Spiritual Olympics

Neal Pollard

Well, as the Olympics pervade our attention and national and individual stories of overcoming odds and working hard to achieve greatness make the news over the coming weeks, I want to remind you that Scripture, in many places, encourages us as we are writing our stories which will someday be known by all. Paul, especially, draws on imagery that would have described the Greek Games that were popular in his time. They had been played for hundreds of years by the time of the first century.

  • We run a race that’s winnable, competitive, won by discipline, meaningful, purposeful, but also losable (1 Cor. 9:24-27).
  • We vie for that which requires forgetting the past, pressing in the present, and reaching for the prospective prize (Phil. 3:12-14).
  • We flex our discipline for godliness by exercising our godliness to help us here and hereafter (1 Tim. 4:7-8).
  • We must compete according to the rules (2 Tim. 2:5).
  • We can fight a good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith, and if we do we will be honored by the greatest giver of all (2 Tim. 4:7-8).

Your race may not be run in a huge stadium, be billed as an international event, be recorded in the history books of this life, or be seen all over TV and the internet, but the All-Seeing-Eye is watching. More people than you know are watching you run, both Christians and non-Christians. The stakes exceed that of these or any other earthly games and the reward is immeasurable! Best of all, whatever your physical shape, you can win this race! God is rooting for you!

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The Palaestra 

ATTACKING THOSE WHO SAVE OTHERS

Neal Pollard

It’s an unconscionable thought! Who would try to hurt and oppose those dedicated to saving lives? Places like Afghanistan seem more than a world away from us, where this week a yet-to-be-identified terrorist group conducted a suicide attack in Jalalabad that killed two and injured 14. While that sadly is a relatively small and minor attack in this war-torn region, it was the target that was so outrageously newsworthy. It was perpetrated against the international Save The Children organization. Volunteers and workers were there to provide aid and assistance to that society’s most vulnerable members, and they were attacked. How does this happen?

In Matthew 23:35 (cf. Luke 11:51), Jesus condemns the Pharisees as the murderers of God’s godly men from Abel to Zechariah. Essentially, Jesus was presenting a roll call of the righteous who were attacked because of their faithfulness. In one of Stephen’s final moments, he preached, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become” (Acts 7:52). Both Old and New Testaments reveal the Maker’s messengers who were attacked while trying to save others. The proverbial response of the hearers was to “shoot the messenger” (cf. Heb. 11:36-38).

Growing up a preacher’s kid, I saw my dad encounter some who attacked the messenger. Dad has always been a model of courage for me, willing to teach and preach even unpopular, but needed, subjects. Consequently, he endured both frontal and sneak attacks. Everyone who has sought to declare “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27) has some appreciation for Paul’s warning that some “will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

How one responds to such attacks is crucial! In the words to Timothy, Paul contrasts the attacker with the faithful proclaimer. He says, “But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). We’re taught “patient enduring” (2 Cor. 1:6; 2 Tim. 2:24), “not returning evil for evil or insult for insult” (1 Pet. 3:9), “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14; cf. 12:17-21), and “do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mat. 5:39).

As eternal aid workers, we operate by a different, higher set of rules (2 Cor. 10:4). We entrust ourselves to the One who will give us ultimate victory. Meanwhile, we cannot give up our cause—no matter what the threat or danger. Like Jesus, let us keep entrusting ourselves to Him who judges righteously (1 Pet. 2:23)!

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Working Together To Survive The Hunt

Neal Pollard

1 Peter 5:8 calls the devil a roaring lion prowling around seeking someone to devour. It is obvious that Peter’s readers would have seen or at least heard about these kings of the jungle for the analogy to make sense and be practical.  Lions lurk, longing for lunch.

In the savannas of East Africa, their meal of choice is usually either the wildebeest or zebra. Despite this, these two animals continue to graze and migrate together. In fact, because they are chief prey of the lion (and other big cats), they need to stick together. Various observers and experts give different explanations for why. Zebras have great farsightedness and the wildebeests have excellent peripheral vision, but each are poor at seeing what the other sees well. Others explain that wildebeests have mouths better suited for short grass while zebras’ are made for the long grass that grow intermittently together on the plains. Still others point to the zebras superior memories, recalling the safety routes of the previous year, and the wildebeests uncanny ability to find water even when such is scarce. Probably, it is the combination of these facts that cause the symbiotic relationship between these two large mammals. They do not all survive, but the vast majority do. The reason is because they utilize their own abilities but also because they rely on the abilities of others.

In a letter where Peter is addressing a people who were at times spiritual prey, he does more than use the simba simile. He urges Christians to stick together and look out for one another. He calls for sincere, fervent, from the heart love for one another (1:22; 4:8). He urges complaint-free hospitality toward one another (4:9). He commands serving one another (4:10). He teaches there to be mutual humility displayed toward one another (5:5). He ends the letter exhorting an affectionate, loving greeting of one another (5:14). As much as anything, this is a recognition of mutual dependence.

If we understand that we are not at home in this world (2:11) and are living and longing for the inheritance in heaven (1:4), we should come to understand our mutual need of each other. That does not just mean looking for others’ help, but also giving it. This is by God’s design. Notice, for example, the proactive protection we provide each other by being “harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead…” (3:8-9a). Right before the lion passage, Peter talks about different groups looking out for and helping each other (5:1-6).

Any of us, through suffering, temptation, doubt, or some other factor, could drift away from the safety and security of the fold. Let us be more than mindful of each other. Let us depend on each other to survive the hunt and make it to eternal safety.  I will face the lion many times in this life, and I depend on you to help me survive.

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Almost And Armistice Day

Neal Pollard

War historians have given notice to it. It is a tragic subplot to a war tragic beyond most all comparison. World War I was a senseless, repeated exercise in the mass killing of young men from around the globe. This went on from August, 1914, up to the cease fire ordered for the eleventh month, the eleventh day, and the eleventh hour of 1918. Offensives on especially the western front meant men from several nations either were ordered to attack or were put in the position to defend against them. Men from many nations woke up on 11/11/18, but as casualties of war never saw the end of that day. People were celebrating the end of the war in Paris, Berlin, London, Washington, and elsewhere while men, most having heard the rumor about the armistice, fought on and died. George Edwin Allison died at 9:30 AM, the last official British casualty. Augustin Trebuchon, a message runner, was killed by a single shot at 10:50 AM, the last French casualty. George Lawrence Price was the last official Canadian casualty, dying at 10:58 AM. The last American to die was Henry Gunter, who if he understood German would have heard the machine gunners of that nation plead for his division to stop their offensive. His time of death was 10:59, and divisional records indicate, “Almost as he (Gunter) fell, the gunfire fell away and an appalling silence prevailed.” If possible, one story is even more tragic. While historians cannot be absolutely certain, they believe the last casualty of this tragic war was a German officer named Tomas. Allegedly, he told Americans approaching a house that he and his men occupied that they could have the house since the war was over. No one had told the Americans who, not trusting the officer, shot him as he walked toward them right after 11:00 AM. Official records indicate over 10,000 dead, wounded, and missing men on the last day of World War I. Historians have found letters, interviewed fellow soldiers of these unfortunate men, and through such correspondence give chilling insights. These men were optimistic. Many felt charmed to have cheated death, some of them veterans whose service had spanned the entire length of a war that exacted staggering, daily death tolls. Others had a strong sense of foreboding, a fatalistic resignation that somehow, despite the cheerful optimism of comrades, they would not survive the day (much historical information gleaned from www.historylearningsite.co.uk).


It is extremely difficult to read this legacy from World War I of men doing their duty to the end, to come so close to escaping the clutches of death, only to be felled in the final hours. Armistice Day and the ending of World War I are the roots of one of our greatest National Holidays and observances, Veterans Day. We honor those living and dead who fought to keep us free from tyranny and evil. Even in that first world war, where war prosecution is much questioned and debated, mothers, fathers, family and friends are beholden to the men and women who risked everything to defend our beloved country.
With that in mind, please allow me to draw this spiritual parallel. How tragic for a child of God to follow for so much of the way only to fall away later in life (2 Peter 2:20-22). How tragic for one to come so close to the cross of Calvary and salvation, only to die short of that goal (cf. Mark 10:22). Jesus spoke of one not far from the Kingdom (Mark 12:34). Agrippa was “almost persuaded” (Acts 26:28). Only eternity and the Judgment Day will reveal the stories of those battling with themselves on the battlefield of Ephesians six, maybe close to obedience, who died outside of Christ. What a tragedy for anyone to die lost. Especially tragic are the examples of those who knew the truth, were convicted about it, but who died without having resolved the greatest problem known to man.
We honor the soldiers who fought and died, even in the “11th hour.” We pray for the souls who are living but will die, who have yet to come to the Captain of the Lord of hosts.

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WE ARE RACING UP A MOUNTAIN

Neal Pollard
Ueli Steck was the world’s greatest free-soloist climbing. He was routinely snatching up new records in the part of the sport of mountain climbing that is most dangerous. It was not unusual for him to attempt dangerous routes without ropes and other safety gear. The Swiss alpinist was, as you would imagine, about as fit as a human being can be, and he attempted what most cannot (and would not). He was described by friends and fellow competitors as focused, deliberate, and thoughtful. He did not climb for the beauty of the nature around him–which he often only briefly glimpsed. No, he was a mountain marathoner. Speed climbing, as it is considered, was something Steck wanted to apply to higher mountains in the Himalayas–the final frontier for mountain climbers. He did, setting several records in the loftiest part of the world. The 2015 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year died earlier this year doing a climb on one of the western routes up Mount Everest, without supplemental oxygen, falling 1,000 meters during an early morning climb.

While you and I would not consider ourselves world class athletes, we are in a race (cf. 1 Cor. 9:26; Phil. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:7). How often does it seem not only like a steep race course, but a perilous one, too? Many times, it will seem tempting to simply give up the trek toward heaven. What it takes for us to succeed comes right out of Steck’s “playbook”–focus, deliberation, and thoughtfulness. It is easy to forget why we are climbing. Or, we fail to properly plan or execute our plans. Or, maybe we just do not think about what the purpose of our rapid climb up this mountain is. We are not climbing for earthly recognition or monetary reward. Of course, we are not going solo, either. We have each other for support. Even when we feel alone in our meteoric ascent, we will safely and triumphantly summit as we rely on our Savior! God has given us the tools, resources, and make up to endure exceedingly difficult and complicated turns in the course upon which we find ourselves. Time is going by so quickly, but the way does not get less steep or challenging. Let us keep our resolve to race up the mountain until we get there and not put ourselves into a position to fall! We can, like others before us (Heb. 12:1), succeed!

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Photo of the late Euli Steak

WE WILL WEAR A CROWN

Neal Pollard

Miss Colombia, Ariadna Gutiérrez Arevalo, wore the crown of Miss Universe for a couple of minutes, before Steve Harvey came out and sheepishly admitted that he accidentally mixed things up. She was actually first-runner-up to Miss Philippines.  Though I don’t get pageants at all, I understand human nature. In a sequence of awkward moments now blowing up social media, none is worse than the seemingly endless time before the crown is finally removed the head of a tearful Arevalo. She was confused, disappointed, and totally embarrassed. While these moments will live on in infamy, they will fade into insignificance soon enough.

Scripture illustrates the culmination of a faithful Christian life with the giving of a crown. Several New Testament writers speak of this crown, a prize or reward given to those who have turned in an outstanding performance. The New Testament extends this hope, that there is not just a crown for one contestant but for all who successfully compete and complete the most grueling obstacle course of all—life. Notice a few facts about this crown:

  • It’s Faithful (Jas. 1:12; Rev. 2:10). The one who faithfully handles his or her trials will receive the crown of life. We can be assured that it won’t be snatched from us because “the Lord has promised [it] to those who love Him” (Jas. 1:12). Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). As great as the promises of God is the assurance that a faithful life will be followed by a faithful crown.
  • It’s Future (2 Tim. 4:8). We will not be crowned in this life but after successfully completing the Christian life. Paul was confident that the Lord would make no mistake in handing out this crown. He says that the Lord, the righteous Judge will award it to all who love His appearing on that Day of Judgment. At the end of the contest, the crown will be placed upon the heads of the winners!
  • It’s Fadeless (1 Pet. 5:4). Specifically, this promise is made to the church’s shepherds who faithfully execute their task. Peter calls it “the unfading crown of glory.” Some have argued this is a passage teaching degrees of reward, but whose heavenly crown will tarnish? Instead, here is another tribute to the fact that we will have a reward and recognition that never loses its luster.

The 2015 Miss Universe finale has been dubbed “cringeworthy.” What a deflating turn of events for a person who actually had the crown of victory snatched from her head!  Aren’t you thankful that, as we face eternity, we have a perfect Judge who will get it right in every case. Once we are crowned, He won’t take it back! Let’s keeping competing and complete the contest the culminates with the crown.

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Fickleness

Neal Pollard

Here is my estimation of Peyton Manning’s few seasons in Denver so far: “Football fans frenetic for a famous flinger fawned over his fabulous finesse. A few festive, favorable football seasons fashioned full fondness for this fabled figure. Following his foot foibles and flawed, flat functioning, fickle followers flung their festering frustration field-ward, filling the field with foulness. Finally, this furtive footballer fell from fame, fun, and fondness from these fanatics. Forsooth, feelings fade, flag, and falter in fast fashion.”  That’s probably not completely fair, but it was a fun foray for me. Somebody stop me!

I will say this about human tendency—we are quick to crown our heroes and often quicker to dethrone them.  Janet Jackson captured the collective psyche of humanity with her song, “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” No one is safe or immune from the clutches of people’s capricious whims.

No one has ever been treated in greater fair-weathered fashion than Jesus Christ. On Sunday, He entered the city of Jerusalem to a welcome from a multitude of people crying, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mat. 21:9). The whole city was “moved” by Him (Mat. 21:10). By Friday, the multitudes were crying and crying louder, “Let Him be crucified!” (Mat. 27:22,24). Same Man. Same city. Certainly some of the same people. Polar opposite sentiment in just five days time. Their excited plea changed from crown Him to kill Him. Adoration was overrun by anger. How baffling!

Looking back, we can be filled with such indignation. Yet, when we look at our own lives, does our estimation of Jesus change with the events we endure in life? How do we feel toward Him in good times? Desperate times? When we struggle? When we are afraid? When we’re disappointed or betrayed? When we fail? When we’re lonely or loved?  Some live life on a spiritual roller coaster, vacillating between devotion and denial. The slightest trigger can change our tune from “How I love You!” to “How could You?!”

Faithful endurance must be our rudder. We can develop the mindset of the beleaguered Job, who cried, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15).  How it must please God to see steady, unwavering devotion from His saints, determined to stick with Him through thick and thin. Let’s be grateful that He does that for us! “It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:11-13).

Shipwreck

Neal Pollard

The hope of finding survivors on the cargo ship El Faro has severely dwindled, as one of two lifeboats, severely damaged, has been discovered as well as one body.  While the other lifeboat from the ship, with a capacity for 43 persons, has not been found in the ocean waters off the Bahamas, the 735 foot long ship sent a distress signal Thursday from near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin as it battled 20-30 foot waves.  The Coast Guard is hopeful, but the realistic expectation is that this will soon be a recovery rather than rescue mission (info from cbsnews.com and reuters.com). Out of all the frightening ways to face death, being lost at sea has to be near the top.  There’s the foreboding strength of battering waves, the immense, liquid darkness of the deep, the mystery of what lies beneath the surface, the horrific experience of drowning, and the overall helplessness in the face of a fierce overwhelming force.  Since maritime history goes back for millennia, people both ancient and modern have faced the terrors of shipwreck. Dating at least as far back as the ship found off Dokos, Greece, dating back to 2700-2200 B.C. carrying a cargo of pottery (read more at http://www.mhargolid.nl/data/webb1992.pdf), mankind has experienced the sinking of ships.

No wonder New Testament writers seize on this common situation of life. Luke records (Acts 27:14) and Paul looks back on (2 Cor. 11:25) literal shipwrecks the apostle survived.  How fitting that he is the one who describes those who lose their faith as those who have “suffered shipwreck” (1 Tim. 1:19). Preventing shipwreck, according to Paul, necessitates.

  • A fighting (1:18). Just as crew members must strain at their tasks on deck, despite weathering difficult winds and choppy seas, we cannot be passive and yielding in spiritual storms. Paul warns Ephesus against being “tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (4:14).  Faith is vital to equipping one for the spiritual fight.
  • A keeping (1:19). You can imagine someone clinging to ropes and rails or staying at the helm or rudder as they weather the storms of life. But the lifelines to which we must cling in such torrents is faith and a good conscience (see 1:5). Our spiritual constitution and fortitude spell the difference between survival and lostness.
  • A teaching (1:18-20).  Training often spells the difference in surviving out at sea.  Certainly, keeping a cool head and being able to use, when needed, that which has been previously learned is vital!  Paul says as much regarding the survival of spiritual shipwreck.  He mentions an entrusted command (1:18), prophesies (1:18), and being taught (1:20). The best teaching may not help the literal sailor in storm-tossed seas, but heavenly teaching is guaranteed to rescue those so equipped even in the face of the most seemingly insurmountable difficulties of life.

We had the feeling of finality of those lost at sea.  Thankfully, as long as one lives, he or she can be recovered from spiritual shipwreck. But, they must come back from such depths and take hold of God’s life preserver, His Son Jesus Christ! Let us do our part to rescue the perishing, snatching them with pity from sin and the grave (2 Pet. 3:9).

Laying Aside “Every Weight”

Neal Pollard

I try to write very seldom about my favorite hobby, running, which I picked up when our baby, who Pooh Duke has dubbed “Carlnormous,” was still in the womb (This is Carlnormous).  Running produces so many wonderful benefits, physically, psychologically, and mentally.  Yet, as I have heard said, exercise is only about 20% of weight management.  Therefore, until I have recently begun beefing up my “push back” exercises from the dinner table, I have been running at over 200 pounds for much of those 17 years.  I am 15 pounds lighter than I was this time last month, and Strava does not lie.  Today, I logged a 10K at a pace of 8:19/mile (Strava is cool), while listening to a mellow “Fleet Foxes And More” playlist from Amazon Music (Will Fleet Foxes reunite?)—not exactly heart-pumping exercise music.  This time last month, I was about a full minute slower per mile.  Since today I’m inevitably older than I’ve ever been, the difference has to be the fewer pounds I’m dragging around.  Hopefully, I’ll drop more weight, and if I do I anticipate that my pace may quicken and I’ll feel even better doing it.

New Testament writers use the running analogy on several occasions, but consider what the writer of Hebrews says:  “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (12:1-3). The NASB says “encumbrance” (NKJV, “weight”), and the word means “that which serves to hinder or prevent someone from doing something—‘hindrance, impediment’ (Louw-Nida, 13.149). While the implication is “of an athlete stripping himself of clothing which would impede his performance” (Ellingworth, NIGTC, np), how much more does something like 15 pounds “impede”?

This passage encourages endurance with at least three ideas.

Laying Aside The Weight Is Meaningful. It helps one with endurance as it helps eliminate obstacles to a successful run.  It shows up in a better quality of life. It impacts more than just the run you are on that day.  The effects are enduring and they impact such vital areas as blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, etc.  So it is spiritually.  This is about defeating sin, staying faithful, endurance, and overcoming.  In line with the thrust of the whole letter of Hebrews, it is about not falling away and leaving Christ!  We do not want to hang on to anything that interferes with that eternal prospect.

Laying Aside The Weight Is Measurable. I can tell the difference in myself when I have or have not lost that extra weight.  Certainly, the same is true spiritually.  When something is weighing me down, distracting, depressing, deceiving, or drawing me away, I can tell.  I can see it in my devotional life, it shows up in my speech, my attitude, my ethics, and countless similar ways. Other people can see it, too.  I know that God sees every bit of it!

Laying Aside The Weight Is Motivational.  By laying aside the encumbrances and entanglements, I feel better and improve my physical quality of life. The Hebrews’ writer tells us about a transcendent motivation which follows lightening our spiritual loads of sin problems.  Removing the impediments, I am better able to fix my eyes on Jesus and His example while not growing weary or losing heart.

Past experience tells me that weight can be picked up even easier than it can be laid aside.  This is an ongoing discipline.  But it is so worthwhile!  Oh, that I can remember that as I run the course of earth toward eternity.

“Marathon Heart”

Neal Pollard

A protein called “troponin,” indicating heart damage, is typical with the majority of runners tested after running a marathon.  Malissa Wood, a Harvard-affiliated cardiologist who has competed in four marathons says that the danger comes in not training enough, running forty-five miles or more each week.  Her pithy summary was, “Use your head when you use your heart” (William J. Cromie, Harvard University Gazette, 12/18/06).   Elite distant runner and hopeful Olympic marathoner, Ryan Shay, died November 4, 2006, from an apparent enlarged heart aggravated by intensive athletic training.  The month before, an amateur running a marathon in Chicago, also dropped dead with heart-related problems.

It is no news flash when heavy smokers or extremely overweight people die of heart disease and heart attacks.  It is expected.  Yet, most of us are shocked to get the news that athletes capable of running ridiculous distances dropping dead.  That just seems to defy logic.  Aerobic exercise is supposed to be good for the heart.

The Bible uses the heart to refer to the center of a person, his or her feelings, thoughts, desires, will, and more.  We expect that people out in the world have spiritual heart problems.  The world’s world-view has self at the center, with no regard for a higher standard or authority.  So, it thinks, says, and does so much that naturally and destructively follows spiritual heart problems.

As Christians, we need to be careful to monitor our hearts.  That applies to even those who are regarded as spiritual giants, leaders, and ones seemingly impervious to heart problems like those seen in the world.  No doubt, David is the greatest Bible example of this.  As you recall, he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14; Acts 13:22).  What a strong heart!  Yet, he had a nearly fatal fall while running his course (2 Sam. 12ff).  Have you ever known Christians who you never dreamed would commit adultery, be arrested on child pornography charges, abandon the church, steal money from a company or organization, be jailed, or something similar?  What happened?  They developed heart problems!

The good news is, spiritually, that intensive heart training will not result in catastrophe.  You cannot over-meditate on the Word.  You cannot be overly-engaged in prayer.  You cannot too actively combat impurity in your heart.  In fact, it is the way to spiritual survival.  There is likely still quite a distance between you and your finish line.  It is not a sprint.  It is more like a marathon, that race you are running (1 Cor. 9:26; Gal. 5:7; Phil. 2:16; 2 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:1).  Spiritually, at least, you need a marathon heart!