It Wasn’t Supposed to Be Me

It’s 1976.  I’m competing in the Jr. High School District Track Meet at Northwest High school in Indianapolis.  The event is the 660 yard dash, my strength.  I’m crossing the finish line in First place as second place is just coming off the last turn.  It’s just what I did.

It’s now 1977 and I’m on the Varsity Track and Field team, as a Freshman, setting school records for Freshman in both running events and field events.  The distance I was throwing the discus that year would have won the City Championship, had my coach not lost my entry.  I went on to get the first of several Varsity Letters as just a Freshman.  It’s just what I did.

I have always been the Athletic one, the healthy one.  I never smoked cigarettes, I never drank alcohol until well into my adult years, I ate right and with sons in athletics, always had an excuse to get out on the basketball court and remain active and fit.  I was going to live to be 100!  When I found out I had inherited kidney disease and would require a transplant, I accepted the changes I would need to make and the drug therapy required for the balance of my life, a temporary set back, no biggie, just inconvenient.

Then came last Friday, one week ago today.  I knew as I grew older, my prostate was enlarged-normal for men in their 50s. When the physical exam revealed hardness and the subsequent PSA test came back twice acceptable levels, requiring a biopsy, I suspected that may be a biggie.  Still I prayed that everything would come back negative and that I would go on with my healthy life-It’s just what I did.   That was not to be the case.

I’ve spent the week processing the fact that I have cancer, words that don’t sound right in my mouth, words I never ever expected to hear or own-it wasn’t supposed to happen to me. Suddenly I have a keen awareness of the horror of those who have battled this disease, some victoriously on earth and others victorious through death and promotion.  It’s a reality that few desire, one that even fewer anticipate.  I think even as a believer in Christ, a person of faith, these are words that simply knock you off your game until such time as you can regain your balance and head straight into the battle.  As I left the Urologist’s office last Friday, still somewhat in shock, I could almost hear God’s voice asking me, “Okay Son, let’s see if you have learned anything in your 50 plus years of following me”. As I sat in the parking lot, contemplating my next moves, there seemed to be a slight calming assurance as I uttered the words, “Okay God, we got this”.

I’ve been a blogger now for several years with hundreds of blogs being read in dozens of countries, and the theme for most of them, so many that my first book is a compilation of them, is that life knocks us down, sometimes knocking the wind out of us, but that in the end, God always rescues us just in time.  It’s a lesson David knew well as he penned many of the Psalms.  David was honest in venting his frustrations and doubts to God.  As you read through them you will hear him asking, “where are you God” or “why have you abandoned me” or “why don’t you answer when I call or rescue me from my enemies”.  I believe David was like many of us today, having full knowledge and confidence in God’s ability to do the impossible, but not seeing it happen in his darkest hours.  Even our Savior experienced this as he hung on the cross but could not sense the presence of his own Father, who could not be with him as he carried so much sin in his sacrifice.  For many, it seems like God is the farthest from us when we need him the most and cry out the loudest.  But I have heard it said and found it to be true, that the teacher is always silent during a test.

What I love and have tried to learn from David is that in his honest expressions to God, he always came back to what he knew to be true, even if he didn’t feel them or see the evidence right away.  Life’s toughest challenges often result in a disconnect between our heart or emotions, and our mind or intellect.  When we don’t see something or feel something, we tend to believe it no longer exists. We pray urgently for answers but “feel” God has abandoned us.  Since we feel some sort of way, we completely disregard every promise recorded in scripture for our benefit, because our emotions pervert the reality of the truth.  It’s a normal human response.  Consider the Apostles who did life with Jesus, who sat under intimate instruction from the Master, who witnessed miracle after miracle and were even sent out with His authority to perpetrate miracles in His name, and even witnessed just a few days before, the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  But when life got difficult and they watched Jesus die, they all hid in sorrow and fear, forgetting what they knew,  because they couldn’t get past what they saw.  We are much the same.

God graciously and generously equips us with all we need to fight these battles.  Sometimes it’s just a word from a good friend, some sign or scriptural passage, the right song at the right time.  For me, He provided an amazing and beautiful angel, who feels somehow I rescued her when all along she was sent to rescue me.  God sees the road we don’t, knows our weaknesses and compensates ahead of time if we only trust him.  As I endure these life altering challenges, I’m reminded of the passage from 2 Corinthians 1:3-5, which reads:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in ALL our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God”.

I often gest that when things come my way, that it’s just more blogging material. But the truth is that experiencing and surviving the pain of disasters like fire or the hopelessness of unemployment or the ruin of financial security or the sting of divorce, and now the horror of cancer, gives me a very empathetic view of others who have or will suffer the same.  It’s is through a David-like transparency that I write about these things, partially as it’s therapeutic. but more so because I want to offer others hope, to help them refocus on the truth, to repair the disconnect between what they may be feeling at the time and what they still know to be true, that God loves us, that he’s on our side, not against us, that he has our back  in times of distress and that he sees what we don’t, so that we are left with nothing but total trust and reliance on him to face the storms.  I hope to give out comfort as I receive it so that in all things Christ receives glory and we receive life in abundance.  No, I don’t want to be the one chosen as the poster child for survival, but if that’s the plan, let me do it well!

So through much personal prayer, the prayers of countless others around the country and the love and support of my family and a just-in-time heaven-sent angel whose love is more precious than a writer can describe, I have resolved to make cancer my biatch in a very public way so others can go on this journey with me and rejoice with me when I kick its ass!  It may not be contextually accurate, but I really can do all things through Christ, just watch me!  I’m already amending my life’s resume to add “cancer survivor” to it and to pay forward the comfort I receive in the process.  He’s a good, good Father!

And a very Happy and blessed Mother’s Day to all moms.  What priceless gems you are!

 

PRAISE-Our Weapon of Mass Destruction!

“At midnight Paul and Silas began to praise God. Suddenly there cam a great earthquake that shook the foundations of the prison, opening all the locked doors and shaking loose the chains of every prisoner!”. Acts 16

If you follow this blog you will know that I often write from the eye of the storm in a very transparent perspective.  This is intentional for a couple reasons-one, to identify with those who are going through similar trials and challenges, and two, so that in our struggles, together we can cling to the hope and promises left for our benefit, our life-savers, if you will.  Through each of the challenges I’ve encountered over the past several years, I have always tried to find a way to continue to offer up praise, even if faint, and even if less than totally sincere.  I have always known it is the best and often last weapon I have if I was to overcome the latest challenge.  I am simply amazed at how effective a weapon praise can be!

There is a story in the Old Testament about a King of Judah named Jehoshaphat.  Our 70’s band Resurrection, did a song about his story.  A vast army was about to attack Judah and understandably, the people of the city were terrified.  So King Jehoshaphat didn’t gather all his fighting men, horses and chariots to plan out a defense.  Instead, he declared a mandatory fast and all the people gathered together to seek an answer from God. Entire families, including children, waited before the Lord.  Then God gave them a message through a man named Jahaziel.  The message, so powerful and complete, was this;

“Don’t be afraid or discouraged because of the size of this army.  For this battle isn’t yours to fight, but God’s!”

You don’t know how many times I have relied on this verse over the years!  The story continues that King Jehoshaphat mounted up the next day and did something unexpected-he had the Worship Team lead the army out, his weapon of mass destruction!  Instead of beating their swords against their shields, they sang out;

“Give praise to the Lord for his love and mercies endure forever!”

As the King’s men sang their praises the Ammonites and Moabites became so confused they began to attack each other until not a single soldier was left standing.  The army of Judah won the battle and annihilated the enemy without drawing a single sword or firing a single arrow!  Praise is a powerful and effective weapon.  I am still learning how devastating it can be against unseen attacks! The victory experienced by the army of Judah was so devastating and complete that news traveled far and wide that God was their protector and they enjoyed peace for many years because anyone who heard the story was too fearful to challenge their God!

It is so easy in life to be intimidated by the size of the enemy waging war against us.  We see through human eyes that we are surrounded by a vast army getting ready to attack us on every front and we see no way out.  I believe that sometimes we forget that the armies surrounding us that we too easily see, are themselves surrounded by an even greater, heavenly, unseen Army of fiery chariots of heavens angels who are saying to us, “don’t be afraid-this battle isn’t yours but God’s!” What we envision as being a battle to big to win, is in fact, just another day of deliverance at the hands of a heavenly host, ready to go to war for us, and just waiting for the command, our release through the most difficult of circumstances of the praise from our hearts and lips-our weapon of mass destruction!  When we praise and worship God we are in essence giving the command and permission for heaven’s armies to unleash its power against all other weapons formed against us in such a way that the enemy is left defenseless and in ruins!

Paul and Silas were chained and sent to prison by the very people they were trying to save.  After being stripped and severely beaten and flogged, they were chained by their feet in the inner prison.  At midnight when it’s the darkest, in chains, bloodied and suffering pain from the open wounds from their flogging, they lifted up their praise and sang hymns to God, so openly that all the prisoners who were jailed with them could hear their praises.  Surely they must have thought that Paul and Silas had lost their freaking minds-how could anyone under such dire circumstances possibly worship God?  What they didn’t realize is that Paul and Silas knew the power of praise in tearing down strongholds and breaking chains!  As their praise ascended God sent an earthquake so violent that even the chains of those who heard the worship were shaken off and fell to the jail floor.  The jailer, seeing and feeling this phenomenal event was so moved he and his entire family accepted their message and were saved.  When God moves and responds, people are changed and set free!

There are so many promises of complete victory for those who follow Christ;

“All thanks to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”

“In all things we are more than conquerors through Him who loves us”

“Thanks to God who in Christ, always leads us in triumphal procession…”

“For the Lord your God is He who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies and to assure you receive victory”

“What else is there to say-if God is for us, WHO can come against us!”

So far 2019 has been an amazing year of victories and turn around for me.  I am seeing prayers answered so dramatically that I know it is nothing but a God thing.  And I can’t claim any glory except to say that in my weakest moments, I found a way to still worship Christ even when there were no words left to offer up.  I am simply in awe of his goodness in my life and his faithfulness in responding, not on my time but in his.  I am humbled and speechless before Him.  Can I offer some heartfelt advice?

I have heard it said that the worship time of a church service is intended to allow stragglers to get to their seats before the sermon or homily.  I’ve even heard some say they just come for the message and not the worship time.  I can’t emphasize enough how wrong that approach is!  To me, that’s like going to a fine restaurant just to pay the bill without enjoying the food.  When believers come together in one voice or concerted effort to praise a holy God together as one church family, there is a power, a restoration, a healing, a battle cry that gives you more deliverance and strength than the greatest of sermons.  Scripture tells us that God inhabits, or simply put, takes his residence in the praises of his children.  That corporate time when we gather simply to worship and revere our Father and his holiness-that’s where our power comes from-that’s our secret weapon against the attacks against us, not the ear-tickling sermon.  I win when I worship-I receive when I praise-I feel closest to God when I am reaching out to him in song and I stand no taller than when I’m on my face before His throne.  He is my weapon of mass destruction, my salvation, my victory.  “Praise be to God-His mercies endure forever”.

Finding Gratitude at Thanksgiving

In just a couple of days we will once again be gathering with friends and family to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving, an annual tradition.  For many this is merely the first official day of the Christmas season, but for more traditionalists, it is its own unique and timeless holiday.  It should be a time when we reflect on all we have, and to be grateful for our provisions and blessings.  But we live in a culture of hurt, brokenness and loneliness, and even with the most gracious of attitudes, can find it difficult to count the positives in our lives when weighed against the negatives.  For those who have lost loved ones though the year, this may be the first holiday without their presence and they may be revisited by the grief they thought had been fully processed.  Some may find themselves alone after failed relationships.  Many will have difficulty preparing enough food or the family due to loss of income or jobs.  The weight we place on the hardships in our lives will often overwhelm the positive in ways that make it challenging to recognize our blessings.

As I grow older I have developed an appreciation for the older hymns we sang in church and the timeless integrity of sound doctrine they contain.  One of those hymns is appropriate for Thanksgiving as it addresses the state of the human condition some of us deal with, but yet gives encouragement that there is always good and hope to be found in every situation.  The hymn is Count Your Blessings and the lyrics follow:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.

Refrain:
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your many blessings, see what God hath done.

Are you ever burdened with a load of care?
Does the cross seem heavy you are called to bear?
Count your many blessings, every doubt will fly,
And you will be singing as the days go by. (Refrain)

When you look at others with their lands and gold,
Think that Christ has promised you His wealth untold;
Count your many blessings, money cannot buy
Your reward in heaven, nor your home on high. (Refrain)

So, amid the conflict, whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged, God is over all;
Count your many blessings, angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you to your journey’s end.

It’s easy to fall for the mind games our adversary likes to use against us, because unless you are narcissistic you always question your worth.  I know this well.  But if you really want to, you can turn this game into a tennis match where the last volley wins, something like this:

I wish I had more money/I’m grateful I can buy those things I need when I need them.

I wish I owned a home/I’m grateful for shelter, a warm bed and a controlled climate.

I wish I weren’t so heavy/I’m grateful to live where there is plenty of food and I never go to bed hungry.

I wish my car was newer/I’m grateful for transportation to come and go as I please.

I wish I wasn’t in pain all the time/I’m grateful for mobility and agility and that I’m not confined to a wheel chair.

I wish I had a companion/I’m grateful to have known love and that I have good friends who watch out for me.

I’m sure you get the idea here.  None of us have perfect lives, and few of us have the lives we thought we would in our advanced age.  Life is full of detours, road closures and washed out bridges.  When the easy paved road we were on disappears, we need to learn how to four-wheel our way through the rough until we find the road again.  This can only happen with a determination to remain grateful and find blessings among the trials.  If you are reading this blog, then things could always be worse!  There is always hope within despair.  Count your blessings even in the rain.

If you find my writing encouraging and would like to read more, please consider buying my book, My Soul Cries Out, available on Amazon and Kindle.  You will find many very transparent articles about holding fast to hope and faith in the midst of life’s darkest hours.  And if you do buy my book, reviews on Amazon are always appreciated!  Happy Thanksgiving.

 

Asking God Questions Doesn’t Make You Weak

My last blog dealt with the hard truth about God’s occasional silence and apparent disengagement in some of the darkest times of life.  While many replied with their appreciation for letting them know they were not alone in their frustration in some vain attempt to discern the mysterious ways in which God operates, some voiced concerns that I had lost my religion or was turning from the faith.  This is one of the problems I have with the modern evangelical approach, the raised-brow responses because some don’t walk around humming Oceans all day long.

If you are a serious student of the Bible, digging deeper than just jotting down notes from the weekend sermon, you should be able to name a few men we consider Biblical heroes who, at some time in their journey, questioned God.  For those who get their religion from television, let me name them for you.  You will see that when I ask God questions to which I know I will not receive answers, I am in good company.

We all know about Job, described as the most holy man on earth in his time.  Job never neglected God and offered sacrifices for his family so that God would favor and forgive them.  And yet God allowed every one of his children to perish as a test of faith.  Job had questions in the midst of his trials.  His ultimate response to God, “It would have been better if I had not been born“.  I don’t hear him singing Good Good Father in that moment.

David, described as a man after God’s own heart, was forced to flee for his life and live in desert caves.  He had been told he was the anointed one to succeed Saul, but wondered if he would live long enough to see it come to pass.  His response, “Why have you abandoned me?  Why have you hidden your face from me?”  Of course God was with him, but David didn’t sense it-he could only respond to the reality of the eminent danger he was facing at the moment.  No Relentless Love playing in the background of this scene.

Jonah ran from God because he didn’t want to be the prophet to tell Nineveh they were going to die for their wicked ways.  After coming to his senses and being regurgitated onto a beach along with the entire stomach contents he had lived in for three days, he obeyed and prophesied to Nineveh, only to see God have compassion and change his mind.  Jonah felt he had been tricked and used and that his credibility as a prophet was now tarnished.  His response, “I’m so angry I wish I were dead“.

Elijah was chased into the desert by Jezebel who wanted him dead.  Elijah, who would live to see God do amazing things through him ended up in the desert under a tree, wondering why he was being so severely tested after he had been nothing but obedient.  His response, “I’ve had enough-I give up God, just take my life.”  I don’t think he was sensing the double portion in the desert.

Joseph, my namesake, was sold into slavery by his own brothers.  He ended up a servant in Potiphar’s estate.  When Potiphar’s adulterous wife threw herself at Joseph and begged him to give it to her good, Joseph literally fled the devil and ran from temptation only to be falsely accused of rape and ended up in prison.  A prisoner for 13 years when he had done nothing wrong.  I’m sure Chain Breaker was not the first song on his lips.

And then there is Jesus, God’s only Son, perfect and blameless, sent to fulfill a mission no one else would ever be qualified to fulfill.  And yet, He sweat drops of blood in Gethsemane asking God to relieve him from his duties.  His ultimate response, hanging from the cross, our Lord and Savior, our eternal hope, our namesake, asked his Father, “Where are you?  Why have you forgotten about me and left me alone?” 

Like I stated, I am in good company!

While it’s true that believers should be role models for faithful living, the life of living from mountaintop to mountaintop that is portrayed by several leaders, with anything less being a sign of something in our spiritual lives that has gone awry, is quite simply a mischaracterization and gross misinterpretation of the Christian life.  In many ways being and remaining Christian is a much tougher road than that of a nonbeliever. We are promised that if we want God’s best, we will have troubles, we will be sorely tested and challenged, we will be refined by fire itself and some will have their lives turned upside down.  Who in their sanity would ever truly welcome that kind of a life?  The beloved 23rd Psalm states that we will walk through, not over and not around, the valley of shadows and death.  It also makes no mention of how many times we will find ourselves there or how long we will be forced to journey through it each time.  If someone in their raw transparency asks the tough questions of God when they are in their own valley, they should not be looked down upon as being weak-they should not have people sending them the latest videos of salvation sermons du jour or be added to the local prayer chains over their backslidden status.

God designed us all as free moral agents so that we would choose to love and worship him.  That comes with the compulsion to ask God questions we want answered, even knowing we may never ever see the purpose or the good that results from being allowed to face difficult life-changing situations.  Sometimes when we look back we can connect the dots, sometimes their is no clear connection or pattern and we just have to carry on.  That doesn’t make us bad or weak or even ineffective-it makes us wholly real!  I have already resigned myself to the fact that I won’t know the answers to my questions until the day comes when the answers will no longer be important.  Until then, I hope to let people know it’s okay to have serious questions.  And yes, lest someone beat me to it, all the examples of men I cited above eventually came to their spiritual senses and were restored, but not before their words and doubts were recorded for us.  Now if they were all such bold men, why do you think the scribes of the Bible were inspired to include their times of questioning?  Something to ponder.

“The Storms Beat Against the House But it Did Not Fall…”

I reside in North Las Vegas, a region not foreign to crime.  In fact the Insurance rates for my zip code are among the highest in the Nation due to theft and burglary. We purchased this house in 1999 as I began to receive custody of my boys and our growing blended family required more space.  The house had already been vandalized before we moved in, so I had my brother, an ordained Greek Orthodox Priest, drive up to do a traditional House Blessing of Protection on the structure and it’s occupants.

This house is located on a cul-de-sac along with ten other homes.  In speaking with neighbors over the years I can safely state that every home in our cul-de-sac has been burglarized at least once since we moved in, and most of them, twice!  The house directly across from me was hit in broad daylight even though the owner kept two large and loud Rottweilers in his yard.  Every home has been breached…that is, every home except mine!  No, I didn’t install the latest home security system or upgrade my doors and windows.  Oh, but they have tried!  I can walk around my home and point out where they tried to jimmy the lock on the front door, where they attempted to pry open the garage door, where they damaged the back sliding door-all in failed attempts to enter this house.  Amateurs? I doubt it.  So what?  I’m convinced it’s because a hedge of unseen protection remains on this dwelling because before we set up residence we dedicated it to God and covered it with His hand of security so that nothing could come against it as long as we remained in it.

Those who know me and know a little about my story over the past two years will tell you that I have suffered my share of storms and would-be intruders.  The enemy who would come to invade and steal has come at me from every angle, and every point of access.  I have been hit with storms against relationships, against my finances, against my health and against my very soul.  I am no saint.  When the winds blew I wanted to give in.  I had little energy or will to fight back, and like my house, I have scars and evidence of the attempted intrusions that I will carry forever. But, also like my house, I was dedicated to God when I entered into this life, and those two Godly parents who dedicated me continued to pray as I weathered the storms of these past few years and as a result, I did not come crashing down in total calamity.

In Matthew 7 Jesus makes a comprison between those who hear his teachings and put them into life practice and those who hear but ignore the lessons;

Therefore anyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on a rock. The rains came, the streams rose and the winds blew and beat against the house , and yet it did not fall because it’s foundation was rock solid. But everyone who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house over sand.  The rains came, the steams rose and the winds blew against that house and it fell in a total collapse”.

None of us can skate through this life untouched by storms of change, of trials, of severe testing.  And if you profess Christ, you are guaranteed times of suffering.  I know, it’s not popular and doesn’t preach well on Sunday mornings, but it is scriptural.  “In this life you will have trials”, Jesus warned us.  Not if, but when. It is in these trials that the mettle of your foundation, your faith, your genuine status of Christ follower, will be exposed for all to see.  Will you be left standing after the enemy comes against you with high winds and driving rain, or will you crash into rubble and be swept away with the flood? There is no sin or shame in suffering.  There is glory in surviving it! The witness is in the mercy and grace of God when we need it most.

How is it with you?  Rock or sand?

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The Attempted Robbery of Your Esteem

One of the cruelest tricks opposing forces uses against us when we are facing some of life’s toughest battles is to try to steal our self-worth or esteem.  You went out on a limb and started that business you just knew would change your future, only to be left in ruins after its demise.  Or maybe you decided to give it one more try and risk being vulnerable enough to start a new relationship, knowing the risk, and eventually feeling yet again the sting when the relationship fails.

If you are alive, you have failed at something in your life.  Some failures are more devastating than others, and the responses may vary depending on the mental toughness of the victim, but no one can walk through life unscathed by some sort of failure or set-back that left you with doubts and questions.  We all face opposing forces that are keenly tuned into our thoughts, looking for any signs of weakness or openings suitable for an attack on what’s left of our esteem.  And sadly, too often we become willing parties unaware of the schemes and pitfalls laid before us.

Most of us bear more than one title during our existence.  I can hold the titles of father, husband, employee, student, Christian, son, etc., and so can most of you.  These titles should be viewed as separate descriptions of the numerous levels and roles we play.  In a perfect world, when one of those titles changes or is taken from us, the other titles remain effective and unaltered.  If fired from a job, I’m still a father; if a dropout of college, still a son, and so on and so forth. But for some, and admittedly at times for me, when we suffer failures that shake our core in one are of our life, we start to question our worth over our entire universe.  If I failed as a husband, I must not be a very good father either; if I can’t run a successful business, I’m surely a poor employee for anyone else.  If I’m not the best parent, I’m probably not a very good friend.  The cycle is vicious and spins out of control until such a time that we lose our complete identity because of a single collapse in just one area of our universe.  The enemy seizes onto this like a drowning person to a life preserver.

It is in times like these that a handful of strong friends can be vital, if we are transparent enough to communicate our issues with them.  Men are not good at this, even when they have friends like brothers.  We view it as a sign of weakness to admit our fears with each other.  The war on our esteem begins in our mind.  There is a scripture that compels is to hold each thought captive.  Too many times our feelings overide our intellect-we easily disregard what we know to be true in our minds because we allow the heart to dictate the filtering process of our knowledge.  Feelings are often a poor indicator of reality!

Prayer and times of quiet reflection can be great remedies and defenses against attacks on our mind, but there are also other tools available to us.  A hobby or special interest can be a welcomed distraction; volunteering for a local charity will give you back a sense of worth and purpose.  I’ve been blessed somewhat with an ability to write.  In tough times writing has been my therapy.  And the transparency in real time of my challenges has been an encouragement to those who have opted to follow this blog.  The point to be made is that in your weakest moments, your times of fear and doubt, you still have much to contribute!  And dare I suggest that for the believer, the trials are meant as a vehicle for you to use to make an impact on others, much like an AA sponsor does with womeone seeking sobriety.  You are never as worthless as you allow youself to believe; the stripping of one title doees not eliminate or alter all the others.

In exercise, strength and muscle gain are only achieved when those muscles are tessted beyond their strength.  Life for most is just one long exercise with our weaknesses being strained for new growth.  Don’t become your own worst enemy in the growth process.  Hold fat to what is true and use it to propel yourself to new titles, bringing a few who need your encouragement allong for the ride!  Blessings on your journey.

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And Just Like That-My 2017 Story

Our beautiful Beagle boy finally laid calm in my arms after a 30-minute full Grand Mal seizure. He had been in our family since his birth nine years earlier. An injection of valium calmed him down long enough for what was about to come. The cancer had spread to his brain and the seizures he was having daily were unbearable to witness-it had to end today.  I cradled him like a baby one last time.  The vet asked us if we were ready.  Of course not!  But out of love and mercy I nodded to proceed.  The injection worked quickly, and just like that, this once full of life furry friend lay motionless in my arms as his life came to a merciful end.  I sobbed like  little boy and continued to hold him until the vet finally took him from me and carried him out of the room.  Thus 2017 was ushered in.

In January and then again in February I was served with two different lawsuits stemming from a business I was forced to close through foreclosure in 2014.  I thought that chapter had been closed but aggressive attorneys thought otherwise. The amounts of the lawsuits coupled with the legal fee estimates to defend them were staggering.  I had received nothing from the business when it closed and had lost my entire savings that I had invested when it closed down.  These unexpected court actions left me with little recourse.  My finances and credit were now in shambles.  And just like that a lifetime of perfect credit history was now, well, history.

The following March, thinking things could get no worse, things got much worse. The love of my life asked for a divorce after a twenty year relationship.  What began as a Hallmark fairytale romance that others envied had now been reduced to a signature on a legal document.  To save money, with vision blurred by tears, I drafted the legal documents that would terminate my own marriage.  Upon their completion and our signatures, I proceeded to the courthouse and waited in line for what seemed like an eternity waiting to file them.  Upon the clerk’s stamp, I took them up to the Judge’s inbox and deposited them for final signature, which took just one day.  And just like that the air I breathed for twenty years was taken from me. I felt abandoned, unloved and alone.

The following May I was scheduled for my quarterly check-up with my nephrologist.  I suffer from Polycystic kidney disease for which there is no cure.  I was advised by someone close that with the year I had experience thus far perhaps I should cancel-I should have listened.  I was informed the disease had now progressed to stage Four and I was nearing the need for dialysis.  And just like that an otherwise health-minded man was forced to consider life-altering choices and my own mortality.

In a mere span of just five months every aspect of my entire being had come under severe attack.  I had lost a dear friend, I lost my financial security, I  lost my health and most tragic, I lost the love of my life and best friend.  I was, and in many ways, still am quite the mess.  Any one of these life-changing events would be enough to take down the strongest of men.  But seriously , all in one year?  I was left alone in a 2000 square foot house with empty rooms having nothing but the haunts of the past as a companion.  Funny thing-I never realized that quietness could echo!  Few knew of the numerous challenges I faced this year.  More than one person, perhaps not fully disclosed, reprimanded me for wallowing in self-pity.  My closer friends shared concerns over what I might do.  After all, many have pulled the trigger for much less.

It would be at this point in the story that some, just like friends of Job, would ask how I could still trust in a God who had allowed such destruction to overcome me.  I will confess that God and I had some serious “come to Jesus” conversations as I wrestled for answers or purpose.  If this is what perseverance looks like, I wanted no part of it. But as a long-time believer I knew that faith was not based on feelings or emotions but on knowledge and trust.  My heart wasn’t in it, but I forced myself to find words of hope within the Psalms.  David and I became close friends. He could cry out and lament to God over his turmoil in one breath and confess his hope and faith in the very next breath.  David always went back to what he KNEW to be true even when he was hiding for his life. In a twisted irony He who allowed these things to invade my 2017 was the One who I had to turn to and lean on in order to survive them.  I have surely walked this year through the valley of shadows but Christ has been my comfort and His spirit has been my  lifeline when I had little sense or worth, purpose or direction.

I can now see some light as I enter 2018.  The demise of my marriage prompted me to write a book that has already made an impact in other couples’ marriages.  Claiming a promise of healing, my last check-up on my kidneys revealed the progression of the disease had halted for now-I am claiming a miracle.  The Christmas and holiday season which had left me with old familiar and painful memories of years past was spent with my children, all alive, healthy and well.  And my first gift, the announcement of a new grandchild’s arrival this coming Summer, brought tears of joy, the first in a long while.  My faith sustained me through an impossible year and I now see some sense of purpose and a restored reason to continue the race the Apostle Paul describes. I know I am not alone.  Many this year suffered tragic and heart-wrenching losses-death of spouses or loved ones, serious illnesses, broken relationships, unemployment and the list is long.  When you are shut in by the surrounding thickness of storm clouds it is challenging to see the sun or feel its warmth, but yet it remains.  I want to encourage-no, implore you to seek shelter in the hope and promises of God’s Word and the comfort of His Son, Jesus.  David understood it while hiding in caves-the Apostle Paul got it while singing songs in prison chains.  I’m no David or Paul, but I get it too.

May the hope, the comfort and the love of our Father bring you into a glorious, prosperous and healthy new 2018.  May His will and purpose be revealed in your spirit and inspire you to do great things this year!  May you find in Him the strength and courage to boldly face and navigate the storms that may pop up out of nowhere with full knowledge that the Son is always there!  Happy New Year!

There’s a Little Mary in All Of Us

Each Christmas I attempt to find something in Luke’s Christmas story that is meaningful and sometimes glossed over.  This year I am drawn to the verse in Luke 2:19 that reads “…Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart“. I would guess that many who read this simply believe that Mary was content and peaceful with all that has happened, having reconciled it all and found it to be good.  I might suggest that is not at all what this passage means.

Ponder, from the Greek word ponderare means to weigh.  Defined it means to carefully consider, to examine, specifically, something that is not completely understood or determined.  Remember, the passage records that everyone around her was rejoicing over the good news, but Mary was pondering, contemplating, perhaps partly in personal reverence but also partially in great confusion.  Her first words upon hearing from the angel gives us a clue, when she replied, “why me?”  We refer to her as bless nd she is depicted as this Holy, saintly mother of God, when in fact she was a teenager at best, never married, never sexually active, and now the mother of someone being hailed as the Messiah.  I personally feel she pondered because she was perplexed and a bit less than confident.

How many of us actively seek God’s will or purpose in our lives but become confused at the events He causes or allows to invade our world?  Even for the rare few who can say they heard God’s voice, there is still trepidation when it comes to being obedient to something when we don’t fully understand the purpose or know where it will lead us.  When Mary was told by the angel that she would soon be pregnant, she must have pondered how Joseph and her family would receive her. When she and Joseph hear the words from Simeon that “a sword will pierce your soul too“, she must have pondered those words as well.  When she and Joseph had to flee to Egypt with full knowledge that all infants under the age of two years  were about to be slaughtered because of her son, she must have pondered these things.  When Mary witnessed the brutal beatings and stripes her son bore she must have been pondering.  When she wept at the foot of the cross she surly pondered all these things.  In fact she may have spent thirty-three years “pondering these things in her heart” until the time her son was resurrected from the grave and she finally understood!

I’m fifty-six year old and I ponder things and events all the time.  Why would God allow this event to shatter my world?  What purpose is there in going through this particular situation?  What can possibly be worked out for my good from this impossible situation? If we are to be honest, we all have seasons where just like Mary, we ponder these things.  And guess what?  It doesn’t upset or Father in the slightest that we have honest questions, so long as at the end of the day, like Mary, we have a servant’s heart and can honestly say, just as she did, “very well, let it be unto me just as you have spoken“.

This Christmas many are in an unfamiliar situation, missing loved ones, suffering diseases, enduring trials unknown to others, and may be pondering, weighing, contemplating things for which there are no apparent answers.  My prayer is that you find peace, hope, joy and love in the Christ Child we celebrate with full knowledge that His purpose in our lives is clear and perfect, even when we are left pondering.

To all my followers, let me say again how humbled I am that you read and subscribe to papaswords.com. I wish all of you, from the bottom of my heart, a very Merry and Blessed Christmas.

book cover 3    my soul cries out  Available on Amazon Kindle.

 

Storm Surge-the Lingering Aftermath

Today many residents in the state of Florida will begin to make their way back to homes they evacuated due to Hurricane Irma to assess the damages while many others are still dealing with the destruction left behind by Hurricane Harvey.  These were both described as historic storms of epic proportion and as a result many lives will be forever impacted.  In words of advice, newscasters, government officials and emergency responders all echoed similar warnings that went something like this-don’t be fooled into thinking that just because the winds have calmed and the torrential rains have ceased, that the storm is over or that it is safe to come out, because the worst may be yet to come in the way of flooding and storm surge. Although delivered as a message pertaining to a weather event, the profound warning is a life lesson that for many, hits close to home.

Many who survive these storms return to what they knew as their life only to find that everything they know has been lost.  Some homes were washed away and others, though still standing, left inhabitable due to the effects of the wind, the rains and the storm surge that washed away what little the storms had left behind. Tough choices have to be made-do we try to rebuild where are former home once stood-do we move on to a different location we aren’t familiar with-do we just sit in the water and lament the tragic losses with little motivation to move on?  The parrallels to life are too great to ignore.

In this world we will all face life-changing storms of epic proportions. We may be allowed to suffer the unexpected loss of loved ones or children, we may be facing life-altering diseases, we may be reeling from divorce, we may have lost much of our mobility through injuries resulting in paralysis or strokes that left part of our body unresponsive.  Whatever storms we face there is almost certainly a storm surge that follows that is just as damaging or more so than the storm itself.  A breast cancer survivor may be forced to deal with the scars of a life-saving mastectomy.  Graduations and weddings are parrticularly painful for parents who lost children before they ever reached the age when they could experience these things. Divorcees are left wondering what went wrong when faced with  the realization that their former lives and family structure are forever changed and they are left on the outside looking in.

It may be one of the hardest lessons to learn, but somehow, God speaks to us through the storm, if we are desperate enough to listen.  In Job 38, after Job had lost everything, scripture says “…and God spoke to Job from the storm”. There may be little solace in knowing this, but sometimes it is all we have to hold on to when life as we know it changes drastically and permanently. Those who have survived Harvey and Irma never asked for their resolve to be tested by hurricanes-I’m quite certain that if you were to poll them they would say their lives were pretty good and these storms were unsolicited. We don’t get to pick and choose our battles.  No one welcomes death-no one wants to face cancer or other crippling diseases-no one wants a failed relationship, but like the hurricane survivors, we must realistically weigh our options and determine the best path forward as opposed to sitting in the rubble of shattered lives and broken dreams.

It is only by the unlimited grace of God that we are compelled to move forward, one day at a time, mindful of the evidence of the storm’s aftermath but with a resolve to rise from the rubble strong, proven and better built for future climatic events.  Storm victims will have many resource available to them from charities, goverment agencies, insurance policies and the likes.  We may not have similar infrastructures available for our recovery, but having God, even at times when He can’ be seen or heard through the wind and the rain, is all the aid we could ever need and a source that is never depleted due to previous tolls and storms. It is a lesson that, after all these years, I still need to be remonded of daily in my own rebuilding process.

Our most sincere prayers will be with the victims of all the natural disasters of recent weeks, the hurricanes, the fires and the eathquakes.  And we also pray for comfort and peace for those dealing with their own personal storms.  May the God of the wind and rain who walks upon the storm surge hold you in His powerful and unshakable hands and bring you peace.

Saturation-The Myth of Chasing God

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Lately I’ve been on somewhat of a campaign against some questionable teaching and doctrine.  There are catch phrases and clichés we use in the religious vernacular without giving it much thought-I’m guilty too.  One of those is the concept of the believer chasing after God, as if they have somehow drifted away.  Is it really possible for an engaged believer to move away from God?

It doesn’t matter how long you have walked in the faith-there will be times when you doubt God’s presence, when you sense abandonment and are tricked into believing God has left you on your own.  Trust me when I say I know how easy it is to feel this way when everything you thought was solid suddenly crumbles under your feet and you are left wondering what the hell just happened.  Many are the times that God’s silence in the middle of severe testing is misinterpreted as God’s departure, and that is not sound Biblical teaching.  We are compelled to accept our feelings and emotions as reality and the only departure is that of our way of thinking in light of God’s Word.

First, believer and follower or not, God is omnipresent.  He is everywhere, all the time and at the same time, like the oxygen in our atmosphere.  He saturates everything.  This implies that He is also in us, through us and around us always.  I used in my title the word saturation. It is the perfect term relative to God’s existence in and around His children.  Saturation literally means to be in a state or process when no more of something can be absorbed, combined with or in any other way added to!  What a great concept of God! If I were to use the sponge as an illustration, it would go like this.  I can take a dry sponge and drop it into a sea of water.  It will float on the surface for a time until it slowly begins to absorb water.  The dry sponge would be the one seeking God but not yet committed.  As the seeker begins to accept His grace and reality he slowly absorbs the truth and the saturating essence of God until at the point of total acceptance, he is fully saturated and sinks to the depths of God’s goodness.  He is full of water.  He can come under attack by any one of the sea’s natural predators and believe he is no longer wet or that God has left him but his perception doesn’t change the reality-he is saturated by a God who doesn’t leave or separate from us when we are feeling otherwise.

Consider these irrevocable promises recorded for our encouragement for those times when we question God’s presence;

Psalm 139:7-12 Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea…

Jeremiah 23:23-24 “Am I a God who is near,” declares the LORD, “And not a God far off? “Can a man hide himself in hiding places So I do not see him?” declares the LORD “Do I not fill the heavens and the earth?” declares the LORD.

Isaiah 43:2 “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; And through the rivers, they will not overflow you When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, Nor will the flame burn you

Joshua 1:9 “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

Matthew 28:20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

1 Corinthians 3:16 Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?

1 John 3:24 The one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.

Popular recording artists The Newsboys recorded a song entitled Wherever We Go, and talks about God always going with them.  I like the line, “Wherever we go, that’s where the party’s at”.  When it comes to our way of thinking about the impossibility of escaping or running out of God’s presence, it is much more sound doctrine than you could ever imagine!

 

 

 

Our Amazing Race

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There is a popular reality show on television called The Amazing Race.  The objective is easy enough, be the first team to reach the destination and win the prize.  The race is broken down into segments or legs.  Upon completion of a leg the team is presented with a clue as to the next pit stop destination.  The teams are given credit cards to use to purchase travel, and a stipend for food and other necessities along the way.  So ultimately, each participant knows where the next stop is and is given everything necessary to reach their destination.

But…what if the rules were different?  What if the teams were asked to travel a road but they didn’t know where it was leading?  And what if they determined they must be at a pit stop but there were no clues given as to the next destination?  How would the game change if they knew they were in a race but had no idea where the finish line was let alone how to get there?  It wouldn’t make for good TV, that much is certain.  And yet many times as believers in Christ, we are called into similar situations, finding ourselves on a road we aren’t familiar with, one that leads to a place unknown.

Our amazing race is often times more of an obstacle course full of hazards and pitfalls we don’t see coming.  We are put on a path we didn’t choose and have no other option but to stay on the path even in the midst of falling trees, sinkholes, quick sand and venomous creatures.  We may believe we have sure footing and are running at an even pace when suddenly a gust of wind knocks us off our feet and we end up on our backs looking up and wondering what just hit us.  Illness, unemployment, divorce, crime, accidents…our hazards.  They can cause even the most devout Christian to ask why.  David asked God why many times in the Psalms.  “If you appointed me king why am I hiding in a cave?” If I am chosen why am I running for my life?”  “Why have you abandoned me? When will you come to my rescue?”  A man after God’s own heart, asked Him “why” many times.

If you’ve ever been in a nasty storm or blizzard where visibility was zero and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face, you will be able to relate to being in the midst of trials so severe you can’t see God in it.  And yet we are compelled to rely on our belief that He is ever-present even when we can’t find Him, even when we can’t determine purpose or direction, even when He leaves us no clues as to the intended outcome. Sometimes we can’t see the path that lies before us-we can only see the next step.  We are told in Psalm 119 that the Word of God is a “Lamp for our feet, a light for our path“, even if only the next few steps are illuminated. We are also given this bit of hope, a rock solid promise and clue, if you will, from Proverbs 3, my translation:

Trust in the Lord with all you have left and don’t try to figure out His purpose with your human mind.  In everything you say and do continue to confess Him as Sovereign Lord and He will give you a path you can navigate.”

Grace for the race, enough light for the next step-sometimes that’s all we’re given.  All we can know for sure is that someone has already run this race for us, long before we came along, and we know it can be navigated and it has an eventual destination.  Peace and blessings.

 

 

 

Cup Runneth Over or Leaking Out the Bottom?

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Can we put aside the Christian facades and be real for a minute?  Believers are expected to live out their lives with a smile pasted on their face as if oblivious to all that’s happening around them, “counting it all joy when facing trials of every nature” as if numb to pain like mindless zombies on Quaalude. But for every believer who truly lives like this, with a cup that runneth over, there’s a believer whose glass is always half empty because of the leaks in it, some due to bad choices but often times due to no real fault of their own.  And try as they might to fix the leaks and minimize the loss, they only encounter additional leaks, like a bad cartoon character using gum to stop a leak in a dam but running out of gum before running out of leaks.

It is hard to not be distracted by the reality of our circumstances. Even the Apostle Peter, whose faith was such that he was the only person to ever walk on water besides Jesus, could not help but notice the waves licking at his feet and the darkness of the watery depth that endangered him to the point of temporarily losing his religion.  This same Peter, the Rock, crumbled in fear when asked if he was one of the disciples of Jesus, to the point of denying all knowledge of Him to save his own skin. Thomas, referred to by some as the doubting Saint, was a man like Peter who lived life for three years in the footsteps of Jesus, heard His messages first hand, witnessed His miracles and sat in on the intimate lessons Jesus taught His disciples.  But when faced with the physical evidence of torture and death that his eyes could not deny, Thomas doubted that Jesus could really do what He claimed He would, and had to be shown physical evidence that in fact Jesus did exactly what He said.  I don’t know about you but I can freely admit I am no Peter or Thomas.  And so the cup leaks.

I am not convinced that God is impressed with our brave fronts or the smiley masks we hide behind when faced with unwanted changes or calamity. In fact it reads in Psalm 34 that “God is close to the broken hearted”. We can sing and proclaim all we want “Blessed be your name on the road marked with suffering..” on the outside but there are those times when our spirit fails us, when our drive and passion wane, and just uttering the name “Jesus” is a challenge.

Leaks come in many manifestations-physical illness, unemployment, failed businesses, unwanted divorce, criminal victimization, and those unmentioned “testing of our faith” that all of us need but none of us want. The outward evidence of the Apostle Paul’s faith is recorded-he healed the sick and raised the dead just as Jesus did!  But the inward evidence of his faith told another story.  He had physical ailments that he was never healed of and endured them until his death only by God’s grace.  Ah, and in my Shakespearean voice, there’s the rub.

Those things that God allows into our lives to test us can only be endured by a measure of grace that He gives at the same time.  In a very twisted sense, it’s tantamount to saying I’m going to cut up your arm but I’m leaving you with a year’s supply of bandages and Neosporin so you can treat the wound until it heals. In that light it sounds a bit cruel and not very God-like.  But these lessons have a purpose in bringing out a level of maturity and stability that can only come from a continual determination to keep getting up when you keep getting knocked down. That said, if I were to be completely honest, I sometimes wish God would just grant me a passing grade instead of driving me to acing the test. But that’s not my call.  Apparently He sees things in each of us that when refined, can be useful for His purpose, one we may or may not ever fully know.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a single sincere prayer could stop a leak like flex-tape, that whatever comes our way we could just say the magic prayer, quote the scripture du jour of the day and sprinkle a little faith so we could have fuller cups?  But and alas, God doesn’t work like that.  He sent His own Son into the desert for 40 days for a 3 year ministry.  Do the math-we will have trials of every kind!  But as Paul learned, God’s grace is truly sufficient.  It is the only leak stopper at our disposal and has been proven effective in studies for over two thousand years now. So if your cup truly runneth over, please say a prayer for us who have sprung leaks until such time as we can all be sopping wet and giddy from all the over-flowing spills from our respective cups of blessing.  Peace.

my soul cries out

 

If God, Why Evil and Suffering?

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A young officer just recently promoted to detective is hit head on while leaving the courthouse, leaving behind a wife and four-year old daughter. A newlywed couple are tragically killed in a collision on their way to their honeymoon. A young bride full of faith dies a slow chronicled death to a cancer that gripped her body and wouldn’t let go in spite of thousands of prayers on her behalf. A nameless lady across the globe is violently and publically raped and beheaded because she would not deny her faith in Christ. Children with cancer, people dying of starvation, innocent victims of horrible crimes, the deaths of saints-the question that agnostics have posed for centuries and the question believers today fear most. If God is one of love and justice, why do seemingly innocent people suffer?

If you are reading this hoping I have the answer, you may as well stop reading now. I have studied, heard sermons, read articles and even searched scripture in my own quest to find my answer to this age old question but to date no one has adequately been able to answer the question as to the dichotomy of suffering and evil under the sovereignty of a loving God.  Even Christ would not directly answer this when He was questioned about it in Luke 13. A tower in Siloam collapsed killing eighteen people who were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus did not reply with why innocent blood was shed but rather impressed upon those who questioned Him the importance of living a life of repentance and preparation.  There are those today who when asked about evil and suffering offer up the same handed down answers the church has always put forth-God’s ways are higher than ours, or it’s a sin issue, or God is sovereign and we just have to accept it.  Perhaps these are the only real responses to the ultimate question, but it remains a weak apologetic argument when posed by those agnostic to the faith who would accuse us of a blind allegiance to a deity we can’t fully grasp or explain. Are they right?

I’ve wrestled with this in my own spiritual experience. Why me? What next? What have I done? Where is God or what purpose is served in this situation?  Why teach me these lessons and not the next guy?  In my Jim Carey voice, Aren’t I the Lucky One! Within the confines of a limited view I have tried to find an answer. This is the best I can come up with.

Why would God create a world where evil was existent? That answer is easy-He didn’t! God’s world was perfect, innocent, harmless, sufficient. Food was provided for man and animals alike from the vegetables and herbs.  All creation lived in peace and harmony. But God wanted his creation, man, to love Him, not from default programming but from choice, a conscious decision to do so. For that to happen God had to allow man the option to choose-free moral agency.  Consequently as with any choice the potential to choose wrongly exists. A serpent agnostic to God, the embodiment of evil, presented Eve with a choice. Eve chose of her own volition to go against the commands of God, took the forbidden fruit, persuaded Adam to do likewise and ushered in the element of disobedience and separation from God. It is this separation, the void, wherein evil resides. At that point pain entered into the world as Eve would bear children in great discomfort. Death entered as God said to dust they would return. Animals began to prey on each other. The knowledge of good created the possibility of evil just as the existence of light created the possibility of darkness.

To fully understand this concept one must understand and define evil. In the simplest of terms, evil is not a thing but a void. Cold is not a definable existence but rather a lack of heat. As above, darkness is not a natural thing but a lack of light. You don’t really make a room dark, you simply make it less lit which leaves the natural state of darkness. Likewise evil is presented even by the earliest attempts of definition as a void of goodness, thus the natural state when all else is removed. In searching for writings that support this I ran across perhaps the best I’ve seen, written by St. Maximus the Confessor, c 73;

“Evil never was and never will be on its own, for it has exactly neither substance nor nature nor hypostasis nor power nor energy in beings; it is neither quality nor quantity; neither relation nor replace; neither time nor position; neither creation nor movement nor habit nor passion, so that it contemplated anything existent…it is neither the beginning, the middle nor the end. Evil is the absence of energy inherent in all natural power toward the end and nothing else…”.

In other words, evil is absolute nothingness, void of all natural good, empty of all moral judgment, fully and completely lacking God.  Another way of saying this is that Evil is what’s left when God is removed, the natural unconfessed state of godlessness. So, where does this leave us and how does it apply to the question at hand? At the very least it takes away our reasoning to blame God for evil. It gives us much more insight into the passage recorded in James 1:13 that says “no one should say “God is tempting me” for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone”. God and evil can not coexist any more than light can exist simultaneously with darkness or cold with heat. This then takes us to part two of the question; if then God is still sovereign, why does he allow suffering?

It is perhaps only at this point that any attempt to answer this adequately becomes simply conjecture. There is really no response satisfactory to human logic one can offer to which one would reply, “Oh, okay, now I get it”.  The only real approach I can come up with is to take a look at history and patterns in comparison to our limited definition of fairness and justice.  We are programmed in great error by authors of  “Blessed and Highly Favored” type books, Claim your Reward sermons and Prosperity doctrines that are in opposition to the recorded Word. While the natural, less Godly nature wants to question suffering as unfair, we really need to take a closer look at history, going back to the beginning. Abel offered up to God a pleasing sacrifice and from all accounts was a friend of God. However that did not stop Cain from taking his life, an act that we would surely deem unjust by our definition. Fast forward to Job. Scripture says there was not a man in all the world as righteous and right standing before God, yet we are fully aware of the calamity that God allowed him. Job’s questions were much like ours-why me, what did I do wrong, how is this fair? God’s famous non-answer is on record.  When we can dictate weather patterns, explain birth and create our own species, we can expect an answer.

But it doesn’t stop with Job. The perfect sinless man, the sacrificial Lamb of God, Christ bore suffering through crucifixion so severe we derive the word “excruciating” from it. No one in history was less deserving of suffering than our Lord.  More evidence, consider the Apostles who lived life with Jesus, shared stories, sat under His teaching, witnessed His miracles, His death and victorious resurrection. Defenders of the faith, seed planters of the early church, miracle workers in their own right; and all but John martyred brutally for their belief and testimony in spreading the Gospel.  Just? Fair? If our concept of blessing and favor was withheld from the saints, are we somehow more deserving of a life without pain, one affected and infected by evil? It should be just as logical to deduce that if they were not spared, why should we be?  Jesus was very clear-did not mix words when he said during the beatitudes message that those who were persecuted would be blessed, inferring persecution and suffering was eminent. He later said in John 16 that in this world we would have troubles! Yet He went on to say to “take heart because He had overcome the world”.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says ” now we see through a glass darkly; (or as a reflection in a mirror); but then we will see everything clearly”.  Matthew Henry says that it is only the light of Heaven that will remove all clouds and darkness that hide the face of God from us. Only then will we have answers to questions that at that point will be irrelevant and non-consequential. For now we must suffer those things that will be used to bring us into a closer relationship with God. For now we must receive comfort during trials that we can in turn use to comfort others who encounter the same testing. For now we must know that His strength is made perfect in our weaknesses. For now we must praise him in chains, worship Him in storms, hold fast to Him in emergencies and crisis and try with all our energy and strength to maintain the attitude of Habakkuk of old when he said in chapter 3;

“Though the fig tree doesn’t bud, there are no grapes on the vine, the olive crops fail, the fields produce no crops, though there are no sheep in the pens or cattle in the stalls, yet will I be joyful in God my Savior”.

This is as close as I can come to answering an unanswerable question.  It will have to do until I can see through the glass clearly. God bless you and grant you peace in your walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Thanks When Feeling Not So Grateful

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How does one offer thanks when they are in the midst of less than thankful circumstances?  How can someone sing praise when everything inside them screams for help?  Tomorrow across America most families will come together in what has largely become the first day of the Season of Consumerism, yet some still set it aside as a day to reflect on the many blessings they have received.  For believers it is just one more occasion to acknowledge the never ending provisions we are granted as children of God.  But for many it may be difficult to find a grateful heart due to personal situations or circumstances for which they are anything but thankful.

It’s hard to gather around a table that first time when one chair sits conspicuously empty due to a recent death.  It’s difficult to act gracious when the latest medical report was anything but positive. It’s hard to enjoy the day when you are wondering how you are going to get your bills paid, let alone shop for Christmas presents.  It’s hard being single for the first time around friends and family after a broken relationship.  We are falsely led to believe by some that Christians should give thanks for any and all of their circumstances like zombies on an acid trip as if nothing can touch us because of our faith when in fact most would be shocked to know the pains and concerns our Christian siblings harbor secretly.

1 Thessalonians 5 tells us to give thanks in all circumstances, not for all circumstances. To this day I cringe whenever I hear someone say that everything happens for a reason. That is simply not true!  God is not the author of disease, calamity, broken hearts, unemployment or loneliness.  It is His desire that we avoid these things when possible.  And yet it is correct to say that He can make magic from a mess, wholeness from brokenness.  Only He can truly turn our sorrows into dances of joy but our approach to God has to be one of a grateful heart.  Sounds a bit contradictory.

The heart of gratitude is something that goes much deeper than the surface circumstances. In one of my favorite movies, National Treasure there was a map on the back of the Constitution that was not visible on the surface but could be seen with a special pair of reading glasses.  Those who successfully maintain a grateful heart have learned how to read the whole of their lives with special glasses that see and understand things hidden from all outward appearances.  They understand the old but proven cliché that bad times don’t last but good people do. They know the meaning of “count it all joy” when considering present situations in light of the much bigger eternal picture.  They realize the temporal nature of this earthly life and set their minds on a much higher reward.  I can’t say that I am quite there yet, but I know how to get there.

This Thanksgiving Day I want to offer words of hope, comfort and encouragement to those who are struggling to find any spirit of gratitude. This may come across as a bit lecture-ish but as you gather tomorrow, consider the food that thousands of others only dream about. Look across the table and see the smiling faces of your kids, grandchildren and family and be grateful for their presence and safety. As you bless the gathering, take a moment to consider where you might be if not for a loving Father who provides all that we could ever need if we sincerely seek and acknowledge Him. Consider the dwelling you are gathered at in light of the thousands of homeless families with children right in your own communities. I know, it sounds easier than it really is, but there is a peace that comes from an earnest attempt to come before God with a heart and a spirit of Thanksgiving even in the midst of life’s troubles.

The following is just a compilation of various Psalms written by a man named David even as he was in the desert running for his life.  His comfort was his knowledge and recollection of God’s goodness.

“I will give thanks to the Lord due to His righteousness and I will sing praises to the name of the Lord most high”.

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount his wonderful deeds”.

“I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify Him with thanksgiving”.

“Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise”.

“And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving and tell of His deeds in songs of joy”.

“Give thanks unto the Lord for He is good.  His mercies are everlasting”

I hope and pray each of you have a wonderful, meaningful and grateful Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

Sleeping Through the Storm

barn-in-rain-2I have fond and vivid memories of our Summer visits to my grandparents farm in Mississippi when I was a young boy. Of all the stories I could tell and experiences my kids will never know, one of my favorites was crawling up into the loft of one of the old barns where they stored some of the peanut crop and resting during a southern Summer rain storm.  There was something incredibly peaceful, relaxing and almost hypnotic about listening to the rain hit the old tin roof.  As much as I love the ocean, if I could make a sleep sound mode machine of my choice, it would be that familiar sound when raindrops collide with rusty tin.

I wish I could tell you that metaphorically speaking I can always sleep with such peace in the midst of storms. More times than not the sound of the rain and the chill of the wind leaves me more on edge than at rest.  Even though I’ve lived through and survived my share of life’s storms there is still an uncertain but familiar tension that arises and remains until the storm passes.  When I lived in Florida I recall during the monsoon season that the sun would be out and the skies would be clear and in mere seconds the sky would open up with a torrential rain storm seemingly out of nowhere.  Life for many is much the same-smooth sailing, sunny skies and kaboom-instant thunderstorm, dry one minute and drenched the next, warm and cozy to bone-chilling gusts before you knew what hit you.

There is a story recorded for us in Matthew Chapter 8 that most are very familiar with:

” And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.” 26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. 27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

I can almost hear readers making the obvious observation because it’s the same one that I made.  “Yeah but He’s Jesus and I’m not”.  Of course He did have a bit of an unfair advantage as He was the creator of the seasons and the storms and was undoubtedly not in any peril. But how easy it is for us to automatically displace Christ when we are in these storms, forgetting that “this same spirit” remains in us and consequently the same peace also resides within us.  I’m fifty-five years old and have known the Lord as my Savior since I was seven, and to this day I have to be reminded that I always survive, that God is always in control and that the spirit of Christ is always at my side.  It’s ironic how we as a people can be wronged and we may never forget it but when we are “righted”, rescued and restored, time and time again, we have such short memories.  No matter the severity of the storms we face we must as believers find shelter in the words left for our comfort and encouragement:

Psalm 107:28; “when they cried out to the Lord in their trouble He brought them out of their distress.  He calmed the storm and its waves quieted down…”.

Nahum 1:7; ” The Lord is good, a stronghold in days of trouble; He knows those who take refuge in Him”.

Isaiah 25:4;” For You have been a strong place for those who could not help themselves…and a safe place from the storm and a shadow from the heat”.

Isaiah 44:6; “There will be a booth for shade by day from the  heat, and a shelter from the storm and rain”.

When I first met my wife I took her to meet some friends of mine in Dana Point, CA who had a thirty-nine foot schooner.  This was her first experience on a sailboat. There was a red flag warning out that day, meaning the winds were too high for sailing, but they subsided just long enough for us to take a quick cruise to the Newport Harbor and back.  Although the warning had been lifted the seas were still choppy and rough.  My friend asked me if I wanted to take the helm for a bit and I jumped at the experience.  After just a few minutes he said I looked like I knew what I was doing so he and everyone on board went below deck for a nap and left me at the helm with instructions to let him know when were close to our harbor. At no time was I afraid or timid.  It remains one of my most precious memories. Alone at the wheel of a boat surrounded by sea with large swells, and I was having the time of my life!  My approach to life’s storms should be equally undaunted, knowing that Christ has placed me at the helm of something He knows I can handle and he is taking His siesta, asleep but close by if needed.  He has given me instructions, set my compass, and provided me with coordinates that I need but follow so that even on a stormy sea, I can hold and follow a true course through the waves.  How easy that sounds through keystrokes.

 

 

For Christians Everyday is Halloween

361535-slasher-films-halloween-resurrection-screenshot  It’s here again already-Halloween. It’s a time for scary costumes, trick-or-treaters, classic movies and ghost tales.  Oh, and the whole church debate thingy which takes scary to a whole new level. Say what you will-I have fond memories of my days as a kid in Indy gathering as much candy as I could-I still struggle with sweets! And I recall taking the boys out when they were old enough to enjoy the experience. It’s funny to me how this particular holiday causes many to seek out the thrill of being scared senseless.  Even as church youth we went to the scariest settings we could find for that ultimate chase for the annual feeding of our dark side.

One of my favorite movies and all time classic scream traditions is the Halloween series with one of my favorite actresses Jamie Lee Curtis, the reigning scream queen. In her movies there seemed to be nothing she could do to escape, outrun or kill the demon Michael Meyers as he kept coming back to life episode after episode, sequel after sequel. She was haunted by him from her early teenage babysitter years through the time when he had a teen of her own. The character Michael Meyers was ruthless, persistent and seemingly impermeable to death or destruction.  I still don’t know if he’s dead.  I fear as long as Jamie is alive, Michael will pursue her.

This movie series is the classic metaphor for the Christian experience.  We are told in scripture that our battles on earth are not against flesh and blood but rulers of the earth, demonic forces unseen but very real. No matter how much we may pray, attend church or read scripture, there are battles going on within us and around us by the Michael Meyers of the unseen world.  I’m convinced that the more devoted one is to their faith and practice, the more vulnerable to attack by our haunting enemies.  It’s a classic battle strategy to take out the strongest first.

Spiritual warfare doesn’t have to manifest itself in our lives ala Linda Blair and the Exorcist. More times than not the attack is subtle in nature-that quick glance, the one drink too many, that innocent flirtation with someone other than your spouse.  You tear down defenses one brick at a time until there is a large enough hole for a full on attack. The Apostle Paul was engaged in these battles as he recorded for us that the things he knew he should do, he didn’t, and the things he knew not to do he did anyway.  If you walk through life as a believer but are not tempted, not tested or challenged in any way, you are disengaged in your faith, and the battle, for the enemy has evaluated you and deemed you not to be a real threat.

The good news is that we also have unseen Heavenly protectors who will battle for us.  In 2 Kings 6 Elisha prays the God will open the eyes of his young assistant and when He does, the young man sees a host of Heavens armies in chariots of fire encamped around the hillside ready for battle. We are told that the war is already won, but the battles until then can be fierce.  Halloween may be a man made and fake holiday with no real substance, one we know to be artificial, thus the constant pursuit of the ultimate scare. But for believers, the scares can be real if we don’t properly prepare for war.  So be careful and keep your defenses up at all time against incoming attacks, even when they look like Jamie Lee Cutis.

Praise Him for Roses-Thank Him for the Thorns

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Have you ever been stuck by a sharp thorn?  Why do some of the most beautiful flowers, shrubs and even fruits, have thorns?  When you think of roses, how can something so beautiful and desired and something so painful and unwanted grow together on the same vine?  These are the types of things I think about-questions few ask.  So I did some research on plants with thorns, briers, or other prickly appendages.

There are three specific functions of the thorns on plants. The first one involves protection.  Specific to the rose, thorns offer protection from larger plant eating animals that may otherwise prey on the flower for food.  The large pointed thorns tell would be herbivores to leave this plant alone for their own good.  At the same time, the thorns are large enough that smaller bugs or insects can easily maneuver them and carry on their task of pollination, assuring that the plants will produce beautiful blooms when the time is right.  I had a pyracanthia tree in my back yard and the thorns are deadly, but when that tree was in full bloom, it was magnificent. Thorns are vital in the protection and the growth process of the plant.

Psalm 91:14 says “I will rescue those who love me.  I will protect those who trust in my name.

There are a variety of flowers that are pretty to look at but are easy to pick or snatch up.  They have no protection that would cause predators to turn away. But smart people don’t grab a rose and try to snatch it up like you might a tulip or daisy because they know they will come away with a bloody hand.  Christ is our protector-He prevents our devourers from snatching us up. 

John 10: 28  No one can snatch them away from me, 29 for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else.[d] No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand

The second function of thorns in certain plants is to direct water to the stem for growth.  They take in moisture in the form of fog, dew or rain, and direct them to the root of the plant’s water table to help the plant grow.  You can imagine how important this is to the life of cacti which typically live in hot dry climates.  You can say that without the thorns, the cacti would not survive the heat and drought.

In Job 38:26 God is speaking to Job after he complained to God about the troubles he had just gone through.

Who do you suppose carves canyons  for the downpours of rain, and charts the route of thunderstorms that bring water to unvisited fields, deserts no one ever lays eyes on, drenching the useless wastelands so they’re carpeted with wildflowers and grass? And who do you think is the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost? 

God provides us with those things we need for growth in Him, even though at times the process is painful and we question His methods.

The third purpose of thorns, particularly briers, is that they offer the plant support and the ability to reach toward the sky for sunlight.  Plants like these are typically low lying berry plants.  I will never forget the many weekends when I was young when my dad would load us up in the car and drive far out to the country looking for wild blackberry and raspberry plants.   The plants that were the tallest were always the one with the biggest berries because they were closer to the sun’s nutrients.  These briers allow the stems of the plant to hook on to each other and give them support or stability from falling.  If you’ve picked blackberries, you’ll know what I’m talking about.  It is virtually impossible to separate these vines or branches from each other because they are so intensely entwined with each other.  Without briers, these plants would lie flat to the ground and would not produce fruit.

To me this scenario is the easiest to compare to the thorns that come our way.  More times than not, we view the troubles in our life as thorns that are painful and unwelcome.  Life today is full of these thorns-losing a job, failed marriages, unexpected sickness, deaths of loved ones, bankruptcy, being victimized by crime, and the list goes on.  Like Job we would question God as to why these troubles come our way, as if we’re above trials and tribulations, or worse, that God is picking on us for some reason.  We fail to recognize that these thorns of life are meant to make us grow, make us stronger, give us protection, and keep us close to the Son.  We forget that Psalm 23 says the God is with us when we walk THROUGH the valley of shadows and death, not around it.  We believe the mis-teachings of those who would tell us that the Christian walk is easy if we living right.  But that’s not what Christ taught us-He said that in this life we would have troubles!

But we gain strength and endurance in these thorny situations.  The process of building and gaining muscle in weight lifting happens in the strain of the lift.  The muscles are actually torn down and they regenerate as stronger and larger muscles.

Romans 5 says We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!

When we’ve been through these trials and survived, we become support for others who are going through similar situations.  Those who are the most helpful and supporting in bad times are the ones who have already been through the same situations.  There is strength when people get together who have similar thorns in their past and together they can help and support the weaker vines or people who now need to reach the Son.

If you’re like me you’ll never view roses again without noticing the thorns and understanding their importance in producing something so beautiful and so sought after. Remember, it’s the thorns we don’t see that help create the beauty in each of us through a divine process we don’t need to understand, but one we should accept with thanks.

 

Looking Up When You’re Feeling Down

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If you are one of those who are always on top of your game, you wake up and kiss the sky and your kitchen sings to you while you make breakfast, this post isn’t for you. It’s for the rest of us who don’t live in Disney World, those who strive to live a positive life but still battle the demons of failure, sin and worthlessness-real people.  I am one-I’m with you-those days when you wonder if you really matter, if you are really loved, if you would be missed if you were gone, if you are having any positive impact on those you love and pray for. Those small doubts become large gaping holes of opportunity for attack. Each day is a new war to wage against the dark, spiritual and tangible forces that are well trained at knocking us off course.  If you aren’t the target of such attacks, you aren’t fully engaged in life or your faith. The following are excerpts from a sermon I wrote years ago but still as relevant as it was then.  There are key weapons at our disposal to aid us in our daily battles against weariness, depression and discouragement.

“There are times in our faith walk when we find ourselves in a spiritual funk.  We are on a straight and narrow road, running this race-running like Forest Gump-running and running and running. There comes a time when I just want to stop running.  I see a little spot off the beaten path and I pull off the road just to stop running.  The place I find myself in here isn’t necessarily attractive-it’s isolated-it’s disconnected-it’s quiet.  It’s not lively, it’s not dead-it’s just hereHere is a place where my prayers don’t seem to travel far.  Here is a place that is under the radar from the dark forces of life.

Eph. 6:12 reads “For we fight not against people made of flesh and blood, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against those mighty powers of darkness who rule this world, and against wicked spirits in heavenly realms”.

The enemy is highly trained to target those who are engaged in their faith.  But as long as I’m here, no one cares.  As a Christian, I know all I need to do is call on Jesus for help and get back on the road.  I can even see the road from here, but it is just easier to stay here.  This is my spiritual funk.

Now that I’ve painted you a picture of spiritual funk, how many of you have been here too?  How can we get there from here?  I have come up with 5 easy but vital steps for Christians to follow to avoid these funks.

Step 1-Guard your thoughts.

We are so easily led astray by our own thoughts.  We haven’t mastered the art of bringing every thought into captivity. I have struggles with reassurance issues.  In my mind, I tend to put myself up here more than I should.  The problem is that it doesn’t take much of a parting shot to knock me down to here-an unhappy customer, something the kids say, a series of unlucky events, any form of rejection.  If I believed in blind luck, I would be the one person he can’t see.  When things don’t go your way, or the people around you point fingers, you start to believe that maybe you are the problem. Job’s friends told him he was the reason for all the calamities God allowed in his life, and Job tended to believe them.  We completely disregard every positive thing scripture has to say about who we are in Christ. This is the ultimate trick of the deceiver-he wants to remind us of all our past mistakes, all our failed relationships, all our closet skeletons, and we buy right into this trick.  The result is a feeling of inferiority, insecurity, and unworthiness, all contrary to what Christ thinks of us.

Philippians 4:7 says this; “Tell God what you need and thank him for all he’s done.  If you do this you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.  (Vs 8). Fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right.  Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable.  Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise”. 

Step 2-Seek out positive nourishment

There are several good sources of Christian nourishment available to us.  One of my favorites is Christian music.  I’ve always loved music-it is the one medium that can completely change your attitude or actions.  For example, when the classic rock song “I can’t drive 55” comes on, amazingly, I really can’t drive 55.

Music can be uplifting-I’m always amazed how a piece of music that was recorded years ago on electronic media can still become a worship experience in your car.

Our brains are complex recorders-we can recall every good or bad thing we’ve seen or heard in the course of a day.  If that’s the case, we should expose ourselves to positive influence, whether music, or a good book or a good TV program.

Romans12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.  This is a daily process if we are to avoid spiritual funk.

Step 3-Choose your friends wisely

This one is interesting to me.  I don’t personally believe that as Christians we are only supposed to hang with other Christians.  That’s not the model Christ gave us.  In fact Jesus, according to scripture, was quite a party animal. But his closest friends were believers.  When we socialize it is important to spend time with those who share your faith-they will become a great help and support to you when you’re in trouble.  And be very careful about those you hang with who are not Christian-they can easily lead you down a different path.  Our non-believing friends need our influence, but we must not yield to theirs.  It is too easy in the course of having a good time to let your guard down or compromise your core values after prolonged exposure.  The friends you confide in will ultimately be advising you.

Psalm 1:1 reads “Oh the joy of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.”

Step 4-Know your weaknesses

I have weaknesses.  I am not alone.  It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a Christian, we all have kinks in our armor.  The enemy always knows your weakness.  For some maybe it’s lust, for others maybe pornography.  Some may have a substance addiction-maybe you gossip-maybe you eat too much-maybe you have a gambling problem-maybe you’re just plain crazy.  Having a weakness is not necessarily the problem, especially if you’re honest enough to admit it to yourself and to God. However yielding to your weakness over God’s strength  can put you in your own spiritual funk.  Putting yourselves in situations where you could stumble is just not responsible as a Christian.

1 Peter 2:11 says “Dear brothers and sisters, you are foreigners and aliens here.  So I warn you to keep away from evil desires because they fight against your very soul”.

What does this mean?  It’s simple really-if you can’t hold your liquor, you should stay out of bars.  If you have an eating disorder, the Carnival Buffet is not for you.  If you can’t get on the internet without migrating to a porn site, stay off the computer.  If you’re down to your last $3, don’t spend it on Megabucks.  If you like spreading rumors, don’t listen to any new ones.  Are you starting to get the picture?  Don’t give our enemy any advantages against you.

1 Peter 5:8 says “Be Careful. Watch out for attacks from the devil, your enemy.  He prowls around like a roaring lion looking for some victim to devour”.

Step 5-Spend time alone with God

Perhaps one of the hardest things to do when you’re in a spiritual funk is to spend time alone with God.  Part of being in this place is the feeling of disconnection you feel.  When you cry out to God, it’s as if you hear the echoes of the canyons, but when you pray, you almost feel the prayers bouncing back off the ceiling.  It is in these times that it is most imperative that you habitually seek God out, remembering he hasn’t gone anywhere, even when we don’t feel his closeness.

James 4:7 says “Humble yourselves before God.  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  Draw close to God and God will draw close to you.  (vs. 10).  When you bow down before the Lord and admit your dependence on him, he will lift you up and give you honor.”

Sometimes our path is dark and cold and each step is just another step of faith into the unknown. But God promised to be with us in the valley of shadows and death, not to take us around it as some might suggest but to be our guide and companion until we can navigate through the density and the turns. Our yellow brick road to Oz may seem more like a muddy trail through an endless swamp but in Christ, we can be sure that our final destination will be worth the hazards of the journey.

 

To Reach New Heights You Must Dive to New Lows

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I am completely fascinated by a video I viewed recently recorded by a team of biologists with  National Geographic. The Great Cormorant is a large majestic bird that lives high along the trees or cliffs near the ocean.  The cormorant lives off of eels and fish caught deep on the ocean floor.  Biologists attached a camera to the back of one of these big birds to study their eating habits and eventually posted it to YouTube.  The cormorant dove into the water and descended to a depth of over 150 feet, a level that would cause most humans to pass out without proper diving gear. The deeper the bird went the darker the waters became and it was hard at times to make out the video.  Upon reaching the ocean floor the cormorant actually walks the bottom looking for food, following his senses when it’s too dark to detect the surroundings, until it finds just what it wants to satisfy its craving.  When it catches its prey it swims back to the surface in record time and takes less than 10 seconds to decompress, at which time it enjoys the catch of the day.  The food source these birds rely on can only be found at the rocky bottom of the oceans where they live. Only by navigating deep ocean levels for its sustenance can it enjoy living high in the cliffs.

Earlier this year during my prayer time I asked God to take me to a new level of faith uncommon to the status quo of everyday Christendom. I asked this not to become better than others in the faith, but that I may have an uncommon revelation of who God is and who I could become through Him.  It sounded like a genuine request-I wasn’t asking for material blessings or a better life, just a deeper walk, expecting voices and visions and mountain top experiences.  The past year of my life has been the darkest, coldest, loneliest and most silent period of my Christian journey, one from which I have yet to completely emerge. If you have read my earlier posts like God in a Steel Cage or God’s Deafening Silence, you may have a clue to what this period has been like for me.  I have definitely sank to new spiritual lows in the process.

I discovered only what I think I already knew about God but I mistakenly gave Him permission to prove it to me.  So consider this fair warning if you are serious about your faith and tempted to ask God to do the same for you.  I had already learned about patience earlier.  Patience is NOT one of my spiritual gifts.  I don’t like lines, I don’t like being late, I will stand by the microwave counting the seconds for my instant oatmeal and all speed limits are merely suggestions.  I was only smart enough to know I needed more patience.  God didn’t grant me my request with a sprinkling of holy water or twenty Our Fathers. No, He put me in situations that demanded patience. I have to admit I firmly believe God finds humor at times in testing us-didn’t think it possible for God to be sadistic. He sent me fender benders on the only freeway out of my section of town that added thirty minutes of waiting.  He would send me to the shortest check out line at the store only to find it was either the line for training new cashiers who had no computer skills or the line with that person, you know the one, who finds every item in the store that has no price tag.  He would make me take the call from that customer you’ve taken care of successfully for years who goes ballistic when 50 of his 5000 brochures weren’t folded just right.  Ask and it shall be given thee-for reals!!!!

Given what I knew about the patience thing I should have expected as much from God when making my lofty request for a deeper experience.  But I wasn’t prepared for what happens when God gets serious.  I can only attempt to describe in words my spiritual journey this past year.  I liken it to the dark portion of a haunted house, minus the screams, you know that portion where there is total darkness and many built-in dead ends and sections where the floor underneath your feet gives way and you can’t find your way except by holding on to the shirt of the person in front of you, except I had no shirt to hold on to. Darkness, silence, no direction, no voices, no clues or hints of light to guide me, and decreasing confidence with every step, having nothing to lead me except for my knowledge of His Word, which I had to force myself to recall.  I had asked God to take me to new heights and He took me first to all time lows.

As Christians many of us have false conceptions of what our faith walk and life in Christ are to look like.  Through false teaching and itching ears we want to believe that our journey should be one of ease, one of peace and one of tangible Osteen type blessings where our healing is just around the corner and our favorite parking spot at the mall is just waiting for us to pull in and claim.  But without explanation or justification God allows the righteous to suffer illness and the nearest parking spot to be blocks away on a rainy day. Or perhaps we aren’t nearly that gullible and we realize that wanting to grow deeper in our faith requires that we be willing to endure situations too uncomfortable for us to eagerly choose on our own so that settling for mediocrity and the path of least resistance is preferred.  Given the options, I can certainly understand.  I felt and still feel at times like asking God what I did to cause these trials.  The irony is that God was in fact answering my request and honoring me by driving me to the ocean floor where I would find just what was needed to sustain me and allow me to live at a higher level.  It is the method God uses for all of us.  I can’t build muscle by looking at pictures of ripped men in magazines, but by going to the gym and tearing down the smaller muscles I have now through pain and exertion.

There is yet another bird that has recently been discovered that can fly at an altitude of over 21,000 feet over the Himalayas and at commercial airline heights.  I’m not sure if I want to soar that high, at least not yet.  For now I’ll settle for flying over the Smoky Mountains and a diet of food at my current altitude until I catch my breath.

Running the Race

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it…

1 Cor. 9:24

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On more than one occasion in the New Testament the Apostle Paul refers to our spiritual journey as a race, a race to run and obtain the prize and a race to finish.  It’s not clear if Paul was formerly an athlete in the tradition of the Roman Games or merely a spectator, but he knew enough about the races and the rules of the races to make analogies for us to follow and aspire to.

As a Three Year Letterman in track I know something about competing in races.  I know that at my age I no longer enjoy running, for one.  But back in the day it was quite a different story.  I was not into cross country competition, nor did I run the mile or two mile.  And before you ask, yes, when I ran the distances were still measured in yards and miles, not meters and kilometers.  I was a sprinter, preferring to run the 100, 220 and 440 yard dashes.  This might explain my impatience in life now-endurance is not one of my gifts.  I want it now please.

I learned a few things in my training as a sprinter that have served me well in my Christian walk, that is when I remember to apply them.  One of the most important aspects of a sprint is the start-getting out of the blocks. You push off of the blocks at the sound of the starter’s gun.  The blocks need to be set, secure and in proper alignment with the lane you’re in.  If the blocks shift or are not anchored, you will “stumble coming out of the blocks” as the old adage goes.  I know this to be true as our races were first run on loose cinder tracks.

Psalm 143 say “may your gracious spirit lead me forward on a firm footing.  None of us are born theologians, nor do we become such upon our conversion.  It is only through Bible study, memorization and application that we can develop this firm foundation needed to get out of the blocks, making our first strides sure so we can more quickly reach our full pace. Our lives must be in line (in lane) with the Word so we are not guilty of lane infractions that would disqualify us or nullify our finish.

I also learned quickly that a sprinter should never look back.  Sprinting is all about form-the best sprinters know how important it is to keep form.  When you look to the left, the right or behind you in a sprint, your running form is broken, even temporarily, and your momentum is decreased.  It really is true that you can’t run forward if you are looking backward.  Jesus said in Luke 9:62:  “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”  

What causes us to look back?  We may be looking to see how we are progressing compared to others like us in our walks.  Every person’s race is different and our progress should not be determined by that of others in different circumstances.  We may look back to see if our past is catching up to us.  Many in the faith, especially new converts, have a difficult time comprehending God’s promise and ability to completely forgive our past and remove our sins from us by the dispensation of grace.  We run but we are constantly looking over our shoulders, breaking form, losing momentum.

Another mistake sprinters can make is giving up once the possibility of a top finish seems unlikely.  I will never forget competing in the city wide meet in the 440 yard dash.  The best in the entire city were there based on their recorded times throughout the season.  At the sound of the starter’s gun we were off.  I had one of my best starts ever and quickly went to the lead.  I held that lead all the way down the back stretch.  I rounded the final turn and I’m seeing a shiny blue ribbon just 100 yards away when suddenly this freight train comes roaring past me out of nowhere-four runners glued to each other like a team of horses.  I was devastated and couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.  No Blue Ribbon, or Red or White for that matter.  What else could I do but fall in right behind them and catch their draft and momentum.  I finished a disappointing fifth but ran my personal best time and it remained a school record for several years.

It is easy in our spiritual journey to feel like we are in stride, setting a good pace and out in clean air when life comes rushing by like a flood. And it happens to all of us-divorce, severe illness, loss of a close relative, financial crisis, failed businesses-all distractions that are very real and that can cause us to want to give up and stop competing for the prize.  The overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair of not finishing as high as we thought we would, if finishing at all, sets in and takes residence in our hearts and minds and become real, tangible stumbling blocks that block our running lanes. I suppose it’s then that we learn to become hurdlers!

Acts 20:24 puts it this way:  “However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.”

The best way we can testify to the Good News of God’s grace is to keep our footing, come out strong, don’t look back and finish your own race regardless of the runners around you running their own races, or the obstacles placed in your lanes to hinder you or cause you to fall.

I love Paul’s words in Phil. 3 as he compares once again our lives to a race;

No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead,I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

Runners to your marks-set, FINISH!

God’s Deafening Silence

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When I was much younger I heard stories about the 30 day nights that parts of Alaska experience each year.  I couldn’t in my wildest dreams fathom how a person could withstand 30 days of cold and darkness, even knowing that the darkness was temporary and that soon the morning sun would be seen again.  Now I know all too well what long periods of still darkness feel like and it is no less easy to cope with. All believers have been there-the periods of your faith journey when God seems to take a hiatus from leading us and leaves us to our own vices.  We may cry out to God in despair-we may dig deeper into The Word-we may fast, light candles, rise boldly with harsh words, fall on our face in submissive humility, and still nothing.  We knock with no answer, we seek but don’t find, we ask but are left with no answers.  The long periods of God’s extended Winter silence is cold and deafening.

When Mother Teresa passed on to her reward she left behind some letters that she had written in her 50 years of service.  Who among us could boast to have the heart of God that she spent her life displaying. One might believe that for someone to accomplish what she did in her life of service to the poor and needy that God must have been an ever present guide and companion. But her letters surprisingly reveal quite the opposite.  Listen to her heartfelt despair in some of her letters; “I am told God lives in me — and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul, . And another, “I want God with all the power of my soul — and yet between us there is terrible separation. And again,  “I feel just that terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.” And finally, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves but does not speak.” The are the words spoken by one of God’s true saints.  At no time in her journey does she ever confess a true disbelief in God, but in the silence she wrestled with the knowledge of His existence and involvement in her life against the tangible evidence that indicated otherwise.

As I read the Psalms I can hear in David’s voice his own personal agony as he sought God in his most desperate of times only to hear the sound of silence.  Does this sound like you?

“Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?” “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” “I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me? why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?” “Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord? arise, cast us not off for ever”. “LORD, why castest thou off my soul? why hidest thou thy face from me?” And even Jesus, as He hung on the cross cried out to His Father, “why have you forsaken me?”

There is no recording in scripture of God answering even His own Son.  Are we to demand more than He gave His own Son? these times in our lives are the most trying, the most painful, the most difficult times of our journey.  And it seems like the times that are the darkest are the times when God seems to be the most distant. So how do we cope.  How do we tone down the deafness of God’s silence when we can’t sense, find or hear Him?  Don’t believe for a second that I have this figured out as I have been seeking God’s voice over a situation for many years with no clear response.  Yet as a long time believer these are the things I try to rely on to get through each dark day.  First, I have to disconnect my heart from my mind.  We all want to “feel” our faith, but most times we have to choose to recall and believe God’s Word and the promises He left for us.  Hebrews says that faith is believing in things not seen-I might add things not felt or heard as well.  We have to go by our knowledge that God can’t go back on His promise to love us, to guide us and to work all things out for our good, even when we can’t see Him doing so.  Second, I have to learn how to navigate the darkness.  Those who are blind and live by themselves learn how to navigate their dwellings by recalling where objects are and assuming they remain unmoved.  I can’t always see god but I know He’s there because He’s always been there before and I must navigate under the belief that I am not alone and that God has not been moved.  Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult, even though I can’t hear His voice, I must continue to communicate with Him in prayer. It may seem like more of a monologue than a dialogue, but through prayer the line of communication remains open and things are brought to mind that compel us to keep moving forward on our journey.  Once we stop communing with God, the darkness will overcome us and leave us vulnerable and defenseless to enemy attacks.

How I wish God taught us things using any method but silence.  To those like me it is the most excruciating experience imaginable.  Earnestly seeking God but not finding Him where we think He should be leaves us feeling much the same as it must have Mother Teresa.  But even when we can’t hear Him, we know He hears us. I exhort you today to keep fighting, keep believing, keep studying and keep praying to a sovereign God Who has already displayed His love for us in ways that requires no further response.

Severe Storm Warnings

Today much of the Midwestern and Eastern part of the Country woke to snow measured in feet, not inches and temperatures below zero.  The News channels covered stories of multitudes of people converging on stores to pick up the essentials necessary to weather the storm, heeding the warnings they had received about the coming blizzard.  I recall living on the coast of Florida that most of the homes had hurricane shutters that could be closed to minimize the damage from storms that were a given for their area.   In the Midwest tornado alley many homes have storm cellars to escape the winds of tornado season.  In some Gulf States homes on the beach are built on stilts to encounter the high surge of water that comes with their seasonal storms.  In each case provisions are made to enable the structures to survive inevitable storms they are sure to encounter.

Our lives are going to encounter storms. It’s not a matter of if but when.  In fact as believers we are told in more than one place in the New Testament that we will face storms in our lives.  Jesus said that in this life we would have troubles.  Comforting, isn’t it! We may have to weather storms of divorce, storms of bad health or disease, storms of unemployment or failing businesses, storms of unexpected loss of loved ones or just the storm of depression or loneliness. As I write I’m in the eye of a storm of my own.  All of us at some point of our life will experience a major and unwelcome storm.  We can’t escape life’s tragedies, unless you are like the blonde who heard that all accidents happen within a mile of where you live, so she moved! (Okay, if you are blonde change it to brunette). How we fare the severe weather has everything to do with how well prepared we are when it hits us.

For the believer there are essentials made available to us to navigate any kind of bad weather.  We have The Word, our daily how-to manual for the Christian life. We have a 24 hour prayer channel for live chats with God. We have the support of brothers and sisters in the faith to hold us up and encourage us until the storms pass.  We need to build our lives on these solid essentials. Jesus told a story about two builders of houses, one built on a solid foundation and one not so solid.  The house built on the solid rock withstood the storm while the other crumbled.  We have to presume from the story that both houses faces similar storms but with drastically differing results.

If you wait until you are snowed in or until the roads are washed out before you venture out to get what you need for the storm, you will find it too late or too difficult to acquire the proper supplies. While it is never too late to cry out to God or begin praying and studying The Word, you will find it much easier to handle a life crisis when you already have a good foundation of prayer and study habits.  Jesus did say we’d have storms, but He also said to have no fear since He’d already overcome them for us.  I like the verse in the popular 23rd Psalm, when we walk through the valley.  Nothing is said of us passing over it or going around it, but that we have the tools needed to go through it.

No one likes storms. Even having the knowledge that sometimes God deliberately puts us in the midst of trials to teach us to depend on Him makes the storms no less welcomed. I’m weight training again and building stronger muscles requires pain and discomfort.   The methods God uses to build us up are uncomfortable at best, and extremely painful at worst. But know that Jesus faced all these trials during His life on earth so we could have victory and peace when we pass through them if Christ is part of our storm kit. As painful or as lonely or isolated as you may feel in the midst of the storm, take comfort in knowing there is a calm waiting for us when it dies down, as it surely will.