Tag Archives: scripture

relay race

Run the Race

(a three minute read)

I’ve just come off a long weekend with 50 other men. It was called Returning Sons, clearly a reference to Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, who returned to his father after a period of, well, let’s just call it ‘questionable living.’

Anyway, these types of Christian retreats are always uplifting, inspirational, meaningful and memorable. We cook meat. We burn stuff. We camp out. We sing and pray together. We prophesy over one another. We cover old ground and dig up new. Long-time friendships are rekindled and new ones are born. We breathe in fresh life and leave renewed because we take much time to praise God and reverence Him.

But then what?

As I write this, it’s now Wednesday – the third day. And one of our tribe, Jake, just posted this on the group chat:

‘This is about the time whether to choose to keep the momentum going or to drop back in to cruise mode and make it “just another conference”.’

Oh, ain’t that the truth! Thanks Jake, for shaking my tree. I attended Returning Sons for exactly that reason – to get out of cruise mode. In modern Britain, living a middle-class life, it’s way too easy to cruise.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes an observation, followed by indispensable advice:

‘Do you not know that all those who run in a race run, but one receives the prize? So run, that you may obtain it. Everyone who strives for the prize exercises self-control in all things…’ 1

Keep your eye on the finish line, but know you get there in part by exercising self-control. It’s hard to do that alone.

A simple reading of these verses suggests a sprint, where one runner finishes first and gets the gold. But life (like Scripture) is deeper and more nuanced than this.

In my school years I was a long-distance runner, part of a cross-country team. Sure, we all wanted to finish first in our six-mile (now 10,000 meter) race. We worked and worked to get our times down. But more important than getting the trophy was helping the team win.

Cross-country works like this: The lowest scoring team wins. The first runner across the line gets one point, the second two points, and so on, through the first five runners on a team. If I’m the sixth or seventh finisher on my team I don’t score points, but I can keep my adversary from scoring points by displacing him to a lower finishing position.

You can see there is individual strategy here as well as team strategy.

Like my Christian life, I run the race, but I run with multiple outcomes in mind. I have to manage my own race (with self-discipline) and be aware of what my body is doing and what it’s capable of doing.

At the same time, I need to encourage my brothers as I run. My teammate Scott and I were well-matched in ability, so we’d run as a pair, egging one another on, keeping one another going, and pacing ourselves.

Finally, I need to keep an eye on my position in the pack. Where am I in the overall group – am I top five? Was I top five on my team? Was I ahead of the top runners on other teams?

I can’t win a team race alone. I need my brothers. Our relationships are valuable and vital. Some are ahead of me and some behind, but we are together.

It’s the same in the Christian life. We run the race, but we are only victorious together. You’ve heard the folk wisdom: if you want to run fast, run alone. If you want to run far, run together.

Again, the apostle Paul refers to this teamwork in his letter to the Romans: ‘I always thank my God through Jesus Christ for you all…2 ‘For I long to see you…so that you may be strengthened…’ 3 This is so that I may be encouraged together with you by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.’ 4

So back to Jake’s question: Do I ‘keep the momentum going or drop back in to cruise mode?’

This is set against a larger backdrop, namely whether I am a producer of Godly relationships and encouragement, or merely a consumer of them. This investment – to be a producer – is vital to my growth and success. I need to keep after it and stay stuck in. If I invest in a weekend away for a transformational experience, I must allow God to change me through it. And keep changing me. Otherwise it’s merely transitory.

The choice is mine to keep the momentum going. I’m the one who is running the race. When I look back I lose. I must press on.

‘Brothers…this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal to the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.’ 5

To successfully reach forward, I have to regard where I am with all honesty, and find men to share that with. Iron sharpens iron5 it’s true, and it’s also true that iron left to itself will rust and become useless.

Thanks and honor go to all the men in my life who help keep me sharp and rust-free. You know who you are, and you know that I love you.

1. 1 Corinthians 9:24
2. Romans 1:8
3. Romans 1:11
4. Romans 1:12
5. Philippians 3:13-14
6. Proverbs 27:17

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eyeball

The Speck-Plank Conundrum

(A four minute read)

It sounds like a physics problem: The Speck-Plank Conundrum. It’s not – it’s a moral one. That’s the bad news. The good news is that although a conundrum is a knotty problem, it is one that does have a solution.

It’s an oldie but a goodie and the classic line about hypocrisy. You know it either from Luke 6 or Matthew 7. Jesus asks, ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not see the beam that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye” when you yourself do not see the beam that is in your own eye? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”’ 1

First, definitions.

Speck, mote – two translations of the Greek κάρφος (karphos) which means ‘straw’.

Plank, beam, log – all these images are used by the gospel translators for the Greek δοκός (dokos) which means ‘a stick of timber.’

Actually Jesus walks us through several examples of our hypocrisy in this passage – I think he wants to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.

Considering other parts of this passage, If I am blind about something, can I lead anyone anywhere? Yes, but nowhere good.

If I’m a student of Christ, can I possibly know better than he does? No, but having the mind of Christ, I can grow in his likeness.

When I judge others, don’t I do this to feel superior? Yes, always. Isn’t this why Jesus tells us to love our enemies? He wants humility from us.

Finally, since Holy Spirit lives in me – will I not exhibit his good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?

Well – yes and no. At least not always.

That’s because I’m a work in progress. Look at Luke 6:45.

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

My mouth speaks (and leads me to act) based on what’s in my heart. Knowing that, I know I have a ways to go.

Before I was saved, I spent a lot more time judging people than I do now. In fact, it was an occupation at times – like when I was employed to write editorials, and again, when I was employed to write comedy. Being un-saved I thought of this quality as ‘discernment.’

Well no, it wasn’t. Now that I have a relationship with Jesus, I know what discernment is. And yet, growing in discernment doesn’t release me from the speck-plank conundrum. That’s because some evil bits still remain in my heart, and work subtly on my behavior.

Here’s an example. About a year ago, going to my local cash point, I passed a homeless man sitting on the pavement staring at the floor. As I passed him, my so-called discernment showed me he was angry, possibly violent, and had a chip on his shoulder. I often will stop and spend time with the floor-squatters and perhaps even give them a gift, but not this guy. I marched right past.

After inserting my debit card and entering my pin I glanced back at him. Suddenly I saw him very differently. It was as though Jesus was there, saying ‘Here’s how I see him.’ And no longer was there an angry disaffected man sitting there, but a lost, frightened boy.

He called himself Frankie. He’d been in and out of prison since he was 18 and tired of it. He wants to make changes in his life. He needed encouragement. He needed a friend. He needed someone to take the plank out of his own eye and just sit with him.

Funny that. When I removed the plank from my own eye, I no longer saw any speck in his eye. His eye was clear. All I saw was someone created in God’s image, in his likeness.

I am sometimes blind. I all too often put myself ahead of Jesus. I do suffer from the speck-plank conundrum. But the fruit I bear is often good – thanks to Holy Spirit and the things he helps me store in my heart. May I continue to be planted next to his living water.

Heavenly Father, in your mercy, forgive us where we have been blind. Remove that blindness. Holy Spirit, write your words on our hearts, so that we only bear good fruit. Lord Jesus, give us the wisdom to follow you, and not get ahead of you. Make us good carpenters – who know the difference between a speck of sawdust and a plank of wood. In your mighty name we pray. Amen.

Luke 6:41-42

Photo: Victor Freitas via Pexels

Pamphlet

A Life of Prayer

(A four-minute read)

Some days I wake up with unanswered questions. These aren’t questions for research, but they are life-changing. Or at least perspective-changing. They’re questions God pops into my head. They’re questions I can’t immediately answer. They are meat to be chewed until the flavor comes through in the form of insight.

A Life of Prayer

Today’s question is about prayer. Do I have a prayer life, or do I lead a life of prayer?

No simple question, and it immediately leads to more questions:

– How would I tell the difference?
– Is the former adequate?
– Is the latter more desirable?
– If I have the former, and want the latter, how do I get it?
– What transforms me from a man who prays, to a praying man?

Inevitably, I have more than a mouthful; it’s now turned into a meal.

The apostle Paul told the Thessalonian church to ‘Pray without ceasing.’ 1 I get a vision of someone on his knees from morning to night, getting up only for food or relief.

There are stories told of great prayer warriors who spent so much time in prayer that there was a groove worn in the floor where they knelt, and a rubbed-raw forehead-sized spot on the wall. Or they would kneel in the snow long enough to come away with bloody knees.

Do I really need to do any of that to ‘pray without ceasing’?

I could. But not necessarily. There may be a more subtle answer.

Some Useful Advice

Theologian N. T. Wright describes the verses in and around ‘Pray without ceasing’ as a type of memory device for the young Christians in Thessalonica:

‘Rejoice always.
Pray without ceasing.
In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.
Do not quench the Spirit.
Do not despise prophecies.
Examine all things.
Firmly hold onto what is good.
Abstain from all appearances of evil.’ 2

Wright says in his ‘Paul for Everyone’ series that these are aids such as we’d use for learning grammar rules, like ‘I before E except after C’. The reason we have them, he says, is so we learn them until they become second nature to us, and we no longer have to think about them.3

Back to my original question then. Do I have a prayer life? Or do I live a life of prayer?

A Life of Prayer

The term ‘prayer life’ describes something I take on and attach to my inner world through some motivation. Like my ‘sleep life’ or my ‘eating life’ or my ‘work life’ or my ‘sex life.’ I’m involved in these things, but they are, in a way, detached from my personhood.

So a ‘prayer life’ seems like the rest of them. It’s like a garment, something I can don or doff at will, as it seems convenient, when it suits me.

A ‘life of prayer’ – now that sounds different. Internal. Personal. All-consuming. Imagine it in relation to the idea of a ‘life of sleeping’, or a ‘life of eating’, or a ‘life of work’ or a ‘life of sex’. All of them sound pretty radical, and would eventually lead to various levels of dissolution!

A ‘life of prayer’ though, would be in a class by itself. Because it’s not about being obsessed with prayer to the exclusion of all else. Rather it’s looking for God in all the places of my life, even the broken ones (especially the broken ones) so that the idea of prayer infiltrates all these other ‘lives’ that I live and builds them up.

In other words, I bring my prayer life (which is my conversation with God) into the parts of my life that seem on the surface to be ‘non-God’: work, eating, sleeping, marriage, exercise, tying my shoes, taking out the rubbish, complaining, fearing, lusting, apathy, judging, scorn.

Yeah, especially those last ones. Prayer is the only tool I have for making progress against them.

It’s not coincidental that ‘Pray without ceasing’ is sandwiched between ‘Rejoice always’ and ‘In everything give thanks.’ Being grateful and full of praise leads to a light heart. And that makes the conversation of prayer much easier.

Now, to work on ensuring it’s a two-way conversation.

1. 1 Thessalonians 5:17
2. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22
3. Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, Tom Wright, pp 130-131