COMPLETING THE RACE – Part 2

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. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]

Monday, when writing about stripping off the weight that keeps us from running the race God sets before us, I likened it to the actions of a triathlete. Whenever I attend one of my son’s triathlons, I’m part of an enormous crowd witnessing the event. Most are like me—trying to spot our loved ones’ swim cap bobbing in the water or their number as they speed past us on the course. Although we cheer, shake cowbells, carry posters, and yell encouraging words to all the racers, we are merely onlookers and few of us have any real idea of the challenges faced by each competitor. When reading of being surrounded by a crowd of witnesses during the race of faith in Hebrews 21:1, it first seems that these witnesses are like the crowd at a triathlon cheering on the athletes.

A look back at Hebrews 11, however, tells us those witnesses are not mere observers; they were participants in the same race! Having already crossed the finish line, they include such stellar names as Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and even Rahab. Without specifically naming them, the author also refers to the trials of people like Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, Stephen, James, Jeremiah, and Elijah. Not limited to ancient Biblical witnesses, we can be inspired by the witness of people like William Tyndale, Eric Liddell, C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Corrie Ten Boom, and Desmond Tutu. All of them encountered things like overwhelming challenges, torture, sickness, combat, beatings, oppression, poverty, hostility, and suffering beyond our wildest imaginings. When they stumbled, they got back up and kept going. Having persevered through doubt, distress, and anguish, their lives affirm God’s absolute faithfulness to them. Their witness of faithful service to God can inspire us to shed anything weighing us down and to faithfully continue running the course God has given us.

There are, however, another set of witnesses to our journey of faith. In his first triathlon, my son was a novice who naively thought that combining three sports in one race couldn’t be that difficult. He made mistakes in his choice of clothing, equipment, nutrition, and training. Although my son finished that first race (with soggy bike shorts and blistered feet), it was just a sprint triathlon. He knew he needed the wisdom and support of other triathletes if he ever hoped to complete an international/Olympic triathlon. Joining a tri club, he attended clinics, meetings, and group workouts where he learned about each discipline within a triathlon. He gained guidance, coaching, training opportunities, encouragement, and friends with whom to train.

If we want to finish well in our faith journey, rather than joining a tri club, we need to join with other Christians. Just as his fellow triathletes witnessed to my son about their experiences, it is our brothers and sisters in Christ who witness to us. Just as his teammates share their experiences, help him up when he falls, and encourage him when he struggles to keep going, our church family is there to encourage, guide, correct, and help us. Even though they haven’t completed their journey, they are well on their way to crossing the finish line. Like my son’s tri teammates, they’re more than mere onlookers; as living testifiers to a life of faith, they bear witness to us that running the race set before us is both doable and worthwhile.

By faith these people overthrew kingdoms, ruled with justice, and received what God had promised them. They shut the mouths of lions, quenched the flames of fire, and escaped death by the edge of the sword. Their weakness was turned to strength. They became strong in battle and put whole armies to flight. [Hebrews 11:34-34 (NLT)]

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COMPLETING THE RACE – 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. [Hebrews 12:1 (NLT)]


Next weekend, my son will be participating in Chicago’s triathlon during which he’ll swim nearly a mile, bike 24.8 miles, and finish up with a 6.2-mile run. Because it’s a grueling race that requires stripping off extraneous equipment twice, it reminds me of Hebrews 12:1. After coming out of the water, my son rushes to the first transition area while stripping off swim cap, goggles, and wet suit. Having worn shorts and shirt under the wet suit, he drops off his swim attire and dons his race bib, socks, shoes, helmet, and sunglasses before mounting his bike. Then, after biking nearly 25 miles, he makes his second transition by changing into running shoes and leaving behind his bike, helmet, and bike shoes. At each transition, he strips off any unnecessary gear that can slow him down. After all, the wet suit would be extra weight when biking as would be the bike and helmet during the run!

Although my son is a seasoned triathlete, he wasn’t when he did his first triathlon a dozen years ago in rural Illinois. Not knowing that seasoned triathletes don’t wear wetsuits designed for water sports, he wore the same wetsuit he used when wake boarding and diving. Wet suits made for triathlons, however, are designed to be taken off quickly for an easy transition and made of thinner lighter neoprene with a slippery outer coating that reduces drag and provides optimal swimming dynamics and speed. He also made the mistake of wearing regular bike shorts under his wetsuit. While bike shorts have the extra padding necessary for long rides, in a triathlon that padding acts like a sponge and holds onto the wetness from the swim along with any sweat from the ride and run. My son ended up biking and running in what felt like a toddler’s very wet and heavy soiled diaper! Instead of conserving energy and swimming, biking, and running faster, he was weighed down by his poor choice of equipment.

The race referred to in Hebrews 12, however, isn’t a triathlon; it is our journey of faith. Nevertheless, it is like a triathlon because it requires strength, determination, and endurance. It’s long and strenuous, often grueling, and comes with a variety of challenges and difficult transitions. The epistle’s writer tells us that we must cast off anything that hinders us in order to complete the journey. Rather than stripping off water-logged bike shorts or leaving behind the bike when we start to run, the believer needs to strip himself of the extra weight found in things like unbelieving friends, questionable activities, greed, fear, anxiety, bitterness, unconfessed sins, or doubt. Those can impede our progress and cause us to stumble as easily as can running a race in bike shoes.

There will be times when even the best prepared Christian will tire, falter, turn the wrong way, or consider quitting. Unlike a triathlon, however, the time it takes to complete the course doesn’t matter; finishing is the only thing that counts. Moreover, there is no winner in the race of faith—staying true to the course, no matter how long it takes, makes anyone a winner!

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:7-8 (NLT)]

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THE GAME OF LIFE

“What does God know?” they ask. “Does the Most High even know what’s happening?” Look at these wicked people—enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply. Did I keep my heart pure for nothing? Did I keep myself innocent for no reason? I get nothing but trouble all day long; every morning brings me pain. [Psalm 73:11-14 (NLT)]

Even before my children could read, we played Chutes and Ladders, a simple board game for youngsters with a goal of moving around the board and being the first one to reach the final square. Players who land on a good deed space get to take a shortcut up a ladder to see their reward. Players who land on a naughty square, however, face the consequences when they lose ground and slide down a chute. Planting seeds, for example, leads up a ladder to a pot of flowers but eating too much candy sends the player down the chute with a tummy ache. The game is supposed to reinforce the idea that good deeds are rewarded and bad behavior has consequences. While a good lesson, we grown-ups know that not every good deed is rewarded and not every bad one gets punished. Perhaps that other children’s game, The Game of Life, is closer to reality since, regardless of how virtuous the player is, he can still be fired, have a mid-life crisis, or experience a stock market slump. Yet, in that game, the player with the most money wins and, while we all like money, we also know that no amount of money makes us winners in this life (or the next).

Milton Bradley’s original game, The Checkered Game of Life, seems to reflect the unpredictability of life a bit better than either of the two games mentioned. A morality game pitting virtue against vice, Bradley’s 1860 version was not for preschoolers. Players moved ahead when landing on squares like Honesty or Influence but backwards on squares like Idleness. While School led to College and Perseverance to Success, Gambling led to Ruin and Intemperance to Poverty. Players earned points by landing on virtue squares like Wealth, Happiness, or Honor and lost them by landing on vice squares like Disgrace, Poverty, or Crime. If they had the ill-fortune of landing on Suicide, they were completely out of the game! Even the most virtuous of players had to navigate around or through those troublesome vice-filled squares before accumulating the 100 points needed to end the game at the final square: Happy Old Age.

We don’t have to play a game or read the Book of Job to know that life can seem as arbitrary as the spinner in a children’s game. None of us can control nature, time, chance, or other people. Like Job, we’ve all had had times when life seemed incredibly unjust—when we suffered from bad things we neither caused nor deserved. Like Solomon, we can’t understand how it is that bad people can have smooth sailing while good people often struggle to keep their heads above water. Nevertheless, there were times we benefitted from life’s capriciousness and escaped the consequences of our own poor behavior. Even though we should have, we didn’t slide back down the chute or take the trip to Disgrace.

When we play a game, once there’s a winner (or the kids get bored), the game is over. Fortunately, our game of life is not the sum total of our existence in this world—it is simply the prelude to the real one that will last forever. All that seems unfair or wrong here on earth is only temporary. In the end, something very bad will happen to those who don’t know Jesus and something very good will happen to those who do! Moreover, as Christians, we know that, no matter how the game ends in this life, we are winners in the next!

I have observed something else under the sun. The fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time. People can never predict when hard times might come. Like fish in a net or birds in a trap, people are caught by sudden tragedy. [Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (NLT)]

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PETER WENT FREE

O Sovereign Lord! You made the heavens and earth by your strong hand and powerful arm. Nothing is too hard for you! [Jeremiah 32:17 (NLT)]
angel

Herod Agrippa I was a good politician who knew how to manipulate people to gain their loyalty and support. When his approval rating went up after the execution of James, the king arrested Peter, the acknowledged leader of the apostles. Perhaps he thought by literally cutting off the head of this new sect, he could put an end to the troubling Nazarene movement. After imprisoning Peter, Agrippa planned to try and execute him once the Passover ended. The trial’s delay was because Jewish law did not allow for executions during the eight-day celebration.

Since this was Peter’s third arrest, Agrippa made sure he was not going to be released with a slap on the wrist or allowed to escape, as he’d previously done. Peter was guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.  Although a prisoner usually was attached by chain to one guard, Peter was chained to two soldiers while the other two guarded the door to his cell.

At this point, it appeared that evil had won. John and the others were mourning James’ death and Peter was in custody facing execution! Rather than lose heart, however, the church spent the eight days and nights of Passover fervently praying for Peter’s release. I suspect that while Peter was chained in his cell, when he wasn’t evangelizing his captors, he prayed as well. Herod may have had prisons and chains but the church had the power of prayer. On the night before his trial, Peter was miraculously freed by an angel. Herod Agrippa thought Peter was secure in prison but he didn’t take into account the power of God—the cross and sealed tomb couldn’t stop Jesus and a cell wouldn’t stop Peter!

What’s interesting in this narrative is that Peter thought it was just a dream when the chains fell from his wrists, the angel led him from the cell, and the gates opened by themselves. It wasn’t until the angel left him on the streets of Jerusalem that the apostle realized the Lord actually freed him! In the same way, in spite of their week of fervent prayers, when Peter appeared at the home where the church had gathered to pray, they were so astonished that their prayers were answered that they didn’t believe the servant who said Peter was at the door nor did they believe their eyes when they actually saw him! They were like the Iowa church during a several months’ long drought. When they called for a prayer meeting, everyone came and prayed for rain but nobody believed enough to arrive there with an umbrella!

As Puritan minister Thomas Watson pointed out, “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.” Even though the odds against Peter were astronomical, we should never bet against God nor should we be surprised when He answers our prayers or exceeds our expectations!

Forgive us, Lord, when we’re surprised by answers to our prayer; Increase our faith and teach us how to trust Your loving care. [Sper]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

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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A WORK IN PROGRESS

And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. [Philippians 1:6 (NLT)]

juvenile ibis - juvenile little blue heronWhenever I see immature white ibis or blue herons, I recall a picture that hung in my daughter’s bedroom. Beneath a drawing of a little girl in a pink dress were the words, “Be patient; God isn’t finished with me yet!” These birds, however, don’t need a sign to tell us that God isn’t finished with them; their varicolored plumage makes that abundantly clear. You see, for their first few years, they look like a work in progress. Instead of being born white, the newly hatched white ibis chicks start out grey but quickly turn dark brown. As they mature, the young birds become a haphazard patchwork of brown and white. By the end of their second year, they’re mostly white but it’s not until the end of their third year that they finally molt the last of their brown feathers. Unlike the ibis, the little blue herons start out pure white. Were it not for their greyish-green legs and bill, they look more like snowy egrets than blue herons for much of their first year. They turn into a patchwork of blue and white as they gradually molt into the dark slate-blue plumage of an adult by the end of their second year.

Today, I thought of those words about patience and being unfinished after berating myself for making a foolish and avoidable mistake. I spoke to myself in a way I’d never (or hardly ever) use with anyone else and called myself something that I wouldn’t call others (at least not out loud). Sometimes, it’s easier to be patient with a child than it is with ourselves. Perhaps, we need to remember that God isn’t finished with us, either!

Even though it may be less obvious, I’m as unfinished as an immature ibis or little blue heron! The birds, however, don’t have to make any effort for their colors to change—that automatically comes with time. For us, it’s a bit different. When God brought us from death into life in Christ, He loved us with all of our imperfections and faults. Nevertheless, just as He doesn’t leave those birds looking half-done, He’s not about to leave us the flawed way we began. Our sanctification began at the moment of salvation but it didn’t end there. No matter how old we are, God continues to give us opportunities to learn and grow. He expects us to actively strive for holiness and obedience so that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more and more like Jesus. Unlike the birds, however, we remain works in progress until our last day on earth. Remembering that we still are mid-design and won’t always get it right, let us be patient with ourselves until that day comes.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are co-workers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R. C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12-13 (NLT)]

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THE BETRAYAL

Listen to my prayer, O God. Do not ignore my cry for help! Please listen and answer me, for I am overwhelmed by my troubles. My enemies shout at me, making loud and wicked threats. They bring trouble on me and angrily hunt me down. … Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! [Psalm 55:1-3,6 (NLT)]

mourning dove
Psalm 55 describes a time in David’s life when he was being attacked by his enemies. Crying out to God, he wished for the wings of a dove so he could escape those who were hunting him down. What is unusual in this psalm is that David’s enemies were not adversaries like Philistines, Moabites, Ammonites, or Amalekites; the attack came from “my equal, my companion and close friend.” Commentators tend to place this psalm during the rebellion led by Absalom, David’s son. The friend about whom David speaks probably was Ahithophel. Once David’s trusted counselor, Ahithophel switched his loyalty to Absalom who was attempting to overthrow David’s kingship.

My brother-in-law was the picture of health until he was betrayed, but not by his best friend. His body betrayed him with Parkinson’s disease. Instead of deceit and arrows, he was attacked by muscle rigidity, poor balance, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing and speaking, dizziness, urinary problems, trouble standing and walking, fatigue, irregular blood pressure, depression, and finally mental decline. David eventually defeated his adversary; my brother-in-law did not. He surrendered last year as did my sister the previous year when her body overpowered her with the complications of multiple sclerosis. Rather than a child or friend, their bodies attacked them; even so, David’s words could have been theirs.

As I read David’s psalm this morning, I thought of friends who, like David, wish they could run from their troubles and escape to a safe place where their enemy couldn’t follow. Unfortunately, wherever they run their enemy follows because, as with my brother-in-law and sister, the traitor is their body. Recently, a friend with MS was unable to join my husband for coffee because his legs “wouldn’t cooperate” and he couldn’t get into his car! Two of the men with him at coffee have spouses whose bodies have conspired against them with dementia. Sadly, they are not the only ones we know whose bodies are progressively betraying them. Whether it’s MS, ALS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoporosis, COPD, cancer, the aftereffects of a stroke, or some other incapacitating disorder, David’s words could easily have been written by them or anyone else with a chronic condition.

As much as David wanted to escape his troubles and flee, he couldn’t and, as much as people suffering from a debilitating physical condition would like to escape theirs, it can’t be done either. Rather than fleeing from his situation, however, David called God into it and expressed confidence that the Lord would hear his voice. In the end, his prayer of despair became one of faith. Sure that God would sustain him in his trouble, David submitted the situation to the will of God. When faced with insurmountable trouble, prayer is all we have. For a believer, prayer is all that is needed because we know that God already has saved us!

Heavenly Father, we offer prayers for those who are suffering from debilitating ailments. Fortify their faith in the challenging days they face and reassure them of your presence. Give them courage to face their difficult tomorrows, however many or few they may be. When their battle is over, gently carry them to your heavenly place of rest where pain is no longer experienced and bodies are no longer broken.

He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign Lord will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The Lord has spoken! [Isaiah 25:8 (NLT)]

For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. [2 Corinthians 5:1-3 (NLT)]

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