Wednesday, January 28, 2015

NFL Scandal - Is It Really A Big Deal?

The accusations started flying the day after the New England Patriots absolutely demolished the Indianapolis Colts to earn yet another trip to the Super Bowl. By the time the game concluded the score was an embarrassing 45-7. Since then the majority of talk has not been about who will now win the classic duel, but if Tom Brady’s team did in fact cheat to help themselves get there.

The NFL has been investigating whether or not the New England Patriots used under-inflated footballs in the AFC championship game. A report claimed that the league found eleven balls were not filled to the correct specifications. If true, this could have given the Patriots' superstar quarterback an advantage since Brady has said he prefers using a softer ball in challenging weather conditions.

When listening to sports analysts, I noticed a clear division between those who think this infraction, if it did in fact occur, to be a big deal. Some believe that the offending side should be disqualified from any Super Bowl participation. That did not happen of course. But then there were others who simply brushed this off like it is absolutely nothing to get excited over. One radio host stated, “Illegal ball or not, you still have to play the game in order to win.” And former wrestler and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura showed his twisted moral compass by stating, “It is only cheating when you get caught.” Really? Then is a corked baseball bat only illegal if the batter gets a hit using it? Or is a pitcher allowed to alter a baseball on the mound only if his actions do not succeed against the hitters he faces?

There seems to be a growing philosophy today, regardless of any established rules, that bending or breaking them altogether is justifiable - especially if not getting caught while doing so. Studies have revealed that many students now believe it is fine to cheat on exams as long as they can get away with it. And despite joking about cheating on one’s taxes, how many do just that or seriously think about it if a decent opportunity comes and would likely not be discovered?

The bottom line is this: Getting away with anything that is known to be wrong, no matter how minor it may seem, is still wrong. And where this matters most is not in the shifting attitudes of flawed men, but in the eyes of a holy God. His standards are always right, pure, fair and unchanging.

Not only are God’s values perfect, so is His total knowledge of all sin and His righteous judgement of the same. This is clearly outlined in passages like Hebrews 4:13. “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Even when wrongful acts remain behind closed doors in this life, they do not escape the notice and response of an all-knowing Creator (Romans 2:16).

The current NFL scandal will soon find its way to the back pages. It will be either totally dismissed or perhaps result in some token slap-on-the-wrist disciplinary action. After all, professional football is big business above all else. And having the Patriots be front and center is best for the league regardless of whether or not they got there with a little extra help under the training table.

So the human jury remains out on whether or not this whole mess was really wrong and, thus, any big deal or not. But this scandal is not about football, fan reaction or a team's legacy. It is about right versus wrong. It is about truth mattering, not to sports fans and organizations, but to almighty God! It is about sin - large, small, discovered or undiscovered. And it is about the reality that all sin is a big deal to a righteous God - something easily revealed through His Son's death on the cross to deal with it all. And that is the biggest deal of all both in this life and especially in the one to come!

"If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us." (1 John 1:8-10)

Bill Breckenridge

Thursday, January 15, 2015

True Freedom For France?

France has been much in the news recently since becoming the scene of the horrific slaughter by terrorists there. It took place in Paris when ISIS extremists brutally killed 12 people at the offices of a satirical magazine on January 7. It was a bloody time in the nation and has apparently awakened the masses to the reality of the dangers around them.

The reaction to this massacre quickly developed into a massive movement that began online and spilled into the streets just days later. A reported 3.7 million people, including world leaders, marched in anti-terrorism rallies in Paris and elsewhere in France on Sunday on January 11. French officials called the massive gathering in the nation's capital the largest in France's history.

At the same time, a new slogan hit the social media. It began on Twitter and then spread from there. It was called "Je suis Charlie". That is French for, "I am Charlie". It was adopted by supporters of free speech and expression following the murders at Charlie Hebdo -  the liberal newspaper that suffered the attack for offending the terrorists with some of their articles and cartoons about Islam.  The slogan quickly became one of the most popular hashtags in Twitter history.

Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, spoke out concerning the intense reaction in France. He said, “Instead of being successful at silencing anyone, these attempts at censorship and the Paris massacre have backfired and, instead, brought more awareness and support to freedom of speech. For more than 220 years, in the U.S., the 45 words of the First Amendment have defined the nation’s core freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. We now have another few words that will serve as a global means of declaring those freedoms: #JeSuisCharlie.”

While what Mr. Policinski said is certainly true, America today has been playing with a lopsided playing field when it comes to the guarantee to free speech for all. In recent years, certain groups are being more and more muzzled against speaking out about their basic beliefs and views. Those being stifled belong primarily to the evangelical Christian camp. And amazingly, this is occurring not in a highly secularized country like France but in so-called Christian America!

The examples are easily sited and especially seen when the name of Jesus Christ is used, or even referred to, in public institutions of learning. The same attitude is often seen at  Christmas where even nativity scenes have become taboo. The secular media glazes over, or quickly changes the subject, when anything solidly biblical or overtly Christian is brought up. In short, America is now moving more towards freedom from religion. Religious liberty is there in print and principle, but is shrinking in practice!

France is attempting to stand tall and show that they will not give up their freedom of speech – especially to an aggressive and bloodthirsty regime. That is great. But what France and every nation needs most is another brand of freedom. She needs what comes from Christ, the Prince of Peace, who said, “If the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.” (John 8:36) This was not some form of national, societal or political freedom such as was being sought by Israel back in that day. He spoke of a personal spiritual freedom a possession that liberates the soul from the present power and final penalty of human sin. Christ gives the kind of freedom that alone effectively deals with the degenerate condition of the human heart and the kind of things just witnessed in Paris.

France was just reminded in a graphic fashion that death can come to anyone, anywhere and at any moment. And while this gruesome incident has the nation galvanized on retaining their freedom of speech, hopefully some there will also realize something far more critical than "Je suis Charlie". Hopefully some will see the absolute vale of the freedom that comes from salvation in Christ. And hopefully some will recognize that it is spiritual redemption that brings true peace and protection in this life and absolute preparation for the next.

"Jesus said to him, 'I am the way , the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.'"  (John 14:6)
Bill Breckenridge

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Unbroken by Man - Saved by God

He was an Olympic runner, American military hero, prisoner of war and  inspirational speaker. And now his amazing life has been made into a full-length movie showing just six months after his death.

His name is not as recognizable today because he was born back in January of 1917 in Olean, New York. He is Louis Silvie Zamperini, a very special and unique man whose life on earth ended this past July in Los Angeles, California. He was 97.

Louie Zamperini was born in New York to Italian immigrants. He and the family moved to Torrance, California in 1919. Louis attended high school there, but because he and his family spoke no English when they arrived, he was often a target for bullies. That led his father to teach his son how to box and defend himself. Soon he was quite capable and maybe enjoyed fighting a bit too much. In order to help him stay away from conflicts, his older brother, a track star, got his younger sibling involved in the sport.

Before long, Louie began taking his new craft seriously and trained relentlessly. This was evidenced when he went undefeated in cross-country for his last three years in high school. In 1934, Zamperini set a world interscholastic record for the mile clocking in at 4 minutes and 21 seconds. Later he won at the CIF California State Meet championships leading to a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Louie was on his way.

Shortly thereafter, Zamperini decided to try out for the Olympics and qualified for the 1936 Summer games in Berlin, Germany. Athletes back then had to pay their way to the Olympic Trials. But Louie was able to get a free train ticket because his dad worked for the railroad. He chose to run the 5,000-meter event and, at age 19 ½, he remains the youngest American qualifier ever in that race.

Although he was on the team, Louie was not considered to have much chance of winning the 5000-meter race against the world record holder of that day. He would ultimately finish eighth, but his speedy final lap of 56 seconds flagged the attention of Adolph Hitler who then insisted on a personal meeting. After the games, Louie enrolled at the University of Southern California where he would set a national collegiate mile record of 4:08 minutes. The record held up for fifteen years before being bested.

But in September of 1941, Louis Zamperini's life took a dramatic turn when he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces with a rank of second lieutenant. He was deployed to the Pacific as a bombardier. At one point, he was transferred back to Hawaii and assigned to conduct a search mission for a lost aircraft and crew using a B-24 Green Hornet. The craft had a shaky mechanical reputation, and on May 27, 1943 the bomber crashed into the ocean 850 miles from base and killing eight of the 11 men aboard.

The three survivors subsisted on captured rainwater and small fish while battling constant shark attacks and nearly being capsized by a storm. After 33 days, one of the crew members died at sea. It was on their 47th day adrift, that Louie and his partner reached the Marshall Islands and were immediately captured by the Japanese Navy. They were held in captivity, severely tortured, and mistreated until the end of the war in August of 1945. Zamperini weighed just 65 pounds when he emerged from the grueling POW ordeal.

Upon his release, he returned to a hero's welcome. He married Cynthia Applewhite in 1946. They remained together until her death in 2001. But early on, the marriage became very strained as Louie began to party with celebrities. He drank heavily in attempts to ease post-traumatic stress symptoms and the constant nightmares from his haunting experience. He had repeating dreams about the prison guard known as "The Bird” who had singled him out for extra harsh treatment wanting to make an example of the American Olympic runner.

It was just when Zampirini’s wife was at the end of her marital rope that she was invited by a neighbor to go to an evangelistic meeting. She agreed. It was at the large Los Angeles, California gathering that she heard a young, somewhat unknown, preacher give a message that changed her life. His name was Billy Graham. Cynthia heard the gospel message of the forgiveness of sin and a new heart and life through Jesus Christ. She responded to the invitation to trust Christ and became born-again believer on the spot. This new-found life gave her a new perspective on her badly struggling husband and she changed her mind about leaving him. Instead, she invited Louie to attend one of the meetings to hear the words that had changed her life and eternal destiny.

Of course, in his condition, Louie refused. He then later agreed to go but walked out of the meeting before having to hear or do anything he considered uncomfortable. But he would soon return and be reminded of promises he made to God back on that rescue raft and in the POW camp. He, too, responded to Graham’s message and came by faith to Christ to be forgiven of sin and healed by the love and power of God.  Louie was a new man.

His conversion was so dramatic that he decided to become a missionary to Japan and to preach the Gospel to the very guards who had tormented him during the war and killed many of his friends. Billy Graham helped Zamperini launch a new career as a Christian inspirational speaker. One of his recurring themes was "forgiveness", and he visited many of the guards from his POW days to let them know that he had forgiven them. This included an October 1950 visit to Sugamo Prison in Tokyo where many war criminals were imprisoned. Zamperini embraced those who stepped forward to acknowledge that they recognized him. He told CBN that some there became Christians in response to his forgiveness and appeal to trust his Savior.

Four days before his 81st birthday in January 1998, Zamperini ran a leg in the Olympic Torch relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan not far from the POW camp where he had been held. While there, he attempted to meet with his chief tormentor during the war, but was refused. Upon his return to the States, Louis created the Victory Boys Camp for wayward youth, where he taught other juvenile delinquents the love of God and the skills to succeed in life.

How could there come such a change of heart and life? It was because of what Louie believed and stated openly, “Christ told us in the Scripture, 'I am the way, I am the truth and I am the life.' Christ is the way to God, the way is the truth. People are always seeking truth; the truth is Christ, and He’s the life. But I think our eternal life starts now by faith in Jesus Christ. That is the strength we live by, and death no longer has a sting… not to the Christian.”

As mentioned at the outset, a movie has been produced of this amazing story. “Unbroken" was directed by Angelina Jolie and was released in December around the country. I have not seen the film, but I do know that it covers primarily the life of Louis Zamperini up until his great spiritual conversion and life of serving God. That aspect of his life is downplayed for the most part in the film. That is really a shame in many ways, but it is something that Christians should not by now be shocked over. It is frustrating to see the spiritual aspect of a story like this given such a minute role since that really represents such a huge part of this man’s life.

But then I read something from a well-known Christian leader who gave another slant on this issue. He said in essence, How often do the secular film makers ever get any spiritual or Biblical facts or truth right? How often do they take liberties or misrepresent what Scripture says and mean? So do we really want to see Hollywood’s version on what really happened to a Louie Zamperini in the spiritual realm? So isn’t it better for those who know Christ to themselves take this great story, and use what it does reveal, to then tell the rest of the story of what God did in and through this remarkable man? That is a fair and valid point. 

Louie Zamperini lived a full life -- one most of us can only marvel at. He is today in heaven and in the presence of the God He came to know and serve. But you are still here. And today you either know his Savior, or you do not. If you have not experienced the forgiveness and the unconditional grace of God, do what Louie did in that tent so long ago. Trust Christ. Make Him your personal Savior today. Nothing you will ever do, or be, in this life will ever compare to the present and eternal blessings of having a new heart and life in Christ.

As Louie Zamperini said long ago, "People are always seeking truth; the truth is Christ, and He’s the life."