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.

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.

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.

Sin Sick

No, it’s because of your wickedness! There’s no limit to your sins.
Job 22:5 NLT

“Have you anointed her and prayed for her healing?”

My wife suffers from various physical ailments—too many, in fact, for her young age. She has undergone numerous surgeries to remove tumors that could have turned deadly. Then came surgeries to repair hernias, remove a gallbladder, take off planter’s warts, and repair carpal tunnel. She still needs to have herniated disks in her back and neck repaired. To top off these issues, she suffers from fibromyalgia, degenerative arthritis, and neuropathy. Every trip to the doctor seems to entail another medicine or a further diagnosis.

Had Michelle lived in Job’s time, there would have been any number of good church folks who would be telling her she sinned. Though a righteous man—declared so by God and himself, Job was accused by several fair-weather friends of having sinned against God. Why else would he be afflicted by boils and have lost most of his family and possessions? Even his wife told him to curse God so he could die and get his miserable life over with.

Job maintained his innocence, and at the end of the story God corroborated his testimony. Sickness is the bane of living in a world tainted by sin. The world God originally created was free from sickness—and all of the other results of sin, and the new world He will create at the end of time will be identical.

While sickness came when sin entered the world, all sickness is not the result of individual sins. If this were true, my wife would be one of the greatest sinners in the world—when in fact she is quite saintly. God can and does use sickness as a means of disciplining or punishing those who revel in willful sin, but having a cold doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve committed a particular sin.

When my pastor friend asked if I had anointed and prayed for my wife, my answer was yes. But she hasn’t been healed. Just as sickness is not always the result of sin, so God doesn’t always choose to heal our sicknesses when we ask. He is sovereign. I must trust His plan.

If you’re sick, examine your spiritual life. If it’s in order, pray for healing, but leave the results to an all-wise God.

Prayer: Father, we entrust our health-related matters to you. If sin is the cause, convict us. If it’s not, then give us courage to trust You and endure.

Seeking Refuge

Protect me! Rescue my life from them!
Do not let me be disgraced, for in you I take refuge.

Psalm 25:20 NLT

The day appeared calm enough, but Mother Nature soon released her hidden fury.

My brother and I—along with my daughter—set out early for a ten-mile mile hike on the Appalachian Trail. At the five mile point, we planned to set up camp and walk the remainder of the way without our packs.

As we reached our destination, the sound of thunder greeted us. Mountain storms were familiar to us, so we decided to set up camp. Within minutes of driving the last tent stake, we felt the first drops of rain. Then came a torrential downpour with lighting to match. We huddled on our rubber sleeping mats, hoping lightning wouldn’t strike the tall pines above us.

After sitting for what seemed like hours, we tumbled into a trail shelter nestled a mere 100 yards away. Through pouring rain, intermittent lightning, and puddled water, we made it to our refuge where we remained for the next several hours, listening to storm after storm march through the mountains. Though our refuge was only a three-sided shelter, we felt secure.

David’s enemies were numerous—among them lions, bears, Philistines, giants, and even a jealous king. Regardless of who or what they were, David found refuge in a big God whom he trusted to protect him.

I’ve sought refuge in healthy and unhealthy things. At the end of a stressful day, I love taking refuge in a good book. I cherish the times when my wife and I can go to a restaurant alone, without friends or the grandboys. Sitting in our old glider on our back patio in the fall of the year is also nice.

But I’ve also attempted to find refuge in unhealthy things during stressful times. Instead of running to God, I ran to addictions or unhealthy relationships. They brought only temporary satisfaction, along with a foreboding sense of guilt that I was looking in the wrong place.

Where David found refuge is where we should. A healthy relationship with a loving Savior is the only thing that brings satisfaction, contentment, and peace. All other things and people will disappoint. He always loves unconditionally and protects faithfully. Friendships and family can be the icing on the cake, but they can never take God’s place.

Run to God for refuge when times are tough.

Prayer: Father, thank You for being a trustworthy place of refuge when life is stormy—a place that will never disappoint us.

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.