From Pain to Praise

What if God wanted us to use our trials to showcase His sufficiency?

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We generally don’t have a choice when it comes to pain and suffering invading our lives, causing tears to flow, nights marked with restlessness, and if we’re not careful, leaving our minds full of doubt, spirits bitter, and souls unsatisfied. While we don’t have a choice over some of the trials that knock on the door to our lives, we do choose how we greet that trial. I have come to believe that trials are the stage upon which Christians either present to the watching audience a crippled and defeated life or one that showcases Jesus as more than enough. 

A few years ago, my secretary put a call through to my office. On the other end was a church member that had heard of a lady involved in a horrible car accident that took her husband’s life, and had been transferred to the local nursing home for rehabilitation. With no details, other than the potential to find someone that was discouraged and depressed, I made my way out to visit. On the way, I spent time in prayer, asking God to use me to introduce this lady to the Lord or to encourage her faith. I was not prepared for what I found upon entering that room.

When I entered her room, I found a bright-eyed owner of one of those “light up a room” smiles! I thought I had the wrong place. Nope. After a few minutes, I found out that in one tragic car accident, she had lost her husband, her legs, her dog, her car, and even her house, as the money from the sale of it was used to pay for her medical bills. Almost in tears after hearing her tragic story, I asked if I could pray for her, to which she replied something like, “I am fine! I still have my Jesus, and He is enough. Let’s pray together for all of the hurting and lonely folks in this nursing home.” Wow! But that is not even the best part of the story. After I left that room, I went to the nurse’s station to ask how long she would be at the facility and to make my intention of future visits known. The nurse told me to check at the information desk before each visit because she was never in the same room. Do you know why? The nursing staff moved her from room to room to encourage other patients who were depressed after having knee and hip replacement surgeries!

Every one of over 4,000 religions in our world looks to suffering as an inconvenience that should be avoided, prayed away, or as punishment for a past life of sin. Only Christianity offers a purpose for our suffering; that it “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-4, ESV). Again, trials are the stage upon which Christians present to the watching audience a crippled and defeated life or one that showcases Jesus as more than enough.

When I visited that dear saint, I was but 30 years old and relatively healthy. Since then, I have been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, had five shoulder surgeries, one back surgery, and am currently on a three-month leave of absence for high blood pressure and other issues. What I learned from that Gloria over twenty years ago was how we respond when trials enter our lives, determines our faith growth rate, and what kind of an impact we will have on others. The next time circumstance invades and disrupts your life, remember the stage is set for you to present a God of power and peace to this world; the question is, are you willing to fill that role with passion and purpose?

Scripture: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. -James 1:2-4, ESV

Question: The next time a trial comes into your life, instead of praying it away or griping about how miserable you are, would you be willing to use it as an opportunity to showcase the sufficiency of God?

Prayer: Father, please help me to spend less time praying trials away and more time realizing you have a purpose for every circumstance that comes my way. If trials are your way of growing my faith, producing steadfastness, and conforming me into the image of your Son, then bring the rain. I want my life to make a difference, so please give me the faith and strength to persevere, and I will provide you with a heart of willingness. Thank you for loving me, and thank you for using me to share your power and purpose in this world. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

It Hurts So Good

Forgiveness is a dish best served on the plate of love with a spoon of grace.

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As I rounded the corner of the hospital hall that day, I was not expecting who I would be faced with, an encounter I prayed would never again happen. At that very moment, as I rounded the corner, I went from joyful to angry with even my fists clenching as if they had a mind of their own. There he stood, the man that relentlessly hindered and criticized my leadership, allowed my family to be persecuted, chased my son out of town, and had nothing but a smirk of victory on his face when my three young daughters had their Christmas play parts taken away days before the performance. And, this all happened in a church I pastored where this man seemed to make it his goal in life to oust me from ministry with verbal challenges like, “Pastor, I’ve been here through many pastors, and will be here well after you leave.” From finding several want ads circled in red from the local paper on my desk to my children being the only ones not served communion during Children’s Church. These are but a few examples of what my family went through over my five-year tenure. But, that chapter of my life was over; God had released me from that culture and called me to start a new church, a place where my family found joy, peace, and purpose. I had been gone from that toxic church environment for over two years when I found myself in the hallway of that hospital facing the man I had never forgiven, with fists clenched, frozen in time. And there we stood, no words spoken for what seemed like minutes, resembling two cowboys in the old west waiting for the clock to strike high noon before drawing our weapons.

During one of my early counseling sessions in ministry, I addressed two church members that refused to forgive each other over a past argument. Time had done nothing but make matters worse with these members shunning each other, gossiping about one another, and even sitting as far from each other in the sanctuary as they could. The story I used to facilitate reconciliation was that of Corrie ten Boom, taken from her book, The Hiding Place:

It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947, and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.…”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence, collected their wraps, in silence left the room. And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were! [Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.] Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!” And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze. “You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,” he was saying, “I was a guard there.” No, he did not remember me. “But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Chris-tian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,” again the hand came out—”will you forgive me?” And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again been forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking? It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do. For I had to do it—I knew that.

The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that. And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too.

Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. “… Help!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.” And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes. “I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!” For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then.

Corrie ten Boom

As I stood frozen in time, facing this man that had caused my family so much pain and suffering, God reminded me of this story of His power and love. So, I stretched out my hand in greeting, held my breath, and said a prayer. He never took my hand; he just walked around me without a word. Later that day in my office, I drafted a letter to him, asking his forgiveness for my part in our feud, and mailed it out. I never heard anything back. And, that was alright; my forgiving this man had nothing to do with him and everything to do with my stewardship of the forgiveness and love God had given me. 

Hanging from the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive the very ones that nailed Him there and that were gathered around mocking and hurting Him (Luke 23:34). Their repentant hearts didn’t precipitate his request, and it certainly didn’t compel them to seek reconciliation, yet Jesus held out both hands and offered it anyway.

If you have lived long enough, others have hurt you. And, if you have not forgiven them, truly and completely let it go, bitterness has marked your life. Please take it from me; it will consume you until you forgive them and do everything in your power to reconcile. Never forget that the forgiveness God has offered you is not yours to keep but His to give out. You not only have the command to forgive others, but God has given you the power through the Holy Spirit to do the seemingly impossible.

Scripture: “Bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” -Colossians 3:13, ESV

Question: While you were reading today’s devotion, did a particular situation and person come to your mind? Are there still feelings of anger and bitterness?

Prayer: Father, it is hard to let some things go, especially when mistreated. Please help me remember that you are the only One qualified to be the judge and jury, and trust you even when I am hurt. I ask for the strength to forgive, the heart to love, and the faith to believe that you can work things out.  Please help me follow your Son’s example being slow to anger and quick to reconcile. May I be willing to face my fears today and, with your help, put this behind me once and for all. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

That’s So Raven

The most tragic experience to ever darken the door of a soul is to feel forgotten.

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I remember reporting to my first unit in the Coast Guard, scared, nervous, and out of my comfort zone. I was escorted to the birthing area and assigned a rack and locker, and told to wait until my mentor came to get me for a tour of the ship. There I waited, all night long. I finally resigned to the fact that my command had forgotten about me; unwilling to explore out of fear I would get in trouble, I laid down and slept. In the morning, I was awaken by an announcement that lunch was being served on the mess deck. Eventually, hunger overcame any fear of reprimand, and I went to look for that mess deck. By the time I found it, the cook had shut the doors, and lunch was over. It was at that very moment I felt completely and utterly alone. Separated from my family and friends by almost 4,000 miles with no way to communicate, I ended the day in my rack, forgotten and alone.

I have often wondered about Noah, yes, he had his family, but I wonder if he ever felt that God had forgotten about him. It is much different from believing you have been forgotten by people than been left alone by God Himself. God had been speaking to Noah, giving instructions on building the ark, directions on who should be loaded up, and when it was time to enter. Then, for the next 150 days, silence. If Noah was anything like us, it was during that season of silence that he started wondering, questioning, and perhaps even doubting. And, if Satan has not changed, it was during the season of silence that he spoke the loudest in the ears of Noah, “God has forgotten about you.”

After about seven months in the ark, it landed on the mountain top, and there it remained for forty days. It was then Noah opened a window and sent out a raven, which went “to and fro” until there was dry ground (Genesis 8:6, KJV). After the release of the raven, Noah dispatched a dove three times; the dove returned after the first trip empty-handed, with an olive branch on the second run, and did not return after being released the third time. Why, though, did Noah release the raven? And, was the raven’s trip unsuccessful? He never returned, he remained in the air, with the dove, until all was safe for Noah and his family to leave the ark. After some deep studying, I have developed an opinion that I’ve not heard nor read anywhere else; God used the raven to assist the dove in finding the olive branch that would remind Noah God had not forgotten about him. 

There are only four of God’s creation that have linguistic displacement; the ability to communicate about things that are not immediately present, things that are not seen in the current time or place. The four? Humans, bees, ants, and ravens. Only these four can be aware of something somewhere and then communicate that information to another. As a human, I can give my home directions to a friend in another state with such detail they could make the trip and visit with me. Only humans, bees, ants, and ravens have this gift from God. So, could it be that God had Noah send the raven out for this very reason, knowing the raven’s gifts and abilities? Could it be that the raven’s mission was, in fact, successful? Perhaps the raven traveled “to and fro” looking for dry ground, and upon finding an olive tree, led the dove to that very spot and then back to the ark? In my opinion, this is the only theory that makes sense. For Noah, he simply received an olive branch from a dove, a symbol of peace, but for us, we have access to the inner workings of God’s planning and know that God had all of this worked out when He created the raven, perhaps for just this very purpose. How comforting it must have been for Noah to receive a token of remembrance after months of silence, confirmation he was not, after all, forgotten.

How about us? There are certainly times that we feel our prayers are not being answered, times when our world is crashing around us as we wait from the One above us to move through us, yet all we experience is silence. It is during the times of God’s seeming silence that the voice of Satan is the loudest, whispering in our ears, “God has forgotten about you.” My friends, remember the raven. Remember the story of Noah and take comfort in the fact that even though you don’t see God move or hear His voice, He is nevertheless very active in your life. There will come a time when the rain lets up, the winds cease, and the waves settle, that God will send you something that will remind you He was with you the entire time.

Scripture:

Can a woman forget her nursing child And have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. “Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; Your walls are continually before Me.” 

Isa. 49:15-16, ESV

Question: Do you ever get so overwhelmed by the circumstance that you feel that God has forgotten about you? Perhaps ever wonder if God has given up on you or moved on to love someone else that can love Him more or serve Him better?

Prayer: Father, thank you for this story of the raven. I need your help to remember that you will never leave me, especially during the periods of silence. May I know that you are working and moving in my favor. Please give the faith to endure the storm and the peace that comes from trusting you no matter what. Father, I am weak, but you are strong; thank you for holding me with unseen hands and for the gift of your Word that will fill the silence and overcome the voices of the devil. Thank you for always remembering me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen. 

The Giver

God uses both friend and foe to take care of His children.

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I once heard a preacher tell a story of a godly older lady that happened to live next door to an aggressive atheist. Every morning this lady would stand on her front porch, greeting the day with shouts of acclamation and praise. And, every morning the man next door would mock her, shouting over the row of bushes that divided their properties with statements like, “You are praising a God that isn’t there!” and “You crazy old bat, God does not exist, you’re talking to yourself!”. Even through the persecution, she continued her routine over the years, refusing to let man’s doubts shake her faith.  After one long and challenging season, filled with a loss of income, and some health issues, this dear lady found herself with no groceries. That particular morning she stood on her porch, praying aloud, “Father, you know I have no groceries and am hungry, yet I trust you, I believe in you, and I am asking that you provide”. As usual, her neighbor overheard her laments and considered this to be the perfect opportunity to prove her faith was folly, so he started scheming. That morning he went to the grocery store, purchased enough groceries to meet her needs for a solid month, placed them on her front porch, rang the bell, hid behind the bushes, and waited. When she opened her front door and saw the bags of groceries, she immediately went to praising God. Jumping from the bushes, her atheist neighbor shouted as he approached her porch, “You foolish woman, I bought those groceries, not God!”. When the older lady heard her neighbor, she took off running down the sidewalk, her praises seemingly fueled by her atheist neighbor’s confession. She was running around the neighborhood, praising God for His provisions even louder and more passionate than before! Her neighbor, infuriated by her seeming inability to understand his trick, stopped her and asked, “Do you not understand that it was ME who bought you those groceries?” to which she replied, “Why yes, I understand.” The neighbor was even more confused and asked, “Then why do you keep praising God when I bought them”  “Because” she replied, “I think it is awesome that God provided me with the groceries and even made the devil pay for them!”.

Looking to the life of the Apostle Paul, we can see a man provided for by God through many people; some friends and some foes, yet God was behind it all, and Paul recognized this through his praise (Phil. 1:3, Rom. 1:8, I Cor. 1:4). Paul knew that even the very ones responsible for his arrest and imprisonment, God would use for His glory, therefore, worthy of his praise. This ideal could not be more exemplified than in the story found in Joseph’s life in the Old Testament. Joseph, thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his own brothers, stood as the second most powerful man in the known world years later when those very same brothers approached him asking for food through the famine. Joseph did not exact vengeance upon them but rescued them in their hour of need. Joseph comforted his brothers by saying, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50:20, ESV). His words to them reveal an understanding; God uses both friend and foe to bring us closer to Him, make us stronger in Him, and be used more for Him.

We must never forget there is no struggle between good and evil; good will always prevail because God will always be God. While we will never be able to trace God’s hand, we can always trust His heart. And, while it is impossible to figure out “how” God does what He does, we can always trust that God knows what is best for our lives and is a genius at using the foolish things of this world to confuse the wise (I Cor. 1:27).  

Perhaps we don’t really have “enemies” in this world, only tools used in the hands of The Giver to help shape us into the image of His Son.

Scripture: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people.” -I Timothy 2:1, ESV

Question: How about you? Do you struggle when the voices of opposition rise over your praise? Or when those against you mock the power within you? 

Prayer: Father, there seems to be a growing army of opposition toward Christians in our culture. People are against me on social media, mocking me at work, angry that I am a Christian. Please help me see that you are either allowing or sending these people into my life for a purpose. I ask not for understanding, but the faith to believe, the courage to walk the path, the strength to overcome each obstacle, and the love as I face all people, recognizing they are part of your plan for my life. Thank you for knowing what is best, and thank you for your provisions, no matter how they arrive. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

50 Shades of Brown

Jesus did not have blonde hair and blue eyes.

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Moving to Florida from Boston in the 9th grade was challenging for many reasons, but culturally is where I struggled the most. My new home was a 30-foot Airstream trailer beside an orange groove about 30 minutes south of Tampa. One summer afternoon, a few guys from my new school picked me up in their truck to take me to an “event”. Piled in the bed of that truck, with a few guns mounted to the back window, we took off to the center of town. Finding a parking space, we navigated the thick crowds and headed to the steps of the courthouse, the apparent source of the commotion, and the place where a man was shouting through a megaphone. Although I was still unable, through the crowds, to see the man speaking, his message shocked me. It turned out he was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and was spewing his message of hate to a large crowd that seemed to be energized by his ignorance and empowered by his racism. Once we finagled our way to the front of the group, I was even more shocked by this man’s appearance. This speaker of ignorance was in a suit, had a leather briefcase beside him, and looked like a respectable businessman or attorney; the message did not match the outward man. While I don’t remember the specifics of his message, I walked away stunned that in 1985 racism seemed to be thriving with no consequence, boldly proclaimed on the steps of the courthouse in the center of town. Of course, I still chuckle when I remember what did break up the hate and silence the message. That trophy was not awarded to someone in the crowd or even the police protecting these men; nope, it was a massive black man with a giant boom box on his shoulder playing Jungle Love by the Time. This man made his way to the very steps of the courthouse, stood shoulder to shoulder with the police, and then laid down that boombox with the speakers facing the KKK leader, turned it up even louder, and then just stood there until everyone went home.

To be honest, the only thing that has gotten better about racism since then is its ability to hide in the shadows of our seemingly unified country. We may not have “events” on the steps of the courthouse anymore, but make no mistake, racism is still thriving; it has just learned to be more subversive and subtle since being publicly removed from the light. And, tragically, the church is not exempt from this hate, for I have seen more acts of racism in the church than I did in my 14 years of military service. Fueled by our emotions, indoctrinated through tradition, and sustained by our lack of biblical knowledge, racism continues. So, what does the bible say? Did Jesus have blonde hair and blue eyes, making Him superior, hence worthy of cultural emulation?

In the book of Genesis, Moses records the account of our creation in chapter one, that we were all created in the image and likeness of God. A study of the original Hebrew word for “image” proves illuminating and a theological death blow to racism. The root word for “image” is to chisel, or chip away, as an artist does with a rock. But, there is another interpretation of this root word; it can mean “to become dark.” According to the Genesis account, God scooped up some dirt to create the first man, and we know dirt is brown. Science tells us that every human’s pigmentation is brown, just different shades; the lighter brown we call white and the darker brown we call black. While we have become quite proficient in classifying people, especially depending on their race, God says that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9, ESV). The message coming from Peter’s “boombox”; a message that should silence the voices of hate, is that in the economy of God, there is but ONE race.

So, we should be celebrating God’s creativity in the diversity of humanity, not using it to separate ourselves; therefore, silence the message of hope we were called to proclaim. It should be impossible to position ourselves above anyone else when we recognize we all come initially from dirt! As one southern evangelist used to shout from the pulpit, “there are no big shots, are no littles shots, just a bunch of us who ‘ought to have been shot had it not been for the grace of God!”.

Scripture: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” -Galatians 3:28

Question: Do you struggle with loving people that are not like you? Have you ever thought of yourself better than others because of the color of your skin?

Prayer: Father, please help me to see everyone as you see them, through the eyes of love. May I recognize today that everyone was created in your image and likeness, therefore worthy of your love. If there is any racism in my heart, please reveal it that I might confess it. Father, as I go about my day, may I celebrate the diversity in all of your creation, and may others see your love through me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

A Crack in Time

Fearful over death? Are you anxious about when that day will be?

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Another day in bed, unshaven, unshowered, and unwilling to move, I seemed to enjoy this depressed and discouraged state; it became a safe place for me to curl up in the blanket of my misery and misfortune. This dark place had been the spiritual and mental prison I checked myself into for about two weeks in 2009, a place of no prayer or hope.

About two weeks prior, the emergency room doctor admitted me to the hospital for a herniated disk, yet the doctors also found a surprising side diagnosis; polycystic kidney disease; a non-treatable and incurable condition where the kidneys and liver are covered with innumerable cysts that will eventually cause them to shut down, requiring dialysis or a transplant. An ambulance had transported me to the hospital for a back injury, a reward for trying to lift a large speaker, by myself, for an upcoming church service.  During the imaging on my back, the technician saw thousands of cysts covering my kidneys and several dozen stones inside them. Once discharged, all I could seem to dwell on were dark and daunting questions that challenged my faith, haunted my mind, and attacked the foundation of my worldview. Questions like; “Who will take care of my children?”, “Will, my wife, find a man that will love her more?”, “What will become of the church I started?”, and most striking, “Where is God?”. I could not help but think about everything that potentially could fall apart if I were to die so early in life; I had just turned 40 and felt like I had so much left undone both personally and professionally. So, I remained in bed, surrendered to the darkness of my pity, resigned to the fact that death was upon me.

My phone rang; it was either the first time in a week that someone had called or the first time I paid attention to it; either way, I listened to the message once I received my voicemail notification.  One of our church members was in the hospital, and the diagnosis was potentially life-threatening. At first, my flesh shouted, “you are hurting as well; why are people not reaching out to you?” but within minutes, I started to pray and cry out to God for this dear saint I had come to love. Then it hit me, I would leave my house, for the first time in over two weeks, so that I could visit and pray over this church member. Pain marked that entire ride, physically-as I was still recovering from a herniated disk, and spiritually-for the thought of my death continued to consume me. Parking in the clergy space at the local hospital, I remained in my car for what seemed an hour or more; praying for the courage to be around people, the strength to focus on someone besides myself, and the faith to put aside my focus on death, even if just long enough to pray over someone. 

Every step on the sidewalk leading up to the hospital entrance received the drops of my tears; I couldn’t stop thinking past me, my death. “God,” I cried out in an audible burst, uncaring of the audience and crowds, “please help me; I need you.” And God responded. A scripture I had given in counseling and through prayer to many others over the years shot in my mind and found a home in the fertile fields of my hopeless heart; “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27, ESV). That word, “appointed” hit me like never before as my foot landed on a crack in the pavement; God has a date set on his calendar for my death. Time seemed to freeze as I stood there, foot on that crack, contemplating that verse and praying for its roots to take hold in my heart; hoping for a fast-growing tree whose cover would bring relief from the torching fire of my fears. It was there, on that crack, the joy of my salvation was restored because of the message received; God was not done with me yet! My death is on God’s calendar, not mine. And, until that day comes, medical diagnosis or not, I am bulletproof. I can show you that crack to this very day; it is my Crack in Time, the place where God reminded me of His sovereignty and where I recommitted my life of service to God. 

Walking into that hospital was one of the best days of my life; I could not wait to enter that hospital room and share the hope that was within me with the struggling church member. Once beside her bed, she told me the diagnosis was cancer, and the doctors didn’t give much hope. We prayed. Back in my truck, I prayed again, with confidence, “Father, if this is not the time on your calendar for your daughter, please give her the joy that has overwhelmed me in this very place” I then drove to my office, ready for a day of service to my Father with a focus on others. Oh, the sweet lady the doctors didn’t give much of a chance to live but another few weeks in 2009? I texted her the other day; she is doing well and remains a beacon of joy in this hopeless world.

Scripture: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

Question: Do you fear death? 

Prayer: Father, I have struggled with the issue of dying, of leaving my family behind, wondering what will happen to those around me when I am gone, worried things might fall apart, and the people I love might need me. Please help me see that because of your Son, death is no longer something woeful to fear, but something too wonderful to face. Remind me that until you call me home, here is where I will remain, and when that day comes, you will take care of everyone I leave behind just as you have taken care of me throughout my life. Thank you for overcoming death and making it the door that ushers your children into our forever home. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

The Mulligan

In a merciless culture, God offers second chances.

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Confidently I stood, nine iron in hand, watching proudly as my golf ball landed on the green about 120 yards away and only inches from the hole. I spun around, in cocky teenage bravado, to face my only opponent, Ruth McCracken, and snickered, “beat that!”. My grandmother was a woman of intellect, strength, and a penchant for competitive golf with the talent to back it up. Even though I grew to be a pretty decent player, I never bested her on a course, which is why I was so thrilled that for once in my young life, I stood positioned to at least win a hole. Pulling her seven-iron out of her personalized bag attached to the back of the cart, she walked over to the tee, set her ball up, took a couple of practice strokes, addressed the ball, and whack. I watched with audible laughter as her ball hooked to the left and into the woods. I victoriously sunk my golf club into the bag and jumped into the passenger seat of the golf cart, waiting with baited anticipation for my grandmother to finish her walk of shame and meet me. As I privately gloated, about 25 feet from the tee, I heard another “whack,” and she proclaim, “well, look at that Tom, right next to you!”. Looking at the green, I saw that my ball now had a companion. “You can’t do that,” I said, “you’re not a cheater!” to which she replied, “Oh Tom, you have so much to learn about golf, that,” she said grimacing, “that, is called a mulligan.” My grandmother then hopped into the cart, driving in silence to the green, she walked over to her ball, putt in, and her record remained unscathed.

A mulligan in golf means a second chance. Usually, allowing a mulligan is discussed before the players tee off; nevertheless, my grandmother benefited from the game of golf’s only grace. I learned that day when a golfer has a horrible shot, leaving them in an unrecoverable position, they can call for a mulligan and reshoot-it is simply the adult version of the children’s “do-over.” In life, we don’t generally find such a concept. When we mess up, there never seems to be a lacking of people lined up to offer, “told you so,” or, “you made your bed, now lie in it.” Even in the house of grace, church folks have become quite proficient in judging, failing to remember that we all are in the same boat of sin, standing in need of a healing Savior

When I was 21 years old, I sat on the back pew in a church in Massachusetts overwhelmed with the regret, guilt, and shame brought on by a life of mistakes and bad choices, thinking back to when life seemed simpler, wishing I could just call for a “do-over”-a mulligan. I don’t remember what the preacher’s sermon was for that day. I can’t recall the hymns sung or even the name of that church. What I do remember was hearing of a God that gave out second chances freely; a God that took me as I was and didn’t want to leave me where He found me. A God that knew and approved the use of a mulligan. So, that day, I went to the altar and asked that God for another chance; I repented of my sin, and Jesus Christ became the Lord of my life. My salvation story in golf terms? I had one too many shots into the woods, but Jesus allowed me a mulligan, another chance to surrender to Him. And while I have made some pretty sorry shots since, I have found Him to be present and patient and still willing to say, “Tom, take another mulligan.”

Friend, in this world, you will not find grace or mercy (John 15:18-25, Matthew 10:22, Romans 1:29-30), but please do not be discouraged, for the Father of Mulligans has overcome the world (John 16:33)! In a culture void of mercy, Jesus rises above it all, reaching out with nail-scarred hands, asking you today, “do you want a mulligan?” the question remains, are you ready for a do-over?

Scripture: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-23, ESV)

Question: Are you tired of doing things your way and ready to take full advantage of the mercy and grace offered by God through Jesus Christ? Are you willing to take that eternal mulligan that will change your direction and destination?

Prayer: Father, I have been overwhelmed with the guilt and regret that comes from all of the bad decisions I have made over the years. I am crying out to you now, asking for another chance; fresh wind, extreme grace, overwhelming mercy, and undying love. I need you. Please give me the strength to be a good steward of a new chance, a new day, to live for you. Thank you for being patient with me and allowing me another opportunity to enjoy your faithfulness on the course of my life. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen. 

A Bridge Over Troubled Spiritual Waters

Will we see our pets in the next life?

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“You got a dog?” exclaimed one of my daughters as we pulled back a small blanket from my wife’s lap to reveal a new puppy, a miniature Dachshund we named Rachel. For almost 17 years, Rachel would prove to be a source of joy and comfort for our family, especially through some challenging seasons; a job loss, a scary medical diagnosis, and an empty nest, to name a few. A few years ago, Rachel became blind, developed a heart condition, and suffered severe digestive issues. And while many encouraged us to “put her down,” she was family, and we counted it a joy to make the necessary accommodations of love. 

As I pulled back a small blanket from my lap to reveal Rachel to the veterinarian a few weeks ago, there was no joy in the room, for her body was shutting down, and we were preparing to say goodbye to our strong little girl. As she closed her eyes for the last time, the memories flowed as freely as the tears. Behind the wheel that afternoon, I struggled silently with a theological question that had haunted me for many years, will we see Rachel again?

Some argue we will be reunited with our pets, as presented in the famous poem, Rainbow Bridge (in part):

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable. All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor.  Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind. 

But what does the Bible say? It would appear there is much more scriptural support against seeing our pets again. One of my favorite theologians and church leaders, Thomas Aquinas, believed that to keep animals as pets was cruel and that they should be able to run in the fields and fly in the air unhindered by leash or cage; therefore, God would not honor such forced relationships on earth through a reuniting in heaven. We have many scriptures that reveal humans are the only part of God’s creation standing as uniquely eternal, which is what goes on in the next life (Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 32:9, Psalm 49:12).

Yet, some scriptures imply we will see our pets again. Take Isaiah 11:6-9, a prophetic scripture giving us a detailed peek into the window of the new heaven and new earth. In this picture of peace and unity we find;

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
  and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea”

Did you notice how many animals God lists in this picture of our future? Ten! One is tempted to ask, why is it important for God to have animals in heaven? We also can’t neglect the most popular and powerful of all animals’ stories in the Bible; Noah’s Ark. Interesting that God saved, or redeemed, all of the animals through the flood with Noah and his family.

As all of these scriptures and thoughts rushed into my grieving mind on the way home from the veterinarian that day, I still was not convinced either way. Until I remembered I Corinthians 13:4-8a; 

"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; [  it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends." 

As I dug the hole in our backyard for Rachel, I smiled, through tears, because of the hope that we will see her again. The love we had for Rachel for 17 years will never die. Is it too much to believe that God will allow that undying love to walk beside us on our way to that mansion on the hilltop? We will cross that bridge when we come to it.

Scripture: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” -I Cor. 13:12, ESV

Question: Do I recognize that all gifts, including our pets, are from God who should be praised for His love?

Prayer: Father, thank you for allowing pets to be used as tools of comfort and joy. May I never praise or worship your creation more than you as the Creator. And, while I want to see my beloved pets again, may the source of my comfort and joy always be found in you.

People are Strange

God creates all in His image; therefore, all are worthy of our respect and love.

In 1967, after releasing the album that thrusted them into the limelight, The Doors frontman, Jim Morrison, and the guitarist, Robby Krieger, went on a hike at Robby’s request. The band had started to see Jim falling apart and struggling with depression, so Robby thought a walk and talk would cheer him up. Their trip ended at Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, and as they gazed at the sunset, Jim penned the words to their next popular song, People are Strange. On a piece of paper he let the words from his heart flow:

People are strange 
When you're a stranger
Faces look ugly 
When you're alone

Women seem wicked
When you're unwanted
Streets are uneven 
When you're down

When you're strange
Faces come out of the rain
When You're strange
No one remembers your name
When you're strange

People are Strange was a song about alienation, something that resonated with many people. It became the number one song in Canada and reached number 12 on the US Billboard top 100 list. Jim Morrison felt that he was looked down upon by those around him because he was different and therefore felt isolated, misunderstood, and alone. Not much has changed in our culture; we still tend to poke fun of, insult, ostracize and ridicule those that do not fit into our conformability mold. 

I recently saw a picture of a tattooed and pierced young man shared on social media with comments like, “this is what Hellbound looks like,” “no wonder our country is going down,” “caption this,” and “his nose looks like a pig I saw on the farm.” Many people laughed and made fun of someone they didn’t even know, just based on his appearance without considering his story. My heart hurt to see such misguided behavior because I do know part of his story.

According to Genesis 1:27, all of us were created in God’s image and likeness; therefore, all deserve our respect and love. What do I see when I look at someone being passed around on Facebook as a target for the brunt of jokes? I see a man designed and created by God, and that has a need to be accepted and approved by God, a message that Christians have been charged to bring, in love and through grace, to all people. I wonder what God thinks when instead of reaching out in love to this man, we drive him far away from the cross through our ridicule. I wonder what God thinks when we take someone that He made and use them to elicit a laugh to satisfy our insecurities? 

The Apostle Paul said to, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29, ESV).

At the age of 27, Jim Morrison was found in a bathtub dead. Apparently, his heart couldn’t take the massive amounts of heroin that flowed through his veins. As I have with many others, I have often wondered if there would have been people around him to share the love above him if things would have ended differently for Jim. Looking at the picture above, perhaps it would do us all well to recognize that we all have some influence and accountability over others’ direction. Even Cain was charged by God to be his brother’s keeper (Gen. 4:8-10), how can we expect God to hold us to a lesser standard than a standard of love?

Scripture: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God because God is love.” -I John 4:7-8, ESV

Question: Am I willing to start viewing people through the lens of God’s love?

Prayer: Father, I struggle when I see people that are so much unlike me, it is difficult to not ridicule or judge, especially when their appearance is so extreme. Please help me to see everyone the way you do. I don’t want to be another reason someone has for not falling in love with you. Please give me the spiritual eyes to see your creation and the strength to reach out in Christian love to offer acceptance and approval through your Son. Thank you for loving me, even though I was not worthy and remain far from perfect. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

People Are Watching

Professing Christians have directed the traffic to Hell more than any other group.

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In the sixth century, a young man was born into this world, his dad dying before he was born, and his mom dying when he was seven years old. He was then raised by his grandfather, who also died, which left him in his uncle’s care. Despite this dysfunctional and unstable background, he became a young man of excellent reputation: honest, hardworking, driven, and passionate. Every year, he would go off in isolation to a cave, praying and fasting from dusk till dawn. During one of these trips, an “angel” came to him, declared him a messenger of God, and told him to start a new religion. He ran home scared and told his wife and family to cover him for protection. When he questioned this “angel’s” message from God- for him to become a messenger and start a new religion- his wife brought him to her cousin, who was known as a Christian savant, someone who had a reputation for being informed and educated in Christianity. This “Christian” confirmed his calling, declared him a true prophet of God and encouraged him to start a new religion. This religion is now the second-largest and fastest-growing religion in the world. I am talking about Islam and its founder Muhammad.

In 1869, Mahatma Gandhi was born in India and eventually became a leader and voice of the third-largest world religion, Hinduism. Had he been exposed to genuine Christianity; he would have had the potential to influence and convert millions. There was a time in his life that he researched and investigated other religions, ultimately embracing some aspects of Sikhism. After his research, this is what he stated of Christianity: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

In 1930, a brilliant man was born in Chicago. He had a troubled upbringing, dropped out of high school, ran away, and joined a carnival. He was exposed to, and considered, many religions, even dabbling in the occult; he was what we would call a seeker. He was drawn more to Christianity than to any other religion and even started playing the organ for traveling preachers on Sundays at the carnival where he worked. Of Christianity, he writes,

On Saturday night I would see men lusting after half-naked girls dancing at the carnival, and on Sunday morning when I was playing the organ for tent-show evangelists at the other end of the carnival lot, I would see these same men sitting in the pew with their wives and children, asking God to forgive them and purge them of carnal desires. And the next Saturday night, they’d be back at the carnival or some other place of indulgence. I knew then that the Christian Church thrives on hypocrisy, and that man’s carnal nature will win out!

Anton LaVey

Disillusioned and frustrated with Christianity’s blatant hypocrisy, he decided to write a book and start his church. His name was Anton LaVey; the book he wrote was the Satanic Bible. The church he created was the church of Satan.

Professing Christians have directed the traffic to Hell more than any other group.

But not all cases are as blatant and apparent. What about the “Christian” parent who is more committed to sports on the Sabbath than church? Or the “Christian” who honks and yells their way through traffic while displaying a fish magnet on their car? Or the employee who tells inappropriate jokes around the water cooler, gossips about their demanding boss, complains about every pain and ache, yet sings in their church choir every Sunday celebrating the power and presence of God? 

While not seemingly as destructive as writing a satanic bible, are these not examples of “Christians” who point people away from Christ by lives that declare Jesus is not enough? What would this world be like if more Christians were hungering and thirsting after righteousness? What would you be like if you were hungering and thirsting after righteousness? 

Scripture: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” -Matthew 5:6 ESV

Question: Have you recently considered that while God wants to use your life as an example, so does Satan?

Prayer: Father, sometimes I get so caught up in my life that I lose sight of my testimony, forgetting how influential I am to those around me. Please help me to live a life that seeks after you, a life worthy of emulation. Thank you for your patience, and may today, I strive to be holy and pleasing to you, leaving the scent of your glory with everyone I am around. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.

*Modified from the book, Being the Believing 2.0 available on http://www.beingthebelieving.com*