Run for the Prize

How many here are familiar with Otter Day? The day comes on January 30th. It's for celebrating the fact that you are a being capable of feeling joy. It has its own mythical figure and prescribed feast. But in the fictional setting of Otter Island, there is a very special tradition. It's called the North Ebenezer swim.

On the morning of Otter Day eve, the swimmers begin on the north shore of the island and swim out to a small rock 23 miles out to sea. (This is slightly farther than swimming the English Chanel.) The swimmers are allowed no food, no tools, and once they begin, no water save whatever they can get from the rain. Once on the rock, they must endure a terrible night of wind, rain, cold, hunger and exhaustion. The following morning, they must swim all the way back to the lagoon village.

When the swimmers arrive, they are hailed as heroes and given a very special prize- a white linen scarf. The scarf is a badge of honor. Not much in itself, but it signifies that the one wearing it has endured a terrible trial to the end.

Now during the ordeal, the swimmers are allowed to rest. They can even ask another swimmer to hold them up. But should they touch one of the many boats and buoys along the way, placed there both as a failsafe and a temptation, the challenge is over for that swimmer, and they must wait a year to try again.

The Christian life is a difficult one. If you love God, Satan hates you and will do whatever he can to cause problems for you. We are in the middle of a war of literally cosmic proportions. It is no coincidence that God compares us to soldiers, or that He illustrates the spiritual tools of the trade using elements of armor. Eventhough God doesn't expect the average Christian to shoot anyone (remember the old Children's song? "I may never march in the infantry, fly o'er the enemy, shoot the artillery...") He does expect us to do one very important thing- stand firm. To steal a line from one of my favorite movies, "Never give up, Never Surrender."

The temptation to give up can be overwhelming sometimes. And unfortunately, I can use myself as an example of this truth. Things have been very bad for me. I've been wrestling with a number of things both inside and out, and it's been difficult for me to keep going. Of course, you have probably all surmised this from the fact that I have not been doing my job for the past two weeks. That and the way I've been talking about resigning.

Fortunately for me, God is very understanding and has been giving me encouragement during my time of trouble. He as also been teaching me. And here are some of the things I've learned.

In the shortest races, the runners are able to look directly ahead to the finish line. But for those running more than a hundred yards, the finish line is never straight ahead. In a marathon, the runners must take an endless number of turns. In a transcontinental race, roads may even double back and take the racers AWAY from the direction they're trying to go. The Christian walk is a race that lasts sometimes a hundred years. Don't be discouraged when the end isn't in sight. We don't get to preview the course. We can't see the path from point A to point B with all its twists and turns. But God can. He has set the course for each of us.

We are not running the same race. Each of us must travel the path which God has set for us as individuals. But that does not mean we cannot strengthen one another. In the example of the Otter Day Eve Swim, a swimmer is permitted to turn to another swimmer to hold him up as he rests. This sort of help is a major blessing to just about anyone, but especially to a preacher. I'd like to express my appreciation to Draco Dei for supporting me as I rested. Thank you, Draco.

Life is complex. VERY complex for many of us here, especially the autistic ones like myself. In a dream I recently had, life was symbolized by a mega-airport which was filled with far more than its fair share of corridors, service accesses, stairways, shortcuts, byways and crowded halls. I had a very difficult time finding my way. But I did. I reached the gate leading into Heaven. But then I had to go back and lead two others along the path I had taken. I was able to do so because I'd already travelled it once. I'm convinced that this dream was from God because I can NEVER retrace my steps in a dream. In the Otter Island example, the Ebenezer is a very small island indeed and easy to miss. The boats and bouys, there to serve as a temptation, are also there to let the swimmers know they are on the right track. Additionally, a pod of dolphins keeps an eye out for those who stray. As in both these examples, it's easy to lose one's way in life. That's why God has given us several means of guidance. We have the wisdom of those who have gone before. Not only do we have the written words of those who have finished the race and gone home, but some of our fellow travelers have been where we are going. We can learn from the experience of the elderly, the experienced, the studied, and those who seek God with all their hearts. Of course, not everyone who claims to be a guide really is. There are those who would sooner sell their own mothers than deal in truth. They'll hurt you for their own proffit while pretending all the time to be your greatest friend. when you encounter people like this, it's good to have a map. If you want to know who is a true guide and who is playing you falsely, check his directions against the map. And we have a map right here. (thumps bible.) There. Now I'm officially a bible-thumper. I can never emphasize this enough. Question everything. This book has withstood every test mankind can throw against it. We can be confident in its truthfulness. Check everything that your supposed guide tells you against God's word. Yes, even if it comes from me. I know that I'm imperfect and sometimes my opinions are going to work their way into a sermon. ALWAYS test what I say by comparing it with God's word.

Now remember those bouys I mentioned? In the Otter Day Eve Swim, they both present the temptation to quit and mark the path to the Ebenezer. When you're on the right path in your life, you'll be able to tell because the temptation to quit or to take some easier path will be terrible.

But the thing I've learned most of all is that God is a friend in times of trouble. Now that's not to say that He'll keep you out of trouble, or that He'll remove you from the trouble. Sometimes He will. Sometimes, He's going to push you. It will seem like he's adding insult to injury at times. Let me explain what I mean.

This is a true story. There was a quadruple amputee who got it in her mind to make a very difficult swim across a lake.- difficult even for fully-limbed swimmers. She did well at first, but as the time wore on, she became cold, exhausted, and despirited. Her mother rode beside her in the boat, urging her on. The swimmer insisted that she could not continue. she begged to be taken into the boat. Her mother would not allow her to quit. Each time the girl begged, her mother would tell her to keep going. It seemed heartless at the time, but because she didn't give her daughter the relief she was begging for, that girl made it all the way across the lake. For the rest of her life, she's going to have the honor of being an overcomer.

That's the kind of friend Jesus is. He's not there to make things easy for us. He's there to push us hard and turn us into winners. He's not always merciful and gentle. Sometimes He can seem downright cruel. Even cold. But there's a reason for it.

Do you know what happens if you help a butterfly out of its cocoon? It will die. A butterfly MUST struggle out of its cocoon. The struggle forces blood into its veins, especially the wings. It is the struggle which allows the butterfly to survive in its new body. A human who truly cares about the butterfly has one option- to stand by and allow the butterfly to emerge on its own.

God wants us to be all that we can be. He can't just wave His hand and make us into winners. That's like buying a trophe. You don't become a winner by buying a trophe. You have to earn it. That's why God makes us go through these hard times. It is necessary for us to grow into the new creations He meant us to be.

This week's challenge: There isn't one. I'm only going to encourage you to keep on keeping on.

Today's Reading: Philipians 3:13
13 Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,
14 I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
15 Let us therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded: and if in any thing ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you.