Monday, December 5, 2016

Ultra-marathon means uber-pain

Just for fun, I ran a 50K ultra-marathon last Saturday. No, it wasn’t a mid-life crisis thing. I’m way too old for that. And no, nobody was chasing me, except the slow, graying guy who stares at me in the mirror every morning as I shave. This was just something I wanted to try, especially since a man named Mark who has run several ultras started coming to the church last year. He told me about this one, convinced me that I could do it, and we started to do long runs together every week as part of our training.

The run started and ended at the Derby Community Center which is “in the middle of nowhere,” as the race website stated. It also says, “This is a very low key, no frills race.  If you are expecting port-a-potties, expos, or to be waited on, I suggest you stay home.”

We did three laps of 10.5 miles each, on mostly paved roads and a two-mile stretch of a sandy road. Derby is in the sand hills (emphasis on “hills”) of North Carolina, not far from Ellerbe and Pinehurst. I expected the course to be fairly flat, and my running buddy assured me that it would be. Until we were almost through with our second lap, somewhere around 18 miles and Mark turned to me and said, “This course has a LOT more hills than I remember.” I grunted something back, lacking the energy to form a full sentence at that point.

Here’s the story of lap one. The day was beautiful and the weather was perfect. The sun was shining, the wildlife was plentiful, the temperatures stayed in the 40’s or 50’s, and the runners were happily talking in small groups as they ran. Very few of us were walking up the hills on lap one (big mistake), and I had the fleeting thought at about mile 9 that the pace we were keeping was going to come back to bite us in the end.

Lap two began hopefully, and we decided to run halfway up all the hills and then walk to the top of each. The runners by this time (there were only 63 of us) were spread out more, and friendly chatter had given way to deep contemplation, or something like that. I tried to listen to a podcast at about mile 14, but couldn’t concentrate enough to enjoy it.

When we completed the second lap, I said to my buddy, “Mark, you have no idea how much I would like to quit right now.” We had completed 21 miles and I just could not imagine running or even walking another 10.5. My legs ached, my feet screamed at me, my toes throbbed. All the while, my mind told me that a chair and a hot meal were just twenty feet away. All I had to do was quit. But on we went; we had not come to Derby to stop short of a 50K.

I have never been as happy to cross a finish line as I was that day. As I hobbled toward the community center for spaghetti, I met a 72-year old who came in about five minutes ahead of me. But this was not his first ultra, as it was mine. It was his 340th. And he had just run 92 miles in a race one week earlier. I hobbled more slowly towards the chow hall after hearing that. Talk about perspective.

The Bible says of those who pursue God’s wisdom, “…if you run, you will not stumble.” He promised nothing about pain.


Monday, November 28, 2016

There is No Good Reason for a Gloomy Christian

I read about a pastor who had this encounter with a supermarket clerk one day. As she scanned his savings card and his name came up on her computer, she stopped and looked him in the eye. “We always know when your church lets out on a Sunday—saddest, meanest group we deal with all week long.”

Ouch. How could the people who claim to have found the answer to their greatest problem—their sin—be the gloomiest, most hateful people who walk the streets? Furthermore, what does a gloomy Christian get out of being gloomy? Do we honestly suppose that by frowning and shuffling through life, not looking people in the eye, not thanking those who serve us for a job well done, not greeting people with a smile…do we honestly suppose that our day goes better as a result? Do we really believe that if we looked like we were weaned on a sour pickle that it will bless those around us and bring glory to the Lord? Somebody said, “If the joy of the Lord is in your heart, then why don’t you tell your face about it?”

Hannah Whitall Smith wrote about this very problem many years ago in a book called, “The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.”

I once heard of a poor woman who earned a precarious living by daily labor, but who was a joyous, triumphant Christian. "Ah, Nancy," said a gloomy Christian lady to her one day, who almost disapproved of her constant cheerfulness, and yet envied it.

"Ah, Nancy, it is all well enough to be happy now, but I think the thoughts of your future would sober you. Only suppose, for instance, that you would have a spell of sickness, and be unable to work. Suppose your present employers should move away and no one else would give you anything to do. Suppose…" "Stop!" cried Nancy, "I never suppose. The Lord is my Shepherd, and I know I shall not want. And," she added to her gloomy friend, "it is all those 'supposes' that are making you so miserable. You better give them all up and just trust the Lord."

Nothing else but seeing God in everything will make us loving and patient with those who annoy and trouble us. They will then only be the instruments for accomplishing His tender and wise purposes toward us, and we will even find ourselves inwardly thanking them for the blessings they bring.

Mrs. Smith may have stumbled onto something that we would do well to investigate. She didn’t make this stuff up, you know. It was Paul who wrote from a jail cell: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” It was Jesus who cried from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It was David who said while running for his life from King Saul: “I have set the Lord always before me…therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure.”

So, even if you are in prison for something you did not do, or being crucified for sins that belong to others or being chased down by bloodthirsty men, you can rejoice. And since I wager none of my readers fall into those three categories…why aren’t we smiling? What in the world have we got to be gloomy about? Is there any reason why we cannot be the most joyful people on the planet? Give up your ‘supposes’ and give thanks to the Lord.

Thanksgiving is not a holiday. It is a way of life.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Take time to give thanks

It is at this time of year when many people, regardless of their spiritual condition or social status, begin to reflect on giving thanks. I have always wondered whom atheists thank for their many blessings. Could their doxology possibly be, “Praise no one from whom all blessings flow”? That doesn’t just sound hollow, it sounds ridiculous because any thinking individual knows that the very air he breathes is a gift, the sunshine that warms his tomatoes is a wonder, the ground that supports his every step is a benevolence.

Paul said, “What do you have that you did not receive?” Indeed. The question is not, “Where do I start to give thanks for the blessings I have been given,” but, “Where would I stop?”

Here are a few of my blessings that I share with you, in the hopes that my ramblings may provoke you to consider your own life and how God has been generous with you.

I am most thankful for the Lord who chose to save me. I shudder to think where I would be right now, what I would be doing, what days of quiet desperation I would be living without the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. How does anyone navigate the normal trials and tribulations of life without the one who is life and strength and hope? That is indeed a question for the ages.

I am thankful for my precious wife of 34 years. I love to tell the story of how God used Cindy to turn me around 180 degrees. While I was intent on pursuing my own goals and satisfying my own selfish ambitions, God had me bump into this young lady in Chapel Hill who was serving the Lord the way I knew I was supposed to. Cindy is my best friend and the love of my life.

I am thankful for seven children and the wonderful spouses four of them have found. They keep us laughing, praying, and rejoicing that they know Jesus. As John said, “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” I love my children and five grandchildren and cannot begin to measure all that they have taught me.

I am thankful to be part of the body of Christ in a local church, people who have stood by me through the loss of loved ones, personal health issues, and struggles with my own sinful heart. If you are in a fellowship that still believes the Bible is true and that Jesus is our only hope for salvation, that the purpose of church is to equip the saints to do the work of ministry, that loves to give people and money to missions, that is filled with folks who really do love the Lord and each other…you are greatly blessed. Church is not a service or a building or even a group of people who just like to be together and think the same way. The church is the body of Christ, which he purchased with his own blood, and which he is building. Our hope is not and has never been in the political process, but in the Lord. His Kingdom is eternal, and will never be shaken.

There is much more I give thanks for today, including the opportunity the Times-News has given me to write this column each week. How about you? What are you thankful for today? Write it down, shout it out, and mostly, tell the Lord about it. He is, after all, the one who has given you all that you have.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Only God can tame this beast

What weighs less than two ounces, works almost constantly for 16 hours a day, and cannot be controlled by either man or woman? The mighty tongue. I know what Charles Wesley meant when he wrote “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” but we just couldn’t survive it. 999 of them would be gossiping or backbiting or complaining, while the one would be singing “our great redeemer’s praise.” No thanks, Charles. One is plenty.

A family sat around the table for breakfast one morning. As was his custom, the father prayed and thanked God for the food. Immediately afterwards, as was also his habit, he began to grumble about the food and how it was prepared. His young daughter said, “Daddy, do you think God heard what you said when you thanked Him for the food?” “Certainly,” replied the father with confidence. “And did He hear you when you said bad things about the food?” “Of course,” the father replied, hesitantly. His little girl said, “Daddy, which did God believe?”

James illustrates the power of the tongue to direct, destroy, and to delight (or deceive) in his third chapter. The first word picture compares the tongue to a bit. A bit is put into a horse’s mouth so that a 60-pound kid can direct a 1,000-pound horse. One of my dad’s decisions when I was growing up was to buy a Palomino and keep him pastured offsite. I remember going over to ride Sundance on occasion. Every time I did, the horse would obey my instructions given through the bit and bridle for a little while, and I could set my watch by what happened next. After 10 minutes, he would get tired of the whole thing, because he knew somehow that I was really not in charge, and he would take off for the trees. Gaining speed as he got closer, all while I am pulling back on the reins and yelling, Sundance would go straight for the low branches to try to knock me off. That horse was evil. No, he was just like me as a young man, and sometimes as an older man. He did what he wanted to do; he was not going to be controlled by someone else. When the horse submits to the bit, then the rider has control over the horse’s whole body, and the ride is a pleasure for both. So it is with the tongue.

The tongue boasts of great things, James says, and it can be used to direct a nation toward good or evil. On Aug. 20, 1940, Winston Churchill said to the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” He said this to praise the courage of the Royal Air Force pilots in their ongoing battle against German warplanes engaged in nightly bombings of the city of London. On his way to give the speech that day, Churchill was going over his speech. He had planned to say, “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few.” His chief military assistant, Pug Ismay, said, “What about Jesus and His disciples?” Churchill smiled and said, "Good ‘ol Pug," and he changed his speech, to “Never in the field of human conflict…”

The tongue of one man, Churchill, directed a nation, and gave them courage in the face of an enemy. On the other hand, someone has calculated that for every one word of Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, 125 lives were lost in World War II.

Only God can tame the tongue.

Monday, November 7, 2016

A difficult year to judge the presidential candidates

Samuel looked at the Jesse’s sons to see which one the Lord would choose as king to replace Saul. As soon as the prophet laid eyes on Jesse’s firstborn, Eliab, he thought, “Surely this is the one!” But then the Lord said, “Do not look at his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

I think Samuel learned a lesson that day, namely, that things are not always as they appear. I hope we have learned our lesson, as well, and will not choose the next president based on what our eyes see or what our ears hear. I pray that we do not choose a president because of fear. My prayer is that we will go into the voting booth this week and pull the lever for the candidate we believe will serve this country according to principles that best reflect biblical truth. Samuel was impressed with Eliab’s stature because, well, he just “looked like a king.” But God said, “I look at the heart.”

One reason for our downward slide as a nation is, in my opinion, we began electing men and women to office because of their promises instead of their character. I understand that it is human nature to judge a man based on his appearance and his speech, but there was a day in our country when that was less important than a person’s moral values and clear conscience. When we elect men or women to office because they speak well, we reveal the shallowness of our own thinking about who is best equipped to lead. When we base our vote on which candidate will do the most to make us more prosperous, we indict our own hearts for selfishness and greed. When we pull the lever for the man or woman who will load us down with entitlements rather than lead us, we betray our own misguided motives about what government was first created by God to do.

This is a difficult year to judge a candidate for the Oval Office based on character, isn’t it? But I urge you to resist the temptation to throw up your hands and decide you will sit this one out. To those who read this column and who belong to Jesus Christ, I would ask…What is our responsibility as Christians? I believe as we approach an election, we are first called to pray and ask the Lord for wisdom about the candidates. Every one of them is a sinner, just as we are, and the job of Messiah is already taken. None need apply. Ask the Lord to show us all which sinner He has chosen to lead this nation. Second, go and vote. Once. Finally, whatever the outcome, pray for those who have been elected. Paul wrote, “First of all, I urge that supplications… be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

Plato said, “The penalty that good men pay for not being interested in politics is to be governed by men (and women) worse than themselves.” May God give us wisdom and humility to be able to see what He sees, and to base our vote on the principles of the candidate, not on the appearance or the speech or the promises of a man or a woman. And may God have mercy on this nation.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Faith is obeying God in spite of consequence

Someone has said that faith is not “believing in spite of evidence but obeying in spite of consequence.” Abraham did that. He left his home at God’s command, and went to a place he knew nothing about. He obeyed God when he was told to take Isaac as a boy and sacrifice him on an altar. If you don’t know the story, read it in Genesis 22, and see how God stopped Abraham from carrying out the deed, but saw in his heart that Abraham loved God and believed that even if Isaac were slain, God would resurrect him to be the son of promise. Abraham obeyed in spite of consequence.

That’s the story of the Groenewald family. Werner Groenewald was a South African pastor, married to Hannelie, a trauma doctor. Inspired by the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001, Werner and Hannelie began to seek the Lord about how and where they should live. When they visited Pakistan and Afghanistan with a medical team in 2002, the direction of their lives was forever changed. Hannelie said, “We felt the touch of the Holy Spirit. I just started crying and knew that Afghanistan or Pakistan, wherever the Lord calls you, can be your home.”

In August of 2003, the Groenewald family moved to Afghanistan with their son Jean-Pierre, 5, and their daughter Rode, 3. Their families thought they were crazy to leave South Africa and move to this war-torn country where they knew they could be killed. But the certainty of their call and the support of their church gave them courage.

They served in Afghanistan for 11 years, she as a doctor and he as a teacher. On Nov. 29, 2014, Hannelie was working at the clinic, and Werner was teaching leadership to Afghan students in his home. Jean-Pierre, 17, had been playing guitar in his room and chatting with friends on social media. Rode, 15, had spent the day crocheting, and working on her computer. Late that afternoon, Afghan rebels broke into the compound where the Groenewalds lived. Confronted by the guard, the rebels shot and killed him. When Werner heard the shot he sent his students to another room to take shelter, and began to climb the stairs to protect his children. As Werner ascended the rebels burst in and shot him three times, killing him. The rebels then killed Jean-Pierre, Rode, and most of the Afghan students who were hiding throughout the house.

Hannelie says nearly two years later, “It is well with my soul.” Though finding this peace was not easy, she knows God was always there for her family. She remembers Werner’s words just a month before the attack: “We die only once. It might as well be for Christ.” Hannelie said that her only regret was that she wasn’t there with her family when they died. “I wanted to be there, especially with the children, to just embrace them and hold them and face the bullets.”

Hannelie continues to share her testimony with anyone who will listen; and looking back on her family’s journey, she says she wouldn’t change a thing. “We had a clear calling. We had a mandate with this; we counted the cost. We knew that something like this could happen. God allowed that for a reason.” Then she said, about her family members who had been killed, “I know they are actually chasing me on to finish the race as well. I believe one day Jean-Pierre will say, ‘Mom, what took you so long to get here?’ I believe they are where they are supposed to be, on Jesus’ lap, and I cannot wait to get there as well. But I have to finish this race for the Lord.”