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.

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.

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 awoken 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 raven release, 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 has linguistic displacement; the ability to communicate to 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.

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.

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.