What God Gives Generously

At no time of year is God’s generosity more evident than Christmas and the New Year. He gave His Son, an event we’ve commemorated for over 2000 years now, and He has just given us another year of life and blessings. It is fitting, therefore, to also consider some of God’s other generously-given gifts as we close out this year of focus on generosity. (Conclusion coming next week.)

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.  –James 1:17 Continue reading

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The Ones Who “Also Ran”

The last two weeks, our entire schedule was disrupted. We don’t watch a lot of television, but we didn’t even change the channel during this time. We stayed up late, eyes glued to the screen. Breakfast found us checking news feeds for updates, and TV during dinner? Yes, for these two weeks, it was acceptable! As you probably guessed, we are Olympaholics! It doesn’t matter what sport or what level of competition (heats, semifinals, medal rounds), we watch it. We even have special words that only come out every two years (because we’re just as bad about winter Olympics). For example, eating during a good competition is an Olympicnic.

Of course, we rooted for the USA (final medal count: 121!), but we also cheered for anyone who was trying their hardest and anyone representing a country that hadn’t ever won a medal, such as Singapore in men’s swimming 100m butterfly.

What makes the Olympics so special?

  • The comradery: Bolt and De Grasse (sprinting) smiling and joking as they crossed the line in the semi-finals of the 200m.
  • The sportsmanship: Hamblin and D’Agostino (running) help each other up after a fall in the 5000m qualifying race, the USA women’s gymnastics team cheering each other on as they competed.
  • The patriotism: Ryan Crouse (shot put) at 23 years old, 6’7”/245lbs., with tears in his eyes as they played the national anthem; Michael Phelps (swimming) looking the same even after standing on the highest podium twenty-two times before.
  • The joy: Nijat Rahimov (weightlifting) of Kazakhstan dancing when he won gold.
  • The celebration of the human body’s ability rather than its appearance.
  • The platform for Christ: testimonies of Helen Maroulis (wrestling), David Boudia and Steels Johnson (synchronized diving), among others.

My favorite tweet from the Olympics:

The Olympics are rich with lessons for our spiritual lives, and you’ve probably read multiple articles to that effect. Let me add one more. *smile*

These guys got lapped.
In the Olympics.

The image that sticks in my mind even after the closing ceremonies is this: Mo Farah of Great Britain fell in the 10,000m finals then surged ahead to win gold—an amazing feat. As he ran around the track alongside the Kenyans and Ethiopians, they passed a couple of runners. These other guys got lapped. In the Olympics. Farah has been winning these middle/long distance races for years. He was the favorite, and most commentators could have predicted the top five, if not the exact order of their completion. How discouraging for the rest of the field.

What does an Olympic runner think when he gets lapped? (click to tweet)

It makes me wonder what was going through their minds in those moments, as they watched the backs of Farah and the others speed past them.

Did they regret their decisions to travel to Rio?

Was their effort worthless?

What was the point of running, knowing they would not win?

I don’t think they thought any of these things.

Paul told the Corinthian Christians, 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 (1 Corinthians 9:24…Is anyone surprised by my choice of a verse? I doubt it!). We need to be careful here to see what Paul intended and what he didn’t. He did not say, “Only run if you can win.” He also didn’t say, “Do whatever it takes—even cheating—to win,” or “Hey, everyone is a winner.”

When Paul said run in such a way as to get the prize, he meant run as if you will win, run your absolute best every time, put in the work to win even if you know you can’t.

But why bother?

Very few of us will reach the pinnacle of achievement in our given fields. As a Bible study writer, I will never be Beth Moore or Kay Arthur. That doesn’t mean I’ve missed my calling. It doesn’t mean I shut my computer and walk away. I will strive to be the best regardless of how much attention I get. Because somehow that’s where God’s glory lies: in my best effort. As my friend, Leigh Powers, put it in her post about the Olympics, “We are not defined by what we achieve but by what Christ has done for us.”

Mo Farah and Usain Bolt were designed to run, then they were cultivated to reach their peak potential. But so were those guys who got lapped. They may not go home with medals around their necks, but I believe they did their absolute best. They still made their countries proud. They are still Olympians.

At some level, the Olympics are no longer about the individual athletes but about their nations. In the same way, the things to which God calls us are not about us but about Him.

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters… -Colossians 3:23 (Yep, Paul again.)

Even if you can’t win the prize, run (or whatever your version of running is) as if you were going to win. You were created to do it, you are called to do it, and now you are cultivating your ability to do it.

So run your race.

Represent your faith family and your God.

Relish the privilege of appearance regardless of the final standings.

I’m called to run my race regardless of the final standings because the race is not about me. (click to tweet)

What was your most inspirational moment in the Olympics? What made you think twice? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Update 9.20.16   Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern-day Olympics, established the Olympic creed after being inspired by a speech he heard (given by Bishop Ethelbert Talbot). Looks like he thought the same way we have here! This is it: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”

The Cast of Christmas: Shepherds

God likes shepherds. Just think about it. Moses was a shepherd for forty years. David was a shepherd before he became king. Jesus is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). Of the twenty-one verses that Luke devotes to Jesus’ birth, thirteen of those are about the shepherds. That’s almost two-thirds.

Why shepherds?

Hired field hands. Unskilled labor. It was one step above unemployment: the graveyard shift, with constant exposure to the weather and meager pay, no education requirements and minimal on-the-job training. It was boring, thankless, and smelly.

So you have to ask, “Why?” (At least I have to ask. Maybe you don’t, but I ask God a lot of questions.) Of all the options God had…of all the population segments he could have chosen (even among the working class)…why choose shepherds? I think the answer is in the question. It’s one of those surprising things God does that is so very far from what we would expect of God, which is why He does it. Can we just delight in that fact for a second?

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27-29

The shepherds could celebrate
without self-consciousness.

God chose them exactly because they were such an unlikely choice. Because the wise, the strong, the important all try to take some of the glory for themselves. As Paul puts it, they boast in front of Him.  But shepherds? They knew better than to boast. They understood their proper position before the God of the Universe. They could just celebrate without self-consciousness. Oh, that we were all a bit more like the shepherds…except without the stink.

Let’s take a look at a couple of interesting things about the shepherds.

Luke 2:8-20.

They don’t doubt.

The shepherds went to Bethlehem for the spectacle, not because they were skeptical.

After the angels leave, the shepherds don’t sit around and discuss what just happened. They don’t wonder if they hallucinated, neither do they question what the angel really said. In other words, they never doubt the veracity of the angels’ message. When they say, “Let’s go…see this thing” (2:15), they go for the spectacle, not because they are skeptical.

This response demonstrates an already-burgeoning faith because they haven’t actually seen anything yet. Later, Jesus will say, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

When they got a word from God, they “hurried off” (2:16).  Yep—hurried.  Not “wandered,” not “made a plan.” Do we hurry to grab a bigger chunk of what God is doing? I know I’m more likely to doubt, then pray, then plan, then get distracted…until the opportunity has slipped by unheeded and I’m found disobedient despite having received a clear word from the Lord.

They start sharing.

As soon as the shepherds see Jesus in Bethlehem, they start spreading the word. I imagine they crowd into the stable (or whatever it is), some peeking in through the windows, some carrying baby lambs, some leaving their shepherd’s crooks outside the door. After a few “oohs” and “ahhs,” it dawns on them that this news is too good to keep to themselves. One by one, they remember someone they know in town, maybe a relative or the guy who runs the candle stand, and they step away to find that person. In a few minutes, they come back half-leading, half-dragging a still-groggy cousin or a grumbling shopkeeper. Those secondary people realize what has happened and are “amazed at what the shepherds said” (2:18). They, in turn, go back to get even more people. Perhaps this is what Mary “treasured up…and pondered in her heart” (2:19).

The shepherds were counted worthy of greeting the Messiah!

Only later do the shepherds return, “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen” (2:20). They were counted worthy of greeting the Messiah and of telling others!  We’ve also been counted worthy, haven’t we?

Welcome to the world that you created, Jesus!

…and Merry Christmas, friends.

 

The Ball Gown – A Parable

Once upon a time, a powerful yet beneficent king adopted a daughter.

This dress was made
especially for her.

Just about the time the princess reached the age at which girls enjoy dressing up and going to balls, the king decided to hold a great and regal ball in celebration of his twenty-five years on the throne.  In addition to all the usual preparations for such a significant event, the king also purchased a beautiful ball gown for his beloved daughter.  This dress was made especially for her.  It was just the right color to highlight her eyes and complexion.  The style and embellishments were exactly what she preferred.  And of course, it fit her perfectly.

In the days before the ball, the princess showed the gown to a few trusted friends.  Each one complemented the princess and expressed what an amazing father she had.  Though feeling a bit undeserving, she agreed that she was truly blessed to be his child and that He knew her so well.

Instead of the beautiful gown
given by her father, she was
wearing an old house dress.

The guests began arriving early on the appointed evening.  Of course, everyone looked beautiful, as those attending a ball should look.  Finally, the princess descended the stairs from her quarters.  Every eye in the ballroom turned to look at her.  But instead of the beautiful, immaculate gown given to her by her father, she was wearing an old house dress, one she had made for herself when she was ten years old.  Even her shoes looked like she had pulled them from the back of the closet without dusting them off.  With slumping shoulders, she trained her eyes on the floor about three feet in front of herself.

As soon as her father, the King, caught sight of her, her rushed to her side.  (Well, he regally promenaded to her side because kings don’t rush.  It’s un-royal.)  The music ceased, and every person in the room stood facing the king and princess in shocked silence.

“My child!” he exclaimed in a whisper.  “Why aren’t you wearing the dress I gave you?”

Her shoulders slumped even further, if that was possible.  She mumbled, “Oh Father, I know this night is about you–a special event to honor your reign and recognize what a wonderful king you are.  I just didn’t want to take away from that.”

“I want you to look beautiful
and to feel good…”

“Look into my eyes,” the king commanded, and the princess dutifully but hesitatingly obeyed.  “Do you see that I love you, my precious child?”  She blinked slowly in response.  “I gave that dress to you because I love you.  I want you to look beautiful and to feel good about yourself.  I enjoy your delight.  When you look good, it makes me look good.  By wearing those ugly, dirty rags, you have embarrassed yourself and me.”  At this last comment, the princess blinked back tears even while nodding in agreement.

“And what is more, my dear one, I know your heart.  I know how you will answer those who compliment you.  I know you will not keep the glory for yourself.  Now, go back to your quarters.  Put on the dress I gave you.  Fix your hair and find your best shoes.  We’ll be waiting.”

“I know you will not keep
the glory for yourself.”

When the princess turned toward the stairs, the orchestra started playing again and the people resumed their dancing, but the king stood in place, staring at the retreating back of the daughter he loved so much.

In a surprisingly short time (considering how long it usually takes teenage girls–especially princesses–to get ready for anything), the princess descended the stairs again.  This time, her back was straight, her shoulders squared, her head held high.  This time, she walked with confidence, looking people in the eye and smiling.  This time, instead of embarrassed, averted eyes, she was welcomed with “ohh”s and “ahh”s.  And to each complement, she replied, “Thank you so much!  My father gave it to me.”

ball gown
This is my princess. She wasn’t a teenager, but the gown fit her perfectly, and she loved it. (c) Carole Sparks

By the end of the evening, everyone at the ball thought even more highly of the king than they had when they arrived…including the princess.

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.    -Ephesians 2:10

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  . . .  All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes [spiritual gifts] to each one, just as he determines.  -1 Corinthians 12:7, 11

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The Ball Gown: A Parable about gifting. (click to tweet)