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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IT’S OKAY

Our hearts ache, but we always have joy. We are poor, but we give spiritual riches to others. We own nothing, and yet we have everything. [2 Corinthians 6:10 (NLT)]

lilac breasted rollerToday’s email contained a meme of that lovable loser Charlie Brown with the caption: “The smile on my face doesn’t mean my life is perfect. It means I appreciate what I have and what I have been blessed with. I choose to be happy.” The meme reminded me of words spoken by Jane Marczweski when she appeared on America’s Got Talent last week: “You can’t wait until life isn’t hard anymore before you decide to be happy.” Known as Nightbirde, the 30-year-old vocalist sang an original song called “It’s Okay” and received the “golden buzzer” from judge Simon Cowell. She said she wrote the song as a reminder that, “You can be happy and also be going through something really hard at the same time—you don’t have to pick one or the other.”

The young woman knows what she’s talking about. After being treated for breast cancer in 2017, numerous tumors in her lungs, liver, nymph nodes, ribs, and spine were discovered in December of 2019. The overwhelming diagnosis of terminal cancer came with the prognosis of six months to live and only a 2% chance of survival. But, as she optimistically says, “2% is not zero. 2% is something and I wish people knew how amazing it is.” Although declared “cancer-free” after her second battle with cancer, she recently was diagnosed with this terrible disease a third time. At the time of her audition, she had “some cancer” in her lungs, spine and liver. Although Jane received more treatment after the audition, it is too early to know the results. But, as she so aptly puts it, “2% is not zero!”

As Christians, we shouldn’t need a cartoon character meme or even an amazing young woman’s example to remind us that circumstances need not determine our state of mind. Regardless of what we happen to be going through, as Christians, we know we are blessed every day in every way. Faith is trusting God’s plan, as inexplicable (and unpleasant) it may be. Faith is being able to smile in the midst of pain because we know that, in spite of our anguish, God loves us. Faith is being able to rejoice in the Lord regardless of what He throws at us because we know that we are not alone. As Christians, we know that faith is not about everything turning out okay; faith is about being okay regardless of how things turn out! Faith is being able to echo the words of Job: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord.” [1:21]

But here’s one thing I do know: when it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away. Instead, he adds to it. He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. … And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you, because God is drawing near to me. [Jane Marczweski (Nightbirde)]

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. … You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him; and you rejoice with a glorious, inexpressible joy. [1 Peter 1:6,8 (NLT)]

Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NLT)]

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BUCKET LISTS

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (NLT)]

clock

Although its origin is unclear, the term “kick the bucket” as a figure of speech for dying has been in use since 1785 when it appeared in the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. The term “bucket list,” however, is far more recent. Meaning a list of things a person wants to do, learn or experience before he dies, it seems to have originated with the 2007 film, The Bucket List, written by Justin Zackham. His list of “Things to Do Before I Kick the Bucket” (later shortened to “Justin’s Bucket List”) included having a screenplay produced by a major Hollywood studio. Wondering what a bucket list would look like if someone had a brief time left in which to live, he wrote a screenplay about two terminally ill men who go on a road trip with a bucket list of activities to do before their deaths. The term “bucket list” was born and Zackham checked off an item on his own list!

“What’s on your bucket list? What would you do if you only had a short time left to live?” asked our neighbor over dinner the other night. I know one man whose immediate answer would be, “Start smoking again!” but I had no answer. In actuality, a Christian doesn’t need a bucket list because this is not the only life we’ll live. Someday, we’ll live in bodies made new in a world made new—one without suffering or sin. For a Christian, death doesn’t end our adventure—it begins it!

Nevertheless, I continued to ponder my neighbor’s question but failed to come up with a decisive list of adventures I must have. It’s not that I’ve lived a life full of fabulous travel and daring activities. There are many things I haven’t experienced but, if I had just a few months to live, I wouldn’t spend them visiting exotic locations or experiencing thrills. After spending an hour or so straightening my drawers and closets (so no one would know what a secret slob I am), I wouldn’t spend another minute cleaning, travelling, or looking for excitement. My remaining time would be spent doing pretty much the same things I do every day but with family and friends nearby instead of thousands of miles distant. We’d laugh, play silly games, bake cookies and brownies, hug, watch the men grill, eat way too much, watch sunsets, have water fights in the pool, play in the park, talk late into the night, and dance to Y.M.C.A.!

When facing imminent death, my regrets wouldn’t be about places unseen or thrills not experienced. They would be for time wasted being angry, hurt, critical, dissatisfied, argumentative, offended, resentful, pessimistic, grumpy, surfing the Internet, or being “too busy”—time that could (and should) have been invested in being forgiving, loving, compassionate, generous, positive, helpful, understanding, joyful, pleasant, peaceful, and present.

We all know we’re going to die and yet I wonder if we truly believe it. If we did, I suspect we’d spend less time dreaming about seeing the Great Wall of China, trekking to Machu Pichu, whale watching in Antarctica, or going skydiving and more time tending to what really is important—expressing thanks, making apologies, loving openly, giving generously, forgiving freely, laughing loudly, living the life we have right now with our loved ones, and being the person God wants us to be.

For all any of us know, we may have even less than a month in which to live. Will we waste it or wisely use whatever time is left?

Live so that when the final summons comes you will leave something more behind you than an epitaph on a tombstone or an obituary in a newspaper. [Billy Sunday]

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.  [James 4:13-14 (NLT)]

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DECORATION DAY

God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted. [Matthew 5:4 (NLT)]

michaelkirsch cemetery - meringen switzerlandMany of the younger generation don’t know that yesterday’s Memorial Day originally was called Decoration Day and originated in the years following the Civil War. With some 620,000 dead from that conflict, communities began holding tributes to the fallen soldiers by reciting prayers and decorating their graves with flowers, flags and wreaths. The practice of leaving flowers at gravesites may have begun with the ancient Greeks who believed that, if the flowers took root and grew, the fallen had found peace or happiness in the afterlife.

Decorating graves with flowers and other memorabilia occurs throughout the year and isn’t limited to fallen warriors. When my mother-in-law was alive, I placed flowers on my father-in-law’s grave but I only did it because those flowers were important to her. They were placed to honor a living woman rather than her dead husband; I remember that wonderful man in other ways.

Forty-five years ago, we attended a Celebration of Life for my uncle and one of the speakers shared a quote that, even with Google, I have been unable to find. Although the exact wording is forgotten, the gist of it has continued to stay with me. In effect, its words were, “When you’re in a beautiful place, think of me so that I can come and share it with you!”

Whenever we attend the symphony, I remember that uncle and how much he would have enjoyed hearing the violins and reading the program notes. When I see a beautiful rose, dig in the garden, or read anything by C.S. Lewis, I remember my mother and how much she would have enjoyed the same things. When I schussed down a great run or enjoyed après ski fun, I thought of my brother and how he would have treasured a day like that. Watching men fishing in a mountain stream or hunters in their camouflage brings to mind my father and the avid sportsman he was. When my son discusses business with his father, I remember similar conversations my husband had with his dad and, whenever I bake spritz cookies or eat ripe red cherries, I joyfully remember our beloved GG. Even though I don’t think their spirits come and share those experiences, for a brief moment, those I’ve loved are again with me. Rather than decorating their graves, I have carried them forward into an unrealized future.

I want no flowers on my grave; then again, I want no grave. I do, however, want to be remembered. When the time comes, I hope my loved ones will remember me whenever they come upon a field of wildflowers, see a butterfly, eat chocolate chip cookies, hike the Rockies, or ski in deep power. Maybe they’ll even yell a joy filled “Ye-haw!” for me.

God promises to comfort us in our mourning. Indeed, there is comfort in our faith—in knowing that our loved ones who followed Jesus are with God and that someday we will be reunited. Although faith helps, it’s the memories of our loved ones that finally get us through the heartache of loss. Our memories are the way God heals our broken hearts.

As for decorating graves—we should send flowers to the living while they can still enjoy them. Smiles shared with our loved ones today will be far more welcome than tears at their gravesides tomorrow. As for flattering eulogies and glowing obituaries, perhaps those words of admiration should be spoken to the person now rather than about them at some later date.

Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal. [From a headstone in Ireland]

He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds. [Psalm 147:3 (NLT)]

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. [Psalm 34:18 (NLT)]

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A MINUTE TO REMEMBER – MEMORIAL DAY 2021

Defend the defenseless, the fatherless and the forgotten, the disenfranchised and the destitute. Your duty is to deliver the poor and the powerless; liberate them from the grasp of the wicked. [Psalm 82:3-4 (TPT)]

It is essential to remember and renew the legacy of Memorial Day, which was established in 1828 to pay tribute to individuals who have made the ultimate sacrifice to the United States and their families… [National Moment of Remembrance Act]

memorial dayContrary to popular belief, the purpose of our long holiday weekend is not to celebrate the end of school or the beginning of summer. More than a day for picnics and play, this is a day to honor those men and women who died while serving our country. Just as we stop to give thanks for our nation’s blessings on Thanksgiving, Memorial Day is the time we should stop to give thanks for the people who sacrificed their lives to makes those blessings possible.

When a group of school children touring our nation’s capital in May of 1966 were asked the meaning of Memorial Day, they said it was the day the city pools opened! After a survey that same month revealed that only 28% of adult Americans knew the significance of this national holiday, the idea for a moment of remembrance was born. Four years later, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act that designated a “moment of remembrance” at 3:00 PM (local time) every Memorial Day. In honor of our fallen warriors, people are asked to pause from whatever they are doing for one minute of silent remembrance and respect.

Sadly, this national moment doesn’t seem to be common knowledge and we’re usually too busy grilling hot dogs and hamburgers, splashing in the pool, planting flowers, playing ball, sitting in the shade with a cool drink, or watching sports to officially observe our national holiday. Rather than replacing other Memorial Day events, this observance is a simple way to put the memorial back into the day. If actually observed, these 60 seconds when all Americans honor those who died in service to our country could be a rare moment of national unity (something that seems to be in short supply these days).

While much is wrong with our country, there is much more that is right. We can worship freely or freely choose not to worship. We can read the books we want to read and say pretty much whatever it is we want to say. We can peaceably assemble and loudly complain to the government and everyone else. We can write letters to the editor, run for public office, Tweet, Instagram, and blog. We have mail that is uncensored and access to the Internet and everything on it. We can choose the television shows and movies we watch, the music and political commentators we hear, and the newspapers and magazines we read. If arrested, we have the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury and to confront any witnesses against us. We enjoy a level of freedom that is unknown in much of the world. That freedom, however, came at a terrible cost. Today, if only for a minute, let us remember the heroes who made all of that possible. In December, we’re reminded to keep the “Christ” in Christmas. How about putting the “memorial” back into Memorial Day? One minute, however, is nowhere nearly enough time to honor those who died for us.

Heavenly Father, thank you for those men and women who made it possible for us to enjoy the rights we so often take for granted. May we bear in mind that Memorial Day is not a tribute to summer but rather a tribute to those brave souls who died in the pursuit of our freedom and peace. Thank you for their courage, honor, service and sacrifice.

That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863]

For the greatest love of all is a love that sacrifices all. And this great love is demonstrated when a person sacrifices his life for his friends. [John 15:13 (TPT)]

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NATIONAL DAY OF PRAYER – 2021

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. [I Timothy 2:1-2 (NLT)]

Without God, there is no virtue because there’s no prompting of the conscience. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a nation gone under. [Ronald Reagan]

In 1775, the Continental Congress proclaimed that “a day of public humiliation, fasting, and prayer” be created and, since then, a president has called for over 140 national days of prayer. In 1795, for example, George Washington declared a day of public thanksgiving and prayer and, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed a resolution making April 30 a day of fasting and prayer. It was in 1952, during the Korean War, that Reverend Billy Graham challenged our nation’s leaders with these words: “What a thrilling, glorious thing it would be to see the leaders of our country today kneeling before Almighty God in prayer. What a thrill would sweep this country. What renewed hope and courage would grip the Americans at this hour of peril.”

In response to Graham’s challenge, a bill proclaiming an annual National Day of Prayer “on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals” was unanimously passed by both houses of Congress. President Truman signed the bill requiring each subsequent president to proclaim a National Day of Prayer on the date of his choice. The original law was amended in 1988 when the first Thursday in May was designated as our nation’s National Day of Prayer.

The National Day of Prayer isn’t just a “Christian only” holiday and people of all faiths are encouraged to put aside their differences to pray for our nation. The day’s purpose is to unite people of all religions in prayer and to renew respect for God. Over 40,000 prayer gatherings at churches, parks, mosques, synagogues, temples, courthouses, and schools are held on this day every year. Of course, even though the law doesn’t establish or mandate a religion, its constitutionality has been challenged several times. The day has been found legal because it simply acknowledges the role of religion in the United States and can be ignored if one so wishes.

”Lord, pour out your love, life, and liberty,” is this year’s prayer theme and, other than being sure to pray, there are no guidelines for the day’s observance. This past year has been an extremely challenging one for our nation—the lives and health taken by COVID-19, chaos in our capitol, political polarization, isolation from friends and family, on-line learning, business closures, working from home, immigration issues, a troubled economy, church services suspended, unemployment, and escalating racial tensions to name just a few. We could spend the entire day in prayer and not cover them all. Regardless of your politics, I think we all can agree that divine intervention is desperately needed if our nation is to heal. The president’s call to prayer on this day, however, is merely a symbolic gesture unless we collectively fall to our knees in heartfelt prayer! Let us pray, not just today but every day, for our nation.

It is our prayer today and throughout 2021 that the Spirit of the Lord, pour out, pour through us across America, to fill our lives, families, churches, workplace, education, military, government, arts, entertainment and media, with Biblical, not cultural, not worldly, but Spirit-empowered, Spirit-filled LOVE, LIFE and LIBERTY as designed and defined by our Creator and Savior. [Kathy Branzell, President, National Day of Prayer Task Force]

What joy for the nation whose God is the Lord, whose people he has chosen as his inheritance. … We put our hope in the Lord. He is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. Let your unfailing love surround us, Lord, for our hope is in you alone. [Psalm 33:12,20-22 (NLT)]

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