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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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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PATIENCE

In that day the people will proclaim, “This is our God in whom we trust, for whom we waited. Now at last he is here.” What a day of rejoicing! [Isaiah 25:9 (TLB)]

Come, Thou long expected Jesus Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us, Let us find our rest in Thee. [Charles Wesley]

giftMy daughter has become quite adept at hiding Christmas gifts from her husband. If she doesn’t, he will find the presents and open them early; patience is not one of his strong suits. It wasn’t one of Sarah and Abraham’s either. Although they’d been promised a son and many descendants, they grew impatient waiting and took matters into their own hands. Sarah gave Abraham her maidservant Hagar with whom to make a child. Although she made the offer, he didn’t have to accept—but he did. The boy Ishmael was the result of their rashness and the rivalry and strife that continue today in the Middle East came from that impatience. Like Sarah and Abraham, when my son-in-law knows a gift is coming, he just can’t wait until the correct time to receive it. Fortunately, while his wife may get annoyed when he takes matters into his own hands, his impulsiveness hasn’t resulted in centuries of international conflict.

Consider the people of Judah—they’d waited centuries for God’s promise to be fulfilled with the Messiah and most of them completely missed their gift. Tired of waiting, some lost faith and hope; they stopped looking for Him. Having anticipated royalty rather than an itinerant preacher, others didn’t recognize Him. Wanting someone to conquer Rome rather than sin, still others didn’t accept Him. Fortunately, my son-in-law isn’t like that. Even when he’s unsuccessful in his search for the gift, he never gives up. He knows it eventually will appear. Moreover, unlike the Judeans, he won’t ignore the package if it isn’t wrapped in fancy paper with an elaborate bow or reject it because it doesn’t fit his expectations.

David had to wait for God’s promise to materialize but, unlike Like Sarah, Abraham, and Judah, he waited patiently and never gave up hope. After being anointed by Samuel, he had to wait about fifteen years until being crowned king. He didn’t spend that time trying to force his kingship to happen nor did he sit idly and twiddle his thumbs impatiently. He wisely trusted God. The shepherd boy used his waiting time to prepare for the challenges of kingship by growing physically, intellectually, and spiritually so he was ready to receive his crown when God gave it to him.

Unlike David, Sarah, Abraham, and the Jews, my son-in-law knows exactly when his Christmas gifts will arrive—December 25! Unfortunately, when waiting on God to act, we rarely have a calendar marked with His delivery date and we certainly don’t know the date of Christ’s return. Needing patience, we can’t be like Sarah and Abraham who tried to make things happen before the appointed time. Needing faith, we can’t be like the Jews who stopped looking and believing in God’s promised provision. Instead, we must be like David who waited with patience and faith while readying himself for the receipt of God’s promised provision.

When He returns is not as important as the fact that we are ready for Him when He does return. [A.W. Tozer] 

Don’t be impatient. Wait for the Lord, and he will come and save you! Be brave, stouthearted, and courageous. Yes, wait and he will help you. [Psalm 27:14 (TLB)]

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FAIRY TALE ENDINGS

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death?. [Romans 8:35,38-39 (NLT)]

blue flag irisAs a child, I loved the way fairy tales always ended with these words: “and they lived happily ever after.” Real life, however, is anything but a fairy tale. I suspect that after Cinderella and the Prince had two kids, she went right back to cooking and cleaning all day and never went to another ball. Prince Eric’s fondness for ahi tuna sushi and sashimi led to his divorce from Ariel for irreconcilable differences. Snow White ended up under arrest for dwarf exploitation and trafficking in blood diamonds while Barbie, who turned 60 last year, keeps undergoing plastic surgery in an unsuccessful attempt to regain her youth. Because of Ken’s bad investments, their dream house went into foreclosure and their dream cars, boat and motor home were repossessed. In real life, no fairy godmother shows up with a magic wand to turn pumpkins into carriages, mice into horses, and our sweetest dreams into reality.

The “grown-up” life we expected at age ten probably bears little resemblance to our present reality. Naively, we were sure that life would be easy for us. We envisioned a life that went according to plan, never expecting that circumstances beyond our control could leave a loved one dead or take away our business. If we anticipated marriage, we didn’t picture things like infidelity or “irreconcilable differences.” We certainly didn’t consider the possibilities of job loss, unpaid bills, or bankruptcy. Piles of laundry, dirty dishes, or having to work two jobs never entered our thoughts. If we imagined children, they didn’t have cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s or an addiction. If we even visualized ourselves as senior citizens, we’d be athletic, slender, healthy and as attractive as we were at twenty. We never imagined being alone, needing a walker, artificial hips or cardiac rehab. Nor did our mental picture have age spots, wrinkles, a bald spot or dementia.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, it’s that life doesn’t go according to our plan. It isn’t like a private train ride in which we set the destination, map the route, and schedule the stops. It’s more like we’re hitch-hiking across the country with all of the delays, detours, rejections, good and bad encounters, and unscheduled stops that come with thumbing a ride. Life is filled with the unexpected and, like a successful hitch-hiker, we just have to make the most of what comes our way.

Rest assured that we are never alone on this journey. Life doesn’t go according to our perfect plan but it does go according to God’s! As the Apostle Paul told the Romans: “Nothing can ever separate us from God’s love.“ Rest assured, as a believer in Jesus, there really is a “happily ever after!”

That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (NLT)]

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CHALLENGING CIRCUMSTANCES

How long, O Lord, must I call for help? But you do not listen! “Violence is everywhere!” I cry, but you do not come to save. Must I forever see these evil deeds? Why must I watch all this misery?” [Habakkuk 1:2-3 (NLT)]

bougainvilla

In Pearls Before Swine, a comic drawn by Stephen Pastis, the gentle, sweet, and somewhat dim-witted Pig has been struggling to maintain his cheerful disposition during the pandemic. He tried ignoring it all with a good book and a bucket of cheese while sequestered in his “comfy corner” of pillows and then attempted to erase the year entirely by throwing out his 2020 calendar. In the belief that “the only way out of these difficult days is to hug our way out!” Pig recently went door to door offering hugs. After being told that hugging wasn’t allowed because of the virus, he lamented, “These are merciless times.” Indeed they are and we can’t change them with a bucket of cheese (or a bottle of gin), denial, or hugs.

It’s a bad situation and may well get worse before it gets better. We could do as Pig did in one comic—close our eyes, cover our ears, and sing “lalala” whenever there’s bad news but ignoring bad news won’t help. Eventually, we have to face reality and hear what it has to say. Recently, the naïve Pig asked the wise one on the hill, “When will things get better?” His response was, “When you decide they get better.” Pig questioned what he meant and the man answered, “That you can’t control events, but you can control your reaction to those events.” Disappointed, Pig said, “I was hoping he’d just say Tuesday.” Yes, the answer is disappointing but it’s true. The naïve Pig was told what we, as Christians, should know: circumstances do not have to determine our mindset!

This isn’t the first time life has presented us with circumstances beyond our control and it won’t be the last. The book of Habakkuk begins with a complaint much like Pig’s. Wanting to know when things will get better, the prophet cries, “How long, O Lord, must I call for help?” Looking at the troubles surrounding him, he wonders if God has everything under control and questions God’s goodness. God’s answer is to wait patiently and trust Him.

Like Pig, Habakkuk doesn’t completely understand. Nevertheless, he chooses to look beyond the difficult times and focus on God. His words conclude with a psalm of faith, trust, and triumph. The situation is still as bad at the end of the book as it was at the beginning and yet the prophet’s words go from those of gloom to ones of glory. The only thing that changed was his mind! Like us, Habakkuk still didn’t know why or when, but he knew that he would rejoice in the Lord regardless of his circumstances.

Rather than focusing on our circumstances—circumstances not of our choosing or liking—let us focus on the God who is with us in these circumstances. As Christians, we must remember that we’re not defeated by loss, pain, worry, grief, injustice, or insults and we’re not overpowered by trials, difficult people, or even a pandemic! Things will get better when we decide they will: by accepting what we can’t control, controlling what we can, and trusting in the Lord!

Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality. [Nikos Kazantzakis]

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms, and there are no grapes on the vines; even though the olive crop fails, and the fields lie empty and barren; even though the flocks die in the fields, and the cattle barns are empty, yet I will rejoice in the Lord! I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! The Sovereign Lord is my strength! He makes me as surefooted as a deer, able to tread upon the heights. [Habakkuk 3:17-19 (NLT)]

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LISTEN FOR THE WHISPER (Elijah – Part 2)

And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel. [1 Kings 18:45-46 (ESV)]

dawn - apple canyon lakeWhen Elijah and the Lord proved triumphant over Baal, the man must have felt like he’d won the gold medal in the prophet Olympics. Rain stopped when he called for a drought, returned when he promised it would, fire poured down from heaven at his call, and the people had slaughtered Baal’s prophets. Fresh from his extraordinary victory at Mount Carmel and thinking that Ahab and Israel would return to Yahweh, Elijah ran all the way to Jezreel.

Although Ahab had witnessed the defeat of Baal’s prophets, Jezebel had not. After the king related all that had happened, the incensed queen vowed to kill the prophet. Neither Ahab nor Jezebel understood: it was God’s power that defeated Baal, not Elijah’s! They might be able to kill the prophet but they couldn’t defeat the one true God.

When Elijah sped to Jezreel, he probably expected a hero’s welcome rather than the death warrant that sent him fleeing into the wilderness. Doing God’s work doesn’t mean we won’t be frustrated or disappointed by the results; it certainly doesn’t mean we’ll be free from opposition or trouble. Let’s remember that all but one of the disciples died a martyr’s death and the hero’s welcome given to Jesus by Jerusalem’s population was replaced by calls for his crucifixion less than a week later.

Forgetting that God (not Jezebel) was in charge, the disheartened prophet prayed for death and fell asleep. He awakened to an angel who fed him and sent the man on a 200-mile journey to Mt. Sinai. Once there, Elijah found shelter in a cave where he once again complained to God. Having served the Lord in such an extraordinary way, he didn’t expect to be rejected and alone. God responded by promising the depressed man that He soon would pass by. After a wind so powerful it loosened the rocks raged, there was a terrifying earthquake followed by a fire. Although wind, earthquake and fire were signs of God’s arrival, the Lord was not found in any of those impressive phenomena. Finally, it was in the sound of a faint whisper that Elijah heard the Lord’s voice.

Sometimes we see or hear God in the impressive and spectacular but, more often than not, He makes Himself known in ways we least expect: the seemingly insignificant—like a hushed voice. God doesn’t have to shout because He always is near. Let us silence our complaint and draw close to Him so we can hear His gentle whisper.

God operates in the great and small, the remarkable and the ordinary. While He may call us to do spectacular things, as He did with Elijah, most of the time, He calls us to do ordinary mundane tasks. Those tasks won’t bring us honor or glory (nor should we expect them to). What they will do is glorify God! As Mother Teresa so wisely said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. [Isaiah 55:10-11 (ESV)]

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