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By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” – Hebrews 11:4 (NIV)

I think it’s safe to say that our world is in turmoil. When “tolerance” seems to be a prevailing value at the same time we have a growing sense of “intolerance” on many levels of society.

Daily in international news we are beset with stories of racial tension and violence, hate crimes, terrorist attacks and the list goes on. I don’t have to cite the stories which are most likely very familiar to you.

In these times of turmoil, I see the same story repeated through history, but I also see the same resolution as well. I’ve been reflecting in these days on the first recorded murder. In the Bible, in Genesis chapter 4 we see that the first death among the children of Adam and Eve was the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The story is well worth a review if you haven’t thought about it lately.

The conflict began when Abel brought an acceptable sacrifice before the LORD and was commended. Cain brought another sacrifice and was rejected because of his heart condition. The situation really got Cain fighting mad.

As the story goes,

“. . . but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” – Genesis 4:5-7 (NIV)

When confronted with the condition of his heart Cain had some major decisions to make. Would he continue to bury his anger, brood and stew over his rejection, or would he take stock of his strong internal emotions, have his heart healed, and move on to a better place?

Unfortunately, we know the rest of the story. He misplaced his rejection, blamed his brother and violence and murder erupted.

Personally, I think this story is lived out again and again in our world today and we are seeing it played out on an international scale.

For each of us, when we begin to experience anger against an individual, a different racial, political, cultural or religious group, we are in danger of misdirecting our anger and letting it take us to places that are dangerous and destructive.

Anger led Cain to murder when internal reflection wasn’t the response of his heart. Unchecked anger can do the same for any of us.

I suppose that from here to eternity love and hate will both be opposing forces. The question for each of us, is what we will do and how we will react by hating the right things. We can choose to hate racism, for example, without hating racists. What we hate says a lot about us, just as who or what stirs our anger says a lot about us.

In the New Testament, the writer to the book of Hebrews, quoted above, says that Abel was a righteous man and was wrongly targeted for stirring up his brother’s anger. Even though dead, he still speaks. Abel was an innocent victim but was also the target of hostility. His example of godliness and suffering even in the face of violence and death is something that should speak strongly to us even today – especially today.

The ultimate expression of love in the face of hatred comes at the Cross of Jesus Christ. It was He who died in all His innocence and rose to life so that each of us could be set free from misdirected anger and hatred against anyone or anything.

Anger, along with love, is perhaps the strongest and most powerful of our emotions. When confronted with deep seated anger in our hearts, each of us can choose to step back, reflect and re-direct it toward something that is worth hating. It’s not a person or a race, a political party or country, but in reality a way of life that runs contrary to love which seeks the highest good of another fellow human being.

Abel lived a shorter life than Cain but there’s no question as to who serves as a better model for us today in these times of turmoil.

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“But Job replied, ‘You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?’ So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.” Job 2:10 (NLT)

Have you ever received a Christmas gift that you found difficult to accept?

Have you ever been downright disappointed in what you’ve received?

I know I have. I vividly recall one Christmas in my late teen years when my parents gave me a gift that I flat out rejected. It wasn’t a pretty scene. Today I’m really embarrassed that I behaved so poorly and was so unappreciative of my parents who had previously never failed to make Christmas a special occasion.

Being a somewhat typical man, I admit I’m hard to shop for when it comes to gifts. I can’t always make up my mind what I really want anyway, so how could my family know what gift to give me?

I don’t know about you but I struggle with the idea of acceptance. We love accepting things that we enjoy especially when fun surprises come our way. But when we get what we aren’t expecting – especially when it comes in the form of disappointment, adversity or suffering – that’s when we are not so sure we can accept the gift.

Being the natural perfectionist that I am, I’m always looking for the best deal I can find so when I get less than what I think is best, disappointment can quickly sink in.

I have found that when I set my standards high and don’t figure in setbacks and suffering into the mix of life, I set myself up for struggles with disappointment and a lack of acceptance.

Lately, I’ve been listening more carefully to people who have graciously struggled with pain, suffering and adversity in their lives. Many of them describe even adversity as a “gift” from God. One that we don’t ask for, but which inevitably comes our way, living in this fallen world.

A colleague of mine has been struggling with cancer for over fourteen years. Barring a miracle her condition will not change for the better this side of heaven. The painful process she’s been through she describes as a “gift.” She has had countless opportunities to speak to others of God’s grace and provision for her during her time of affliction. I don’t know if I would be that accepting if I were in her shoes.

From time to time professional golfer Gary Player alludes to the fact that he had a difficult childhood in South Africa but grew up with the dream that he would be one of the world’s greatest golfers in his generation. He is often quoted as saying that adversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind even though we don’t see it that way. By facing adversity with a more than positive attitude his accomplishments continue to back up his bold statements.

Jealousy and envy also make acceptance a difficult task. When we think that others have it better than we do in some area of life we look at our own situation and covet the possessions of others. We never expect that they might be looking back at us with similar sentiments. We aren’t so quick to envy others for the suffering they endure even though it might just be the making of us.

Part of accepting God’s gifts to us – the pleasant and the painful – is the realization that He is doing something unique with each one of us that only He can accomplish with our willing participation. We refer to this as a “faith” journey with God, trusting that His way for us is tailor-made and whatever is beyond our control comes directly from His gracious hand.

This Christmas I find myself desiring a new perspective on acceptance and gratitude. The more that we can accept what God gives us and respond to Him with a heart of gratitude the less disappointment will be part of our daily life-experience.

God’s greatest gift to the world was His very own Son – our Christmas Treasure. The rich gifts that He offers to all of us – His grace, mercy, peace and forgiveness – can’t be measured or removed once received.

When we gladly accept Him, in all His richness, we can easily accept whatever else may come our way – without disappointment!

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Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:48 (NIV)

“This is the very perfection of a man, to find out his own imperfections.” – Saint Augustine

For most of my life I’ve had an ongoing battle with perfectionism but it took me over fifty years to see it as a hindrance rather than a help.

Daily we are bombarded with images of men and women who appear to be highly successful because they strive for perfection in their appearance and professional life. However, if you take a close look at anyone’s life, no matter how “together” they may appear, it won’t take long to discover that even among the best of us there is a much deeper longing for meaning in life and relationships.

Deep down I really know that I’m a deeply flawed individual but it would be nice to appear to “have my act together” to everyone around me so that my faults and failings don’t come out too often.

For those of us who have a personal faith in God it’s easy to quote chapter and verse either to justify our perfectionistic tendencies or excuse our shortcomings or both.

Jesus’ words above recorded by Matthew have often been quoted to me by some who say that God expects “perfection” from people, speaking mainly of the followers of Jesus. The implication is that perfection in this life is somehow attainable through whatever means are necessary to achieve it.

Honestly, that’s no way to live life with a heart for God and it’s not even realistic or even achievable if we stop to think about it.

What was Jesus saying here and does the Bible teach us that striving for perfection is a motivating factor in our lives? Before drawing any quick conclusions just take a closer look at the Biblical language, especially in the case of Jesus’ words.

The Bible speaks of God’s “perfection” as in Deuteronomy 32:4, “He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all His ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is He.” (NIV)

The Hebrew word for “perfect” here carries the idea of “blameless” or “without fault.” I think most people with a faith in God and particularly Jesus-followers would have no problem with the concept that God is perfect and unblemished.

However, when it comes to the way the Bible speaks of humans in relation to “perfect” a different word is used. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus uses the Greek word “teleios” meaning “perfect” in the sense of “having reached its end,”  “complete” or even “mature.”  In other words God is perfect and can’t be “matured” any more than He already is but we humans are far from mature. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of “growing” us up as we trust His perfect Son Jesus and live by faith.

In my battle with perfectionism I’ve found that there’s a world of difference between striving for excellence as opposed to perfectionism as a “soul-condition.”  Human perfectionism no matter how well-intentioned is rooted and grounded in pride while the Gospel message of Jesus is one of humility.

Striving for excellence can be very much about serving God and others if our motives are to glorify God in everything we do. Perfectionism on the other hand is a mindset that seeks to avoid being judged or criticized by others. The malady is one of obsession with what others think, or may think of us.

Researcher and author Brene Brown defines perfectionism as “a cognitive, behavioral process, a way of thinking and feeling that says this ‘If I look perfect, do it perfect, and live perfect I can avoid or minimize shame, blame and judgment.’”

The peril of perfectionism is that we can actually become callous to our own humanity so that we don’t have to face our failings and imperfections head on.

The alternative to prideful perfectionism is humility and vulnerability which breaks down pride in our lives and gives us a healthier appreciation of God and true freedom to trust Him with the reality of who we are – warts and all.

Ms. Brown expresses it well when she says, Why, when we know that there’s no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone? Is it that we really admire perfection? No – the truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.”

I think our Lord and Maker is more interested in enabling us to serve Him out of faith and love rather than approving of our efforts to create a false image of ourselves. He provided a very humble, gentle and vulnerable Savior to show us the way to do just that.

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“Before his downfall a man’s heart is proud, but humility comes before honor.” – Proverbs 18:12 (NIV)

The contrast between pride and humility couldn’t be more distinct. We don’t often see our own pride until it’s exposed for what it is.

The word “humble” comes from the Latin word “humilis” which means lowly, insignificant, or “on the ground.” We think of a humble person as one who doesn’t have an exalted view of themselves in relation to others.

I think humility is easier observed than it is defined. Humility becomes a larger slice of our character when we see a picture of reality that shows us we aren’t the perfect people we hoped we would be.

It’s easy to be blind to our own pride and to observe humility in others. We would probably admit to being proud before we would consider ourselves “humble.”

If you’ve been following the professional golf news lately you will be aware that there’s been a changing of the guard at the number one position in the world rankings. In recent years we have witnessed the demotion of Tiger Woods and the rise of Rory McIlroy at the highest level of the sport.

Even though Tiger won five PGA tour events in 2013 this year has been one of injury, frustration and  disappointment while Rory, winner of several events and two majors this season, has recaptured the ranking of World Number one and is going from strength to strength.

The comparison and contrast between these two child prodigies turned professional have been noteworthy. Both have been in the media spotlight for some time now and observations and conclusions drawn concerning both of them are clear to see.

One of the most striking differences between these two men is how they conduct themselves with the media. When interviewed Tiger is cautious, mysterious and most often closed. He’s a classic example of pride and perfection. Rory is open, honest, unassuming, and vulnerable and dare I say, humble for a young man of such accomplishment at his young age. The broadcasters know this quite well. They love Rory – so do his many fans. Draw your own conclusions as to how they view Tiger Woods.

We live in a world where pride and “getting to the top” in one’s area of expertise is a highly valued. We love our sports stars but we seem to appreciate the ones like Rory who have a sense of humility about them despite their huge success.

The wisdom of the ancient Proverb quoted above teaches us that without a sense of brokenness in our lives we tend to become proud and think that we are above the faults and failings of others.

As Tiger Woods discovered almost five years ago now life’s catastrophes come along at various stages. The proud man or woman falls. Those who are humble are honored in success or failure.

Due to various humbling experiences over the past few years I’m realizing that in years past my own pride kept me from admitting failure and letting others close to me see who I really was. A lot of wasted energy went into hiding unsightly things about myself so that I could maintain an appearance of “having it all-together.” We are the last ones to see the evidence of pride in our lives.

Our pride leads us to believe that we’re strong and invincible. Humility tells us that it’s safe to be honest with who we are as fragile human beings because we’re made in the image of God who knows us intimately. It’s His opinion of us that holds the most weight.

One of the most profound examples of humility in history is that of Jesus Christ. Being equal with God the Father He humbled Himself in taking on humanity and subjecting Himself to death so that men and women might find forgiveness and connection with God (Philippians 2).

Not even the Son of God promoted Himself in the grand scheme of things so why should we?

Long term we may not see Rory McIlroy win as much in his prime as Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods did in theirs, but if his attitude doesn’t change and barring major meltdown he may be one of the most beloved stars in the history of golf.

We know a proud man or woman when we see one. We know a humble man or woman when we see one. We are fortunate when we are vulnerable enough to admit our weaknesses and failures as well as our strengths and to release any illusions of our own superiority over others.

In the end humility seems to carry its own rewards.

 

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“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:37-39 (NIV)

Do you ever wonder if Jesus ever had any bad hair days? With all the important things on His mind it’s doubtful that Jesus, The Son of God, ever worried too much about things that concern most of the rest of us humans.

In all the Gospel accounts you never hear Jesus complain about the state of his hair, the dusty roads or his dirty feet. And He did have dirty feet. We know that because he walked the same paths of first century Palestine as did his disciples and the rest of humanity. He also got tired and frustrated like the rest of us.

Jesus, however, seemed to have a focus that transcended the mundane things that seem to distract us on a regular basis, but that’s a different subject.

I’m learning more these days about the concept of “self-compassion.” It’s actually a very liberating concept which differs greatly from self-esteem or self-indulgence. It simply means that in order for us to have true compassion for others, we must first have compassion for ourselves.

How do you relate to yourself? Does that influence how you relate to others?

To be honest for most of my life I’ve given myself a harder time than any other human being I know. It’s doubtful that I would ever hear Jesus speak to Himself, or to me, the way I regularly talk to myself.

Can you ever imagine the Lord Jesus Christ making these comments to Himself?

“You’re a dumb human being!”

“Your feet stink!”

“You’re a hopeless case!”

“Why don’t you crawl in a hole where you belong?”

Of course we know that Jesus wouldn’t say that to Himself because He was the perfect Son of God. But how would Jesus speak to us about our concerns both major and minor?

Jesus valued each human being as worthy of love. He knew that every human was made in the image of God and was worthy of His affection and admonition. He gave His very life for each and every human being regardless of nationality, race or intellectual aptitude – despite all of their faults and failings.

He taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, implying that we should love ourselves and others as God’s image-bearers.

He bids everyone to come to Him by faith and find redemption, soul-rest and restoration regardless of their situation in life.

If the Divine Son of God never had a bad word to say about Himself, or us, then perhaps neither should we.

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“For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” – Matthew 6:32-33 (NIV)

“How much did you save on Black Friday?”

This question looms large in households throughout American communities as the run up to Christmas begins now in early December.

The Thanksgiving Holiday is held on the fourth Thursday of November in the US. The day after this national day of feasting has been referred to for some years now as “Black Friday.” It’s a day when many people are off work for the extended weekend and major pre-Christmas sales begin.

This year Black Friday began on Thursday evening. Before their turkey dinner was even digested consumerism tightened its stranglehold over many Americans who gladly participated in the mayhem. Pandemonium was created when consumers shopping in certain locations began to attack each other hoping to be the first to escape with “Christmas blessings” in material form.   

My nephew wasn’t alone when he referred to the day as “Black-Eye Friday” on his Facebook page.    

As a product of a consumer society I now have a better understanding of myself, materialism and the number it does on my own soul. I come directly from a culture of people who constantly measure or quantify everything from bank accounts to beauty secrets. I want desperately to know “how much” of just about everything in my life.

“How much is my house worth?”

“How much do I have in the bank?’

“How much fun did I have at the party?”

“How well are my kids doing?”

“How does my marriage measure up?”

Not only do we have arbitrary measures for our own lives and all we possess in comparison to others, but we judge people based on their purchasing power and then feel satisfied and justified when we beat someone else out of a bargain.

Too often our treasure is in the things of this world of ours that can be measured.

A few years ago it gradually began to sink in that God’s Kingdom cannot be measured. The values that should dominate our lives are not measurable, at least by human standards.

Who can quantify eternity?

Who can find any measurement for the eternal God?

What about qualities such as love, kindness, patience?

If we look for it, we can see evidence of God’s grace all around us, but are never able to contain or quantify it. What are the statistics of heaven? Can we even dare to speak in those terms?

God designed His Kingdom to be just that way and Jesus His Son told us so. Somehow in God’s economy, He is the sole Judge of what’s valuable. We are told to seek His Kingdom and His righteousness first and then the material and the measurable will take their rightful place in our lives. 

This presents a problem for a consumer society. It’s been said that the best things in life are free, but perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the best things in life are immeasurable.

When we get focused on the measurements rather than the eternal value of God and people we lose sight of where true life really exists.  The measurements of the world are not the measurements of Heaven.

Next time you start feeling that you, your spouse, your children, your job, your income or your possessions don’t “measure up” to standards start asking yourself, ”Whose standards am I living by?”

The flow of our culture is to gather and compare and consume. The flow of God’s Kingdom, as embodied in Jesus Christ, is to receive gratefully from Heaven and joyfully give to others out of a heart captivated by love.

This year Black Friday’s values really spoke deeply to me. Or perhaps it’s better to say that true Christmas values spoke louder by way of contrast.

In the Christmas season we reflect on the reality that God sent His Son here to bring us through faith into a Kingdom that cannot be measured. How a consumer-driven society handles an immeasurable truth like that one is an issue that only an Eternal God can address. 

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Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed– not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence–continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” – Philippians 2:12-13 (NIV)

Seems like summer is a good time to catch up.  We may find that a change of pace in these summer months gives us opportunities to get to things we don’t have time for the other weeks of the year. Perhaps one can take time to kick back and relax especially if one is so blessed with good weather and time to spend with family and friends or perhaps take a vacation or “holiday” as it’s referred to in some places around the English-speaking world.

Personally speaking I can recall not being able to relax at anytime during the course of the summer or  the year.  Several  years ago I was under intense stress that had steadily grown from month to month and year to year.  It became a toxic force in my life and I would not be surprised if others out there are suffering the same malady.

Some of us can be so driven that the thought of relaxing or backing off of a busy schedule is anathema to us. I wonder why that is?

I’ve never been a fast runner, but I have been in a few footraces in my time. I’ve always despised the feeling of seeing all the other guys running past me and not being able to “catch up” regardless of how fast I ran.

One day I stopped running.  I just had to stop and rest because I found myself constantly under pressure in my life and career to catch up with people whom I perceived where running the same race as myself but were far, far ahead of where I was.  In stopping I started assessing. In assessing I found some answers about how I was living that weren’t pleasant, but helped me find answers I really hadn’t been looking for.

In the passage quoted above the Apostle Paul instructs the followers of Jesus to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”  I take it that it’s our own salvation we’re meant to be “working out” without comparison to how other followers are performing. I came to realize that I had been running my “race” in comparison to and in competition with others of my choosing instead of in relation to the One I was meant to be worshipping and serving.

For followers of Jesus the only race to be running is the one in partnership with Him, not in competition with other followers.  I think there’s a lot of us that have issues with that.

The Apostle also says in the context, “for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”  I see a clearer picture here that as we focus on our own walk with God He’s the one calling the shots and working in us to accomplish His purposes through our faith and obedience.

I do know that races are won by those who focus on their own plan of action and take their eyes off of the competition, especially during a race. Some races are lost by those who start looking over their shoulder and fearing those coming up behind them.

Maybe this was in the mind of the author to the book of Hebrews who said  “… let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. ” Hebrews 12:1b-2 (NIV)

It was long time before I realized how committed I had been to a plan that wasn’t energized by the Author and Perfecter of my faith. Fortunately, He is at work in all who follow by faith and are willing to lay every burden on His shoulders.

When our focus shifts from the One we’re meant to be following to others in the race, we begin unfair comparisons that skew our perspectives.  There’s no “catching up” with the One who’s in charge. He’s always in the lead and is always meant to be in focus.

Let’s shift our eyes back to the One we’re meant to be following in the first place and enjoy the pace He sets for each of us. The winning prize goes to Him who ultimately set up the race in the first place.

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