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.

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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.

The Christmas Gift

His eyes welled with tears as he opened the envelope. The gift was the most unselfish act he’d ever witnessed.

Harry* was about to experience the most agonizing Christmas of his life. A few months before, he had taken out a consolidation loan. The loan seemed like the right approach to his family’s financial situation. With a lower interest rate than he currently paid to his separate creditors, this loan would let him pay them off quicker. So with his wife’s blessing, he signed the paperwork and began paying the monthly payment.

Life seemed good for Harry. His job was rewarding, secure, and paid an honorable salary—enough for his family to live on comfortably. He planned to keep doing what he enjoyed for many years to come. But life changed suddenly. He noticed his wife changing. She associated with a different set of friends, worked longer hours, frequented places she shouldn’t, and became more distant in the process.

Harry was concerned but never imagined he’d hear, “I don’t love you anymore.” Topping this off came the news she’d had an affair. What seemed like a safe and cozy world shattered into a million pieces. He couldn’t form a thought. His mind raced in hundreds of directions. Anger mixed with sadness. A thousand questions entered and exited his mind before he could answer them.

Failed attempts at reconciliation eventually led to their separation and divorce. Harry was left with two teenage children and bills he couldn’t pay. Not only had his wife walked away from him, but she had also walked away from their mutual responsibilities. His family disintegration also led to the loss of his once-secure job.

The only employment available to him paid a mere pittance of what he once earned. Bills lagged further behind, one of which was the consolidation loan he had taken out just months before the bad news broke. He struggled to make the payment, but he knew the day was rapidly approaching when he wouldn’t find the funds anymore.

December arrived and with it the prospect of meager presents, mounting bills, and one that would go unpaid—his consolidation loan. In spite of his depressed mood, Harry agreed to continue his traditional Christmas celebration with his parents, siblings, and their families.

For a number of years, the family had made a practice of sitting in a circle, having the grandchildren pass out presents, and then opening them one by one for the others to adore. Everyone understood why Harry didn’t have any gifts to share this year, but the pile lying at his feet was monumental nevertheless. One was a simple white envelope that read, “To Dad, from ______.”

Harry’s curiosity prompted him to open the envelope first, but his daughter warned him this present was the last one he could open. Reluctantly, he opened his other presents one by one, but the enjoyment he would have normally got from opening them was trumped by his anticipation over what was in the envelope.

Finally, only the envelope remained. Carefully, he tore through the scotch tape that held it securely shut. As he carefully ran his fingers into the envelope and extracted the contents, a bundle of money fell into his lap. He counted it and discovered the exact amount needed to make his loan payment. His teenage daughter who worked three part-time jobs while attending high school had saved enough to help him do what he couldn’t have done otherwise. Never before had he received a gift like this one.

But Harry’s daughter’s gift—as unselfish as it was—pales in comparison to a greater gift given more than 2,000 years ago. Angels announced this offering to shepherds living in the fields. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:9-11 NLT)!

Harry reluctantly accepted his daughter’s gift, even though he needed it desperately. She had worked so hard for this money and could have used it to purchase things she wanted. But he honored her unselfishness by slipping it into his pocket and giving her a big hug followed by an “I love you.”

God gave an extremely unselfish gift as well. He gave it with no strings attached. All we must do is willingly accept it, slip it into our hearts, and he’ll do the rest by letting the results of our acceptance change our lives and the lives of others.

*Name changed to protect the individual’s privacy.

Wondering Why

And Moses said to the Lord, “Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly?
Have mercy on me! What did I do to deserve the burden of all these people?

Numbers 11:11 NLT

Wondering why often leaves us wondering.

I sat in the car with my daughter’s two children while my wife underwent a physical test. The three-year-old sat in the front seat with me biding his time and asking questions.

“Pop, what is this,” he asked, pointing to one knob on the radio.

“It turns the radio on and makes it louder,” I said, trying to focus on what I was doing.

“Why,” was the next question.

“I don’t know. It just does.”

“What about this button,” he asked as he pointed to a button beside the first knob.

I finally told him all the buttons in that general area worked the radio. My answer still didn’t’ satisfy him.

“Why?” he asked.

After playing this game for every piece associated with the dashboard and exterior mirrors, I finally said, “Pop’s tired of answering questions. I need to work.” He stopped asking questions.

I’m glad he has entered the inquisitive stage and wants to know things. But he’s soon finding out I don’t have an answer for everything he asks, and I do eventually tire of answering his “why” inquiries.

Moses wondered why in the world God had saddled him with caring for more than a million people. People who complained most of the time, who couldn’t get along, who had a tendency to rebel against God, and who on occasion threatened to kill him. God answered his why questions by giving him some help. God wanted those people in the Promised Land, and Moses was the person he chose to lead them there. He didn’t need to know why; he just needed to obey.

God’s ways and will are often a mystery He chooses not to solve in our presence. Perhaps in heaven, He’ll answer some of our “why” questions—but He might not. There is nothing wrong with asking God why, but we must be prepared to experience silence. While God never tires of us asking why, He doesn’t want our why’s to come from disbelief or discouragement but from a desire for more understanding—like Moses.

Don’t be afraid to ask God why, but be prepared to be kept in suspense. Following His will is a faith journey with many unanswered why’s.

To Help or Not

Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!
Hebrews 13:2 NLT

To help or not to help, that was the question.

He stood at a busy intersection, holding a sign we couldn’t read. Although the town where we live is modest in size, recently we’ve seen more homeless and indigent people standing on corners in and around our local restaurants and retailers.

As we pulled from one parking lot after our meal, my wife and I strained our necks but couldn’t read his sign. After visiting the pharmacy to pick up medicine, we passed the man again on our way home.

“I’m gonna circle around to see what the sign says,” my wife remarked.

I was glad. Of late, we’ve been paying it forward. Perhaps this was another opportunity. We neared the gentleman, but noticed he didn’t look like other people we’d seen requesting help.

The man’s sign read, “Trying desperately to help my family. Waiting for my disability check.” He didn’t appear disabled, but then again, many who are don’t. We pulled to the stop sign next to him. My wife said nothing.

“What do you think?” I finally asked.

“I don’t feel the tug,” she said. And we drove on.

God places opportunities in our path on a regular basis. More if we’ll ask Him too. But we can’t take advantage of every good opportunity, nor does God expect us to. I’m not a wealthy man. Even Jesus, with all of heaven’s riches at His disposal, didn’t heal every sickness or meet the needs of every person who wanted His help. There were times when He left the crowds to pray to His heavenly Father or to move to another region.

Knowing which helping opportunity God wants us to take advantage of takes prayer. This helps us look and listen with spiritual eyes and ears. We must ask God to send the opportunities, but we must also ask Him to let us see them. Busyness and selfishness cause us to miss them.

The tug my wife mentioned is what we refer to as God’s Spirit. We both feel it when it’s an opportunity God wants us to take. It’s an overwhelming pressure to intervene—a feeling of guilt when we let the opportunity slip by.

Ask God to show you the situations where He wants you to intervene. You can’t do it all, but you can do something.

Prayer: Father, guide us to those people and situations where You want us to help.

Building a Lasting House

By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures. Proverbs 24:3-4 NIV

Houses are constructed; homes are made.

As a preacher’s kid, my daughter, Chrissy, has lived in several different homes. The trend continued during her college years. While living on campus, she stayed in several different dorms. Then when she and a couple of her friends moved off of campus, she lived in houses and apartments. After graduation, the practice continued.

Each of her dwelling places was different. Some were large, some small, some cluttered, some neat, some filled with furniture and treasures, and some sparsely furnished. Growing up as a preacher’s kid—and being a preacher myself—I’ve experienced the same.

According to wise King Solomon, it takes wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and education to actually build a house, apartment, or any type of building. But these aren’t elements I can actually measure, cut, and assemble. I believe the writer had a deeper meaning in mind.

Personally, I’ve never built anything except chicken coops and hog sheds, but even those small projects required planning, buying materials, measuring, cutting, and putting pieces together if I wanted them to do the job I built them for.

Through His parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus points to the importance of a good foundation—something I think the writer of these verses would agree with. The foundation Jesus referenced was more than a literal foundation made of wood or concrete. It was a relationship with Him—as well as the elements Solomon mentions.

While houses are built, homes are made by the lives of the people who live there. When the inhabitants build their lives on a relationship with Jesus Christ and live their lives with character, integrity, and principles, that home becomes a place that shines a light far beyond the walls holding it together.

When Chrissy relates the conversations she has with her oldest son, Levi, while they are reading Bible stories—when he tells her it’s a whale, not a big fish—I know she’s building her home with the right elements. When Levi understands why Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into the fiery furnace or why Daniel was placed in the lion’s den, I help build her home too.

Make a commitment to build your home with the right elements. When you do, it will withstand any storm that may come against it.

Love Fulfills

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14 NLT

In a split second, their lives were changed.

Bobby and Jackie were a young couple with a small child. He had been called into youth ministry and was serving in a little church not far from Jackie’s home. Things were going well—until the accident.

Out of nowhere, a truck slammed into their vehicle. Jackie and their infant daughter, Angie, weren’t seriously injured, but Bobby’s life was changed forever. The wreck placed him in a vegetative state for the remainder of his life.

I was told the story when I became Jackie’s pastor. Angie was a young child without a father, Jackie was a young wife and mother who for all practical purposes had no husband, and Bobby lay in a nursing home fifty miles away.

I visited Bobby once a month, and every time one of his family members was present. They all took turns caring for him. Bobby was fed with a tube, but he still needed constant attention. Coughing spells racked his body. Fluids drained from his mouth and nose.

As I watched Bobby’s family tend to his special needs, I realized what the apostle Paul meant. For the committed Jew, the law consisted of the Ten Commandments, the ceremonial laws, and the laws added by the religious authorities. For Paul, it was simply God’s moral laws, and all of them could be obeyed by merely loving one’s neighbor.

I’ve seen enough love for the wrong reasons. The consequences are never pretty. But loving for the right reason paints a beautiful portrait. I can experience and demonstrate love because Christ has loved me. While I was still a sinner, Christ died for me and now gives me the opportunity to love for Him.

Loving others sets an example. As I watched Bobby’s family perform the unpleasant parts of caring for an invalid, I was reminded of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. The example was inspiring. My loving others gives an example to those who desperately need to see love in action.

When I love my neighbor as myself, I also point them to Christ. My words may not crack the hard shell of someone who doubts or disbelieves in Christ, but it’s hard to argue with acts of love. They say what my words can’t adequately speak.

Just ask, and God will give you myriad opportunities to put love for others into action.