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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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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WORRYWARTS

Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. [Philippians 4:6-7 (MSG)]

Here’s a little song I wrote, You might want to sing it note for note,
Don’t worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double. Don’t worry, be happy,
Don’t worry, be happy now. [Bobby McFerrin]

water lily“Don’t worry, be happy,” sang Bobby McFerrin. Right now, for many of us, that’s easier sung than done. This pandemic has turned our lives upside down. Between rising numbers of COVID cases and concern about on-line schooling, money troubles, closing businesses, political divisiveness, and quarantining, it’s hard not to worry!

The word “worry” comes from the old English wyrgan meaning “to strangle” which led to the Middle English meaning “to slay, kill or injure by biting and shaking the throat” (as a dog or wolf might to a lamb). By the 17th century, the verb “worry” also meant “to bother, distress or persecute” and, by the 19th century, the noun meant “anxiety arising from cares or troubles.” All of these meanings ring true. Worry can strangle us with fear and indecision or seize and tear us apart by destroying our confidence, health and relationships. With the ferocity of a wolf, it can intimidate us, attack our plans, shake our faith, and hound our every thought. Fretfulness, sleepless nights, stress, and angst—all come from worry.

While “worrywart” is often used to describe someone who worries excessively by dwelling on the possibility of trouble or difficulty, it originally meant something else entirely. In 1922, Out Our Way, a comic strip depicting rural American life drawn by J.R. Williams, made its debut and a recurring character was the Worry Wart, a young boy (who frequently was accompanied by his mangy dog). Worry Wart wasn’t a worrier; instead, he was a pest who frustrated and worried his parents. Oblivious to the world around him, his schemes and foolhardy actions annoyed others and caused them anxiety!

The term “worrywart” may have gotten its present meaning in 1956 when it was used by Ivan Belknap in a book outlining problems in state mental hospitals. “Worrywart” was used to describe a particularly delusional kind of patient who’d abandoned all reasonable thinking. We don’t have to be patients in an asylum to abandon reasonable thinking; all we have to do is worry! With worry, a simple problem can turn into a major disaster and fill our minds with all sorts of horrible and improbable scenarios. Worse, because our worry often causes those around us their own stress and anxiety, we become as disruptive and bothersome as the original Worry Wart. Worry doesn’t just drive us crazy; because it’s as contagious as measles or COVID, it drives everyone around us crazy, too!

Every day we have a choice; trust God or worry. When we’re unwilling to trust Him to handle things, worry is the inevitable result. Since worry does nothing but steal our joy and rob us of a good night’s sleep, trust seems the better choice. Trusting God with the future, however, means ceding control of tomorrow (and every day after) to Him. That’s difficult if we secretly harbor the belief that we are the ones running the universe. Fortunately, we’re not—that’s God’s job, and His alone. Today, let’s hand Him our worries and choose to trust Him with our concerns.

Father, keep us from worry and from causing others to grow anxious. Lighten our heavy hearts and the hearts of those around us. Help us all to surrender our concerns, burdens and fears to you. Fill us with your peace.

Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength [Corrie ten Boom]

For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe. [Larry Eisenberg]

People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes. [Matthew 6:32-34 (MSG)]

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NOT GOOD ENOUGH

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. [Romans 3:23 (NLT)]

bindweedWhen I was in college, most of the girls in my sorority house played bridge. After watching a few games, newcomers would sit in and learn from the more experienced players as they played. We novices lost a lot of games in the process but, eventually, we became good players. One friend, however, wanted to start as an expert. She sat alone in her room with a deck of cards and a bridge book trying to teach herself. Unwilling to make rookie mistakes, she wouldn’t play a hand until she was a skilled player; that day never came. She wasn’t much different from the people who say they’ll join a gym once they’ve gotten in better shape; rarely does that day come either.

Bridge is an experience-based game; in order to get good at it, you have to be willing to be bad at first. No one starts by winning every hand just like no one begins at the gym as fit as ninja stunt-woman Jessie Graff or The Titan Games’ Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson. Even the legendary Charles Atlas started out as a “97-pound weakling.”

Just as feeling incompetent might keep us from playing a card game or feeling uncomfortable in spandex can keep us from the gym, being weighed down with self-judgment, shame and feelings of inadequacy can keep us from God and fellowship with our sisters and brothers in Christ. Some people think they can’t come to church until their lives are less messy or their addiction under control while others think they can’t join a small group or do a Bible study because they don’t know enough Scripture or are in the midst of a divorce. God doesn’t require life masterpoints to come to His table nor does He expect the power and strength of competitive athletes. Rather than a country club for saints, His church is a hospital for sinners!

Romans 3:23 confirms what we all know; we’re sinners and not a one of us meets God’s glorious standard. The enemy wants us to stop reading right there. Whispering, “You’re not good enough,” he wants us filled with regret, self-doubt, and guilt so that we’re unwilling to bare our shabby souls before God. He wants us to believe that we’ll never be good enough to enter God’s presence, come before Him with our prayers, enjoy fellowship with His Son, be His son or daughter, or eat at His table. The enemy is partially right; there’s nothing we can do on our own to be good enough. The work Jesus did on the cross would have no value if we could make ourselves learn, earn, or work our way into God’s presence! The good news is found in the rest of Paul’s letter to the Romans: it’s the power of Jesus that makes us good enough to come into God’s presence and do His work!

Good enough, however, is not perfect and we will continue to have shortcomings. Like playing bridge, walking with Jesus is experience-based and we’ll make plenty of mistakes in the journey. But, if we keep at it, we’ll get better. Like the trainer at the gym, Jesus welcomes us as 97-pound weaklings but He doesn’t expect us to stay that way. Like any trainer, He’s going to challenge us to become stronger and better. Remember, God loved us so much that He gave His only son for our salvation. If that’s good enough for Him, it’s good enough for me.

Why God should choose the meanest, basest, most unworthy individuals with absolutely nothing to commend them at all to God, except their miserable, lost condition, and then exalt them to become the sons of God, members of the divine family, and use them for His glory, is beyond all reason and human understanding. Yet that is grace. [M.R. DeHaan]

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. … Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us. [Romans 8:1,32-34 (NLT)]

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KEEP CALM AND PRAY ON

Naples FL sunsetDon’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you. [Isaiah 41:10 (MSG)]

The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,” your love, God, took hold and held me fast. When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up. [Psalm 94:18-19 (MSG)]

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British government produced three posters to be used in the event of war. Printed with the goal of reassuring the public of the nation’s ultimate victory, the posters featured a plain background, a small crown logo on top, and simple block lettering. The two posters that were distributed said, “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might” and “Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory.” The third poster, with its message to “Keep calm and carry on” was only to be issued in the event of a German invasion. Fortunately, it never was needed. In 1945, most of the “Keep calm” posters were destroyed and forgotten until some were discovered and popularized sixty years later. In spite of the unsettled political climate in our nation, freedom doesn’t seem to be in peril but, if there ever were a time we need, pluck, optimism, determination, and composure, it is now!

Since we’ve been invaded by COVID, I’ve seen several memes with variations on the “Keep calm” posters. They suggest everything from keeping calm and washing our hands, quarantining on, masking up, and staying home, to drinking wine, baking brownies, eating chocolate, blaming someone else, and calling Batman. One simply said “Now panic and freak out!” When faced with a disaster, misfortune, or major mess up, I admit to having done nearly all of those things (except call Batman) but none did much to calm my troubled soul. Perhaps the Christian’s versions of the original poster would have a cross on the top and include suggestions to keep calm and pray on, remember God loves us, or trust in the Lord and His plan. At least, those suggestions would work!

Let’s remember: Jesus stilled the water and waves on the Sea of Galilee with just a word! If He can do that, He is more than capable of calming our troubled hearts and quieting every storm in our lives, even a global pandemic! In the face of life’s predicaments, troubles, uncertainties, and calamities, let us choose to carry on with courage, cheerfulness, and resolution by keeping calm and praying on!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed. Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan. [John Bunyan]

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (MSG)]

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