An Army of Misfits

So David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. Soon his brothers and all his other relatives joined him there.  Then others began coming—men who were in trouble or in debt or who were just discontented—until David was the captain of about 400 men. 1 Samuel 22:1-2 NLT

What others consider misfits, God often considers fits.

My father served as interim pastor for a small, struggling church after he retired. Once a thriving church on the local lake, it now struggled to survive. Dad tried to get them to take their eyes off their situation and focus outwardly. If the church grew, many of their problems would disappear.

At Dad’s behest, the church began reaching out. They ordered door hangers and placed them on houses in the community, inviting any and everyone who would come…planting seeds. When the church called a new pastor, the preparatory work had been done. He picked up where Dad left off and continued going into the community, inviting all.

People from all walks of life began to come. Most of them from the wrong side of the tracks. People who had sordid backgrounds and lived questionable lifestyles. The people in the church found the people in their community were quite different, but they didn’t let that stop them. They loved them and took them in. Soon, the church became the fastest growing church in the local association. But it was a church of misfits—at least according to many.

Jesus also had a tendency to invite those to follow Him who were considered misfits. His 12 disciples weren’t who others might have picked to change the world: fishermen, a tax collector, and who knows what else. Nor were those who collected around David as he ran from King Saul’s attempts to kill him. But they became a great army. And those 12 disciples initiated a world revival.

Thinking God can’t use me because I have a sordid background or because I’m enduring unfortunate circumstances in the present is the Devil’s ploy. If he can convince you, he will keep you unproductive. God, on the other hand, has good plans for us. We were created in His image, and nothing we’ve experienced—or are experiencing, can hinder His work unless we let it. Confession, repentance, and trust wipe the slate clean.

God loves to use those the world considers misfits because when great things are accomplished through them He gets the credit. And after all, shining the spotlight on God is what life is about.

Don’t let others—or Satan—convince you God can’t use you. All God requires is your willingness.

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The Death Vigil

Yes, we are fully confident, and we would rather be away from these earthly bodies,
for then we will be at home with the Lord.

2 Corinthians 5:8 NLT

He lay almost motionless—a Superman tattoo on his arm.

My brother-in-law often kidded that he was Superman. And he had been. He had survived things that killed many people. Though a young man, several heart attacks had damaged his heart beyond repair.

Not only had he survived health issues, but he had also made it through many years of reckless living. He had endured beatings, robberies, and a near fatal shooting. He made it through work injuries. When the list was perused, I could understand the Superman tattoo on his arm as well as his mentality.

At last, the great leveler of all mankind had conquered him. Doctors had done all they could. Now he lay in a hospital bed in a local Hospice house. The doctor talked to the family. His body was shutting down. There was nothing else they could do but make him comfortable. My wife swabbed his mouth, used a machine to suck draining body fluids, held her phone to his ear while playing one of his favorite songs, and cried. Family members took turns talking to him and expressing their love.

Had his dilemma happened six months ago, we would have been more worried. A part of his reckless living was holding God at arm’s length. He grew up going to church but had left that part of his life many years before. Though filled with grief, we weren’t as worried now. He recently made his peace with God and spoke often of his readiness to meet his Savior. Our hearts were comforted.

Paul also took security in knowing that if persecution took his life he would immediately be in heaven with his Savior.

Losing a loved one is never easy, but knowing they will enter heaven’s gates and that we will see them again in eternity makes the process easier. Heaven isn’t a pie-in-the-sky fairy tale believed by those who need courage to face death but an actual place prepared for those who choose to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus said there are many rooms there—enough for as many as believe in Him.

Our family took comfort in knowing our loved one would be waiting on us. We invite you to join us. Believe today. Don’t wait until it’s too late.

Dropout

For we are God’s masterpiece.
He has created us anew in Christ Jesus,
so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Ephesians 2:10 NLT

I hated school, so I decided to quit.

Elementary and middle school, I enjoyed, but when I got to high school, a sudden distaste evolved. By the time I reached my senior year, I’d had all I could take. I had no interest in learning, didn’t see how any of what I was learning would benefit me, and wanted out. So I pranced up to my parents and said, “I’m quitting school.” Dad didn’t take the news well and politely told me if I quit I would be going to work. I was okay with that. I had no plans to sit around and do nothing.

After three or four months, my high school dropout status wasn’t fun anymore. The job I found ended, and I was on the unemployment line. I decided I’d return to school. I couldn’t graduate with my class, but I did graduate that summer.

The statistics for high school dropouts are alarming. More than one million students drop out of school annually—one leaving every 26 seconds. An additional 25% don’t graduate on time. But school isn’t the only place people drop out from. Church follows on its heels. Among 18 to 22 year-olds, around 70% drop out. The reasons vary: life changes, move to college, work, judgmental Christians, changes in their religious views.

Dropping out of church, however, isn’t relegated to this group alone. Others do as well. Some burnout. They take on too much—perhaps because others aren’t doing their part. They try to pacify guilt over past mistakes or because they misunderstand salvation and think they can work to get it or keep it. Some drop out because they atrophy, like unused muscles.

God doesn’t intend or want us to drop out of His work. He saves us by His grace and mercy, creates us as His masterpiece, and wants us to do good works that will disseminate His love across the world. These works don’t save us initially or keep us saved thereafter, but they are proof of our faith connection with Him.

When asked, God will give me wisdom to balance my life so my chances of dropping out of His service diminish significantly.

Don’t drop out on God. With balance, serve Him faithfully to the end of your life.

Healthy Habits

Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots?
Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.
Jeremiah 13:23 NLT

Old habits are hard to break.

For four years, we lived in a small townhouse. Our Chihuahua, Twix, was accustomed to the way the doors to the bedroom and outside opened and would stand at the appropriate side of the door to enter or exit. Then we moved. Although the townhouse we moved into had the same floor plan, it was a mirror image of our previous one. Our dog was confused.

On Twix’s first trip outside, he stood at the left side of the door. That’s what he had been accustomed to. But now the door opened from the right. He repeated the same action for the bedroom door and had to change sides when I opened it. After a week, he managed to break his old habit and stand at the proper side for entering and exiting.

Being born with dark skin was a genetic habit for the Ethiopian. So was having spots for the leopard. An Ethiopian has no power to change his color, nor can a leopard become spotless. According to the prophet, humanity has a genetic flaw of sorts as well. We can’t do good because we’ve all done evil. The reason is the sin nature we’re born with which leads us down the wrong path to sinful behavior and attitudes.

My dog’s habits were neither morally good nor bad. They were just habits. I’ve had a few habits like that myself. Among them, biting my fingernails. It took my grandmother giving me $20 and one finger getting infected for me to break that habit. But I’ve also had some habits that were morally wrong and difficult to break. Those habits emerged from the sinful nature I was born with. By myself, I was helpless to do good.

In my own power, I can’t break the habit of doing bad and adopt the habit of doing good. But it is possible when I appeal to a Higher Power. Christ in me enables me to change the color of my skin and lose my spots. He enables me to consistently do good things instead of evil things. Accepting His offer of forgiveness opens up new possibilities for an abundant life.

Accept Christ into your life so you can break the old bad habits and adopt new healthy ones.

Hot- and Cold-Running Christians

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. 1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV

The sign read: House for Rent. Hot and Cold Running Water.

Though laughable now, there was a time when having indoor plumbing was a luxury only the wealthy knew anything about. Water was drawn from a well or creek and carried indoors. Getting hot water meant cutting wood and placing cold water in pots in the fireplace or on a wood burning stove.

On a recent mid-August trip through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, my wife and I noticed the tree leaves in the highest elevations turning. Odd I thought, this early, but then again that’s what tree leaves do. As the summer season draws to a close and the daylight hours get shorter, the leaves lose their luminescence and reveal their natural color. The yellows were shining through beautifully.

Christians shouldn’t run hot and cold or change annually like tree leaves. Paul encouraged the early believers to be steadfast in their love for the Lord as well as in their work for Him. Only by steadfastness would they be able to fulfill Jesus’ Great Commission to take the gospel to the ends of the earth.

We hear a lot about pastors burning out and leaving the pulpit, but I’ve known quite a few regular Christians who burned out too. Burnout can come from trying too hard to alleviate feelings of guilt over past sins, from wrong motives for serving, or from trying to boost one’s self-esteem.

Another entire set tends to drop out rather than burn out. Among 18 to 22-year-olds, around 70% drop out of church after graduating high school. Reasons they give for doing so include life changes, needing a break, moving away to college, work interference, judgmental or unfriendly pastors or church members, a change in their views, or an acknowledgement that previously they were only trying to please someone by attending.

God’s work requires steadfast determination. The abundant life Jesus offers requires the same. Otherwise, we’ll change like the leaves or run hot and cold like water. The power to remain steadfast doesn’t lie in us, but in God’s Spirit indwelling us. He provides the want to that keeps us keeping on—and for the right reasons.

Don’t run hot and cold or turn like the leaves. Serve God with consistency and diligence.

Sidetracked

Your own ears will hear him. Right behind you a voice will say,
“This is the way you should go,” whether to the right or to the left.

Isaiah 30:21 NLT

Getting shoppers sidetracked is a retailer’s dream come true.

After a long day of sweating in the hot, humid temperatures of a South Carolina August, my wife and I showered and readied ourselves for church. Moving isn’t fun, but we had no choice.

Following church, we stopped by the local Wal-Mart for a few necessities: curtain rods and a gallon of milk. Tired from a day of moving, I said, “Now, we’re just going to get those two things and leave, right.”

“That’s all,” my wife remarked.

As we entered the store, we began walking in the wrong direction: the garden center. “You mom said they had chair cushions on sale.”

And so our visit went. Though we only came out with four instead of two items, I had to continually keep my wife pointed in the direction of what we came to get. My recliner was calling my name, but the retailer’s reputation for putting things in my wife’s path that attracted her kept getting her sidetracked.

God did His best to keep the nation of Israel on track. He sent prophets, priests, and judges who kept His ways before them, but they kept getting sidetracked. The pagan nations around them put more attractive things in their path.

I’m not much different than God’s people of old. In fact, I’ve been known to get sidetracked in Wal-Mart myself—just not over the same things my wife does. That’s how the enemy of my soul works. Through experience, he learns what attracts each individual. He won’t try to sidetrack me with clothes or shoes because he knows they don’t interest me. But he will throw up a few tech gadgets, a fancy calendar, or a recently released DVD movie.

I had to continue telling my wife not to get sidetracked. “Keep your eyes focused on what we came for,” I reminded her.

I have to do the same for myself. If I don’t, Satan will lead me in sinful or unhealthy directions. And like a puppy on a leash, I’ll follow if I’m not clothed in my spiritual armor. By the power of God’s Spirit, I can say no, get what I came to get, and go home.

Don’t get sidetracked by Satan’s attempt to convince you that you need things you don’t.

Downsizing…of Sorts

Then he said, “I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones.
Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods.”

Luke 12:18 NLT

“Where are we going put it? I think we’re turning into hoarders.”

My wife and I both have asked the question and made the statements. Our love for antiques…especially furniture, keeps us adding to our collection and trying to stuff them into a small townhouse. On a recent move, we decided we were going to downsize—of sorts. Not that we were going to sell anything. We would simply transfer some things from our townhouse to the storage shed.

There were a few items we decided we could live without seeing or using. We loaded them into the back of our SUV and transported them several miles away. Perhaps our kids will want them someday. Or, maybe we’ll once again live in a larger place before we die. And of course, all of our stored pieces are assets we can sell if we need money.

Jesus told about a rich man who was a hoarder—but he wasn’t into downsizing. He was into upsizing. His crops produced more than normal. His barns were full. There was nothing for him to do but build larger barns, store his goods, and eat drink and be merry. Life was good…or so he thought, until God confronted him and told him his life would end that night.

Whether I downsize in actuality, I need to at least downsize in my thinking. Possessions are for this life. I will always love antiques and continue collecting them—and sell a few along the way. But I’m intelligent enough to know I can’t take them to heaven with me when I go.

God gives us things of this life to enjoy, but they are for the earth, not heaven or the new earth. Possessions are tangible, corruptible, breakable, and can be stolen by thieves. Placing my security or faith in them will always lead to disappointment.

My possessions bring me joy, but God expects me to use them to help others and also advance His Kingdom. Seeing what I have as temporary helps me do this with the right attitude and avoid the rich man’s. He was selfish and thought only of himself. And, if by chance, my possessions turn my focus from God, I need to downsize.

Don’t let your possessions possess you. Downsize.

Squirrel Determination

Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands.
So his hands held steady until sunset.

As a result, Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle.
Exodus 17:12-13 NLT

His determination paid off; he had emptied my bird feeder and satisfied his hunger.

I decided to take my new cedar bird feeder to the church and hang it outside my office window. Soon, birds of many varieties showed up. So did squirrels.

On one of my trips to fill the feeder, I noticed both side panels were missing. I picked up the panels from the ground and carefully slid them back into the grooved slots. No squirrel could do this, I thought. Thinking someone was playing a prank on me, I silently blamed it on the young guys who maintain our lawn. But I was wrong on both accounts. The next day, I noticed the top of the bird feeder was cocked sideways, and again one of the panels was almost out. Now I knew who the culprit was. Because of his determination to get sunflower seed, Mr. Squirrel was destroying my feeder.

Tittle tattle may lose the battle—and so will laziness. Moses and his counterparts, Aaron and Hur, were not about to let that happen. As Joshua the military commander carried out God’s command to fight and defeat the Amalekites because of their wickedness, Moses mounted a mountain and raised his arms. When his arms tired, Aaron and Hur sat him on a rock and held up his arms. As long as his arms were raised, the Israelite army prevailed.

Determination can apply to any number of life areas, but it is a must where my spirituality is concerned. Without determination, I won’t prepare financially for my or my children’s future. Without it, I won’t do my best in my profession or place of employment. Apart from determination, life will topple me instead of me conquering it.

More drastic, if I’m not determined, my focus on developing spiritual disciplines, serving, worshiping, and loving others will suffer. And this will affect my existence more than slacking on anything else. The Israelites battle with the Amalekites was more than a physical encounter; it was a spiritual war. Only with squirrel determination—fueled by the power of God’s Spirit within me, can I win my daily battles with temptation and make choices that please God.

Be determined to be the person God created you to be and to get what God has planned for you.

Serving with Joy

Don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature.
Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.
Galatians 5:13 NLT

I noticed the handicap van they drove and knew it was my time to serve.

Saturday morning. My wife and I were in the middle of packing for our move later in the month when we ran out of boxes. She suggested I stop by McDonald’s and grab us lunch after I picked up a few boxes. As I waited in the drive-through line, I noticed an older couple in a handicapped accessible van pull slowly through the parking lot and take their place behind me.

Monthly, my daughter pays for the person behind her when she buys food from Chick-fil-a. I had never done this before but on this day felt God’s Spirit nudging me. I questioned myself. What if they have 10 more people in the van with them? I decided to act rather than doubt. When I approached the window to pay for my food, I told the attendant to put their tab on mine. It was an insignificant amount, but the feeling I received by obeying God’s prompting was unsurpassed.

Believers have been freed from sin’s penalty. The blood of Christ has washed their sins away. Rather than using that freedom to indulge in sinful practices, Paul says we should use it to serve others. By doing so, we are obeying the second greatest command—serving Christ, and advancing God’s Kingdom.

Serving others will bring joy if I do it with the right attitude. Serving with reluctance won’t work. When I serve reluctantly, I feel hesitation because I’m doing something I really don’t want to do. Serving with joy requires letting God change the way I look at situations. What I give through my act of service is not being forced from my hand. Rather, I’m allowing the act to slip away as a form of appreciation for what Christ has done for me.

Nor should I serve with ulterior motives. If I brag about what I’ve done, the spotlight shines on me instead of God. Jesus said not to let my right hand know what my left hand was doing. He also warned about standing on a street corner and announcing what I’ve done for Him. My motive in serving is for God to receive praise, not me.

Serve with joy, not because you feel forced or because you want recognition.

Loving a Neighbor

The second is equally important: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Mark 12:31 NLT

The note was attached to the door; the decision had been made.

At nine years of age, he was doing what most boys his age did in the summer: romping and playing. Until his sister noticed his yellow eyes. She ran inside to tell their mother who took him to the emergency room. The local hospital transferred him to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. Two days later, he had a new liver.

This family was our neighbors, but we knew nothing about their tragedy. We only knew we hadn’t seen anyone home for three weeks. Initially, their youngest son did well. Then his body rejected the liver. They made several trips back and forth to Charleston, and each time we waited for an update.

During their last trip, my wife noticed the local power company tape a notice on their door. She knew what it was, caught the deliverer of bad news, and asked how much the bill was. The mom had not been able to work due to the circumstances, and the dad had missed numerous days himself. If $450 dollars wasn’t paid by the next day, their power would be turned off.

“Why don’t we take a love offering at church,” my wife asked.

Since no one but us knew the family, I didn’t know how the people would respond. But I decided to take a chance. We’d had the child on our prayer list. On Sunday morning, the church gave $406. When I announced the total at the evening services, someone quickly donated the remaining balance. As soon as the power company opened Monday morning, my wife paid the balance.

Loving my neighbor is a good feeling—whether they live right beside me or not. Doing so also helps me obey what Jesus said was the second greatest command. Only loving God with my entire being surpasses it.

Opportunities to love my neighbor—whoever and wherever they might be, abound. But like my wife, I must be attentive to the working of God’s Spirit in my innermost spirit if I’m to see them. If I live life selfishly, I’ll miss most, if not all, the opportunities God sends.

Ask God to open your eyes so you can see opportunities to love your neighbor.