There Be Dragons

Thanks to my daughter Jessica for this Gem!

“Fairy tales are more than true:
not because they tell us that dragons exist,
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

— G. K. Chesterton —


“We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.  To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” (Colossians 1:28-29)

It’s called many things today, power, energy, drive, vitality.  Here Paul calls it “energy.”  And even though, as I look through these verses, I find some great topics — teaching, laboring, struggling — it’s the “energy” that intrigues me the most.  What is this “energy” that enables Paul to teach, labor and struggle?  What is it that is working “so powerfully” in him?  What is the fuel for the Christian life?  What do you put in your tank?  What enables you to start in the morning?  What keeps you running all day?  What fuels your commitment, your obedience, your ministry?  I need to understand this because there are so many inferior fuels out there.

I have a friend who filled up at a gas station and then broke down three blocks down the road.  He discovered he had one gallon of gas and 10 gallons of water.  Or, you hear that clattering engine noise as you drive up a hill and you ask yourself “Why did I buy that cheap gas?”  

Bad fuel.  Cheap gas.  There’s a lot of it around.

Fear is an inferior fuel.  You can’t run a life on it.  You can’t run a family on.  It you can’t run a business on it.  This is why Jesus said over and over, “don’t be afraid” (Mt. 10:31, 14:27, 17:7, Mk. 5:36, 6:50, Lk. 5:10, 8:50, 12:7, Jn. 6:20). This is why John wrote, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn. 4:18).  Fear is a bad fuel.

Determination is also an inferior fuel.  I have a friend who lives on determination.  There is a lot of rigid order in his life.  He is a very disciplined athlete.  He is also unyielding and unbending in his business practices.  And all of this has carried over into Christian life.  And so, when he succeeds, he is proud, he boasts and he takes all the credit.  But when he fails, he becomes angry, frustrated and he blames others.  His determination has not given him what he has needed.  Determination will run out.  It can be twisted.  It is an inferior fuel.  But fear and determination are not our only fuel choices.

The fuel of habit is high on the list.  I have learned that often a weakness is a strength that has been over-played.  And so, courage over-played becomes recklessness.  Sensitivity over-played becomes timidity.  Leadership over-played can become selfishness.  And habit is the same.  It can be over-played. 

Now, this is not a treatise against the practice of good habits.  Good habits are wonderful.  But what happens when you over-play habit  What does it become?  Habitual.  Just think of some of the synonyms for habitual — mechanical, routine, automated, artificial, thoughtless.  Isn’t it possible to be moving along in your Christian life, not wavering to the left or the right, but staying on the straight and narrow, not because you are grateful to God, or because you’re convicted by his word?  Not because you are touched by the plight of others or because you are moved by your time alone with God in prayer?  But because your Christian habits have become artificial, thoughtless, plastic.  Yes, habit alone is an inferior fuel.

And we could add several other versions of these inferior fuels — tradition, pride, arrogance, power, selfishness.

And Paul is very aware of these inferior fuels.  His earlier life had run on them.  And so, over and over, in this short letter, he describes a much better fuel:

1:3 — “we always thank God”
1:12 — “joyfully giving thanks to the Father”
2:7 — “overflowing with thankfulness”
3:15 — “and be thankful”
3:16 — “with gratitude in your hearts”
3:17 — “giving thanks to God the Father”
4:2 — “being watchful and thankful”

This is Paul’s fuel — Gratitude.  And it never runs out.

In his book, God Is Inescapable, Dr. David Soper writes that the basic difference between a prison and a monastery is simply the difference between griping and gratitude.  I think he’s right.  Criminals spend their days griping; saints spend their days offering thanks.  And to take the analogy a step further, when a criminal becomes a saint his prison can become a monastery.  Or, when a saint gives up gratitude, even his monastery becomes a prison.  Even his church becomes discouraging, disappointing, a prison.

You see, Paul was in prison when we wrote:

“I thank Christ Jesus our lord,
who has given me strength,
that he considered me faithful,
appointing me to his service.”
— 1 Timothy 1:12 —

Years ago, when Kipling was one of the more popular writers, it was reported that he received 10 shillings for every word he wrote.  As a joke, some university students sent him 10 shillings with a note, “Send us one of your very best words.”  Kipling wrote back one word …


It is still one of our very best words.

The Ultimate Hero

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.” — Mark 1:40-41

“Long before I reached her place, a putrid smell burned my nostrils. It was a smell you could almost lean on. Soon I could see an immense garbage dump by the sea, the accumulated refuse of a large city that had been stagnating and rotting for many months. The air was humming with flies. At last I could make out human figures – people covered with sores – crawling over the mounds of garbage. They had leprosy, and more than a hundred of them, banished from Karachi, had set up home in this dump. Sheets of corrugated iron marked off shelters, and a single dripping tap in the center of the dump provided their only source of water. But there, beside this awful place … I found Dr. Pfau.” — from Fearfully and Wonderfully Made

John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.Mark 1:4-5

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. — Matthew 3:13-15

John may have been the first, but he was certainly not the last to raise the question. Why was Jesus baptized? We can understand John’s reluctance. He was baptizing for repentance and forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:4). For what sin did Jesus need forgiveness? What correction was required in his life?

For centuries the classic answers have proved helpful. Jesus wanted to identify with sinners. He wanted to set an example of obedience. But still, John’s question nags.

Jesus knew the aim of John’s mission. He knew the purpose of John’s baptism. He knew what kind of people came to the river. They swarmed the banks of the Jordan like lepers on the Karachi garbage dump. Wounded by greed. Diseased with lust. Infected by selfishness. Covered with the sores of human failure. All of them … except Jesus.

I have often imagined how that day at the Jordan could have gone. As the only one free of sin, the human plague, Jesus could have remained above the whole sinful scene. Imagine him, standing high in the hills surrounding the Jordan valley, separate and distinct from the human failure below. He could even have made an announcement: “You are gathered down there because you are infected with failure. I stand up here because I am free of failure. You should be like me.” Nothing would have been truer or less helpful to those infected by the human plague.

In fact, such an announcement could more easily have been made from heaven. Why stand at the edge of the lowest point on the face of the earth when you can stand at the highest place in existence? Why be born into a peasant family when your Father owns the universe? Why shield your true identity in order to grow up in obscurity? Why? Because the ultimate human plague requires the ultimate hero.

Today’s heroes commit themselves to the victims of misery. They risk their own health, but take necessary precautions. They seek a solution, but pray for personal protection. And no one expects the search for a solution to require more of them than an understandable risk.

Not so with the ultimate human plague. Jesus knew that his commitment was more than risky. He knew that the only precaution he could take was to refuse the mission. He knew that the only solution for the human plague was for him to take upon himself the sin disease of others … intentionally.

So he climbed down from his high point. He joined the mass of failure-infected people in the Jordan valley. He submitted to a rite of cleansing reserved for the terminally infected. And it shook John. It was so unusual, so unheard of, for even the greatest of heroes, that John “tried to deter him.”

John was the forerunner. He had announced Jesus’ coming. He knew of his power and his mission. But he never expected this. In fact, no one had really counted the cost of the human plague. No one had looked that far ahead … except Jesus.

Driven by love and compassion, Jesus went to the root of our disease. He aimed at the source of all misery. His baptism was a personal and public commitment, not to research and treat the human plague, but to contract it and thereby heal it.

It was a difficult and courageous choice. This is why the Father immediately affirmed Jesus’ decision: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). And this is also why Satan immediately attacked his decision. “If you are the Son…” (Matthew 4:1-11).

So, why was Jesus baptized? So that John could identify the Christ? Yes. So that Jesus could identify with the human race? Absolutely. To set an example of obedience? Of course. But, more than this, in a very real sense, Jesus was baptized for the forgiveness of sins … but not his own. His baptism was his decision to go to the Cross, the only permanent solution for human failure.

He began his ministry with an unavoidable baptism. He ended it with an undeserved crucifixion. It was his deliberate choice. He was moving into the heart of the human plague as the ultimate hero.

“If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing.”

Paradise is not a Place

Imagine that you are having your routine physical.  The doctor checks your blood pressure, your heart rate, and your cholesterol.  In fact, she runs a whole range of blood tests.  She listens to your breathing, asks about your medical history, and checks for any allergies.  And then, she checks … your attitude, your outlook on life.  She wants to know how optimistic you are.  Are you hostile?  Do you carry anger or worry around with you?  And before you conclude that these last questions are too personal, let me correct myself.  I said, “imagine” a routine physical.  You don’t really have to imagine.  Paul Costa Jr., former head of The National Institute on Aging said, “personality has to be assessed as a standard part of health work-ups.”  Not only good food, but also good thoughts are important for physical, mental, and spiritual health.

And so, what kind of food do we serve our minds?  Criticism, complaining, bitterness, blame?  With this kind of nourishment, what will grow inside?  Probably not hope or joy or patience or optimism.  Carefully and thoughtfully read Philippians 4:8-9.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Paul is not simply telling us to do the right thing; he is telling us to do what is right for us.

Ilene Siegler, of Duke University Medical School says that that “hostility is the most health damaging type-A quality.”  Carol Franz, of Boston University did a ten-year study of optimistic people and found that, “regardless of how much stress they had to cope with, people high in this kind of motivation had better health.”  Then there is the twenty year Duke University study of more than four hundred men and women that found that the most suspicious and hostile people in the group stood the smallest chance of even surviving that twenty year span.

I always find it interesting when the “experts” of humanity reach a conclusion that God has been saying all along.  “Think on these things.”  “Put it into practice.”  “And the peace of God will be with you.”

The Power of Contemplation: “think”  Mull it over, repeat it to yourself, write it down, talk about it, sing about it.  It was Alexander Pope who wrote; “Some people will never learn anything because they understand everything too soon.”
The Power of Selection: “on these things”  Not on “those things” but on “these things.”  Fix your attention on what is good and change the channel on what is bad.  Yes, there is evil in the world, and no, you can’t turn away and pretend it’s not there.  But, when you choose your focus, your center of attention; when you select the kind of thinking that you will serve to your mind, choose carefully.
The Power of Action: “put it into practice”  This is because it’s not meant for my head, but for my heart.  Complete life change is the goal.  And if my diet is consistent and constant, then the outcome will be unavoidable.  My heart will change and my life (practice) will show the transformation.

I remember when my friend Rick, on a whim, applied for a teaching job on one of the Hawaiian Islands.  He had grown up on St. Louis, attended college in Missouri and never really expected to get the job … but he did!  He was excited and amazed.  But after living there for a while and experiencing real life, even in “vacationland,” he wrote me and said, “I’ve learned that ‘Paradise’ is not a place, it’s a state of mind.”  Thankfully, Rick knew the Father and he knew what to serve his mind.

Of the eight qualities Paul lists, which do you need the most?  Why?
What will you do first to give God control of your thoughts?