Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Alive and Well

The Bible says the entire world is in decay. Even if you don’t believe anything else in God’s Word, it’s pretty hard to argue with that one. Stuff rusts. Paint fades. Bodies die. Everyone knows the old saying about the certainty of death and taxes, but I wonder why so many people don’t seem concerned about their inevitable demise? Or if they do acknowledge it, they make jokes. For example, I read the following post on someone’s Facebook page today: “... is at a funeral. It got me thinking ... when I go, there better be a bar and everybody better be drinking!”

As one who has been born again into new life in Jesus Christ, I am certain of my place in Heaven, in the presence of God Himself, when my earthly body wears out. One of my favorite verses is 2 Corinthians 4:16 – “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” Even as my body decays, my spirit is growing ever closer to God. And when I go, someone better say, “Today he is more alive than he’s ever been.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Grand Design

“For You make me glad by Your deeds, O Lord;
I sing for joy at the works of Your hands.
How great are Your works, O Lord,
how profound Your thoughts!”
Psalm 92:5-6

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Travelin' Light

When I was working in South Africa last fall (or spring, from the South African perspective), I made a few observations on this blog about wants and needs. For example, a want is a new SUV; a need is a pair of shoes with the soles intact. A want is a bigger house; a need is a roof that doesn’t leak. And so on.

Now, as I budget to go back to Cape Town for a year, the reality of want-versus-need is becoming more acute to me. Since I’ll be living primarily on support funds from other people, my spending plans are focused on needs like food, shelter and transportation.

I’m also preparing for a renter to take over my house, so I’ve been selling or tossing out a lot of things rather than put them in storage. It’s amazing how something I used to covet – like, for example, those shiny new irons that were going to transform my golf game – has no appeal anymore. Getting rid of “stuff” has been an incredibly liberating feeling.

I’m finding that the older I get, the less excited I get about material things. I read an article on forbes.com about some of the world’s top “mega-mansions.” One of these residences, owned by Indian industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, cost $128 million and has an indoor pool, Turkish baths, garage space for 20 cars and marble taken from the same quarry that supplied the Taj Mahal.

But it’s still just … stuff. With the right laws of physics applied, it could crumble. I’m sure it would be nice to spend a night there, but I would be just as happy in a tent. Probably happier, even. I never thought I would quote anything Shania Twain sang, but I hear a chorus ringing in my head: “That don’t impress me much.”

What matters, I am slowly learning, is that accumulating stuff in this world doesn’t matter nearly as much as what I store up for the next life. Jesus said “a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). He also said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Into Africa

If you have followed this blog, then you probably know I spent two months in Cape Town, South Africa last fall as a volunteer with Living Hope, a Christian ministry that serves people affected by poverty and HIV/AIDS. (If you didn’t know this, go back and check out the posts from October 19 to December 27.) When I returned home in December, it was with mixed emotions – I looked forward to being back among family and friends, and enjoying my comfortable life in America, but the people and surroundings of Cape Town had captured my heart and I knew I would miss them. I also sensed that God might be calling me to full-time ministry in some capacity, and I wondered if it was to return to work in Cape Town.

It appears that I was right. First, I found out in late January that my job had been eliminated, and for the first time in my post-college career, I was unemployed. Then, after much prayer, plus counsel from people I trust, I concluded that God is indeed calling me to return to Cape Town and serve in this mission field for a year. I will again work with Living Hope, as well as with Living Grace, a sister ministry to that helps the homeless; and with Living Way, an economic empowerment ministry that focuses on helping people work their way out of poverty.

The primary goal of each of these ministries is to share the love of Jesus Christ and lead people into a saving relationship with Him. My role in that will include evangelism, discipleship and children’s ministry in an impoverished community called Red Hill, leading devotional times and helping with operations at Living Grace, and writing for several websites and newsletters. Even though my work last fall was in an unpaid capacity (as it will be when I return), I found it to be the most fulfilling time I had even spent in my life.

My goal is to be back in Cape Town by early July. In order to get there and carry out this work, I need to develop a partnership team that can support me – not only financially, but also with prayer, moral and communications support. From a “rational” viewpoint, a lot of this doesn’t make sense. My life in South Carolina is comfortable. My couch is comfortable. I will greatly miss my family, my friends and the neurotic housecat that shares a home with me. I’m out of work, the economy is bad, and here I am asking people for money. But God often works in ways that are opposite to the world’s way of thinking. And just as He has called me to work on the front lines in Cape Town, I believe He is calling others to be part of this support team in the background, in roles that are every bit as important as what I will be doing. If you believe God is calling you to be part of this ministry, or if you are interested in learning more, please email me at john1125@rocketmail.com. You can also learn more about the work of Living Hope, Living Grace and Living Way by visiting the websites linked on the right side of this page.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Green Grass, Gold Streets

With the Masters less than a month away, golfers’ thoughts are turning to Augusta National Golf Club and the game’s annual rite of spring.

Augusta National has a profound effect on people. It seems to inspire superlatives like no other venue in golf, and perhaps in all of sports. If you’ve ever set foot on those grounds, you know what I’m talking about. Just a few hundred yards away from the strip malls and fast-food restaurants of Washington Road, Augusta National is a world unto itself: the impossibly green grass, the Technicolor azaleas, the vast fairways, the gaping bunkers, brimming with brilliant white sand – every aspect of the golf course and its surroundings exceeds ordinary standards.

In my former career as an editor for a golf magazine, we polled a number of players, teachers and celebrities one year to ask what they enjoyed most about the Masters. Not surprisingly, many of the responses focused on the stunning visuals. Greg Norman, who suffered three agonizing runner-up finishes but never won at Augusta, called the course “the most beautiful expanse of grass you will ever see.” Two-time champion Tom Watson described it as “absolutely immaculate. … I’m talking about not a blade out of place, not a weed on the golf course, in the rough, anywhere.” Rush Limbaugh once played Augusta as a guest and recalled it as “the biggest thrill I’ve had.” He described the course as “hallowed ground.”

I think Augusta’s effect on people was best summed up by course architect and swing instructor Jim Hardy: “There are very few experiences in life that you have a preconception of and the experience actually exceeds the preconception. Going to Augusta to watch the tournament for the first time is greater than anything you can conceive – far greater.” Indeed, one of the most oft-heard responses from first-time visitors goes something like this: “I can’t believe how beautiful it is. TV just doesn’t do it justice.”

If a golf course can be so beautiful as to stir the kind of emotions related above – even to the point of labeling it “hallowed ground” – can you imagine how fabulous heaven is going to be? Actually, no – the Bible says it’s going to be so great, none of God’s followers can really grasp its greatness while we’re still confined to our earthly bodies. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what He has prepared for those who love Him,” Paul wrote (1 Corinthians. 2:9). Paul also described God as “Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine …” (Ephesians 3:20).

But God’s Word does give a glimpse of a believer's future. In the 21st chapter of Revelation, we learn that He will one day bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and we will live with Him in a Holy City, the New Jerusalem. There, our surroundings will be made “of pure gold, as pure as glass” (v. 18). God will be our source of light (v. 23) and all the cares and hurts of the world will be no more: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (v. 4).

No, we can’t fully imagine what our eternal home will be like. But by faith, we can be as certain of its reality as the grass is green at Augusta National.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Famous One

March was one of my favorite months when I was growing up, because it meant the return of another baseball season. My hometown in southeast Georgia was three hours from Daytona Beach, where the Montreal Expos trained, and I saw games there on several occasions. Seeing big-leaguers up close, getting an autograph or two, I was absolutely in awe. I’ll never forget the day my parents took me to see the Expos play the Phillies. Pete Rose was in his first season with the Phils and a big crowd had turned out to see him – so big, in fact, that the game was sold out. I was crushed.

When the regular season came, the highlight of each summer was a trip to Atlanta with my YMCA league to see the Braves play. I adored those Braves, and this was in the late 1970s and ’80s, when they fielded some really bad teams. One year, following the regular season, pitcher Phil Niekro (a future Hall of Famer) came to our town for a charity ribbon-cutting event. He graciously signed autographs afterward, then posed for a photo with me. It was surely the highlight of my life to that point.

I suppose I didn’t realize that these guys were just normal human beings. I certainly didn’t realize that God is the only one truly worthy of worship. (Oh, I heard it every Sunday in church; I just didn't pay much attention – I was more interested in playing and watching baseball.) But as I’ve since learned, God is my creator, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer, my refuge, my shield, my stronghold, my lamp, my savior. I even have God’s autograph. The Bible says His followers are “a letter from Christ … written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3).

I still follow sports and enjoy seeing a celebrity every now and then. But I know God is the only one whose fame really matters. As Chris Tomlin sings, "You are the Lord, the famous one, the famous one. Great is Your Name in all the earth. The heavens declare, You're glorious, glorious. Great is Your fame beyond the earth.”