Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Super Bowl Storylines

So many great storylines came out of the Super Bowl last Sunday. I could talk about Peyton Manning putting to rest all the talk about not being able to win the big game; or I could analyze how Defensive Coordinator Wade Philips built a smothering Bronco defense around Von Miller; or I could bemoan Cam Newton's staccato postgame press conference. Each offers an insight to our struggles through this life, spiritual maturity, and what it takes to live together as the body of Christ in the world.

But the thing that most jumped out at me was the predictions before the game. Experts carefully lined up the Panthers and the Broncos. The two great defenses cancelled each other out, and when you paired the two offenses, Cam Newton's was much stronger than Peyton Manning's.

Or so it seemed.

All through the previous two weeks I expected the predictions were probably right, but had a nagging feeling in my mind because of the AFC Championship Game. How can you underestimate a defensive game plan that left Tom Brady confused, and Bill Belichick unable to make those incredible second-half adjustments, especially when the Denver offense really wasn't putting any pressure on them? As I listened to the game coverage driving back from Chicago Sunday night, I heard Boomer Esiason and Dan Fouts comment on how similar this game was to the AFC Championship Game.

To me that will be the most fascinating part of Super Bowl 50: the Broncos' defensive game plan. That defense seemed to enjoy playing the part of the underdog. When everyone else dismissed them and ranted about the league MVP and the unstoppable Panther's offense, it seemed to motivate Colorado's defense to prove everyone wrong.

That makes me think about the body of Christ. That Bronco defense didn't just come together last week and prepare for the Super Bowl. It was pulled together by a front office that drafted players from college, and brought others in through trades and free agency. It was assembled to be a team. Just as Christ has called each of us together in our congregations and assembled us to share His precious Word in the most effective way to the community, in which He has placed us. It's our Christian family -- our faith community -- that is our greatest strength.

Wouldn't it be great if we had a little more of Denver's fire, spunk and can-do attitude? When our culture belittles and attacks us, why don't we stop circling the wagons and muttering apologetically? I'd like to see us emerge from our foxholes, pull together, and hold high the cross.

We have God's flawless game plan, and a victory Jesus already won 2,000 years ago on a hill outside of Jerusalem. We have God's matchless gifts in the Bible, Baptism, and Holy Communion to strengthen and assure us of the glorious, eternal celebration that awaits, when Christ returns and restores His creation to perfection.

No, we're not trying to move a ball down a field, or keep it out of our end zone; rather, we're trying to save our families, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and everyone God brings into our path from Satan's vile trap. That is a much higher calling, and the crown of life surely trumps the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

With the Broncos' win, another NFL season bites the dust. There are many life lessons to be learned from football, and dogged determination is one of them. How often do we ask God for that kind of resolve in our faith walk? What kind of victories would we like to see take place in our lives, the lives of our friends and family, the life of the church on earth?

Any thoughts on the game just finished -- or the game of life we're all in at present? If so, you can comment by clicking here.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Eating with Sinners

I ran across an interesting passage in Bible class last Sunday morning. "The Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at Jesus' disciples, saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?'" (Luke 5:30).

We got to talking about what that meant for us as followers of Jesus. What if a homeless alcoholic or a strung-out addict showed up in church next Sunday? It seems like Jesus would go right up and start talking with them. What if we did that? Would we get grumbling and cold stares from other members who don't want that kind of person in our church?

Or what if one of us found out the two guys who moved in next door are a married gay couple? Jesus surely doesn't approve of that choice. But what would He do? Would He shun them to make it clear that they're going the wrong way? Well, we couldn't see Him doing that. We concluded He'd make their acquaintance, stand with them at the fence talking, or invite them over for a beer and get to know them. We figured He'd work hard to go from a total stranger, with His two cents worth, to a close, trusted friend with priceless words to share.

And now, the $64,000 question: wouldn't Jesus have us do the same? Doesn't it seem right to strike up a relationship where we can prove our genuine concern for them and their welfare -- both in this world and in the judgment to come? Once we've shown ourselves as true blue friends, then we can share our deep concern for their eternal welfare in a way they won't be able to easily dismiss.

Then someone in class brought up the instance of a friend whose grown child is moving in with his girlfriend. The mom is fine with it because she loves her son and doesn't want to drive him away. But this member of class couldn't let it lie and give the wrong impression that she condoned this. She said, "I wouldn't be able to approve that choice," but she confided to us that she wasn't sure if that was the right answer.

After a moment of silent thought, we looked again at Jesus eating with the tax collectors and sinners. When Jesus associated with a sinner who was going the wrong way, like the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4), He took time to make it clear that God has a very loving reason for forbidding certain things to us. They may be things we think harmless and innocent, but He knows their destructive potential. The bottom line: He cared too much to keep silent and watch those people bring harm and destruction on themselves, without a warning.

That started us on a discussion of the topic of living together and to examine our culture's view of it. What makes it look so attractive, and why does our culture buy into it? Someone suggested that living together seems smart, like test driving a car. Actually, from that point of view, we agreed it actually makes it seem naïve and foolish for a couple to wait to live together until they are married. But then we stepped back to look at the heart of marriage from God's point of view. It is a man and woman's commitment to remain together no matter what: "for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death parts us." Once we put God's light on it, it was clear that living together is the exact opposite. It's learning to live in a relationship without any ultimate commitment. It's really a good way to condition ourselves for separation and divorce, instead of marriage.

Suddenly, we saw how we could change a discussion about living together away from a smug, self-righteous attack on a young couple's chosen lifestyle to a heartfelt discussion of genuine love and concern for their well-being. That's how we follow Jesus' example of eating with sinners.

I realized in all my years of leading Bible class, I've not done that enough -- i.e. used that time as an opportunity to share our witnessing stories and challenges, and explore ways we can grow and improve. We all added some important tools to our witnessing toolbox last Sunday.

Sometimes stifling the urge to say something righteous is the hardest thing to do. We all get impulses to voice our opinion, especially when we feel the ground we stand on is sure -- black and white. Nonetheless, no one ever stood on surer ground than Jesus, and apparently even He was open to initiating conversations and launching friendships, even when some form of corrective admonishment might have been in order.

How about you? Do you resist the urge to be overbearing with your opinion, especially in situations where you might not know the parties that well?

Or is it damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead?

You can comment by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Still Part of the Team

I really didn't think the Broncos would pull it off last weekend. After all, the Patriots are superb with halftime adjustments, and Tom Brady is so brilliant. Besides, nobody's been able to stop "Gronk." On the other side, Peyton Manning's arm clearly isn't as dependable as it used to be. I think if it was up to Manning to save the game by himself it never would have happened. Clearly, the days when he could elevate the team around him are fading. It will be fun to watch the Super Bowl in two weeks and see if he can pull it out yet one more time.

Peyton Manning reminds me of a shut-in named Percy whom I visited decades ago. Percy had heart disease, and his doctor had warned him not to lift anything heavier than a box of shoes. He was used to being an able-bodied, valued, hard-working man who could pull his own weight, and then some. Now he sat in anguish, looking out the window at his wife who struggled with the feed sacks for the four head of cattle they still owned. "I should be out there doing that," he insisted. "Instead, I'm stuck in here making her do it."

Peyton Manning reminds me of my father, an industrious guy who inherited his father's jack-of-all-trade diversity and a knack for figuring out solutions to problems just about anywhere he could. But when he was suffering from cancer he was frustrated to the point of tears: he couldn't even hold open a trash bag for me as I gathered the raked leaves.

Peyton Manning reminds me of dozens of nursing home residents who've asked me what they are still doing here when they have nothing to offer society anymore. These are people who can't dress themselves, feed themselves, or even pull themselves out of bed.

Okay, okay, Peyton certainly isn't that old, or bad off. But his losing struggle with time is what reminds me of the plight of these people. Still, the thing is, last Sunday it wasn't up to Peyton Manning to beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It was up to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Football is a team sport, and so is Christianity.

In last Sunday's second reading, the apostle Paul talked about God the Father joining all believers together in the body of Christ. "If the foot says, 'because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,' that doesn't make it any less a part of the body. If the ear says, 'because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,' that doesn't make it any less a part of the body" (1 Corinthians 12:15-16).

You who are sick, disabled, elderly or shut-in are no less a part of the body of Christ just because you can no longer do the things you once could. In fact, our wise Heavenly Father has greatly blessed us by keeping you here with us. We need your wisdom, your experience. We also need your prayers -- and you who feel the most helpless and worthless have more prayer time than the rest of us. We need you.

Besides, Jesus identifies Himself in you. On His way to Calvary, Jesus was just like you, unable to carry His cross any further. So a man named Simon of Cyrene was given the chance to serve Jesus Christ by shouldering His cross for Him. And Jesus Himself promised when we do a kindness "for one of the least of these My brothers and sisters, you do it unto Me" (Matthew 25:40b). No matter how low you feel in life -- even if you can't pull yourself out of bed -- you are still part of the team, still part of the body of Christ.

Peyton Manning's teammates should be a clear reminder for the rest of us Christian men. When he could no longer carry the team on his own, they stepped up to honor him. Let's not forget all those sick, home-bound, and nursing home people out there. They're part of our team, part of the body of Christ. They paved the way for us, making our congregations what they are today, through their dedication in years gone by. Now let's honor their lives of service by assisting them and their families.

Amazing. We're all headed in the same direction (if we make it that far): old age; yet, it's so easy to forget those who have already arrived. Slowly, these people fade from view and our memory, and they're left to die -- sometimes alone.

What are your thoughts on the legions of men and women out there who are still part of the team? You can share your point of view by clicking here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A Search for Certainty

I try hard to hide it, but deep down I have to admit I'm a pretty gullible person. It's really easy for me to set aside my own worldview and superimpose a different one. My dad couldn't do this though. That's why he hated science fiction shows. They didn't fit his understanding of how the universe worked so he simply dismissed it. But I find it easy to fit into the Star Trek and Star Wars universes -- or to believe that turtles could actually be teenage mutant Ninjas.

So if I had found myself in Dr. Dionysius Lardner's class at the University College in London in the 1800s, I could easily see myself disbelieving we'd every travel faster than 15 miles per hour. After all, he was a noted professor of natural philosophy and astronomy. He made a very startling and confident assertion: "Rail travel at high speed is not possible, because passengers, unable to breath, would die of asphyxia." For him, the laws of physics made it impossible for humans to travel at high speed.

Fortunately, someone else wasn't as gullible as me, and was willing to challenge that prediction. Otherwise, you and I would be putting along the freeway at 15 mph, or drifting across the country in hot air balloons. I wonder if he lived to see how wrong his conclusion had been.

Like most of us there was a time in life, in my late teens and early 20s, when I thought I had the whole world figured out. But in the decades since then I've learned just how limited my understanding really was -- and still is. I don't cling too tightly to conclusions I've reached about the world, and I'm open to the possibility, even the probability, that I constantly need to examine and readjust my conclusions about life, relationships, sports and science -- even about God.

I take great comfort from David's philosophy in Psalm 131, "O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore."

Of course, that leaves the possibility of being wishy-washy, thinking that there is nothing sure or certain in the world. But I am confident that there are things in this universe that are unchanging absolutes. But those are outside of me; they are found in God's very nature. He says, "I the Lord do not change" (Malachi 3:6a). And elsewhere it is written, "God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?" (Numbers 23:19).

When it comes to God's promises of forgiveness for Jesus' sake, His mercy and compassion on lost sinners, I never have to worry that I have that wrong or that God might change His mind. He has made that eternally clear. Likewise, God's Law and standards of right and wrong will never change -- no matter what my feelings might say, or the experiences of someone who is dear to me, or the Supreme Court of the United States.

Jesus was extremely direct and clear when He said, "For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18).

When it deals with the clear things God has revealed about Himself, or things He promises or warns, I don't have to worry about them ever changing. That feels pretty good. But when it comes to my understanding of Him, or this world He has made, then I'm open to learning new things, as long as His Word is guiding me.

Any thoughts on what you consider certain in this world? You can click here and speak your mind.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Beating Back Failure

Blair Walsh is battling something every one of us faces at one time or another in our lives. He is the Minnesota Vikings kicker who missed the potential game-winning field goal last Sunday in the wildcard playoff game with the Seattle Seahawks. Compared to the three field goals he made earlier in the game, this was a chip shot, a no-brainer, something he could do in his sleep. But nothing in life is a sure bet. He kicked it left of the uprights, and with no time remaining for the Vikings to stage a comeback, they were knocked out of the NFL playoffs.

Walsh could have tried to hide in the locker room, but he chose to face the reporters first. He could have shifted the blame to his teammates-the offense that couldn't push the ball over the goal line; instead, he spoke about how hard they worked and how he had failed them.

How do you handle the guilt, shame and regret that comes with failure? Most of us experience that in our childhood and come up with various ways to deal with it. We try hiding, making excuses, or shifting the blame. The toughest thing is to man up and confess what we've done wrong. As adults we might try more sophisticated tactics like throwing someone else under the bus, or escaping to alcohol or drugs. But we can learn a great lesson from Blair Walsh: face up to the facts and commit to try harder next time.

That's what confession is all about: no excuses, no shifting of blame. We simply come before our God in meekness, guilt, shame and humility and hear His promise to forgive us for Jesus' sake. This is possible because our Lord Jesus took our guilt and failure upon Himself and suffered God's wrath in our place, on the cross.

But what if the shame and regret won't go away? What if in the back of our minds we keep replaying our failures and find that regret holds us back from being a successful father, a leader at work or church, or the husband we know we can be?

We might have a little something that can help. It's our video Bible study, Regrets, Reality, Restoration. It tells the story of four individuals whose failures threatened to engulf them and destroy their lives. Watch and see how the grace of God was working in their circumstances and how He even enabled them to see their forgiven failures as opportunities to rally around other people who were suffering from shame and regret. You can check it out by clicking here.

Blair Walsh did the right thing. Now he needs his teammates to stand by his side, to offer their encouragement, their trust, and their confidence that he can do better next time.

Failures are the hallmarks of life. We've all blown it countless times, letting ourselves down, and others along with us. How did you deal with a regrettable failure in your life? How did you rally around a friend who struggled with an epic failure?

Overcoming failure is a life exercise we will always be able to practice. Tell us how you do it by clicking here and sharing your thoughts.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

In Need of a New Year's Resolution?

I came across an interesting article in Relevant Magazine, entitled, "Why Aren't Millennials Having Sex Anymore?"

It included a fascinating quote from theologian Russell Moore:

"This is why sexual revolutions always turn out so boring. This is why the sterile, casual, condom-clad vision of sex in our culture is so dull. This is why pornography is so numbing to the soul. It is because, in the search for sexual excitement, men and women are not really looking for biochemical sensations or the responses of nerve endings. And, in fact, they are not ultimately even looking for each other. They are searching desperately, not for mere sex, but for that to which sex points -- something they know exists but they just can't identify. ... They are looking to be part of an all-encompassing cosmic mystery. They are looking for a love that is stronger than death."

We can broaden the topic beyond sexuality to scores of different avenues people take to find fulfillment and meaning in their lives: popularity, riches, possessions, appearance, drugs, gambling, plastic surgery, weight loss programs. I'm sure you can add a few more to the list.

How many New Year's resolutions are centered in this search for something deeper, something more lasting, something stronger than death?

That's a tall order.

But, of course, there is only one place to find it, and that is in the Word who became flesh, Jesus Christ. He took on our human nature to save us from our sins. This He did by taking our sins upon Himself and suffering and dying in our place on the cross. In His resurrection He has opened the doors of heaven and made it possible to become sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father. Apart from that relationship, we can find no true, lasting fulfillment in the New Year.

Indeed, St. Augustine said it well: "Our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee."

For so many of our friends, acquaintances and family members -- perhaps for many of us as well -- 2015 was not as full or as satisfying as we would have liked. Perhaps you are wondering how you can prevent a repeat performance in 2016. But unless we look to God's own Son, we will never find the deeper meaning in the life we are seeking.

Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10b). It isn't just for eternity that God wants our life to be thrilling, joyful and fulfilling, it's for right here and now.

But we can all strive to make this present world a happier space where we can begin to feel the cosmic mystery of being the body of Christ in the world. That's not to say this life will be perfect. We are still sinners with rough edges, rubbing shoulders together. But while we wait anxiously for His return, we can make the most of the time He gives us to love and care for each other. We can encourage each other to share the great news of His incredible love with the people around us - with those who are seeking, hurting, searching for something more ...

more than the latest gadget, wonder diet, or psychic guru.

What are you looking for in 2016? Tell us by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Out with the Old, In with the New

Another year has flown by, and the next one is waiting in the wings. At this time of year I like to rewind and review the days gone by, even as I set my sights on the future. Now looking back doesn't mean just 2015; rather, I go clear back to my childhood and survey the trajectory of my life. I find it's a good time to take stock of where I'm at on this terrestrial hike and consider where it will all end up.

My wife thinks I'm morbidly obsessed with death. Of course, she's the one who repeatedly told me she'd be dead by 30, then 40, now 50. But you can't be a pastor, sitting at the bedsides of dying members and preaching scores of funeral sermons, without thinking of your own inevitable demise. That's what Psalm 90:12 is about where Moses prays, "Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom."

I'm in my sixth decade on earth and hoping I have another two, three or four to go. But wherever you may be along life's timeline, it's not a bad idea to stop each New Year, stand back, and look at the flow of your life. Hopefully, doing so, will give us a greater sense of purpose -- where we waste less time and make the most out of the stream of hours God gives us here.

It's also a good time to look at the end before us -- the eternal future that will mark our lives with God in paradise, won for us by Jesus who took our place through His innocent suffering and death. Because He is risen, we will rise to live forever. No, looking at our life and death is not morbid -- not as long as we don't forget the resurrection to come.

Moses ends Psalm 90 with a wonderful plea in verse 17: "Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the works of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!" Remind us, Lord, why we are here. Let us busy ourselves with work that really impacts this world -- through our families, our vocations, and our faith-sharing. Let the compassion of our speech and the impact of our Christ-centered attitude resound in this world, long after we are gone, through our children, and the people we have met along the way.

Prayer for the New Year: Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures where we cannot see the ending, by paths yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go with good courage, remembering always it is Your hand that leads us and Your love that supports us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

The New Year is always a good time for fresh beginnings -- or a reestablished commitment to groundwork put down in the year just finished.

Where are you as you "ring out the old" and "ring in the new"?

You can share your thoughts on the Men's NetWork blog by clicking here and telling us your plans for the days ahead.

Happy New Year!