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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Motivation & A Change of Clothes in Cayman

Hebrews 12:1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

Given this call to endure in the Christian life through this rather clear race analogy, I recently was compelled to ask myself the question: What spurs on or motivates a person such as myself, whose "sin clings so closely," to "run with endurance the race set before us"?

The clinging problem: There is something about the weighty clinginess of sin that becomes comfortable or, at least, something to which one becomes accustomed. We are approaching our first Summer in Cayman and it is getting toasty. Add to that my vehicle's air conditioning broke a few weeks ago. Sufficed to say, our poor folks at SCC watch their pastor walk into every meeting looking like he's been trying to lose water weight through a series of steam baths & sauna bakes. The bigger issue has become the need to change clothes. Due to the vehicle/heat concoction, I'm already up to two showers & a rinse a day. But even worse is that, starting a couple months ago, I started cycling through a week's worth of clothes in 2 1/2 days. Clothes just cling to the body and its initially uncomfortable. But as a male who neither wants to do too much laundry nor wants spend over 5 minutes a day on new wardrobing, I decided I'd try to get used to a little bit of clinging. I traded some initial discomfort for time/effort in the hopes that I'd grow accustomed to the feeling. I use this somewhat twisted (and likely far too personal in hygienic details) analogy to point to the problem when applying Hebrews 12:1 to our lives.

For most of us, due to time, effort, and to desire to satisfy ourselves, we daily feel just how closely sin clings. And it is far easier to adjust our lives in getting accustomed to sin, even when it's sticky & clingy, than it is expend the effort to endure on the race of faith. Adjustments might include white lies to cover up white lies, small compromises that no one will see, and rationalize inaction when God commands us to act. While most would acknowledge this takes some effort, the notion of giving up one's own will in submission to Another's, dying to self, and absorbing ridicule from other's takes far more effort & endurance.

What motivates us to endure the race of faith?
First, we must recognize that sticky substance, that stench that clings so closely to our life -- Sin. Call it what it is. We must look at our own heart and be honest about our struggles. We all want the good news of Jesus to penetrate our lives but that news is oh so good because it is set against our enmity toward God and the depth of our lostness in sin. As an old pastor Thomas Watson once said, "Till sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet."

Second, we remember and make a daily pilgrimage to the offer of forgiveness, of grace that our Father continually holds out to us through trust in Jesus Christ. His grace is sufficient to pay for all of our sins & to even make His power perfect through our weaknesses (II Corinthians 12:9-10). But I must ultimately ask what effect forgiveness of sins ultimately has. In other words, Forgiven for what? FOR HIM. We are forgiven and that fact is so glorious because it means you and I get to be with our Abba, our Father both now and always (see 1 Thess. 5:10). Which leads to our third and arguably most important step in motivation.

Thirdly, what motivates us is forgiveness for the sake of reward. That is what spurs on a person like me. When Hebrews 12:1 speaks of "so great a great cloud of witnesses" it is referring to men and women from the Old Testament who approached God by faith -- they were saved by faith, just as the requirement is for salvation in the New Testament. But Hebrews 11 shows that they were consistently spurred on in their faith by future reward.

They desire a better country, that is a heavenly one...for He has prepared for them a city" (Hebrews 11:16).
During a Bible Study, I once asked a crowd of young people if they were at all motivated by future reward. Genuinely curious and unsure of what they'd say, they replied that they weren't. They loved Jesus and their motivation for following him was the cross, what he'd achieved for them and responding by serving Him as He would like them to here on earth. I get this. There was a time I was only spurred on by present grace along. But even while I am yet relatively young, I have two children now and life has hit me with some cold realities that require the motive of a future reward.

As the motive Turns. Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, greatly helped me articulate my feelings recently:

“Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this one to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has cause such – unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe this is your only chance at happiness – if that is what you believe, then you are disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches; you are despairing.”

As I grow older, more tired, more burdened by the scars I carry, more troubled by the petty, egregious sins I observe in my own life & the lives of others, more forgetful of a name or a prayer request - in short, as I see & experience the nastiness & brutishness of this short life -, I am in desperate need to look toward future grace as well. To remember, reflect upon, and celebrate "the better country" (11:16), the "city" (11:16) that he has prepared for us.

I somewhat recently remarked to my brother after he & I had experienced tiring weekends that my favorite description of heaven has become "The Sabbath Rest" in Hebrews 11. An appropriate motivation. I don't need to the cross alone, I need to know what the cross achieved and, even further, what forgiveness of sins achieves -- an eternal Rest in Jesus who is our Sabbath. He is a worthy reward that helps us change clothes, cast off the clinging sin, and run towards Him with endurance.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Visit to Prison

Last night I was given the opportunity speak to and visit with male inmates at Northward Prison. An article I read (from a couple years back admittedly) said that there were more inmates per capita on Cayman than virtually all developed countries! This visit was possible through a prison ministry set up by a woman named Ms. Kathy (whom I haven't met but for whom I'm grateful). Ed Solomon, who has attended Sunrise and has been working with inmates for over a year now, asked me to give a message.

One of my main points was this: The key to your life's direction is how you respond to sin. I tried to communicate that, for years, I thought trying to make progress as a Christian was accomplished by sinning less. However, if you focus on trying not to sin, you will fail because sinning is part of who we are. As one inmate called out, "We were born in sin." Exactly.

But we grow through taking our sins to the cross -- even if, like on most days, it's more like dragging them to the cross. Confessing that sin and receiving and experiencing His forgiveness. These men basically ate up the message -- it was a message that the gospel of grace doesn't just apply to a one-time decision to 'accept Jesus' but applies to us every day of our life as we trust He continually & effectively forgives us.

So applying the key to my life's direction: How do I respond to sin. Really this is the only thing different from the direction of my life and the direction of many of these guys lives. And even that ability to respond is a gift from God. I was reminded this morning of what Paul says to his young friend, Titus, who is a pastor of the church in Crete:

At one time we also were foolish, disobedient, deceived, and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, not because of righteous things we have done, but because of His mercy. (Titus 3: 3-5).

I was very refreshed by my time with these men. Perhaps it is because God reminded me that without His merciful action in my life I still would be foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved -- hating and being hated. The difference is God's pursuit and my response (and again, even the response is a Divine gift).

So often I forget this and, when I do, relating to others becomes a labor as I go between feeling like I should be able relate to this person and the self-focused thought of "My life is different. Well done Ryan" [pats self on back]. But God was gracious enough to remind me and I pray He does again & again.

It was the English reformer, John Bradford, who in the 16th cent. watched a criminal walking to the gallows and said, "There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford." We would do well to repeat this same phrase to ourselves everyday when viewing the self-inflicted wounds of others: "There but for the grace of God goes (insert your name here)" while also praying diligently for God's grace to become active in their life.

I can't wait to visit these men once more -- after all, it should just as well be me in prison...if but for the grace of God.