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Courtesy, helpfulness, respect, support, camaraderie, and class.

These words are rarely used to describe anything associated with politics in America.  Yet, last Tuesday night during the State of the Union Address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives, these qualities were beautifully demonstrated by two Congressional colleagues, one a Democrat, the other a Republican. 

Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’ presence in the chamber was truly inspiring.  On January 8 of last year, Giffords, a Democrat, was critically injured by a gunshot wound to the head during an attack near Tucson in which six people were killed and thirteen others wounded.  While her recovery over the past year has been remarkable, she still faces some significant speech and mobility challenges. 

Seated on Giffords’ right last Tuesday night was Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, a Republican.  There were several instances in which Giffords struggled to stand in agreement and applause with other members of her party.  Each time, Flake helped her to her feet, stood beside her with a steadying hold on her arm, then helped her back into her seat.  This often meant that he was the only Republican standing. 

Shallow and superficial individuals may have been caused to question, “Isn’t Rep. Flake afraid that others might think he has changed his political ideology?  Does he actually agree with statements that are in opposition to his own party’s platform?”  Thankfully, Flake didn’t care about the perceptions of others.  He did what was right, what was kind, what was needful, and what was compassionate, regardless of what anyone else thought about it.  The following day, Flake held Giffords’ hand as her formal resignation from her Congressional seat was read.  May Flake’s tribe increase!

Jesus didn’t worry about “guilt by association” when it came to doing good and extending love and mercy to others.  He gladly received sinners and tax-collectors and ate with them, even though He knew that He would be accused of being a drunkard and a glutton and would have His own morality and standards questioned. 

Neither did Jesus refuse a dinner invitation from Simon the Pharisee, despite the fact that hanging out with the religious elite might seriously damage His “street cred” with others.  He challenged people at both ends of the spectrum (and everyone in between) to seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  He was impervious to opinion polls, the whispering of skeptics, and the ranking systems of religious rivals.       

We need no one’s permission or approval to do good.  Compassion and mercy are self-authenticating and transcend all man-made barriers of party, sect, and creed.

Yesterday, after a lot of prayer and thought, I determined that I needed to suspend my graduate studies and formally withdraw from the M.Div. program that I began last fall.  It was not an easy decision, but it was a necessary one.  I had been overly optimistic in thinking that I could get back in the classroom without impacting my ministry and family responsibilities.  My ability to juggle the additional work load is apparently not the same at age 49 as it was 25 years ago. 

In the past, I ignored the signs and symptoms of being spread too thin, being far too proud at that time to admit that there was anything that I couldn’t do.  So, I insisted on pressing on, and paid a dear price as a result.  I was beginning to recognize the signs and to sense the familiar symptoms and stresses.  Experience has convinced me that I cannot afford to travel down that road again.  Graduate study was the variable in my life’s equation that could be altered.

There is a sense of disappointment, but it is a “good” disappointment, knowing that it was for my greater overall good, along with that of my family and ministry.  I have accepted the blessing of having had the opportunity to earn B.A. and M.A. degrees in theological studies, and can now be contentedly resigned to the fact that the pursuit of additional academic degrees does not fit within the framework of my life and the limitations of my circumstances.  I have the satisfaction of having tried and failed, rather than a perpetual, nagging, unanswerable questioning of “I wonder if I could have.” 

I take comfort in knowing that my foray back into the classroom, brief though it was, has rekindled some fires and re-whetted my appetite for ongoing learning, to which I will remain committed throughout the years ahead, though not in a formal graduate program.  The level of instruction in Oklahoma Christian University’s Graduate School of Theology is outstanding, and I would highly recommend the program to those who are seeking to further their ministry training and theological studies.   I am grateful for the knowledge gained, the new connections made, and the old relationships renewed.

Inspirational messages and anecdotes from great orators and motivators can convince us to defy boundaries, refuse the confines of limitations, and burst through barriers to achieve greatness beyond our imaginations.  As you have already surmised, this is not one of those messages.  For those people who can and who do, God bless you and strengthen you; I’ll stand with the rest to praise your achievements and victories. 

However, my decision to discontinue my graduate studies serves as somewhat of a counterweight and a reality check that sometimes we have to recognize, accept, and live within our own limitations, and to do so with contentment and without regret.

That is a blessing in and of itself!

I will admit to knowing absolutely nothing about professional marketing, so I am completely open to having a Madison Avenue insider inform and enlighten me on this subject in the event that I am missing something here.  But…

Have you seen the Dr. Pepper TEN commercial?  It is a 30-second TV advertisement built around a cheesy action movie scenario, complete with a running gun battle through the jungle, a surprise attack by a snake, rolling boulders, a leap from a cliff, and a pursuit by three assailants on motorcycles.  The spot promotes “what guys want” in a soda, i.e., Dr. Pepper’s 23 flavors with “only 10 manly calories.”  The commercial ends with the tagline, “Dr. Pepper TEN!  It’s not for women!”

I understand that the spot is tongue-in-cheek, but still!  “It’s not for women?”  Seriously?  Why would a company that is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (perhaps millions) on advertising intentionally run the risk of alienating half of their potential market?  It’s like saying, “Dr. Pepper TEN.  It’s not for brown-haired people!”  Some women will undoubtedly buy the product, drink it, and will probably like it.  But, if I were a woman, my attitude would be, “Okay, fine!  I’ll spend my money on something else.  Let’s see if your marketing genius keeps his job.”  I say “his” job because I can’t imagine that a woman dreamed up this ad campaign.

So, what has this got to do with anything other than soft drinks?

The commercial got me thinking about how we in our churches present ourselves to people in our communities; not as overtly as in the TV spot, but in much more subtle and, perhaps, unintentional ways.  

When someone visits your congregation, is it possible that from attending the worship service, interacting with members (or not), and receiving information about the church’s ministries, that he or she could write a tagline?  “The Main Street Church!  It’s not for singles!” “It’s not for the divorced!”  “It’s not for anyone over (or under) 35!” “It’s not for the ethnically diverse!”  “It’s not for the economically disadvantaged!” “It’s not for the chronically ill!” 

Something to think about!                

Tim Tebow won his first NFL playoff game last Sunday night, leading his underdog Denver Broncos to a victory over the Pittsburg Steelers with an electrifying 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime.  The home crowd erupted in jubilant celebration and a record-setting Twitter tsunami was unleashed: 9,420 tweets per second, the most ever for a sporting event.  The Tebow faithful were more convicted and convinced than ever.  Doubters were once again scratching their heads in amazement and begrudgingly expressing admiration for Tebow’s ability to lead his team to thrilling wins.  Haters were left stewing in their own cynical juices.

In an article on Monday, Mark Kriegel praised Tim Tebow for what he believes is his most amazing trait of all, humility.  In spite of all of the criticism and ridicule that he has received for his open expressions of faith and his sometimes erratic play on the field, Tebow has refrained from uttering a single “I told you so” after a victory.  He simply (and consistently) thanks God and his teammates for making him look better than he is.  

Kriegel couldn’t resist a reference to Tebow 3:16, calling attention to the Denver quarterback’s intriguing stat of 316 passing yards against the Steelers.  Soon after the game, I saw a few friends’ Facebook statuses that read, “316: Coincidence?”  I didn’t want to rain on anyone’s faith parade or start any unnecessary debates, but, if I had chosen to comment, my answer would have been “Yes, just a coincidence.”  Tebow’s passing yardage on 10 completions was owing to his scrambling and throwing skills, his receivers’ abilities, the protection of his offensive line, and the coverage (or lack thereof) of the defensive secondary.  Does anyone really believe that God caused the other 11 of Tebow’s passes to be incomplete so that the divine math would work out to be exactly 316? 

I thought Kriegel made an astute observation when he noted that many people seem “intent on demeaning religion by cross-pollinating it with sports.”  If we profess to believe in a God who is so small and trivial that He fixes football games, no wonder so many people in our world are reluctant to believe in Him.          

Colin Cowherd shared an excellent commentary about Tim Tebow and the Broncos’ victory on his ESPN Radio show on Monday morning.  Though Cowherd is, by his own admission, not a religious person, he stated that he had absolutely no problem with Tebow’s faith because he sees him as being genuine and non-hypocritical.  According to Cowherd, Tebow is not one of those athletes who says, “I love God,” and then hits on the flight attendant on the flight home. 

What impressed Cowherd the most about Tim Tebow last Sunday was his apparent ability to forget his dismal performance in the previous three games and play as if it had never happened.  In December, Tebow had been “the worst quarterback since they invented the facemask,” Cowherd said.  Cowherd attributed Sunday’s extraordinary performance to Tebow’s faith, his “inner scoreboard” which allowed him to have “faith-based amnesia.”  He could follow going “0 for December” with the best game of his career on Sunday.  Cowherd stated, “I’m not into religion, but to deny what his faith does for him is silly.”  Well said! 

It’s not that Tim Tebow can’t mentally recall past disappointments and failures on the field, he just isn’t owned by them, debilitated by them, or defined by them.   

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:12-14).

Faith-based amnesia! 

Welcome to 2012!

Regardless of what the Mayan calendar may or may not have predicted, and in spite of any new apocalyptic pronouncements that may be forthcoming from Harold Camping, here are three things about which I am quite certain concerning the year that lies ahead.  

1.  If the pages keep turning on this year’s calendar, it is because (and only because) God’s patience continues to be extended to mankind in delaying the return of His Son.  That makes each and every day an intentional, purposeful gift from the Father.  History does not keep marching forward by accident.  Therefore, I am resolved to gratefully accept God’s gift of each day as a special, unique blessing.  I will not allow any day to be a mere mechanical carbon copy of the one before, but will do my best to use each one for the purposes of His honor, glory, and will.

2.  Events will transpire on a local, national, and global scale that are totally beyond my control.  Illnesses will be diagnosed.  Friends and loved ones will depart to be with the Lord.  Flood waters will rise.  Tornadoes will ravage the interior of the land, and hurricanes will batter the coast.  Terrorists will strike.  The stock market will plunge, then rise, then plunge again.  Wars and conflicts will rage.  Since I have absolutely no control over any of these events, I will not waste precious time living in fear, worry, or anxiety.  However, I do realize that my reaction to events around me is definitely within my control, as are my attitudes, actions, and words.  Experience has taught me that I have quite a handful just trying to manage those few things on a daily basis.

3.  My relationship with Christ and depth of spirituality will not remain the same this year.  There is no neutral position, hover mode, or pause button that will allow me to just stay where I am.  I will either draw closer to God or move further away from Him.  I will either be more devoted in prayer and study of His word, or I will lose ground by filling my heart and mind with more of this world’s transient and trivial pursuits.  I will either come to know Jesus more intimately, or He will become more of a stranger to me. 

God will allow me to decide daily whether I will follow more closely in the steps of Jesus or seek paths of my own making and choosing.

Thank you, Father, for the gift and challenge of a new year.  May your Name be glorified, may your Son be praised, may your Spirit convict and comfort, and may your Kingdom advance and increase in all the earth.

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January 2012