Betting the Odds

Odds are a funny thing – especially when it comes to college football season and election seasons. I love watching how the political and sports pundits try to convince their viewers of how the odds are stacked against an opposing person/team and immediately write them off. Take for example when Clemson faced Alabama in the latest NC game. Nearly every sports pundit predicted Clemson to lose. In fact, Vegas had the Tide as a 7 point favorite. At the beginning of that game, the odds were stacked against Clemson. However, Clemson defied the odds and took home the trophy.

Consider the previous election season in 2016. Every news outlet said the odds of every American seeing a UFO and winning the lottery at the same time were greater than Donald Trump winning the election. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the point.) One website had Hillary with a 71% chance at winning the election and Donald with only a 28% chance. Yet, like him or not, even though the odds were stacked against him, Trump defied the odds and is now our president. 

Some would call stories like these “underdog stories”, others call it “luck”, but whatever you call it – don’t call it impossible. Don’t count people out or think a situation is impossible just because the odds are against them. 

Throughout the narrative of the Bible there are stories just like these – men and women overcoming the odds. Consider Moses – with the most powerful army in that era of time pressing against the children of Israel, God said, “I like the odds of this” and delivered them from the hand of the enemy. Gideon? This punk-turned-mighty-man-of-valor started with an army of 30,000 to go against an army of 135,000 Mideanites. God didn’t like those odds so He stripped Gideon’s army to just 300 to go on to defeat the Mideanites. What about Mary and Joseph? The brutal regime in power wanted to murder every little boy, which included their baby, Jesus, yet God had the final say. The odds were stacked against Jesus from the time he was born to the time he brought himself back to life. (Or perhaps God stacked the odds against himself?) And this narrative continued throughout the scripture just so that people can see that it is never any man or woman’s effort, but it is God who brings total victory.

My story is no different. I have been backed into many corners wondering if God was ever going to move. And just when I thought it was over, God stepped in and said, “I like the odds of this.” This has not only been my story, but Refuge Point’s story (where I pastor). We have been backed into many corners and we’ve had every reason to quit. We’ve even said we want to reach 1,000 people by 2020. Yet, time after time God has looked at each of these odds and said, “that’s exactly where I want you.” Not so people can see how awesome Matthew is or how awesome Refuge Point is, but to say, “Look at how awesome God is and how faithful He is.” 

You may be in a situation where the odds are stacked against you. It may be a failing marriage, a wayward child, a financial crisis, or a sickness – I want to remind you that God does his best work when the odds are stacked against you. The odds stacked against you are never too big for God to handle.

 

A Mirage of Hope

The season of Advent is one of my personal favorites. Advent literally means waiting. I’m sure you’re wondering, “why would a season of waiting be your favorite?” Well, when you put it like that, it does sound ridiculous. But for me, I’m waiting for something more than just a quick fix or more than a mirage of hope. A mirage of hope is when we put our hope in things that give us the appearance of everlasting hope and fulfillment.  You know, things like sex, lust, drugs, alcohol, money, new cars, new clothes, food, relationships, and on and on. These things look and feel great! They even make you feel temporarily validated, but they will leave you eternally unsatisfied.

I wonder how many times we have seen a mirage of hope and place all of our vitality just to get the quick fix. Unfortunately, so many of us are waiting for the mirage of hope to give us the satisfaction of our life, but will be sorely disappointed when we realize it is just a mirage. I’ve placed my hope in the giant mirage and do you know what I found? Disappointments. Guilt. Dissatisfaction. Emptiness.

Today, and everyday, I have to make a conscience decision to place my hope in Jesus and not the mirage. Because the mirage of hope keeps painting a beautiful painting that woos my heart and mind, but it will never tell you that it is just an imposter of true hope. So I choose today to put my hope in what is not yet seen, and this will give me a joy that will last for an eternity.

Success vs. Faithfulness

Our culture is inundated with how to achieve success. Not only are we bombarded with how to be successful, we are painted a black and white picture of what success looks like. To our cultures standards, success looks like good health, six pack abs, nice house and car, and an extremely successful business or job. Think about how social media has influenced the picture of success for wherever you are in your life. If you’re a pastor, then check out the biggest names in the church world. If you’re trying to get healthy and in shape, then check out all of the fitness models. If you’re a mom or dad, then check out how Sally and Bob (I don’t know a Sally and Bob) are buying their kids the latest toys and hottest clothes.

And as a pastor, I am guilty of wanting this picture of success. I want my sermons to be successful, I want our numbers to be successful, I want my staff to be successful, I want my family to be successful – and I could go on forever here.

But what if I told you that success isn’t the end game? What if looking like everyone else isn’t what we’re supposed to do? Now, I don’t think that wanting success is a total bad idea, it just cannot be the main idea. Do you know how exhausting it is trying to live to the standards of success in our world? Jesus paints a clear picture for us about the one thing he wants from us in Matthew 25:21, “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ I’m going to give you the most freeing thing you will hear today: Jesus never called you to be successful, he called you to be faithful. 

The problem is that since we are too caught up with trying to be successful, faithfulness takes a back seat in our priority list and we miss what God is trying to do in and through us. God wants us to be faithful with both the large and small things of life, simply because he’s looking for a people who will place more value in faithfulness over success.

But maybe, just maybe, for those of us who are comparing our lives to the rock stars of social media, maybe we ought to redefine what success looks like. Because success should mean that we are being faithful in what God has entrusted us with.

Why Being Religious is Not Bad

If I were to ask you if you wanted to be more religious, how would you respond? You’d probably say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Or, “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship.” What if, as a Christian, I told you that it’s okay to say we are religious. What if we should stop hating on the word “religion”. 

Religion, in it’s greek translation, has two different meanings: Ceremonial Ritual And Worshipping. The latin meaning is Religio or to bind oneself up. Think about that for a second, as a believer if you say that “you’re not religious”, you’re saying that you aren’t a worshiper of God. Or that you’re not willing to bind yourself up with a covenant with God. So, if I were to ask you if you want to be more religious, how would you now respond? 

Ouch. 

I think the problem we have is not religion, rather its false religion. Listen carefully, Jesus never attacks religion, but  he is always attacking false religion. So what is false religion? Glad you asked. 

 James,the half brother of Jesus, gives us a blueprint to what Christian living looks like in James chapter 1:26, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”

James is saying that if you want to say you’re a follower of Jesus, (or that you’re religious) then stop trash talking your enemy, stop gossiping, stop speaking negatively about every situation, stop spreading rumors, care for the poor, and care for the orphans and widows. In this time women would be with kids and if the husband dies, the woman and kids were left vulnerable. So, it was easy for other men to come in and take advantage of them – possibly putting them in slavery or prostitution. James is saying, being religious means that we are to be aware of the people around us that are being taken advantage of and we should help them out. Furthermore, true religion controls its mouth. 

So, maybe it’s time the church redeems the word “religion” and start becoming more religious than ever before.