When Second Place Wins the Race

On December 2, 2012, in a cross country competition held in Burlada Spain, Ivan Fernandez was about to finish a distant second behind Oympic Bronze medalist Abel Mutai, from Kenya.

In the final moments, however, Ivan saw something that didn’t make sense.

Just a few steps short of the finish line, Mutai stopped running. He had misread a sign and thought the race was over, but there were still 10 meters to go.

Ivan called out to Abel, encouraging him to continue forward, but since the two athletes don’t speak a common language, Abel couldn’t understand what Ivan was saying.

What should Ivan have done next, given the circumstances?

He could have passed his competitor by, easily taking first place for himself.

Instead, when he caught up with Mutai, he remained a step behind as he motioned him toward the proper finish line. The race ended as it should have: Abel Mutai was awarded first place; Ivan Fernandez came in second.

What an inspiring, heartwarming example of sportsmanship. No wonder this story is still making the rounds, eight years later.

Running to win…

Recently I mentioned this story to a friend, who said with a laugh, “Clearly, Ivan’s life verse is not ‘run in such a way as to win the prize.’” (1 Corinthians 9:24)

But, then again, maybe it is.

Maybe Ivan Fernandez understands, better than most, where the race is really taking place.

Maybe he understands, better than most, what winning really looks like.

When asked why he would make such a choice to surrender an easy prize, Ivan was quoted as saying…

“My dream is that someday we can have a kind of community life where we push and help each other to win.”

In this race we’ve been called to run, winning the prize means that we make it our objective never to cross the finish line alone.

There may be someone running the race near you — to the left or to the right; slightly ahead or slightly behind — and today you’ll have the chance to nudge them onward.

Winning the prize, in this part of the race, means that we win it together.

A Quiet Soul

William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, said, “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.”

Practicing silence effectively requires … well… practice. It takes effort on your part.

In his book Noise Reduction Leonard Koren writes, “Like an unbroken horse or a spoiled child, your mind will resist any attempts to discipline it.”

We are addicted to noise. All day we are besieged with sound, from the time we wake up to the sound of the alarm until we drop off to sleep at night, often with the TV in the background to “keep us company.”

I encourage you to try a few moments of silence each day.

Beginning today.

Just a few minutes with no music, no radio, no TV, no conversation.

Just a few moments of absolute quiet in the presence of God.

These moments will be like nourishment to your soul.

But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. (Psalm 131:2)

Paganini and One String

Paganini and One String

Niccolo PaganiniHere’s a great story that has certainly made the rounds. (I first heard it from Chuck Swindoll.)

The violinist virtuoso Niccolò Paganini was performing one evening before a packed concert hall, surrounded by a full orchestra.

As he began the final piece, one of the strings on his violin snapped. A minor inconvenience; with seemingly effortless improvisation, Paganini continued to play on the remaining three strings.

A moment later, a second string snapped. Undeterred, Paganini continued the concerto on the remaining two strings.

Then a third string snapped. Still Paganini continued to play. He finished the piece with one string on his violin.

When the performance was over, the crowd rose in thunderous applause.

Paganini, ever the humble musician, raised his violin and boldly proclaimed, “Paganini and one string!”

He cued the conductor, the orchestra began to play, and he performed his encore, note for note, with one string on his violin.

WHEN SO LITTLE REMAINS.

The time may come when you feel like you’re down to one string — when there’s next to nothing left of your marriage, your finances, your future, your health, or your hope … and you know that you’re no Paganini.

Here’s the good news.

One string is enough. God’s grace is that amazing. His power is that invincible. His love, that unstoppable.

If you feel like one string is all you have left — and maybe it, too, is about to snap — you can stop trying to make everything happen on your own. Let God do in your life what only he can do.

As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. (Psalm 55:16)

A Blank Page

Doug MarletteDoug Marlette was an editorial artist / cartoonist (creator of Kudzu) whose job, for decades, was to draw a new cartoon every day. He didn’t consider it pressure; he enjoyed it.

He said, “I have learned to love a blank sheet of paper. It braces me with its endless potential.”

Every morning you are given a blank sheet of paper: the new day that lies before you. You can fill the page with whatever you want: holiness, love, praise, service — or criticism, hostility, and bitterness. It’s your choice.

You’re not limited today by what you put on the page yesterday. It’s a new morning — a blank page — filled with new opportunity.

Even if you blew it yesterday, and ten thousand yesterdays before, you still have today. You can fill this day’s page with God’s presence.

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:23)

Outlasting the Blues

During a dark period of Abraham Lincoln’s life, at the young age of 32, he wrote:

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.

“Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

It’s hard to believe these words were written by one of our nation’s most significant leaders. And it’s hard to believe that years later this same despairing man was able to write:

“The year that is drawing toward the close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. These bounties are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come.”

Abraham Lincoln’s early years were filled with failure. Yet, the final years of life, though certainly not free from struggle, were years of happiness, fulfillment, achievement, and success.

Because of his capacity to outlast the blues, Lincoln experienced — in this life — the enormity of God’s blessing. He didn’t give up hope, even when it seemed he had no reason to hope.

The same could be said for King David. As you read through the Psalms, you get a glimpse of his struggles and heartaches. (Psalm 10, 38, 102 come to mind; there are many, many more.) And though his life was not without tragedy, David ended his days enjoying the benefits of God’s blessing in his life.

In a phrase, David outlasted the blues. His final words, recorded in 2 Samuel 23, were:

Is not my house right with God? Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation and grant me my every desire? (2 Samuel 23:5)

It’s almost as if the reward for tenacity is that our problems eventually give up and leave us alone. We certainly see in scripture that clinging steadfastly to hope in God’s mercy ultimately pays off far beyond our greatest hopes.

Today, you may be facing an anguish that borders on despair. But there’s more to your story than just what you are experiencing today. God will bring to fruition your salvation, full and complete. And he will grant your heart’s desires.

This gives us a reason to keep on … to outlast the blues.

Confronting Procrastination

Confronting Procrastination

Jackson Brown, author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, once said, “Where there is a hill to climb, don’t think that waiting will make it any smaller.”

Waiting, in fact, tends to give hills the time they need to become mountains. For every challenge that accidentally becomes manageable by benefit of procrastination, 999 just get bigger.

There are items that were on everyone’s to-do list last week that didn’t get done. Things important but not urgent. They didn’t get done because that dreadful, demanding, take-no-prisoners last minute hasn’t confronted us yet.

But you know and I know these items could have been — and should have been — marked off the list.

Surviving or Thriving?

Elbert Hubbard said that postponement is the father of failure. It’s also the best friend of mediocrity. The things that we postpone most often are the things that define the line between surviving and thriving — the things that mark the difference between eeking out an average existence and experiencing the fullness of the abundant life.

This includes getting serious about a closer walk with Christ, following through on a ministry opportunity, putting a business idea into action, taking steps toward a healthier lifestyle, making an effort to strengthen a struggling relationship. And so on.

The only thing that stands between you and God’s blessing in any of these areas is inertia. The sooner you move, the sooner the windows of heaven can open.

Joshua once asked the people of Israel, “How long will you wait before you begin to take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, has given you?” (Joshua 18:3) He then outlined a simple action plan to follow for their progress.

His idea worked.

How Long Will You Wait?

Maybe we should follow Joshua’s example. You might have 50 things nagging you right now, and there’s no way you can get to all of them this week, but you can knock out one or two — and maybe more than a few.

Take a look at your list. Which items represent a “possession” that you are certain God wants you to take — a victory you are certain he wants you to claim? Put these items at the top, and scratch out a plan that moves you in their direction.

And then, take the first step.

Waiting won’t make the hill any smaller, but start moving in its direction, and you’ll discover the hill doesn’t look nearly as big up close as it did from a distance.

So how long will you wait before you begin to take possession of all that God has given you?

Beginning Now

Some of our best ideas are still waiting for the right moment.

We call it preparation. It’s really procrastination. Eventually the due-diligence phase yields to the do-it-later phase. And another good idea gets covered in cobwebs.

Let’s remember what William Feather said:

“Conditions are never just right. People who delay action until all factors are favorable do nothing.”

There’s something to be said for beginning now and filling in the details as you go. It’s not that details aren’t important or that preparation isn’t necessary, but at some point you have to quit compiling data and start pursuing results.

Do you know what the problem is? There’s no failure to face in the preparation stage. There’s no disappointment to deal with in the dream-casting phase.

It’s only after the plan has been put into practice that you confront results that maybe don’t meet expectations. It’s easy to get nervous. It’s easier to plan just a little longer.

When Abraham was well past the age where most people consider slowing down, God told him, “Leave your country, your people, and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)

Abraham went, not having a plan in place, not knowing exactly what lay ahead, only that he was following the voice of God.

If there is something you know that you should do, maybe it’s time to do just what Abraham did: take the first few steps, even if all the questions haven’t been answered and all the problems aren’t solved in advance.

The results might not be immediate, and they might not be all that you hoped for. It might force you to make you make some difficult adjustments along the way. But it beats living your life forever in someday.

There’s something to be said for beginning now.

The Desert of Loneliness

I came across a quote a while back from William Carey, recorded in April 1794, during his first year of ministry in India.

This day was tumultuous in its beginning, but was afterwards more calm. Yet a burden of guilt is not easily removed : nothing short of infinite power, and infinite goodness, can remove such a load as mine.

O that I had but a smiling God, or an earthly friend to whom I could unbosom my soul! But my friend is at a great distance, and God frowns upon my soul. O may his countenance be lifted upon me again.

Carey was expressing his feelings here, not writing good theology. His words reflect a servant’s struggle with sin and loneliness.

Everyone in ministry deals with both.

And you don’t have to travel around the world to meet these enemies face-to-face. They’ll come to where you are.

So what do you do when you’re losing the battle?

You turn to the God whose mercy never ends. Even if you’ve tried a thousand times before, you can still find grace in your time of your need.

And then you turn to one of the good people God has put in your life, and you “unbosom your soul.”

Most importantly, when you’re losing the battle against sin and loneliness, you stay in the fight until victory finds you.

Carey worked for three years before baptizing his first convert. And yet he stayed. By the end of his race he had translated the New Testament into several languages, planted churches and missionary training centers, and became known as the Father of Modern Missions. Today at least seven institutions of higher learning bear his name.

Losing a battle doesn’t mean you’ve lost the war. But quitting does. Stay in the fight until victory finds you.

The Past is a Foreign Country

I recently began a sermon with a reference to opening lines in great books. While doing detailed research on the topic (ie, googling with my phone), one in particular caught my eye.

The title is The Go-Between, by L.P. Hartley. The opening line is:

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

I’m not sure how that phrase plays out in the remainder of the story, but it’s a message we should consider: The past is a foreign country.

Think of how it applies to every area of your life, in light of God’s mercy and transformational grace.

“In the past I was defeated and discouraged. But the past is a foreign country. I don’t live there anymore. I choose to be in a different place today.”

“In the past I often spoke harshly to my spouse. But the past is a foreign country. I don’t live there anymore. I do things differently now.”

“In the past I put my wants ahead of everyone else’s needs. But the past is a foreign country…”

“In the past I was overcome with resentment…”

“In the past I felt like my life was going nowhere…”

“In the past my prayer life was non-existent…”

Think of how empowering it would be to learn to say: The past is a foreign country. I don’t live there anymore. I do things differently now.

Forgiveness Training

For more than twenty years, Fred Luskin has directed the Stanford Forgiveness Project, which conducts “forgiveness training research.”

Luskin’s work is based on the idea that “forgiveness isn’t just wishful thinking. It’s a trainable skill.”

His research has found that forgiveness can reduce stress, blood pressure, anger, depression, and hurt.

It can also increase optimism, hope, compassion, and physical vitality.

However, he emphasizes that forgiveness is not easy. It takes a determined effort.

FORGIVENESS AT WORK

In a similar way, The American Journal of Health Production has a report about separate studies that were conducted among 200 employees working office jobs in Washington D.C. or manufacturing jobs in the Midwest.

The studies asked workers to focus on a specific offense, how it affected them, and how it influenced their attitude toward work.

In each of the surveys, forgiveness was linked to increased productivity, decreased absenteeism, fewer mental and physical health problems, such as sadness and headaches.

These benefits were partly explained by reductions in interpersonal stress that goes along with a forgiving disposition.

The ultimate conclusion from those analyzing the study is that when people see others practicing forgiveness at work, it fosters positive emotions that improve decision-making, cognitive functioning, and the quality of relationships.

In other words, employees who work in an atmosphere of forgiveness are more productive.

WE FORGIVE AS WE HAVE BEEN FORGIVEN

As believers, our forgiveness for others is rooted in the forgiveness we have received through Jesus Christ.

Where others might say that we learn to forgive by letting go — partially correct — we must keep in mind that our ability to forgive is strengthened by acknowledging our own experience of God’s undeserved mercy.

Forgiveness isn’t easy, just as Luskin says. Anyone who has tried to forgive knows this.

It takes a determined effort.

And it begins with finding yourself at the cross of Jesus Christ.

The Helmet of Salvation

When a gunman opened fire on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando on June 12 2016, dozens of SWAT Team members responded.

One of them was Michael Napolitano, who soon found himself in the line of fire.

In fact, he took a bullet to the head — and survived.

How?

The helmet he was wearing.

It’s called a Kevlar Helmet. It’s made to be bullet proof, and in Napolitano’s case, it was.

Days after the shooting, images surfaced of Michael and his helmet.

The helmet had been damaged, but not destroyed. Michael had an abrasion on his forehead, but no serious wound.

The obvious comparison is to the helmet of salvation that Paul refers to in Ephesians 6:17.

It protects us from the enemy’s attack. In the midst of spiritual warfare, we may experience bumps and bruises along the way.

But spiritually fatal wounds? Never.

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17)

A Work of Restoration

In the four year period between 1508 and 1512, Michelangelo lay on his back on a scaffold in the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City, creating one of the greatest artistic triumphs in history.

Unfortunately, the magnificent work of art soon began to fade. Less than a century later, no one could remember what the original frescoes had looked like.

One person described it this way: “We see the colors of the Sistine ceiling as if through smoked glass.”

In 1981 a project began to clean the frescoes that adorn the chapel. After two art-restorers carefully cleaned a small corner of the painting with a special solution, they invited experts to examine the work.

The result was breathtaking. No one had imagined that such vibrant colors lay beneath the centuries of accumulated dust and dirt.

This was not the Michelangelo known by art critics, the one whose frescoes resembled sculpture more than painting. This showed the artist was also the master of color and nuance.

The success of this partial project prompted the restoration of the entire ceiling.

The task was completed on December 31, 1989. It took twice as long to clean the ceiling as it had taken the artist to paint it.

But the result was breathtaking. For the first time in 5 centuries, people were able to view this masterpiece the way it was intended, in all of its color and beauty.

Today, God is doing a work of restoration in your life.

It may take longer than you expect, but the end result will be the same: Your life will be filled with the vibrant colors that he has planned for you from the very beginning.

Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again. From the depths of the earth, you will again bring me up. (Psalm 71:20)