By Scott Hilgendorff / Cowboys of the Cross
Last year, I jokingly posted to social media an online order for a cattle prod. I don’t have cattle. It was a tool I wanted to carry with me to keep people the full six feet away from me that we were learning was part of the guidelines for dealing with the pandemic we were just beginning to face.
But all of Scripture isn’t about keeping people at a distance, it’s about God wanting us to be with Him, free from His judgment of our sin.
James 4: 7-10 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
James gives us just one of several direct references in the Bible of God wanting us to draw near to Him. Here, he is stressing the importance of turning from sin and repenting, first by telling us to submit to God, fight the devil and the temptation of sin and to turn to God instead.
James tells us if we move toward God, God will come toward us but stresses we approach God with a heart purified of sin.
Regardless of how people have felt about the pandemic and how it has been handled across the country and around the world, we’ve spent the past year either fighting against being kept apart from each other in our communities and churches or we’ve been willingly staying apart in effort to protect people we care about like vulnerable grandparents. Either way, it’s been difficult and challenging for Christians who understand we’re meant to be in community together just like we’re meant to be close to God.
We’ve been dealing with a lot of situations that have felt contradictory to what we believe.
And James gives us another seemingly contradictory statement in verse nine.
Here, he tells us something that sounds like it’s contradictory. We know through other books of the Bible and through our own experiences that our salvation brings about joy, understanding that when we have a saving faith in Jesus, we have gained a perfect eternity in Heaven. Fruit of the Spirit is something that forms in us when our salvation is real and one of those fruits is joy. Yet James is telling us to grieve and move from joy to gloom.
But what James is telling us in this single verse is just how serious our repentance of sin should be.
Our sin separates us from God and He will judge and condemn it. But He sent Jesus to briefly live among us, close to us, fully God and fully man. While his disciples didn’t understand it at the time, Jesus was here to die and take the full punishment that was meant for them and all of us. Through his sacrifice, we could be restored to a right relationship with God. Through believing Jesus was the son of God, died for our sins and was resurrected, we must repent of our sin and ask to be forgiven. When our faith and repentance is real, we’re given a perfect, eternal life in Heaven instead of eternal punishment in hell.
James wants us to grieve our sin that has kept us separated from God. He wants us to be humble before God but with the understanding God will come close to us—close enough to ‘lift us up.’
How wonderful is that to worship God who despite all our mistakes and failings, wants to be that close to us?
By Will Brunke / Special to Cowboys of the Cross
One of my most consistently used metaphors is that “bull riding emulates life and life emulates bull riding”. Likening the unique struggles and confrontations of life that are so often imitated on a minute scale in a sporting event is nothing new. So, it came as a shock and with some disappointment in myself when I was hit in the teeth with an epiphany that seemed so obviously clear, considering my love and probable over-use of metaphors.
Teaching a bull riding clinic of young men and young boys on a cool weekend this fall, I settled into a gamut of trick questions in order to open up the riders ‘ thought processes and to give them examples of easy pitfalls that inexperienced riders can get bogged down in. The premise was simple; be careful of the words that are tossed around the bucking chutes and how you apply them.
For example; a person may have the best of intentions when they are supporting you as you ride, all the while screaming at you, “REACH!!! REACH for the front!!” In reality, this is probably some of the worst advice you can get and can dramatically increase your chances of an early buck-off as well as your chances for an injury. There is almost nothing about “reaching” in bull riding that is mechanically sound. Riders who learn a bad habit such as this tend to hit a brick wall in their riding that they can never seem to get around. The point I was trying to express to the group was that it is imperative that you understand what words mean for better or worse. How many of us take words and advice at face value without using our critical thinking to analyze and evaluate possible outcomes? At this point, in jest, I banned the word “reach” from the rest of the clinic. But what was more important is that I inserted a new vocabulary in place of the flawed one — this time with meaning.
In short, after some constructive conversation, open dialog, and some examples and drills on the barrels, an overwhelming look of exuberance began to appear from most of the group. They got it. They were now hungry for more and fully engaged after having a proverbial blindfold removed. The spoon-fed were now feeling like hunters after the realizations had past that not only did this new way make sense, but its truths cleared the thorny underbrush away and created a template that the riders could gauge their technique and future advices against. The words in the Bible are like this for many.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus was telling those who began following him, and those who were trying to discredit them that his true followers would follow his teaching and not that of the religious elite that were using their position to hold power over people. John 5: 31-32 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The words of scripture can be an emancipator, setting you free. Used incorrectly the words can become an enslaver. One person can lead or mislead many out of the truest intentions depending on the level of understanding the teacher possesses and the level of spoon-fedness to which the audience may be inclined. Unfortunately, some are even led by false teachers with impure intentions. How is this possible? I believe an old bull riding adage can apply; The top 20% of riders haul in 80% of the prize money. Which means 80% of bull riders are struggling with the sport and, more often than not, donators to the purse. I believe the same is true on a more Christian front; 20% of Christians are hunters of the truth and can easily disseminate false teachings from Gospel truth. However, that means that 80% of Christians are struggling with scripture, have a loose grasp of the Gospel and are easily swayed toward the fringes where words and phrases like, “prosperity”, “morally good”, or “you’re perfect just the way you are”, run rampant and the generalized vagueness of salvation are currently leading many to despair.
I feel blessed to take a moment and think about some of my closest friends in my life and realize that they are also hunters of the truth who hold me accountable, ask tough questions, and point indiscriminately to scripture. These people are my trusted traveling partners in my walk with Christ. But just like at the bull riding clinic, I believe my friends and I have a great template to measure ourselves and our technique against. It’s the teachings from Jesus himself. Everything in the Bible from beginning to end points toward Him. During Jesus’ time on earth, he spoke only truths and eschewed many religious habits, fringe beliefs, and false teachers. And just like then, today his truth is infallible. It stands up against any test and strips the sheep’s clothing from the wolves.
John 8:32 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.
In the end, the only way my students take the next leap in their bull riding career is if they take an infallible bull riding truth and continually apply that in practice until the correct reaction is near automatic. Likewise, there is only so much a “come-to-Jesus” moment can give us unless we affirm that newfound understanding with practice in reading Jesus’ words of truth. Therein lies the ultimate template to gauge yourself by.
Yes, your hometown church may be fine. Your mega-church may be setting attendance records. That unsubstantiated “preacher” with no church affiliation might be a likeable guy. But just ask yourself, who or what is your template based upon? It’s a fair question to spend some time on….. unless you are too busy being spoon-fed by a wolf.
Will is a retired Pennsylvania bull rider who occasionally gets back in the arena to teach bull riding schools or clinics.
The bull in the chutes is shifting and kicking the closed roll gate behind him and a hand reaches down to grab the cowboy by his shoulder, ready to help lift him out if the situation goes from rough to dangerous. The rider in the chutes is ranked number three in the association and the young man who is spotting him is ranked number four.
Both are fighting for to make the season championship and both need as big a share of the $3,000 added-money as they can get to push they were up in the standings. The one reaching out for the other needs a win to pay back money he borrowed for his fees and to be able to enter the next event.
Regardless of the outcome each of them needs, in that moment, the greatest need of the bull rider on the back of the bull is to be safe and his competitor knows that.
Galatians 6:1-5 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. 2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. 3 If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. 4 Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, 5 for each one should carry their own load.
That scene easily plays out at any given rodeo. It can be a steer wrestler borrowing a horse because his came up lame when they unloaded the horse trailer. Sure, there are lots of squabbles in the rodeo and equine industries, but there’s just as much hands helping each other.
When one person is struggling, we’re called to help each other. In this particular case, Paul is talking about restoring someone who is caught up in a sin, being careful not to get dragged into the sin, but to help pull the person out, just like the rider is literally ready to pull his friend out of the chute.
We have responsibilities given to us by God. Galatians 6:5 tells us we need to carry our own loads but sometimes we can’t do it alone and we need a helping hand from a friend. That’s what Paul is reminding Christians in Galatia in this letter. We have to help each other when simply can’t help ourselves. You’re on your own when the chute gate opens and bare the responsibility of completing the work (making eight) but someone has to help you in the chutes. Sometimes you nod for the gate without any complications and sometimes it gets pretty rough.
You can get down in there with more confidence when you know someone’s got your back, putting your needs ahead of theirs. Whose back do you have and whose got yours when it comes to living out your Christian faith?