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.

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.

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)

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Of Course You Can

In the Handbook to Short Story Writing,  Muriel Anderson says that four of the most important words in her life have been “Of course you can.”

Her father, she says, always knew how to say these words at exactly the right time.

She had begun to try her hand at writing articles, hoping maybe the local newspaper would publish them. She began thinking of all reasons why it most likely never happen: She was young and inexperienced; the local paper was on a tight budget; they rarely bought freelance material.

She told her father, “I doubt I can get this article published.”

He said, “Of course you can.”

And she did. This first article launched her career as a writer.

Four simple words from her father were enough to encourage her to keep trying.

Maybe there is someone in your life waiting to hear these words today: Of course you can.

Let’s never miss an opportunity to encourage one another.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.  (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

If I’ve Only One Life…

In 1961 an advertising copywriter named Shirley Polykoff was working for the Foote, Cone & Belding ad agency on the Clairol hair-dye account when she pitched this idea to a room full of executives: If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!

The rest, as they say, is advertising history.

Actually, Shirley had already created magic in previous campaigns. Her first big idea had been five years earlier. The slogan was: “Does She or Doesn’t She?” (Do you remember that it was an ad campaign for hair dye?)

She also came up with “The Closer He Gets, the Better You Look.”

But this line, If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde, was, perhaps, her greatest — in terms of success in advertising, anyway.

It leads to an interesting question: How would you complete this sentence? “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a …”

As a what? Devoted mom? Loyal husband? Faithful friend? Successful business leader? Committed Christian?

The truth is, we each have only life to live — and there are only a few goals worth pursuing.

And one is greater than them all.

In weighing the various measures of success, the Apostle Paul said…

I also consider everything to be a loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. (Philippians 3:10)

Just a few paragraphs before, he said…

For to me, to live is Christ… (Philippians 1:21)

Paul was saying: If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a sold-out follower of Jesus Christ.

A Princess in Disguise

Today’s memo is about Sarah Culberson.

Sarah was born in 1976 in West Virginia. After being placed in foster care for a year, she was adopted into a loving family — the Culbersons. Both parents were teachers. She grew up active in the United Methodist Church.

Sarah had always wondered about her heritage, so after graduating from college, she hired a private investigator to find her biological parents.

Her birth mom, she discovered, had died of cancer in the early nineties.

But it was what she learned about her birth father that changed her life forever.

As it turns out, Sarah wasn’t just a young woman from West Virginia. She was royalty. A princess.

Her father was now a ruling member of the Mende tribe in Sierra Leone. They began to correspond, and soon he invited her to Africa to meet her family.

When she arrived she received a royal welcome, with hundreds coming to greet her.

She kept asking herself: “What did I do to deserve this? I’m just Sarah from West Virginia.”

But she’s not just Sarah from West Virginia. She was born Princess Esther Elizabeth; that’s who she is. She had lived her life not knowing that she was a member of a ruling class — a princess in disguise. And then she discovered her true heritage.

Today, Sarah lives an amazing life. After pursuing a career in acting, she now works in education, she’s a public speaker, and she maintains close ties to both of her communities and both of her families. (Here is her website)

I love this story because it is — incredibly — similar to our story. We, too, have a royal heritage. We’re king’s kids, you could say.

And yet some believers remain unaware of who they really are.

The Apostle Peter said…

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

Today, take a moment to consider who you are in Christ, and who he has made you to be.

______________

The photograph of Princess Sarah Culberson by Elunaman is licensed under Creative Commons.

More Than Conquering

Recently I was reading about the 1938-39 University of Tennessee Volunteers football team — legends in NCAA history.

In ‘38 they went 11-0, won the SEC, beat Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and claimed the National Championship. They didn’t merely win, they conquered.

The following year they went 10-0 in the regular season — undefeated, untied, and un-scored-upon. Not a touchdown, not a field goal, not a safety. Every game ended in a shut-out.

That’s not merely conquering. That’s more than conquering.

This is the phrase Paul used in Romans 8 to describe how we can approach life:

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)

It’s a great phrase, but the truth is that many of us don’t feel like we’re more-than-conquering anything right now. We’re more-than-overwhelmed with challenges we never saw coming — creating hardship in the present and filling the future with uncertainty.

For many, Paul’s assurance seems just beyond our grasp. But the answer is closer than it seems, and it’s closer than it often feels.

The Bible is filled with promises from a loving Father who is always near, who comforts us in our sorrow, strengthens us in our weakness, and lifts us up when we are down.

There may be battles, and more than a few close calls, but our victory is assured.

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)