Several years ago, I went through a difficult season where I experience panic attacks. Being in faith-based ministry, it was hard to recognize and understand. It took me to the depths of despair and almost overwhelmed me. But, I was very fortunate to have friends, family, counsellors, and a God who longed to help me. The experience brought me into a deeper place of faith than I had ever been before. Since then, God has used that experience to give me insights and help other people going through similar problems. Recently, I wrote a letter to a friend who was struggling with some depression and it captured an 'overview' of a few things I learned in my story. I'm posting it here to help you or someone you may know that is struggling with these issues. They are NOT alone.
Wanted to share a few more things with you regarding the anxiety, panic attacks, depression or whatever else you’re going through in that vein.
First of all, as we discussed, get some medical help. Let me know how that goes. I was given a more deliberate dosage of a anti-anxiety med to get me back on track. After about 1 month, I was put on a low-dosage medicine, which I still use today even though the doctor said I probably don’t need it. Look at this way: If you had strep throat, you would get medicine. If you had a fever, you would get medicine. Your mind is a physical entity and if it’s causing you physical problems, you should get medical help. There’s nothing weak or faithless about that; no shame in getting medical advice and assistance. It’s your first step in this healing process. The reason I know that there was a chemical imbalance in my situation was that the medicine immediately cured my physical symptoms; There really was a simple chemical imbalance in my brain. Things start to break down when you get older and I was given to a familial history of anxiety and worry, which I didn’t really recognize until now. But, I’ve never struggled with anxiety or depression until now. That’s why I didn’t know what to do with it. I can’t believe no one told me to go and see a doctor!
Then, I went into counseling with a Christian Counselor. I also have an excellent friend who meets with me weekly to disciple me and work through scripture. It’s a blessing. Do you have an older/wiser person in your life that is a mentor? This guy has been a real gift from God to me…especially with not having great male role models growing up. He’s shown me how to be a better minister, man, husband and father. Although, I have to say, I’ve been a pretty good Dad. That came easy for some reason.
I have a journal of our meetings together over the course of 18 months. I met with her every week initially. She was helpful in several areas:
-Spiritual: There is a spiritual dimension of depression and anxiety that you want to get into. I’m not really sure what books to recommend here. I didn’t really find one book that was helpful. You’re looking for material on the mind as a battleground. Joyce Meyer has a book called “The Battleground of the Mind.” The foundational truth here is learning the lies you believe and where they came from so that you can get to the root of wrong thinking. First of all, the mind and your patterns of thinking are very much involved in this issue. For me, fear gripped me because I started looking to the future and feeling hopeless about my financial situation. After 25 years of faith ministry, I suddenly felt that I had to take control of things because financially, we were not going to make it. Now, why would I start thinking that after 25 years of seeing God move faithfully in my life, would I believe he would suddenly stop being faithful? Honestly, I had to unlearn-relearn about God and who HE is.
The "sin in our members” is there because of our long history living outside the “Kingdom Among Us.” By the way, I strongly recommend ANY Dallas Willard. His book, “The Divine Conspiracy” broke me. I’ve been studying it for almost 2 years with my mentor. Also, a books by James Bryant Smith were helpful; especially, “The Good and Beautiful God”. It’s part of series. The other two books are “The Good and Beautiful Life” and “The Good and Beautiful Community.” Those books is based on this very premise. How do we see God and why??? What are the lies we believe and where do they come from? Anyway, that sin in our members is strong and generates automatic responses in us that have been cultivated from years of living outside the kingdom…OR living inside the kingdom but not knowing or understand it’s power for THIS LIFE. Remember, Jesus said, “I have come so that they may have LIFE (THIS LIFE) and life abundantly.” (John 10:10) WOW. I had to rethink my automatic responses. AND that took me into the dark places!!!
Here’s a key point: God wants to use this very situation in your life to bring you into a greater understanding of HIS nature. That’s why you need to faithfully embrace what you’re going through and wrestle with it. YOU WILL BE OKAY. It’s just going to be season where you need to go through it. NOT around it. If you want the full measure of God’s blessing in your life, you will embrace this ordeal and walk through it. I can tell you for REAL, the deeper waters are life giving. A friend said to me, “Jeff, you’ve always been able to rearrange the furniture in this room. This time, God is destroying the room. He’s completely rebuilding this room from the ground up.”
In my life, pretty much everything goes back to my childhood. (This is Psychology 101, right? Everything goes back to our parents!) I had automatic responses that i used to survive back then. It was a difficult situation and my only coping mechanisms led to issues that I still carry around. But this season in my life forced me to recognize them and how it affected my relationship with God and how I viewed Him. Discipleship and spiritual disciplines are the way to disrupt the automatic responses in our lives.
(By the way, Willard’s book, “Renovation of the Heart” is the go-to book on the ideas of discipleship.)
You need someone to help you through that. I pray that you can find the right person who won’t let you sneak away with answers that you know they want to hear. Start praying for that person in YOUR life. God wants to help you through this season more than you want to help yourself.
There are other things too:
Lastly, my wife gave me the most beautiful prayer when I was struggling so much. I’ve kept and have it on my desk even today. You may want to copy it down and put it somewhere where you can pray it regularly:
Teach me to trust you when I don now know where you are going.
Help me to surrender and not turn inward into myself out of fear.
The storms and winds of life blow strongly all around me.
I cannot see in front of me.
Sometimes, I feel like I am going to drown, Lord.
But you are CENTERED. Utterly at rest and peace.
Open my eyes that I might see you are with me in the boat. I AM SAFE.
Awaken me, Jesus, to your presence within me, around me, above me, and below me.
Grant me grace to follow you into the unknown, into the next place in my journey with you.
In JESUS name. Amen.
The counselor used to ask me what I was afraid of. When she tried to get me to be as specific as possible, I said, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose my house.” Her response: “Then your house is an idol.”
Wow. What are you afraid of right now? (Verbalize that.) What is it that you are most worried about? (Verbalize that.) The answers to those questions are important to your healing. Get to that because they reveal something about how you view God and your relationship with Him.
You’re NOT alone.
Today, my son and his wife gave birth to my first grandchild, Koen Rayner Smith. Last week, I sat down with him and presented him with a list of things I wanted him to hear from me about becoming a father. It is the most important job he will ever have in this life and I wanted to share what I've learned. Perhaps, it is something you may want to use as a tool for your boys, too....when the time is PERFECT.
Children are a heritage from the Lord,
Your offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.
Psalm 127: 3-5a
Father. It’s the greatest title you’ll eve know. It’s been my highest reward and achievement and joy. No one can prepare you for it. But I’d like to share with you the things I learned (so far):
We are spirit beings learning to live in a spirit world that will exist forever. That’s generally my theory of everything.
Stephen Hawking died recently. He had, by all accounts, a brilliant mind and was deeply respected and loved by many. He was also an atheist who worshipped science over God, believing that science eliminated the need for a god.
I saw a movie called “The Theory of Everything” which was his biopic. I had an uncle who died of the same disease and it was excruciating to watch. I can’t imagine what it was like to live through it. In a comment today, his first wife said that death was a welcome relief for him. After having watched the disease ravage my uncle’s body over a period of ten years, I can’t imagine what it was like to live with the disability for almost fifty.
But, I’m not here to comment on his life, but his death. I couldn’t help but wonder what it was like when he slipped into the next life and in a moment discovered the truth that he had been searching for. Stephen Hawking wanted to know the origins of the universe. Now, you have to understand that I have a biblical world-view and yes, it is my interpretation that I have diligently worked on for 50-plus years. And so, my worldview says that God created the universe. I believe that whether or not God met Stephen Hawking after his death, he knew immediately that God created the heavens and the earth. There was no big bang or if there was God made the explosion that caused the big bang.
All I know is that this man was an avowed atheist until he died. He isn’t anymore. But, it’s too late to make choices now. My best hope for him is that as death approached, he saw the truth in time and repented. For God’s mercy is wide and his justice is fair.
Does that sound harsh? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the father except through the son.” (John 14:6) “You must be born again to enter the Kingdom of God.” (John 3:1) “But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven. Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10: 33, 34) I could go on and on. I’m sure that Stephen Hawking knew at least some of these verses. But he chose to believe in science instead of God.
Therein lies my one point in writing this: We forget that we are spiritual beings in a spiritual universe that can not be ‘seen’ by science but only through faith. Paul referred to is as ‘seeing through a glass darkly…” (1 Cor 13:12). We feed our mind and our flesh in this life and pay little or no attention our spirit. We seek knowledge and power and refuse to strengthen our soul. But in the end, we are spirit beings in a spiritual world and there isn’t a science book around that explains how that works. And by the way….that’s forever. Everyone who has ever gone before and everyone who comes after us will go the same way. They died. We will die. They will die.
I suppose Stephen Hawking would consider my faith a placebo to placate my lack of enlightenment. My faith is anything but a placebo. It is my HOPE. There is a powerful image of this very theme in Luke 16: 19-31. It’s the story of a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. Lazarus dies and goes to ‘Abraham’s Bosom’, or a place like heaven. The rich man dies and goes to a place like hell. Here, he can see Lazarus sitting at Abraham’s side. In hell, the rich man is tormented and begs Abraham for a little water to cool the tip of his tongue. But, Abraham replies that there’s a chasm between them that can’t be crossed any longer. The rich man begs Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his brothers who are still alive. Abraham replies that they have prophets and the Word of God and they won’t change their minds even if someone rises from the dead. What an alarming reality. We are and will continue to always be spirit living in a matrix where what we see and know is only a partial reality.
Many people would consider it cruel and narrow minded to say that unless Stephen Hawking accepted Christ as his Savior, he is now separated eternally from God and without hope. But, I think the mere fact that God allowed Stephen Hawking to live fifty more years than the two he was given by doctors is a clear sign of the love of God. I’m sure that God reached out to Mr. Hawking many times during those fifty years. I’m sure God spoke to him over and over again through the universe he explored. And I’m certain God was at the center of the very questions Mr. Hawking wrestled with during his career. For fifty extra years, God wooed him. That sounds like love to me. But in the end, he probably refused to accept God’s invitation to explore the universe and all of its origins for eternity.
I saw a bumper sticker once. It looked the humanist bumper sticker supporting evolution as the origins of man. But after the image of the man there was another picture of a grave. Which begs the question: What happens when you die? Do you KNOW? Can you be SURE? Science can’t answer that because they don’t understand spirit. Then, does your theory of everything address death? I would ask, “How is that working for you?”
“ For know whom I have believed in and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto HIM until that day.” Tim 1:12b
It's Not About the Eggs.
So, it’s not about the eggs; not really. For 60 years it’s not been about the eggs, although that’s what they are making: Easter Eggs. They make peanut butter, maple nut, coconut, and fruit nut. (They used to make a fruit concoction of red cherry, pineapple, and green cherry. I remember those and they tasted like fruit cake and you know what happened to those!)
No one is exactly sure about how or even when it started. Perhaps 1958? That’s what we settled on, anyway. Some say it was in Blanche Clawson’s kitchen. The church didn’t have a kitchen and so they started it in Blanche’s kitchen. Velma Gamble made them in her kitchen too. Then they moved it to Dolly Clawson’s kitchen. But eventually, the Ladies’ Aid at Hopewell got their own kitchen and the annual Easter Eggs were made there. And so, for 60 years they have made the eggs to raise money for mission and outreach. They also had spoon suppers, apple butter and the chicken bar-b-q dinners. The spoon suppers and the apple butter have gone by the way side. (Much to my own chagrin! The apple butter was amazing!) But the Easter Eggs have endured longer than anything else.
Anywhere from 10-14 women and hopefully a man or two, work at a steady pace for 3-4 days making 400 pounds of the most delicious nugget centers you can imagine. That’s down from the 1500 pounds they made back in ‘the day’, when things were much different. They work in their centers like a well-oiled machine. It all starts with the Karo or corn syrup. You add water and sugar. (I’m sworn to secrecy on the recipe. It’s sort of like the Chick-Fa-La sandwich or the Colonel’s famous chicken recipe.) That concoction has to be put to boil to a top-secret temperature just until you see the ‘string’ on the syrup. (That’s Easter Egg talk!) On the other side of the room, they are separating the egg from the yoke; the yellow from the white. The reasons for this are as confusing to me as changing brakes on a car. But, it’s important for reasons that these ladies all understand. Then, someone puts the whites in the mixer and beats it into whip. This is what my mother does. It’s a very important job and requires someone with infinite skill. This is why my mother is in charge of it. Now, they have two commercial grade mixers. “Back in the day” they used hand mixers. No one will admit to it, but I like to think they beat the whites by hand when they first started. It sounds every exciting, anyway. Then you add the syrup mix and voila! The gooey white centers are filled with nuts or fruit or whatever you’d like to add to give the egg, extra flavor. I’m up for Oreo cookies or M&Ms. What about a mystery flavor? By the way, this is the spot you want to be in if you are NOT helping and just standing around providing the entertainment as you get to lick the mixing spoon.
Next up is the shaping station! Someone takes all that goo and measures out a pound or half pound and shapes them into Easter Eggs. They used to make ¼ pound eggs when there were kids in the Sunday School program upstairs. That’s about the time, I was coming through the church as a child. But, I don’t remember ever getting a ¼ pound Easter Egg! We did, however, always have a half pound egg in our baskets and they were certainly treasures. Usually, they would last for a week or two. You would cut off portions of the egg and eat it in chunks.
And there I go again. You see, it’s really not about the eggs. That’s why I went up there in the first place, you see? I had this niggling…it’s that persistent thought won’t go away. The thing Farmer Hogget had about his pig being a sheepdog in the movie, “Babe”. I wanted to go up there and watch the ladies make eggs. I thought I could write a story about it; perhaps a play, like Steel Magnolias. I just wrote my first murder mystery. Maybe I could set my next death scene in the kitchen of the church where the ladies make Easter Eggs. I could call it “Death by Nuts”?
But, what I really wanted was to go back and connect with my past. The whole thing is about nostalgia and memories. 1958 was the year I was born! These ladies have been making these Easter Eggs as long as I’ve been alive. We’re all a dying breed! These woman; this process; me. We’re all getting old. These people represent a heritage of country people, who gather together like country people used to do when they built barns, made apple butter, sat on country porches and visited and worked in the fields together at harvest time. I remember those days and like all of us who get old, I like looking back on them. My grandmothers, Luella Smith and Geraldine McCrea both worked on Easter Eggs. I remember others like
Dolly Clawson, Ruth Carlson, Joanna Carlson, Margie Johnson, Twila Dunlap, and others who were committed to this work all their lives. They watch from the sidelines now; a cloud of witnesses. Their children and their friends continue on with the work. Karen is Dolly’s daughter. Three sisters from the same family work at the same jobs their mother used to do here.
It’s definitely not about the eggs. They may make $2000 to support local ministries and missionaries. They will support a program stuffing backpacks with food and supplies for underprivileged kids in the area. Some monies will be donated to recovery programs in a sister church. Hands of Hope is a handy man ministry for widows and elderly. There is also the food bank ministries and goodwill services.
And it’s about the relationships. They talk and chatter while they work. These are friends too. Rarely is there silence. They make jokes and laugh. They talk about what’s going on with their kids and their community; straining from gossip, of course. I mean, it is the basement of the church, right?
Tomorrow is chocolate day. It’s the day you lick you fingers. There’s white chocolate and milk chocolate covers. They melt the wafers and then drop the bottom of the eggs into the vat. After it dries, they dip the tops and spread them over the top until they meet the covered bottoms. They do this with their hands. It’s quite a messy ordeal I’m told. But how bad can it be to be covered in chocolate?
The piece de resistance, however, is the crowning moment of the process. The flower is set upon each finished egg like the official seal of the king on royal documents. This is the mark of an egg that is ready to be presented to the world: The royal baptism. Margie Johnson was the first to add the tiny pink momento on top of the egg. She did it by hand and it caused a problem because the egg couldn’t be packaged until the flower on top dried. Eventually, they ‘streamlined’ the process to make the royal rosebuds in advance and just sit them on top of the egg when they were finished. Who said old dogs can’t learn new tricks?
Today, a homeless man came in looking for help and food and money. It certainly caught us all of guard and for a moment the mood quickly changed. But once their safety was secured, these ladies responded just the way they should have. They gave help and food and money and sent this ‘angel unaware’ on his way. It certainly gave them something to talk about and even more to consider. I wonder if when they are making eggs ten years from now, someone will remember the story of Paul from Montana who stopped by the church looking for some help while the ladies were making their Easter Eggs. Maybe my name will be mentioned during the conversation. Just like that, I’ve become part of the story too. It certainly was worth the trip. It’s not about the Easter Eggs.
I love playing an end of year game with my family and friends. It's a contemplative game about the past year . In one word, I ask them to describe the new year. For me, that word would be LIFE. 2017 was LIFE.
The theme of our VBS this year was, "The Game of LIfe". It was a board game theme. The scripture verse was Psalm 16:11.."For you have shown me the path of LIFE." We did a total of 5 weeks of VBS: Lawrenceville, VA; Morrow, OH; Alberta, VA; Spartanburg, SC; and Chicago, IL. The 5-day VBS was broken down into the path of life in Christ: Old Life (Battleship); New Life (Operation); Abundant Life (Candy Land); Victorious Life (Trouble) and Eternal Life (Chutes and Ladders)!
So, I decided to do our year-end wrap up with that format this year. Ready? Play!
Old Life: 29 years of ministry. Still relevant and impactful. 30 years of marriage. 59!
New Life: The BIG ANNOUNCEMENT this year was that we're going to be GRANDPARENTS! our Son, Benjamin and his wife, Alyssa, are having a baby in March 2018. It's a boy!
Lots of wonderful family gatherings and outings and ample and diverse ministry opportunities around the world!
:-117 ministry dates
-50 ministry events
-2 International mission trips (Brussels, Germany, Panama)
-National Conferences (Worship Arts/Children's MInistry/Youth Leaders)
The Christian Service Award. This is a great story. It captures something important about what victorious life looks like in my stage of life!
We have a small group of men that meet throughout the year as community. Mostly, we gather to mentor young boys as a fellowship of men. Although we have a calendar of events each year, our premier event is the Mentor Classic; a fall retreat for fathers and sons in the Shenandoah Mountains. It's an event amped up by competitions and a full slate of activities such as golf, fishing, hunting, shooting, etc. One of the awards presented each year is the Christian Service Award. This award is given to a man in the group who has demonstrated exemplary service in the name of Christ for the past year. Recommendations are made by men in the group and then chosen by Chris Harper, the group leader. Although I have been with the group for 18 years, I have never won the award. I honestly thought I was ineligible since I was in full time Christian ministry through Salt and Light, perhaps that disqualified me from a Christian Service award. In any event, I wasn't expecting it.
As the leader read the letter, I knew fairly quickly, it was coming my way. So, my first thought was, 'should I be glad or mad about this?' Honestly, the idea of an award for Christian service seems like an oxymoron. Anyone who serves with the heart of Jesus never expects to be recognized for their service. Still, we are sojourners in a foreign world and it's nice to encourage others and be encouraged through a recognition like this. So, I'm all for it.
It wasn't emotional...UNTIL...
As the letter went on, I realized that whoever wrote it knew more of me than most of the men in the room. And by the time it was over, I was a hot mess.
Here's the letter:
I would like to nominate a man among us who has never won this esteemed award before. He is often overlooked due to the fact that it is within his job description and soemth he does day in and day out. His work has sent him all over the world; teaching, mentoring, and performing for people of all shapes, sizes, colors and nationalities. He has reached hundreds of thousands even millions of people because he was willing to answer when the Lord called him. He chose obedience and sacrifice over financial gain. After serving in the military for over 98 years with a fast track to being a high senior leader for our nation's military, this man decided to leave behind the safety net and step in faith into the world of entrepreneurship and full-time ministry. He has developed teaching frameworks and models for children ministries and created the God Rod, which to this day, still is used all over the world. His wisdom, creativity and talent are, quite honestly, amazing to witness. Over the past year, he has also stepped up to begin a small group men's ministry that has served many of you among us today; teaching leading, and giving more insight into God's Word. He has played an instrumental role, often behind the scenes over the last 18 years in the Mentor Classic, to include introducing and leading on of our cornerstone events, the 'right of passage" ceremony. Over the last year, he has also been spending time volunteering with the CRC program; helping mentor young students in the Shady Hill areas. Within the last few years, he was attacked by a serious bout of depression which has been one of the hardest things that he has had to overcome. Non only for him but for our family as well. It was hard to comprehend and wrap our minds around how and why? IIt was as hard and as real as the most serious of cases. It goes to show that no matter how strong, courageous, or talented you are, we all have to go through a crucible that test our resolve and faith as Christian men. Romans 12:11 states, "They triumphed over him by the blood of the lamb and by the Word of their testimony..." I bring to light the darkness that existed today to give praise to God for giving him, and us, the ability to overcome this and all other darknesses. With all of the slights and laughter we throw his way, even though he continually asks for it, I think it is time to recongize this great man and the affect he has had in all of our lives and the world. We are very proud to nominate our dad, Jeff Smith, for this year's Christian Service Award.
Ben and Samuel Smith
To be recognized by your peers for an award like this is certainly a wonderful thing. To be recognized by your children for an award like this, is another thing altogether. That's Victorious LIFE.
I'm still here! But this year, I had a revelation about life. It's not a word I throw around. I've had five or six spiritual revelations in my life. This one was a biggie.
I've been studying the works of Dallas Willard over the last several years with my mentor and friend, Hank Graeser. It's been such a blessing. This year, we've been working through the book "The Divine Conspiracy", a book about the Sermon on the Mount and what discipleship means.
The revelation for me was that Jesus' primary message was, "Repent! For the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand." AT HAND. The kingdom of heaven is available as soon as we come into a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Eternal Life doesn't happen when you die. Life eternal happens when you die. Eternal Life starts when you're saved. Who lives like that? That kind of life is a life of abandon. It is intentional in discipleship. And, it is marked by joy and peace. The word for "Repent" means, "Change the way you're thinking." We don't think like that. But, I'm learning to and it's very exciting.
LIFE. Life at every stage in every phase and every season. In this holiday season, I do wish you JOY because we have been given a gift and it is really good news. A Child is Born. New Life...for everyone.
Thank you for partnering with us in 2017!
My oldest son, Benjamin Smith, has always been a fiery competitor. I have no idea where he gets it. The summer before he went into sixth grade, we moved to a new house which meant a new school district. So, entering sixth grade, Ben went to a new school. Anxious for him to acclimate, I suggested he go out for one of the fall sports. After giving it a few days, he came home and announced that he was trying out for the cross country team. I was flabbergasted. I had assumed it would be soccer. Cross country? My first thought was perhaps they had a motor-cross sport at the school. Surely, MY son couldn’t mean long distance running! I had never seen him run farther than around a baseball diamond. After trying to clarify the term, Ben assured me that he understood what was involved. So, I told him that he would have to run two miles to prove his intentions. One of the things I always held sacred in my house was that a commitment matters and what you start, you finish. The implication was to ‘count the cost’ before putting your ‘hand to the plow’ lest, as Luke 9:62 tells us, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
After proving himself in a timed trial and, at my insistence, taking a few more days to consider the commitment, Ben made up his mind that he was going to run cross country. Being a long distance runner myself, I was thrilled to hear it and anxious to share my experiences with him. I was home when the car pool pulled up in the driveway and dropped Ben off after his first practice. Apparently, the distance between the car door and the front door of the house, was more than Ben could handle after his first day of practice. Now, I’m a dramatist and so I understand the nature of being theatrical. This performance was Oscar-worthy. As he dragged himself towards the steps, I looked down upon his slight, sixth-grade frame and said, “So….how did it go?” Apparently, that it was the cue to unleash his inner Brad Pitt. The short monologue went something like, “I can’t do it”; Please don’t make me go back.”; “I threw up four times.”; “I’ll wash the dishes after every meal, I promise.” Now, like every parent, I hate to say “I told you so”. But, like every parent, I did. None of that mattered however as I reminded him about our agreement and then told him he would definitely be going back to practice…the next day and the next day and the day after that. The following days saw less and less drama at the front door until it appeared that we had weathered the first storm in his junior high sports career. But there would be more storms to follow!
Actually, that very weekend, Hurricane Isabella ripped through the AtlanticCoast region. It was one of the costliest and deadliest storms of the 2003 hurricane season. Schools were cancelled for the week as most areas were without electrical service. Many locations were hit with heavy property damage. During that week, I encouraged Ben to run every day. Having survived the first week of practice however, he apparently thought he was in in great running shape. The next week he was out of school with a viral infection, a rarity for him as he didn’t get sick often. The following Tuesday, after fighting through congestion, coughing, and runny nose for one week and then sitting around eating Ho-Hos and Doritos for another week, he found himself in his first cross country competition.
If I learned anything about running during my forty-plus years of running, it’s this: “You pay now or you pay later, but every pays!” I told Ben that he needed to run every day if he wanted to run competitively. It was the only way to improve. But, it was during that year that I had apparently become a member of S.P.O.T. S.P.O.T stands for “Stupid Parent of Teenager”. (There’s no joining fee. Your kids just sign you up and you’re in!) So, as I watched Ben line up as close to the starting line as he could get that day of his first cross country race, I knew that I was about to experience my son’s first great failure; a total and cataclysmic descent into fiasco; a shooting star that momentarily shines brightly and then flames out and dissolves within mere seconds of coming into our worldly view. Oh this was going to be an epic and colossal collapse! There was a part of me that wanted to pull him out of the race before the meet so he could save face (or maybe that I could save face), but the truth is that every great education is through the School of Hard Knocks. And so I winced just a little as the starter’s gun went off.
Now at this point in the story, there are a few things that must be mentioned: Ben was only in sixth grade and this was a junior high meet; the event was being held at his old school and many of the kids on the other team were friends or acquaintances; Several of my friends from church to include neighbors and my pastor and his wife showed up to cheer Ben on in his first race. In other words, the stakes were high.
Ben shot out with the lead pack and ran near the front as he raced past the 200-yard marker. Everything went into slow motion and the feeling was almost surreal for me. It almost felt like I was at a movie theatre watching a film version of what was happening but laden with special effects treatments ala “The Matrix”. I remember yelling something like, “Slow Down.” “You’re going to die!” “Pace yourself.” (I have the gift of encouragement.) Then, in the blink of an eye, the lead pack was gone into the woods as they would run most of the race out of site, running through a wooded lot before returning to finish the last lap around the soccer field and back to the finish line at the school.
I had the inspiration, or perhaps premonition, to count the number of runners in the race when they stood on the start line. Oddly enough, they raced boys and girls together that day. There were 42 participants. As they came out of the woods I thought it wise to start counting: 1…5….oh, there’s the first girl to emerge in the race…10…cheers from another corner of the field told me that the lead runners were beginning to cross the finish line…15…20…the kids that were coming out of the woods now were walking until they hit site of a coach…or parent…then they picked up the pace….25…it’s getting late…30…Most of the girls were out of the woods now…35…I think they started the awards presentation…39…maybe I should go in there…Finally, from across the field comes the shape of…a cat? Was that a small animal? Oh, it’s a child on all fours…I ran across the field until I verified that Ben was crawling out of the woods on his hands and knees. Had it not been so pathetic, it would have been funny. But, he was obviously hurting and I didn’t want to add insult to injury. At the same time, it was time to learn a life lesson. I stood over Ben and said the words that any other father would have said to his first born son in that situation: “GET UP”
One of my favorite children’s songs is “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. You know the song about the spider that crawls up the drain pipe only to get washed back down by the rain. But that doesn’t stop the spider, does it? No m’am. He starts back up the spout all over again. One of my favorite Christian songs was written by Kyle Matthews. It’s called “We Fall Down.” The chorus is quite simple but profound: “We fall down; we get up. We fall down; we get up. We fall down; we get up. And the saints are just the sinners who fall down and get up.” Even if it is just a metaphor; it’s a good one…life is a race. You can even think of it as that ‘human race’. At some point you will fall down. Everyone does. The secret to finishing the race is learning how to get back up and start running again. Here’s what the Bible has to say about the “prize”:
1 1 Corinthians 9:24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.
2 1 Corinthians 9:27 No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
3 Philippians 3:14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
None of those verses make the claim that the prize goes to the person who finishes the race first. I believe it goes to the person who finishes the race set before them. So, when my son told me that he couldn’t make it to the finish line, I simply replied that he could and he would…one step at a time. And so I helped him up and despite the protests and tears, we took a few steps together. When he felt like he had enough strength to carry on, I let him go and he went on to finish the race…later that night, alone and without an audience to cheer his great victory. Make no mistake. It was a victory. I’ve been happier for him, but I don’t remember a time when I was prouder.
There is a story of a loving father in the Bible who waits and watches for his prodigal son to come through the tree line after his wreckless choices in life have taken him far from home. When the boy appears, he’s hardly recognizable; a mere shadow of his former self. He’s beaten down and defeated; weakened and ashamed of his position, but unable to change it; dazed and unsure how the father will receive him. But as soon as the father recognizes the son, he does the most amazing thing: THE FATHER RUNS….
 “We Fall Down”, written by Kyle Matthews, 1996 BMG Songs, Inc.
Warm Up: 1 John 3: 2: Dear friends, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
Stretching: Read Luke 24: 36-44.
Run: I’m not the runner I once was. Age and injuries have taken their toll on me. Back in the day, I could hold my own, although I was never an elite runner. I was young and I ran a lot. Additionally, I do a lot more cross training now since I’m not running races. But the joy of running is that it really is a life sport and so I’ve tried to keep an exercise program that allows me to run 35-40 minutes at a steady pace whenever I run. Still, because I don’t run everyday, I do feel the aches and pains of muscles that have gone unused and the chaffing of skin in places that isn’t hardened from a rigid running regime. I wish I could fly across the hills again or experience that ‘runner’s high’ from taking long runs and feeling like I was invincible. I’ve thought about ‘getting back into it’ and training for road races and maybe even a marathon. At my age, it would be an accomplishment to get back into running shape. But aching joints and pulled muscles remind me that it won’t be easy.
In today’s passage, John reminds us that those who are in Christ will be transformed to be like him. We get a glimpse of what that might be like when we see Jesus after his resurrection. We know that he could eat food, walk through walls, and he had recognizable shape and form. He knew his friends and they knew him. My favorite thing is that he could apparently ‘fly’ from place to place. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:20, 21) I read that to mean my glorified body will put me back into running shape and even better. Think about it: No more stretching, warming up or cooling down. No ice downs, bandaging, or chaffing. No more irritants! Just run like the wind without getting winded.
Cool Down: “Lord, thank you for the promise of eternal life through Jesus Christ and the hope of a resurrected body. I know that everything you have planned for me in this life and the next is more wonderful than I can even imagine. Help me let go of the things in this world through the renewing of my mind, so that I might see things in the light of eternity. In Jesus’ name, Amen”
"When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble.” Proverbs 4:12
Warm Up: Hebrews 12: 1, Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
Stretching: Read Hebrews 10: 19-25
Run: I was in the Army for eight years before I resigned my commission to start a full time ministry. I did a lot of running while I was in the Army. I ran alone, I ran with a running buddy, I ran in small groups, and I ran with large groups. One of my most unique running experiences was running in a formation of soldiers. We sang jody songs which were echo songs sung between a formation leader and a company of soldiers. Sometimes the formation was 250-300 people strong. It was quite a unique dynamic. The point was that the singing built a type of camaraderie or group unity that kept people from falling out of the formation. Sometimes, I had the opportunity to lead the jody calls from the side of the formation. The soldiers seemed to like the fact that the company commander could actually keep cadence. Those days are long gone, but I still sing my own jody calls when the running gets hard. I sing the songs I remember and I make up new ones as I go. I don’t sing them out loud, but I do the echoes as if a whole company of soldiers were running beside me. It helps keep my mind off the pain or other distractions. There’s an African Proverb that says, “If you want to run fast, go alone. If you want to run far, run with someone else.”
Our Warm Up for today talks about a great cloud of witnesses that is cheering us on from the heavenly sidelines. The angels and the saints of old watch with great interest to see the plan of God intersect with the schemes of men. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this verse is a running metaphor. It is Paul’s call to the Hebrew Christians to persevere and stay true to the cause of Christ. The metaphor refers to a great amphitheatre, an arena for the runners and the tiers upon tiers of seats rising up like a cloud. In those seats set those who have gone on before us to include champions of the faith like Moses, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Rahab, and others. They are encouraging us to set aside the obstacles, much like runners in those days practically stripped themselves of all their clothes to run, so that nothing hinders us or causes us to stumble. Knowing that others are not only watching, but cheering me to hold on to the higher calling of another world, helps me run faster and farther.
Cool Down: “Lord, help me remember today that I am not alone. I thank you that there are some who have crossed the finish line ahead of me and they have shown me a better way to run this race. There are others who are running with me and they provide encouragement and help to run this race. Still others are yet to come along and they will be watching me for inspiration. Grant me the strength to endure and grace to finish the race you have called me to run. In Jesus’name, Amen.”
Warm Up: Hebrews 13: 25, Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise, the fruit of lips that confess his name.
Stretching: 2 Samuel 24
Run: With their highly recognizable slogan, “Just Do It”, Nike became the ‘it’ brand for sports apparel in the 90’s. Those ads never really focused on a product, but rather a mentality. It was about a certain type of person; anti-establishment, intensely competitive, and fiercely independent. In an age of sports heroes and hero-worship, anything Nike conferred royalty. It was about status. But the slogan worked on another level, too: It’s simple and true. How many times have you had to drag yourself to the track or to the gym for a workout? There are a million reasons why you shouldn’t do it, but deep down inside you know you need to. Just changing your clothes makes you dry heave and the thought of stretching seems like torture. Maybe you can just forget it today and…Just Do It!. And so you go through the motions, pushing and pulling and making yourself take the next breath. Finally, you set your watch and you start running. At first, your legs feel like cement poles and then you shake a little of the lead out and begin to get into a stride. Before you know it, you’re off and running and eventually it’s over. The work leading up to it was actually more painful than the run and you wonder what all the fuss was about. You’re glad you ‘pushed through’ and now you’re ready to take on the day.
Praise is a lot like that. Paul tells us to use our bodies as living sacrifices because it our reasonable act of worship. (Romans 12:1) Anyone that knows anything about the flesh however, will tell you that it wants what is contrary to the things of the spirit and so it resists the will of God because the flesh is of fallen nature. Galatians 4:17 says, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you don’t do what you want.” When it comes to worshiping God and lifting up our praise to him, we need to learn to “Just Do It” and see the same dynamic happen as described in our running metaphor above. In today’s Bible story, David wants to buy a piece of property from a man named Araunah in order to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. But Araunah doesn’t want his king to pay for the property, he just wants to give it to him. David vehemently refuses. He says, “I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24b) Sometimes praise demands a sacrifice and when you don’t feel like it, remember the words of the great prophet Nike and, “Just Do It!”
Cool Down: “Lord, I praise you today because you are steadfast and unchanging. You can not be moved and are the same yesterday, today, and forever. I thank you that you are not fickle and contrary, but are a strong tower and a refuge where we find shelter. Help me when I am weak and troubled to look past myself and focus on you and your amazing and awesome character. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
I am an ardent Pittsburgh fan. The only reason I don't follow pro basketball is because Pittsburgh doesn't have a team. Therefore, basketball doesn't' exist. Baseball-Pirates. Hockey-Penguins. Football-Steelers, baby! If you love Pittsburgh, you LOVE the Steelers. So, you can imagine how positively disgusted I was several weeks ago when a certain kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs named Ryan Succop, missed a chip shot field goal that would have put the Steelers in the playoffs.
"Stupid Succop!" It became my mantra as I watched other teams in the playoffs. I do not consider the part of me that is a sports fan to fall under the umbrella of my Christian witness. It's a separate entity. It has to be. How else could I live with myself? I am an entirely different person as a sports fan. I'm not making excuses. It's just the way it is.
Then came this year's Less-than-Super Bowl. I was impressed by the strength, speed, and size of the Seattle Seahawks; especially on defense. There appeared to be a notable disparity between them and the Broncos. Of course, I could point to the final score to support my best guess here, but I would say that Seattle was the superior team. Just saying'… If you play that game 10 times, Seattle wins 9. They appeared dominant and destined.
So, I was thinking that probably for this year, at least, the Steelers wouldn't have done much better than the Broncos against the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks. As I was watching the waning moments of the game, I turned my friend, a Kansas City Chief's fan, and said, "Thank you Succop!" She understood exactly what I was saying.
That 'rear-view-mirror theology always shows a bigger picture, doesn't' it? Things happen that we don't understand. Then, one day, we get a revelation of a hand of protection or provision. Garth Brooks wrote a song with the lyric, "Sometimes, I thank God for unanswered prayers." I'm reminded by the Psalmist that God is faithful to the faithful; He does good things for those who do good." Thank you, God. Thank you Succop!