Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Call to Holy Boldness

During last year's brutal Southern California brush fires, twelve firefighters were trapped atop a ridge after flames jumped the road sending the fire up the hillside, and prompting them to deploy their fire shelters. "We just remained calm, everyone did," one firefighter said after he was checked out by paramedics. You just have to admire a bunch of guys who can go out into an inferno for an overnight campout...and remain calm! They could have easily died on that hill, risking their lives to save others.

What hill are you willing to die on? What principles and ideals, what traditions, what causes or people would you be willing to lay down your life for? It’s my feeling that we spend a lot of time fighting over second rate hills. I read an online chat about the things couples fight over…who’s going to lock the doors at night, what music to listen to, who controls the remote control, whether to run the dishwasher when its half full, when to meet the parents. One couple had a fight over a scrabble game in which the disputed word was mielie (mee-lee), which the wife said her husband couldn’t use, because it was the Afrikaans word for sweet corn. He stormed out of the house for a week! He did come back, but they never say “mielie” now, just “corn on the cob.”

For Paul, who was sitting in a Roman prison… the stakes were a bit higher. He had no interest in devoting time or energy to second rate priorities or irrelevant disputes. He was facing the possible end of his life and he was absolutely sure of what was important and what was not…and his words and example of fearless living inspire us to live boldly for Christ as well. For Paul…

Boldness is the intention to magnify Christ; not one's self. (Phil. 1: 19-20). In the me-centered culture in which we live, it takes courage to live for a purpose other than one's own glory and fame. Listen again to Paul: “For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Holy Spirit this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body whether by life or by death.” For Paul there was indeed one thing worth living for and dying for…and that was Jesus Christ. His goal was to “magnify,” to enlarge Christ in his body whether by life or by death.

And while the boldness with which Paul speaks of bearing witness to Christ is awe-inspiring, Paul is careful not to magnify himself or minimize his falibilities. For he emphasizes that it is through the “prayers” of his friends and the “help” of the Holy Spirit that he will succeed (19). Paul was bold but he was also very human (see 2 Cor. 1: 8-11 as an example). He had feelings…sometimes feelings of unswerving confidence and at other times crushing despair. He was not afraid to let others know that he needed help even as he carried out his mission.

I'm meeting with a group of pastors for an annual study retreat at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena this week...and one of the most encouraging aspects of this time is not only the reading that we do together or the papers we present...but simply sharing our struggles and our joys with one another, to be human, to pray and to be prayed for, to admit our weaknesses and our need before God and one another. John the Baptist said of Jesus, "He must increase, I must decrease." As we are decreasing into his purpose, we will receive the power to boldly serve him and to follow him wherever he may lead.

Boldness means living life and approaching death in the company of the Risen Christ (Phil. 1: 21-26). “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” “I’m hard pressed between the two,” Paul says, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” The Greek word translated “depart” here is also used for breaking camp or unmooring a ship. Paul implies that this life is like a campsite, a way station, a brief stop on the trail. If you’ve ever driven up a mountain road or hiked along a Sierra trail you know the stops along the way are breathtaking…but around every corner there is always more awe-inspiring beauty and yet greater vistas. So Paul is eager to get going…to continue the journey into God’s full world, “for that is far better.” Here is the final answer to the question, “What will the life beyond this life be like in Christ?” The answer is: “It is far better” (The actual Greek syntax is even more emphatic: “It is much more better”). In other words, if you think this life is good…wait ‘til you see what God has in store for those who love him. But that doesn’t mean Paul had a death wish. No, he wanted to live his life here and live it well which is why he says, “to remain in the flesh is more necessary” (important, useful, an opportunity to serve God). Living is Christ, Dying is gain…

Film producer Dan Woolley knew both of these truths when he was trapped in the basement of a hotel last week during the 7.0 quake in Haiti amidst tons of debris. Fortunately, because of a medical app on his iphone he was able to correctly diagnose a broken foot and use strips of clothing to bandage severe gashes he had suffered on his legs and the back of his head. Then he used the camera on the phone to get a map of his surroundings and plan a route to an elevator shaft that was protected from falling debris (I’ve got to get one of those!) 65 hours later, he was rescued. But it wasn't Woolley's quick thinking or handy gadgets that made his story remarkable, it was how he faced the possibility of his death. Dan Woolley is a Jesus follower, and he told reporters after his rescue that he genuinely thought he was going to die in the hotel basement. So he wrote a note to his wife and children reminding them to trust God even in the middle of horrible situations. "I was in a big accident," the note said. "Don't be upset at God. He always provides for his children, even in hard times. I'm still praying that God will get me out …. He may not, but He will always take care of you." That was one courageous and faith-filled man who knew that to live is Christ and to die is gain. God bless the many others who didn’t survive to share their stories as they boldly trusted in him…and are with Christ today.

Finally, boldness means living as courageous citizens of God’s kingdom regardless of opposition or obstacles (Phil. 1: 27-30). “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…. Standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and…in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Paul has been talking about his life…and how he wants to live it boldly for Christ whether in life or in death. Now he speaks to the Philippians about their own lives; and his prayer that theirs will reflect that same holy boldness.

“Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” Paul says. The Greek phrase that is translated, “Live your life” (politeuesthe) more precisely means “Exercise your citizenship” or “Be a good citizen….” It brings to mind the fact that Philippi was a Roman "colonia." It was the historic field of battle where the legions of Mark Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassias, the assassins of Julius Caesar. Following this battle, Philippi was made an official Roman colony and "a retirement community" for the victors. Soon after, Octavian was named Augustus Caesar, announcing to the world that his reign was “good news,” his power was that of “a savior” and his birthday was that of a god. It's no surprise that the Philippians were brought up to feel pride in their Roman citizenship and their historic role as the birthplace of the good news of Caesar Augustus’ reign.

Keep all that in mind as you hear Paul say to the Philippians, “Exercise your citizenship in a manner worthy of the “good news” of Jesus the Christ. In other words, you are Roman citizens…but more importantly you are God's Kingdom citizens. You have an emperor who would be worshiped as a god…but there is One who rules over him and to whom he is accountable, and that is Christ, the world’s true Savior who is the real "good news of great joy for all the people" (Luke 2: 10). With that new identity made clear, Paul calls the Philippians to holy boldness as they stand firm in one spirit, "striving side by side" with one mind for the faith in no way intimidated by their opponents. "Striving side by side," working together as a team, would be essential if they were to not only "believe in" him but endure hardships for him (29).

It takes courage to stand up for Christ today and the things that matter to him…. Whether it is the spiritually lost who need to hear the good news, the victims of slavery who God wants to set free (from addiction, human trafficking, or other forms of exploitation), the hundreds of thousands of children dying of poverty-related diseases, the courage to stand up for the husband/wife relationship which is so dishonored today or simply to pray on behalf of one who is in need. Fighting these fires without Christ and his people will surely be overwhelming; but with him we can know the joy of living and praying boldly for him.

George Bernard Shaw said it well: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one.” But Paul might have said it this way: “There is no greater joy in life than to be used by the Mighty One for his mighty purpose.” Because joy comes from the bold conviction that Christ really is the Mighty Savior this world needs, the Mighty One through whom “dying is gain” because he has defeated it. The Mighty One through whom “life is sacred” because he has lived it. This is the hill that’s not only worth dying for, it’s the hill worth living for.

Mighty Savior, be exalted in our bodies, knowing that in life and in death, we belong to you who trust in your name. We thank you for blessing the poor in spirit, drawing near to the timid and fearful. Transform our fears into faith, that we might stand firm in the face of that which opposes or seeks to silence the good news about you. Help us now to live courageous lives of holy boldness, faithfully bearing witness to the gospel through our words and deeds. Make us brave citizens of your kingdom, unafraid to be publicly associated with you; standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith, and steadfast in the face of opposition and hardship. Amen!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Gift of Unshakeable Joy

The news this week has been sad...unhappy by any measure of the word, especially when our thoughts turn to Haiti. In America, the constitution guarantees us the right to pursue happiness, and we usually do by whatever means are available and legal; but I can't help but wonder what it means to pursue happiness in Haiti….in a country that's been flattened by a 7.0 earthquake and nearly 100,000 people have been killed? What does it mean to pursue happiness in a nation that’s had 32 coups in 200 years and where HIV and infant mortality are among the highest in the world? For me, the answer came in the words of Paul from a prison cell...his letter to the Philippians (1: 12-18). There we discover that the Apostle Paul says nothing about the pursuit of happiness, but he does say a lot about the gift of joy...

The joy of the Lord, can’t be shaken by our changing situation. From the confines of a prison cell, Paul says that he wants the Philippians to know that “what has happened to [him] has actually helped to spread the gospel…and in that I rejoice" (vv. 16, 18). What had happened to Paul? The trouble began in Jerusalem when he came to preach about Jesus and was falsely accused (Acts 21). After testifying before his own people he was taken to Caesarea Maritima where he stood before Gov. Felix and King Herod Agrippa and shared his testimony yet again. At this point Paul said four memorable words: “I appeal to Caesar.” (This was Paul’s right as a Roman citizen), and it meant that he must be immediately placed under the guard of a centurion and sent to Rome by ship (Acts 27). In the process, Paul’s ship is wrecked by a brutal storm off the coast of Malta. After swimming to shore, he is transferred to another vessel and taken to Rome where he remained under house arrest for two years waiting to appear before the Emperor. That’s what happened, and his assessment? “What has happened…has actually helped to spread the gospel….and in that I rejoice.”

Now this was not the first time Paul had been imprisoned. The Philippians were well aware of that. How could they forget that night after Paul and Silas were severely beaten and put in prison for preaching the gospel in their city? We read in Acts 16: 25 that “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” The other prisoners were stunned. These men were choosing to be joyful. I say “choosing” because joy is a gift that we must choose to receive. Paul chose to pray and sing to the Lord though he could have crawled into the corner of that prison cell and chosen resentment or anger or despair.

As a chaplain at Trenton State Prison, I passed through 9 electronically locked doors, walked the tiers of 2 left where you could not tell day from night and ate their terrible food; listened to their stories for hours on end; and I can tell you that the last thing you would expect to hear there was singing…and yet I never heard singing, like the singing of these inmates on Sunday morning. Every Sunday they taught me about the freedom that Jesus brings. Every Sunday they taught me to choose joy. You see, there is a difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is based on what happens. If I pay off my car loan, I’m happy. If I have a good check up, I’m happy. If I buy myself some new clothes, I’m happy. If my friends say nice things about me, I’m happy. Tim Hansel remarks, “There is nothing wrong with happiness….But the problem is that it’s based on our circumstances and circumstances tend to change….happiness is a momentary feeling, joy is an abiding attitude.” Joy is that deep settled confidence that God is in control regardless of my situation.

The joy of the Lord shatters selfishness and unleashes compassion. “I want you to know, beloved that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ….” (12). Paul’s situation was an excellent excuse for a little grumbling & complaining. No one would have faulted him. There’s nothing like a good dose of resentment to take away the pain of a frustrating situation, am I right? Yet Paul would not allow bitterness to cloud his compassion or his joy. The fact that he was chained by the wrists to a soldier 24 hours a day was not a curse but a divine opportunity (1:13). In fact the entire Praetorian Guard -- Caesar’s elite soldiers, had heard about Paul and the Jesus he proclaimed. How is this possible? Quite simply it’s because he was chained to a different guard every few hours -- thus he was able to say that the whole rotating Praetorian Guard had heard about Christ! But it gets better! At the end of Paul’s letter he says that “All the saints greet you, especially those of the emperor’s household” (Phil. 4:21). In other words, not only did the gospel penetrate the elite ranks of the imperial guard but reached and claimed some of those who worked and lived in the very Palace of the Caesars!

Now consider this: as the Philippians read this amazing letter, a certain jailer who had guarded Paul and Silas the night they were arrested in their own city was probably among them. Luke records that while Paul and Silas are singing in the night, there was a violent earthquake that shook the prison to its foundations…opened the prison doors and unfastened everyone’s chains (Acts 16: 26). The jailer, awakened by the earthquake, runs to the cell doors and seeing them open, assumes the worst has happened. The penalty for allowing prisoners to escape was severe, and so he draws his sword to kill himself. It is pitch black. He can not see into the prison cells, but they can see him as he stands in the light of the doorway. One might expect that the prisoners would have wanted to see the jailer kill himself, and he would have, but then....Paul shouts, seeing what he is about to do, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer calls for lights and rushing in he falls down before Paul and Silas, trembling. He trembles not because of the earthquake but the shockwave of compassion! “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” he asked (Acts 16: 30). “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household” they answered. After feeding them in his own home, “he and his entire household were baptized without delay…and “his entire household rejoiced….” (Acts 16:33). The jailer had heard their joy-filled faith, now he had seen it, and wanted it for himself!

Have you ever considered that God has chained you to someone or something for the sake of his Son; that our personal comfort is not always his chief concern, but rather his mission to a lost and lonely world? The joy of the Lord releases us from self-centeredness, and empowers us to forgive and to love those whom he came to save.

The joy of the Lord is not the denial of reality; but confidence in what really matters. One of the objections to any suggetion that we "choose" joy is that it is unrealistically optimistic, a Pollyanna view of disaster & tragedy. Was Paul out of touch with reality? Apparently not…since his joy was not based on a denial of his situation, but on what God was actually doing in the midst of it through him. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul is very honest about the fact that some were trying to make his imprisonment more difficult. Why? We can’t be sure…but his honesty is remarkable. “Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill….What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way…and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1: 15-18).

Back in Acts 16, where we read about Paul’s imprisonment in Philippi, he has the same attitude. He was both joy-filled and wise as to the ways of the world. As they were praying and singing their hearts out in prison, they did not forget that they had been severely beaten, and imprisoned without a trial -- outrageously & illegally treated considering they were Roman citizens. Paul was a man of joy, but he was also a man who cared about justice. He knew the law -- and that his Roman citizenship afforded him certain protections. As a result, the magistrates came and personally led them out of prison, and begged them to leave! Paul was not na├»ve, he wanted the authorities to know that the believers he left behind had friends with influence (Acts 16: 40).

I don’t think many are pursuing happiness right now in Haiti…but thank God many are choosing joy. I’ve already seen it on the faces of those who have been called to help the suffering…but there is more. On the night following the earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 13th, I read that “several hundred people had gathered to sing, clap, and pray ….a little more than four hours after an earthquake had devastated much of the Haitian capital…. "Alleluia" was the refrain for some of the hymns the group at the crossroads sang…. The congregants replied with bursts of song. There were frequent aftershocks. With each tremor, the singing stopped and the singers wailed; after several minutes the hymns would resume” (David Wilson, Singing & Praying at Night in Port au Prince, Monthly Review 1/2010) A priest said that one phrase in Creole could be heard repeatedly both inside and outside the hospital walls… “Beni Swa Leternel,” they sang. “Blessed be the Lord.”

What will it mean for you and me to join our song with theirs as brothers and sisters in Christ? What will it mean for us to choose joy in the midst of our own trials and challenges…trials that may seem minor by comparison? To choose joy is to worship rather than despair; knowing God can use you in whatever situation you are chained to (illness, office, room or classmate)! To choose joy is to shatter selfishness and unleash compassion; seeing life, trials & temptations, even enemies, as opportunities to engage in Christ’s work. To choose joy is not to deny reality, but to be confident that you know what really matters in this life: faith in the unshakeable God, hope in the Crucified and Risen Christ, and love for the world he came to save. Friends…may God bless you with more than mere happiness this year; may he bless you with the gift of joy.

Unshakeable God, your word calls us to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” and so we choose joy today. We choose to worship rather than despair in the face of adversity. We choose to see present circumstances as opportunities to engage in your work. We choose to remember what really matters not deny the reality of suffering or hurt. Risen Lord, we choose joy for you have called us from the dark prison cells of sin, evil, and death, into the light of your goodness and grace. You have turned our mourning into dancing, and our sorrow into laughter. No longer are we controlled by a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind…anchored in that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise! Through Jesus Christ, the wellspring of true joy and peace, let it be done. Amen!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Power of Encouragement

Of all the churches founded by the Apostle Paul, the Philippians brought him the most joy. The irony is that the story of how Paul came to Philippi began not with joy, but with disouragement and frustration. We read in Acts 15: 36ff. that at the outset of Paul's second missionary journey there was "a sharp disagreement" between Paul and Barnabus about whether to bring young John Mark along again. He was the young man who became homesick and abruptly left them on their first missionary journey. As a result Paul felt him to be unreliable. Barnabus, on the other hand, was intent on giving John Mark a second chance. Agreeing to disagree, Paul chose Silas and headed west through Asia Minor (picking up Timothy along in Derbe) while Barnabus took John Mark and sailed for Cyprus. To be at odds must have been difficult and discouraging for such close friends. But the trouble did not end there....because as Paul and Silas (and later Timothy) attempt to go south into the province of Asia, they were hindered by the Spirit from preaching the gospel there. Then, again, when they tried to enter the province of Bithynia "the Spirit of Jesus" would not allow them to enter there either (exactly how, we are not told)! Unable to continue north or south, and determined not to go back, they waited in Troas at the shoreline of the Aegean Sea (no doubt perplexed and praying about what to do next). That's when two unexpected things happened.

A close reading of Acts 16 reveals that it was in Troas that they met up with Doctor Luke, perhaps to treat a medical condition of Paul's. (Luke may very well have been from Europe or even Philippi.) The second noteworthy event happened when Paul had a vision in the night of a man from Macedonia, beckoning them to “Come over and help us” (Acts 16:9). This was the encouragement from God they had been looking for! They could not go north, or south, and they were certainly not going back…the only way left was across the sea to the province of Macedonia (northern Greece)! With the wind and the Spirit at their backs (Acts 16:11) they sailed across the Aegean in only 2 days (a journey that normally took 5 days); and came to the Roman colony of Philippi– it was the first city in Europe to hear about King Jesus.

As I said earlier, of all the churches Paul founded the Philippians brought him the most joy. It’s no surprise that when they learned Paul was again in prison for the gospel (in Ephesus or possibly Rome); they sent a man named Epaphroditus…to encourage him with money and supplies and friendship as he had so encouraged them with the gospel. Paul was deeply moved by this act of compassion. In a first century Roman prison one survived on the kindness of friends and that’s about it. So Paul wrote a letter to be carried back by Epaphroditus, thanking them for their gift, but also encouraging them to hold fast to their joy and unity in Christ despite present challenges. Encouragement: Paul needed it, the Philippians needed it, and we need it. It’s the assurance that we matter to God and to others. It’s essential to our life in the Spirit and growth in Christ-likeness. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul shows us the way to encourage well….

We are encouraged when we know we have partners (Phil. 1: 5). Paul writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you…because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now." He was thankful to God because of the Philippians’ sharing or ‘partnership’ (NIV) in the gospel. The familiar Greek word is koinonia which is translated elsewhere as ‘fellowship’. It means, literally ‘having something in common.’ Koinonia refers to a deep bond of friendship and shared responsibility. There is nothing more encouraging than knowing we have partners; a community backing us in our journey with Christ. “From the first day until now” the Philippians were partners in the gospel, Paul says. That was literally true.

It was during Paul’s first week in Philippi that he shared the gospel with a woman named Lydia…a dealer in purple dye, a lucrative business in the Roman Empire. “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” The result was that she and her entire household were baptized. Afterward, she invited Paul and his friends to stay in her home while they served the Lord there. Today, we talk about domestic partners, tennis partners and business partners. But the word koinonia means something much deeper and holier. It’s a gospel partnership, a spiritual community that shares the responsibility of mission for the sake of Christ.

Sometime later, when Paul and Silas were thrown in prison for disturbing the peace, an earthquake opened the prison doors in the middle of the night. When they didn’t try to escape, the jailer fell to his knees, “What must I do to be saved?” he asked. He and his household believed on the Lord Jesus and were baptized. Paul loved his new gospel partners in Philippi. “I thank my God every time I remember you” he said. Do you have people like that in your life? I'm blessed to be able to say that I experience that partnership in Christ with my wife Lisa, with my church family, and the extended network of brothers and sisters with whom I serve in this city. We need partners if we plan to serve Christ this year. We can’t do it alone... and partnership is what Christ promises as we follow him!

We are encouraged when we are thoughtfully affirmed and re-affirmed (Phil. 1: 7) Paul continues, "It is right for me to think this way about all of you because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel." I love the way Paul affirms and reaffirms his partners and in such a thoughtful manner. “It is right for me to think this way because….” because you hold me in your heart in prayer; because you’ve shared your resources with me in my imprisonment; because you’ve shared in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. His affirmation was not vague or generalized but specific. You may have had it up to here with criticism…but you can never get enough affirmation. When I was about five years old my dad told me I was good at tying my shoes. (It's certainly not the only time he has affirmed me....but I still remember his simple words)! In college, a professor wrote a very positive comment on a paper I wrote in an American Literature course. I’ve never forgotten his words either. And you know what I do when someone sends me a nice card or letter? I put it in a special place in my office…and when my tank is low I open that drawer and read one! The next time you think about someone you’ve wanted to encourage, say it, write it, communicate it…and be specific, because they need to hear from you too.

We are encouraged when we know we are deeply missed by others (Phil. 1: 8). Here is a third principle of encouragement from Paul’s opening comments. "For God is my witness how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of missing someone so much, it physically hurts; and the only relief is to hear from them, to get some form of communication." When Paul saw Epaphroditus who had made the dangerous journey to bring him a gift all the way from Philippi, getting deathly sick in the process…he knew he was missed; and he wanted them to know how much he missed them too.

I heard recently about a beautiful thing going on in our own church family. Three women who live alone and attend a grief support group together decided to call one another…not once in a while or once a week, but every morning. It’s a reminder to each other that they matter and are being thought of. That’s an example and a model of caring that we can all learn from. Paul says he longs for his friends with the compassion (the Greek word means 'guts' or 'inward parts') of Christ Jesus. That is, Paul’s soul deep longing was similar to the way Jesus longs for us and, yes, misses us. Have you ever considered the fact that Jesus misses our company when we drift from his fellowship; that he longs for us, or is sad when we forget him? Let this be the year that we seek after him…not once in a while, or even once a week, but daily.

We are encouraged when we are specifically prayed for (Phil. 1: 9-11). "And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best…." Midway through an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington shared this story: "I walked in the house one day and—feeling full of myself, a movie star—I said to my mother, 'Did you ever think this was all going to happen?' She was like, 'Please. First of all, go wash the windows for me. You have no idea how many people have been praying for you when you were being a knucklehead.'" Now Washington is a man of deep faith, a member of the Church of God in Christ, married to his wife of 25 years…who reads his Bible daily; and is a spokesman for the Boys & Girls Club in addition to other charity work. But by his own testimony, it was the grace of God and a lot of prayer that helped him to know the difference between the good life….and what Paul calls “the best” life. Here in West Los Angeles, we pride ourselves on knowing what the good life is, a good education, a good zip code, a good job; but in many cases we don't realize that the best is still out there. This city has no idea how many people have been praying for it. This is a mission field. May God use every prayer by his grace to help us go beyond the good to what is best... a life lived as Jesus would live it if he were us.

Finally, we are encouraged when we know God will finish the good work he began in us. "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1: 6). In other words, don’t lose heart: God is a finisher as well as a beginner. We humans are great at starting things, especially in January. We make resolutions and set goals, we promise ourselves and others that we will do better this time around. In his commentary on this passage, one of my favorite New Testament scholars, N. T. Wright, mentions an old prayer by Sir Francis Drake in which he prays that "when God leads us to undertake any great work, he will also remind us that 'it is not the beginning but the continuing of the same until it be thoroughly finished, that yieldeth the true glory'" (N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Epistles). As one who set out to circumnavigate the globe, he knew that beginning was easy…finishing is tough. You may or may not be planning to sail around the world this year; but what about dating your spouse again, spending more time with your grandchildren, committing yourself to a close-knit fellowship seeking to grow as disicples of Jesus, reading your Bible daily, sharing Christ with a friend, honoring God with hard work and dedicated study, or helping to alleviate suffering and stand up for what’s holy, good and right?

As you pursue such worthy goals…may the wind of the Spirit be at your back as it was at Paul’s as he set sail for Macedonia. May God encourage you with partners and make you one; may he encourage you with affirmation, and help you to give it; may he encourage you with people who care and pray for you this year, and spur you to do the same. And may you be encouraged to know that despite whatever challenges you may face, the same Lord Jesus who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!