Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sometimes It's Okay To Lean

This is a follow-up on my previous post on the Olympics. There have been some great, inspiring stories that have emerged from the Olympics. One great example took place in the Barcelona Games of 1992. A British 400 meter runner by the name of Derek Redmond was competing in the semi-finals. Watch what happens:  

There are some great lessons here for all of us.

We need each other. Some people think that needing other people is a sign of weakness; far from it. Each of us were created to function better in community. There are times when our best efforts, while inspiring, just are not enough. There are times when life knocks us down and we just don't have the strength to get up on our own. In those times, especially, we learn to thank God for friends.

I like what Kurt Vonnegut said: “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” 

In hard times, we learn who our friends are. The Parable of the Prodigal Son tells the story of a young man who demanded his inheritance early and then left home on a great adventure. As long as he had money, he had friends. But when the money ran out, he quickly found out they weren't real friends at all. Real friends walk in when the fake ones walk out. Who is there for you when no-one else is? Hold on to them tightly. If you're having a hard time finding anyone to be there, remember what God says: "I will never leave you nor forsake you."

Sometimes the reward comes from finishing the race. Very few people remember who won that 400 M race, but anyone who saw it will always remember Derek Redmond and his father struggling over the finish line. We felt his pain when he pulled up with the hamstring injury; and then we cheered for him when he struggled to finish on his own. Finally, when his father broke through security to help him, everyone urged them on.

Why? I think because we all relate to hard times. Each of us has been in a situation when, in spite of our best efforts, everything went against us. We know how hard it is to suck it up and keep on going. We know how hard it is to watch those we love suffer. And, yes, we all know that there are times in our lives when we need the support of those around us. Sometimes it's okay to lean.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

There's More to Life Than Gold Medals

The Olympic Games of London have come and gone. I, like many others, spent way too much time watching sports I would never otherwise watch because, well, it's the Olympics. Even with the doping scandals and the bribery rampant in the IOC, the Games still represent so much that is good about sport.

Being Canadian, we've learned to celebrate personal bests rather than gold medals. In fact, a tongue in cheek motto I've heard recently is "bronze is the new gold." Our medal haul was 1 gold, 5 silver and 12 bronze, placing us 13th in the world as a nation - just one short of our goal.

I have to admit to a little bit of frustration watching my fellow Canadians fall "just short," or, in some cases, be disqualified or completely underachieve. For a competitive guy, that can be a little hard to take. But every once in a while I'm reminded that it's not all about winning.

When we consider some of the greatest moments in Olympic history, what comes to mind? Yes, there is Usain Bolt and his sprinting golds and Michael Phelps and his dominance in the pool. But there are also unforgettable stories of those who finished far behind that have grabbed our attention because of what they represent: commitment, dedication, perseverance.

I'm reminded of the story of John Stephen Akhwari, a little known Tanzanian runner, who competed in the marathon in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Momo Walde won the marathon gold. One hour later, Akhwari entered the Olympic stadium – the last man to do so. Wounded after a fall and carrying a dislocated knee, he hobbled up to the track for one last push to the finish. He finished to a thunderous applause by a small crowd which will always remember that moment. It was later written of his perseverance – "Today we have witnessed a young African runner who symbolizes the finest in the human spirit. A performance that gives true dignity to sport – a performance which lifts sports out of the category of grown men playing in games." But Akhwari was far more modest. When asked why he did not quit, he replied, "My country did not send me 5000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5000 miles to finish the race."

There's something to be said for finishing in spite of whatever challenges you face. This is even more true in our day-to-day life. It's not always easy and the sun doesn't always shine. Sometimes we get sick, we lose our job, we're faced with unforeseen problems and life just gets hard. What do we do?

We can choose to quit and play the blame game, but what's the good in that? An old family maxim says, "It's a good life if you don't weaken." It's a little simplistic, but the point is that sometimes you just have to keep going in spite of it all.

I'm reminded of what the Apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 6:9, "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." Akhwari may not have won his race, but he certainly won the respect of a worldwide audience. He had every reason to quit, yet he continued.

You may feel as though you are reaching your limit. You may have encountered difficulties that have rocked your world. It does not mean that you are defeated - sometimes you win just by finishing the race. What is it that helps you to continue even when the road is long and hard? What is it that keeps you going when you feel like quitting? Focus on those things, and finish the race.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Help In Hard Times

A lot of people I know are going through very hard times right now. It may be sickness, trouble with the kids, marriage issues, financial problems or a host of others. Because of my role as pastor, I get to be a sympathetic ear and offer a little bit of advice. In spite of the wide variety of issues, I've found that there are some commonalities that apply to all of us. This may appear to be more of a sermon than an article. No apologies - it just came out that way. 

The words of Jesus ring as true today as they did when He first spoke them. He said in the first half of John 16:33, "In this world you will have trouble." I meet a lot of people who appear surprised that life is difficult, but we shouldn't be. In fact, we really should expect problems. We live in a fallen world with fallen people and we experience pain because of both of those realities. Jesus speaks of another reason.

In John 10:10 He says, "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." A lot of people have a hard time with the idea of Satan or the devil, but Jesus was very clear that he is real. It's very difficult to look around us today; to read the newspaper or watch the CNN headlines and deny the reality of evil. The Bible further teaches that that there are spiritual forces which are at work in our world beyond what we can see. If what Jesus said was true, we can ask some questions to provide clarity about whatever we might be facing. 

What is the enemy trying to do? 

For some of you, the enemy's goal is to destroy your family. He may do this by using the wounds and hurts of the past to create new tensions and battles today. Our culture has become more and more selfish and less and less responsible. We like quick fixes and easy answers. Life doesn't work that way. Often the enemy finds willing allies in our very own homes - sometimes even us - because we have drifted away from a vital relationship with Jesus Christ.

Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was so insightful when he wrote about dealing with evil: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” It's important to try to step back and look at the big picture. What is at the root of the problems you face?

What is God trying to do?

What we often miss is that God is not surprised by what we're going through. He is very aware of every situation in our lives and is wanting to bring about an outcome that works out ultimately for our good - if we love Him (See Romans 8:28). Jesus said that He has come that we "may have life, and have it to the full." We see examples of what He meant throughout the New Testament as we see descriptions of the life He intended.

In the midst of our challenges, for example, He has offered us His peace. Where there is division, his goal is reconciliation. Where there is bitterness, his aim is forgiveness and healing. Where there is deception, He offers truth; where there is hate, love. He has promised never to leave us nor forsake us. So, whatever we're going through we need to ask ourselves, "where is God in all of this?" To paraphrase Francis Schaeffer, "God is there, and He is not silent." Look for Him and listen.

What should we do?
In light of these two realities - that the enemy seeks to destroy and that Christ comes to give life - what, exactly, are we to do? Our primary responsibility, if we want the best of what God has for us, is to align ourselves with His purposes. As Jesus was speaking to ordinary people with real-world needs, He said in His Sermon on the Mount, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33) This speaks of priorities.

We must remember that God made us, designed us, loves us, and knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows what the future holds, knows our strengths and weaknesses; our gifts, talents and abilities, and what will meet our deepest needs. In light of all of this Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."  (Matthew 22:37) This proper alignment enables us to do the right thing even in difficult situations, recognizing that it is God who is at work within us. It might not shield us from pain - life is just hard sometimes - but it can help our perspective, and enable us to see that God can bring good out of bad situations.

As we apply ourselves to this primary relationship through prayer and application of His Word to our lives, we find that there is a foundation of principles upon which we can build our lives. We find direction when the way seems unclear. We find supernatural resources that are provided as necessary. But here's the kicker - there are no short cuts.

Jesus' call to each of us is to "Take up our cross and follow Him." (Matthew 16:24-25) This speaks of obedience regardless of the cost. It means doing the right thing even when we don't feel like it; even when no-one else seems to be. Jesus didn't promise that His way would be easy, but that it would lead to life. Too many people have selective hearing when it comes to the clear teachings of Scripture. They want to pick and choose which parts of it they will adopt and which they will ignore. Yet they expect that all will go well with them. Jesus never promised that.

Hear what Jesus said as He concluded His Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

If there's a storm brewing in your life, the first thing you might want to do is to check and make sure that you're building on the right foundation. If you're not, the good news is that God allows U-turns. You can start today to set things right. I've been privileged to watch marriages and families restored and crises averted as people have asked the simple question, "God, what should I do?" It's a great place to start. Go and do likewise.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Wading Into the Chic-Fil-A Battle

I've been watching our friends to the South go into convulsions over Chic-Fil-A and their stance on marriage. I figured I'd give it a little while to cool down before I weighed in. The media have had a field day declaring their indignation that Dan Cathy would dare oppose same sex marriage, and various organizations - even politicians - have been taking turns blasting the company. A couple of weeks ago, friends of Chic-Fil-A helped them set a one day sales record as a show of support. So, what's the story?

First of all, Chic-Fil-A has always been known as a Christian company - their long-standing refusal to open on Sundays is evidence of strongly held convictions. Here's what actually happened just before President Dan Cathy set off a firestorm of media attention. Some have opposed the company’s support of the traditional family. “Well, guilty as charged,” said Cathy when asked about the company’s position. “We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit..."

“We are very much committed to that,” Cathy emphasized. “We intend to stay the course,” he said. “We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles.” The subject of same sex marriage was never addressed in the original interview. He did not "condemn same-sex marriage" as has been claimed. He simply reaffirmed their support of "the biblical definition of the family unit."

I've been observing the debate and collecting articles from various writers coming from different angles of the debate. It makes for some interesting reading and leads to some good questions. For example, should company presidents be allowed to state their opinions and should their private companies be allowed to support what they choose? should the mayors of Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, etc... be able to block new Chic-Fil-A restaurants from being built simply because they disagree with their position on marriage? What are the other issues that company presidents are not allowed to comment on? Is there a list? Should we divide our cities along political lines? What about the church's response? What is your definition of tolerance? How do you engage someone in conversation when you disagree on a sensitive topic?

I'm going to give the links to a few different articles for your reading pleasure. Think about it, recognizing that very few issues are as simple as the media make them out to be.

This first article is a blog post by Perry Noble calling out the activists on both sides of the political spectrum. It's called "Ben & Jerry’s, Chick-fil-A & Political Correctness"

The second one is by Mark Hemingway looking at the origins of the story. His title makes it clear about his views: "Media Invents Story That Chick-fil-A President Condemned Gay Marriage"

This next one includes a video. It shows how passionate this debate is becoming. The title says it all:  "Exec Bullies Chick-fil-A Worker, Then Promptly Gets Fired For It"

I have good friends on both sides of this debate. I think we can - and should - differ and still like each other. I think that there's still a place for reasoned debate in our culture, though we have lost the stomach for it and, seemingly, would rather yell at and boycott each other. Take a step back, breath, and talk.

I do like what Rick Warren (who's had his own share of criticism) said: "Our culture has accepted two huge lies: The first is that if you disagree with someone's lifestyle, you must fear them or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don't have to compromise convictions to be compassionate."

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Book Review: "Akiane - Her Life, Her Art, Her Poetry"

Book Review: "akiane - her life, her art, her poetry," Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006. 136 pages.

It actually seems a little odd reviewing the life story of a girl who was only 10 at the time of the book's writing, but, then again, Akiane Kramarik is no ordinary girl. She rocketed to fame on the merits of her art, which some have found so shockingly good that they assumed she could not have painted it herself. Those doubts have long since been laid to rest, yet she remains a mystery. This book answers a number of questions, but leaves many unanswered.

The book was written by Akiane's mother, and details the early years of Akiane's life as the family journeyed through a series of successes and failures. Foreli and her husband, Markus, born in Lithuania, by all accounts are devoted to their children, creating a nurturing environment regardless of financial realities. Much of the book could be written about any number of children, but other parts recount the kind of stories that make one wonder.

When Akiane was just a baby of three weeks her mother received an odd call from Europe, telling about a strange Armenian Christian lady named Victoria who was telling people about a baby named Akiane, and all the wonderful things she would do. That very woman called later that day to share what she said that God had revealed to her about Akiane's future. Being atheists, Akiane's parents completely rejected her rambling.

However, when Akiane was four, she began to speak about God, which took her mother by surprise because the family home-schooled, did not attend church, had no television and didn't speak of God at all. These "encounters" with God became regular and were accompanied by vivid experiences, which Akiane spoke of as fact. Her mother encouraged her to draw what she saw and Akiane began her art at the age of 4 and never stopped. She quickly progressed from pencil sketches to oil pastels and acrylics, displaying her art at art fairs. People refused to believe that a then 6 year old could create such art. She continued to develop her skills and started writing poetry at age 7.
The Prince of Peace

Her poetry often goes hand in hand with the theme of one of her paintings, and deals again with spiritual imagery. It's a little esoteric for me, but has been acclaimed by many well-respected poets and critics. What is certain is that Akiane takes what she does seriously, and views her art as a gift from God to the world. She works at it with the dedication of a professional artist, even when she was a child. Her spiritual interest lead her entire family to look for God in the person of Jesus Christ, who became the subject of two of her most famous paintings ("The Prince of Peace" and "Father Forgive Them").

The book, while it could be seen as self-serving, reveals a remarkable young lady (at 10!) who can speak 4 languages and is an acclaimed artist and poet. Her art is remarkable in its mature themes and its ability to portray concepts that touch on spiritual realities. Whatever you believe of her encounters with God, Akiane is a rare talent. It's an interesting book to read, if only to view that paintings with her stories of what inspired them.

By the way, now 6 years later, Akiane continues to amaze with her talent. She has made appearances on almost all of the major talk shows. Visit her web-site to view her art for yourself.

"I teach, and they run away.
I listen and they come.
My strength is my silence."

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Who Do You Read?

There was a time when I really didn't enjoy reading. That changed when I got to College. Now I just wish I had more time to read. But what to read?

Some 25 years ago I attended a conference in which John Maxwell encouraged us to read a broad spectrum of books in order to stay relevant as preachers. Besides the Bible, which is foundational to everything else, I've tried to read biographies, history, leadership, current events, theology and whatever I might be interested in currently. I've found this to be helpful to keep me connected with a wide variety of people.

What inspired this article was an interview I came across with Ravi Zacharias. He was asked "What are three books that every Christian should read?" Since he is one of my favorite authors, I was interested in his answers. This is what he said: "I would prefer to name authors. Authors such as C.S. Lewis, John Piper, Tim Keller, yes, and my dear friend R.C. Sproul. But there are many more. One of the greatest books ever written is The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. For devotional studies, Oswald Chambers, and one of my favorites, G. Campbell Morgan, are great choices. We also have a bibliography on our website ( Sorry, that’s more than three."

Typical Ravi. If you go to the web-site he lists, you'll find a bibliography of 2-300 books. No surprise here. If you follow Ravi at all, you'll quickly learn that he is a voracious reader. What I'd like to do is give a link to a bio of the authors he has listed above as well as a link to their bibliographies. Let me know how many of their books you've read.

C.S. Lewis:
Here's a link to a bio of C.S. Lewis:  I would highly recommend reading a full biography of Lewis, considering his impact on literature in the twentieth century. My favorite is "Mere Christianity."
Here is a selected bibliography of C.S. Lewis' works:

John Piper:
Here's a link to a bio for John Piper:  Full disclosure here - I have not read any of Piper's works. I will rectify that shortly.
His bibliography can be found in his Curriculum Vitae.

Tim Keller: 
Dr. Keller is the Senior Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York, “one of Manhattan’s most vital congregations,” according to Christianity Today. He moved to the city with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons in June of 1989 to begin Redeemer. Prior to that, Tim was a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and a Pastor in Virginia for nine years. Tim has led the PCA denominations church planting initiatives and remains committed to promoting and nurturing the growth of new churches in New York City and around the world. I loved his book: "The Prodigal God."
Here is a bibliography:

R.C. Sproul:
A short bio can be found here.
R.C. is the author of over 70 books. Here is a second biography, including a bibliography.

John Bunyan:
A biography for John Bunyan can be found here
The Pilgrim's Progress has been considered one of the greatest allegorical works of history. I have an early edition in my personal library - one of my prized possessions.

Oswald Chambers:
Here is a bio of Chambers, a man who didn't become famous until after his death: I have read "My Utmost For His Highest" several times.
Here is a bibliography:

G. Campbell Morgan:
A short bio of Morgan can be found here
G. Campbell Morgan wrote extensively. Click on the link for a list of his published works.

Do you agree with Ravi's list? What are your favorite books by these authors? Who would you add or delete? How would you answer the question "What are three books that every Christian should read?"

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Aren't All Religions Equally Valid?

This is a guest blog by Dr. Andy Bannister, the Canadian Director and Lead Apologist for RZIM Canada. Andy holds a PhD in Islamic studies. He has spoken and taught at universities across Canada, the USA, the UK and further afield on both Islam and philosophy and is a Visiting Lecturer for the London School of Theology. This article was originally published in the RZIM newsletter "A Slice of Infinity."

One of the most common accusations flung at Christians is that they are arrogant. "How can you believe that you're right and Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims—all the thousands of other religions—are wrong?" Isn't it the height of arrogance to claim that Jesus is the way to God? A way, possibly. But the way?

This issue haunts many Christians and makes us reluctant to talk about our faith. We don't want to appear arrogant, bigoted, or intolerant. This pluralistic view of religions thrives very easily in places like Canada or Europe where tolerance is valued above everything else. It's very easy to slip from the true claim—"all people have equal value"—to the false claim that "all ideas have equal merit." But those are two very different ideas indeed.

Let's take a brief look at the "all religions are essentially the same" idea. Suppose I say that I've just gotten into literature in a big way. This last year, I've read William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf and Tolkien, but also Harry Potter and The Very Hungry Caterpillar—and I've concluded that every author is identical. Would you conclude that: (a) this is the most profound statement on literature you've ever heard? Or would you conclude (b) that I don't have the first clue what I'm talking about? I suggest that you'd probably choose (b). Now, what about the statement "all religions are the same"? Doesn’t it likewise suggest that the person making it hasn't actually looked into any of them? Because once you do, you realize it's not that most religions are fundamentally the same with superficial differences but the reverse is the case: most religions have superficial similarities with fundamental differences.

A further problem with the idea that all religions are essentially the same is that it ignores a fundamental truth about reality: ideas have consequences. What you believe matters, because it will effect what you do. To claim that all religions are essentially the same is to say that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere—and this neglects the fact that you can believe something sincerely and be sincerely wrong. Hitler held his beliefs with sincerity—that doesn't make them true.

However, truth, by its very nature, is exclusive. If it is true, as Christianity claims, that Jesus was crucified, died, and rose from the dead, then it is not true, as Islam claims, that Jesus never died in the first place and that somebody else was killed in his place. Both claims cannot be true. Truth is exclusive.

But just because truth is exclusive, that doesn't make truth cold and uncaring. Truth for the Christian is personal. The Jesus who said "I am the only way" also said "I am the truth." In other words, ultimate truth is not a set of propositions but a person. As the Bible says in 2 Timothy 2:12, "I know whom I have believed." Not what I have believed or experienced but whom. Jesus Christ.

To ask why we think that Jesus Christ is the only way is to miss the point entirely. Jesus does not compete with anybody. Nobody else in history made the claims he did; nobody else in history claimed to be able to deal with the problems of the human heart like he did. Nobody else in history claimed, as he did, to be God with us. To say that we believe Jesus is the only way should have nothing to do with arrogance and everything to do with introducing people to him.

Andy Bannister is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Toronto, Canada. 

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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Top 5 New Blog Posts for July 2012

Here are the top 5 blog posts for the month of July by views, beginning with number 5:

5. If I Had It To Do Over Again blog was written during a week when I was conducting two funerals and giving a lot of thought to how I wanted to be remembered. It's based on a book by Bronnie Ware, an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. She wrote a book on the biggest regrets of the dying. The findings of her study were the inspiration for this blog.

4. Book Review: The Last Christian On Earth
This book was written by Os Guinness, a British author who had the privilege of hearing this summer. This book was originally published in 1983 under the title "The Gravedigger File: Papers on the Subversion of the Modern Church." It has been updated and re-released. Guinness is an accomplished author with a DPhil from Oxford University who has written or edited over 30 books.

3. A Picnic - Or A Pilgrimage?
Inspired by a quote I read on a friend's Facebook page, this piece deals with the church, and its tendency to preach and condemn rather than lovingly demonstrate a better way by their lifestyle. All too often I deal with people who have been turned off of even the idea of Christianity because of Christians behaving badly. How well do you represent Christ?  

2. When It Rains On Your Parade 
How do you respond when life lets you down? This is actually more of an article for leaders on how to manage unexpected challenges. It was written after our town's Heritage Committee was forced to cancel our 140th anniversary celebration due to inclement weather. There are lessons to be learned from everything - even a rainy day.

1. The Mark of a True Man - Heroes of Aurora
Not surprisingly, the blog post on the shooting in Aurora, Colorado garnered the most viewers. There were four young men in the theater that night who laid down their lives for their girlfriends. They will be forever be remembered for their bravery and for modeling what true love looks like. 

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