Cloud of Witnesses

Those we allow into our lives can either help or hinder our walk with God.

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Sweat pouring from my forehead, mouth dry with anticipation, every muscle in my body tensed up, I bent over with my tennis racquet in hand, ready to return an incoming serve from my opponent. The bleachers were full of fans, including my Grandparents, but on that day, my attention was on just one person in attendance, someone I had never even met, a scout for Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. And my opponent was none other than Jim Courier, a powerful server and net rusher that would later hold the number one position in the world. Jim had a personal trainer and private court, while I had practiced for two years using community courts and the outer walls of buildings. Jim had also been accepted into the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and was our high school’s number one seed on the boy’s tennis team. So, when Jim threw that tennis ball up into the air for that first service, I was overwhelmed, gave into my fear and intimidation, and when that ball came to my side, I missed it completely. That first game, I managed only a few good volleys and only put a few points on the board. As we switched sides to continue our set, I looked over at the bleachers to the scout-someone that could determine my future in tennis-to see his reaction; indeed, he could no longer be interested in my game.

Then I heard my Grandmother, my friends, and my girlfriend all shouting words of affirmation and encouragement; for a moment, I had forgotten they were even there, that those bleachers were full of people who believed in me. As I dribbled my ball on the ground in preparation for my serve, the cheers from the crowd impacted me; I remember thinking back to all of the 10-hour training days, the sacrifices I made to get this far, the past tournaments I had won, and the investment others had made in my life. I tossed that ball into the air, watched the cow gut strings make contact with the felt on the ball, and then charged the net with confidence, ready to return. That was one of the best serves I ever had; that ball barely cleared the net and landed surgically in the right corner, and while Jim made contact, his ball went out of bounds, and I won that point. The crowds went nuts; I will never forget how loud and excited they were; I felt like Rocky on his second wind against Ivan Drago. Back and forth we went, for well over two hours, I eventually lost to Jim with the first set 4-6 and the second 3-6, but I played my best. And while I ended up sharing the first seed position on my team with Jim and was accepted into the tennis academy, God had a different path for my life in serving my country through military service, and eventually full-time ministry.

While my tennis career never took off, my Christian walk certainly has, and I have found the same elements in my success on the tennis court apply to the victories I have had in my faith. While you may never be facing a professional tennis player on the other side of your court, there are times when obstacles and circumstances can cause the same feelings of anxiety, insecurity, fear, and intimidation. Times when you feel the devil is winning out, you’re in over your head and have been struggling to stay afloat for so long eventually, you will drown.

Those around you can encourage the One above you to demonstrate power through you during these challenging times, if you are willing. As a Christian, there have been trials I have endured and yielded to the temptation of believing the devils lie that I was all alone; and the lack of calls, visits, and outreach, seemed to confirm that very sentiment. Yet, when I focused on the voices of those real friends that had invested in my life, demonstrated their love for me over the years, and remained in my room when everyone else had departed, my faith was restored, and I was able to claim victory. This is what makes choosing your circle of influence so crucial to your spiritual growth and vital to the success of your walk of faith. 

The next time you find yourself facing an opponent or obstacle, remember to listen to those voices of encouragement, cheering you on, praying for your success, and ready to celebrate your victory. While your bleachers may seem to be populated more by your enemies, I can assure you; you’re not alone.

Scripture: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” -Hebrews 12:1-2, ESV

Question: Are you tired of the fight, weary of the race, and exhausted by the heavy burdens you’re forced to carry? Do you ever want just to give up, feeling like you are all alone in the battle of life?

Prayer: Father, I don’t know how much more I can take, the days are getting longer, and the trials seem to be more frequent and challenging. There are times I feel like the prophet Elijah as if I am all alone with no one around that understands or cares. Please give me the faith to believe, the ears to hear, and the eyes to see, that you have placed people in my life to encourage and spur me on. May I be more focused on those encouraging me than those that rise against me, and may you use my encouragers to bring you glory through my life of victory. Thank you, Father, for the people in my life that love me, and may I find someone in this life to invest in and encourage as well. May the voices of encouragement help refocus my attention on my Hope, your Son, Jesus Christ. In His name, I pray. Amen.

Departing Is Such Sweet Sorrow.

Death is but a Door.

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As I write this, our country is entering the 37th week since the Coronavirus invaded our culture, impacting us fiscally, vocationally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially. In my 25 years of ministry, I cannot remember when Christians were so focused on their future residence; Heaven, panting for either the clouds to break open and usher in the rapture or through the sweet kiss of death. Persecution has a way of refocusing us, a springboard to reprioritizing our lives, and there is no better example than the Apostle Paul who went through such a transition to arrive at a place where he could declare with integrity, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21, ESV).

It is a matter of balance; to not be so focused on the next life that you render yourself useless in this life. Conversely, we must not be so focused on this life that we neglect storing up treasures in the next life through our service to God. In our text for today’s devotion, Paul uses the word “depart” when referring to a believer’s death, an interesting Greek word that conveys several thoughts.

Firstly, “depart” in the original Greek can speak of medicine; a pill, for example, while unable to do something in one form, can in another. No wonder Paul viewed death in such a way; he knew, as we do, our bodies to be weak, fallible, and restricting; there are many things we are unable to do while on earth. But, in Heaven, we will be released from any such restrictions and will be free to worship and serve our Father without the distractions and disruptions we face daily in this life. Free from disease and disabilities, trials, tribulations, and even temptations; free to simply enjoy and love our Father forever.

Secondly, “depart” can also speak of an ox retiring from a day’s labor. Indeed, the Apostle Paul knew what hard work was; he was tired; therefore, he looked forward to the land on the other side of death’s door; a land of rest. Paul gives us a picture of a farm with an ox bearing a heavy workload under the hand of its master; pulling heavy loads, carrying heavy burdens yet at the end of the day, was led to the stable, had its yoke removed, given food to eat and hay on which to sleep. There are many in our world that can relate to Paul in that they are tired, weary, and worn, ready for Jesus to greet them on the other side with, “enter into my rest” (Heb. 4:3).

Third, this word “depart” was used in the Greek culture to speak of the lifting of tent stakes, packing up, and moving on. In the Old Testament, the Israelites would travel in tents. Once they reached a place to stop, they would set up camp, allow their livestock to partake of the fields, dig a well, and wait until God would move them on. When a trumpet was blown, the tent stakes were lifted from the ground; everyone would pack up and head to a better, more fertile land. When Paul spoke of death as a “departing,” his audience knew the powerful imagery he was laying out for Heaven. They knew what it was like to live in a dry and desolate land, a harsh country, that lacked any mercy, one led by religiously intolerant and oppressive dictators. Paul spoke to those longing for the trumpet to blow so they could move onto a better land. Of course, the better land that Paul was speaking of is Heaven. How wonderful to know that one day, either through the clouds or caskets, we will be called to pick up our tent stakes, pack up, and move on to a better country that was not made with human hands but the love of God!

Lastly, the word for death employed by Paul could speak of a ship headed to its final port. In my 14-year military career, I spent my first year onboard a vessel in Alaska, scrubbing barnacles off buoys in the Bearing Sea. That entire year, I didn’t have time to take pictures of the glaciers, fish in the streams, hunt in the forests, or paint the Aurora Borealis; no, I labored away my entire year waiting for my stint to be over. That day came when my new orders were received, and I was told I had but one more month left onboard, that when we ported in Oregon, I would be able to attend school in sunny California. Just knowing I only had 30 days left made that month go by much faster and even seemed more pleasant. Paul was saying to his readers that while this life can be challenging, it will not be long as we have boarded that great ship of salvation and are headed home; our next port is Glory!

As you read this, I am sure you have burdens beyond your resources, trials that have captured your tears, hidden pain that refuses to go away, nights marked with tossing and turning, and anger over the state of our sin celebrating culture. But please know this, “death has been swallowed up in victory” (I Cor. 15:54, KJV), and very soon, we will walk through that door and be home, a better land where there is freedom, rest, and eternal victory. Hold on just a bit longer; I promise you this, one day you will be able to declare with a heart of integrity; it was worth the wait!

Scripture: “I am hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.” -Philippians 1:23-24

Question: Have you been so entrenched with life lately that you’ve taken your eyes off the prize?

Prayer: Father, I am weak, weary, and worn. Please give me the strength to endure, the faith to regroup, and the vision to see the future you have planned for me. As I navigate in this harsh world full of sin, sickness, and sadness, may I rejoice in the future I have with you. As I think on that glorious day when I enter your presence, may it be enough to revive my heart that I may remain faithful in this life until the end. May your words of my future home be sufficient that I count it all joy no matter the circumstance knowing I am headed to a better land. Thank you for loving me now and for wanting to be with me forever. I love you. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen 

Working for Heaven?

There is an eternal difference between doing good and being good.

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Like many people, I grew up in an environment of work-based relationships, which led to years of being disillusioned, dissatisfied, and dysfunctional. I was frustrated and hopeless. When I was four years old, my dad had an affair that ultimately led to my parents getting divorced. Although I did not have the maturity to articulate my feelings, I can tell you that I believed that I was at fault even at that young age. I thought that perhaps if I were a better kid, my dad would not have walked out of my life to start another family.

A few years later, my mom started dating a new man. I am told the first time her boyfriend came over to meet me, I rushed to the door, hugged his legs, and asked, “Are you going to be my new daddy?” From that point on, I was determined to do everything in my power to please him, to work so hard that he would never have a reason to leave me as my biological dad did.

Eventually, my mom married this man, and I quickly discovered that he was the smartest, strongest, and most talented man in my world. The bar was set high in this work-based relationship! My new dad was a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, so I decided to earn his love by taking karate lessons. Unfortunately, I was the clumsiest kid in the world—the one who often fell putting on his pants and occasionally fell going up the stairs! During one karate lesson, I attempted to do a roundhouse kick that I had seen in a movie, only to face-plant on the mat in front of all my classmates. I was so embarrassed that I quit studying karate.

My stepdad was also an Eagle Scout, so I joined the Cub Scouts and decided to work my way through Boy Scouts to achieve the same rank. After a few months, our Cubmaster called my parents for a meeting to discuss my poor behavior. That put an end to my Scouting career.

My stepdad was also a bicycle racer—at one point, he was even sponsored by 7-Eleven. One day, I visited his bike workshop and asked if he would train me. As I waited with the group for the horn to blow at my first race, I proudly looked to the sidelines to see my mom and stepdad cheering me on. I think I made it one mile into the five-mile race before I pulled off to the side of the road and leaned my bike against a tree, struggling to catch my breath. I will never forget that old Chevrolet Chevet pulling over, my stepdad loading my bike on the rack, and the three of us driving home in complete silence as I sat in the back seat, defeated once again.

In a world where doing good was rewarded, my trophy shelf remained empty.

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Since my stepdad held a master’s degree from Penn State University in acoustical consulting, my last effort was to excel academically. No matter how hard I tried, report card after report card was sent home with consistent D’s and the occasional C, which were met with constant groundings and reprimands. After a fifth-grade parent-teacher conference confirmed to me that I was worthless, I gave up on that path as well. I realized I would never work hard enough to win my stepdad’s approval, acceptance, or applause.

Things didn’t get any better. Over the years, counselors lamented that I would never amount to anything. Teachers reviewed my work and declared that I was no good. Adults discounted me as worthless, and other children shunned me as damaged goods. In a world where doing good was rewarded, my trophy shelf remained empty.

I wasted many years of my life trying to do good to please those around me: my parents, family, counselors, teachers, bosses, and friends. All of these folks came at me from different directions and perspectives, their well-intentioned voices echoing the same sentiment: “Tom, do good!” And for many years, I felt like a failure for not living up to that expectation. I never dreamed that one day I could be good.

I have learned a valuable lesson over the years; if you are trying to do good without being good first, you will always come up short and fail. We simply lack the desire and power (Rom. 7). That is the fundamental problem with every religion, save one. They all tell you to “just do good” as if anyone is capable of meeting such high expectations. You will always fail because you will never be good enough, strong enough, ethical enough, or moral enough to complete the wheel of Buddha, keep the laws of Judaism, erect the five pillars of Islam, or follow the tenants of Hinduism. Every religion is a works-based relationship; you do good, and the god or goddess of that religion will be pleased with and possibly even love you. However, when you fail, that same deity will exact vengeance, and their anger will be kindled against you. This is where Christianity rises above them all; while it is a works-based relationship, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did all of the works for us; He took our place on the cross where the winds of God’s wrath blew so that we can have acceptance and love from God through Him. We just need to receive His sacrifice and love. And, when we surrender to His love for us, He fills us with the desire and power to be good, so that doing good just happens (II Cor. 5:17).

Scripture: “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.” -Psalm 37:3, ESV

Question: Do you find yourself believing that your works determine your admittance to or rejection from Heaven? As a follower of Jesus Christ, do you ever try to work harder to receive more love from God?

Prayer: Father, please help me to see there is nothing I can do that would compel you to have a greater love for me, and nothing I can do that would ever separate me from your amazing love. Thank you for loving me where I am and thank you for a love that never leaves me there. Instead of trying to prove my love for you, or earn my place in heaven, may I just bask in presence and enjoy your company. Thank you for loving me and may I learn to enjoy, and be grateful for, what I have not earned. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

The Story of a Hairnet

Your motives will determine your reward.

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From stocking ice cream in a refrigerated tanker at the age of 14 to sanding columns and pillars by hand at 17, I have been a hard worker all of my life. While I never regretted my history of employment, especially my 14 years of military service, I had always wondered how things would change if I were a college graduate. Sitting in a stewardship committee of a church I pastored when I was 30; I gave some input on the topic being discussed. I will never forget the response from the committee chairman, who said, “Pastor, do you have a college degree in business?” “no, sir,” was my reply, “then please let us handle this matter without your input.” I was stunned, angry, and, most of all, embarrassed. Three years later, I hung two degrees on my wall; an Associates and a Bachelor’s, both in business. It was shortly after that God called me to start a new church. Not wanting to burden or distract any new members, I decided to refuse any financial compensation for the first year, took my bachelor’s degree, and started teaching for a local school district. I never stopped my education, as the day I had my bachelor’s degree conferred, I started my first class toward a master’s degree.

Two years after receiving my undergraduate degree, my family and friends cheered from the bleachers as I had my first master’s degree conferred. A few months after graduation, I received a call from the school district with a job offer, a special needs adult student who required one-on-one instruction at his job site. This position would allow more flexibility with my schedule, which would help our new church grow, so I thanked God and accepted. This student worked at the Virginia Veteran’s Care Center (VVCC), doing different janitorial and laundry service tasks. My job was to provide two hours of tutoring in the morning on his job site before he started his workday, shadow him as he completed his tasks-providing practical instruction-and then resume schoolwork during his breaks; for a total of six hours each day. I was thoroughly enjoying my new assignment and praising God for such an opportunity for my family and our church. Until…

As usual, I reported to the front desk of the VVCC to sign in and find out where my student would be assigned so that I could start our morning instruction. That morning was a first, my student had been assigned to the kitchen, and I had the dining hall as my classroom for the initial two hours. When my two-hour instructional period had ended, my student’s supervisor for the day came over to introduce himself and lead my student to his work area in the kitchen. As required, I followed along to shadow my student. As I approached the entrance to the kitchen, the supervisor, a young 20-something, placed his hand on my chest and condescendingly declared, “You can’t come in here until you suit up with a bib, gloves, and a hairnet. This is my kitchen, and you will follow my rules.” I replied, “I don’t think you understand. I will not be working in the kitchen; I am here to supervise my student, document his progress, and ensure he is given all accommodations in his contract. I won’t get near the food preparation area; I will hang back and observe”, to which he replied, “My kitchen, my rules. Suite up with a bib, gloves, and a hairnet, or I won’t let you in, no matter who you are!” I took the high road that day, suited up, and did my job-even washing dishes as instructed by the kitchen supervisor-with a subtle, passive-aggressive attitude, birthed out of pride. As soon as the clock revealed my day was over, I threw my bib in the laundry, flung my gloves in the trash, and stomped angrily to my car. 

Plopping down in the seat, after slamming my door, I looked in the mirror to see that hairnet still on my head. Ripping it off and flinging it on the passenger seat, I had a conversation with myself. “I am a grown man! I have a teaching license issued by the Commonwealth of Virginia! I have a master’s degree in education! I will not let a 20-year-old, pimply-faced kid with an attitude boss me around; I don’t work for him! I have worked too hard to be here; I am better than this!” It was that last statement that God decided to interrupt my conversation with a scripture, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I. Cor. 10:31, ESV).

My pride turned to humility, my anger to peace, and my sin was no longer justified but confessed. At that moment, in that car, on that day, I realized what it meant to do everything for the glory of God. The reason I had such an attitude was that I had been doing that job for all of the wrong people; the school district, my congregation, my family, and even that arrogant kitchen supervisor. The truth is, if Jesus Christ had asked me to put on a hairnet and wash dishes, I would have considered it an honor and done so with joy. For me, when we change “who” we are doing things for, everything changes, even our attitudes. The next day forward, that kitchen supervisor and I got along famously; he saw a man, old enough to be his father, willing to submit to his authority with joy and work harder than anyone else in that kitchen. That assignment only lasted three months, but the lessons I learned have lasted over 15 years.

Scripture: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” -Col. 3:17, ESV

Question: Do you ever find yourself working begrudgingly? How about complaining about your job or seemingly insignificant tasks you’ve been assigned? Do you ever feel you could be in a better position, one where you would have more respect for your experience or education?

Prayer: Father, there are times I allow pride to hinder my work and affect my attitude. May your words take root in my mind and heart so that I intentionally purpose to do everything for you and your glory. Thank you for giving me the health and strength to rise each day to serve you, no matter what you have me doing. Please help me recognize that you have a plan for my life that includes my work, and may you see a faithful, hardworking, and cheerful servant each day I report. Please help me recognize that my attitude and work ethic is a reflection of my relationship with you. Father, may I show you my gratitude today by what I do in your name. Thank you for your patience with me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

David and Goliath; A story that didn’t have to be?

Fear of man always diverts the godly to paths of dishonor.

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The stage was set for one of the greatest battles of all time. On one hill, the Army of God, and on the other, the Philistines gathered, both surveying a great valley dividing the two. The Philistines sent out their champion, Goliath, to challenge Israel’s greatest soldier. Every morning for forty days, Goliath would leave his camp, stand in the valley facing the Army of God, and shout, “This day I defy the ranks of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other”, with only silence birthed from shame as the response. While the Philistines stood firm, as if the victory was already theirs, the Army of God, led by the spiritually embattled King Saul, remained frozen on the opposing hill “dismayed and terrified” (I Sam. 17:11, ESV).  

Four miles away, a young David had been called in from his shepherding duties, by his father, to pack and deliver food for his three older brothers who were serving in King Saul’s army.  Upon arriving at the Israelite camp, David overheard Goliath’s daily challenge. Filled with confusion and anger, David said to his brothers, and all in earshot, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

I am sure you know the rest of this story, but let’s rewind a bit because I don’t believe this was a battle that ever should have happened. Every single commentary, Bible lesson, and sermon I have ever read, studied, or heard, overlooks verses one and two of this account and immediately rushes to the David and Goliath encounter. What if God has another nugget to be mined revealing a more powerful treasure?

According to I Sam. 17:1-2, “Now the Philistines gathered their armies for battle. And they were gathered at Socoh, which belongs to Judah, and encamped between Socoh and Azekah, in Ephes-dammim. And Saul and the men of Israel were gathered, and encamped in the Valley of Elah, and drew up in line of battle against the Philistines.” King Saul had been abandoned by the prophet Samuel for his rebellion against the will of God. Probably hearing this news, the Philistines-one of the oldest enemies of the Nation of God-decided to take advantage of this weakness by launching an attack. Yet Saul seemed to regroup, and with courage marched to meet the Philistine army and “drew up in line of battle,” ready and willing for war.

Picture if you will a Civil War depiction of the battlefield; both armies facing off, ready for the trumpet to blow, calling soldiers to arms as they charged to meet their opponent. A much different picture than what we see by the time we get to verse 11, where King Saul and his entire army were marked with fear, cowering in the shadows with no hope. What happened? One large man with a loud voice of opposition. That’s it. One person struck so much fear into the hearts of God’s people; they even chose to follow his commands and change their direction. Just when King Saul was about to give the order to “charge,” Goliath shouts, “Why have you come out to draw up for battle? Am I not a Philistine, and are you not servants of Saul? Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” Why didn’t King Saul shout “charge” anyway? Why did he listen to this smelly, large, blasphemous giant, instead of saying, “Who do you think you are?! Step aside or be trampled upon, God is on our side, and He never loses a battle!” I believe if King Saul and his army had the same attitude as young David, the Army of God might never have even known the name Goliath; as the moment he stepped out of the Philistine ranks, an arrow would have dropped him followed by the feet of a thousand soldiers stomping his flesh to the ground. 

We must not be quick to judge, though; we also struggle with the same temptation that faced King Saul, having a fear of man over trust in God. And, frequently, it is usually only one loud voice of opposition that strikes fear into our hearts, ultimately crippling and rendering us useless in the Army of God. It happened with Elijah when Jezebel sent a letter. It happened when a few families filed a lawsuit to stop prayer in public schools in 1962. Or a year later, in 1963, when one parent complained about the Bible being read in the classroom. How many times in our history have the voices of a few struck fear into hearts that conformed to their commands?

I wonder what would have happened on the battlefield that day if Saul would have trusted in God more than he feared a man. I indeed wonder where we would be as a country today if more of us would have trusted God over our fear of man. Would we still be enjoying the Bible-based curriculum in our schools? Would our children still stand and say the pledge of allegiance followed by morning prayer in our classrooms? Perhaps we are struggling as a nation because we remain on a hill defeated in fear instead of in the valley fighting in the name of God. 

Scripture: “The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe” -Proverbs 29:25, ESV, “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?” -Psalm 118:6, ESV

Question: Have you allowed fear of man to dictate your actions or justify your inactions? 

Prayer: Father, please open my eyes to your power. There are so many in our current culture that opposes you, your Word, and your people. They are attacking our beliefs, disputing the truth, and persecuting your children. Please give me the strength to stand firm in my faith, no matter how loud the opposition is or how strong they may be. May I rise every morning ready to put on the armor of righteousness and prepare for a battle that you have already won. Father, I want to be a faithful soldier that never cowers or retreats, but one that trusts your promises, relies on your power, and remains in your presence. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

Fourth Lung

Understanding the Word of God is a matter of life and death.

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Recently my wife Laurie and I took a five-mile trail hike in a state park in Southwest Virginia. Laurie and youngest dog, two-year-old Harvey, led the way by about 10 yards most of the trek. Of course, I blamed having our oldest dog, a fourteen-year-old miniature Dachshund named Jake, but the truth is, I am out of shape! Every once in a while, one of us would yell to the other, pointing out a nice view, colorful flora, or even some wildlife.

Toward the end of the trip, after marching along for about two hours, Laurie yelled back, “Norse hung.” That made no sense to me, so I yelled back for her to say again, to which she replied, “Fort Mung.” Not wanting to aggravate her by asking for another repeat, I kept my head down and tried to figure it out myself. Finally, I landed on forth lung, figuring she was tired and out of breath like I was and desired another set of lungs to complete the trip. Right, when I was about to yell back, “How about a second heart? Mine’s about to explode”, my left foot sunk in something. Looking down, I realized what my wife had been shouting, horse-dung; she was warning me that horse dung was on the trail so that I would avoid it.  That made a lot more sense than “fourth lung”, and as I picked away the unwanted matter from my shoe, it dawned on me how important clarity and understanding can be.

Soldiers must understand all commands given in the military, as their lives often depend on it. For example, trained as a Radioman in the United States Coast Guard, I was taught to use the phrase “say again” if ever I needed something restated over the radio for clarity instead of the word “repeat.” Why? The term “repeat” can also be interpreted to recommence a firing pattern; therefore, instead of merely saying something again, the recipient of that command might start firing their weapon!

Even more so with the Word of God. This is most evident in the diversity of interpretation with the title “Christian”. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, over 70% of American’s identify as Christian. The problem is highlighted in the diversity of that 70%, consisting of Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even some New Agers. And while many may identify as Christian, the Bible is very clear, only followers of Jesus; those who surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten Son of God are true Christian, and they are in the minority. There are so many interpretations of what Christianity is, how we can approach God, who can access heaven, and must we believe Jesus to be the only way to salvation. Therefore, many remain confused, and some even taking temporal solace in false hope. 

Who is right? With over 4,000 religions in our current world, with almost as many paths of life and answers about death, it is paramount that we all are clear in our understanding; it is a matter of life and death. 

Scripture: “And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” -Mark 4:11-12, ESV

Question: If you are not 100% sure that your sins are forgiven, and heaven is your home, would you be willing to test your beliefs with the Bible? 

Prayer: Father, I don’t want to blindly trust what others say but want to be sure that I am right in my relationship with you. Please help me to understand the truths in your Word. Please give me eyes to see, ears to hear, an open heart, and the faith to believe what you have to say in your Word. Please reveal any false information I may have been taught and replace them with your Words of truth. Father, may I be willing to cast aside my feelings and emotions so that your Word would penetrate my heart and bring real joy to my life. Please give me the faith to believe your Word over everyone else, and may your Word be all that I seek, desire, long for, and live by. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

A Better View

Knowing this present life will not be our best gives us hope worth dying for.

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Excited about my newfound faith in Jesus Christ, I couldn’t wait to sit down and talk with a pastor; I had so many questions. My then-girlfriend Laurie and I traveled to her hometown in Southwest Virginia to speak with her childhood pastor to answer my questions and talk about baptism. Pastor Chuck loomed over his office desk, a large and stately man in his 50’s that had transitioned out of the coal mines of Virginia to follow the calling into ministry.

To say that I was intimidated from the moment I entered his office would be an understatement. From his large hands that swallowed mine when we shook to his booming bass voice that welcomed me in, Pastor Chuck communicated conviction, faith, and power by his words and body language; this was a man marked with confidence that inspired others to believe. Sitting in a chair facing his desk, I told Pastor Chuck about my recent salvation and my desire to be baptized; even sharing my testimony caused me to be filled with excitement all over again. After planning out my future baptism service; I moved on to my most pressing question, “Pastor Chuck, I know forgiveness, joy, and love like never before. If all of these blessings are evident this early in my walk of faith, what can I look forward to with a life in Christ?”. Pastor Chuck leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, and looking at me as a doctor with a terminal diagnosis would look at a patient just before relaying the bad news. I will never forget his next words, “Brother Tom, you are now an enemy of the devil, this world, and your flesh. You must be prepared. In your life, you will experience a trial by fire; a circumstance the likes of which you’ve never had to endure before.” I left the office that day a little discouraged, with “trial by fire” resonating in my head like a ghostly voice echoing the halls of a house in a bad horror flick.

Thirty years later, I realize his words to be valid. Yet, Jesus didn’t leave us unprepared; he told believers often that this world is full of pain and sorrow, our flesh is at constant war with the Spirit, and Satan and his legion of demons are now targeting us to destroy our testimony, weaken our influence, and hurt the very heart of God (Ecc. 2:23, I Pet. 5:8, Mt. 26:41, Eph. 4:30).

I have gone through some severe trials in my life, and there are many more around the corner, of that I am confident. However, my faith is stronger than ever because my hope is anchored to the throne of God. I believe attitude has much to do with the victories we claim over such times of hardships. Our choir director used to lead our adult congregation with the words, “this joy that I have, the world didn’t give it to me…the world didn’t give it, and the world can’t take it away”. What a wonderful reminder that every good and perfect gift is from above and protected by the Father of Lights (James 1:17).

I am confident that you have endured some great times of trial and tribulation, times when you didn’t think any more tears could be produced; like your very heart had been ripped out from your chest. Let me remind you that while we are told in this life, we will have tribulation, this life is short, and the next life will be more extraordinary forever (John 16:33, Ja. 4:14, Mt. 6:19-20). 

Please consider Chrysostom’s following historical account, a man who would have told a young, newly saved and excited, Tom McCracken, the same thing Pastor Chuck did. 

Chrysostom was “a godly leader in the fourth-century church, who preached so strongly against sin that he offended the unscrupulous Empress Eudoxia as well as many church officials. When summoned before Emperor Arcadius, Chrysostom was threatened with banishment if he did not cease his uncompromising preaching.

His response was, “Sire, you cannot banish me, for the world is my Father’s house.” “Then I will slay you,” Arcadius said. “Nay, but you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,” came the answer. “Your treasures will be confiscated,” was the next threat, to which John replied, “Sire, that cannot be, either. My treasures are in heaven, where none can break through and steal.” “Then I will drive you from man, and you will have no friends left!” was the final, desperate warning. “That you cannot do, either,” answered John, “for I have a Friend in heaven who has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”

John was indeed banished, first to Armenia, and then farther away to Pityus on the Black Sea, to which he never arrived because he died on the way. But neither the banishment nor his death disproved or diminished his claims. The things that he valued most highly not even an emperor could take from him.”

MacArthur, John. Matthew 1–28.In MacArthur New Testament Commentary. Moody Publishers, 1989.

Scripture: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” -Romans 8:38-39, ESV

Question: Have you allowed circumstances to disrupt your life instead of serving as a reminder of the hope you have in Jesus Christ?

Prayer: Father, I am weak. There are times when I feel that everything around me is collapsing and falling apart. Please help me remember that all of the blessings you have freely given can’t be touched by Satan or circumstance. Thank you for the firm foundation of your love; the peace that passes understanding, the strength to endure, the faith to believe, and a future worthy of high expectation. Please help me during the seasons of trials to remember that you have a plan. Please help me see that no matter how trying my life may get, there is coming a day when you will wipe away every tear, still every mind, change every body, fix everything broken, right every wrong, and make all things new. Thank you for loving me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

Hooked!

Have you ever considered what a full surrender would do in and through your life?

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In the 1991 movie Hook, Robin Williams plays the grown-up Peter Pan, who has returned to Neverland and finds himself trying to prove, to the still-young Lost Boys, that he is, in fact, Peter Pan. The Lost Boys cannot recognize Peter as he has grown old, gained weight, wears glasses, and has wrinkles. Tinker Bell, who knows this aged man to be the real Peter Pan, convinces some of the Lost Boys to give Peter a second look.

After everyone has given up, the smallest of the Lost Boys makes his way over to Peter, guides him down to his knees so that he can be face to face, and gives Peter a closer look. He removes Peter’s glasses, and with both hands, pushes back the wrinkles on his forehead, straightens out the lines surrounding his eyes, and then pushes the fat on his cheeks far out of the way to remove the many years. While holding the wrinkles back, he looks into Peter’s eyes. He declares, “Oh, there you are, Peter!”—a revelation that causes many of the cynical and unbelieving Lost Boys to rush over with joy and become filled once again with hope.

I believe this to be the problem with the bride of Christ today. We have allowed complacency to fatten the church, selfishness to add many wrinkles, organization, legalism, and politics to dull her vision. Meanwhile, the world around us still hears and sees us but cannot recognize the once purpose-driven organism that had the power to change the world. I am convinced that once we surrender again to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the lost people in this world will give us a closer look, push back our wrinkles, dysfunction, and sin, and declare, “Oh, there you are Church!”

Stepping off a ship, D.L. Moody arrived back in America from a trip to Europe, where he attended a revival held by Reverend Varley. During that revival, Varley challenged the congregation with the statement, “This world has yet to see what God could do with someone totally surrendered to Him.” With those words still resonating in his heart, Moody took his first step off that ship and uttered, “God, with your help, I aim to be that man.” 

What would happen to the world around us if the One within us could be seen free from distractions, distortions, and dysfunction? What if this world could see the church? 

Scripture: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God-this is your true and proper worship.” -Romans 12:1, ESV

Question: Would you be willing to admit that over the years, your dedication to Christ and passion for His mission have been weakened by the things of this world?

Prayer: Father, I confess that I am not who I was when I first professed you as Lord and was baptized. I used to be so excited, passionate, and willing to be used for your glory, but lately, I have been struggling. I confess there to be things in my life that ought not to be there and some things I should be doing yet choose not to do. I want to reclaim my joy and fulfill my purpose to bring you glory and worship you in spirit and in truth. Please help me overcome every obstacle in your way, and may I be the change agent you have called and empowered me to be. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

Oh Deer!

When the sword of vengeance is unsheathed, blade and handle become infected, ultimately destroying those at both ends.

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Recently a reporter interviewed a lady hiker who happened upon an unusual sight in the woods; two deer, antlers locked, one with a broken neck, both dead. After the forestry department investigated, first believing poachers to be responsible, it was determined these two deer got into a fight. Both decided to kill the other; one was finally successful in breaking the other deer’s neck. Yet, because their antlers were locked, after a long and drawn-out skirmish, the “victorious” deer was unable to free himself, thus forced to succumb to the same fate as his opponent. Even though both deer fought their best, there was no winner.

At the age of 28, I accepted my first pastorate, a small church in North Carolina. Very early on, I was faced with two congregational members that had been bickering for years, with outbursts that increased in both frequency and severity. Because of my inexperience, attempts to reconcile these two proved to be in vain. After one particularly vocal conflict during the Sunday School hour between these two women, the deacon’s chairman had enough and gathered them together in one of the small classrooms. After telling them that their bickering was hurting them both and affecting the congregation, he told them they would not be allowed out of that room until they could apologize to each other, confess their sins to God, and move forward in grace. He then stepped into the hall, closed and locked the door, and watching through the window; he waited for them to reconcile. After the Sunday School hour was over, I made my way to the sanctuary and found this man outside the door. Once he brought me up to speed, I asked him to let them out, especially since one of them was our pianist, the other our choir director, and the church service was about to start! The chairman held his ground, and I nervously made my way to the sanctuary. Just a few minutes after I welcomed everyone to the service, the side door to the sanctuary opened up, and in came that chairman followed by the two ladies, each taking their positions, and the service began. It turns out, the unorthodox approach by the chairman of the deacons was just the wake-up call these two ladies needed as they both repented to God and reconciled with each other. The remainder of my tenure there was marked with love and unity. 

I am now in my 50’s, and while I celebrate victories like that, I must say they are rare; generally, feuds between people are taken to the grave. Two people, antlers locked, doing everything they can to have the last word and make the winning point. Even if one can pull off a victory by silencing their opponent, success remains elusive, with guilt, shame, and bitterness being the only trophies on display. The Bible is very clear on this topic; when Christians argue amongst each other, the watching world; desperately searching for hope, walks away unchanged with Christians now being the excuse they use not to attend church at best or reject Christ at worst (Proverbs 18:13, Titus 2:7-8, Hebrews 12:14).

Scripture: “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers.” -II Timothy 2:14, ESV

Question: Is there someone in your life standing as a reminder of an open argument? Would you be willing to be the biblical model in that relationship to make things right?

Prayer: Father, I struggle with being “right” in a situation yet remaining silent. Please help me to sacrifice my “right to be right” on your altar of love for the sake of unity that the message of hope would go forth unrestricted. Remind me that you see and hear everything and have promised to be my defense. And, remind me that vengeance is yours and yours alone. For those in my life where there remains strife, please open their hearts to you, that when I take that first step of reconciliation, they will greet me with the open arms of your love. Thank you for having patience with me. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray. Amen.

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.