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The Golden Ticket

Every so often I watch a YouTube video of past auditions for American Idol.  The video pans in on the contestants as they rally with their parents or friends, nervously anticipating what would happen after they went through “the chamber.”  A little joking to ease the nerves, a lot of moving around to disguise the shakes, and a bunch of hugs go around until the door opens.  A few tense moments in the chamber, and the green light flashes on.  It’s show time.

Some of the contestants hear a resounding “Yes!” after performing, and walk away with that craved Golden Ticket that says, “Congratulations, welcome to Hollywood!”  Others aren’t as fortunate.  Having spilled their musical guts to the judges, they exit through the chamber with three “No’s” trailing behind them.  It’s a dream come true for some, and heartbreak for others reaching for stardom.

Some people pursue fame, while others are content to sit behind the scenes.  One thing is true of everyone, though – we all want to be accepted.  We want to be loved for who we are, even if our voices crack and our pitch isn’t quite on target. 

Unfortunately, people’s expectations aren’t as simple as a “good job” and “we think you’re great.”  Criticism shows up because we’re not good enough, breaking our morale and self confidence.  We’re rejected for the next audition and suddenly our lives seem meaningless.  Obviously our flaws were too big to overlook.

Gratefully, American Idol, Britain’s Got Talent, and the X-Factor aren’t the only ones who have a say in our value.  God has an opinion of His own . . . and it’s a little more accepting.

“According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.  Having predestined us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace wherein he had made us accepted in the beloved.”  (Ephesians 1:3-6)

This is good news to us acceptance-seekers!  God didn’t just say that He liked us.  It’s far better than that! Before the world was ever made, He had chosen, predestined, and accepted us.  No one had to force Him; it was His “good pleasure” to hand us that wonderful Golden ticket of acceptance!

Sure, our lives might get a little pitchy and our actions less than strong.  He, however, still loves us and sends us to the next round.  He may enroll us in voice lessons to fix the flaws, but He never rules out our potential and says we’re not ready for the stage.  He hears our voices through the ears of the Cross, and the blood that Jesus shed in our place.  No longer is our acceptance based on the sound of our voice, the charisma of our stage presence, or the uniqueness of our style.  It’s based on who we are – a child adopted into God’s family.

American Idol may never see our faces or hear our voices, but one thing is sure - everyone in God’s show wins.


For the Sake of Love

I grew up being a perfectionist.  Making a mistake was the end of the world.  Oh, how I bawled when I got into trouble!  I was crushed at the slightest mistake. Even some incidents when I really hadn’t done anything morally wrong sent me into distress. 

One such incident took place in my hometown of Broken Bow, Nebraska where I got my driver’s license. My Father, naturally, was my coach.  Timid little me would crawl into our full-sized van and drive around the streets of our tiny farm town.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t without its unusual streets.  Our house was built on the edge of a hill.  On one particular driving lesson, I hadn’t quite mastered how soon I should put on my breaks for certain stops.  Coming down that hill, I turned into our driveway at a speed just a tad too fast.  Crash!  I ran into Dad’s newly built garbage can corral.  Dad calmly got out to survey the damage and I fled to my bedroom in tears.  A few minutes later Dad appeared to comfort me.  His laid back self didn’t think it was a big deal.  In fact, I think he was rather baffled why I didn’t consider a simple apology sufficient.

My first problem was that my value was found in my performance, not in the value God placed on me.  As the years went by, though, doing right started to become a list of rules that I needed to follow in order to be right with God.  A repentant heart and simple confession didn’t seem to be enough to get over my mistake.  The pressure of always doing right officially set in.

It’s so easy to get caught in the middle of that vicious list of “dos” and “don’ts.”  It’s stressful, to say the least. It’s a constant focus on behavior, rather than on the Person who gave us the instructions.  It becomes a burden, a chore.  The motivation is to follow law, rather than enjoying the journey of being a born-again child of God.  Surely God has a better way!

The closer I get to Jesus I’m discovering how love and behavior go hand in hand.  In John 14:15, Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.”  Love. We use the word loosely in this world, but Jesus’ whole mission to the world was based on that word.  He loved us so much that He found a way to redeem us from the sins that kept us separated from God.  Laying down His life stopped being a chore when He thought of the reward that lay before Him. (John 15:13; John 3:16)

Rather than do what we must do out of obligation, Jesus is asking us to do it out of a heart of love for Him.  That is the greatest, purest motivation anyone could have when serving Jesus.  Our love for Him is birthed from the sacrifice He made because He first loved us (I John 4:19), and is followed by a joyful commitment to His Lordship.  A must do develops into a want to.

When thinking about the Ten Commandments and all the other Biblical instructions, we have the challenge to look at them through the eyes of love rather than obligation.  What once seemed to be a list of legalistic law can now be God’s guidelines of love that leads our lives.  With every act of obedience and every good deed done, we can honestly say we did it all for the sake of love.


Following the Star

I’ve never seen a nativity set without three wise men huddled around the manger.  Usually at least one camel is present, representing the wise men’s long journey.  Every figure is robed immaculately and holding out beautiful gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  They came prepared, expecting to find royalty at the end of their trek.  They didn’t expect a child because they had spent years studying the galaxies.  They didn’t reach their goal because their money bought them the finest tracking gadgets.  They found the Messiah because they stayed connected to God’s method of leading. They followed the star. (Matthew 2:1-12)

Matthew 2:9 says the star “went before them.”  It wasn’t hovering over them, following them, or pushing them on from behind.  It always stayed where the wise men could see it, directing their next steps forward.  I cringe to think what would have happened if the wise men had given up following and tried to route their own way to Jesus.  What a tragedy if they had turned back because the trip was taking too long, they couldn’t stand each other’s company anymore, or they were pining for the comforts of home.  The Christmas story wouldn’t have been the same.  Jesus wouldn’t have received the gifts that God used to provide for His Son’s earthly needs.  The wise men wouldn’t have received the reward for their efforts, gained an inspiring story to share with their children, or been included in the manger scene two thousand years later!

Unfortunately, every one of us has stopped following the star at one point or another.  We’ve gotten discouraged when we weren’t reaching the end how and when we wanted.  We’ve gone back to our past, thinking we’ve missed something.  In times like these, Philippians 3:12-15 exhorts us to keep moving ahead: “Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me.  Brethren, I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore let us, as many as are mature, have this mind; and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal even this to you.” 

Like the wise men, God has set a prize in front of us.  We won’t see it, however, if we’re getting distracted by our past mistakes, hurts, disappointments, or even our past joys.  Jesus is asking us to focus on Him, our star.  Our past may draw us back, but when our eyes are on our star, we’ve got to remember that He is leading ahead, not pushing from behind.  He’s in our present and future, not hanging out in our past.  He’s trying to take us to an exciting place where He alone can take us.  He’s asking us to forget what’s behind and reach forward to where He is. 

I believe we all want to be “wise men,” mature like Philippians 3:15 says.  In God’s eyes, wise and mature people “forget those things which are behind.”  They press forward because people who follow their star always get the prize!


Straw and Jewels

When we imagine a successful person, we immediately visualize someone who is famous for their talent or looks, who owns half the city of New York, or who has a bank account the size of Texas.  Culture has ingrained in our heads that this is what it means to be a success – have lots, do lots, and be lots.  However, only a small percentage of the world came claim all these “lots.”  So where does that leave the rest of us average little people who can’t claim all this stuff?

Thankfully, God hasn’t left us “average” people on the side-lines, forgotten and unappreciated.  His view of success is quite a bit different than ours, and applies to everyone, not just an elite group of people.  One day we all will stand before God and give an account of our lives.  Gone are the diplomas, trophies, bank accounts, and fans.  Stripped of all the world claims as important and successful, we will stand naked before the God of the universe (2 Corinthians 5:10).  The question is, will God appreciate our efforts toward being successful?  Will all that cash, popularity, and property mean much to God the day we stand before Him?

When we read through I Corinthians 3:11-17, we find that there are some things that will stand the testing of God’s fire, and some things that will burn in its heat.  Comparing our lives against a quick checklist can decide whether we’ll have anything left after God’s test.  Did becoming the world’s richest person bring God glory or simply satisfy ourselves?  Was all the power we had for our gain or God’s?  When we flashed our smile in front of flashing cameras, was it for us or for the Kingdom of God?  If the answer is that it was for our glory then we know there won’t be anything left on that “foundation.”  All that stuff was just “wood, hay, and straw,” no match for a blaze.

On the other hand, if everything we pursued pointed to Jesus and gave Him the glory, what’s left on the foundation will be quite a bit different.  Gold, silver, and precious stones have the strength to go untouched by fire.  When the blaze is doused, they will still be there, sparkling and precious to God because it was done for Him.

The temptation is to look at our lives and question our worth.  When everyone claims that true success comes from a Bill Gates bank account or a Jennifer Aniston filmography, we need to stop and consider whose standard matters most.  In the end, we won’t be answering to a panel of judges or a financial institute.  We will be answering to God, our Creator and the “author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  He alone decides our eternity.  More than anything, our cry should be not for worldly success, but to hear our Father God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.  enter into the joy of the Lord.” (Matthew 25:21).