When the Battles Come

You have armed me with strength for the battle. Psalm 18:39 NLT

Some battles have nothing to do with wielding a weapon.

Military blood runs through my family veins. My father did a stint in the National Guard and then the Army, serving overseas in the Formosa Crisis. My father-in-law retired from the Army, doing time in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. A brother-in-law served in the Air Force, and a nephew did time in Iraq. Even both of my children did short stints.

When I entered my teenage years, the Vietnam War was nearing an end—at least America’s involvement in it. The military draft was still in force, and I feared I would end up in a war that seemed to have no end. But it did end—along with the draft.

Though I’ve never served in the military, I admire those who have and do. And although I’ve never fought in a military battle, I’ve fought a number of other battles: Are my parenting skills up to par? On what grounds do I make this decision? How will I care for my aging parents and in-laws? Should I keep this job or look for another? How will I pay for the move? Why am I depressed? Can I get through this divorce? Will I ever find someone to love me?

The psalmist was familiar with military battles, but he was also familiar with other battles that didn’t require picking up a weapon. Regardless of what type of battle he fought, God armed him with the necessary means to fight it.

God gives all the armor I need to fight my battles with the enemy of my soul—and also the battles I sometimes fight with God. He gives me the helmet of salvation. Thoughts determine actions. I have the power to think on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. I have a breastplate of righteousness, given when I placed my faith in Jesus Christ. Faith is my shield, and I take the gospel of peace wherever I go. My clothes are girded with the belt of truth—which determines everything I say and do. And I have God’s Word to guide every decision I make and action I take.

When the battles come, victory is certain if we adorn ourselves with the full armor of God. Don’t let the battles of life defeat you. Claim the victory that can be yours.

Prayer: Father, thank You for giving us the weapons we need to be victorious over every one of life’s battles.

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Traveling with Firm Footing

He makes me as surefooted as a deer, enabling me to stand on mountain heights. Psalm 18:33 NLT

Where I walk determines how I travel.

I learned the art of careful walking when I backpacked in the mountains. Trails were littered with rocks, roots, and dead leaves, making paths uneven and slippery. If I wasn’t careful, I could twist my ankle, catch my foot on a root, or slip on wet leaves. More than once, my feet magically disappeared from under me. Having to watch my step while hiking made me wish I was like a deer.

While visiting our friends in Henderson, Colorado, we traveled to the Rocky Mountain State Park. The mountains are aptly named and peered at us through the car window as we wound around the curves. Suddenly, mountain goats appeared. We pulled to the side of the road for a better view. They were surefooted like deer and scaled the rocky surfaces—never slipping, as I would have.

I doubt the psalmist referred to God giving him the ability to climb a mountain without falling, although he was familiar with mountains. The mountains he needed help climbing were similar to mine: financial, spiritual, emotional, relational, educational, and parental. I’ve discovered life is filled with such mountains. The psalmist scaled them because God sured up his feet.

Slipping on the mountains I climb is inevitable if I don’t let God help me scale the heights. Through prayer, meditation on His Word, and wise counsel, God gives me wisdom to know the right steps to take. Even when I neglect these things and fall, He’s more than happy to pick me up, steady my feet, and nudge me along.

Although I sometimes fall out of neglect, I periodically fall because God lets me. Falls teach me important lessons. I need to pray before I make decisions. When I make decisions that take me out of God’s will, He will discipline me because He loves me. Occasionally, God leads me over rocky slippery paths to prepare me for an upcoming assignment.

While it’s my responsibility to watch the path I’m traveling, God will give me sure footing so I can travel it.

Travel your life paths with confidence. God will give you sure footing to walk down each one.

Doing Anything with God

In your strength I can crush an army; with my God I can scale any wall.
Psalm 18:29 NLT

As Stephen Winter said, “Life is not ‘Hollywood’ perfect.”

Nathan found that out too. For fifteen years, he ambled in the wilderness, leaving God on the back burner. His marriage to his high school sweetheart was marred from the beginning when on their honeymoon night she said, “I miss my momma.” Six months later, she was leaving him for one of his work cohorts. After a short fling with him, she moved in with another man.

For three years, Nathan left women alone. Then he decided to make a fresh start in a new town where he met a young lady, fell in love, and married two years later. He finally made his way back to God, but watched this wife go through a mid-life crisis and leave him and their two children sixteen years later.

Once again, Nathan wondered how God could have allowed such a thing to happen and how he would ever get through the mess he was in. But he did, and four years later God sent him a wonderful woman who pulled him out of his depression and repaired his broken life. He discovered he could do anything with God, but nothing without Him.

David the psalmist was a military man and a king, but he had passed through his share of hardships on the way to his present position—and still faced them. When the time came for the prophet Samuel to anoint a new king for Israel, David’s father didn’t even invite David to the selection party but left him in the field tending sheep. Later, after becoming king, one of David’s sons led a rebellion, ran him out of town, and then topped off his insolence by sleeping with his father’s concubines in public view. But David made it through each of his tumultuous episodes because he discovered he could do anything with God.

I’ve discovered what Stephen, Nathan, David, and many others, have: life isn’t perfect just because I have chosen to follow God. God doesn’t promise it will be; He simply promises that with His strength I’ll get through, that the trial will contain a seed from which I can learn valuable lessons, and that I’ll grow spiritually if I’ll respond with trust instead of bitterness.

With God’s strength, you can face whatever life throws your way. Trust Him when the trials come.

Prayer: Father, enable us to meet life’s trials in Your strength, rather than in our own.

Drinking Confusion

You have been very hard on us, making us drink wine that sent us reeling.
Psalm 60:3 NLT

Life is filled with periods of confusion.

Lonnie had listened to church folks tell him how much God loved him. One day he acknowledged his sin, repented, and accepted Jesus as his Savior. But he was confused shortly thereafter when, at a church business meeting, the church voted to excuse themselves from a local men’s fellowship because African American churches were joining. Didn’t God love all people?

Garrett was confused too. He had accepted Christ when he was younger but had grown further away from Him. He and his wife rarely attended church. His first marriage had ended in divorce, and the present one was in trouble. Then his wife’s drinking problem led to a wreck that killed their youngest child. Couldn’t God have prevented this?

Carine had a heart for children’s ministry. When a new Vacation Bible School director brought in numerous children from the community, her heart was touched. She decided to begin a van ministry. Every Sunday, she picked up children and brought them to church. When teachers threatened to give up their classes, when no one would sit with the children, and when no one made any attempt to speak to them, Carine was confused. Didn’t Jesus tell the little children to come to Him?

David was also periodically confused. If God favored Israel, why did He occasionally let their enemies defeat them?

I, too, can throw my hat into the ring of confusion. God, if You love me, why the divorce, why the financial struggles, why the rebellious children, why the unemployment, why the layoff, why the betrayal, why the death, why the sickness, why the…

David discovered confidence in the midst of his confusion. But you have raised a banner for those who fear you—a rallying point in the face of attack (Psalm 60:4). Whether it looked so or not, God was in charge and in control. What appeared as a mess to David wasn’t to God. What appeared to be unconcern wasn’t at all.

The only way I can walk through periods of confusion with my faith intact and my eyes looking upward and forward is to believe the same. God loves me and is ordering the steps of my life—even when the evidence seems to point to the contrary.

Don’t let life’s periods of confusion dampen your faith in a loving God.

Identity: Was Versus Is

This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! 2 Corinthians 5:27 NLT

I wasn’t sure who I would become, but neither was I always positive I wanted to remain what I was.

In fifty-six years, I’ve been many things. I was a preacher’s kid from the time I was eight years old until my dad died when I was forty-nine years old. I was once a grandchild. That identity vanished when my last grandparent died. For a short period, I was an Orkin exterminator. Crawling under houses, seeing animals I didn’t care to see, hitting my head, and smelling odors convinced me I didn’t want that identity.

For two years, I was a warehouse worker. Someone else decided I shouldn’t continue that identity when they laid me off and never recalled me. Then I became a textile worker for four years. I went from weaver to floor sweeper to supervisor. When I answered God’s call to enter the ministry, I went from being a textile worker to being a preacher. Along the way, I was also a teacher for eight years.

All of those things are positions I once held—things I was once labeled by—but they weren’t who I was. As a nine-year-old lad, I listened to my dad explain the plan of salvation. I chose to ask Jesus to forgive my sins and come into my heart. I pledged to follow Him as my Savior. At that moment, I became what Paul classified as a new person. Everything old passed into the past, and a new life began. From that moment, I was a Christian who might be a preacher’s kid, grandchild, textile worker, Orkin exterminator, teacher, or preacher. My real identity, however, was bound up with Christ.

Another identity I left behind when I chose Christ was sinner. I love the song, “I’m Just a Sinner Saved by Grace,” but I question the theology. Yes, I was saved by grace, but the Bible doesn’t continue to classify me as a “sinner” now that I’ve received Christ. In fact, it says I’m a saint. I’m not perfect—and won’t be this side of heaven—but I am a saint because Christ has given me His righteousness. I am God’s child, friend, and a joint heir with Christ.

Knowing who you are is crucial. It determines your actions as well as your attitudes when you face difficulties in life. What is your true identity?

Wind Grabbing

I observed everything going on under the sun,
and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind.

Ecclesiastes 1:14 NLT

The parking lot symbolized what once was but would never be again.

In the early 1980s, Ryan’s Steakhouse was the most popular eating establishment in Greenwood, SC. You could choose from a bar of meats, salads, vegetables, starches, and homemade desserts, or you could order from a selection of juicy steaks. Sunday lunches—as well as Sunday nights after church—witnessed a packed restaurant.

Then other popular restaurants encroached on Ryan’s territory. Places like Chiles, O’Charley’s, and Outback Steakhouse. Ryan’s cut out their signature steaks and went solely to a food bar. Crowds thinned. And one day they closed their doors. Financial struggles—along with waning crowds—made the decision.

What’s left of Ryan’s is on my daily walking route. As I walk up and down its parking lot, I think back to what once was. Cars packed the parking lot and overflowed into a neighboring restaurant’s lot. Lines of people snaked out of the front door, waiting to pay and be seated. The smell of steaks simmering on the grill filled the air—along with conversations and laughter as people mingled.

But not now. Grass grows through cracks in the asphalt. Leaves and pine straw litter the lot. Empty pallets, pieces of rock, and other left-behind paraphernalia spoil the ground. As if someone was in a hurry to leave—or reluctant.

I long for the “good ole” days as I walk through the deserted parking lot. Yet I know they’ll never return. What once brought satisfaction to many—myself included—won’t ever again. King Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, knew disappointment as well. He hadn’t sampled Ryan’s, but he had everything else. As the wealthiest man alive, he could, and did. However, nothing brought him lasting satisfaction. Pleasure was always one grasp away. Just when he thought he had found it, the wind blew it from his grasp.

Such is the nature of things, whatever they are. Restaurants, relationships, play toys, possessions, power, prestige. They’re all temporary—here for our momentary enjoyment. Perhaps that’s why Jesus said to store our treasures in heaven . . . to invest in what outlasts time. Those things that will have a lasting influence long after we’re gone.

The Ryan’s of the world lose their popularity—and maybe even close their doors. Your life, too, will one day end, but you can leave a legacy for others to remember and emulate.

Prayer: Father, guide us to invest in those things that will outlive our lives.

Life’s Best Comforter

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort.

2 Corinthians 1:3 NLT

My wife and I are quickly moving toward being the patriarchs of our family.

Though I try not to think about it, I know the time is approaching when my mother and my in-laws will die. I remember the sorrow I felt when my father died, but at least I had my mother left. When she’s gone, there will be no parents left. My wife’s parents are more aged than my mother and will soon succumb to death as well. The day is coming when our children and grandchildren will have only us to look to—as we did our parents. How we’ll handle the last parent dying, I’m not sure.

According to Paul, God is the source of all comfort—and Paul needed it. Since trusting Christ as his Savior, turmoil and trials had hounded him. Beatings, stonings, jail time, he faced them all—but found his comfort in knowing God was in control and he was doing God’s will.

God hasn’t changed roles. As He comforted Paul, so He comforts me—not only when we lose a loved one but as we face life’s challenges each day. Paying attention to how God comforts us helps us be better comforters.

God’s comfort never runs out nor does He ever tire of giving it. Giving comfort to others is taxing and can drain the emotions. God can handle the task, for He is all-powerful. Nothing we face is too difficult for Him to know how to comfort us.

Comforting others is often inconvenient. Jesus’ ministry was filled with interruptions from others. When we choose to comfort others, we, too, will have to deal with being inconvenienced. Death, accidents, and broken relationships never happen at a convenient time.

Comforting others takes time we could use for something else—perhaps something more enjoyable. True comfort is more than shooting someone a text or email. Or posting a “prayers” comment on their Facebook post. It involves hands-on activities when possible.

While comforting others is time-consuming, doing so brings comfort to us. God designed us to be involved in others’ lives. Doing so fulfills part of His plan for our life. We can only fully appreciate God’s comfort when we channel it to others.

Don’t soak up God’s comfort without squeezing out some for others.

Prayer: Father, use us as instruments of comfort to those who are hurting.

God Understands

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.

Psalm 139:1-2 NLT

Regardless of how many times I explained the concept, some continued to misunderstand and make mistakes.

Correctly punctuating compound sentences is one of the simplest yet most difficult concepts I teach in Language Arts. The rule is simple: when two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction, a comma must precede the conjunction. In order for an independent clause to be claimed as such, it must have a subject, verb, and a complete thought—not just a verb and a few prepositional phrases.

And it was the latter that confused many students. Many of them placed a comma when the sentence was actually a simple sentence with compound verbs. Others would mistake the word “then” for a coordinating conjunction and place a comma. I spilled much red ink correcting papers that related to correctly punctuating compound sentences. Although I explained the concept in every imaginable way, the rule often didn’t sink in. Their failure to understand cost them many unnecessary mistakes.

I, too, have failed to understand concepts when I was in school. My misunderstanding was more in math than English classes though. But more worrisome is being misunderstood by others. The psalmist was confident God understood him. After all, God had created him. He knew everything about him, even his innermost thoughts.

Failing to understand a concept and being misunderstood by others aren’t pleasant. Both can lead to frustration. I’ve taught students who practically gave up, and I’ve known people who struggled with depression because others just didn’t “get” them.

Since God made us, He knows everything about us. He knows what things we struggle with—the hard subject, the unpleasant work atmosphere, the tough relationship, the co-dependent friend, the addiction. He doesn’t have to hear us voice our frustrations because He knows our thoughts. He understands us.

There will always be things we don’t understand, as well as some who don’t understand us. We can live with that as long as our Creator is by our side, guiding us along life’s journey. He’s the friend who will never leave, who will always comfort, and who will forever understand.

Take comfort in knowing God understands when no one else does.

Good Comforting

I have heard all this before. What miserable comforters you are! Job 16:2 NLT

Regardless of where she went, she couldn’t find comfort.

Leah and her husband were never apart. They even volunteered at the same place after they retired. Both appeared to be in good health, so you can imagine Leah’s shock when her husband dropped dead. Jeff was outside cutting grass. He had no recent health concerns. But when Leah saw him stumble into the doorway and say he wasn’t feeling well, she could see something wasn’t right. Within a few minutes, he had slumped over, never to recover.

Although months had passed since Jeff’s death, Leah still mourned and suffered from anxiety and depression. She went to counselors, pastors, and friends, but nothing seemed to soothe her pain. She couldn’t focus and struggled to make it through each day. She left her old church, saying she just couldn’t stand to attend without Jeff. Leah longed for lasting comfort, but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Job didn’t find it with his fair-weather friends either. He had lost almost everything a person could lose and still survive. What’s worse, God permitted his woes to prove to Satan that Job would maintain his loyalty to God despite extreme adversity. The only comfort Job’s friends could muster was telling him he had sinned. Confess, and things would get better was their advice. Job, however, had nothing to confess. He maintained his innocence and muddled through his pain and sorrow.

Job’s friends did what is typical. They thought they had to say something to soothe his grief—and they did. But what they said didn’t do the trick nor was it biblically sound. Telling someone God needed another angel or that you know how they feel is hollow comforting. God doesn’t take life to get angels, nor do humans become angels after death. And no two people experience the same episode in the same way.

Presence in the midst of grief is better than words. Sharing truth from God’s Word can be comforting, but timing is critical. Sitting and listening and letting the person cry on your shoulder is better. When the time is right, they’ll ask, and then you can share words of wisdom they might need to hear. For the moment, silence is golden, and practical help is priceless.

Comforting those who grieve is tricky business. Before you speak or act, pray and ask God for direction and wisdom.

A Different Kind of Christmas

Christmases at my maternal grandparent’s home were different, but just as memorable.

My mother’s parents would have been considered upper middle class by modern standards. When my grandfather died, he had a sizable sum saved. At least it was sizable according to my standards of judging sizable. Checkbook balances never fell below $20,000. For me, that’s rich. I’ve never had that much saved nor have I ever come near having that amount in my checking account. Additionally, my grandfather owned several hundred acres of farmland and wooded areas.

But their lifestyles didn’t reflect the money they had or possessions they owned. My grandfather’s only farm implement was a small red tractor. What he couldn’t do with it, he paid someone else to do. Which was almost everything except plowing and planting. Their home was an old farmhouse with no central heat or air. Not until after my grandfather’s death did my grandmother install one lonely window unit in her kitchen. Neither ever owned a new vehicle while my grandfather was alive. Overhead lights consisted of one bulb dangling from a wire that drooped low enough for a pull cord to be reached for turning it on and off. Their furniture was modest except for a few finer pieces reserved for company and which were nestled in the “front room.” Professionals were never hired to make home repairs. Handymen—more handy than skilled–were called to mend broken items.

Just down the path—a short city block away–lived an aunt and uncle who parroted my grandparent’s example. They too saved most pennies they earned and spent very few, choosing a modest home and down-home living over what they could have enjoyed.

And it was to such an environment that we made our way on Christmas day. The experience was quite different from what I was accustomed to at my father’s parent’s home. Rather than bulging with presents, the tree stood almost alone with just a few gifts snuggled underneath. While I opened presents with great anticipation at my other grandparent’s home, I wasn’t as eager to do so here. These presents didn’t even compare. Experience had proven it. Some of them were used, and others were items a young child had no use for. I often wondered whether they even put any thought into what they gave or just gave because they were expected to. When my parents added these to those already received at the other grandparent’s home, the difference was virtually imperceptible. While I enjoyed the food and getting to see my relatives, the presents didn’t tweak the enthusiasm of a young lad with a less than proper understanding of Christmas.

Yet the disappointing presents were overshadowed by elements I sometimes didn’t discover when spending Christmas with my other grandparents. Sure we had a feast of food there, but it wasn’t the same as here. This grandmother spent her entire day in the kitchen, and Christmas was no exception. She continued cooking and serving while everyone else ate—occasionally not even sitting down until everyone was stuffed and sleepy. And their mindset about presents was starkly different. They seemed to know there were more important things to experience than giving and receiving gifts that may have been purchased with little thought and would be used only for a brief time.

Togetherness was more important to these grandparents. I labeled them stingy—and perhaps they were–but then again possibly they knew something I hadn’t ascertained yet. What they gave me was never what I hoped for, but perhaps it was more important than what they could have afforded to buy. And they certainly wouldn’t have had to go into debt like my other grandmother.

Our meals and gift opening were often preceded or followed by the men and boys trekking through our grandfather’s wooded land on hunting expeditions. Deer, squirrel, rabbit, quail, dove. It didn’t matter. We hunted it all, bringing back the smaller quarry and escorting them to a small area of the floor next to the lone gas heater standing guard over the kitchen area.

Though I was sometimes disappointed with this different kind of Christmas, in many ways it was more important than others I experienced elsewhere. Many religionists were disappointed with God’s gift and his view of Christmas too. So poor were Jesus’ parents that a manger was his first home and strips of cloth his first garment. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. (Luke 2:7 NLT) No fanfare over his birth. No parades. No welcoming gifts. No heralding bugles. Just a dark damp stable and a few shepherd visitors.

Numerous people rejected God’s Messiah simply because He didn’t fulfill their expectations. He didn’t blow in on a white horse, nor did He conquer the Jew’s enemies who ruled them ferociously. Rather, He was a humble man from an insignificant town. He grew up learning the carpenter trade and let those His people hated so much insult and eventually crucify Him.

No doubt, Jesus was a different kind of Messiah who arrived on a different type of Christmas, and because of it, many chose not to believe in Him or accept His offer of salvation. But He was God’s kind of Christmas gift. Not wrapped in beautiful bows and fancy paper, but a Savior nevertheless. The type of gift that gives presently and eternally.