The Agony of Defeat

Though it’s been forty years since I played in the NFL – wow, can that even be possible? – I still keep up enough to both enjoy and be miserable, week in and week out, concerning how my team’s performing. Many people assume that I root for the Saints because I played for them, but that’s actually not the case. I’ve always rooted for the team closest to the city that I live in. That said, for the last 28 years, my team has been the Atlanta Falcons.

It was so exciting to see them pull off home field advantage in the playoffs, and then commanding victories led to them facing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. I kept saying over the two weeks leading up to the game that I really thought they had a very good chance of winning the game. That result was exciting to think about, especially considering that the Falcons had only been to one Super Bowl and had never won one.

Then it happened. I’m sitting with friends, enjoying great food, and repeatedly jumping up to holler and give a high five, as Atlanta dominates in every aspect of the game. They were so far ahead, and then the Patriot’s started slowly coming back. Still, it seemed virtually impossible that Atlanta could lose the game based on the score and time left.

But it happened. The seemingly impossible happened. The sure-fire winner of Super Bowl 51, actually lost the game in overtime. It was absolutely devastating.

I was reminded of ABCs Wide World of Sports that ran on Saturday’s years ago. It was about the human drama of athletic competition. The intro always showed excerpts of glorious victories followed by epic tragedies from sporting events. Over this montage of quick clips the narrator said, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.”

All that got me thinking about some of the greatest sure-fire-win to epic-loss scenarios from history. Many are athletic events, but not all. As I ran through the list in my head, several came to mind from the Bible. Of course there’s David and Goliath. Who saw that coming! But there’s another one from the Bible that trumps them all. It will forever be the greatest comeback of all time. I’m speaking of the resurrection.

How I felt immediately after the Falcons sudden loss had to be similar to how Satan felt when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The thrill of what the devil assumed was his greatest victory, suddenly turned into the agony of defeat.

The good news is that unlike the Falcons loss, Satan’s loss that day will never be forgotten or diminished. The Falcons aren’t finished, there’s still hope of winning a Super Bowl. Satan’s loss, was eternal. It was the greatest and most epic failure in all of human history. Making Jesus right when he said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.”

“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if he dies, will live.” John 11:25

Perspective

The dictionary definition of perspective is (1) the art of drawing solid objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other when viewed from a particular point. And (2) a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.

One of the things that I like about being a pastor is how it keeps me grounded in reality. The situations that I encounter – typically relating to people and their problems – keeps things in perspective.

Relating to the first definition of perspective, ministry keeps me from becoming one-dimensional. Encountering the sometimes gut wrenching real-life struggles that people endure, gives me a more correct impression of the height, width, depth – and I would add length, of life. In short, ministry never ceases to give me eternal perspective.

Yesterday afternoon, on a spectacular sunshiny winter day, I traveled to a beautiful home in a somewhat exclusive neighborhood in Kennesaw, Georgia. There, I joined four of my colleagues, each a pastor at Apostles, as we ministered to a beautiful young women in her early 40s, who is dying of cancer. She has only been given a few months to live.

During our time there, we followed Jesus’ brother James advice; offering up prayers of faith. We anointed her head with oil and prayed, as she asked us to, for her healing. (James 5:13-16).

You might think that that kind of thing gets easier for a pastor over the years, but it doesn’t. It’s always agonizingly painful.

I don’t know what God’s will is for this young lady. I know that He can definitely heal her if He so chooses. But, He may not, for reasons we’ll never understand this side of Heaven.

But with that said, there’s one thing that I know for sure. Whether she lives another 3 weeks, or another 30 years, she will live again, with the Lord she loves throughout all eternity. And that, my friends, is the beauty of the gospel.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 Corinthians 5:1

Generation C

The current book I’m reading is called Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam. The book is based on research showing how we have become increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, etc., and how we can reconnect.

The author warns that our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

All this fits with what I read recently saying that 18 to 34 year olds are now called generation C. The C stands for “connected”. Now, you might say, “Wait a minute, connected is a good thing, right?” Well, actually, in this case, not so much. It turns out that what generation C is actually connected to is technology. They consume media, socialize and share experiences through devices more than other age groups.

What they don’t do is join groups of people “offline”. In other words, they are seriously lacking in live group interaction. Going, going, gone are the social clubs of my generation, where people routinely met to socialize, engage, and interact.

As Putnam puts it, young people today are severely lacking in social capital. What is social capital? It’s the measurement of how much and how often you intentionally get together with other human beings. Example: My wife Melinda belongs to a Kiwanis club, two birthday clubs and a garden club. She’s rich in social capital.

Today, however, attending club meetings has dropped 58%. Family dinners together has dropped 43%. And even having friends over has dropped 35%.

Bottom line? We are not connecting with people! And when it comes to the Great Commission, and our God given responsibility to assist in building God’s Kingdom, that’s not a good thing. Remember, only two things will remain forever; God and people. So take stock of your social capital, and make changes accordingly.

“Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16

Christmas and shepherds

Unprecedented! How odd! Indisputably, the single most important event in human history, the birth of God in human flesh, took place with no media build up, no marketing campaign, no paparazzi, no press.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a brief, yet spectacular announcement given by the angels with a multitude of the heavenly host praising God. But wait, who was in the audience for that miraculous announcement from the sky? Did you say, shepherds? You’re kidding right?

In those days, shepherds occupied the bottom rung of society’s ladder, and the average citizen of Judea wanted little to do with keepers of sheep. No one could have predicted that the first people to hear of Jesus outside of His parents would be a motley crew of shepherds. Nevertheless, an angel of the Lord appeared to these men, who got to watch the greatest sound-and-light show of all time.

In Philip Keller’s book – A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 – He talks about the “cast down sheep,” which is a sheep on its back that cannot get up again under its own strength. Such sheep may bleat a little for help, but usually they just lie there with their legs flailing about, and they die, if they are not rescued.

That’s the best picture, the best metaphor to describe Christmas. For it is the state of all of humanity, stuck in their sin and unable to turn themselves right side up. God comes to the rescue, not as a Knight in shining armor, a lowly shepherd. He came to seek and to save the lost. Having become like us, the Good Shepherd knows the human condition and all its weaknesses. Rejoice, that the mighty King of heaven, is also a tender shepherd who loves each of His lambs deeply.

So this Christmas morning, when most are thinking about opening gifts… “What did I get, what did I get?” Recognize that, in Christ – you’ve already received the greatest gift of all – eternal life.

“Because the Lord is my Shepherd, I have everything I need!”“Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’” Luke 2:13-14

Merry Christmas

God with us

There are many beautiful hymns that have been composed in celebration of the birth of Christ. One of my favorites is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It may have been composed as early as the 8th century. The melody appears to have originated in France in the 15th century.

The hymn is based on a prophecy in Isaiah 7, a prophecy that looks forward to the birth of a child who will be named Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

In the Garden of Eden, God was present with the two humans He had created, but as a result of their sin, mankind was exiled from God’s presence. From that point forward, the restoration of God’s presence with us, His creatures, become the underlying theme developed throughout Scripture.

In reality, the Bible is a love story, unfolding God’s incredible plan to fix what appeared to be forever ruined by Adam and Eve’s rebellion and disobedience.

And then, in the fullness of time, Jesus is born, and Matthew tells us that His birth took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet Isaiah, quoted in Mathew’s gospel. Jesus is Immanuel. He is God with us. In Him all of the Old Testament types and promises that looked forward to the restoration of God’s presence with His people are fulfilled. Jesus is the Son of God incarnate.

The words of the hymn express the hopes of Israel throughout history, for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise. We don’t often think about the fact that we have it sooooo much easier than those living before Christ. We’re able to look back to the fulfillment of those promises – to that most incredible, awe-inspiring moment in history, the birth of Immanuel… the incarnation of the Son of God Himself.

So, based on that fact, here’s my question. As a Christian, do you live every day of your life, celebrating the fact that God is with you, living and working through you?

Christmas, celebrates the joyous fact that In Jesus, God established His presence once again with His people, and He is with us always – to the end of the age.

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” Matthew 1:23

Thanksgiving Gratitude

This week, we celebrate another Thanksgiving. Over the years, I have watched – to my dismay – our unique holiday celebration of Thanksgiving, be pushed and crowded out of our collective conscience, as Americans. Each year, Thanksgiving seems to fade further, and further into the background, in deference to its bookend holidays of Halloween and Christmas. In fact, almost as a mockery, many people have stopped using the word Thanksgiving, calling it instead turkey day.

But, for me, Thanksgiving will always be my favorite holiday, next to Easter and Christmas. I can’t think of anything more enjoyable than gathering with family and friends, around a wonderful meal, for the express purpose of giving credit, where credit is really do, to the creator of the universe, for all of our many blessings.

Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. The word gratitude comes from a Latin word meaning grace, graciousness or gratefulness. Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for all that we have, beginning with life itself. With gratitude, we acknowledge the goodness of God, and His goodness to us.

Recent published studies show an association between gratitude and an individual’s well-being.

In one study, they asked groups of participants to write a few sentences each week. One group wrote about things they were grateful for, the other group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives.

Gratitude helps us refocus on what we have instead of what they lack. And just like a muscle, it atrophies or gets stronger with use.

So this Thanksgiving, join the psalmist – with an attitude of gratitude – in saying,

How great is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you, which you bestow in the sight of men on those who take refuge in you. For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. We celebrate His abundant goodness and joyfully sing of His righteousness.

“Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Psalm 107:1

Happy Thanksgiving

And the Reformation begins

In 1517, a Dominican named John Tetzel began to sell indulgences near Wittenburg, with the offer of the forgiveness of sins. This practice had been inaugurated during the Crusades to raise money for the church.

Now, I’ve got to admit, as an old youth pastor – who’s done literally 100s of fundraisers – this has to be the greatest fund raising idea of all time! Beats a car wash any day. I mean, who wouldn’t pay something, anything, for the guarantee of sins forgiven.

The horrible atrocity of indulgences so angered Martin Luther, that he decided there must be a public debate on the issue. So on October 31st, 1517, Luther nailed a list of Ninety-five Theses, regarding indulgences, to the front door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.

Nailing a thesis to the church door was actually a common practice at that time. The idea was to promote a scholarly debate. Luther hoped to provoke a calm discussion among the faculty.

But a copy fell into the hands of a printer, and the Ninety-five Theses spread throughout Germany and Europe in a few weeks. Luther became an overnight hero. And, with that, the Reformation was essentially born.

At this time, Luther was studying the books of Psalms and Romans. In his study, he realized that he could be forgiven, not based upon his own works but upon the righteousness of Jesus that was available to him if he would trust in Christ alone for his salvation.

Luther’s intent was to spark a debate. I guarantee you he had no idea it would spark a Reformational wildfire that burned for decades, and is still burning today.

“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last,[e] just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.'” Romans 1:17

Only one solution

I grew up in church. We lived in the country, not the city. Our social life as a family totally revolved around church. I never missed a Sunday service, not even on vacation. I knew all the Bible stories inside and out.

There were times when I wasn’t really paying that much attention in Sunday school, because I felt like I’d heard the lesson many times before. My friends and I used to joke that if we were ever put on the spot, meaning you were suddenly asked a question that you were not sure of the correct answer, just say, “Jesus”. That way you’d never be wrong because Jesus is the answer to everything.

As silly as that might seem, the longer I live on this earth, the more inclined I am to believe it’s true. Now, with that said, let me state the obvious. The correct answer to “What is 2 + 2?” is not Jesus. But more often than not, when it comes to big life issues – the world’s problems, society’s problems, one’s persona problems – the answer really is Jesus.

No one understood that better than the committed and persistent friends of the paralyzed man of the story told in Mark chapter two.

Hearing that Jesus was coming to Capernaum, people gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door. This presented a real problem for the paralyzed man and his friends. Because they realized this was their one big opportunity, and maybe the only shot they had.

His friends knew that the only solution to his paralysis, was Jesus! What I love about this story is their persistent faith. Their unyielding commitment to their friend’s deliverance. They simply would not give up, not for a minute. There had to be a way in and they were going to find it, even if it meant – and it did – digging through the roof, and lowering him by rope on top of the crowd.

And make no mistake about it – Everyone was amazed, and Jesus was impressed!

What happens next is epic! The paralytic and his persistent friends came for one solution, and got two. Jesus began his two-part miracle by saving his soul, after all that effects his life forever, even if he would have remained paralyzed for the rest of his life here on earth, he still wins big-time. Because eventually he gets a new body. But because of his faith, because he really believed that Jesus was the only solution to his problem, he got both spiritual and physical healing.

So that leaves just one question. Do you believe that Jesus is the only answer to life’s big problems? Do you believe it enough to be the unyielding and persistent friend who helps someone going to hell, find eternal life?

“When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven.’” Mark 2:5

Truth is Like a Lion

When it comes to sharing your faith in Jesus Christ, do you play offence or defense? Do you simply and enthusiastically tell others about Jesus, and what He accomplished on the cross, or do you find yourself holding back from that conversation with others, because you feel like you have to defend it?

Charles Spurgeon once said, “Truth is like a lion. Who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose and it will defend itself.”

There’s a prevailing attitude among many Christians today that we must defend the truth of God’s Word. And while it’s certainly true that the truth about Christ in our society is being ridiculed and ignored, I don’t think God has called me to defend His Word, as much as He’s called me to simply share it.

When you share you faith, you’re marching down the field, on offense, toward the goal of watching GOD do a miracle in the heart of the one you love enough to share the truth with. Too many Christians today think that witnessing is about playing defense – with fists out, they bravely hold their ground by beating back the arguments of the unbelievers.

The Apostle Paul spoke of finishing the race and completing the task that the Lord Jesus had given him. And what was that task? The task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.

The truth needs no defense, it only needs a voice. The problem of our time, said best by G.K. Chesterton, is that “the truth hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it’s been unheard and left untried.”

This week, consider this question; when was the last time that you simply told someone, the reason for the hope that you have Jesus Christ?

After all, who ever heard of defending a lion? Just turn it loose and let it defend itself!

“Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold.” 2 Corinthians 3:12

A Mighty Fortress

It was a hot summer day – the off season of pro football – and I was stuck, along with everyone else, in a long line of cars, waiting for a train, temporarily stopped on the tracks ahead of us. Those of us who lived there knew exactly what was going on. It was the Railroad Company’s way of getting the voter’s attention, concerning an effort to get an overpass built.

So, to enlighten everyone on why an overpass was needed, a train would frequently and mysteriously stop on the section of road blocking the main exit out of town, right in the middle of rush hour.

We all knew the drill. We’d be stuck there about fifteen minutes before the train would slowly move on. We all took it in stride, annoyed, but relaxed. That was not the case, however, with those new to the situation.

And, on this occasion, clearly, I had a newbie in front of me. How did I know? Well, assuming that the train would be moving on quickly, he wanted to keep his car running and creep forward a few feet at a time. But the car in front of him, like most of the rest of us, had turned his car off.

What happened next took me by surprise! The “let me keep inching forward guy” got out of his car and was storming up to the car in front of him. He actually opened the door and pulled the “shut his car off” guy out onto the road. He was screaming in his face fist clenched, ready to hit him.

Enough of this, I said to myself. I quickly unfolded out of my small sports car, all 6 foot 7 and 280 pounds of me, and moved quickly toward the showdown. I will never forget the look in the eyes of the terrified stranger, about to be pummeled by the road-raged maniac. In an instant, he went from great fear, to great relief. For he knew that he was about to be rescued!

That feeling of panic-to-relief is exactly what we as Christians experience every time Satan comes after us with his fists clinched. But in the words of Martin Luther’s great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” we say with confidence; “The Prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.”

So the next time Satan tries to bully you, remember this, Satan may be the prince of this world, but Jesus is the King.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33