Saturday, September 11, 2004

More Prayers Needed

Please continue to keep the people of Jamaica and of Florida in your prayers as they face Hurricane Ivan. Ask God to help them deal with this fierce storm!

As we come to September 11 and the grim third anniversary of the terrorist attacks, pray that God will comfort and encourage the families who lost loved ones on that day.

Friday, September 10, 2004

Urgent Prayer Needs

Having decimated thousands of homes in the island nation of Grenada where it killed at least 23 people, Hurricane Ivan is now headed for Jamaica, Cuba, and parts of Florida. Ivan is fiercer than either Charley or Frances were.

Please ask God to help the people of Grenada to rebuild their lives.

Pray too that the people of Jamaica and of repeatedly-assaulted Florida and Cuba will be kept safe.

I hope that you will also pray for the efforts of relief workers in all these places, asking God to give them the strength, energy, resources, and wisdom they need to deal with this set of disasters.

Moving from natural disasters to one caused by the cruelty of human beings, please continue to pray for the people from the Darfur region of Sudan. Government-protected militia still are hounding, killing, raping, and stealing from people there, displacing more than one-million from their homes. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the US Congress, have described the situation there as genocide and so it is.

Pray that justice will come to the people of Darfur, that those who have lost their homes and property will be able to reclaim them and that those who have murdered and raped will be forced to face the consequences of their ghastly crimes. Pray that the current regime in Khartoum will either reform or disappear.

Please also pray that God will wrap His arms around the people of Darfur, comforting them and enabling them to move on with their lives in peace. May they be able to see that Jesus Christ is weeping with them.

And pray for the efforts of relief workers there, asking God to give them safety, wisdom, compassion, and the power of His Holy Spirit for making right choices and decisions.

You can also donate to relief organizations like the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Lutheran World Relief.

Prayer: Another Habit of the Heart That Can Help Make Democracy Work (Fifth de Tocqueville column)

I’ve been exploring “habits of the heart,” positive ways of approaching life that Christians can bring to bear on their lives as citizens in a democracy. The phrase was coined by French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville and was used in his classic book written in the 1830s, Democracy in America.

One of the reasons that US democracy worked, de Tocqueville said, was that because of their faith, Americans didn’t see freedom as a license for selfishness. They’d developed habits of the heart that kept selfishness from destroying their fledgling democracy.

So far, I’ve identified four habits that followers of Christ can bring to American civic and political life today that can help make democracy work now: living in confident humility, loving our neighbor, having a commitment to justice, and being ‘in’ but not ‘of’ this world.

Now I come to what may be, for the functioning of our world, the most important of the habits of the heart: prayer.

In November, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. People all over the world celebrated with the German people. They were reunited and their citizens in the east (along with the rest of Eastern Europe) were now free of oppressive Communism.

Many reasons were given for this astounding event. Some said that it was the inevitable result of Communism’s moral bankruptcy. Others claimed that Ronald Reagan’s policies had caused it. Still others pointed to the policy of “containment” first recommended by George Kennan in an article back in the 1940s, a policy that, with variations, was pursued by every US President from Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush.

Frankly, while those factors undoubtedly contributed to the collapse of the Berlin Wall and all it represented, I think that the biggest reason for Communism’s collapse was more subtle, more unseen, more powerful. I was aware of many people who had been praying for what happened in 1989: a group of young Catechism students at a church in northwestern Ohio, a Lutheran congregation standing astride the wall in East Berlin, and countless indivduals around the world. They and so many more had prayed, asking that the power of God would be employed as and when He saw fit to bring an end to Communism. I’m convinced that those prayers played the decisive role in bringing down the hated wall in Berlin.

Repeatedly, God’s book, the Bible, urges those who follow Him to pray, to invite Him to take care of the needs of the world. The Bible also urges people of faith to pray for those in government. This is remarkable because often, the rulers under which the original recipients of many of the Bible’s books and letters were people of faith living under tyrants.

Maybe God urges us to pray because of three big changes that I see prayer bringing. First, we are changed internally by our praying, our attitudes are transformed. Second, God takes our prayers as entry points into the lives and circumstances for which we pray, bringing change to bear. Third, God may change us in another way, using our prayers to motivate us to positive action.

Beyond all that, prayer allows us to have an impact on leaders and their decisions that we would never have through face-to-face meetings at the White House or on Capitol Hill. In our prayers, we can appoint the God we know through Jesus Christ as the chief counselor to presidents, prime ministers, and other leaders. And God will give better counsel to leaders than we could!

Of course, this world will never be perfect. And some day, its life (and its sins) will be brought to an end. But you and I can help make our communities, countries, and world operate at more optimal levels when we adopt my favorite habit of the heart, prayer.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

This and That

Today brought our country to a grim landmark as the 1000th. American was killed in the war in Iraq. (The most recent count is 1003.) My prayer is that God will comfort the families of all who have lost loved ones there, that this war will soon end, and that innocent people in Iraq will soon experience peace.

First, there were the Swift Boat veterans who called John Kerry's heroism in Vietnam into question. Now National Guard veterans calling themselves "Texans for Truth" appear in a TV ad calling George W. Bush's claimed service in the National Guard fraudulent. I wonder if other people are as sick of and unimpressed with this "tit for tat" campaigning as I am? Many suspect that these and other "527" groups operate in concert with the respective presidential campaigns, if not under their outright supervision. Be that as it may, I wish they would just cease and desist.

Whether "The National Guard issue," as it's called, is legitimate or not, the fact is that Bush has dealt with it repeatedly in the past and every single time, Americans have said they don't much care.

And in spite of John Kerry's irresponsible statements after the war---basically accusing American military personnel of widespread, pervasive war crimes, he was according to the internal documentation of the United States Navy, a genuine hero.

While those playing what they might call "hardball" denigrate our political process with these insulting or irrelevant attack ads, voters long to hear substantive discussions about the war against terrorism, the war in Iraq, education, health care, Social Security, and other subjects. (I even harbor the outrageous hope that the candidates could address issues not seemingly on the national radar screen, but nonetheless of great importance, things like: shoring up America's deteriorating infrastructure, securing the same from possible terrorist attacks, what it would take for America to once more become a catalyst and an honest broker for Middle East peace, anticipating the rise of China as an economic behemoth, and bringing the costs of government down.)

Every single attack ad, no matter its source, drives this election campaign further into the mud and further away from doing what it should do: helping we voters to make informed choices about the future of our country.

I've just finished re-reading Gerald Sittser's great book, The Will of God As a Way of Life. Like Sittser, I used to think that the "will of God" was some micro-plan for our lives, that a largely-inscrutable God forced us to undertake a painful process of finding that plan, and that if we didn't find and pursue that plan precisely, our lives couldn't be all that God intended for us. Sittser once believed the same thing.

But a cataclysmic event changed Sittser's life and his thinking about God's will. A drunk driver hit the van in which he and his family were driving, killing Sittser's wife, mother, and two other family members. Prior to that moment, Sittser assumed that he and his family had been pursuing God's micro-will for their lives. Now, he had to ask himself, "Was this horrible event the will of God? Had God orchestrated this tragedy, treating the members of his family like so many expendable chess pieces?

After a lengthy time of grieving, praying, reading God's Word, studying, and reflecting, Sittser took what was a great leap for one coming from a Reformed Christian background. He noted that in the Bible, God rarely discusses His will as something involving the future or specific plans He has for us. More typically, God's will as revealed on the pages of the Bible, have to do with how we live each day.

Like Rick Warren, in his wonderful book The Purpose Driven Life, Sittser concludes that we can do God's will for our lives in a variety of situations: married or unmarried, working as a waiter or computer programmer, college professor or ditch-digger. In any and all circumstances, God's will for our lives will involve our loving God with our whole hearts, minds, souls, and wills and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (For more on this, read my message of August 22, 2004.)

I heartily recommend Sittser's fabulous book. I appreciate his insights and I agree with his fundamental arguments.

I have been reading the 9-11 Commission's report, having gotten about halfway through it. It is chilling, a bit like watching the movie Tora, Tora, Tora, which recounted the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. While there were insightful people fully aware of the danger presented to America by Osama bin-Laden's terrorist network and several failed efforts to destroy his organization, the US was ill-equipped to deal with the attacks of September 11, 2001. Whether the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission, publicly and forcefully endorsed yesterday by a bipartisan group of US Senators, can enable the kind of intelligence-sharing and coordination that must happen for the US to deal with terrorism, I can't say. But I am confident that ways can be found to fight and win the war against terrorists. One only has to read of how America led the Allies after the attack on Pearl Harbor to know that great and urgent tasks can be accomplished.

Living 'In' But Not 'Of' The World: Another Habit of the Heart That Can Help Make Democracy Work (Part Four, de Tocqueville-inspired columns)

[This the fourth in a series of columns I've written for the Community Press newspapers here in the Cincinnati area. I hope you find it helpful.]

I’ve been discussing habits of the heart, ways of approaching life, that followers of Jesus Christ can use in making their community, country, and world better.

This discussion is inspired by the classic study of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, called Democracy in America. In the 1830s, de Tocqueville came to the United States to discern what made American democracy work. He concluded that one major factor was the “habits of the heart” Americans had adopted because of their faith in Christ.

In past articles, I’ve identified several of the habits commended by the Bible that followers of Christ can bring to the political life of the world today. So far, I’ve talked about the habits of confident humility, love for our neighbor, and commitment to justice.

A fourth Christian habit of the heart is that of being “in,” but not, “of” this world.

I need to give some background.

The Bible says that God made this world as a “very good” place. (Genesis 1:31) But when the creatures God made in His own image, human beings, rebelled against God, they ushered in all sorts of bad things that have warped our world and us.

Sin and death have distorted life as God intended it to be. The New Testament portion of the Bible says that, since the fall of humanity into sin, all of creation has been groaning like a woman in labor, waiting to give birth to a new way of living. (Romans 8:22)

In this new way of living, the power of our sin to separate us from God is to be erased. And that’s a good thing because when our relationship with God is restored, our sins are forgiven, we pulse with the good life of God, and we have the promise of being with God forever.

This new life comes from Jesus Christ. That’s the good news (what Christians call the “gospel”) of the Bible. The New Testament says: “...if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation...” (Second Corinthians 5:17)

Christians live in this world and are called upon to care for its affairs. That includes the political affairs of our communities and nations.

But we’re called to care with a light touch, not regarding any political or economic matter as being of ultimate importance. This planet is not our final destination. That’s why Jesus and the Bible say we’re to live “in” this world, but not to be “of” this world. (Check out John 15:18-19; First Peter 2:11) We’re to be caring, concerned neighbors who aren’t caught up in the warped values of the neighborhood we call Planet Earth. (Of course, as human beings still living in the neighborhood, we still make mistakes and sin!)

One Biblical writer, Paul, conveys the twin poles of “in-but-not-of-the-world” living, especially as it relates to our role as citizens, in two separate passages in his letter to the Christians at Rome.

In Romans 13:1, he writes, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities...”

And in Romans 12:2, he says, “Do not be conformed to this world...”

In other words, for the good of their neighbors, Christians are to give their support and loyalty and pay their taxes to their government, even when they disagree with particular government policies. But when government asks us to do things contrary to God’s will or that are destructive of our neighbors’ interests---whether they’re the neighbors living in our suburban development or in Sudan---we’re to fight for what we think is right.

Put positively, we’re to love our neighbors as God loves us. We can do that in lots of ways, including our voting.

Christians are to be “in” but not “of” this world. That’s a habit of the heart we can adopt that will make our democracy---and our lives---work.

[You can find a complete text of the Bible here.]

Monday, September 06, 2004

Another Urban Legend Comes to My Computer

Today, a well-meaning and wonderful friend forwarded what turned out to be yet another urban legend to me. This one deals with Denzel Washington and what he allegedly said in an interview with Katie Couric. (Another name for an urban legend is lie, by the way. They are stories circulated via email that are false, but which sincere people like my friend has every reason to believe is true and which they send forward as well.)

So far, all the urban legends to which I have been exposed during this campaign season have been meant to make Republicans look good and Democrats look bad. I'm sure that there are Democrats equally guilty of fabricating this stuff; it's just that I haven't received any emails forwarded to me that come from that side of US politics.

I don't suggest that any of these fabricated stories come from the actual campaigns. I don't believe that they do. My guess is that the high-caliber people working in the Bush and Kerry camps aren't so stupid as to waste their time with such hi-jinks...or to risk another swift-boat-like controversy. But obviously there are some malicious people with access to the web who have plenty of time on their hands to concoct gossip which they foist on unsuspecting and sincere people! They should be ashamed!

If you have questions about the accuracy of something forwarded to you via email, go to Google and do a search. (You might want to include the phrase "urban legends" when you do.) Both the mainstream media and urban legend watchdog sites do a good job of tracking down the facts about these "forwards."

Click here for my discussion of an urban legend that was making the rounds earlier in the campaign.

Justice: Another Habit of the Heart That Can Help Make Democracy Work (Part Three, de Tocqueville columns)

I’ve been discussing Christian “habits of the heart,” ways of approaching life that are commended on the pages of the Bible. These habits were observed by the French social commentator Alexis de Tocqueville when he came to the United States in the 1830s. The faith of Americans, he concluded, militated against their being so consumed with their freedom that they ignored the rights and needs of others.

In his classic, Democracy in America, de Tocqueville writes: “...equality, which brings great benefits into the world, nevertheless...tends to isolate [people] from each other, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself...The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles...Religious nations are therefore naturally strong on the very point on which democratic nations are weak, which shows of what importance it is for men [sic] to preserve their religion as their conditions become more equal.”

By the time of de Tocqueville’s visit to this country, Americans had undergone what historians call a “great awakening.” A religiously indifferent people had come to enthusiastic faith in Jesus Christ. This, de Tocqueville saw, was among the important reasons that American democracy was working.

In my last column, I mentioned two “habits of the heart” that God calls Christians to adopt which, when lived out, can help make democracy work. They were confident humility and love of neighbor. Here, I discuss another one: a commitment to justice, to fair treatment of all people, no matter what their station, rank, ethnicity, or life style.

In the Old Testament book of Micah, we’re reminded, “He [God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) God wants us to treat others with kindness and fairness.

In fact, it appears that God actually expects us to give preference to the outcasts of society. The man we Christians say was God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, drove this point home many times. Once at a dinner party put on by an important man, Jesus upbraided the host and his “good” friends for only inviting the “right” people to their gatherings. “When you give a luncheon or a dinner,” He said, “do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors...invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” (Luke 14:12-14)

Jesus even showed that you don’t have to approve people’s sins to give them just treatment. Once, Jesus prevented a group of men who wanted to stone an adulterous woman to death. “Let the stones fly,” He told them, “if you have no sin.” They dropped their stones. Jesus neither condoned the woman’s lifestyle or condemned her. He simply told her to “go and sin no more.”

God’s justice is different from our justice. It doesn’t always give us what we deserve, but what we need.

In this sinful world, we certainly need laws and punishments. God’s Word, the Bible, acknowledges that.

But if we Christians would adopt the commitment to justice which the Bible says is to be a habit of our hearts, we could positively effect the atmosphere of our society one person at a time.

Personally, I’m a sinner who deserves eternity in hell. But, through Jesus and my faith in Him, God has given this repentant sinner not what I deserve, but what I need: forgiveness and the power to live a changed life.

That’s why, however imperfectly, I want to make giving justice to my neighbor a habit of my heart, a part of my life.

Next column: another important habit of the heart that can help make democracy work.

[You can find a complete text of the Bible here.]

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Habits of the Heart Can Make Democracy in America (or Anywhere Else) Work [Part Two, de Tocqueville Columns]

[I write a column for the Community Press newspapers in the Cincinnati area. Below is the second of a series of columns I'm writing inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's classic work, Democracy in America. I hope that you enjoy it.]

In the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in order to understand what made democracy in America work. Free people can believe they have license to be completely selfish, destroying the unity needed for communities and nations to keep functioning. But de Tocqueville concluded that Americans didn’t misuse their freedom because they had developed what he called “habits of the heart,” ways of approaching life that included concern for others. These habits were rooted in Americans’ strong religious faith.

What habits of the heart are taught in the Bible, the book that Christians believe is God’s message for the human race, that can make democracy in America---or anywhere else---work? I’ll identify several of them in this and future columns.

First: Followers of Christ are freed to live in what I call “confident humility.” No follower of Jesus Christ would ever claim to be better than his or her neighbor. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,” the Bible asserts in several places. (Romans 3:10; Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-4) Christians are called to be humble.

But they also live in the confidence that comes from knowing that their deficiencies have been forgiven and voided by the God revealed in Jesus. The Bible says: “...the righteousness of God has been disclosed...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they [those who believe in Christ] are now justified by His grace [His loving charity] as a gift...through Christ Jesus.”

Christians are freed to be humble; they know they don’t have all the answers and that others have their say about life in our world and in our communities. They also are freed to be confident because they know they have God’s eternal love and approval. That approval isn't something they've earned; it's a free gift. They have no reason to be arrogant and every reason to be grateful.

Second: Followers of Jesus Christ are called to be loving people. Just as God has loved us, the Bible teaches we’re to love others. Back in the Old Testament’s second book, Genesis, a jealous man named Cain killed his brother, Abel. God confronted Cain for his sin and Cain asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9) The answer, of course, is “Yes.”

In fact, God teaches us on the pages of the Bible that every other human being on this planet is our brother, our sister, our neighbor. Jesus once told a story to drive this point home. A man was attacked by thieves and left for dead. Several travelers, consumed with their own agendas and possibly afraid of being assaulted themselves, passed by without helping the wounded man. But a man from Samaria---tradition calls him the “good Samaritan”---stopped, bandaged the man, took him to a nearby inn, and paid for his care. Concluding the story, Jesus told His listeners, including us, to “go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37)

Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the sense of community, the willingness to voluntarily give one’s time and effort to help strangers, that he observed in America. We shouldn’t idealize the America of that era; it clearly had its faults. Nonetheless, there is a straight line between the Christian’s call to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and the volunteerism de Tocqueville saw repeatedly during his visit. It’s part of what made democracy in America work.

Confident humility and a commitment to love neighbor: two “habits of the heart” I hope are always part of America.

I’ll look at more Christian habits that can make America work in my next column.

The Truth About Following Jesus

Luke 14:25-33
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 5, 2004)

This past week, I heard a radio news interview with a young woman in Florida. She moved there in the three weeks since Hurricane Charley. Now, as a reporter spoke with her, Hurricane Frances was on its way. She'd gone to a shelter. “I never knew anything about hurricanes,” she said. Apparently, she had never considered the possibility that a hurricane could hit the State of Florida!

Whatever decisions we make in life, even when we decide on a hard or difficult course of action, it’s always a good idea to consider everything involved. Especially important is determining what our decisions may cost us in commitment, in time, in effort, in money, in risks, whatever. A good dose of unvarnished truth can help us make better decisions in our lives. Or at least, decisions with which we can later live.

Our Bible lesson finds Jesus being tailed by a huge and growing throng of people. They’re more gah-gah for Jesus than the delegates at this past week’s Republican Convention were for W. If Jesus were like the rest of us, I suppose, He’d have ridden the wave of popular support into Jerusalem, tossed out the Romans, and set up His own government. That’s no doubt what the adoring crowds hoped for. In the backs of their minds, as they shouted encouragement to Jesus, they were probably already toting up the personal benefits He would give them: lower taxes, new houses, better jobs, national health care.

But Jesus' agenda is different from that of the crowd. His approach reminds me of that of an inner-city pastor I once read about. This pastor went to serve a dying church. On the strength of his charisma and amazing sermons, hundreds of people flocked to the church. After the church had experienced this growth, he began to acquaint people with the truth of what really is involved in following Jesus. He wanted them to know that while things like forgiveness and everlasting life are free gifts for all who follow Jesus Christ, we also need to yield control of our lives to Christ for that gift to come our way. We need to turn from sin and selfishness and sometimes even from good things in order to welcome the best thing into our lives: Jesus Himself. After preaching like that, attendance dropped from an average of 200 to a tenth of that number. The pastor later bragged, “I preached ‘em down to twenty!”

Our lesson finds Jesus setting to work to “preach down” the crowds who are following Him. He urges them, unlike that young woman in Florida, to take a dose of the unvarnished truth, to learn the truth about what it means to follow Him.

“If you’re following Me without knowing a few facts,” Jesus says, “you’re like the owner of a vineyard, wanting to build a tower from which you can spy thieves or wild animals, who hasn’t figured out if you have enough money to build it or not.

"You’re like the king who decides to go to war before knowing if he has enough soldiers to beat the other guy. Just so, you need to know the truth about Me.”

And so Jesus identifies three kinds of people who cannot be His followers, His disciples.

First, Jesus tells us: “Whoever comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be My disciple.” Now, that word hate that Jesus uses in the Aramaic language He spoke every day didn’t have the same meaning that we have when we say hate. It means to be detached from, to keep something lower in our priorities.

We all have known men or women, for example, who have destroyed their marriages by detaching from mommy and daddy. I love the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. But after watching an episode, I often say to Ann, “There is no way Debra, Ray’s wife, would remain married to him---and to his family---for more than a few years.” In Jesus’ Aramaic, Ray needs to hate or detach from his parents.

When Jesus says that we can’t follow Him unless we hate our parents, spouses, siblings, and even our lives, He’s saying that He has to be the absolute boss of our lives. We can’t let anything have the place in our priorities which is reserved for Jesus. Now does Jesus say this because He's an egomaniac? No, it's just that until we empty our priorities and to-do lists of other stuff, we can't take all the good and wonderful blessings He wants to give to us!

Second, Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.” I hear people talking about carrying their crosses a lot. They refer to the difficulties of life---everything from ingrown toenails to cancer---as their crosses. “I guess we all have our crosses to bear,” they say.

But when Jesus talks about carrying our cross, He’s not referring to the bad stuff that happens in an imperfect world. Every person here is subject to being afflicted by accidents, disease, relational turmoil, death.

The crosses that followers of Jesus bear are those bad things that happen to us because we follow Jesus. Our young people who go to school each day among classmates who are contemptuous of Jesus and of those who follow them know what it means to bear the cross. Jesus says that unless we are willing to so give ourselves to Him that we risk ridicule and even death for Him---unless we bear our crosses, we cannot follow Him.

Third, Jesus tells us, “...none of you can become My disciple if you do not give up your possessions.” Jesus is not telling us that we should sign the deeds of our houses over to the institution of the Church. He is saying that we need to give Him access to all that we own. At a conference I attended, I was stunned to hear about a guy who had just learned of a neighbor who lost his job. The guy went to his neighbor and said, “Look, my car is your car. My house is your house. Whatever I own that you need, you can have.” Giving up our possessions in Jesus' terms, is recognizing that everything we own is a gift from God and ours for only a short period of time, all to be used for God's purposes in the world. Jesus says that unless we’re willing to shift to that mindset, we cannot be His disciples.

In a nutshell, Jesus is telling us that unless we surrender to Him absolutely, we cannot be His disciples.

If Christian faith were one of the Eastern religions, this would seem like a rotten deal. In those religions, people are urged to surrender themselves so that they can be absorbed into some great godlike entity, losing their identities and themselves. But Jesus says that those who lose themselves---who give themselves to Him---will find themselves. In other words, when we surrender to Him and let Him take control of our lives, He begins to use all the experiences of our lives---the good, the bad, and the ugly---to shape us into becoming the people God designed us to be and which, in our hearts and souls, we want to be.

I heard this past week that something like 86% of Americans with televisions watched some of the recent Olympics. We admire athletes in part because they exercise discipline in order to become the champions that they suspect and hope they can be. And so, they exercise and practice and sleep right and drill and pass up doughnuts, M & Ms, and Ho-Ho’s in order to give themselves the chance to become champions.

God wants you and me to become champions! He wants us to become our best selves: people who love Him completely, who love our neighbors as ourselves. He wants us to be people who, with confidence and humility, use our bodies, minds, talents, interests, and passions to be the people He made us to be, the best people we can be, here and in eternity. The world tries to beat us into conformity with its ways. But the God we know through Jesus Christ says, “Give Me yourself and I will give you your best self back again. I will free you to be your God-customized self!”

Following Jesus (being a disciple), isn’t easy. Surrendering our lives to Him each day in order to make room for His free gifts of forgiveness and life and purpose is the hardest thing we can do in life, bar none. Like athletes in training, we’re likely to have setbacks: we will sin, we will forget to put Him first. But to those willing to let God be first, willing to accept His forgiveness and grace, willing to accept His discipline and correction, the greatest prize of all is ours. We will be God’s champions forever. Those who surrender completely to Jesus Christ can be His disciples. With God’s help, that’s what I hope all of us will be.