Run the Good Race

I am a huge sports fan. I love the thrill of competition. I spend a good portion of my time following my favourite teams as they compete in their respective seasons. Currently, there is a lot of sports to follow. Not only are the Maple Leafs and the Raptors among the best in their respective leagues, but the Olympics are in full swing. Nightly, I have been flipping between channels trying to catch as much of the action as I can.

Paul compares the Christian faith to running a race at least 4 times in his letters. It should come as no surprise that I have always connected with that analogy. Comparing the pursuit of athletic excellence to the Christian life provided me with a metaphor I could relate to and an ideal that I could focus on. I was never a competitive runner, but the idea of pushing on, overcoming obstacles and doing your best, were ideas I could relate to.

In 1 Corinthians 9:24 Paul urges us to run the race in such a way as to get the prize. He follows that up by reminding us of two important aspects that allow you to win the race:

Train
Every athlete who competes on the highest level trains in many different ways. They train physically and mentally. They train for strength and speed. They train in ways that are common to all athletes (running, weights) and on specific skills needed for their sport. As Christians, we need to model that example and “train” in different ways as well. We need to study God’s word. Talk with Him, that includes listening as we pray. We need to spend time building each other up and growing with the help of those He puts in our lives. We need to share His love with those around us.

Keep your eye on the prize
Many athletes have fallen short by losing focus on their goal. In competition, athletes take their eye off the prize and fail to achieve their objective. How many times have I heard the phrase “he started to run before he caught the ball” uttered by TV commentators. As heartbreaking as in-game lapses in concentration can be, the real tragedies of taking your eye of the prize come outside the playing field. Many young stars have let the fame associated with their pursuits distract them. They get involved in things they shouldn’t or believe the hype and stop pushing towards excellence. For Christians, the temptation to believe in ourselves, in our works, can derail us. We start to think that it is all about us and stop giving God the credit for the work He is doing through us.

Everyone has to run their own race. Much like different athletes excel and different sports, each of us has gifts from God to use as we walk through life. As we “train” these gifts develop and by keeping our eyes on the Heavenly prize, we bring honour to God. Like the athletes going for gold this month, we all have the opportunity to realize our goal. All we need to do is keep running the good race.

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One Way

Saturday mornings have been busy for us since October. We enrolled both my 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter in the Jr. NBA program. So, every Saturday we get up early and trek off so my children can learn the skills and fundamentals of basketball. It is a full morning, with one playing at 9 and the other at 10:30. The program is run at different schools across the city, with each group meeting the same place each week.

The parking lot for the school my daughter plays at is on a side street, with “No Exit” signs posted at the entrance. Dead-end streets are fairly common in our town because every neighbourhood seems to curl into itself – using space well and offering plenty of quiet streets. What is different, and perplexing, about this particular street is that it is also a one-way street. Think about that for a moment; you can only travel in one direction, and there is no exit onto another street. The signs would indicate that the school parking lot is the final resting place for every car that started down that road.

In Romans 6:23 the Bible tells us that sin is a one-way street to a dead end. We all sin (Romans 3:23), so none of us are able to avoid starting down the road. Once we start down it, we can’t do anything ourselves to avoid being stuck forever. Some enjoy the road with no concern for what happens when they reach the end. Others convince themselves that if they follow the rules and obey the laws and are “good enough” that some way they will be able to avoid the dead end.

The truth is very simple. We cannot, on our own, avoid the penalty of our sin.

Obviously, I have not been stuck in my car in a school parking lot for the past 4 months. While city planners don’t always make the most logical decisions, they did design a way for you to exit the parking lot and get back to the main road. Sure, you can’t go out the way you came in, but the parking lot is connected to another parking lot and you simply exit that one and join the flow of traffic.

Jesus, who didn’t always do the most logical thing, did plan a way for us to avoid the penalty of sin. He subjected Himself first to a human body and then the humiliation and torture of death – and not just any death, one of the most gruesome imaginable. Through His death, He created a way for our sins to be forgiven and for us to join with God in eternal life.

Some people will hear about Jesus and decide that He is not the only way. Others will deny that He has a way at all. And still others will see His example and figure that if they are “close enough” to emulating it, they will be able to sneak past the dead-end. None of these approaches will allow you to avoid the consequences of sin. Jesus provides the way. All He asks of us is to confess that we are sinners deserving of death and accept that He is the only way to Heaven.

The truth is very simple. We can, through Jesus, avoid the penalty of our sin.

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Humbly Inspired

 

I have been contemplating humility lately. It is a quality I very much admire in people; I think it gives a great indication of someone’s character. It is also something I struggle with. I try to be humble. I know that it is good to be humble. I want to be known as the most humble person on Earth! That should give you a good idea of why I struggle with humility.

The common ways we define humility are not thinking too highly of yourself and valuing others above yourself. We need to look no further than scripture to see that God has given us these very instructions (Rom 12:3, Phil 2:3-4) Humility should not to be confused with low self-esteem; it isn’t about putting yourself down. Humility is not thinking you are more valuable than others, not demanding that others lift you higher. We all appreciate someone who doesn’t demand others cave to their every wish. Most of us wouldn’t, normally, be described as having a superiority or diva complex. So, while it is a good starting place for a discussion on humility, I believe there is something more to true humility than what we say and how we act towards others.

One way we define words is by using antonyms. We use opposites to describe what something isn’t to try to explain what it is. Simply put, we may describe a the weather on a snowing January day as “not hot”. When we describe someone who is not being humble, we may use words like prideful, conceited or selfish. If you look at the definition above, they make perfect sense. A few weeks back, the students during bible study helped me stumble onto an antonym for humility I had never considered before – jealousy.

It hit me that one can appear humble without actually being humble. When I was playing competitive sports, I wanted to be a good teammate. I also wanted to be in the starting lineup. So, when I was the understudy, I would cheer on the starter, playing the part of a good teammate – outwardly. All the while secretly wishing he would play poorly, and I would get into the game. Even though I may have said “great play” what I was thinking was “I wish you’d dropped the ball.” I played the part of a good teammate, but on the inside my competitive nature was, in reality, a stark contrast.

Humility goes beyond what we show, it goes to the very heart of who we are. Being humble isn’t just just treating others as better than ourselves, or gracefully accepting a compliment. We aren’t humble just because we say congratulations when someone else gets the promotion, a new car or recognition for great work – that, like being a good teammate, can be faked. Humility is to be truly joyous for others in what they accomplish and what they have.

As funny as it may sound, I think that self-confidence is a key element to humility. We may look at someone who is confident and think that means they are not humble, but I have found that humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive. To truly be inspired by someone else’s accomplishment, we must be confident in who we are. Again, low self-esteem is not humility – humility comes out of proper self-esteem. The humble person looks at others’ accomplishments and is impressed and inspired. To be humble is to recognize our abilities and gifts and use them, not for their own glory, but for God’s.

So the next time I catch myself envying someone, I will remind myself, don’t be jealous; be inspired.

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Walk By Faith

One of my favourite things about volunteering with the high school students at my church is getting a fresh perspective of the events and people of the Bible. When I am teaching, either Sunday School or our weekly Bible Study, the passage we are studying is usually one I have known for as long as I can remember, and the events that are recounted are ones I have pondered before. When a teenager, especially one with limited exposure to God’s Word, asks a question, it is often one that makes me stop and consider things in a new light.

As we dive into answering the question, I often say “remember, these were real people, living real lives”. When reading the Bible it is easy to read it like a movie script and forget that these “characters” are not fictional and the “scenes” are actual events. Last week, we were covering the first kings of Israel, Saul and David, in an overview of the books of Samuel. As we were talking about the different events, it came up that, even though we look at the events as happening all at once, the books cover about 80 years of history, as both Saul and David reigned for about 40 years each.

I believe every word of scripture serves a purpose (2 Tim 3:16), and each event and person mentioned is there to tell us about God’s love. Because there is roughly 4000 years and dozens of main characters covered in its pages, the Bible is not an exhaustive account of history. While this makes practical sense, it does lead to us forgetting that these people dealt with life’s ups and downs, the mundane day-to-day and the uncertainty of how it all would play out.

Sometimes I take for granted that the heroes of scripture knew how the story would unfold. I don’t consider that they were acting and reacting to everything in real time, much like we do today. They were not certain of how everything would turn out, as evidenced through the many times people took things into their own hands and tried to change the situation in their favour but ultimately caused more problems than they solved.

When I approach God to ask Him for guidance, I often hope that He will lay it out before me with step-by-step instructions. I wanted to read the script before I start the action. Didn’t Daniel refuse to stop praying because he knew the lions wouldn’t eat him? Didn’t Jonah demand to be thrown overboard because he knew a fish would take him safely to shore? Didn’t Nehemiah ask the king to allow him to return to Jerusalem because he knew he would gladly allow it?

Of course, the answers to all these is “no, they didn’t know”. The Bible is full of stories of people who stepped out in faith, with no guarantees it would work out for them. Even those who had angelic intervention in their lives didn’t have foreknowledge of the details. They all had to walk by faith.

We have to walk by the same faith in our lives. We don’t get to know how things will work out. The examples of faith in the Bible are there for us to follow. They are as much to show how God works through His people as they are that God’s people must trust in Him. God will accomplish His will, we must walk by faith.

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Decisions

One of my hobbies is playing in a fantasy baseball league. The league I am in is more involved than most. It is set up to emulate the real Major Leagues as much as can be. One of the best parts about fantasy baseball is the draft. Every year I get prepared for the draft by figuring out what my team needs and looking over the available players. I plot a strategy and plan out how I will go about improving my team.

 
As I pour over the stats, rosters and draft lists, I try to figure out what the best course of action would be. Do I try to trade? What players are expendable? What players are worth holding onto? Do I need to make a move to free up salary cap space? Is this player a real prospect or should I drop him and move on? Will this guy be available in round 3 or should I take him earlier? As you can probably tell, I put a lot of thought into my team. I do know that whether I win or lose doesn’t really matter. The league is for fun and making a mistake has no effect on real life.

 
Often in life we don’t really know if we made the right choice or not – we don’t have the ability to see how things would have unfolded differently. We usually decide if a decision was good or bad based on if it worked out well, but we don’t know if it was the best, or worst, outcome. I am happy with the house I live in. It’s not perfect, there are things that need to be fixed, the water heater quit 2 days before we hosted 21 people for Christmas dinner, but I do not regret the choice we made when we bought it. Was there a better house? Maybe, but I would say we made the right choice.

 
Sometimes things don’t work out the way we hoped, but it doesn’t mean that we made the wrong choice. Maybe none of the paths we had to choose from were going to work out well. Sometimes, we make the choice we have to and live with the consequences. 18 months ago I make a career decision that didn’t work out the way I had hoped, but I believed it was the right decision.

 
As Christians, when we are faced with choices in life, we should seek God. I know that I try to, but I wonder if I do it the right way. I consider myself to be intelligent, and I approach most issues with the belief that I can figure it out if I think about it long and hard enough. Often when I face a decision, I pray about it. I also think about it. I ponder the pros and cons and evaluate the potential options. I generally come to a conclusion at some point in the process. The question is, how much do I rely on God and how much on myself? Am I allowing God to guide my thoughts, or am I praying for Him to confirm my plan?

 
I have been struggling with this a lot lately. It seems odd because I am not making any major decisions. There is no career change, relocation or any other life-altering events on my radar. I have just been questioning whether when I seek God’s direction can I be confident in the answer I believe I am receiving?

 
I am not sure how I can know. The issue is not whether or not I believe God is trying to tell me, or if I am capable of hearing it. For as long as I can remember I have tried to walk with God and allow Him to lead my path. Have I trusted God long enough that it has become second nature? Or have I become so arrogant that I think my thoughts are His?

 
I don’t have a nice answer to close off this post, but I do have a plan. I will continue to seek God; to seek His will and ask Him to help me discern it. I will ask Him to help me to let Him work in my life, without me interfering – to humble me. I believe that God is faithful; if I honestly seek Him, he will not hide, and if I truly allow Him to lead, I will walk on the right path.

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New Year’s Revelation

On January 1st, my wife asked me if I made any New Year’s Resolutions. I had not. She wasn’t surprised by this as I never make them – but it was still a valid question because it really wouldn’t be a surprise to her if I did. She knows that I love dates and milestones and that I have recently put an emphasis on striving to be a better person. It would only make sense for me to have taken part in the ritual that so many do each year. As I thought about her question, I wondered why I had decided against it.

Maybe it is the perfectionist in me. I didn’t even know I had perfectionist tendencies until I had been married a couple of years. You wouldn’t have guessed it based on my academic attitude – I used to say “in life, if you know 80% of the stuff, you can look up the other 20%.” I guess it’s good I grew up in the era of encyclopedias, because in the internet age, I would probably have reversed those percentages – but there are other areas in my life where perfectionism rears its ugly face. 

I have always hated to be wrong, and it bugs me when I am not the best at whatever it is I am doing. I just chalked that up to my overly competitive nature. I have learned that I demand perfection in certain areas of my life, but definitely not all. I have made decisions on what areas I demand perfection of myself and what areas I don’t worry about – whether that be because I don’t think I can attain it or don’t want to put in the effort. So, making a New Year’s Resolution would simply be setting myself up to fail, as most are broken within a couple of weeks.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, urges us to be perfect, not to our standards of perfection, but to God’s. Out of context, that sounds like an impossible task. In fact, the Bible tells us that no one is perfect and all of us fall short of the glory of God. However, looking at the command in context gives us something to strive towards. Jesus issues the command as He is finishing His thoughts on loving enemies. The next passage talks about giving to the needy in secret. This is the same sermon where Jesus tells those listening that blessed are the poor, the meek and the persecuted. 

My desire to always be right, and let everyone know it, is not a characteristic of perfection in God’s view. Neither is straight As, rising to the top of the corporate ladder or having the best-looking house in the neighbourhood. I won’t pretend to know exactly what perfection looks like to God, but based on the Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 5 and 6, I would expect that being kind and helping others for their sake, not my own recognition, would be a good place to start.

I don’t know about you, but if I am going to try and live up to God’s standards, that is a commitment I need to make every day, not just once a year. Sure, I can start the year with a generic goal of self-improvement, but if I am to strive for perfection, I need to take it one interaction at a time. If I can be a little more like Jesus to everyone I come into contact with that would be a great start on the road to perfection.

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What Christmas Means to Me

One of my favourite Christmas tunes is “What Christmas Means to Me” by Stevie Wonder. I say “tune” because the lyrics are not much to write home about, but the music is catchy.

Over the last couple weeks, I have been thinking a lot about what Christmas means to me. While the pure excitement and anticipation of the holiday is very real, and I am sure that I will make many joyful memories, the events of the next week are our response to the meaning of Christmas – not the actual meaning itself.

I will enjoy the food and probably eat too much. I’ll watch with anticipation as my children, nieces and nephews open their gifts (and my own inner child can’t wait to find out what is under the tree for me). I am looking forward to spending time with my family. Again, not the reason we celebrate, but the way we do.

So, what does Christmas really mean to me? I have struggled this week as try to put it into words. “Jesus is the reason for the season” just seems too flippant to really grasp the meaning of Christmas. I agree with the statemen; I just feel that a quick little rhyme doesn’t do justice to the magnitude of the event. Maybe the best way for me to articulate what Christmas means to me is to explain it from a perspective I will never truly comprehend.

I read a few years ago, around the time of Prince William’s wedding, that his late mother, Princess Diana, had wanted nothing more than to tell her young son that he could grow up to be whatever he wanted. It is the same thing that every mother wants to tell her child. But Diana knew that William could not grow up to be whatever he wanted. He would grow up to be heir to the throne, with all the responsibility and duty that came with the position.

I imagine that Mary had a similar struggle when raising Jesus. I wonder how much she knew about how his life would play out. Did she understand the prophecy as we do now – that they would be fulfilled in such a gruesome manner? Did she raise Jesus differently than her other children knowing that no matter what she taught Him or what advice she passed along He would never deter from His mission? As she held Him, wrapped in cloths and treasured the events of the first Christmas, did she know her baby couldn’t grow up to be whatever He wanted; He had come to be the Sacrificial Lamb?

You see, Jesus came not to live His life for Himself but to live it for me. He came so that He could experience the ups and downs of being the created, to grow-up feeling the emotions of being human, both the joy and the pain. He faced temptation, mobs and the cross. And He did it for me!

At Christmas, we celebrate our Lord and Saviour coming to redeem us. As I eat the meal, it will be a reminder that God provides for me out of His love. As gifts are exchanged, I know that it is done in honour of God’s ultimate gift for me. As I spend time with loved ones, it reflects God’s desire to be with me.

That is what Christmas means to me.

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