The Sinner Safe Zone

Josh Hamilton

At the end of February, the baseball world was saddened by the news that superstar and former MVP Josh Hamilton of the Los Angeles Angels had suffered a relapse of his drug and alcohol problems.

It is the latest chapter in a story that has a lot to tell us about what it means to be human and also what it means to be the Church.

In 1999, the Tampa Bay Rays made Hamilton the first pick of the MLB draft and for a good reason: His potential was enormous.  He could hit for both a high average and with tremendous power.  If that was not enough, he could throw the ball 97 miles an hour.

With this kind of ability, the only thing that could keep Josh Hamilton from greatness was Josh Hamilton.  And that is exactly what happened.  Hamilton failed six different drug tests while in the minor leagues and was finally suspended from 2004 to 2006.  His potential seemed to have been wasted and his baseball career seemed to be over.

But it wasn’t.  During that time away from baseball, Hamilton had a conversion experience which enabled him to get off drugs.  As he told ESPN back then, “I’m proof that hope is never lost.”  In 2007, the Cincinnati Reds took a chance on Hamilton, which paid off handsomely when he put up all-star caliber numbers over half a season.

Hamilton was then traded to the Texas Rangers where, for the next five seasons, he was one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball.  After the 2012 season, he signed a five-year $125 million dollar contract with the Anaheim Angels.

His next two seasons didn’t go as well, mostly due to injury.  He has not been able to put up the same level of numbers with the Angels that he had with the Rangers.  Then came the relapse during this past off-season.  Josh voluntarily reported what had happened to him to his team as well as MLB officials.  I think the fact that he chose to bring this to their attention when he could have tried to hide it from them showed a great amount of character and courage.

Our first response to hearing this news should be to pray for Josh and his family.  But I also think that Hamilton’s story should make us think about what it means to be the Church, especially when one of us fails.

It can be very easy to judge Josh Hamilton and his actions, but we don’t really know him.  We don’t know exactly what he is struggling with.  I do know that there is not a person alive who does not have their own personal demons and patterns of sin.  The only real difference between my struggles with sin and Josh’s struggles is that Hamilton’s failures and struggles are made public and, thus, the stuff of potential humiliation, whereas mine tend to be more private and only the stuff of guilt and shame.  I am speaking of myself here, but I think we can all make the connection with our own lives.  I think we can all relate to this.

What Hamilton, myself, and all the rest of us need from the Church is a place that not only celebrates our triumphs, but also, and more importantly, comes alongside us when we fail.

We need the kind of place where we can feel safe enough to admit that, in the words of the late Brennan Manning, we had made a “big slobbering mess of our lives,” even after we had faith and came to have a relationship with Christ.  We need a Church that takes the words of the Apostle Paul, “I am confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” to mean that until that day, grace should be shown towards all sinners.

When people look at the words of the Apostle’s Creed, do we see the Church as a place that there can be communion among sinners and forgiveness for all of the saints?

It can be really easy to sit on our religious high horse and judge the sins and failings of others, but are we willing to look into the mirror and realize that it could have just as easily been myself instead of that person?  Until we can get to the point of viewing every person as a sinner and realize that each of us needs forgiveness, it will be very hard to find a way to forgive others for their sins.

The Church needs to be a safe zone where sinners can come and not have to worry about being judged by other believers.  If a person feels judged, they will not be open to talk about their sins and seek forgiveness.  Without the confession of our sins, there is no hope for forgiveness.  If there is no hope for forgiveness, then what is the point of even having a church in the first place?  The world is filled with places where people are being judged.  The Church does not need to be another one of those places.  The Church needs to be a place where all people are welcome.  Since everyone sins, people in that church will not judge the sins of others, but help them by forgiving them and getting them on the right path to not repeating those sins.  The Church needs to be a place where you can come and read from the Bible and learn about God, learn how to love others, and then take that love out into the world to share with others.

I pray that Josh Hamilton, as well as the rest of us, find such a place.  We all need it desperately.

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Walking in His Steps

walking

The body of Christ (by that I mean the church) is full of spiritually preoccupied Christians.  Somewhere along the way we’ve been sold a bill of goods that busyness is next to godliness, and that we can have all the benefits of righteousness without a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus.  That’s crazy-talk, and it has been around since the time Moses walked the earth.

The writer of Hebrews rewinds to the earliest days of Israel when they were a group of people rather than a territory with boundaries.  God’s power wasn’t a theory.  Think about all that great movie fodder—parting seas, water from rocks, fire on the mountain—all acts of God in Spielberg proportions.  When all those astounding, holy, fantastic moments were happening all around them, the Israelites were sneaking around, worshiping idols, fighting each other, and acting like we often do as Americans.

Simply put, they were stubborn, hard-hearted people.  All they had to do was rest in the reality and power of God.  But they craved to worship their own craft.  They melted gold to make calves.  They complained about the menu.  They hoarded treasures, and they promoted their own treadmill, me-first existence.  In other words, they had Egypt on the brain.  Can you relate to that?  I can.

The pagan culture surrounds us, and we begin to smell like it.  We act like the culture we live in.  We aspire to be successful and we sometimes forget to do what is right.   We get so invigorated by the thought that we could, we don’t stop to ask ourselves if we should. Our heart grows distant.  Our soul cracks open and the world spills out of us.  We become spiritually dull on the inside.

How have we gone astray in our hearts?

Is a strong heart the same as a hard heart?

Do you have idols that you need to show out of the tent so you can have a tender heart toward Jesus?

These are all very tough questions, but questions that we really need to take the time to ask ourselves.  If we don’t, we will find ourselves living ordinary lives in which we do not stand out. Choose to be different.  Choose to stand out in a world of mediocrity.

Choose to walk in the steps God has planned for you in your life.

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Created for Greatness

greatness

Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)

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

It can be very easy to go through life thinking that we’re average; we’re ordinary.  We can easily find ourselves saying things like, “There’s nothing special about me.  I’m just one of the six billion people here on earth.”  Our society can be very quick to tear down people who achieve success.  People want to be successful, but they don’t really want other people to be too successful.  When you do something extraordinary, people will have a tendency to try to tear you down.  They will try to bring you back down to the level of average because that makes people feel better about themselves.

The reality is that each one of use is extraordinary in our own unique ways.  None of us are average.  When God created each of us, He put a part of Himself inside of each one of us.  Each of us contains the DNA of the Almighty God.  Each of us is destined to do great things in our lives.  Each one of us is destined to leave our own unique mark on this generation.  The truth is, there is nothing average about any of us, but too many times, we don’t realize who we really are.  We focus on our weaknesses or what we don’t have.  We focus on the mistakes we’ve made or the family from which we’ve come.  We end up settling for mediocrity when we were created for greatness.

Instead, we should put our focus on our strengths and be thankful for the gifts we do have.  We should focus on our successes and look at our mistakes as just opportunities to learn and do better the next time around.  We should celebrate our family because they are unique and they are our foundation and history.  We need to know that we are special and stop settling for just getting by in our lives.

If we are going to break out of average, we need to remind ourselves each day, “I have the DNA of the Most High God.  Greatness is in my genes.  I come from a bloodline of champions.”  If we can have the attitude of a champion, we will live the life of a champion.  In doing so we will be able to boldly embrace the blessings that God has in store for us in our lives.

We were created for greatness so let’s start living lives that reflect that.

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Connecting with Millenials

millennials

If you ask a demographer, they will tell you that Millennials are young adults aged 18-33 years old.  You know who Millennials are; they’re often the ones you see sipping a latte at Starbucks, checking their Twitter feeds, or texting their friends.  OK, I might be profiling them, but they do those things.

A few weeks ago I was reading an article entitled “Millennials in Adulthood” and I thought the article gave some very interesting perspective on Millennials so I wanted to share some of the things I learned with you as well as some of my own thoughts.

The article points out that Millennials are incredibly well-connected to friends, family, and colleagues via all the latest digital platforms.  I think that is a fairly obvious fact.  It is no secret that they utilize social media in ways that those of us older than them can not really understand.  In the article, University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox (you can tell he is from the south because he uses his full name) says, when it come to “the core human institutions that have sustained the American experiment- work, marriage, and civil society,” the Millennials’ ties “are worryingly weak.”

Let’s take a look at Millenials when it comes to each of these human institutions in order and see what the facts say.

Work

When it comes to the area of work, less than half of the young people aged 18 to 29 are employed full-time, and the numbers continue to fall with each passing year.  You read that correctly, less than half.  Wilcox says, “Work affords most Americans an important sense of dignity and meaning-the psychological boost provided by what American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks calls a sense of ‘earned success.’”  Most of us define our identity through the work that we do.  Without work to do, we can quickly become very lost and lose our send of identity.  I understand that unemployment rates are pretty high in the US right now, and that is always a bad thing, but what it is doing to our Millennial generation might be worse than we realize.  If our next generation of leaders is lacking in a sense of identity and purpose, it will be very hard for them to lead our country in a way that we have become accustomed to.

Marriage

Only 26% of Millennials are married, compared to 48% of the Baby Boomers when they were that same age.  That is a pretty grabbing statistic.  Despite the low percentage of people getting married, Millennials are still having babies.  In 2012, nearly half of the kids born to Millennial women entered the world without the benefit of married parents.  This is not an ideal situation since children born into single parent homes have a drastically increased risk of educational failure, poverty, and emotional distress.

Civil Society

For the purposes of this blog, we will consider only religious affiliations for this section.  29% of Millennials consider themselves to be religiously unaffiliated.  That is a record postwar high.  55% of Baby Boomers say they are religious, while only 36% of Millennials do.

This is not all bad news though.  The term “nones” has been coined to describe people who say “none” when asked to identify their faith.  By having more people actually saying “none,” it at least gives others a better idea of where they actually stand.  The fact is that Christianity is not as fashionable as it once was in our society.  This leads to fewer “nominal believers” than in the past.  Nominal believers are people who claim to have a religious affiliation, but in truth, their beliefs would be more represented by a “none” response.  Those who don’t believe are no just being more honest and saying “none.”  This can be both a concern and an opportunity.

With people who say that they do not believe in Christ there is an opportunity for these people to be converted to being believers.  If we want to respond to this opportunity and actually reach this unattached generation, we’re going to have to connect them to something they really value.  It means getting to know a person and building a relationship with that person.  Find out what they value.  Find out why they don’t believe and address it with them on their level.  Talk to them about your life and how believing in Christ has affected your life.  Let them see how that is lived out in your life.  Let them see that you are different because you believe and let them want that for themselves.  Building relationships with people can be messy and take a lot of time and effort, but the rewards are so much greater.  Half-hearted Christianity just won’t cut it.  Waving a Bible around in crowds of people you don’t know and telling them they will go to hell if they don’t believe is not going to change anyone’s heart.  Judging people and being a hypocrite will not win anyone over and make them want to follow Christ.  By the way, half-hearted Christianity, such as this, is not Christianity at all.

People have an opportunity to clearly state what a Christian really is and display that type of behavior for the entire world to see, both believers and non-believers.  Part of taking your faith seriously and modeling a mature Christian life is treating Millennials like mature people.  Instead of dumbing down the faith, and your message to them, we need to show these young people a story of reality that not only we can live out, but they can live out as well.

In addition to trying to reach the Millennials, we need to place a focus on reaching the “pre-nones,” those who are even younger than the Millennials.  We need to reach the kids with a clear message of who Christ is and His message before these kids drift away.  It is a shame when a kid, who has heard this message, decides that they do not believe it, but it is an absolute tragedy if a kid does not believe and has never even been exposed to the message.  It is a parent’s responsibility to expose their kids to Christ and His message.  This needs to be done by the parents having their own personal relationship with God and modeling this to their kids.  A teenager with a highly committed personal faith will need multiple adults of faith to turn to for support and help.  They need to see adults praying and reading the Bible frequently.  This is what prepares kids for a lifetime of faith.

The bad news about the Millennials’ lack of attachment can also be good news for the church.  The church really does have what Millennials are looking for, which is real relationships with one another and with God.  The catch is that, to connect with young people, we have to do something radical, which is to live out what we say we believe.  If the Millennials want real relationships, then we have to be willing to have a real relationship with them and we have to display our own real relationship with God.

The future can be bright and we can all make a huge advancement in Jesus’ mission for us of spreading the gospel to every corner of the earth, but it is going to take us leading the way for it to happen.  Each one of us has to do our part.  And there’s no better time to start than right now.

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Winning the Respect of Others

respect

1 Thessalonians 4:12 (NIV)

12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

When others look at your life, what do they see?  Does your daily life win the respect of others?  As believers, we are Christ’s representatives here on the earth.  We are called to a higher standard than those who do not believe.  The way we live our lives should bring glory to God the Father.  How we live our lives will either give people positive thoughts about God and draw them towards God or will give people negative thoughts about God and push people away from God.  Sometimes we influence others and do not even know we are doing it.

Notice that this verse doesn’t say, “Go out of your way to do something major so that everyone will respect you.”  It doesn’t say, “Win a gold medal or Pulitzer prize so that people will glorify Me in heaven.”  No, it says that your daily life should win the respect of others.  That simply means to always take the high road and live a life of excellence.  It means doing the right thing even when no one is looking.  It means finding common ground with people in order to be a peacemaker.  It means going and living your life with an attitude of faith.

We have an amazing opportunity to bring people into a relationship with God by them seeing how we live our lives.  We can play a role in that person going to heaven and having eternal life or going to hell and having eternal death.  We don’t really have a full grasp of the power of influence we have over people watching us who we do not even know is watching us.

As you strive to live a life worthy of the life God has intended for you, remember, you will become like whomever you spend the most time with.  If you are committed to spending time with God each day through reading your Bible and praying, you will start to develop His character.  If you hang out with people who do not live a life of great quality, the quality of your own life will suffer.  The opposite is true as well.  If you hang out with people who have a very high quality of life, it will help you improve the quality of your own life.  When you live a life filled with the Spirit of God, you’ll win the respect of others around you and will bring glory to God at the same time.

Let’s all challenge ourselves to do the things we need to do to live a life that is worthy of our great God.

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Man that Contact Lens is Heavy

ant

A couple of months ago, I came across the story of The Ant and the Contact Lens.  I thought it was great so I wanted to share it with all of you.

 

The Ant and the Contact Lens

A true story by Josh and Karen Zarandona

Brenda was a young woman who was invited to go rock climbing.  Although she was very scared, she went with her group to a tremendous granite cliff.  In spite of her fear, she put on the gear, took a hold on the rope, and started up the face of the rock.

Well, she got to a ledge where she could take a breather.  As she was hanging on there, the safety rope snapped against Brenda’s eye and knocked out her contact lens.

Well, here she is, on a rock ledge, with hundreds of feet below her and hundreds of feet above her.  Of course, she looked and looked and looked, hoping it had landed on the ledge, but it just wasn’t there.  Here she was, far from home, her sight now blurry.  She was desperate and began to get upset, so she prayed to the Lord to help her to find it.

When she got to the top, a friend examined her eye and her clothing for the lens, but there was no contact lens to be found.  She sat down, despondent, with the rest of the party, waiting for the rest of them to make it up the face of the cliff.

She looked out across range after range of mountains, thinking of that Bible verse that says, “The eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth.”  She thought, “Lord, You can see all these mountains.  You know every stone and leaf, and You know exactly where my contact lens is.  Please help me.”

Finally, they walked down the trail to the bottom.  At the bottom there was a new party of climbers just starting up the face of the cliff.  One of them shouted out, “Hey, you guys!  Anybody lose a contact lens?”

Well, that would be startling enough, but you know why the climber saw it?  An ant was moving slowly across the face of the rack, carrying it on its back.

Brenda told me that her father is a cartoonist.  When she told him the incredible story of the ant, the prayer, and the contact lens, he drew a picture of an ant lugging that contact lens with the words, “Lord, I don’t know why you want me to carry this thing.  I can’t eat it, and it’s awfully heavy.  But, if this is what You want me to do, I’ll carry it for You.”

I think it would probably do some of us good to occasionally say, “God, I don’t know why you want me to carry this load.  I can see no good in it and it’s awfully heavy.  But, if you want me to carry it, I will.”

God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.  Yes, I do love God.  He is my source of existence and my Savior.  He keeps me functioning each and every day.  “Without Him, I am nothing, but with Him… “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  (Philippians 4:13)

 

I really enjoyed this little story.  There were a few things that really stood out to me when I read it.

The first thing was how the ant did not know why he was supposed to carry the contact lens or even what it was for that matter.  All he knew is that he was called to carry it and he did.  He did it without complaining or question.  Are there things that God is calling us to do?  Are there heavy burdens in our lives that we are forced to carry around with us?  Are we willing to do this without question even though we may not know the why?  Are we willing to do it without complaining?  It can be a very hard thing to do.  It is hard to do something when we don’t know why we are doing it or how doing it fits into the big picture.  It is also very hard not to complain while doing it.  Sometimes we complain to others because we want their sympathy for what we are going through.  I know that I have done this on several occasions in my life.  Maybe if I had more of the attitude the ant had, God could have me carry even bigger things than I ever imagined I could.  If we are willing, God is able.

Another thing that struck me is the amazing power of prayer.  God wants to talk to us each and every day.  He wants us to bring all our big issues and struggles so He can help us.  He also wants us to bring our little things to Him.  Nothing is too small to share with Him.  God wants us to bring our big and small joys to Him, not just our struggles.  We should go to God in prayer when we have needs, but we need to go to Him in prayer when we don’t need anything at all.  Just talk to Him like you would any of your other friends.  God is always home and He is always available.  He is never too busy to talk.  He loves you more than anyone else does and He always wants what is best for you.  He is the ideal friend.

In the story, Brenda was in need.  She had lost her contact and without it, she could not see.  She tried and tried on her own to find it, but she couldn’t.  It was at that point that she asked God to help her.  She knew that God knew where it was so she just asked Him to help her find it.  Do you think a God that loves us as much as our God does would ever reject a plea for help made in this fashion with a heart of surrender?  God interceded on her behalf to help her find the contact.  God knew that it would not be found so He had the ant carry it to a place where people would see the ant carrying the contact.  He put those people in that place at that time so they would see the ant carrying it.  He put Brenda in a spot where she would come into the people who found the contact.  God put this whole chain of events into motion just so Brenda’s plea for help would not go unnoticed.  If God is willing to do all that just to find a contact lens, imagine what He is willing to do for the bigger stuff.

Another thing that stuck me is the size perspective.  An ant is so small that we humans are giants compared to them.  They are so small that they are hardly noticeable.  We would pick up and carry a contact around with no trouble at all.  It would not even be heavy enough for us to even feel any weight at all when we pick it up.  That same contact to the ant is huge.  It is bigger and weighs more than the ant’s body does.  It takes all the ants strength to carry that contact that would require almost no effort at all for us to carry.  In comparison, God is so much bigger than us.  We are like the little ants.  We carry our burdens and struggles around with us.  The weight of our load can seem very overwhelming to us at the time.  It might take all the strength we have to carry it around.  That very same burden or struggle that seems so overwhelming to us is so light to God that He can carry it without any effort at all.  It is all a matter of perspective.  God is willing to help us carry our burdens and struggles for us, we just need to be willing to give them to Him.

I think we can all learn some great lessons from this story.  When God calls us to do something, we should do it even if we don’t know why.  We also should not complain while we are doing.  There is a good reason God is asking us to do it, but we just don’t see the big picture from our limited point of view.

We should talk daily to God through prayer.  We should bring both our joys and concerns, our big things and little things.  God will hear our prayers and He will answer our prayers in His time.  The answer may not always be yes, but if it is no, it is for a reason.

We need to think about the ant and how much bigger we are than the ant.  In the same way, God is so much bigger than each of us.  When our load becomes heavy and we grow weary, we need to be willing to give our heavy load to God and let Him carry it for us.

If we can remember these things, we will be a lot better off.

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I Like That Ending

happy ending

Psalm 139:16 (NLT)

16 You saw me before I was born.
    Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
    before a single day had passed.

I really like this verse.  It reminds me that God has a plan for my life.  He knew everything about me before I was born.  He knew everything I would do or not do before I ever took my first breath.  He knew how my story would end before my story ever started.  He knew that for each of you too.

That is pretty amazing when you think about it.  So if God loves us more than we can even fathom and he already knows how everything will play out in our lives, it seems really silly to think that God would do anything that would cause us harm in the long-term.  I mean there might be things that happen that cause us hurt and pain in the short-term, but over the long-term we will find that the hurt and pain was necessary to bring us to a new place that we would have never found on our own.  God does all things for our own good to bring us to places that we could not have even imagined.

In difficult times, we need to remind ourselves that nothing is a surprise to the Almighty God.  He’s not up in heaven scratching His head, saying, “Oh, man, he got laid off.  That messed up everything.”  “Oh, she was diagnosed with cancer.  I didn’t expect that to happen.”  “Why was Joseph thrown into a pit?”  “Amy lost her father.  Now what am I going to do?”  No, God knows the end from the beginning.  He has already written every day of our lives in His book.  The good news is that if we will stay in faith, our book will end in victory.

The next time we face an unexpected challenge, let’s remember that it’s no surprise to God.  It may be a surprise to us, but not to Him.  He already has the answer, the provision, the healing that we need.  Our part is to keep standing, keep praying, keep hoping and keep believing that our story isn’t over until our story ends in victory!

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