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.

He Knows

Having Someone above you, that knows what’s going on inside you, makes all the difference.

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“If you really want to quit, give me 15 minutes, and I will lay out a plan guaranteed to work”, said my fellow shipmate in response to my struggle with trying to lay down a two-pack a day smoking habit. My wife Laurie and I had been transferred to Guam and were now caring for two young children through the foster care program, and Laurie did not want me smoking in the house, and in that tropical environment, I didn’t want to smoke outside! So, I set out to stop something I had been doing since high school. So, there I sat, listening to John confidently lay out his 15-minute plan, with hopeful expectation. John’s plan was well presented, even included a diagram on a piece of copy paper, and when he was finished, I asked the million-dollar question, “John, how long has it been since you’ve been free of this habit?”, “Well,” he replied, “I’ll have you know I never smoked a day in my life; I take care of my body.” Here was this man, giving out advice on stopping something he never struggled over. Needless to say, I threw that cartoonish diagram in the trashcan and went my way.

Was his advice sound? Perhaps. Would that advice, if taken at full value, have worked? Maybe. But what I could not get over was that he did not know what it was like to be huddled on all fours in the kitchen the night before crying out to God for the strength to stay home and not rush out to the store for more cigarettes. John didn’t personally know the struggle and had never experienced the personal pain, and for me, that was a deal-breaker. No wonder he made it sound so easy to simply stop something that had its roots in me for years, something that had provided comfort, made me feel good, and had been with me through some tough times; he was on the outside looking in. I did end up finding Someone that understood, offered advice, and gave me the power to overcome that obstacle, Jesus Christ.

Writing to a group of Christians who had endured suffering and faced even more, the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” The author may have had some good advice on how they should respond when their loved ones were dragged out of the home, beaten, and thrown into an arena where wild animals would tear the flesh from their bones. Or how they should keep the faith when thrown in prison, scheduled for execution, and separated from their children. But what the author could not say with integrity was, “I know how you feel” therefore, he pointed them to Who could say that very thing, Jesus. While we all can appreciate the sentiment when someone uses “I know how you feel” as a springboard to giving advice, it often falls on deaf ears since it’s spoken from the outside looking in. But with Jesus, He has been there and done that and knows how we feel in every situation or struggle. He always speaks from the inside; therefore, He speaks with authority, credibility, confidence, and power.

Whatever you are going through, there is one true thing; no one around you knows how you feel. There is, however, One above you that does know how you feel. Before you shed that tear, God knows why. Before you open your mouth, He knows the request. And, knowing that God knows makes all the difference. Perhaps today, you would be willing to consider this all-knowing, all-loving, and all-caring Father that went through the ultimate suffering so that He could be with you today not only to hear you but help you. 

Scripture: “You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.” -Psalm 139:3-4 ESV

Question: Do you feel like you are walking a trail of trials alone? Would you be willing to call out to Jesus today to find hope in a God with inexhaustible resources?

Prayer: Father, I am going through a trial and feel so alone, like no one understands how I feel. Please remind me that you are with me, you care about me, and you know how I feel. Remind me today that I am not alone. Please draw close to me, and may I find comfort and strength through your presence. In the name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.