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.

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.

More Than I Can Handle

And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand.  When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.
1 Corinthians 10:13 NLT

Series: The Things We Say

My arms were full, and I didn’t know whether or not I could make it to the car.

At 14 years of age, I began my first real job: bagging groceries at the local Piggly Wiggly grocery store. Though I had helped my grandfather on the ice cream truck for several years, this job installed me in the real work world. In addition to bagging the groceries, we carried them to the customer’s car. Most customers bought enough groceries that we needed a buggy to transport them, but occasionally a customer would have only a couple of bags. Trying to impress them and whoever else, I attempted to carry them. Today, that wouldn’t be an issue. Bags are plastic and have handles. Then it was. Bags were paper and had no handles. A shifting of the contents of the bags might mean groceries spilled and got damaged.

I’ve heard numerous believers say, “God won’t put any more on you than you can handle.” A statement normally spoken when someone is going through a difficult period or even a series of unfavorable circumstances. It’s another one of those statements we’ve formulated to comfort and encourage. And perhaps it does, but the problem is it can’t be supported biblically.

Though I don’t know where the saying originated, it may be based in part on Paul’s statement that God won’t allow us to be tempted to the point that we have to give in. But difficult circumstances and temptations are necessarily identical.

In reality, God will put more on us than we can stand. And He has a reason. I, like most, tend to think I can handle life myself. Just as I thought I could handle the grocery bags. Trying to maneuver through life without help from anyone else—and particularly God–is foolishness. When God allows more into my life than I can handle on my own, it forces me to turn to Him, which is what I should have done in the first place.

God wants to be our burden bearer. He will give wisdom and courage for every situation we face.

Let God give you strength to face each life situation.

I Know How You Feel

Series: The Things We Say

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.
John 11:21 NLT

Tragedy had struck. What could I say?

As a minister, I’ve watched people endure their share of tragedies. A husband whose wife decided to drive drunk. Her actions led to the death of their small child. A father whose daughter was innocently riding her bike through their subdivision and was hit and killed. Good friends whose daughter tried to ride a bicycle that was too large and accidentally rolled into the path of an oncoming truck. A couple whose child was born prematurely and languished in the neonatal intensive care unit for months and then grew up mentally challenged.

I’ve probably been guilty of saying it, but even if I haven’t, I’ve heard many others say those infamous words: “I know how you feel,” or “I know what you’re going through.” Innocent words spoken with good intentions, but words that mean little if anything to the one who is grieving—and perhaps questioning God at the same time.

Mary and Martha were probably feeling a little confusion themselves. Their brother, Lazarus, was sick. So they sent for Jesus, thinking He would heal him. Instead of coming immediately, Jesus waited until Lazarus had died. Martha was confused.

Even if I’ve experienced something similar to what a person is going through, saying “I know how you feel” isn’t the best response to their grief. I don’t know how they feel. I know how I felt, but I can’t get inside of their body and experience their emotions. The statement usually falls on deaf ears. They may also perceive the words as an empty platitude that means nothing.

When a person is grieving, spending time with them and saying little is a good practice. If I feel the need to speak, saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” or “How can I help” are helpful statements. Better yet is thinking of some way to help without asking the person. In their state of mind, they usually can’t think of what they need anyway. If I have experienced something similar to their tragedy, I can always tell my story and share how God brought me through.

Depend on God to give you the right thing to say when you’re helping a grieving person.

God of the Deep

For you look deep within the mind and heart, O righteous God.
Psalm 7:9 NLT

A surgeon’s eyes look where others’ eyes don’t.

While in his sixties, Dad was diagnosed with a defective heart valve. He could have a mechanical valve or a pig’s valve implanted. He chose the mechanical. Shortly after the surgery, the valve malfunctioned. We took him to Atlanta for a second surgery.

In both instances, surgeons were able to see what I never have—and don’t want to: the inside of a chest. Scalpels cut apart Dad’s chest and rib spreaders separated his ribs, allowing the doctors to see my father’s heart and all other organs that God hid behind the rib cage. They could watch the heart beating, see the valves working, observe the blood pumping and flowing.

Had I been there, I wouldn’t have watched long before passing out. But the doctors and nurses take a regular view of people’s insides. They see what most people never witness.

God has the ability to do the same. He made us, knows every intricate part of our anatomy, and understands how all the parts work and fit together. He knows which bone is connected to which bone—and didn’t have to attend medical school to learn. But His look goes deeper than the physical.

God looks into my mind and heart. Not merely at all the electrical forces taking place in the brain and not just at all the pumping of blood that occurs in the heart. He sees with eyes I can’t. God sees the motives behind my actions. When I do a good deed, He knows if I’ve done it for honorable reasons. He knows if my heart is sensitive to others’ needs and if it’s tender toward Him. He sees the hurts and the damage done by others.

Pretending is a waste of time. God gets to the heart of the matter. I may fool others, but God knows what’s really pumping inside of me. My heart and mind are open books before Him.

The good news is that what’s broken is fixable—just as my dad’s heart valve was. Improper motives, unhealthy emotions, hardened hearts, hidden agendas, unforgiveness, hurts. None of these pose a problem for God. All I have to do is allow Him to work on me.

God sees what you can’t in your heart and mind. Go to the God of the deep for the healing you need.

Ditching Discouragement

abuseI will boast only in the Lord; let all who are discouraged take heart.
Psalm 34:2 NLT

After thirteen years of marriage, her discouragement had reached a new low.

Michelle married as soon as she could. She was looking for a way out and found one in a relationship with a young man her parents disliked. She wasn’t interested in their opinions; she wanted to escape. As soon as she could, she married.

Soon after the wedding, Michelle discovered her mistake. She had married a loser. He migrated from one job to another. Had it not been for her job and her parent’s help, they would have drowned financially. Worse yet, he was an abuser: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Throwing objects at Michelle and hitting her in places where the bruises wouldn’t show was her husband’s normal pattern. He topped this off with a continual barrage of insulting remarks, belittling her while building himself up. And he never supported her spiritual pursuits.

After thirteen years of misery, Michelle was depressed and discouraged. She feared he’d kill her if she left, but she didn’t see how she could stay. Finally, she mustered the courage to leave. While he was at work, she packed her things and headed to her parents’ home. One year later, her divorce was final and she soon married a man who gave her the love and respect she deserved.

According to the psalmist, Michelle went to the right place with her discouragement: the Lord. Now she boasts in what God did for her. She tells people she married the devil the first time but an angel the second time. I don’t feel like an angel, but I’ll take the compliment.

Instances that can lead to discouragement are the bane of living in a sinful world. While there have been a number of occasions when I’ve slipped into discouragement, I choose not to live there. Because I believe God controls my circumstances, I choose to see them differently than I would have had I no one to turn to.

God never allows us into potentially discouraging times without a purpose in mind. What could discourage me can also mold me more into God’s image as well as prepare me for something He has in mind for me. Facing tough times also gives me ammunition to help others who may be passing through similar experiences as I have faced.

Don’t waste your discouragement–but don’t live with it either. Ditch it.

Justice Will Prevail

justice1For the Lord loves justice.
Psalms 37:28 NLT

Although it only does so sporadically now, justice will one day reign supremely.

Examples of injustices abound. Justice is infringed upon when someone steals. Perhaps they are poor or are just too lazy to work for it. Either way, they take what belongs to someone else.

Justice hollers every time a woman or girl is raped. Child abuse flourishes, and justice is hampered in each case. Little ones who can’t fend off the fiends who do to them what never should be done. Spousal abuse blooms also. Whether physical or emotional or both, the abuse damages the psyche of the one who endures it, and once again justice is impinged upon.

When someone else gets the promotion I deserve, justice is obstructed. Especially if they got the promotion because they are the boss’s favorite or because of some quota that needs to be met. And when one gender makes less for doing the same job, justice is once again impeded.

Justice also takes a beating when politicians fail to keep the promises to the constituents who elected them.

The psalmist says God loves justice, but God certainly has a comical way of showing it. While love is the most common trait heard when referring to God, just might be a more appropriate characteristic when referring to His nature.

God loves justice, but free will explains why it’s not observed more consistently. God didn’t create robots in the beginning. Just as He gave angels the free will to rebel against Him (Lucifer being a case in point), so He also gave the same to humans. Free will allows us to infringe upon the justice He loves. But just because I don’t see justice displayed consistently and universally doesn’t mean God doesn’t desire for it to be. Or that He is powerless to make it happen.

God allows injustices in His master plan now, but one day justice will prevail universally and consistently. Sin will have no place on the new earth or in heaven. Satan—and all who represent his interests, will be eternally damned.

In the meantime, it is my responsibility to help justice spread. I can do this by setting an example of it through my daily actions. I can also help spread it by supporting and electing those who will represent it in political office.

Don’t get discouraged. God is in control, and justice will reign.

Stepping in the Right Direction

babystepsThe Lord directs the steps of the godly. He delights in every detail of their lives.
Though they stumble, they will never fall, for the
 Lord holds them by the hand.
Psalm 37:23-24 NLT

Taking steps is a frightening experience.

I remember when my children and grandchildren first began to take steps. First, they pulled up on a piece of furniture. Then they let go and reached for the next closest thing they could grasp, taking only one step to get from point A to point B. But when there was nothing for them to hold, taking a step became a frightening experience. Many falls and stumbles followed, but the expression on their faces when they had mastered the process of stepping was priceless.

My life steps have taken me in many directions. When hiking in the mountains, my steps took me over roots, rocks, moss-covered ledges, narrow paths, and deep ruts. One misstep could have resulted in a broken bone, or even death. My steps—some intentional and some not, have taken me to places where danger lurked. They’ve taken me down roads where I’ve known a measure of success. They’ve also taken me into the company of bad company.

Though the psalmist maintains God directs the steps of His children and delights in the details of their lives, God also won’t force me to take steps in His direction. His endowment to humanity was free will so that following Him was voluntary, not forced.

Stepping in the right direction means I won’t step where I might want to step but rather where God wants me to walk. Prior to knowing Christ, my sinful nature led me to perpetually step in the wrong direction. The new nature Christ gave changed my desires, but I still do battle with stepping in the right direction.

God cares about the details of my life. He cares what steps I take and the direction they will lead me. He is not a distance deity who created me and then left me to figure out life by myself. Even with the best intentions, I’ll stumble.

Trials will confuse me and temptations will tempt me, but God will hold my hand and gently lead me through each one. And I’ll come out victorious if I’ll keep holding His hand. Like the child learning to walk who wants to hold an adult’s hand, God wants me to grasp tightly to His hand through all of my life’s experiences.

Monitor your steps. Step in God’s direction, and let Him accomplish His plan for your life.

Shielded

shieldYou have given me your shield of victory.
Psalm 18:35 NLT

Never had a game evoked such fear in me.

As a middle schooler, I was weak, shy, and non-athletic. I dreaded physical education class—mainly because of one game: dodgeball.

I was always the last one picked when the team captains made their choices. Skinny, freckled-faced, glasses. Nothing that would make them want me on their team. I made sure I stood behind everyone else when the balls started whizzing by, but eventually I was exposed. It was then I began using my shield.

Getting hit on the torso or below the waist was bearable, but a hit in the head could be tragic. I wore glasses, and Mom had strictly instructed me to guard them with my life. She and Dad could not afford to replace them. As the balls made their aim at me, I shielded my head with my arms and hands.

When I was a teenager, I tortured my two younger brothers with the same game I was tortured with by lining them up on the edge of our open carport and throwing balls at them. They, too, used their arms and hands as shields, but doing so didn’t stop them from cascading from the ledge to the ground below when I hit them.

David was a warrior and very familiar with a shield. While he didn’t use one against Goliath, the giant he fought, he did in many battles after that as he protected his nation against their enemies.

Thousands of years into the future, the apostle Paul would say faith is the believer’s shield. As my hands shielded me from slams by the dodgeballs, so my faith shields me from the darts of my soul’s enemy. When I believed in and accepted Christ as my Savior, God gave me the righteousness of Christ. Though I take many hits in life, that body armor of righteousness—along with my shield of faith, keeps me from being defeated.

Faith helps me move forward, even when I can’t see the way. Faith prompts me to obey God’s plan, even when it appears illogical. Faith keeps me determined in my walk with the Lord, even when I sometimes want to give up. Faith shields me from persistent and uncontrollable doubt, anger, frustration, anxiety, worry, depression, and fear.

God gives all His children a shield. Take your so you can fight life’s battle with a guarantee of success.

Christmas’ New Normal

christmasBut many of the older priests, Levites, and other leaders who had seen the first Temple
wept aloud when they saw the new Temple’s foundation.
The others, however, were shouting for joy.

Ezra 3:12 NLT

A new normal had arrived—and with it, a state of anxiety.

I’m a nostalgic kind of guy. If I were retired, I would sit around and watch the Hallmark channel’s Christmas movies for six weeks. They’re sappy and have predictable endings. The girl gets the guy, the mystery is solved, the wish granted.

Christmas celebrations in our family were once predictable too. When I and my brothers were small, we gathered at our grandparents’ houses for a meal and the opening of presents. When all of us had grown up, married, and had children of our own—and the grandparents had gone to glory, we gathered at our parents’ house—who were now grandparents. We repeated our life-long pattern by eating a meal and opening presents in a certain way. Sit in a circle, open a present, show everyone what you received, and tell who it was from. It was customary, predictable, comfortable.

Then divorces and remarriages ripped through our family. Not a one of us escaped. With the remarriages came new step members—in-laws, out-laws, and more grandparents. Getting the family together was challenging—almost impossible. Too many homes to schedule visits at.

Our Christmas gatherings are now unpredictable, unsettling, and, for some in the family, non-existent. I feel like the Israelite leaders who returned from Babylonian exile witnessed the new Temple’s foundation and wept because it didn’t compare with the one they had seen before—King Solomon’s temple. They experienced a new normal, just as I am now.

I sometimes react to this new normal with a host of emotions: anger, confusion, sadness, nostalgia. But doing so doesn’t help. It only makes me miserable and taints the holiday season. I’m learning to accept this new normal. Life will never be as it once was. I might as well make the best of it and look for the good in it.

God has brought many new normals in my lifetime. I sometimes treat them in the same way I’m tempted to do with the holiday season, but I’m learning a healthier way. What was once normal won’t return. I’m learning to embrace these new normals with anticipation, excitement, and appreciation. After all, God is in control and knows what He’s doing. I must trust Him.

When God brings new normals into your life, embrace them rather than resist them.