FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT

For I am already being poured out as a drink-offering; my departure time has arrived. I have fought the good fight; I have completed the course; I have kept the faith. What do I still have to look for? The crown of righteousness! The Lord, the righteous judge, will give it to me as my reward on that day – and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing. [2 Timothy 4:6-8 (NTE)]

Although the Apostle Paul seems to have mixed figures of speech by referring to the military with “fought” and “fight,” athletics with “race,” and religion with “faith,” all three references relate to athletics. The word used for fought was agónizomai (the root word for the English word “agonize”) which meant “to contend for a prize” or “struggle.” The word translated as “fight” was agōna, meaning “a gathering, contest, struggle.” Rather than a conflict or dispute, it referred to a gathering to see contests like the ancient games held at Olympia or the games themselves. Paul’s audience would have understood that he meant something grueling and, in their 1st century world, athletic competitions were so fierce and brutal that even the winners usually carried scars.

Continuing the theme of athletics, the word usually translated as race or course, was dromos and literally meant a race course or track and the word translated as faith, pistis, referred to a guarantee or warranty that the contender fulfilled his obligations honorably. When Paul spoke of the crown awaiting him, rather than diádēma, meaning a royal crown made of gold and precious stones, he used stephanos which was the circular wreath or garland awarded to victors in ancient athletic games. We could paraphrase Paul’s words as “I have competed well in the struggles of life. I followed the course God set before me, wasn’t disqualified, faithfully finished what I began, and won the victor’s wreath.”

When reading Paul’s words, I remembered the story of John Stephen Akhwari, a marathon runner representing Tanzania in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Having come from a nation with an average altitude of 2,769 feet, the over 7,300-foot altitude of the city caused the runner to cramp up early in the race. Nevertheless, Akhwari kept going. When jockeying for position at the 19K mark, however, he collided with another runner, fell down, injured his shoulder, and cut and dislocated his knee. Seeing his injuries, spectators assumed he would quit (as 18 of the original 75 runners eventually did). The Tanzanian runner, however, chose to fight the good fight and complete the course. After getting his leg bandaged, in spite of the altitude, heat, pain, and knowledge that he couldn’t even place in the race, Akhwari continued.

More than an hour after the winner had crossed the finish line and the medals had been awarded, when the sun had set and the stands were nearly empty, John Stephen Akhwari hobbled into the stadium to complete the 42K race he’d begun nearly three-and-a-half hours earlier. With the few spectators remaining in the stadium cheering him on, Akhwari stepped up his pace and finished the race by running the last hundred meters. When asked why he finished the course, he simply replied, “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race; they sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”

Akhwari didn’t receive a medal or a wreath at the 1968 Olympics, but he was the real hero of that race because he did more than start—he finished what he’d begun in spite of overwhelming obstacles. He kept the pistis. Do we have that same kind of determination to fight the good fight—against Satan, disappointment, discouragement, discomfort, and pain? Are we as determined as were the Apostle and Akhwari to finish the course that God has set before us? Will we keep the faith by finishing our course without fouling out or quitting? Of course, in an athletic contest, there’s only one winner—only one gold medal or wreath to place on the victor’s head. The crown of righteousness, however, is available for all who fight the good fight, finish the race, and keep the faith!

Just as coaches use Akhwari’s story to inspire their runners, Paul is encouraging young Timothy to let the Apostle’s story inspire him. May both of their stories inspire us!

Life is a fight, and only the faithful will finish strong. [Brian Tome]

Don’t you know that when people run on the race-track everybody runs, but only one person gets the prize? Run in such a way that you’ll win it. Everyone who goes in for athletics exercises self-discipline in everything. They do it to gain a crown that perishes; we do it for an imperishable one. Well then: I don’t run in an aimless fashion! I don’t box like someone punching the air! No: I give my body rough treatment, and make it my slave, in case, after announcing the message to others, I myself should end up being disqualified. [1 Corinthians 9:25 (NTE)]

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THE SKINK

Oh, that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest! I would fly far away to the quiet of the wilderness. How quickly I would escape—far from this wild storm of hatred. [Psalm 55:6-8 (NLT)]

five-lined southwestern skinkThe skink is a reptile that looks as if it can’t decide whether it’s a lizard or a snake. As one scampered away down the boardwalk, it looked more lizard-like than usual because it was missing the pointed end of his long tail. Like many lizards, if a predator manages to catch a skink by the tail, the tail will break off. Since the detached tail continues to wiggle, the predator gets distracted which allows the lizard to escape.  Even though a raccoon, snake, or hawk had appropriated its tail, that skink escaped to see another day. Although skinks don’t have much with which to defend themselves, with their detachable tails (caudal autonomy), God provided them with an effective mode of escaping trouble!

Like the skink, we all want to be able to escape when disaster occurs. The Department of Transportation designates evacuation routes in case of a hurricane and public buildings mark exits and stairwells so we can flee in case of fire, but we wish to escape from more than storms and burning buildings. We want to flee from things like chronic pain, stage-4 cancer, paralysis, Parkinson’s, or MS. We wonder where the emergency exit is when caregiving for a spouse disabled by stroke, an elderly parent with dementia, or a child with cerebral palsy. Where do we go to flee from a loved one’s addiction, the loneliness of widowhood, overwhelming debt, a troubled marriage, or the consequences of our failings? There are, however, no detachable tails or specially marked exits for those situations.

Adam and Eve ran from God after eating the forbidden fruit, the pregnant Hagar ran away from Sarai’s harsh treatment of her, Jonah ran the opposite way when God told him to go to Nineveh, and Elijah tried to escape Jezebel’s wrath by fleeing to Beersheba. Running and hiding, however, didn’t keep God from finding them and setting them back on the path He set for them. Unlike the skink, they couldn’t turn tail (or leave their tails behind) and run away; neither can we. Although some people try to flee their difficulties through abandonment, denial, addiction, or emotional detachment, their troubles eventually catch up with them. Instead of escaping like a skink, we have to turn around and face our troubles head on as did Adam, Eve, Hagar, Jonah, and Elijah.

While God doesn’t promise to fix our problems, He does promise we’ll not face them alone. Unlike the skink whose only defense is a detachable tail, God has provided us with His armor, the power of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Heavenly Father, when we want to flee, please give us the strength and courage to meet our challenges face to face. We know we can’t do it alone but, with you, all things are possible.

Don’t pray to escape trouble. Don’t pray to be comfortable in your emotions. Pray to do the will of God in every situation. Nothing else is worth praying for. [Samuel M. Shoemaker]

But I will call on God, and the Lord will rescue me. Morning, noon, and night I cry out in my distress, and the Lord hears my voice. He ransoms me and keeps me safe from the battle waged against me, though many still oppose me. … Give your burdens to the Lord, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. [Psalm 55:16-18,22 (NLT)]

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ALEXAMENOS

“I’ve said these things to you,” Jesus went on, “to stop you from being tripped up. They will put you out of the synagogues. In fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will suppose that they are in that way offering worship to God. They will do these things because they haven’t known the father, or me. But I have been talking to you about these things so that, when their time comes, you will remember that I told you about them.” [John 16:1-4 (NLT)]

Locarno-Madonna del SassowIn any cathedral or art museum, we’ll find many pictures of Jesus and even rather graphic depictions of Him on the cross. None of them, however, tell us anything about His appearance because they were created long after His time. Still, in a world where we seem to memorialize everything with pictures, you’d think one of Jesus’ followers would have sketched Him while blessing the children, giving the Sermon on the Mount, or feeding the multitude! 1st century rabbis in Judah, however, vehemently objected to the depiction of human figures because the second commandment prohibited making a “graven image.” With its Jewish roots, this prohibition carried into the early church and inhibited early Christian art.

At first, Jesus was represented indirectly by symbols such as the peacock, lamb, dove, and anchor. One of the most common was the ichthus (fish) because the Greek word served as an acronym “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” While making the sign of the cross dated from sometime in the second century, because of its connection with the horrific death of criminals, the cross did not became a symbol of Christianity until the 4th century; crucifixes and other depictions of the crucifixion did not occur until the 6th.

One earlier depiction of Jesus’ crucifixion, however, does exist. Crudely scratched into a stone wall, it was discovered in 1857 during an excavation of the Paedagogiumon (a school for the training of slaves) on Rome’s Palatine Hill. Dating from around 200 AD, it shows a man (or boy) worshiping a figure on a cross; the figure, however, has the head of an ass. The inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships his God.” This derisive graffiti gives us an idea of the way early Christians were ridiculed for worshiping a man who had been executed as a criminal.

Along with claims of onolatry (donkey worship), the early Christians had to deal with several other disparaging, malicious, and false accusations such as incest, cannibalism, and drinking the blood of infants. Roman orator Marcus Cornelius Fronto (c. 100-160) wrote that Christians were “initiated by the slaughter and the blood of an infant” and that Christianity was “foolish” because, “they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument itself of his punishment” and “are said to worship the head of an ass.”

This was the world—a world that misunderstood, slandered, ridiculed, hated and persecuted them—of the early Christians. And yet, they proceeded in faith and spread the gospel. I wonder how the 21st century church would do in similar circumstances! As for Alexamenos, the fellow mocked by that ancient graffiti—more graffiti was found on a wall in an adjacent room. In Latin it said, “Alexamenos is faithful.”  In the face of opposition, we must be the same!

Think back on those early days when you first learned about Christ. Remember how you remained faithful even though it meant terrible suffering. Sometimes you were exposed to public ridicule and were beaten, and sometimes you helped others who were suffering the same things. You suffered along with those who were thrown into jail, and when all you owned was taken from you, you accepted it with joy. You knew there were better things waiting for you that will last forever. So do not throw away this confident trust in the Lord. Remember the great reward it brings you! [Hebrews 10:32-35 (NLT)]

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CURSE THE DAY! (Part 1)

Curse that day for failing to shut my mother’s womb, for letting me be born to see all this trouble. Why wasn’t I born dead? Why didn’t I die as I came from the womb? [Job 3:10-11 (NLT)]

baby feetAfter Satan took Job’s loved ones and wealth, the grieving man remained a pillar of patience and faith. Rather than blaming God, the stoic man acknowledged God’s sovereign authority saying, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” [1:21]

Things took a turn for the worse when Satan attacked Job’s body. With boils from head to foot, Job’s body was covered with scabs, pus oozed from his sores, his skin was black and peeling, and maggots fed on him. As if that weren’t enough, the man suffered from insomnia, nightmares, fever, and pain in his bones. His symptoms sound as horrific and deadly as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever.

When Job’s wife told him to curse God and die, the faithful man responded, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” [2:10] Although he seemed resigned to his fate, the despondent Job came dangerously close to falling into Satan’s trap when, in Job 3, he questioned God’s wisdom in giving him life.

I can understand someone like Job, someone suffering terribly who sees no end to the misery, wishing for a quick end to his life and praying for the release offered by death. What I find difficult to understand is Job’s wish that he’d never been born. Cursing the day of his birth and the night of his conception, the despairing man literally wished his life erased from its existence.

Until Satan’s attack, Job’s life appears to have been picture perfect for decades. With his many servants and more than 10,000 head of livestock, he was the richest man around. The father of seven sons and three daughters, he probably had numerous grandchildren. The family regularly gathered together for long feasts so they must have enjoyed each other’s company. A prominent man, well-respected in the community, Job was principled, generous and charitable. In spite of having everything his heart desired, Job’s heart remained set on God and the Lord called him, “the finest man on earth…blameless…a man of complete integrity.” [1:8] Yet, by cursing his very existence, Job wanted to obliterate all the blessings and joy that existed between his birth and his affliction.

In his pain, Job forgot about growing up in a loving home, playing with his brothers and sisters, the bliss of young love, the wonder of touching his wife’s belly and feeling his unborn child move, the delight of holding his children in his arms, the laughter of his family, the satisfaction that came from being able to right a wrong or help the poor, and the joy of bouncing a grandchild on his knee. If he’d never been born, he would have missed sunrises and sunsets, the taste of grapes, the sound of birds’ songs, the pleasure of a kiss, and the joy of praising the Lord. Although Job began his story as a sterling example of accepting of God’s will when disaster strikes, cracks developed in his spirit as his suffering intensified.

Job’s outburst of despair, however, does not mean that Satan won. While Job cursed his day of birth, he never cursed God. Moreover, even though he wondered why people who longed for death continued to live, Job never considered suicide. Because he operated on a false retribution theology, Job believed that God had forsaken him. Rather than losing faith in God, he lost faith in himself.

For many of us, these last several months have challenged our physical, emotional, spiritual, and financial resources and, like Job, we may feel overwhelmed by all that has beset us. Job lost perspective; let us not do the same. God did not forsake Job and He has not forsaken you! We must never forget our past blessings or rue the day of our birth. After all, had we never been given life, we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to know Jesus, be born again, or enjoy eternal life!

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” [Hebrews 13:5-6 (NLT)]

Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my Savior and my God! [Psalm 43:5 (NLT)]

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PREFECT TIMING

God makes everything happen at the right time. Yet none of us can ever fully understand all he has done, and he puts questions in our minds about the past and the future. [Ecclesiastes 3:11 (CEV)]

Big Cypress Fox SquirrelSaturday mornings we usually walk through a nearby park that is home to a unique subspecies of squirrel found here in southwest Florida: the Big Cypress fox squirrel (or BCFS for short). Larger than a common gray squirrel, the BCFS has a black head and back, buff sides and belly, white ears and nose, and a long bushy tail.

We’re always on the lookout for these black-masked critters, but they are cautious and secretive and it had been two years since spotting one. Thinking the endangered rodent no longer inhabits the park, I’d given up hope of seeing one again. Recently, while trying to focus my camera on some holly berries, the shaking branches above them caused me to look up. A large BCFS was staring down at me and even stayed long enough for a photo! Our brief encounter was exactly what I needed to lift my spirits after several discouraging weeks. As I thanked God for the “Aha!” moment, I pondered how God’s timing is both unpredictable and perfect.

I’m not sure David thought God’s timing perfect while spending fifteen years on the run hiding from Saul and his army and I suppose the Israelites questioned God’s timing as they waited 400 years in Egypt and 40 more in the desert before entering the land promised to them. Joseph may have questioned God’s timing during the years he spent as a slave in prison before becoming Pharaoh’s second in command. Sarah and Abraham waited twenty-five years between God’s promise of a son and Isaac’s birth and, after waiting decades, Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up any hope of a child when she became pregnant with John. I look at my prayer list and see that God often seems painfully slow. Nevertheless, the squirrel’s unexpected appearance reminded me that God is present whether or not we see Him. Rather than losing hope, we must trust in His perfect timing.

Rather than providing photo ops, the squirrels’ lives revolve around berries, seeds, nuts, one another, and avoiding predators. They’ve been in the park all the time but, because my timing isn’t perfect, I missed seeing them. God’s timing, however, always is perfect. Like the squirrels, His purpose is not to satisfy or entertain us. God wants to teach us to trust Him as we grow more like Christ. While we may not always understand or appreciate His timing, the appearance of that BCFS was a reminder that faith in God means faith in His presence, plan, and timetable.

If the Lord Jehovah makes us wait, let us do so with our whole hearts; for blessed are all they that wait for Him. He is worth waiting for. The waiting itself is beneficial to us: it tries faith, exercises patience, trains submission, and endears the blessing when it comes. The Lord’s people have always been a waiting people. [Charles Spurgeon]

The Lord says: “My thoughts and my ways are not like yours. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, my thoughts and my ways are higher than yours. [Isaiah 55:8-9 (CEV)] 

Dear friends, don’t forget that for the Lord one day is the same as a thousand years, and a thousand years is the same as one day. [2 Peter 3:8 (CEV)]

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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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