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.

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.

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.

Narrow Minded

The road most travelled is not always the best

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My wife Laurie and I both love to hike. We discovered our mutual interest when stationed in Guam, both serving in the United States Coast Guard. While on that WWII historic island, we were made aware of several trails leading to places where reminders of an era gone by lay in wait for another picture-taking tourist. Things like abandoned tanks, downed airplanes, and even caves that once housed forgotten Japanese soldiers were but some of the treasures we found. Over the years, we have hiked many a trail, both in America and abroad. And, while the sights may change, there is one constant; most paths are either wide or narrow, and both are that way for a reason. 

I was studying through the book of Matthew the other day, and something hit me that I had never noticed before; it was one of those waking and shaking scripture moments. In chapter 7, verse 13, we find these words, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

When city planners set out to create our infrastructure; our roads or paths, they intentionally designed each path; in other words, each path is purposefully either wide or narrow to accommodate the anticipated crowds. Going into a big city, for example, you will find several lanes of paved roads. In contrast, the road to the bait shop is narrow and perhaps either dirt or gravel when in the country. Why? Paths are intentionally designed to accommodate the traffic. Don’t miss that. Paths are built to be either broad or narrow, depending on how much interest there is in the destination. 

Why don’t many take the paths less traveled? Because it’s more difficult and requires work. Taking the road less traveled means, you will encounter obstacles and inconveniences that not everyone wants to deal with. Am I saying that the Christian road is more difficult than the worldly road? A resounding YES! The Apostle Paul compelled Christians to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1a ESV); being a living sacrifice is neither pleasant nor comfortable. But I will give you some good news today, while the path less traveled is difficult, it always allows access to a treasure that is not available to anyone else. One can’t see the beautiful Roanoke Valley’s views from the Hawk Observatory unless that arduous 3-mile hike up the narrow path is navigated. Likewise, those who chose to take the broad path in this life will never experience heaven’s views nor enjoy all of the bountiful treasures that lie in wait.

Even the American poet Robert Frost proclaimed;

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence: 
Two roads diverged in a wood, 
And I-I took the one less traveled by, 
And that has made all the difference

Scripture: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” -ESV

Prayer: Father, may we appreciate more and more the treasures that lie down the path less traveled, and may that help us to have patience when we encounter obstacles. Life is hard, but Father, I know that one day it will get much better. As I continue in my journey today, may your presence strengthen and encourage me, and may the destination inspire me to persevere. In the Name of Jesus Christ, I pray, amen.