June 28, 2017

Last month was the running of the 33rd annual Pittsburgh Marathon.  I was never anything but an average athlete and I was NEVER a runner; short stubby legs preclude that sort of thing.  In my wildest dreams (nightmares) I could never imagine running, non-stop, for over 26 miles!  Heck, 40 yard “sprints” during football practice were challenging enough.

Do you know the origins of the Marathon?

“In a nod to Greek history, the first marathon commemorated the run of the soldier Pheidippides from a battlefield near the town of Marathon, Greece, to Athens in 490 B.C. According to legend, Pheidippides ran the approximately 25 miles to announce the defeat of the Persians to some anxious Athenians. Not quite in mid-season shape, he delivered the message “Niki!” (Victory!) then keeled over and died.”

Notice the last few words: “keeled over and died.” EXACTLY!  You would have thought the originators of the Olympic GAMES would have taken that into consideration.  But NNNNNNNOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!! I can hear the committee now, “Hey, we need some running events.  How about we include an impossibly long jog?”  Someone else chimed in:  “Remember that guy who ran from Marathon to Athens… how far was that?”  A third voice:  “I think about 25 miles.”  “Well, shucks” said the first planner.  “Let’s make it even longer then!”  “Um… didn’t he die?” the third voice intoned.  Back to voice 1.  “Well yeah, but think of how much more exciting that will make everything!”  “LET’S DO IT!” they all exclaimed.

On a more serious note, I have known too many people over the years that have treated the Christian Faith like a sprint. What I mean by that is, they have been “all into it” for a short while until they grow weary or until something more attractive comes along and then they fall away.  Christianity is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.  It’s something that we are called to stick with through the good times and the bad times.  We are called to stay with it when we are weary and when we are vital.  We seek after God even when we wonder where God is. We grow old in it. We marinate in it.

Decadence on the other hand is a sprint. Sin is a sprint.  Fulfilling our every desire (selfish ambition) is a sprint.  But following Jesus… that is a lifelong commitment.

Let’s look at the word “race” in the Bible for a few moments. First, the word “race” illustrates why English can be so difficult to grasp.  We mean more than one thing by the word “race,” correct?  When we say “race” we mean either “a competition to get somewhere first” or we mean “ancestry or skin color.”  In most if not all other languages those would be entirely different words.  Clearly we are referring here to the “getting someplace first” kind of racing.

Interestingly enough: “The metaphor of the footrace seldom occurs in the OT (Ps. 19:5; Jer.12:5; Eccles. 9:11), probably because competitive sports had no significant place in the social life of ancient Israel. When a gymnasium was erected in Jerusalem by the Hellenizing (those who forced Greece culture on others) high priest Jason early in the second century b.c., the devout Jews declared that ‘new customs’ were being introduced ‘contrary to the law’ (2 Macc. 4:7-17).”

Frankly, that’s sort of the ancient version of “We’ve never done it that way before.” Or… “The organ is the ONLY instrument suitable for worship.”

The word “race” is used several times in the N.T. Take a moment to read the following references:

Acts 20:24 However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace.

1 Corinthians 9: 24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.

Galatians 2: 2 I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.

Galatians 5: 7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?

2 Timothy 4: 6 For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

Hebrews 12: 1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The words for “race” referenced above are not used in the sense of defeating another runner… they are used in the sense of: preparation, hard work and endurance on the part of the individual.

When I say that Christianity is a marathon requiring much work, I am not saying that sprinters do not work hard because of course they do. It’s just that it’s a very different kind of work.  Maybe this will help to illustrate:  I can remember my football coach in high school yelling at us when we weren’t working hard enough.  He didn’t threaten us with wind sprints because we did that all the time anyway.  Do you know what he threatened us with that put fear into our hearts?  “You either start working or I’ll make you go run with the cross country team!”  Oh my goodness… anything but that!  That was too hard!

The short of it is this: Christianity is not a “feel good/short term religion.”  Christianity is a “long term/transformational religion.”  If you are into “feel good, easy” then being a “Christ One” is likely not for you.  You might want to explore some of the charlatans on television and follow them.  Just sayin.



June 14, 2017

Years ago I had a friend pass away from a sudden and unexpected heart attack; he was in his mid 50’s. Naturally his death was a shock and the events that surrounded the days, weeks and months afterward were painful.  But it could be that nothing was more difficult than the phone call I made several days after he died.  I called his office to speak to his secretary (also a friend) and see how she was doing.  She was not back to work yet so the phone recording came on.  She had not yet changed the message so my friend who had died and was already buried “answered” with a pleasant message about no one being there and to leave my name and phone number and he would call back as soon as possible.  I hung the phone up with what I’m sure was a stunned look on my face and began to openly weep in my office… alone… thankfully.

This past week I discovered that my cell phone keeps all of my text messages. I guess I actually knew that but what I didn’t know was that they were taking up quite a bit of memory space.  So I spent 15 minutes scrolling back through several years of texts marking them for deletion.  In the process I came across two “conversations” with folks who are now deceased.  Can I just admit how strange that was?  And can I also tell you that going to my phone list and hitting the “delete” button for their names was agonizing.  My father died 15 years ago and I still have his number saved in my phone.  Is that odd?  I don’t really know.  I just know that it has something to do with the permanence of death.  Taking those small but final steps in saying “goodbye” for what might be all eternity is excruciating.

“Have you no hope?” some might ask. “Where is your faith?” comes from another direction.  “What about the resurrection of the dead?” a third voice chimes.  And last “What about Jesus?”  Listen.  On most days I believe in all of that… for myself.  I cannot speak to the faith of others very well.  When we talk about faith we are talking about “heart language” to a great degree.  (Yes, for sure our heads have to be engaged as well.)  Knowing or reading the heart of another is a quagmire of façades, confusion, feelings and best intentions.  I barely know my own heart on many occasions let alone the true desires and intentions of another.  I have known way too many “great Christians” who have abandoned the faith… if they ever actually had any.  Sadly, I suspect we will not find some of the “finest Christians we have even known” in Glory.  And conversely… well, you get it.  Why?  Because God is a God of the heart!  He does know us.  He sees through our façades.  He knows the truth about our “best intentions.”  He knows us better than we know ourselves.  Is that frightening?  Sometimes it is.  Does God know my brokenness?  Of course, He does… even I know about that.  And anyone who knows me, knows I’m broken.  But God knows every chasm and minute, hair-like crack hiding behind the façade I put out there for others to see.  Does God know my sin?  YES!!  And like my brokenness, so do others.  But He also knows all the shades of darkness in my soul.  No one else knows that.

Do I have hope in the resurrection… yes. Do I have assurance for others… no, because I cannot know their hearts.  Thus I often find myself in the midst of a theological quagmire.  There is “hope” and there is “fear and uncertainty.”  “Hope” for those who confess Christ.  “Fear and uncertainty” for those about which I’m unsure.

Occasionally, I get asked to do funerals for folks I don’t know. Families who have no connection to a church have a loved one die and a minister gets called in; one who is totally unfamiliar to them.  These are difficult circumstances for all pastors.  How do we provide “hope” in the midst of sorrow when it seems that grandma, dad or whomever had no semblance of faith?  I cannot say with any integrity, “Have ‘hope’ because your loved one is in the presence of Jesus.”  So, what do I do?  Well, I don’t know about other ministers, but I preach the Good News of Jesus making no comment on the eternal abode of the deceased.  I allow the family to decide what they want regarding themselves and their loved one.  I don’t know if that seems cruel and insensitive, or not.  I really don’t.

Honestly, I started this rumination 2 weeks ago and I don’t know how to end it. I just know that the death of a loved one can be daunting.  Assurances, in some cases, are hard to come by.  In the end we all leave ourselves in the hands of a loving and merciful God.