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The Masters golf tournament ended yesterday (yes, I got to roam the grounds of Augusta National Golf Course!).  Patrick Reed won his first major tournament.  In doing so, he overcame many obstacles:

  • He was NOT the one the crowds wanted to win.  Again and again, the crowd favorites were greeted with roars of approval when they were introduced and when they made a great shot.  Patrick, on the other hand, was given only “polite golf applause” when he was introduced or when he made a great shot.  It was evident to all that he was not who the crowds were rooting for.  One of the headlines on CBSsports.com even read, “How a Villain Won it All” in describing Patrick’s victory.
  • The pressure of some of golf’s best players gaining significant ground (one even getting tied with him) when he faltered early.  When Patrick began the day with a bogey and a par (on a hole in which he should have had birdie), it looked like he would wilt under the pressure.  Instead, he steadied himself and made the shots he had to over the next 16 holes.
  • The challenge issued by one of golf’s best golfers, Rory McIlroy, with whom Patrick was partnered on Sunday, the last round of the tournament.  Rory was playing the “mental game” against Patrick.  Patrick stayed mentally tough throughout.

How did Patrick Reed manage to overcome all of these obstacles?  He won because he remained focused and committed to his purpose.  As I think on this, I’m reminded of Paul’s exhortations to us as Christians:  “Do you know know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win.”  (1 Cor 9:24)  “Run in such a way that you press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

The need for Christians to live up to our identity and calling in Christ in today’s deteriorating culture cannot be overstated.  Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for His Highest, the April 8 reading, states: “[Jesus’] resurrection means for us [Christians] that we are raised to His risen life, not to our old life….we can know now the [power and effectiveness] of His resurrection and walk in newness of life.  Thank God it is gloriously and majestically true that the Holy Ghost can work in us the very nature of Jesus if we will obey Him.”

Like Patrick Reed, we will face significant obstacles in seeking to live in (and live out) our new life and identity in Christ.  There will be those who root against us, those who actively work against us, those who try to bully and pressure and shame us with “mental games.”

But Oswald Chambers is right … we can know now the power and effectiveness of His resurrection, we can walk in newness of life and the Holy Spirit work in us the very nature of Jesus … if we obey Him.

Patrick Reed won the Masters because he “ran the race” focused and committed to golf’s ultimate prize.  As Christians, we must run for a greater calling and prize.  We do this that we may become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:1-4) and because if we don’t, we simply deny the light culture so desperately needs.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. [We are] like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Are you (am I) “too easily pleased?”

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From preliminary reviews, I expected this book (by George Weigel, a writer whose works and articles are must reading for me) to be a series of vignettes which highlighted stories the author witnessed (or heard about from others) during his eyewitness times with Pope John Paul II.  I also expected there to be lessons, if you will, in the hope that resulted from these stories as well as insights into John Paul’s character — what he valued, what “made him tick.”

This book, however, did not meet these expectations.  That does not mean I didn’t enjoy the book, but if you are desiring a book that does what the first paragraph above outlines, this book is not for you.

What Mr. Weigel does do is offer, really, his own “mini-autobiography” as it relates to how he came to know Pope John Paul II and how he ended up writing his biographies of the Pope (“Witness to Hope” and “The End and the Beginning”).  In this sense, he offers “autobiographical sketches” which show a fascinating and well-lived life.

The author assumes his readership is very familiar with Catholicism, Catholic history and the Catholic church which can make some of the reading something of a slog for Protestants such as myself.  However, ultimately, I gained a deeper understanding of the Catholic Church’s roots, its formation in the likeness of a nation, its bureaucratic shortcomings and, most enlightening, the contents of some historically important papal encyclicals.

Of the greatest importance, however, the book offers a penetrating look into what many Catholic Church leaders thought of the pope and the inner workings of the church itself, particularly since Vatican II.  It offers insights into John Paul’s thoughts on the relation of the gospel and religion to culture (it is foundational and without it culture decays and devolves) and the importance of objective truth (it is a necessary condition and understanding it/living by it essential to liberty), as well as what he viewed as challenges to be faced in the 21st century and how Christianity should prepare and offer answers.  We also see a John Paul who continually sought God, whose relationship to God formed the core of his being and informed his purpose and peace in this life and resulted in a historically impacting pontificate.

The engaged and perceptive reader will find insights, truths and wisdom on the importance and potential impact of the gospel in history — both epochally (with the fall of Communism being the prime example) and in individual lives.  And in finding these truths and their impacts, one finds indeed, a rich store of Lessons in Hope.

 

 

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I recently finished reading “Out of the Ashes” by Anthony Esolen. Wow, what a fascinating, challenging and convicting read! I encourage any and all to read the book — but beware, it is not for the faint of heart nor those easily offended. Dr. Esolen is a man of learning and conviction, and his tone and some of his thoughts on culture and divine truth will put off some. He also tends to interrupt a line of thought for another line and it is up to the reader to determine how the thoughts are related to the immediate subject he is on at the time. Having said that, the author is largely accurate in his broad cultural analysis (if not always in the remedy, particularly regarding generalities on manhood and womanhood). The book has much to offer, and boldly and accurately state, regarding truth, beauty, education, God and man, how we rationalize evil and ugliness, and the need for ordinary people to be willing to resume the humanity that has often been lost (and how to do it). The last two chapters are classic and timeless! While the book is meant for more than the church, the universal church would do well to adapt what is discussed into how to recover its true mission and how to engage and influence by being distinct and thus true light.

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A few weeks ago, I finished “Love Does” by Bob Goff.  I know … I’m late to the party as this was a “must read” in Christian circles like 5 years ago.  However, I was hesitant to read the book because, to listen to others gush about it, it sounded more kitsch and cant than substantive.  Now, having read the book, I’d say that some of that hesitancy was justified, BUT….

At its best, and that is often, the author provides motivation to “put legs” on their faith. It is, in this sense, a series of modern day parables (though they differ in that they are based on his and other’s life experiences) that emphasize what the book of James emphasizes — namely “What use is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.”

At its “less than best,” there are places in which the book comes across as a Tony Robbins/Robert Kiyosaki “you can do it” motivational book with religious (though Mr Goff would not want anyone associating his book with “religion”) bromides and bumper sticker theology substituting for deep seeking of God. Example: “…[God] doesn’t pass us messages, instead He passes us each other.” “…our understanding will always have gaps and gaps are good because they leave room for God to fill in the spaces.”
In addition, there is a persistent “religion is bad” undercurrent. True religion, as Scripture points out (James 1:27) does the very things Mr Goff advocates and encourages. While I understand Mr Goff actually means “empty religion” (that which is buoyed by legalistic rules, righteous cliques and gatekeepers more interested in their own power), the continual bashing of religion and claiming Jesus wasn’t religious is somewhat wearisome. To quote a MiddleTree blog review, “[The author sometimes] seems to forget the world, and the Church, needs the folks he subtly calls out: black & white thinkers, the ones who study theology, the ones who call out sin; in other words, the ones who are very different from him. These folks, subject to borderline derision in a few spots in “Love Does”, have their place, and play an important role in the world. If everyone was like them, it would be a disaster. But Goff seems to dismiss them altogether, or at least to minimize their importance.”

Thankfully, those kinds of things are not the emphasis of the book. The last few chapters, in particular, are spot on in calling the reader to put faith and love into action. So, despite the qualms, Love Does is a light, fun read in which the author uses his own experiences to tell great stories to highlight that following Jesus isn’t just a matter of “knowing the right things.” It is a matter of loving as Jesus loves, being His hands and feet — going and doing. And in so doing, we experience abundant life and we “taste and see that the Lord is good.” Bob Goff is one of those rare people who doesn’t just tell good stories; he lives them. And Love Does inspires you to follow his lead. It accomplished its main aim — getting me (the reader) to think about how to more actively love the people around me and who intersect in my life as well as to think about what my story can/should be in light of the gifts and passions God has instilled in me. And that makes this a worthwhile read and certainly commends the author.

A Good Ambassador

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Do you know this man?  I was not aware of him until I read an article regarding his passing. I would have liked to have met him and been able to “intern” to watch how he represented and bridged Christ/Christianity to journalists.
 
What exactly did this man do?  Michael Cromartie was his name.  And he was “one of Christianity’s principal ambassadors in Washington, [representing] Jesus with joyful confidence,” according to Michael Wear, a former White House faith adviser under Barack Obama. “I’ve seen the effects of his life and work up close, and both the church and the nation are better off because of him,” said Wear.  “Michael was a friend whose encouragement I did not deserve, and whose insight has shaped my work, my life and my faith.  In the days ahead, we should look to Michael’s example to stoke our imagination for what a faithful public witness can look like in this moment.”

Scripture tells us that “we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us.” (2 Cor 5:20). From reading about Mr. Cromartie’s life and work and from the encomium’s from journalists across the political and ideological spectrum, it seems Mr. Cromartie was an excellent ambassador of Christ.  

 
Said one, “Mike was a man of great knowledge who made it accessible to others. He was a man of great faith, who make it real and attractive to others. And he was a man of exceptional decency, who demonstrated how to live with joy and integrity.”
 
If that could be said of me, then I would be much more excited about meeting my Maker because I would be a much better ambassador for Christ.
 
Over the past year as I’ve been on a personal sabbitical, as I’ve prayed, studied Scripture, the lives of those I admire and tried to assess myself against God’s truth, I realize I fall well short of the standard Michael Cromartie set. He ran the race set before him well. What was said of him in terms of how he represented Christ could not be said of me.
 
It is (or should be) every Christian’s goal, upon death and entering the presence of Christ, to hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:23). I believe Michael Cromartie heard those very words on August 28, 2017.
 
My time of introspection has not been easy, nor always pleasant in facing some unwelcome realities about some aspects of my character, personality and actions. Don’t get me wrong, God has also shown me times and areas where “I’ve gotten it right.” But I also see much to improve on as I make my calling sure (2 Peter 1:10).

What I’m most grateful for is that God is making me aware of the areas where I must grow and improve; that He has not abandoned me, but rather I realize that in His lovingkindness, He has been blessing where I don’t deserve, working in circumstances and decisions to bring me to the point of serious Spirit-led self-assessment from which I fervently hope and believe He will make a new path/work for and in me.  I am amazed at His patience and His continued work in me.  He, I believe, through love and discipline is preparing a way that, in the end, I too can hear the words, “Well done good and faithful servant….”  What a marvelous God indeed — the He continues to be mindful of me!

I was in a Target retail store today walking down a main aisle to get to school supplies (looking for a graphing calculator for one of my boys).  As I looked ahead, I saw an elderly lady with a shopping cart stop and begin to eye me.  I could tell she thought I might be a Target employee.  Sure enough, when I was close enough for her to make herself heard, she inquired as to whether I worked at the store (as I was wearing khaki slacks and an orange-red shirt, her thought was understandable).

However, how she phrased her question caught me up short — and has had me thinking ever since.  She asked, “Are you a customer, or are you a real person?”

After confirming with her I was a customer, I began thinking on the latter half of her question — “are you a real person?”   Oh, I’m definitely flesh and blood, but that simply means I’m existing.  In looking for descriptions of a “real person,” I came across words like genuine, authentic, giving, loving and vulnerable.  If those words characterize a “real person” (and I think it certainly encompasses those things), then I sometimes struggle.

I naturally lean toward a “type-A personality,” but I’m also introverted by nature.  The results of such a combination are often stoicism (lack of showing emotion) and introversion.  I can often seem unapproachable, difficult to talk with, interested in people only in terms of how they can contribute to tasks at hand (a commodity).  When emotion does come out, it can often be in the form of impatience and/or frustration.

As I’ve reflected on this, I can think of many times when I’ve not been a “real person,” but rather a brooding, self-absorbed person.  Times when I’ve gotten frustrated and impatient with my wife or boys because they haven’t gotten something done or because they don’t get what I’m trying to explain after they’ve asked me to help them with their homework.  Times when I’ve “withdrawn” rather than drawn close.

I remember a time awhile back when a friend from work and I were talking.  This friend was trying to help me see why sometimes I could be intimidating or thought to be unapproachable.  As she was talking, I remained impassive.  I offered no words or facial expressions/body language.  Exasperated, she said, “See, this is what I’m talking about.  I have no idea what you’re thinking and wonder whether you care at all.”  I wasn’t being a real person.

As I’ve continued to think, the apostle Paul’s words on the fruit of the Spirit keeps coming to my mind:  “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control….”  A real person is one who exhibits these characteristics.  Such a person is genuine and values people as people (versus a commodity useful in accomplishing tasks).  Such a person is one who enriches others’ lives simply by how they interact with others – exhibiting the fruit outlined above.

As a Christian, I should be, by-and-large, a real person.  None of us is a perfect real person, but as a Christian, being a real person (defined by the fruit of the Spirit) should be the norm.  Christ says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that you can recognize a people by how they act — as you can identify a tree by its fruit.  A good tree (real person) bears good fruit (love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, etc).  A bad tree, on the other hand, produces bad fruit (self-centeredness, impatience, anger, indifference, harshness, etc).  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.

At the end of the day, I want to be able to answer that elderly woman’s question with, “Yes, I’m a real person.”  I can’t do that in my own strength, but only by walking in and with the Spirit of God.  May I, may we all, do so and be “real people.”

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As a young Christian headed to, or in, college (and, more and more, even in high school), you will experience (or already are experiencing) significant challenges to your faith and beliefs.  Some of these challenges will be motivated by out-and-out antagonism; others by sincere wonder about why you believe what you do.

As a result, there will be times where you feel attacked, ridiculed and/or singled-out/isolated for your Christian belief.  If you’ve never had your beliefs deeply probed/challenged (whether by hostile or sincere motivations), it can be overwhelming and cause serious cracks of doubt in your faith’s foundation.  This is exacerbated if you’ve left behind familiar family and friends for the newness (and initial aloneness) of college.

To help navigate these times, here are six ways you can ensure not only the survival of your faith, but that you will learn, grow and flourish:

1. Know why you believe.  Scripture tells us plainly to be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks you the reason for “the hope that you have”  (1 Peter 3:15, NIV and TLB).  Young Christians often abandon their faith because they are not prepared to answer the arguments against God that many professors, students and organizations present today.

I’ll never forget when, as a new freshman in college, a new friend and I were  discussing our beliefs.  As this friend probed my beliefs, he eventually said, “Jeff, I’m surprised you don’t know more about why you believe what you do.”   His statement has stuck with me to this day.

That was some time ago — in today’s post-Christian culture, the atheistic arguments against the existence of God and against Christianity are more aggressive, passionate and complicated than ever before.  Seemingly insurmountable and impenetrable arguments are presented as to why religion in general, and Christian belief in particular, is not just ignorant and antithetical to science and basic common sense, but even harmful to individuals and society.

However, Christianity is not simply “blind faith.”  There is sound evidence which leads to faith and buttresses it.  Knowing why you believe; knowing such belief is not crazy; knowing that faith, science and reason are allies is crucial to being able to give an answer for the reason for the hope that you have.  If you don’t know why you believe, if your foundation of faith is based more on feeling than on evidence (sealed by the witness of the Holy Spirit), your faith could be irrevocably shaken later.

Toward that end, there are a number of sources that can help you determine and understand the evidence that buttresses faith.  Some suggestions: 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists by Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman; Why Science does not Disprove God by Amir D. Aczel; Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis; The Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis; Know Why You Believe by Paul Little; a variety of essays by Eric Metaxas and others via the internet.  For a taste of how science more and more indicates a Creator and Designer of the universe, watch this.

2. Face Reality.  Jesus told us, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you” (John 15:19, NIV).  The fact is, in America, we are living in a post-Christian culture. Our nation’s institutions (education, judicial, media) have ceased to recognize God and the Bible as our national center, as the source of the common good.  More and more, our institutions attempt to force compliance in thought and deed regarding this post-Christian worldview.  Simply being aware of this and facing the fact that your faith will be challenged (either directly or indirectly) is a must.  It will help you think critically about what you’re being taught and told.

3.  Seek out Allies.  Don’t remain in the “aloneness” you may feel/encounter when you initially move to college (or that you may feel in high school). Identify and join campus groups which share your faith and worldview. Examples include Cru, Baptist Student Union, Navigators (for high school, Youth for Christ or Campus Life). Find and join a bible-believing church which faithfully preaches the gospel and submission to it in the form of discipleship. We all need friends and groups that remind us we are not alone in our faith, in whom we can confide and find encouragement and growth. These groups can also help you navigate the politically correct obstacle course that runs through campuses as well as find professors that share common Christian belief.

4.  Avoid needless battles.  It isn’t your personal responsibility to change the administration’s or professors’ views on Christian faith. It is, of course, necessary and a part of our calling to stand for truth, but it is not necessary to start unnecessary and unproductive conflicts in the name of “conversions.” Look for opportunities for people with truly open minds and an environment for real discussion — but if that doesn’t exist, don’t try to force the issue.

5.  Stay cool.  If you do have the opportunity to engage in a discussion of your belief or are answering a question on why you believe what you do stay calm, gentle and reasonable. In that same passage where Peter tells us to be ready to give an answer for our hope, he also states to give the answer in gentleness and respect.  Thinking of things in terms of “I must win/you must lose” and acting/speaking accordingly is not going to help the cause of Christianity. Remember, as Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 5, “we are Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us.”  The person who loses his cool usually loses the debate …. and in our case this can have eternal consequences.

6.  Work Hard.  Professors and teachers value hardworking, enthusiastic students.  That is one way of showing respect. Many teachers will respect you in turn … it is one way to “win the right” to engage in discussion of belief.  This is also the path to success in the classroom.

In the end, if you continue to walk with God, seek Him and apply the above, you stand to get more out of your college experience than most. Why? Because you are exposed to dissenting worldviews much more frequently. These challenges and opposition will sharpen you academically and deepen your faith. You will grow intellectually and spiritually as a result. The secret is to be prepared!