Tuesday, September 24, 2013

No shortcuts for disciples


Hey sports fans, it’s quiz time: Who broke Muhammad Ali’s jaw during one of the biggest boxing upsets ever?

Ken Norton did. And there’s a truth behind his victory we need to remember.

Norton, who died Sept. 18 at age 70, was a heavyweight fighter during the sport’s last golden era. He wasn’t as famous as Ali or “Smokin’ Joe” Frazier. But Norton, a three-time boxing champion in the Marine Corps before he turned pro, was for real. In his prime, he was a 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound, one-man wrecking crew who kept coming at you. He won 42 fights, including 33 knockouts, and lost only seven over a 14-year pro career.

Marines don’t go down easy. Norton sure didn’t.

The first time he fought Ali, in 1973, he was a 5-to-1 underdog. Ali, who was looking ahead to a big title shot at then-champ George Foreman, expected the upstart Norton to be a punching bag. Big mistake.

Norton came out firing, pounded Ali and took over the fight. Ali might have been “the greatest of all time,” but he didn’t see Norton’s determined assault coming.

“Godzilla couldn’t have beaten me that night,” Norton said in an interview years later.

How did he do it? Simple: work, work and more work. Norton trained relentlessly for the fight. He allowed no distractions. He believed he could win, and he prepared for it. And once the bell rang, he didn’t listen or respond to his opponent’s legendary trash talk. He let his fists do his talking. Chastened by that painful wake-up call, Ali won two later fights by razor-thin decisions. But he never knocked Norton out in the 39 total rounds they fought.

Hard work doesn’t always triumph over hype. But it wins more often than you might think.

“Success depends on effects,” observes James McIntosh, who coaches leaders and executive teams in the business world. “Do you do things for effect or do you do things for effect? To help you to decide, I’ll ask the question differently. Do you do things mainly to impress others or do you do things to accomplish something of consequence? … Your choice of effect determines whether your success is flash-in-the-pan or sustainable.”

We live in a flash-in-the-pan culture. Commitments and loyalties shift like the wind. People want something for nothing. Short-term profit rules. Make a splash, take the money and run. Let somebody else clean up the inevitable mess.

Children raised to believe they are extra-special expect straight A’s in school just for showing up. They think they’ll breeze through college and into great careers — without years of hard work and despite all economic indicators. Psychologists call this “magical thinking.” It flies in the face of reality, experience and common sense.

Tragically, this mentality has seeped into our spiritual lives. We want closeness to God without prayer, Bible knowledge without study, church growth without missions, blessings without obedience.

God’s economy doesn’t work that way. Grace is free, but it isn’t cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis because he refused to submit to their evil, regarded cheap grace as the “deadly enemy” of the church.

“Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate,” Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship. “Costly grace,” on the other hand, “is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son … and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. … Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

There are no shortcuts to becoming a disciple. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not the spiritual equivalent of an exercise workout or weight-loss plan. God provides the power and brings the results — not our puny efforts. But He requires commitment and obedience.

The Apostle Paul, master missionary and disciple maker, put it this way: “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:12-15, NASB).

Paul turned the world upside down, one disciple and one church at a time, through relentless work, prayer, teaching and missionary activity — even in his last days in Roman chains, when he wrote the words above.

If you’re looking for flash-in-the-pan success, Christian discipleship isn’t for you.

If, on the other hand, you want to participate in the only enterprise that will produce eternal results, get to work.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The force behind the bullet

Few outsiders venture into Mosby Court unless they’re visiting relatives — or looking for trouble. Almost no one lives there by choice. Six-year-old Ernesha Baites has no choice. Her mother can’t afford to live anywhere else. So the little girl and her teenage sister do the best they can in the tough housing project in Richmond, Va., while Mom works to make ends meet. Ernesha has big brown eyes set off by the white beads in her braids. Her gap-tooth smile could melt steel. She loves cartoons and Rapunzel. The week before she started first grade in September, somebody shot her. He probably wasn’t aiming at her, you understand. He just didn’t care that she was playing near the line of fire. It could have been a drug deal gone bad or a gang beef. This time, witnesses said it was an argument on a basketball court that turned into a shootout. Neighbors said they heard at least 20 shots fired. A bullet hit Ernesha’s leg, but she’s going to be OK. Once she got home from the hospital, she even talked to a local TV news crew. Sitting on the couch in her living room, she showed a reporter the cast on her healing leg. Her relieved mother sat beside her, talking about moving someplace safer as soon as she can get more work hours. A happy ending, you might say — as happy as endings usually play out in Mosby Court, at least. But before the news crew turned off their camera, Ernesha had a question. “Why did they shoot me, if they already saw me?” she asked. The look of confusion and hurt on her face reminded me of the expressions of Syrian refugee children I have met in areas bordering the horrific civil war in Syria. They don’t understand why someone would shoot at them and try to kill their parents or their brothers and sisters. They don’t understand why they can’t go home. Ernesha doesn’t yet understand how cold this world can be, either. But she’s learning. You wonder if she looked into the eyes of the shooter and, if so, what she saw there. I know all the sociological answers: The gunman might have been shot or brutalized when he was Ernesha’s age. He might be trapped in Mosby Court, or someplace like it, by poverty and hopelessness. He might have felt the pressure to “represent,” to kill or be killed, to uphold the street code. But the real force behind the bullet was sin. It never ceases to amaze me how many otherwise sensible folks believe that people, deep down, are basically good and want to do the right thing. We’re just confused or traumatized by bad experiences, they say. We’re misguided or manipulated by others into doing wrong. We have no choice. All these rationalizations sound reasonable at different times or places. But the root cause of wrongdoing is sin. People are basically good? Nonsense. I’m bad to the bone, every bit as bad as the guy who shot Ernesha — and I have fewer excuses. You’re no better, if you’re honest with yourself and God. We are sinners. We have rejected God and sought our own selfish and evil ways, just as the Bible says we would. Technology and science may have produced staggering human progress, but they have improved human nature not at all. We hate one another just as passionately, fear one another just as keenly, disobey God just as willfully as our bloody-minded ancestors. We are sinners — collectively and individually. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need a Savior. And the world wouldn’t need to know about Him. Recently, IMB President Tom Elliff spoke about having a hard time sleeping after watching the evening news, not just because of wars and disasters, but because “every one of us has learned how to look at the most horrific things you can imagine and be unmoved by them. We know where the great tragedies are, we see people running for their lives and starving physically,” he said. Often they are also starving spiritually. “We’ve learned how to be aware of lostness but not be moved by lostness.” We have an even deeper problem, however, if we cease to believe that sin causes darkness and can be defeated only one way. “We can talk about the problems, the poverty and corruption and politicians. But it all goes back to the darkness they live in,” said a missionary in one of the most corrupt cities in Asia. “The only answer is Jesus Christ.”