PlayStation he didn’t want. Rather than selling it, he brought it to the SK8 church. Why them and not EBay? Only God knows. The following afternoon, a woman with no connection to the church gave them her old car. What seemed like an odd donation actually was the timely answer to a prayer. You see, living at the church was a homeless young man who’d just gotten a job but had no way to get to it. A coincidence or the hand of God?

When the SK8 church wanted to build a skateboard bowl, they had the materials and workers one weekend but not the expertise. When the pastor called a professional boarder for technical advice, instead of giving advice, the pro drove from Missouri to Colorado the next day. He preached to the kids that night and directed the building project throughout the weekend. The God shot? He originally had a professional obligation for that weekend but it had been cancelled only minutes before the pastor’s call.

From our viewpoint, much of life seems incredibly random but we must remember that our sovereign God always is in control. He both causes things to happen as he did when a supposedly random arrow killed wicked King Ahab but He also allows things to happen, as He did when Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery and Satan plagued Job. Whether the incredible speed with which these COVID vaccines were developed qualifies as miraculous, I don’t know but, without a doubt, God’s hand was in it. Thank you, Lord!

Praise the Lord! Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. Who can list the glorious miracles of the Lord? Who can ever praise him enough? [Psalm 106:1-2 (NLT)]

O Lord my God, you have performed many wonders for us. Your plans for us are too numerous to list. You have no equal. If I tried to recite all your wonderful deeds, I would never come to the end of them. [Psalm 40:5 (NLT)]

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