Thanksgiving

It’s hard to believe that Thanksgiving is only a week away!  This year it falls on the earliest possible date, November 22nd.

As we look to Thanksgiving Day next week, it’s a wonderful time to celebrate with family and friends.  Each family has their own traditions and customs, but they often include a time of sharing what one is thankful for.  Life moves quickly and we can easily overlook the things we have that should bring about a spirit and attitude of thankfulness.

I am reminded of the story in Luke 17:11-19.  In this story, Jesus was met by 10 lepers.  They kept their distance but cried out to Jesus for healing.  They knew He could heal them.  He had a simple instruction for them.  They were to go and show themselves to the priest.  This goes back to God’s instruction in Leviticus 13 and 14.  The priest was the one who could declare the leper “clean.”  Jesus instructed these lepers to go to the priest for that declaration.  They obeyed Jesus and as they headed to see the priest, they were all cleansed!

The Bible tells us that only one of the ten lepers came back to thank Jesus.  Only one was praising God for what had been done.  Each of the lepers had their lives changed in an instant.  Yet only one demonstrated gratitude to Jesus.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  If we’re not careful, we can easily respond with a sense of entitlement and arrogance than with a sense of gratitude.  It is the humble person who gives thanks for the work of the Lord.  It is the humble person who recognizes they don’t deserve anything good from the Lord.  It is the humble person who receives His work with thankfulness.

Next week as you reflect on all that you have…be thankful.  Take time to slow down and think about all Jesus has done for you.  He has given you eternal life!  He offers peace, freedom, and salvation.  Sometimes we can receive so much from the Lord we overlook all that He has done for us.  Johnson Oatman wrote these words in 1897 “Count your many blessings, name them one by one; and it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.”  May God’s richest blessings be on you and your family this Thanksgiving season!

Rejoice!

God’s Word tells us to have joy in the Lord.  I’m thankful it doesn’t say to be happy in the Lord.  Happiness too often depends on what is happening.  It can be fleeting.  Joy however, lasts.  We can have joy even when what is happening is not pleasant.

Read 1 Peter 1:3-9.  The Apostle Peter writes in verse 6 that we are to rejoice.  In the preceding verses he speaks of God’s mercy that causes us to be born again.  He says we have a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus.  He reminds us that we have an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.  Peter says that we are guarded by God’s power in our salvation and when the end comes, all will be revealed.  Then, he says, “in this you rejoice.”

Our rejoicing isn’t based on our present situation.  Our rejoicing is based on who God is and what God has done for us through His Son Jesus.  Therefore, we rejoice.  This is how we can rejoice.  The good news is nothing can change the character of God, nothing can change what Christ has done for us.  When you don’t feel like rejoicing reflect on the character of God.  Let your thoughts dwell on what God has done for you through Jesus.  That’ll give you reason to rejoice.

Peter acknowledges that adversity comes.  After he tells us to rejoice in verse 6, he says that we have various trials that bring grief.  Peter goes on to say that those trials test our faith and result in more praise to the Lord.  He reminds us that we love Jesus, even though we haven’t seen Him.  In our trials it’s good to remember that we haven’t seen Jesus, but we walk by faith.  It is this faith in Jesus that that brings about the salvation of our souls, according to verse 9.

The more we keep our eyes on the Lord…on His character…on the work of Jesus…the more we can rejoice.  As the words of the hymn “Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus” remind us:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace

God is Bigger Than Our Obstacles

Recently I was reading the story of the 12 spies sent into the Promised Land.  You know the story in Numbers 13.  God had Promised the land of Canaan to the Israelites.  He told them it would be theirs to inhabit.  He miraculously led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and gave them the 10 Commandments.  The people witnessed many miracles in the span of a few months.  Now they are finally at the edge of the Promised Land, ready to go in.  They decide to send in 12 men to search out the land.  One man from each tribe.  They are to spend 40 days in the land and come back with a report.

Moses sent them in with instructions to find out if the people were strong or weak, few or many.  They were to see if the land was good or bad, whether the cities were fortified or not.  The men went into the land, spent 40 days, and came back with their report.

The men returned with a divided vote.  They reported that the inhabitants were strong, the cities fortified, and the inhabitants looked like giants.  The Israelites responded by saying, “we can’t go.  We will fight and lose.”  10 spies agreed.  2 disagreed.  Caleb and Joshua said, “God has promised this land, He will be our victory.”  The people rose up and tried to kill Caleb and Joshua for suggesting that they go into the land!  The Lord showed up and was about to destroy the whole nation.  As punishment the Lord said the Israelites must wander in the desert for 40 years before they could enter the land.

When the spies went into the land they were looking at what their human eyes could see.  They were evaluating their situation.  They failed to consider the fact that God had promised to give them victory.  They looked at their man-made weapons and man-made resources and were afraid they’d lose it all if they tried to enter the land.  They did not take into account that God keeps His promises!  They did not act on faith that God would do what He said He would do.

You and I face the same struggle.  Will we merely look at the man-made tools and resources and fail to put God in the equation.  Jesus promised His children that He would never leave us nor forsake us.  He promised to give us His Holy Spirit to guide, teach, empower, and lead us.  He has promised that His Kingdom would grow on this earth.  Jesus promised to give us abundant life.  Let’s hold on to God’s promises and not just look at the challenges around us.  Let’s rise up in His power and be the people God has called us to be.

Happy 4th Birthday

Kai, happy 4th Birthday in Heaven! I sure do miss you! Since June 20, 2014, you’ve been exploring Heaven. How I wish you’d be exploring this world. You be fascinated with sharks and dinosaurs and baseball. I can see you running around the yard with endless energy. Your sister and 3 brothers would spoil the heck out of you. I know that in Heaven you don’t have scraped knees, scary dreams, mosquito bites, ear infections, or a broken heart. All those things belong to this world. This world is broken and sinful, not the way God created it.

4 years ago today your mom and I came face to face with that reality. The world isn’t the way God made it. Your life has helped us see that more clearly than ever before. It’s a stark reminder of God’s love that He sent His Son Jesus to die for the sins of the world. He did this to put the broken back together again. I’ve always been amazed at that. After you died, it took on even more meaning…that God willingly let His Son die. He did it to pay for my sins. Wow!

Your family is doing ok down here. We miss you everyday! Your brothers and sister talk about you a lot. Mom and I do too. Your younger sister, who doesn’t know about you yet, is growing like crazy. Her life reminds me that God can bring something beautiful after something so devastating. He doesn’t have to and He doesn’t promise it, but sometimes He does.

I’m writing this to you from the same condo at Fernandina Beach where we stayed on your first birthday. It helps us to go out of town to celebrate your birthday. It’s good for our family to get away together. It also reminds us that we’re missing you. We still sometimes answer that we have 6 children…because we do.

This year has been busy in our family. Katherine got accepted to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. You should hear her sing. Honestly, I’m sure you can. Carter started middle school. He plays drums in the band and just started football. Caleb finished 4th grade and is one of the most compassionate people I know. Christian played soccer this year and is really excelling in school. You’d be starting Kindergarten next August. I know that’s going to be hard for us next year. Karis Lynn is a beautiful petite lady full of personality. She’s exploring her world and improving everyday in her talking. She just turned 19 months last week.

Mom started writing again. In February she started blogging again and is ministering to people through her writing. She writes a lot about what she has learned of the character of God during these 4 years since you passed. She says it better than me, but suffering and grief help us to see God more clearly…if we decide to do so. She’s so happy to help others grow and learn. In fact, just last week, she got word that a publisher is going to publish her first book!! It’s a devotional on the character of God. Notice I called it her first book. She’s really amazing!

Mom and I started running almost a year ago. We were motivated by your Papa B. We worked hard, ran a few 5Ks and a 10K. All of that was to be ready for the Half-Marathon we ran in February. It was so much fun. It’s helped us to see that we can do more than we think we can.

I’m doing ok too. I think. Mom and I just celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. What an adventure it’s been. I’ll tell you, I wish I’d been a better husband earlier on. Your life drew me closer to God and made me work to be a better husband and dad. Thank you for that. Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather you be here…but I’m glad I decided to grow closer to God instead of getting angry at Him. God doesn’t promise us a life without pain, in fact He says to expect it. He does say that He will walk with us through the pain. I’ve seen it firsthand, my son. I study the Bible and preach and teach the Bible, but I wonder what you could tell me about the character of God. You’ve seen Him

I can’t wait to see you. I wonder how you’ll look…like a baby, a child, teenager, fully grown… Today, I see you as a little 4 year-old. Full of energy and excitement. I’m sure you look like ALL your siblings at 4. All of y’all look alike!

Well, I better get about the day. Your brothers and sisters want to get down to the beach. They’re looking forward to releasing balloons today in your memory. We do that every year and I think it helps all of us. I love you. I miss you.

Dad.

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God is Good

As I write this we are preparing for Easter weekend!  What a wonderful time to reflect on all that God has done for us in and through His Son Jesus!  We see His goodness on display at the cross and the empty tomb.  In fact, He is good all the time.

Christians often say to each other “God is good.”  This is true about the character of God.  Psalm 100:5 says “The Lord is good, His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations.”  This is powerful.  This tells us that God doesn’t just do good things.  He IS good.  When we say, “God is good”, we are making a true statement.  I worry that when and how we say this statement might actually confuse us about God’s character.  Let me explain.

When some good fortune comes to a fellow believer, they get a promotion at work, a good report from the doctor, unexpected cash, etc., we might say “God is good!”  Scroll through your Facebook news feed and read the comments when someone posts some really great news.  You’ll see this phrase from people.  Since God is good all the time (remember He IS good, He doesn’t just DO good), do we ever use this phrase when bad news happens?  When someone says or posts online, “I have cancer”, “I got laid off”,” my spouse passed away”, etc., no one replies with “God is good.”  We could.  God is good all the time.

The danger in saying “God is good” when good things happen and not saying it when bad things happen is that we begin to think that God is bad when bad things happen.  What we’re really saying is that His character depends on what’s happening to me at any given moment.  That’s dangerous.  That means that we, those He has created, get to define His character based on how good or bad our life is going.  If we’re not careful we can send the message to people that God exists to give us good things and make life more pleasant for His followers.  We seem to say that when bad things happen, God is somehow not in control.  This is not the God we see in the Scriptures.  He is far less concerned with our comfort than we are.  He showed His glory and character more often through “bad” circumstances.

Should we ever say, “God is good”?  That depends.  Have the right perspective.  God can take any situation (good or bad) and use it to glorify Himself, use it to draw people closer to Him, or any number of things.  It is my experience that more often He uses the bad things in our lives to do this.  In hindsight we can see His goodness.  Be careful the message you send when you say, “God is good” when good things happen.  You may be communicating that He is not good when bad things happen.  Events in our lives may not look good by themselves.  God can display His goodness even in those times.  After all, we refer to the day His Son died as “Good Friday.”

God’s Patience

Do you know the story of Jonah?  The one about the guy and the whale?  Most people are familiar with Jonah’s story found in the Old Testament book of the same name.  However, our familiarity with this story can make us miss the point.

I am a huge fan of teaching the Bible to children.  Jonah is one of those stories we teach them.  Why wouldn’t we?  It involved a boat, water, sailors, a whale, a miraculous story…These things capture the imagination of kids.  They need to know the story of Jonah.  The danger is when this story becomes a tale about a whale and we miss the heart of God.

God called Jonah to preach to the people of Nineveh.  This was a huge city full of people who did not follow or honor God.  God told Jonah to go and preach so that they would turn to God and escape destruction.  Jonah didn’t want to do it.  He knew it was an evil city and he decided that they didn’t deserve God’s mercy.  They deserved judgment.

Jonah responds to God’s command by going the opposite direction and getting on a boat to head even farther away.  While on the boat God sends a terrible storm.  The sailors cry out to their gods begging for relief.  The storm intensifies.  They begin to throw their possessions and the cargo overboard in hopes of easing the ships turbulence.  All the while Jonah is asleep in the hull.  They wake him so he can pray to his God since he had already told them he was fleeing God’s presence.

Jonah says if they throw him into the sea, the storm will stop.  They didn’t do it.  They valued Jonah’s life more than he valued his life!  Jonah had run from God and would rather commit suicide than get his heart right with the Lord!  Had he repented in his heart, the storm would have ceased.  We don’t say it this way when we teach this story to the kids.  Jonah’s disobedience had caused these sailors to lose their possessions and fear for their own lives.  His sin, like our sin, always hurts other people.  We think we are only hurting ourselves, but we always hurt others too.

Eventually the sailors throw him overboard.  The storm ends.  God sends a whale, or large fish, to swallow Jonah.  He remains in the belly of the fish for 3 days.  You can translate the text as “whale” or “large fish”.  When we get caught up in the debate over the miracle of the fish, or the miracle that he is unharmed, we miss the biggest miracle of the story.  It is the miracle of God’s patience.  God could have ended Jonah’s life at any point.  We see in this story that God was patient with him throughout his sinful behavior.  He is patient with all of us.  This isn’t a story about God’s fish swallowing a man.  This is a story about God’s patient pursuit of a sinner.

After 3 days Jonah prays and ask God’s forgiveness.  He repents of his disobedience and promises to obey the Lord.  God directs the fish to spit Jonah up onto the shore.  God tells him a second time to go to Nineveh and preach.  This time he obeys.  The people repent.  They praise the Lord.  God doesn’t destroy the city.  At this point, Jonah gets depressed.  He wanted the Ninevites to be destroyed because they didn’t deserve God’s mercy.  We’re susceptible to that as well.  We can look at others and think they don’t deserve God’s mercy…we miss the fact that we don’t deserve it either!  How ironic.  Jonah had received God’s mercy but didn’t think others should be so fortunate.

Take a fresh look at the story of Jonah.  Look past the fish and see the glorious, loving, patient, and merciful God who pursued a man like Jonah.  He will do that for you too.

Lessons from running

Last June I told Matthea that I wanted to start running.  I realized that I was approaching my 41st birthday and I’d like at least 41 more.  I know I have to be proactive to stay healthy.  Health doesn’t happen on its own.  Over these past 8 months I have learned so many spiritual lessons through this new hobby.  I want to share some of them with you.

Our adopted Dad, Dave Black, began running a few years ago at the ripe young age of 62.  Within 2 years he had run his first marathon.  7 months later he had just completed his 8th marathon!  He is an example to us.  I thought, “If Dad can do this, so can I.”  I decided I’d run the Birmingham half-marathon.

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My very first run was in our neighborhood.  There’s a simple 1 mile loop with some elevation, but not too bad.  Here’s a tip…if you live in Alabama and want to start running, DON’T START IN JUNE.  It’s hot.  We had to run early in the morning when the temps were only 80 and just 90% humidity.  I wanted to run 25 minutes, it was awful.  But isn’t every new routine difficult?  How many New Years Resolutions don’t make it to February?

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First run. Almost my last.

Before long, Matthea and I started to run together.  She was happy to join me in this challenge.  We found a level, shaded spot a few miles from home.  Running together was great fun and provided accountability.  Some days she pushed me to run, other days I pushed her to run.

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After a few weeks we needed a goal so we signed up for the Shake and Bake 5K.  It is run every year in August.  Did I mention this is Alabama?  It was HOT!  We needed a goal to keep pushing and working hard.  Paul says in Philippians 3 that he presses on towards the goal of knowing Jesus better.  Goals motivate us.

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After reaching that milestone…an actual race…it was time to push ahead and cover more miles.  After all, we can’t run 13.1 miles after only ever running 3.1!  I would have never dreamed I would run 5 miles!  In fact I used to say to people “I’ve never run on purpose before.”  If we are to grow, we have to stretch ourselves.  We have to set new goals, otherwise we grow stagnant.

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By this point my time was improving.  But I’m no young kid.  I’m only racing myself.  I have found that running is about 90% mental.  I have come to realize that the hardest part of running is getting out the front door.  I have to say that there has not been a time after running that I regretted having run.  It’s mental.  Such is life.  We can defeat ourselves before we ever try something.  It was time to set a new goal.  To be ready for a half-marathon, we needed a good 10K race in our training.  The 5K we ran in August was a “fun run”.  This 10K was a race.  Our goal was to complete it.  We decided to run the Vulcan Run 10K.  Its a great race in downtown Birmingham.

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After this race we continued adding some distance.  It was hard to run in November due to the colder weather.  I didn’t have the clothing for it.  It was tough to run in the evenings because it got dark so early.  We have to be prepared for whatever situation we may face.  I think about Paul’s words in Ephesians 6…be ready.  A few weeks before Christmas I knew I had to get in a good longer run.  I decided to run 7 miles and not quite early.  I was determined to cover that distance, even it meant dragging myself to my car!

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Just after Christmas I went on a trip to South East Asia.  It was a great time.  My half marathon was coming up soon so I had to run some while I was over there.  I don’t know if that qualifies me as an “International Runner” or not.  Paul said to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4 that he is to be ready in season and out of season.  We must always be ready to do what needs to be done.  I couldn’t take a 2 week break from my training.

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International runner!

After returning I dealt with some sickness.  I was dealing with intestinal issues from the trip and then the flu swept through our house.  2 weeks before the half-marathon I had to get a longer training run in.  It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t pretty, but I did it.  ne step at a time.  Isn’t that life?  One step at a time!

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Finally race weekend had arrived!  Dad flew down from Virginia to run with us.  He was such a cheerleader the whole time.  We needed that.  His example let us know we could do it too.  Who is watching your life?  Who are you an example to?

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Race day has arrived!!

Just prior to the start we lined up with our group.  We’re in the back, in the 12+ minute/mile group.  We were no less enthusiastic than the 6 minute/mile group.  Again we weren’t running to beat anyone…we were running for ourselves.

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We’re off!

Just before we began, a great friend from church found us.  Wendell had to stop running a few years back, but not before he completed 108 marathons!  He has been a constant encouragement for us as we have trained.   He came out in the rain to see us off at 7 AM.  He also appeared along the course every couple of miles and cheered for Matthea and me as if we were in 1st place!  Every one of us needs encouragers along life’s race.  Who encourages you?  Who do you encourage?

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Finally, after 13.1 miles.  After 3 hours and 20 minutes, we crossed the finish line.  We crossed the line together.  In the last mile, Matthea got focused.  She became the cheerleader for about a dozen of us running together.  At one point she said, “let’s do this! I had a C-Section 15 months ago and I’m getting ready to finish a half-marathon!!’  Some around us who had stopped running were motivated to run this last mile along with us.  It was a beautiful sight.

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FINISHED!

We didn’t get a medal because we beat anyone.  Every finisher gets the medal.  Each of the 5200 runners was running their own race.  8 months of work for us has paid off.  The feeling is indescribable!  We had decided before the race that when we were done we’d have 2 options.  We could either never run again, or this would be the first of many half-marathons hopefully leading to a full marathon soon.  I have to say we’ve been checking the race calendars to schedule our next races.  We crossed that line having taken one step at a time.  Such is life.