Thursday, September 23, 2004

Tenacity of Faith

Someone has described a pessimist as “a person who’s seasick for the whole voyage of life.” With such an attitudinal posture, mole hills become mountains and every obstacle is insurmountable. I must admit, walking by faith, not by sight, is extremely difficult to do. I feel much more confident in God when I can see the apparent victorious end in sight. The difficulty for me is to continue to walk in confidence when, not only is there no end in sight, but when we see apparent defeat looming in the distance. Contrary to this timid spirit, the pages of sacred history are dotted with divinely-empowered optimists.

Take Caleb, for example. You might recall that he was one of the 12 spies sent to survey the Promised Land (Numbers 13-14). Upon their return, 10 of the spies saw no possible way for their unskilled army to conquer the “walled cities” inhabited by “giants” (13:28,33). Quite frankly, they had good a good point. Israel was not equipped militarily to accomplish this feat. After all, their immediate history was one of forced servitude, not military exploits. By contrast, the minority report of Caleb (and Joshua) throbbed with faith, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it” (13:30). Don't you just hate those idealistic believers? They just don't get it...or do they?

What made the difference? All spies described the same land, and recognized the obstacles. The 10 were consumed by their own inadequacies while Caleb and Joshua concentrated on God’s ability. In short, the real difference was their relationship to God (14:8-9).

The “grasshopper mentality” of the 10 resulted from looking at the opposition rather than the Lord. That’s always how its it when we diminish the power of God. The obstacles loom beyond reason. By contrast, Caleb viewed the difficulties as opportunities to display the awesome power of the Lord.

The optimism of Caleb was not rooted in the insufficient power of a “positive mental attitude“, or in the inadequacies of “believing in himself.” Rather, in humility, Caleb saw himself linked to God in sacred partnership. “If the Lord delights in us,” he reasoned, “we’ll succeed” (cf. 14:8). The “if” in this phrase did not suggest a gnawing doubt in Caleb of God’s presence. On the contrary, it was Caleb’s way of saying, “because God has told us to take the land, we will succeed!”

How is it with you? Are you facing a Kadesh-Barnea that could change the course of your life? It may be a circumstance to accept, a work to be undertaken, or a burden to be borne. Make no mistake, we do face real obstacles that are not to be denied. On the other hand, there is a real God Whose power and grace equally should not be denied! The spirit of Caleb looks beyond the insurmountable walls to the unparalleled God. Caleb won the battles of life because he first won the battle of faith, obedience, and full commitment.

Scripture does not paint a rose-colored picture even for those who walk in faith. Peter's first book describes a circumstance in which believers would face fiery trials...because of their faith! Yet, there is a tenacity associated with Jesus' followers. Let’s not be overwhelmed by circumstances or awed by difficulties. They don’t really matter. It’s our attitude toward the Lord—His glory and His will—that really counts, and often goes unaddressed.

Monday, September 13, 2004

The Fluffy Bunny

This past weekend I had the distinct privilege of going with our youth group on a rafting trip down the Ocoee, a beautiful river in East Tennesse known for its rapids. The first time (of only two times in my life) I rafted down this river was pretty uneventful. No one in my raft fell out, and we navigated all the rapids with relative ease.

Remembering that first experience, I was pretty confident going into this thing. I even volunteered to sit in the front of the raft with my 13 year old son, Zach. According to our guide, we were responsible for setting the pace for our boat. We both were up to the challenge.

Before we set "sail for our three hour tour" (yes, I watched too many episodes of Gilligan's Island growing up), our guide asked us to decide if we wanted a relatively smooth ride or, in his words, and "pretty gnarly" one. I immediately spoke for our whole boat (without their input); "We want a gnarly one!" Famous last words of a fool.

Gnarly indeed. I met my Waterlou (pun intended) on the first rapid, a class five. Giving us exactly what I unilaterally asked for, we hit the rapid sideways and with such force that your's truly was tossed out. My first experience in white water without a raft made me rethink this gnarly ride I requested. Except for a few gallons of water in the old lungs and a small cut on the knee, I wasn't any worse for the wear. So, I figured the worst had to be over.

All things went pretty well after that until our guide told us of one final maneuver we needed to perform after the last rapid. He called it the "fluffly bunny maneuver." Since all these rapids had strange names, I didn't think much of it. In retrospect, however, I should have known something was up.

In a serious tone, he explained what we needed to do. After we hit this last rapid, I'll need for you to give me two hard, forward strokes with your paddles, then those on the right side of the raft need to jump in unison onto the left side. Thinking that we were going to provide a counterbalance to something (who knew what), we dutifully prepared for the fluffy bunny move.

We hit the rapid. Our guide barked out the command to paddle. He then yelled, "jump now." In perfect unison, those of us on the right side of the rafted plunged onto the left side. In an instant, everyone of us were in the water with our raft upside down on top of us.

Thinking we failed in the fluffy bunny maneuver (surely that wasn't supposed to happen), our guide was elated. "That's the first time I've ever been able to get the raft to flip like that. Great job guys!" We all looked at each other in stunned silence, wondering why this guy was so happy--and I'm still not quite sure! Further, I still don't have a clue why that maneuver is called the "fluffy bunny." Maybe some of you veteran rafters can help me out.

I had a great time with my youngest son Zach. What a great son! God is good.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Extreme Makeovers

You’ve probably seen some of those “before” and “after” pictures of people who, through the magic of modern cosmetology, are transformed from antiquated “plain Joe’s” to GQ potential. To boost self-esteem or to create a new persona for themselves, literally millions are spent on makeovers annually. While some attempt a physical renovation through the latest cosmetological techniques, others attempt a more profound—though equally self-induced—reconstruction.

In his book, Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey confesses his own self-deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction whose outcome was ultimately unsatisfying. Embarrassed by TV programs like the “Beverly Hillbillies” and “HeeHaw,” Yancey attempted to disassociate himself from his Southern heritage. Vowel by vowel he worked to change his accent, succeeding so well that people react with surprise when they learn of his Deep South roots. Having read great books to remove all provincial blinders, Yancey felt that he had finally addressed—and conquered—his previous self, creating a “new man.”

Through more spiritually mature lenses, Yancey began to realize the limits to a self-constructed personality. Yancey writes: “In most ways important to God, I had failed miserably. I was selfish, joyless, and lacked compassion. With the notable exception of self-control, I lacked all nine of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5.”

Yancey not only recognized the limits to a self-directed makeover, he ultimately came to understand that his entire project of reconstructing his personality had been misguided. “God did not want to work with a wholly different personality. God chose me.”

The strong urge to be someone other than who we are actually opposes God’s purposes for our lives. Often these feelings arise from a legitimate dislike of our sinful natures. It is precisely here, however, that the gospel offers good news. God, through the working of His Spirit, is not turning us into a wholly different person. On the contrary, through the redemptive work of Christ within us, God liberates—not destroys—our true selves! In this regard, Yancey concludes; “The Holy Sprit coaxes each of us to be ourselves, flawed personalities in whom God himself has chosen to dwell. With infinite resources, God can assist every willing person on earth in that custom process. It begins with trust in God’s best for me, a confidence that God will liberate my true self, not bind it.” Create room in your heart for God, and let God show you who you truly are!

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Handing Over the Reins

With his keen ability to find humor in the most unexpected things, Gary Larson made us laugh, caused us to blush and, perhaps more often than we’d like to admit, left us puzzled over the esoteric meaning of his satirical Far Side cartoons. Whether or not Larson intended them, I have on occasions found profound spiritual meaning from the Far Side. Consider this one, for example.

The picture is of the western “badlands.” The sun is high in a cloudless sky. The scorched landscape consists of bare, rugged cliffs and barren, sandy hills. The only plant life in the picture is a lone Sequoia cactus standing tall in the foreground. Somehow avoiding the immense open space, a bumbling cowboy has managed to guide his horse head first into the cactus. Expressing the thoughts of the irritated horse, the caption reads, “That does it...I’m gonna steer.”

Have you ever felt like this horse when it comes to your spiritual journey? Have you ever wondered where God is taking you? Have you ever thought that perhaps you could do a better job of directing your own steps rather than giving the reins of your life to God? I certainly have.

In our limited thinking, it seems that God occasionally runs us smack into painful cactuses, tempting us to snatch the reins from His omniscient hands. Job changes. Financial loss. Sickness. Death. During such trying times, it’s human nature to think, “Surely God could have guided us around these painful obstacles.” If you are facing such difficulties hear God’s Word before you attempt to retake control of your life, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way” (James 1:2-4; The Message).

Have you run into any cactuses of life lately? Before you direct yourself into the obviously-open countryside, maybe you should think seriously before you act. It just might be that God actually has brought you to the only source of available water to moisten your parched faith. Be still...and let God do His marvelous, faith-building work.

Monday, September 06, 2004

"Shut Up And Hit Somebody"

Depending on one's perspective, this past Saturday was either one of the best or worst days of the year. The college football season kicked off (pun intended). Brian and Jessica Balentine, a wonderful couple at CrossBridge, invited us over to watch the Alabama vs. Utah State game on pay per view. Since we've resisted even having cable all these years (did I hear a collective moan), I was in hog heaven. They even had one of those "tevo" deals where you can rewind the action...unbelievable. We had a great time.

One thing that caught my eye on Saturday was in a different game, however. The University of South Carolina took on Vanderbilt. While I was able only to catch a glimpse here or there of this game, I happened to be in the room when a reporter was talking about Lou Holts' (head coach for South Carolina) latest motivational stragedy. Each player wore a t-shirt underneath his uniform emblazened with these words: "Shut Up And Hit Somebody." I chuckled when I heard that. It made such an impression on me, I just had to mention it in my sermon on Sunday.

The point is obvious: stop talking about what you're gonna do, and just do it. Football is know for its trash talk, what one player boasts that he will do to another. Enough. Holts called his team simply to aggressively accomplish what they were taught to do.

Perhaps we ought to distribute similar t-shirts to church folk, one that everyone can wear under his or her Sunday outfits (though for CrossBridge, t-shirts often are the clothes of choice). The Bible has similar statements. "Love not in word, but in deed and in truth." "Faith without works is dead" (too bad legalsim has abused this truth). "If you say you love God and hate your brother, you are a liar." To these can be added a plethora of similar biblical passages that call to action, not merely talk.

South Carolina apparently took Holts' challenge to heart. I think they won pretty handily over Vanderbilt. Perhaps it's time for the church to take to heart the biblical call to action, not to legalistic justification, but to actively expressing to our broken world the love of Jesus. Perhaps its time to just "shut up and love somebody." Maybe we'll start seeing a change...most likely in us.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Inadequate for the Task

Most of us--if not all--have at times felt completely inadequate for the tasks we are called to accomplish. It matters not what our profession, or vocation, might be. There are occasions when we simply are not up to the challenge of life's demands. Deadlines. Bills. Teenagers. Sickness. Relational tensions. Monotony of life. Whatever the demand, our human resources fall woefully short to meet it.

This week has been one of those uncertain ones for me. Partly because I've been struggling with a nasty cold, and partly because this week brought several extremely difficult ministerial situations, I feel completely empty, struggling for words to speak on Sunday. And, it's already Friday.

During these times, I remind myself of the feeding miracle in Mark. Confronted with 10,000 hungry eyes, the disciples simply did not have the resources to feed them. They suggested that Jesus send them away so they can buy bread. Amazingly, Jesus said: "You give them something to eat." They were astonished. How could this small band of brothers meet this demand. In frustration, they basically said: "There's no way! We don't have enough." Undaunted, Jesus looked at them and said: "What do you have? Go and see."

Ah. Jesus won't let us off the hook so easily, will He? He's not interested in what we don't have; He's interested in what we have. Often I find myself thinking of the abilities I don't have, comparing myself with others. If I only had....then I would..... Far too often that is the mantra by which humanity tends to live. So, we simply don't try.

Against this human tendency, Jesus says, "What do you have? Go and see." The disciples found a smattering of food, five loaves and two fish. Bringing this obviously-inadequate provision to Jesus, they seemed to say: "See. This is all we have. It's not enough, now send them to get something to eat." Jesus would have none of this. He took the bread, blessed it, gave it to the disciples to distribute to the people. Mark concludes: "They all ate and were satisfied." Beyond that, 12 basketfuls of fragements were collected.

I have always wondered just how this happened. Modernistic theologians who attempted in Bultmannian fashion to "demystify" such texts have provided naturalistic explanations. They have suggested that, once the disciples starting sharing this food, others were prompted to share what little they had as well. Once everyone shared the little they had, everyone eventually was fed. Needless to say, this theory does not explain the abundance of leftovers.

Mark isn't concerned about how this miracle happened anyway. He focuses on the divinely produced results: "They all ate and were satisfied." And, in God's economy, there is more than enough!

Such miracles remind me, not of how powerful Jesus was, but how powerful Jesus is. It also reminds me that true ministry is humanly impossible. As humans, we simply do not have what it takes to accomplish the divinely-described tasks before us. God does not leave us powerless, however. He asks us simply to allow Him to touch our feeble efforts. Then, and only then, can miraculous results occur.

I'm thinking right now: "Lord, I don't have what it takes for the task before me." "What do you have," He replies. "All I can find are some saltine crackers and sardines in my pantry of ideas, talents, and abilities. Maybe you should send the people away to be fed elsewhere." His reply remains the same, however. "Give it to me...they all will eat and be satisfied." Only by His power.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Casting Our Crowns

The Olympics gave us plenty of drama. Close races, scoring controversies, doping scandals. For the most part, however, the Olympics went off without a hitch. Praise God that no act of terror disrupted this international display of peaceful atheletic competition.

One story that continues to unfold surrounds Paul Hamm, an American gymnist who won the gold medal in the all around men's gymnastic least he thought he did. I watched when he faltered and fell on his vault attempt, plumetting him from one of the leaders into 12th place. It appeared that any possiblity of his winning any medal was completely lost. Then, the drama of atheletic competition kicked in.

Hamm's parallel bar exercise was a near flawless display of grace and strength. Strangely, the leaders had several glaring mistakes, dropping their scores considerably. It appeared that Hamm had a remote chance of scraping out a bronze medal at best, but he'd need help from his competitors. And, help they gave him.

The leading guys continued uncharacteristically to falter. Hamm had a remote chance of actually winning the gold medal, if he performed brilliantly during his final exercise. He "stuck" a perfect landing, placing an emphatic exclamation mark at the end of a superior performance. His score catapulted him onto the gold medal stand with only a mere .012 points (I think) separating him from the silver medalists. What a competition!

Then the controversy began. Apparently, the judges made a calculation error on the South Korean gymnast's parallel bar routine. All said and done, without this error, the South Korean, not Hamm, would have won the gold. Appeals were made. Meetings were held. The IOC ruled that it would not reverse the decision, but finally made an appeal to Hamm to give back his medal.

All of this is sad. What should have been a time of living a dream for Hamm, has become a nightmare. I'll be interested on how all of this eventually will turn out.

This controversy, however, reminded me of a scene in the book of Revelation chapter 4. John was ushered into the throne room of God. Twenty-four other thones, surrounded God's throne. On these thrones sat twenty-four elders, dressed in white and were wearing crowns of gold. Immediately around God's throne were four living creatures, covered with eyes in front and in back. In appearance as a lion, ox, man, and eagle, these creatures continually cried: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come." As these creatures incessantly gave glory, honor and thanks to God, the twenty-four elders would fall down before him and worship the one who lives forever. At this point, the Apocalypse provides an interesting element to this scene, one which, I think, is fraught with meaning. "Whenever the living creatures give glory, honor and thanks to him who sits on the throne...[the twenty-four elders] lay their crowns before the throne ... (4:10).

Several questions emerge from this description. Why did these elders have crowns? From whom did they receive them? What did they signify? What's the import of their casting them before the throne?

Commentators will give a variety of possible answers to these--and other--questions. Whatever the specific meaning attached to these crowns, one thing is clear: these elders relinquish all their honors in recognition of the One to Whom all honor is due. Before Him, we have no room to boast for a couple of reasons. First, every good thing we have, or accomplish, ultimately proceeds from Him. Second, the very best we have to offer is nothing compared to His glory.

I don't know what Paul Hamm should do with his gold medal in the context of this fallen world. I would say, however, not only to him but to all of us who sport "medals" of achievement of any kind that, before God, we cast them at His feet. Only there do they have any significance anyway. And, isn't this what it means to worship God "in spirit and in truth?"