Determined and Thankful

JR Martinez

J.R. Martinez lit up the dance floor on Dancing with the Stars, wowing the audience and judges—as he and his partner Karina Smirnoff cha-cha-ed, samba-ed and waltzed on the hardwood floor.

So where did the former soldier find the slick moves to beat out the other contestants and win the 2011 DWTS mirror ball trophy? It wasn’t from years of practice. Not by a long shot.

The only dancing experience J.R. had was with his mother when he was a little boy!

Ms. Martinez may not have taught a lot of dance moves to her young son—but as a hard-working single mother, she modeled the virtue of determination. Growing up, Martinez watched and learned, as his mother struggled and persevered—and hurdled one obstacle after another.

The perseverance of J.R.’s mother influenced him to live with endurance and character. Her strong example motivated him to win at life—long before he danced his way to a shiny trophy.

About 10 years ago—while Martinez was serving in Iraq, his Humvee hit a land mine and exploded into flames. Trapped inside the damaged tank with no way to escape, Martinez was burned over 40 percent of his body.

When J.R. first saw his scars in a mirror, he was devastated. But with unusual determination—just like his mother had modeled—the tough 19-year-old soldier transformed his “reflection” of his scars into a reservoir of strength.

The scarred soldier courageously thanked God for life. He knew God protected him. That’s why he didn’t curse or complain. He didn’t sulk or sour. He didn’t blubber or blame.

Instead—Martinez stepped up, worked hard and persevered. He kept going. He refused to allow life’s challenges to distract or detour him. He stayed determined and thankful.

Centuries ago—King David got slammed and scarred by the stuff of life, just like Martinez. But he also learned to walk through challenges with thankful determination. That’s why he could sing and shout, “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good” (Psalm 107:1).

The apostle Paul was arrested for proclaiming the good news of Jesus. Alone and stuck in prison, he practiced what he preached: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians. 4:6).

Simply put, we can thank God during a tough time—but we don’t need to thank him for the tough time. There’s a big difference.

Friend, let’s stay determined and thankful. Let’s catch a right perspective on our challenges—and cultivate a right attitude of gratitude for God’s goodness. Let’s dance with joy!


Texas Lemonade

lemonade stand

On hot summer days, we can usually find a makeshift lemonade stand somewhere, run by children who want to make a few bucks.

They’re simple set-ups where folks can buy a cup or two of lemonade, wet their whistle and encourage some kids.

Most youngsters are content to collect some quarters in an old coffee can for two hours of work—but not 6-year-old Drew Cox.

The young Texan didn’t just set up a lemonade stand in his front yard to snag ten bucks. He didn’t just serve lemonade to quench the thirst of a few kind neighbors and strangers.

Drew erected his stand with hopes of raising a lot of money to help his father pay off the medical bills that had piled up, after Randy Cox had been diagnosed with cancer and started taking chemotherapy.

As word traveled across the east Texas town that Drew was selling lemonade to help pay for his father’s medical expenses, good-willed Texans flocked to his stand.

Drew charged the customary 25 cents per cup. Some bought cups of lemonade, while others wrote checks and made donations—including one check for $5,000.

Amazingly, young Drew Cox raised over $10,000 in one day.

That’s compassion and generosity in action—roped together in the Lone Star state—to help a struggling father and his family!

Our Savior felt and demonstrated compassion for people everywhere. Children. Parents. Lepers. Adulterers. Soldiers. Rebels. Everyone.

The Bible says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). First, our amazing Savior felt compassion, deep inside. Then, he jumped into action, on behalf of others.

Jesus never got stuck in the quagmire of passivity and inactivity. Instead, he dared to care—and decided to act. He got involved.

Our Savior’s heart of compassion always moved him to take action. He saw and felt something, and then he did something. Every time.

Ephesians 4:32 says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another.”

I wonder how we’ll respond today to what we see and feel.


No More Giants

Jamie Moyer

Left-handed pitcher Jamie Moyer took the mound on June 16, 1986, wearing a Chicago Cubs uniform—and made his Major League Baseball debut against veteran pitcher and future Hall-of-Famer Steve Carlton.

Nine innings later, the 23-year-old rookie got his first win.

More than a quarter-century later, 49-year-old Moyer is still pitching. Now he’s playing with the Colorado Rockies—and on April 17, 2013, he earned his 268th career win, becoming the oldest pitcher in MLB history to win a game.

Today, despite having Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm after the 2010 season, Moyer is a strong and steady starter for the Rockies. His earned run average is among the best in baseball, but his velocity is the worst.

Moyer has never been known for hurling a blazing fastball, and his age and surgery have reduced his top speed. So how does he get the job done?

The veteran southpaw throws five distinct pitches with precision, using a variety of speeds—slow, slower, and slowest. He stays one step ahead of the hitters, knowing a 78-mph fastball feels like pure heat after seeing a 60-mph change-up. He’s still got what it takes to fool batters!

After Joshua and his troops captured the Promised Land, 80-year-old Caleb went to his old commander and friend, and asked for his blessing to battle and subdue the enemy again.

Caleb said, “I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out; I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. Now give me this hill country that the LORD promised me that day. You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified, but the LORD helping me, I will drive them out …” (Joshua 14:11-12).

So Joshua blessed Caleb, and gave him the hill country of Hebron to attack, conquer and occupy.

Caleb didn’t let gnarly giants keep him from taking “his” mountain. Instead, he charged up the hill, and wiped out the bad guys. He didn’t give up, or go away. He didn’t let up, or limp away.

Faithfully and fearlessly, Caleb had served alongside Moses and Joshua, scouted Canaan, fought battles and defeated enemies. He wasn’t ready to retire and live comfortably on Easy Street. Instead, he wanted to capture another enemy-held mountain, and settle there.

Caleb didn’t let anything stop or side-line him. Why? He was resolutely committed to living out the encouraging words of his long-time friend:  “Be strong and courageous” (Joshua 1:6).

Furthermore, the old warrior trusted God for guidance and strength. He faced life head-on with confidence and purpose. He stayed true to his commitments and values.

Can others say the same thing of you?


Frantic and Frazzled


Have you struggled with the stuff of life to the point that you felt weary and teary?

I’ve hit the wall and collapsed twice because I mismanaged stress, kept a crazy schedule and got burnt out. Exhausted and overwhelmed, I had no choice but to rest and sleep for days.

I ignored the warning signs, disregarded what others advised and refused to get the help I desperately needed. I jeopardized my health and the well-being of my family. I allowed the tyranny of the urgent to sap my energy and scuttle my strength.

Frazzled to the core, I finally just wore out. I had nothing left to give. I felt empty and lost.

Eventually, I learned to set my pace so I could run long and finish strong. I discovered how to recharge my batteries, renew my mind and rebalance my emotions. I decided to slow down, rest up and look around.

Oh, I still struggle. It’s part of life. That’s why I ask and rely on God to rejuvenate me.

The tough warrior-king David struggled, too. He wrote, “I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow …” (Psalm 6:6-7). He fought exhaustion, sadness and stress.

David had fierce enemies who wanted to kill him. Trusted advisors who tried to betray him. Close friends who plotted to ruin him. A rebellious son who conspired to dethrone him.

The stressed-out warrior-king got tired of struggling and fighting. He wanted to give up and go away—but he didn’t. Instead, he asked God to rescue and strengthen him.

David prayed, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me. I am worn out calling for help” (Psalm 69:1-3).

He also declared, “In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help … he heard my voice. He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters … he rescued me because he delighted in me” (Psalm 18:16-19).

David desperately cried out to God—and experienced God’s strong hand and sustaining help.

Know this, my friend—no matter what’s threatening to slam you down and take you out, it’s no match for our mighty God. He’s all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere present at once.

God sees what you’re going through—knows what you’re feeling—and hears what you’re saying. He’s focused on you. He cares about you.

That’s why you can trust God with everything—and talk with him about anything at any time.

God is waiting and listening for you. Will you trust and talk with him today?


Winners and Losers

Dave McNally Orioles Pitcher

During the 1966 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, left-handed starting pitcher Dave McNally of the Baltimore Orioles gave up five walks and a homerun in the first three innings of Game 1. He was pulled from the game—after getting just seven outs.

The good news for McNally is that his team went on to win the ballgame. But there was no denying that McNally had blown it. He’d failed big-time as the Orioles’ star pitcher before over a million baseball fans.

But just a few days later, Dave McNally pitched a shut-out in Game 4 to clinch the win and sweep the World Series for the Orioles!

Two things impress me as I think about his amazing comeback—even as a die-hard Dodger’s fan!

First, McNally refused to make excuses or feel sorry for himself. He could’ve moped around after his poor performance, or “asked out” of his next start. Instead, he dug down deep, and got ready for Game 4.

Second, McNally’s manager and teammates didn’t give up on him. Convinced he’d bounce back, they trusted him to go back out on the mound—and win the World Series. They knew he could do it, and he did. He came back and pitched a shut-out to win the Series.

And four years later, McNally—who hit a grand slam in Game 3 of the 1970 World Series—became the first and only pitcher in Major League history to hit a grand slam in a World Series game. That’s what I call a comeback!

Indeed, “failure is the back door to success.” Just ask Dave McNally.

Nobody wants to fail. Nobody likes to lose. Nobody wants to drop the ball or come up short. Most people enjoy wining, getting ahead and succeeding.

But honestly, success isn’t what it’s cracked up to be—and winning isn’t all there is to living.

What’s really important is how we play the game of life. It’s who we are in Christ and what we do for him that really counts. It’s what we say and do to introduce others to Christ that matters for eternity. It’s how we live that makes a difference now and later.

The apostle Paul wrote, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:24).

With clarity and conviction, Paul challenges every follower of Jesus to (1) discover his purpose, (2) arrange her priorities, (3) run with focus, determination and strength, and (4) win the prize.

So, whether we win or lose today’s foot race, let’s give it our best shot—and run like champions who reflect and honor our Savior!


Out of the Ruckus

Buck large

A large, intimidating intruder weighing 300 pounds broke into a home in Northeast Philadelphia, and left behind a trail of broken glass and blood, as he ransacked the entire house.

Fortunately, nobody was home at the time of the break-in, and an alert neighbor who heard the sounds of breaking glass called the police and reported the commotion.

When the officers arrived and entered the house, they saw signs of a ruckus, and found the floor covered with glass and blood. Right away, they were confronted by the intruder—a huge deer that had knocked down a fence and broken a window to get inside the house.

The surprised policemen coaxed and cornered the deer, but he refused to leave the house. Unable to get the animal out of the house, they radioed for help from local wildlife officials.

I wonder what situations and emotions prompt you to radio for back-up and call out for help. Fear. Pain. Stress. Frustration. Anxiety. Finances. Pressure. Sickness. Conflict. Problems.

I also wonder whom or perhaps what you turn to for help. Your spouse. Parent. Brother. Sister. Friend. Teacher. Coach. Alcohol. Drugs. Or God.

Why is it that we often exhaust every other possibility before we cry out to God for help?

A young shepherd-boy turned savvy warrior-king discovered his great need to ask God for help and strength—every day. Often, David was pursued, surrounded and attacked. He was criticized, misunderstood and hurt. He lived like a fugitive on the run.

That’s how David came to grips with his weakness—and learned to call out to God for strength.

He wrote, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and mountains fall into the heart of the sea, thought its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake” (Psalm 46:1-3).

David got clobbered by ornery people and problems. But he kept a right perspective on those challenges by choosing to focus more on the omnipotence and omnipresence of God. He believed God is all-powerful and everywhere present at once. That truth encouraged him.

In the same way, we can trust and enjoy God’s constant presence and protection, knowing he never changes. He remains the same—today, tomorrow and forever. He surrounds and supports us. All day long. All night long. That truth encourages us, too.

No matter what kind of ruckus comes our way, we can trust God and talk with him about it, knowing and believing he’s always there to strengthen, support and save us.

So then, let’s trust and call out to our awesome and almighty God with unshakeable confidence, just like David who prayed:  “Come near and rescue me …” (Psalm 69:18).

I believe God will hear and help us—every time.


Caught by an Avalanche

French Alps Mount Maudit

Twenty-eight experienced mountaineers were climbing in the French Alps, attempting one of the most dangerous ascents in all of Europe, when they were caught off-guard by an avalanche.

They were surprised and hit by a fast-moving wall of snow that was 60-feet high and 500-feet wide, as they traversed the icy 14,649-foot ridge of Mont Maudit (meaning “cursed peak”) on their way to the summit.

Eight of the climbers were killed that day, after being buried and swept more than 600 feet by a towering wall of snow. They died on the mountain.

Nine were airlifted to a hospital with cracked ribs and broken bones. Two others were missing and presumed dead, but later hiked down the mountain and walked into town. By nightfall, local authorities had accounted for every climber.

I wonder what it’d be like to get buried by an avalanche and survive to tell your story.

Experts say an avalanche is a cascading mass of at least 100,000 tons of snow sliding down a mountain that can reach speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. That’s a lot of fast-moving snow!

Maybe you’re feeling like an avalanche is chasing you downhill today. Perhaps you’re freaked out and frantic because of your awful predicament. Somersaulting out of control and gasping for air. Trying to hang on and ride things out.

When life shoves us to the ground and knocks the wind out of us—we often get angry, confused and disoriented. Sometimes, we get overwhelmed by anxiety, discouragement and fear. Other times, we imagine and assume the worst, and give up.

Sometimes, David reacted that way, as he struggled with challenges and circumstances. But he also confidently declared, “As for God, his way is perfect; the word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield for all who take refuge in him. For who is God besides the LORD? And who is the Rock except our God? It is God who arms me with strength” (Psalm 18:30-32).

As David wrestled with the stuff of life, he learned to trust God.

Do you trust God when life slams and surrounds you with an avalanche of lousy circumstances, topsy-turvy emotions or ornery people? If you struggle with that kind of a response, try this:

Expectantly cry out to God. Trust his unchanging Word. Anchor your hope in his grace and care. Rely on him for peace and perspective. Experience his constant presence, power and protection.

Psalm 46:1 says, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.” That’s why we can always trust God—no matter what’s happening around us. He’ll never let us down.

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!


Fully Committed

Navy SEALs

Former Navy SEAL James “Hoot” Andrews was approached by a young neighbor boy who asked, “Mr. Andrews, were you really a SEAL?” When Andrews nodded yes, the boy just stared at him with a puzzled look and then blurted, “You sure don’t look like one!” The old warrior just chuckled, and then asked with a grin, “Son, what’s a Navy SEAL supposed to look like?”

The boy probably had a snapshot of Rambo in his mind—and old “Hoot” didn’t seem to fit the bill. He wasn’t wearing blood-stained camos, muddy boots and a crumpled hat. He didn’t have black grease smeared on his face. He wasn’t toting a machine gun or a long knife.

To the young boy, old “Hoot” didn’t look much like a tough guy.

I’ve talked with men like Chief Andrews, and here’s why I respect and admire them. Beneath the sophisticated gear and extraordinary endurance of every SEAL lies the heart of a dedicated warrior. He gets his mission, stays on target and cares about his team. He knows exactly what to do, and why he’s doing it. He shoves aside fear and selfishness—and refuses to give up.

That gung-ho attitude and “hooah” commitment is demonstrated by every Navy SEAL, from the highest ranking officer to the most junior seaman. Whatever the mission demands or situation requires, a SEAL will do it. He’s committed to the core—no matter what.

As followers of Jesus, we’re called to go wherever and do whatever our Commander-in-Chief says. We’re called to live with commitment to his eternal cause. No excuses. No exceptions.

Long ago, a Jewish boy was captured and taken to modern-day Iraq. Young Daniel didn’t like his situation, but he trusted God. Captive in a strange city far from his home, Daniel worshiped and obeyed God. He refused to compromise or quit. He lived with integrity and humility.

Along the way, Daniel explained Nebuchadnezzar’s troubling dreams and Darius’ wild visions. Early on, he was tossed into a fiery furnace and a lions’ den because of what he believed, said and did. But God guided, rescued and strengthened him.

For many years, Daniel served these powerful kings with integrity and influenced their pagan kingdoms with righteousness. He stayed fully committed to God and did what was right.

He refused to eat the king’s gourmet food that was offered to idols—and refused to worship the king’s golden image because it was an idol. He refused to stop praying because it was his daily habit to talk often with God. He refused to distrust God in the hot furnace—and refused to fear death in the lion’s den because he knew God hadn’t abandoned him.

2 Chronicles 16:9 says, “For the eyes of the LORD range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.” I wonder what God sees when he looks inside your heart.

Regardless of your past or present story, you can stay fully committed and live confidently and courageously. You can rely on God for strength. You can trust God and live like Daniel did.


Going the Distance


Young Lopez Lomong was abducted from his home by rebel soldiers and then beaten and forced to become a “boy soldier” in his war-torn homeland.

One night, he escaped from his captors and ran for his life through the “killing fields” of Sudan for three days. He ran until he stumbled across a refugee camp in Kenya, where gracious and kind people cared for him. As he struggled to survive, he felt alone and afraid.

Lomong grew up there as a “lost boy” with a broken heart, far away from his family and friends.  He was hungry, barefoot and dirt poor with rags for clothes. He never owned a pair of shoes—until he left Africa and made his way to the United States, where he was adopted, wore his first pair of shoes, graduated from college and became a U.S. citizen.

Today, Lomong is still running, but not from the rebels in Sudan—and not as a barefoot boy. Now he runs as a world-class athlete, proudly representing the United States and his sponsor Nike and wearing their name-brand clothing and shoes.

In 2012, Lopez Lomong had the honor of carrying the American flag in the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in London. With a look of determination on his face and joy in his heart, he ran with eyes riveted on winning a gold medal for his new homeland.

Are you running like an Olympian athlete—or just barely hanging on?

Maybe you’re struggling to survive and stay in the race. Getting tired and lagging behind. Growing discouraged and disillusioned. Going south instead of north. Perhaps you’re running stronger and longer. Going faster and farther. Persevering in spite of the pain. Staying on course. Going the distance.

No matter what—we can run with confidence and hope, knowing God is running with us. We can face obstacles head-on and see beyond setbacks, trusting God for strength and help. We can hear God encouraging and cheering for us.

The warrior David trusted God. He knew how to run victoriously. He experienced tough times. He was pursued by his enemies. He lived like a fugitive on the dodge.

David often ran for his life—and he knew God always ran with him. Wherever David went, God ran alongside him. He encouraged David—and supported and stayed with him.

That’s why David joyfully sang, “My God turns my darkness into light … with your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall” (Psalm 18:28, 29).

That’s why David confidently wrote, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all” (Psalm 34:18-19).

That’s why we can run with hope and endurance—and how we can go the distance with God!