A cross-country runner lengthens her stride and qualifies. Another throws himself over the finish line, even though he has fallen. A long jumper forgets about past injuries and puts every ounce of courage into competing. Athletes. We’re going to be seeing a lot of them in the days ahead, as our televisions broadcast the hour by hour and even minute by minute reports from the Rio Olympics. Millions will be watching because the stories of victory and defeat, top dogs and underdogs, are riveting. There are those who just can’t seem to lose and those who just can’t seem to win. There are those who are there as veterans, having competed many times, and there are those who are there for the first time, looking at future dates when they might ascend to the podium of medal winners. Whatever their status, whatever their level of skill, there is one thing that seems to characterize them all: focus. They are all focused on going for the gold.
Being singleminded is a quality that is referred to in the Bible many times. Throughout the history of the Hebrew people, detailed in the Old Testament, we hear God saying, “don’t be double-minded.” It was understandable they would need to be warned. People who worshiped many gods surrounded them. By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, they were under the dominion of a culture that encouraged multiplicity. Walking through the streets of Rome and most of her conquered territory was like walking through a museum of idols made from every imaginable substance. The temptation to ‘hedge their bets’ was intense.
By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, God was also warning His people about the idols in their hearts. He was specific about some them, telling them point-blank, “You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Luke 16:13) Even in that far-away corner of the world, the Roman Empire had brought a measure of prosperity. Goods and services were readily available. Commerce was thriving. Many had made it their god.
Sound familiar? In our culture, where ‘going for the gold’ has more than an athletic ring to it, the distractions are many and mighty. Material success is lifted up to the highest place on the podium, with production and efficiency running right behind. We depend on them to keep us safe, to keep us fed and clothed, to keep us happy. They are our gods.
The scriptures teach another way. The apostle Paul put it well, in the book of Hebrews: “…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. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” (Hebrews 12: 1-2) As with the athletes competing in Rio, it’s a matter of focus. Like Paul, we must “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14) The goal, the prize, the only gold worth winning, is Christ Himself. Go for the Gold.
“Definitely not a job for my man hands.”
I chuckled as I watched an episode of The Amazing Race recently. The contestants had flown off to Bali where they had to go through various tests. One of the challenges proved difficult to some of them in an unusual and unexpected way.
Bali is one of the world’s largest salt producers. The workers follow a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation for over one thousand years. It was put to the Amazing Race contestants to mimic that process.
They had to wade into the ocean, draw the salt water into two hand made buckets slung over their shoulders with a bamboo beam, carry the buckets across the beach and then scatter the water onto a designated plot of sand. As the sea water evaporated the salt was left behind. It was a physically challenging event so the men had the advantage. At first.
But it was in the second half of the event that the tables turned. Once they had enough salt water poured on the sand they had to then scrape the salt residue from a trough into a basket and pour it into four small bags, sealing them by tying the top. That’s when the men discovered they were at a disadvantage. The woman who was judging whether or not they had completed the task successfully often rejected the bags because they were not full enough. That meant the knot at the top had to be very tiny.
It was managing those tiny knots that proved difficult for “man hands.” They simply weren’t designed to do such a delicate task.
As I watched them struggle with it I thought of all the times I’ve tried to make things work in my life, only to discover that I too, have “man hands.” The task before me was difficult because I was not designed to make it work. The task, in fact, had been designed by God to show me that I needed His help.
Many people say they live by the Ten Commandments. I wonder how many realize that the commandments were not designed to make us work harder to please God. They were designed to show us that we cannot achieve holiness without Him.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, for instance. Really? How can I possibly do that? Love my neighbour as myself. Are you kidding me? Do not covet … oh yeah, that’s an easy one, right?
Go down the list and you will see that none of the things God asks us to do are possible in our own strength. We need Him. Desperately.
Are you trying to tie up your life and finding your “man hands” can’t do it?
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5,6).
There are times when trying to wrap my head around all the difficult theological issues in the Bible gives me a headache. There is so much I don’t understand, so much that seems incomprehensible, so much that etches a thin line around my tiny speck of faith.
But then there are moments, like a while ago, when I sat with a cup of good coffee in front of a comforting fireplace and watched as a tiny girl dressed in a red snowsuit skated an elegant loop around the pond across the street. And I am so thankful for all the small graces, the atoms of hope that form and design my days like the multitude of pixels in a digital photograph.
I don’t need to understand all the theological questions, though it is good to stretch my brain to try. All I need is that simple faith, the smallest drop of faith, as the scripture says, even as much as the size of a mustard seed.
Jesus compared His kingdom to that mustard seed as He wandered the roads and byways of Jerusalem and beyond. He said, “It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches” (Luke 13:19).
Notice the parts to this little story. The man took the seed – he was willing to receive something from God. Then he planted it – he took action and used what God had given him. As a result the plant grew into what God had intended it to be. And finally, the birds came and made it their own – the plant was useful and appreciated.
I love that last phrase – it’s one of those atoms of hope for me because it speaks of purpose and usefulness and blessing. That tiny seed buried in the earth resulted in a flourishing plant, part of a beautiful garden that brought joy and peace to those around it. That gives me hope for the tiny seeds I have spread and planted in my lifetime. I may not even be aware of most of them, but God can use them to bring about His purposes.
Can we see a parallel in our lives? What it is that God wants to give us that will follow the same pattern? Has he offered you the ability to teach, to write, to speak? Has he offered you what you need to nourish your children and family for the future? Has he gifted you with a personality that He intends to use to attract people to Him? Has he opened the doors of heaven and invited you to be a prayer warrior?
What steps do we need to take to make ourselves open to receive these small graces? The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 2:21 – “Those who cleanse themselves … will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.”
The Most Excellent Way by Marcia Lee Laycock
Yes, I know, Valentine’s Day has come and gone. But love is always worth thinking about.
“Till death do us part.” We’re all familiar with that phrase. It’s repeated in the marriage vows of thousands of people each year. It’s a vow, and a hope, and sometimes a wistful wish. Unfortunately we all know that the statistics tell us the majority of marriages don’t see the fulfillment of that vow. For many the hope of growing old with their partner is crushed in the early years of their relationship. For many more, the wistful wish turns to a bitter memory. Love, it seems, is hard to hold on to.
The uncertain climate of love in today’s society can be attributed to many things but it always comes down to a common denominator – people -ordinary, everyday people who have flaws and issues and self-centred tendencies. We are, in many ways, a hard people – hard on ourselves and hard on others. We’re not prone to forgiveness or compassion or empathy. It’s so much easier to walk away, walk by, and we’re very good at convincing ourselves that it’s okay. Everyone does it, everyone expects it.
But Jesus has said he will show us a “most excellent way.” (1 Cor. 12:31) Then he goes on, in 1 Corinthians 13, to tell us what it looks like:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1Corinthians 13:1-8).
A most excellent way, indeed, but how can we, who are so inclined to do the opposite, ever accomplish such love? We are all like trees planted in a desert, unable to thrive but, as the scripture says, we can be trees “planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” (Psalm 1:3).
When we draw from the source of love itself, we can and will love truly. That source is Jesus Christ. And His way is, indeed, most excellent.
Anyone who has traveled has felt it. Many of us have said it and heard it said: “That place has a piece of my heart.”
I felt that way a few days ago when a friend sent me a link to a video about a Bible dedication in Papua New Guinea. It shows a man praying as his village is about to receive God’s word in their own language for the first time. My husband and I had the privilege of attending two Bible dedications while we lived in PNG and both were experiences I’ll never forget. Seeing the emotions and heart-felt response of the people to the scriptures was inspiring.
When I received the video and saw it streaming with no sound for the first few moments, I was immediately taken back to that place – the sights, the smells, the sounds. I remembered the chanting of the men who surrounded our plane as we landed in the village, singing a song of welcome both to us and to their new Bible. I remembered the old woman carrying the first box of Bibles in her bilum (string bag) and being told she had been given the privilege because she had prayed for this moment for many years. I remembered the look on a young man’s face as he clasped his Bible to his breast and said thank you.
I was a little surprised at the intensity of these memories as I watched the video. It’s been twenty years since we lived there. But yes, a piece of my heart is still there and there are times when I long to go back.
I’ve felt a yearning like that at other times too, a yearning for heaven. It has hit at odd times, at a funeral once, in the middle of a magnificent forest another time, as I stared at an incredibly beautiful sunset not long ago. That longing surprises me because, unlike Papua New Guinea, I’ve never been to heaven. But a piece of it has been placed in my heart, because One who lives there has put His Spirit in my heart. And I long to be where He is.
Some day I hope to go back to PNG. Friends are working on a translation of the New Testament that will be done soon and it’s one of the things on my bucket list to get there when they dedicate it to God. I hope that happens, but there is no guarantee.
Some day I hope to get to heaven, and thanks be to God, I do have a guarantee that day will come. Jesus Himself has promised to meet me there. The said: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
Yes, there’s a piece of my heart in heaven and one day my heart will be made whole again.
We used to sing an old hymn in the small church where I became a believer. It had some great truths in it, truths about what happens at the moment you decided to ask Jesus to be your Saviour and Lord. The hymn itself was written by Isaac Watts way back in the 18th century. But the chorus was added later, by a man named Ralph Hudson, in the late 19th century. It’s the chorus I had trouble with.
It reads: At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light, and the burden of my heart rolled away – it was there by faith I received my sight, and now I am happy all the day.
That last phrase always made me stop singing because it just wasn’t true. I’m not often “happy all the day.”
But there are times when Jesus sure does make me smile.
Like the other day in our tiny church when a woman struggling to pay her mortgage told us about talking to a bank representative who said, in a lovely French accent, “You just have to trust God, Madame.” My friend just about dropped the phone. She had been thinking a lot about that very thing. How could a bank representative in Montreal know what a woman in central Alberta had been thinking? She couldn’t. But Jesus could and does.
Or the time I wasn’t able to get up off the couch in my living room because of the chemo treatment I’d been given. It was a long grey week until a beam of light slipped in and touched a tiny spider plant, making it’s small white blossoms glow and flooding my heart with hope. I knew it was Jesus, just letting me know He was there.
Or the time we were about to advertise a washing machine for sale. My husband felt God telling him to give it away, so he called a neighbour and asked if she might be able to use it. She choked up on the phone. Her washing machine hadn’t been working for over a week and she had no money to replace it. “How did you know?” she asked.
And the “coincidental” fact that several people became part of our congregation just as we were able to purchase a building – people with certain skills, like a realtor, a builder, an electrician, a cabinet maker, just to name a few.
And then there are those emails that come from all over the country and beyond, telling me that something I wrote was “just what I needed to hear today.” And that question, again, “How did you know?”
And then there are those many answers to prayers that are only between me and Him.
No, I’m not “happy all the day.” But Jesus sure does know how to make me smile now and then.
“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, … to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations…” (Ephesians 3:20).