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.

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.

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.