Getting Close

The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. Psalm 145:18 NLT

Relationships are built. Love too. But love takes a lifetime.

She worked one office over from me. Little did I know she was on the way out of a decade-long abusive relationship. When I discovered she would soon be available, I began planning how I would woo her. As it turned out, I didn’t have to do much wooing—she took care of it. She baked goodies for me—ones she was trying to sell to raise enough money for her down payment on a necessary surgery. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach—and she marched right in.

Less than two years later, we were married. That was almost twelve years ago, and I love her more today than I did then. She is my best friend, my supporter, and my greatest cheerleader. Where I go, she goes, and where she goes, I follow. We are still working on getting closer and building our love.

According to the psalmist, God is only a whisper away from those who call on Him. We must come by way of confession and repentance initially, but thereafter He wants to be involved in every detail of our lives. And will if we’ll ask.

Building a love relationship with God takes a lifetime—just as it does with my wife and any other important person in my life. If I take the relationship for granted, it will turn sour, lose its vibrancy, and eventually grow cold. As I nurture my relationship with my wife, so I must do the same with my connection to God.

Talking to God is essential. If I never talked to my wife, things would go south in short order. Pray without ceasing was the apostle Paul’s advice. God is with me all the time; I just need to be aware of His presence, ask His advice, and seek His direction.

Occasionally, I’ll write my wife a love poem. She loves them, and I always get a big hug and sloppy kiss. God also wrote a love letter He wants me to be intensely familiar with. Time in His Word is vital in building a love relationship with Him. His Word instructs, warns, encourages, and comforts. All things a love letter should accomplish.

God wants to get close to You; He’s merely waiting for the invitation.

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God’s Resume’

You placed the world on its foundation so it would never be moved. Psalm 104:5 NLT

Without one, getting a job is almost impossible.

Over time, my resume’ has grown from just a few sentences to several pages. Thanks to layoffs and better opportunities, my list of work experiences increased. So did my education. Also included were things I did that I wasn’t paid for. Important just the same. And of course, I have references who will verify my character and work history. My resume tells a lot about who I am, what I’ve done, and what my aspirations and skills are.

Reading it, however, wouldn’t tell you everything about me. Each employer or prospective employer asked me questions my resume’ didn’t answer. I’ve had to elaborate on what my duties were at previous places of employment, explain gaps in my work experience, and clarify why I left places of employment. My resume’ is a capsule of my life history.

God, too, has chosen to give humanity a resume’. I became familiar with it at a young age as I began to notice the world around me. As I got older, I considered that chance couldn’t explain everything I saw. The laws of nature functioned in an orderly manner—not haphazardly. I marveled at the expanse of the universe and the beauty of the nature around me.

And people. Gomer Pyle, from the Andy Griffith sitcom, said it best: “People sure are odd.” Myself included. But they are odd in a nice way. All different. All talented and gifted. Surely not mere fate that we happen to be who we are, living on a planet that is just far enough from the sun so we won’t burn up and just close enough so we don’t freeze.

If nature and people weren’t enough to point me to God, He decided to write His resume’ in what became known as the Bible. I saw and heard about that resume’ at an early age. I listened to Bible stories before I could read, and I read the Bible myself as soon as I could. His resume’ told me about His unconditional love, the sacrifice of His Son, and His offer to give salvation to any who would repent of their sins.

God’s resume’ is humbling and thought-provoking. If you haven’t read it, check it out. It will change your life.

Intimidated

As I was on the road, approaching Damascus about noon, a very bright light from heaven suddenly shone down around me. Acts 22:6 NLT

“Intimidator.” He was once proud of the name—but not anymore.

Richard and his brothers had a reputation. Brawny and bad to the bone, they didn’t take anything off of anybody. Messing with them was bad news. They would gladly take you down—for little or no reason at all. Their violent words were matched by violent behavior. Fights were their business, and they went looking for them. Richard wore his nickname well and was more than willing to show anyone why he had it—until someone more intimidating than he was showed up.

Richard discovered God wasn’t scared of him and was more than willing to fight for his soul. He couldn’t bully God . . . couldn’t even touch Him. But God could fight him in ways he couldn’t defend himself against. He could hurt his conscience and his heart. He could bring out the soft side of him that he let no one else see.

Richard still speaks about his nickname—but in the past tense. That’s who he was, but it’s not who he is now. He saw the light.

Paul saw a light too. He was also big and bad—but in the religious field. This new “Way”—Christianity—had to be stamped out. So he busied himself arresting Christians and dragging them off to jail where many of them were killed—until he saw the light. The same light Richard saw thousands of years later. The light of a greater “Intimidator.” An intimidator who informed him he was traveling the wrong path.

God doesn’t intimidate with catcalls, fights, and threats. He intimidates with the truth about me. I’m a sinner in need of help, and He’s the only One who can assist me. I can’t work to be good enough for Him to accept. Someone better than me—someone perfect—had to suffer for my sins. And in His love, God allowed His Son to take my place on a rugged cross. All He asks for in return is my love and obedience.

Relationship was why God created us in the beginning and why He allowed His Son to die for us in the end. No matter how intimidating we may try to be, we cannot out intimidate God’s truth about who we are and what we need to do.

Feeling intimidated? Accept God’s truth, love the Great Lover, and experience life at its best.

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.

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.