Wayward Choices

ATT Park Giants

One day, Brian ditched school to go to a San Francisco Giants game.

He walked to school, went to his first class and snuck off campus, right after the next bell rang. He boarded a city bus and rode across town to the ballpark—where he watched an awesome ballgame, ate hot dogs, got an autographed baseball and saw the Giants win.

But the next morning, Brian’s exciting “ditch day” unraveled, when his father asked, “Son, how was school yesterday?” Brian muttered, “Okay.” His dad probed more, “Were you at school all day?” With a sheepish grin, Brian looked at his father, and said, “Yeah, I was at school.”

Deftly, Brian tried to spin his web of deception even more. Without saying a word, Brian’s father pointed to a photo on the front page of the Sports section. It was an up-close snapshot of Brian at the Giants game—hanging over the dugout fence, getting Willie May’s autograph!

He got caught telling a lie. He could no longer hide what he did because his “ditch day” was exposed and framed in a black and white photo for everyone to see.

Honestly (pun intended!), we struggle with a propensity to deceive God and scam others. We try to cover up when we mess up—and think we can get away with it. We try to sweep what we say and do under the rug—and pretend God doesn’t see it. But we’re only kidding ourselves.

God isn’t blind or dumb. He sees every wrong choice. He hears every wrong word. He knows every wrong thought. God isn’t duped by our best attempts to deceive him and others.

Often, we face awful consequences to our wrong, foolish and sinful choices. But thankfully, God is gracious. He forgives and restores repentant deceivers and reckless sinners.

Abraham lied to a king and pretended Sarah was his sister. Achan hid some stolen treasure inside his tent and told Joshua it wasn’t there. David tried to hide his adultery with Bathsheba by tricking and killing her husband Uriah. Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 silver coins.

Like the others, David suffered the consequences of sin, and later wrote, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD—and you forgave the guilt of my sin’ ” (Psalm 32:5). God graciously forgave David.

John spotlighted our glaring need to confess (say the same thing God says about) our sins, when he wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). God graciously forgives us.

God is everywhere present at once. He knows what we think, sees what we do and hears what we say. He’s always standing with open arms, ready to forgive, restore and encourage us.

Know this, no matter how far we fall, we can’t escape the reach of God’s amazing grace—and no matter how far we run, we can’t outdistance the depth of his love!

 

Going Home

Above Clouds

One Saturday morning, our telephone rang. It was my friend Ruben—and I wasn’t surprised to get his urgent call because I knew what was happening in the life of his family. His ten-year-old daughter Sabryna was dying.

I left immediately for their home, crying and praying as I drove. I knew young Sabryna would probably step through the doorway of death and enter the halls of heaven today.

Sabryna had battled leukemia for two years—and recently moved from her pink princess room into her parents’ master bedroom, where she slept comfortably in a hospice bed.

As I entered the room, I hugged Ruben, Venus, little Ruben and a few relatives and friends. Then I walked over to the hospice bed and knelt next to Sabryna. I held her small hand, stroked her dark hair and whispered words of encouragement and comfort into her ear.

Sabryna was weak, and barely able to whisper—but her eyes sparkled, as she tried to smile. She’d bravely endured the final stages of her leukemia—and now, she looked death straight in the eyes. She was joyful and sad, but eager and ready to see Jesus!

A lot of the Torres’ relatives and friends had squeezed into the room that morning. I turned and invited everyone to move closer. We gathered around Sabryna. Together, we sang and prayed. Cried and rejoiced. Read Scripture and shared memories.

After a while, I ushered everyone out—except for Ruben, his wife and son—and closed the door behind me. Not long after that, Sabryna was promoted to heaven.

From the get-go, Sabryna demonstrated amazing courage and talked excitedly about heaven. She understood dying was part of living. Sabryna wasn’t afraid because she trusted her Savior and knew her destination. She was going home—and couldn’t wait to drop her worn-out earth-suit and hug her Savior!

Why was this young girl so joyful and confident on the threshold of death?

Sabryna knew and believed what Jesus said to two grieving sisters after their brother Lazarus had died. Jesus declared, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Because Sabryna had trusted Jesus as her Savior, she had the sure hope of heaven and the rock-solid assurance of eternal life. She had confirmed reservations and a first-class ticket to heaven. Do you?

Psalm 116:15 says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.” God treasures his children like rare jewels—and puts great value on our living and dying.

I hope you’re ready to see Jesus!

 

Looking Up

Clouds 2

One moment, Jesus was standing on a hill called the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, talking with eleven of his disciples—and the next, he was in the air, and then gone!

Surprised by Jesus’ spectacular lift-off, the disciples stood there, flabbergasted. With jaws wide open and eyes big like saucers, they stared into the clouds, looking for their Savior. “They were looking intently into the sky …” (Acts 1:10).

Then suddenly, two angels came out of nowhere and stood next to them, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go” (Acts 1:11).

About then, the confused disciples probably scratched their heads and wondered, “What just happened? Jesus took off and then vanished into thin air! Next, they probably panicked and thought, “Why are these bigger-than-life angels here? What’s going on?”

For about three years, the disciples had walked and talked with Jesus. He hand-picked and called them. Taught and encouraged them. Led and fed them. Then one day, Jesus was suddenly arrested, falsely accused, secretly tried and cruelly nailed on a cross, where he died.

But then, Jesus came back to life, just three days later. He taught and stayed with his disciples for forty days—and then suddenly, he was gone again!

The stunned disciples were alone again. They probably felt abandoned, but eventually remembered how Jesus had encouraged them with a promise:  I will come back and get you!

Jesus promised, “Do not let your hearts be troubled … in my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me” (John 14:1-3).

Honestly, we don’t know what the disciples thought that day, but we do know they saw Jesus vanish. They went back to Jerusalem and preached the good news, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Thousands believed—and God launched the Church—and we’re still going and growing!

Today, we’re also watching for our Savior’s return, and remembering what Paul wrote:

“For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17).

On that great day, our Lord Jesus is coming back for all his disciples. That’s every disciple—every man, woman, boy and girl who has come to faith by trusting Jesus as Savior and Lord.

Is Jesus coming back for you? It could happen today—in the blink of an eye. Are you ready?

 

Going South and Sideways?

Road Sky Clouds

Have you ever caught yourself going down a wrong road?

I’ve turned down one-way streets and dodged approaching cars. Entered exit ramps and wheeled around, just in the nick of time. Hung a left instead of taking a right and got way off course. Ignored the map and got lost. Gone south and sideways.

When we accidentally take a wrong turn, we get flustered and anxious. When we deliberately take a wrong turn, we feel guilty and convicted. But fortunately, we can admit our mistakes and make things right with God and others.

The Scriptures clearly teach what we can say and do whenever we find ourselves going the wrong way: We can stop and turn around. Do a 180. Make an about face. Admit our sin. Talk about our short-coming. Get back on the right track.

That’s exactly what the prodigal son did—after he bottomed out.

With inheritance money burning a hole in his pocket, the son left home and ran off to enjoy some wild living. He went his own way, and did his own thing.

But before long, he’d spent every nickel. He was broke, hungry and tired. That’s why he hired out to feed pigs on a stranger’s farm—and that’s where he hit rock bottom and recognized his wrong ways.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him:  Father, I have sinned against God and you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up, and went to his father” (Luke 15:17-20).

When the lost son recognized his mistakes, he turned around and headed home. When the kind father saw his son still a long way off, he felt compassion. He ran to him, hugged and kissed him. No second thoughts. No judgmental remarks. No odd expectations.

When the wayward son confessed his sin, the father forgave him and demonstrated amazing grace. No sharp words.  No harsh criticism. No pious stance.

Now get this. Instead of hiring his son as a ranch hand—as the embarrassed young man had imagined—the father joyfully received and embraced him and threw a big party in his honor. He pulled out all the stops and celebrated the return of his son.

Likewise, when we admit our sins and ask for forgiveness, our heavenly Father forgives and embraces us. He demonstrates his amazing grace and relentless love, as he restores our broken fellowship and renews our strained relationship.

Oh, how our Father forgives, restores and celebrates when we repent and return home!

 

Think Before You Speak

Police Officer and Dog

Growing up, I frequently heard Mom say, “Son, think before you speak!”

I tried to follow her words of wisdom, but sometimes I just started talking without thinking. I’d blurt out whatever popped into my mind—or I’d spout off in some crazy, half-cocked way. Sometimes, I’d just let it rip—as if it didn’t matter.

For a long time, I didn’t know how to handcuff my thoughts and stop them from coming out of my mouth as reckless words. I didn’t know how to think discerningly—or speak appropriately.

Today, I still say things I later regret, but not like I once did. Why? I’m trying to take my thoughts captive before they turn into words that I can’t retrieve.

James—the humble, prayerful half-brother of our Savior and the first leader of the early Church in Jerusalem—wrestled with his mind and mouth, too. He thought and spoke inappropriately, just like you and me.

One day, James admonished all of us, when he wrote:  “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1:19). That’s rather blunt, but so important.

I like James’ honesty. He’s straight-forward and succinct. He doesn’t soft-pedal or sugar-coat the truth. Instead, he challenges our apathy and insensitivity as struggling communicators.

I believe James spotlights at least four decisions we can and should make continuously every day:  (1) Acknowledge your struggle with self-centered talking, lazy listening and uncontrolled anger, (2) tune your ears, (3) close your mouth, and (4) control your anger.

Clearly, James points us to a higher and healthier way of communicating.

We may not be able to control our emotions—but we can capture our thoughts, corral our words and curb our anger. We can win the battle for our minds and mouths. But to do that, we must learn to think discerningly and react decisively, just like a sentry at his post.

As thoughts invade our minds, we must immediately surround and capture them. We must determine if they square with the truth of God’s Word. If they’re okay, we can keep thinking them. If they’re not, we must hand-cuff and haul them away.

Philippians 4:8 says, “whatever is true … noble … right …  lovely … admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” That’s a time-tested grid through which we should filter and evaluate every thought.

Will you choose to handcuff your thoughts and guard your words today?

 

Freedom

Declaration of Independence Freedom

Today—and hopefully every day—we fly our American flags proudly.

We eat ice cream and watch patriotic floats go by at hometown parades. We fire up barbecues, grill burgers, and eat watermelon with family and friends. We set off spectacular fireworks, and “Ooh and Ah” as they explode and light up the night sky.

As citizens of the greatest (not perfect) country on earth, we’re celebrating the freedom we enjoy and defend as a constitutional republic—the United States of America.

We’re celebrating our Independence Day—and commemorating the historic signing of our nation’s Declaration of Independence, approved by Congress on July 4th, 1776.

On that day, brave patriots and statesmen gathered in Philadelphia to approve and sign the document. They boldly declared our separation and independence from Britain, and confidently asserted we’d never submit to the tyrannical rule of another nation.

That’s what the Fourth of July is all about. We’re celebrating our freedom!

But know this, freedom is never free. It comes with an enormous price-tag. It costs a lot. It demands exceptional service and personal sacrifice.

We’re free because thousands of men and women have made the ultimate sacrifice.

As you ponder the cost of freedom, what comes to your mind? Brave warriors. Bloody battles. Grieving families. Lonely orphans. Quiet graveyards. Huge sacrifices.

Maybe you picture the American Revolution, Civil War, Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Arlington Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the White House, or our unfurled stars and stripes.

Maybe you see a coin with our national motto, “In God We Trust.”

I don’t know what enters your mind, but I hope you take time today to reflect on what freedom means. How much it costs to secure it. What it takes to defend and keep it. Why it protects and what it provides every American citizen

Have you read the words inscribed on the Statute of Liberty?

On the interior pedestal of Lady Liberty—that stately statute standing guard over the harbor of New York City—every visitor can see a bronze plaque engraved with this inscription of welcome to America:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Year after year, we’ve tried to live out that commitment as a nation of free people.

We’ve welcomed immigrants and strangers to our shores. We’ve befriended and cared for the poor, outcast, and homeless. We’ve fought for freedom in our great land and next to friends on foreign soil.

Leaders have debated freedom long into the night. Soldiers have slipped behind enemy lines. Sailors have guarded seas and coastlines. Presidents have envisioned and led the way to liberty. Parents have influenced young patriots in homes built by freedom.

On Sunday, Kerry and I will gather with men, women, students and children at our church to worship God. We’ll sing, study and serve. We’ll enjoy another opportunity to gather publicly and worship freely.

That’s why I don’t take our freedom lightly. So many across the world can’t do what we’ll enjoy and experience on Sunday—without fear of being attacked, maimed, killed, or jailed for what they believe and do.

That’s why I’m thankful for our constitutional rights, representative government, religious liberties, and spiritual freedom. As Americans, we’re not perfect—not by a long shot—but we’re free.

We may not like all of what’s happening in our country, but we’re still the land of the free and home of the brave!

But most of all, I’m thankful for the spiritual freedom I enjoy as a follower of my Savior, Jesus Christ. In him, I’m free today, tomorrow and forever!

Over two thousand years ago, my Savior said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples [followers]. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36).

Later, the apostle Paul wrote, “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

A few years later, just before he died, the old warrior was jailed for preaching the good news of Jesus Christ—and yet he was free in Christ.

He was forgiven, accepted and changed by the Savior. He was freed from a life scarred by sin and selfishness.

Paul believed the Savior died and came back to life so he could rescue and free anyone who believes. Do you?

That’s what I believe—and that’s what I’m experiencing now. Are you?

My Bucket List

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Things I Want to Do:

Sponsor a child through Compassion International
• Stay overnight in the Texas town where I was born
• Walk the halls of the hospital where I was born
• Read through my Bible at least 40 times
• Enjoy a second honeymoon on Kauai with my wife
• Renew our wedding vows in 2028 and 2038
Waterski on a slalom course on a lake without falling
Go backpacking for a week in the Sierras
Hike through Yosemite National Park
Stand on top of Yosemite’s famous Half Dome
Hike up and down the backside of Half Dome
• Take a cab ride through New York City
• Take a parachute jump out of an airplane
• Visit the Lincoln Memorial again
• Tour the White House again
Hang out on the 103rd floor of the Sears Tower
• Hang out on the 102nd floor of the Empire State Building
• Visit the Statue of Liberty
• Enjoy a picnic lunch at Niagara Falls
Criss-cross the United States and visit almost every state
• Go on a cruise with my wife
Sail near the Golden Gate Bridge
• Stay at a resort in Cabo San Lucas
• Write and publish a devotional book
• Write an autobiography for my daughters
Ride in a hot air balloon
Go scuba diving
Go snorkeling
Go zip-lining
Try rock climbing
Go bouldering
Climb Mt. Hood in Oregon
• Climb Mt. Whitney in California
• Swim with a school of dolphins
Play and swim with seals in the Pacific Ocean
• Kayak in the Pacific Ocean near Monterey
Stand under a tall cascading waterfall
Go river rafting through white-water rapids
• Go horseback riding on the beach with my wife
• Go on a week-long pack horse trip with a trail guide
• Take dancing lessons with my wife
• Learn to do the salsa with my wife
Fly a small Cessna with a pilot friend
• Ride in a helicopter and tour Kauai
Try paddle boarding
Try wakeboarding
• Go para-sailing
• Try jet-packing
• Sit through one opera
• Start running 5Ks and 7Ks again
• Run a Color Me Rad 5K
• Sleep in an igloo
• Walk through a rainforest
• Visit the Alamo again
• Take an airboat ride in the Everglades
Fly as a passenger on a double-decker Airbus

Things I Want to Do for People:

• Mail someone an anonymous $100 bill
Listen to a homeless person share his story
Buy a bag of groceries for a homeless person

Places I Want to Visit:

• Israel
• Australia
• New Zealand
• England
• Scotland
• Norway
• Kauai (again!)
• Maui (again!)

Milestones I Want to Accomplish:

• Celebrate my parents’ 90th birthdays
• Master the Spanish language
• Go on another short-term missions trip
• Read through my Bible at least 40 times
• Renew our wedding vows in 2028 and 2038
• Hold, influence and spoil our future grandchildren
• Get out of debt and stay debt-free
• Down-size and move to a smaller home
• Talk with at least one person about Jesus every week
• Enjoy 80 years of purposeful life on Planet Earth
• Worship and serve King Jesus on the New Earth