Holding the Umbrella for Someone Else

When the sun is shining on our face and a gentle breeze is causing the leaves in the trees to rustle all around us, life is so very good.

When the sun is shining on our face and a gentle breeze is causing the leaves in the trees to rustle all around us, life is so very good. We hear the sound of children playing in the park. We smile and chuckle as a young pup chases a squirrel around a tree trunk. The squirrel seems to be enjoying the game of staying just out of the dog’s reach. It chatters back at the pup which starts jumping up at it repeatedly. We can’t help but laugh as we try to capture a video with our phone camera.

Times such as these are just one of a myriad of reasons to be thankful to God for our lives. We love to share such moments with friends and family. We treasure them. Clouds and storms may be in the forecast later today, but these sunny times of laughter and beauty will be treasured.

Yet in due time the clouds do roll in and the storm darkens the sky. We hear thunder rolling in the distance. The breeze is suddenly moist. We realize we may get caught in the rain before we can pack up our things and get to the safety of our car. And we realize we failed to bring an umbrella!

Sometimes storms in our lives are much more serious. At such times we don’t want to try to weather the storm alone. We need shelter.  We need protection.

This evening, my wife and I will be speaking at an Umbrella Ministries event. The organization provides much needed “comfort, hope, and encouragement to mothers who have suffered the loss of a child.” Their slogan is “We may not be able to make the sun shine for you…but we can hold the umbrella”.

We only see life through one set of eyes, our own. We have many things to do, taking care of our own life. We have to eat right, exercise, study, learn, dress, work, etc. I find it is just way too easy to focus all our attention on one person – me, myself and I. In contrast, a mother focuses her attention much of the day on her children. She makes sure they eat right, exercise, study… It can be too easy for her to forget about her own needs in the midst of it all.

This is why we treasure our Moms. They have sacrificed so much out of love for us. The relationship between a mother and her children is precious. That’s the way God planned it in His wisdom.

Umbrella Ministries focuses on helping mothers who are deeply hurting for a very special reason. They have lost one or more of their children. Such a loss is hard to imagine. Frankly, we don’t want to. It is one of life’s most tragic events and one of the most difficult. I tried to be there for my wife to help her make it through the loss of one of our children in December of 2003. It was hard for me to see her pain, her anguish, her tears. But I watched her turn to God in the midst of that storm. Then I watched Him provide comfort, healing and even joy for her when she needed it most.

This afternoon and evening, we will share our story. Cindy will be there for the other moms in the room. Although each person grieves differently, she knows something about what the moms in that room are going through. She cares, and God has equipped her with a heart for them.

Tomorrow, Cindy will be among the mothers for a full day conference. I’ve volunteered to photograph the event, and hopefully put together a short video for the Umbrella Ministries. We both know that God will be there too. The Holy Spirit of God will be ministering His comfort. Yes, there will be some tears. The word of God tells us that He holds our tears in His hands. But there will also be laughter and encouragement, the sharing of photographs and of special times the mothers shared with their children. Precious memories. Gifts from God.

“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” ~ Psalm 56:8 (NLT)

You can learn more about Umbrella Ministries at their website: http://www.umbrellaministries.com They currently offer events in a very limited number of cities. The event in Arizona starts this afternoon with dinner and speeches for both the moms and dads. It continues tomorrow with a full day conference solely for the moms. Should you know a mother who has lost a child, or should you be one, we encourage you to seek out and attend such an event if you live within a reasonable distance.

Photograph by John J O’Leary

God’s Love In The Storm

There are physical storms of rain, snow, and wind. And there are storms that are emotional or spiritual.

In April of 2013, I had traveled to Sedona, Arizona, to photograph the amazing red rock canyons which are world famous. Sedona is one of the most picturesque locations in the state, and I was anxious to use my new Canon DSLR camera.

The average temperature in Sedona during April is 73 degrees for a high and 43 degrees for a low, so I was expecting to have a great day. I had failed to check the forecast in my enthusiasm to get there, envisioning all the locations I wanted to photograph. On the way, a snowstorm struck, a mix of wet snow and sleet. Although that was an unpleasant surprise to me and initially felt like a major setback to my photography plans, it turned into a blessing in disguise.

There are two songs that come to my mind immediately when I think about God and storms. The first is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, written and sung by Gordon Lightfoot. If you don’t know the song, it is about an event that occurred in November of 1975 on Lake Superior. The largest ship on the Great Lakes at the time, a freighter nicknamed the “Pride of the American Side”, encountered hurricane force winds and was lost, as were all 29 crew members. The following year, Gordon Lightfoot would release his song to commemorate the disaster.

There is one line from that song that is as follows: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?”

It is a difficult line to hear, as you can’t help but imagine the men struggling for their lives in the waters that were several hundred feet deep and storm-ravaged. Were the men crying out to God in their final moments? I know I would have.

The second song that comes to my mind is by a Christian group called “Casting Crowns”. The song is titled “Praise You In This Storm” and was released in 2005 on their album “Lifesong”. As in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, it was inspired by a real-life tale of tragedy. In this case, it was an encounter between the band and a young girl named Erin Browning. Near the time that the band met her and her family, she was diagnosed with cancer. Erin’s mother was faced with the storm of her daughter’s illness. The girl would pass away on November 1st of 2004.

Written by band members Mark Hall and Bernie Herms, “Praise You In The Storm” was inspired by Erin and her mother. It is about someone crying out to God in their distress, with a torn heart and tears in their eyes. They are looking to the hills, to the maker of heaven and earth, for mercy as their strength fails.

Storms come in many forms. There are physical storms of rain, snow, and wind. And there are storms that are emotional or spiritual. Both can cause us to look to God for help.

We all face storms as we go through life, and we see others facing them. In Sedona, that April day, I was facing a relatively mild snowstorm. One of the locations I chose to go to was beneath the Chapel of the Holy Cross. It was completed in 1956 and required a special permit in order to be built on land in the Coconino National Forest.

As the storm continued, I set up my camera on a tripod below the church, shielding the lens from the wind-driven sleet and snow. The image of the cross above me, nestled into the rugged rock and standing firm in the face of the storm, lifted my spirits. I wanted to capture the scene, to share the experience of it, not just the image of it. Fortunately, I found camera settings that allowed the diagonal lines of the sleet and snow to be seen and captured.  You probably can’t see it if you are reading this on your phone, as the image is too small in that case.

My hope is that you will look to the hills, to the cross of Christ, when storms enter your life. The love of God is ever present and the Holy Spirit is with believers in Christ. Although we may not be literally standing in front of a cross during such times, do not wonder where His love goes. It was a blessing for me to see and capture this scene during an April snowstorm in Sedona. Yet I have seen His hand in the midst of far worse storms in my life, and I know He can be counted on when we need Him the most.

Did you know that the Apostle Paul was shipwrecked? You can read the story about an angel of God appearing to him in the Book of Acts, Chapter 27. https://www.bible.com/bible/100/ACT.27.NASB

Photograph by John J O’Leary

Forgiveness is Crucial!

One of the most difficult things in life is to be faced with monumental unfairness.

One of the most difficult things in life is to be faced with monumental unfairness. There are basic reactions that we naturally have when we determine that an event is unfair. Examples include being cheated, being punished for another’s crime, and even something as mundane as someone else’s car pulling into a parking spot you had signaled to be waiting on.

Consider this scenario: Bank robbers brutalize a pregnant teller, pistol-whipping her in anger and frustration when they notice she has pressed an emergency switch notifying the police of a robbery in process. A police car happens to be just down the street and they get the call to proceed to the bank. As they pull up to the front entrance, the robbers flee the bank, running to their left to get to their waiting vehicle. The policeman riding in the passenger seat leaps from the slowing police car, yelling “Stop, police!” One robber pulls a gun and shoots back blindly at the police car, the bullet striking an older man on the other side of the street. The policeman on foot pulls his gun and shoots back at the robbers. But a six-year-old boy was cowering beside a freestanding mailbox, unseen by the policeman. The bullet strikes him instead of the robber. The robbers flee to safety with the cash, leaving behind a wake of carnage. The boy’s mother, shocked and in tears, kneels over her young son. The policeman frantically searches for a pulse on the wrist of the older pedestrian and finds none. Inside the bank, the patrons are trying to give aid to the injured teller and her unborn child.

All the injured or killed in this scenario were innocent. It is so incredibly unfair! That’s what makes it so difficult to accept. The guilty party, the robbers, are unscathed, leaving behind a wake of death and grief. Unfairness can be a huge mountain for us to scale when we try to come to grips with a scene like this.

So the question that I would pose to you is this: “How on earth does forgiveness occur in such a scenario? Who would be able to forgive? Could the husband of the teller, the mother of the young boy, the wife and children of the older man? What about the policeman who accidentally shot the boy, could he forgive himself?

The answer is yes. Please read on.

You may be unable to fathom how that could be. But let me point you to an incident that occurred in Prescott Valley, Arizona. The date was July 9th of 2010. Two neighbors in an apartment complex were talking and having a few drinks. One lived above the other. The discussion turned into an argument. The neighbor from downstairs went back to his apartment and grabbed a knife. He charged back upstairs and in a drunken rage attacked the other by stabbing him repeatedly. The victim tried to fend off and flee his attacker. Yet he was unable to do so and was killed by multiple knife wounds, collapsing near his front door.

Let’s now advance in time to the murder trial in a courthouse in Prescott, Arizona. I was there. So was my wife, Cindy. It had been her brother, Steven Ogle, who had been killed by his neighbor. Think on this a second: If it had been your brother who had been killed, what would you have said to the murderer, assuming you would have had the chance?

The trial was conducted. After sentencing, if you had been there with us in court, you would have seen my wife arrange with the Victim’s Advocate to say a word to the man who had brutally stabbed her brother multiple times. He had just been found guilty and had been told by the judge that he was sentenced to the maximum 29 years in prison for his crime. You would have seen the murderer turned around by the Deputy to face my wife. You would have then easily heard my wife say to him “I forgive you’ [pausing then repeating again] ‘I forgive you.” You would have seen tears flow down the murderer’s face as my wife and I walked away.

When we were driving from Prescott back to Scottsdale, I told Cindy that I was so very proud of her having the courage and the grace to forgive. It had impressed me so much. It was as if I had seen the hand of God upon her at that moment. By forgiving the man who murdered her brother, she had lifted any burden of bitterness, hate, anger or resentment from her own shoulders. She was free of such consequences. Forever. It truly was God giving her the ability to forgive in such circumstances.

Cindy had experienced the healing power of forgiveness in the loss of our son in 2003. She believes that a key part of her healing was the forgiveness we both had for the driver who had pulled out in front of our son Brian that year. We both knew it had been an accident, and we were able to forgive completely. We believe God had blessed us with the ability to immediately forgive. It wasn’t any merit on our part. We both heard several years later that our forgiveness (given to us by God) had been spoken of for several years afterward. A dear Pastor had shared with us how the story had been a blessing to others.

Cindy feels that the forgiveness in the death of our son led to her being able to turn to God for forgiveness for the murderer of her brother seven years later.

If we are unwilling to forgive, it may be because we equate forgiveness with condoning an action. That isn’t the case. Cindy believed the conviction (and lengthy prison sentence) was just. Forgiving the murderer was simply saying that she would never hold on to all the negative feelings and stress that come along with unforgiveness.

If we don’t forgive, we are unwilling to let God work in our life. We have all probably heard the expression “Holding a grudge.” That is an accurate statement. If you hold on to it, instead of letting it go, you aren’t hurting the guilty party, you are just hurting yourself.

Reading this, you may understand the concept and see the benefits to you and others, but just can’t find a way to actually forgive. Might I suggest prayer? God is the source of all good things. Forgiveness, or the ability to forgive, is a gift that you can ask God for.

Here is an example of a prayer that you might consider and personalize:

“Lord, you have forgiven me for all the wrong things I have done. I seek to follow your example. Grant me the ability to forgive those who have wronged me, those who have hurt the ones I love, and help me to also forgive myself for the things I have done wrong. Free me from the burden of unforgiveness, and let me see the blessings that can occur when forgiveness is in my heart rather than bitterness. In Jesus name, I pray, Amen!”

A few scriptures on forgiveness from the Bible:

Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
~ Ephesians 4:32

Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
~ Romans 12:19

But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.
~ Matthew 6:15

But Jesus was saying, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots, dividing up His garments among themselves.
~ Luke 23:34

For You, Lord, are good, and ready to forgive,
And abundant in lovingkindness to all who call upon You.
~ Psalms 86:5

Photograph by John J O’Leary

To Those Who Love God

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

One of the most popular, most comforting, scriptures in the Bible is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
~Romans 8:28

Some reading this may not know the Bible well and perhaps don’t know who Paul was. Imagine then, that you are a man who is highly intelligent and devout, having a set of beliefs about God that you not only cherish but defend. You are known as Saul of Tarsus by your Jewish brethren. You are a Jew and also a Roman citizen. From early childhood, you have spent your life studying the Torah, the written law of God. Your reputation is based on your beliefs. You have gone so far as to seek out heretics who are claiming that God has come in the person of a man from Nazareth, a carpenter’s son. Blasphemous! Later, you become a leader in the search for these heretics so that they can be brought to justice. You stand on the sidelines and watch as one of them is stoned to death. Then one fateful day, as you are traveling to a city called Damascus in your search, God stops you in your tracks. Literally. You are blinded. You fall from your horse into the dusty road and hear the voice of God: “Saul, Saul, why you are persecuting Me?”

Saul had been hunting disciples, or followers, of Jesus Christ, who had apparently proclaimed Himself to be the Son of God. Saul was known as “the Pharisee of Pharisees”. A Pharisee was one who was “separated from others” and they were often self-righteous and arrogant. You can imagine the outrage of such a man when confronted with people saying that this Jesus was supposedly God in the flesh.

There are 13 “Principles of Faith” that Orthodox Jews believe. The 12th states: “I believe with full faith in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he tarries, with all that, I await his arrival with every day.” There was a belief that a “Messiah” would come to liberate the Jewish people and bring world peace. He would be a powerful king, ruling here on earth! Yet when He came, instead of coming as a king here on earth, He came as a gentle, loving man who would say that His kingdom was not of this earth. Instead of being recognized as the Messiah, He would be mocked, beaten, spat upon, and crucified upon a cross. Then those who had been His disciples would be summarily hunted down and killed. And Saul was a leader of the pack of hunters pursuing them.

With that backdrop of a man who was vehemently against Jesus and His followers, how on earth is it possible that he would be the one who would risk his life innumerable times to tell the story that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God? Wouldn’t God have struck him down with a bolt of lightning, killing him on that road to Damascus to show others what would happen to them if they persecuted and killed his followers? Wouldn’t God smite those who had killed His Son, Jesus?

God is God, and His ways are not our ways. That’s a very good thing indeed. Instead of killing Saul, He dramatically showed him the error of his ways and turned him from his path of self-righteousness and destruction to a path of true righteousness and salvation. Saul would come to be known as Paul, as his life would take a complete reversal in direction. He would go on to write many letters, revealing the story of Jesus Christ and declaring His message of love, grace, and sacrifice.

The longest of Paul’s letters would be to the Romans. It was when Nero was the Emperor. His letter to the Romans was written around 57-58 a.d., while Paul was most likely in Corinth. Paul had never met those he wrote to but knew of their faith in Christ based on the testimony of others. They were of differing backgrounds. Most likely there were Jews among them who believed in Jesus. Others would have been heathens who had also come to believe in Him. There would have been contentious beliefs about how to be a follower of Christ. Paul’s letter would be written to encourage them and instruct them on his inspired knowledge of the sinful nature of man, the sacrifice that Jesus made in our man’s behalf, and that salvation is through faith alone.

When we read that “God causes all things to work together for good”, we must recognize that this pertains to just one group of people. It is “to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” No such statement is made to those who do not love God and who are not called according to his purposes. Nor is Paul saying that we can cause things to work together for good. Only God can do this. “Looking on the bright side” may be helpful to us, but that is not what Paul is saying here.

What does the verse mean? How can we apply this in our life? First, we should love God.

There is a scripture in Mathew 22 in which Jesus had been asked a very important question by the Pharisees. When they hoped to entrap him, asking Him what the great commandment in the Jewish Law was, He replied:

“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment.”
~ Matthew 22:37

In 2004, several months after the death of our son, Brian, I was in my car on the way to work. It was early morning and I was alone on a highway. I felt very alone indeed. My thoughts were of Brian and how much I missed him. I thought of Matthew 22. Understanding what it meant, knowing the scripture, was one thing. Being able to do it, I felt, was something altogether different.

Speaking out loud, I asked God “How is it possible for me to love you more than I love Brian, Daniel, and Katie? More than I love my wife? More than I love my mother and father, my sister? More than my friends? More than the amazing beauty of this world with its majestic mountains, rivers, ocean beaches, sunsets, and wildlife? More than starry nights, the twinkling of fireflies, the feeling when a large trout takes my fly in a Wyoming stream?” I stated emphatically “That is not possible for me God! I can’t just want to love you more than all that, it isn’t simply choosing to love. I have to really love You that much to obey that commandment!”

It would be misleading to say God answered me. More accurately, I believe He gave me a revelation that would change my understanding. I suddenly understood it as if He had said out loud to me: “John, every person and everything you just listed are gifts that I have given to you in your life. You love my gifts, can you not love Me, the One who gave you every good thing?” That was eye-opening for me. God had given me everything I had ever loved, ever cherished, throughout my entire life. And yet, here I was asking Him how I could love Him more than those people, those things. He had given me those things out of love for me. I was very appreciative of the gifts. But I had been missing the opportunity to love the Giver.

Cindy and I would see many evidences of God in our lives. We would be told that the forgiveness we had shown after Brian’s accident would be a blessing to others, and had even been shared by missionaries on trips to other countries. Cindy would tell the murderer of her brother to his face “I forgive you, I forgive you…” He would break down in tears as she said these words.  He would also go to prison for many years.  Perhaps her words would lead him one day to seek to know God, to surrender his life to the One who actually was in control of it?  We would see God working, bringing good out of the loss of our son, out of the loss of her brother. Yet the pain was also real, and the healing took a long time.

My belief is that we take so much for granted in this life and our love for God is far too shallow. We have expectations that things will go well, especially if we think we are being “good people”. We have simplistic views on the things that really matter, such as where we will spend eternity and the purpose of our very existence. We must remember that God causes all things to work for good – “to those who love God.”

Can we not cry out to God to help us out of the depths of His love?

“Lord, help me first to love You in a more profound way!”

“Open the eyes of my heart Lord!”

“Help me to see beyond the material world and the daily grind of activities and chores, so that I can see You at work in my life and the lives of others.”

“Help me to understand the depth of Your love, a love that would cause You to sacrifice Your Son to save a sinner like me.”

“Help me to love others, to extend Your love to them, and to not be focused on myself.”

“But most of all Lord, thank You! Thank you for loving me and for all the gifts you have given to me throughout my entire life. I am eternally grateful.”

My encouragement to you is that, no matter what has happened in your life prior to now, you are free to choose to follow after Jesus Christ at this very moment. Humble yourself, recognizing that you really aren’t in control of much in this life. But you can make choices! You have the freedom even in the midst of the most hostile countries in the world to choose to believe in Jesus, that He is the Son of God who came to take away the sins of the world. My sins. Your sins. You can believe that He rose from the grave after three days and sits at the right hand of God. You are free to turn from sinful ways and follow Him, trusting Him with your very soul.

Blessings in Christ,

Photograph by John J O’Leary

Turning Back in the Day of Battle

When the going gets really tough, will we be able to stand or will we flee?

When the going gets really tough, will we be able to stand or will we flee?

One of the most influential pastors in my life over the last four years has been a man who preached in the 1800s in England. When I get to heaven, I will thank him. But today I thank God for him and how He graced the pastor with tremendous wisdom and a heart yearning for God.

His name is Charles Haddon Spurgeon. You can read every one of his sermons (that would take a very long time) at “The Spurgeon Center”. The link is https://www.spurgeon.org. He is referred to as “The Prince of Preachers” and there is no question that he followed Christ devoutly. I highly recommend him to you.

Four years ago I read one of his sermons titled “Turning Back in the Day of Battle” –https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/spurgeoncharles/sermons/0696.cfm

This particular sermon caused me to take a very hard look at my life. I could see where I turned back and did not stand firm. That is the title I’ve borrowed for this article and I hope Spurgeon doesn’t mind.

Before I speak about large battles, let me talk about small ones. We face small battles every day in which we can choose to act like Christ – or not. For example, you are driving down the highway at 70 miles an hour and a car almost runs into you. You swerve out of the way and notice they are texting at the wheel. Do you curse, letting your anger and frustration show? That would be the natural reaction. Been there, done that. It’s not easy controlling our emotions when we see people doing foolish, dangerous things that endanger other’s lives, especially our own. If you have your children in the car with you that makes it doubly hard. Yet, every time we have patience and act like Christ, we are allowing Him to work in our lives. We deny our self and are transformed into His likeness, in just a small way.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he wrote:

And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
– Romans 12:2

My personal belief is that God weaves lots of little battles in our lives to prepare us for the larger ones to come.

What are the bigger battles? Here are some examples:

  • You get fired from your job unfairly
  • You lose someone you love
  • Your spouse asks for a divorce or you decide the marriage is dead and ask them for a divorce
  • Someone tells you that believing in God is believing in a fairy tale
  • Someone at work dishonors your company and you are left to deal with the aftermath
  • The love your life cheats with your best friend
  • The doctor comes back into the room frowning at your x-ray

If we habitually allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, and we stand for our beliefs on a day by day basis, it transforms us and strengthens us.

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
~ Romans 5:3-5

Spurgeon’s sermon, based on Psalm 78:9, centered around a group of men that were armed and carrying bows. Sounds like a formidable group and one that I might want at my back in a time of trouble. But the scripture tells us that they turned their backs, away from the battle. And it is very possible that they were armed and equipped with bows to protect the ark of the covenant! In regards to turning away from the battle, Spurgeon states “This, I am sorry to say, is not an unusual thing amongst professing Christians.”

Spurgeon goes on to look at all aspects of the encounter and raises some astonishing points about it that can directly apply to us in this day and age. He talks about bravery, especially about how brave some men act when the battle has not yet started, or when on holidays when the trumpets were sounding and all around are acting patriotic and proud.

We each have a purpose in God’s plan. Can we stand for Him, or will we be like Peter, his disciple, and say “I do not know Him!”?

Here is an excellent passage from Spurgeon’s sermon which seems to me to be relevant to any who want to make a difference:

“The soldier wants to distinguish himself; he wants to rise out of the ranks; he wants to be promoted. He hardly expects an opportunity of doing this in time of peace, but the officer rises when in time of war he leads a successful charge. And so it is with the Christian soldier. I make no advance while I am not fighting. I cannot win if I am not warring. My only opportunity for conquering is when I am fighting. If I run away when there is a chance of winning the crown, then I am like the ship that does not come out of harbor when there is a fair wind, or like the man who does not avail himself of the high tide to get his vessel over the bar at the harbor’s mouth. I cannot win without fighting, and therefore I thank God when the trial comes, and count it a joy when I fall into manifold temptations, because now I may add to my faith one virtue after another, till my Christian character is all complete. To throw away the time of conflict is to throw away the crown. Oh, simple heart! Oh, silly heart! to be afraid of suffering for Jesus! “

We should not be deceived by the pastors who preach the “Prosperity Gospel” such as Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, and Joel Osteen. They are achieving their own prosperity by deceiving others in the name of Christ into giving them money. They will tell you that God’s plan is to make you rich and that you will have perfect health if only you do certain things (like giving them money). This life isn’t a bed of roses and you can’t “Name it and claim it!” as these people claim. There is a battle going on all around us each and every day.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. ~ Ephesians 6:12

Going into battle isn’t comfortable. Recognizing that following Jesus Christ requires each of us to be willing to suffer isn’t comforting. What did Christ say about it?

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”
~ Matthew 16:24-25

Let me close with a strong word of encouragement. I’ve never felt more joy in my life than when I’ve followed Christ. Let me encourage you to take a stand for God and not to turn back in the day of battle!

Photograph by John J O’Leary

Draw Near to God

Do you want to be close to God, or far away from Him?

Do you want to be close to God, or far away from Him? That’s an amazing question to ask, as some would wonder who could possibly want to be far from God? After all, God is good and why would we not want to be as close as possible to the Creator of the universe? Yet God, in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, told a parable that tells of a man deliberately walking away from his father. The parable is to help us understand ourselves, the nature of God and His relationship with us.

It is one of the most popular stories in the New Testament – the story of “The Prodigal Son”. You can find it in your Bible in the gospel of Luke, starting at Luke 15:11. The words are written in red, as these were the words of Jesus Christ. Let me paraphrase the story for the sake of brevity.

The younger of two sons comes to his father, asking for his share of his father’s estate and his father gives it to him. The young man proceeds on a journey to a distant country in which he squanders all the money. Then a famine hits the land and he becomes destitute. So he finds a job feeding swine. His hunger makes him realize the swine are eating better than he is, and his thoughts wander to home.

He decides to swallow his pride and go home, planning to apologize and ask his father if he can work for him. One of the key verses notes that “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” His father had not given up on him and was ever watching the horizon for his son’s return.

Instead of chastising his son for squandering his inheritance, the father puts his best robe on him and declares a celebration is in order. When the older, faithful brother is outraged at this treatment, the father said to him “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”

Remembering that Jesus is telling this parable to explain the nature of God, aren’t you glad that God has compassion and rejoices when we come back to Him? We are given all the good things in our life by God – every one of them. Yet, rather than be thankful and draw near to Him, seeking opportunities to repay Him for our gifts, we turn our backs and walk away.

I’ve walked away from God. It wasn’t a quick decision, but a drifting away over the years. It is fairly obvious that if you look at yourself, you aren’t looking at God. When things get really rough in this life, it is the very time that we should be drawing near to God. Yet we can start feeling sorry for ourselves and question the reality of God.

There is a saying that I like a lot: “You can give up on God, but He doesn’t give up on you.” As in the story of the prodigal son, God keeps watching the horizon. He is waiting for us to realize that this world is full of things that appeal to us, but they are things that will leave us empty and unfulfilled. We will come to a place where we hunger and thirst for His righteousness.

Another point on the story is that the father didn’t say “No!” to his son. Even though he knew his son was making a horrible mistake, he gave him the money and let him go. God treats us in the same manner. He has given us the free choice to rebel and to turn away from Him, knowing all the while that the lessons we will learn will be for our own good in the long run.

When I reached the place in my life where I wanted to return to God, it wasn’t because I was destitute. In fact, I was doing the very things I had dreamed of doing for many years. Kayaking, fishing, wildlife photography, the ocean. All the time. Every day. Sounds great to any man that loves the outdoors. It is just that those earthly things left me spiritually empty.

“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.”
~ Colossians 3:2

Venice, Florida, is on the gulf coast, south of Sarasota and north of Ft. Meyers. Beautiful beaches. Great fishing. Amazing wildlife photography areas, especially for birds. And a small Christian church, with a guest pastor whose sermon the day I walked in, was on James 4:8: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” It became my prayer. “Lord, I draw near to You so that You will draw near to me.” The prodigal son had returned. He met me with open arms. And He will do that for you, should you drift away.

Photograph by John J O’Leary

What if? Avoiding the Trap of Guilt

How do we respond when tragedy strikes a member of our family?

How do we respond when tragedy strikes a member of our family?  

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists attacked Americans with our own commercial airplanes. They were part of al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. The result? The deaths of 2,996 innocent people with about 6,000 others injured. The terrorists also died that day and ultimately Osama bin Laden would be killed in retribution. There were huge financial damages and the event would change security procedures for planes and airports around the world. The families of 2,996 Americans mourned for their lost loved ones and they miss them still today.

The 9/11 Disaster, as it would be called, had other results. We would see the incredible bravery and selflessness of the first responders. We would see an American flag being raised by a group of them at Ground Zero later that day, thanks to a photograph by Thomas E. Franklin. We would hear of the passengers of Flight 93 attempting to subdue the terrorists on their flight and of one, Todd Beamer, saying “Let’s roll.”

On Sunday, four days after the attack, churches across America were full. It was a wake-up call to many people, realizing that they could die while sitting in an airplane or sitting at their desk at work. My family of five attended Scottsdale Bible Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. The church was so full there were many in the lobby standing during the service. The Senior Pastor at the time was Darryl DelHousaye. He stood in front of a congregation of people shocked at what had occurred that week. Although I don’t recall his sermon after so many years, I do recall one statement he made. In his confident manner, with faith in God a cornerstone of his life, he stated the following:

“Many of you today are no doubt concerned about getting on an airplane any time soon. That’s understandable. I get that. But we know from God’s word in the Bible that our days are numbered and that God is in control. So if tomorrow is your day and you decide not to get on an airplane, you are just going to get hit by a bus.”

It was the humor we all needed and the congregation collectively laughed along with Darryl. Yet there was wisdom in what the Pastor had stated and I’ve told this story to many grieving people over the years. Why? Because when we lose a loved one we start looking to cast blame or guilt, and that often means we end up blaming ourselves and asking the dreaded “What if?” question.

Here are a few examples:

  • “What if we had taken her to a different doctor? She still might be alive today.”
  • “What if I had insisted he stay home from working at the World Trade Center that day? He wasn’t feeling well and I should have convinced him.”
  • “What if we wouldn’t have argued that night, would he still have committed suicide?”
  • “What if we didn’t allow our son to have a motorcycle? We should have told him more often to be aware of the potential for someone to pull out in front of him when he was on his bike?”

The last question was ours. Of course, we questioned whether we were to blame. It is normal. But it is also painful when we start blaming ourselves. Having heard that a relative made a comment that ‘they should never have allowed their son to buy a motorcycle’ didn’t bring any comfort to us in our grief. However, we saw multiple pieces of evidence of the Lord’s hand in the days leading up to his death and afterward. We believe that the Lord called Brian to his home with Him and that there was nothing we could have done to extend his life one day further. And we know that he was doing the one thing he enjoyed most in life, riding his motorcycle.

What does the word of God teach about this?

“Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.”
~ Psalms 139:16

The Bible tells us that our days are ordained by God even before we are born. We encourage you not to blame yourself if you have lost a loved one. Even if there was something you believe you could have done that would have directly saved their life, recognize that God is the one who is actually in control and not you. He will bring you or your loved one home to Him when He pleases. He is God. He has that right. Yes, it hurts to lose someone out of our life. A lot. Losing a child, a spouse, a sibling, a loved relative is one of the hardest things you will endure. But God’s grace is sufficient to carry us through. We know that. He has done that for us.

“Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will just have changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
~ Billy Graham.

Gifts From God

We are both taking for granted things that others can only dream of…

As I write this, and as you read this, we are both taking for granted things that others can only dream of. It is not material possessions that I refer to. How many things, for example, are in my possession simply allowing me to write my thoughts down and my words to reach you? Just a short list would have to include the following:

  • Language skills
  • The ability to type/write
  • Hands
  • Eyesight
  • Access to the Internet
  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Religion

How often do we pause to consider how truly blessed we are? Using the word “blessed” implies that I have been given something. Think on each item in my short list above. Did I create any of those? Did I choose to be born and raised by a family living in the United States with the financial ability to provide me with an education? Did I fight for the right to freely express my opinion?

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I believe that every good thing I have now, or have ever had in my entire life, has been a gift from God. Even if I “earned” things, my very ability to earn them was due to prior gifts from God. Is that biblical?

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

~ James 1:17

How thankful should I be? A loving wife, three children, parents who loved me all their lives, a caring sister, friends, church, good health, an amazing dog named Baxter, on and on and on. I could literally go on for hours. But so could you!

How long is your list of things to be thankful for? Your life may be extremely difficult. You may have cancer. Your parents may have been cruel to you. Your spouse may have passed away recently. You may live in a country ruled by a dictator with oppression all around you. Yet, can you not still be thankful for many, many things?

Here is a thought to ponder: If you only would have things in your life tomorrow that you thanked God for today, what things would you start thanking Him for right now? I’ll pause here and give you the rest of the day to put your list together.

May God bless you richly! May we all recognize the many gifts we have been given and be thankful.

Your comments and thoughts would be welcome and we thank you for them in advance.

Photograph by John J O’Leary

Thirst No More

God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. ~ John 4:24

“We live in a country divided.” Does that make you think of political ideologies? That would be a normal reaction. Or perhaps you are thinking of racial divisions – the color of our skin or ethnicity. That is unfortunately often true as well. “We live in a world divided.” Broadening the statement, has your viewpoint about the division shifted?

My subject here is actually not a division you can see. But then you can’t see ideological division either. It is only judged by what one says and does, and even that is subjective to the viewer and will change over time. Yet the division I am writing about is the division between the spiritual world and the material world. This division is probably not one most people think of in regards to our country or our world being divided. Yet there are vast numbers of people that deny there is even such a thing as a spiritual world. They may be living with you in your home. They are certainly living in your neighborhood, your state, your country and throughout the entire world. To them, for example, there can be no God, unless they want to perhaps deify a man such as Julius Caesar or a sports star. To them, if it can’t be seen, or felt, or measured, or explained in some material way, it must be a fantasy and thus should be scoffed at or even condemned.

Why then are we not all so disposed to scoff at the concept of a spiritual world? Why do billions of people believe so devoutly that a spiritual world exists?

Consider this scripture from the New Testament in the Bible:

“God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”
~ John 4:24

Jesus uttered those words as he was speaking to a woman of Samaria who had come to a well to draw water. She sought the material. The Son of God stood there waiting to offer her something far more valuable. She couldn’t recognize that fact.

Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
~ John 4:13

She must have smirked at those words from this stranger at the well. Perhaps she thought he might be a magician and thus she asked for some of this magical water, so she would never thirst again or have to walk all the way to this well to draw water. It was quite a ways to walk and her feet were sore and, well, you get the picture. She could not see, nor comprehend, that the man she was talking with was God in the flesh. Would I have known? Would you?

Ask yourself the hard question. Do you believe that all there is in this world is what you can see, taste, smell or measure? Are angels just wild fantasies of deluded men? Is God just a crutch that weak men have created to give themselves hope in a better future, an eternal life, a reason for existence? Do you believe that we are all just evolved pond scum of some sort that was born in primordial seas by lighting, meteors and millions of years of random chance? Give pond scum enough time I suppose, and it will be able to create symphonies or fly to Mars.

There are a lot of decisions we really don’t need to make in life. Such as which team to root for in a football game. But what if you decide there is no spiritual world and you are wrong? Doesn’t this seem like a decision you need to reach at some point in your life? Hopefully, before you pass from this material world into the, um, spiritual world…

My wife and I believe in Jesus Christ. We believe he is the Son of God and that he died on a cross 2,000 years ago. We believe due to many reasons. You will hear about many of those in future posts on “The Weaver’s Hand.”

Photograph by John J O’Leary

A Bittersweet Joy

Yet amazingly, we were feeling joy in the midst of our greatest sadness.

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.
~1 Corinthians 13:12

The famed writer Rudyard Kipling wrote a deeply touching story of only six pages entitled “The Gift of the Magi.” Published in 1905, it tells of a young couple’s love for each other and, most significantly, their willingness to sacrifice their most prized possessions due to that love. For they each wanted to purchase a Christmas gift for the other in secret, but they had no money to do so.

We will post a link below for you to read this story, but first a bit about why we are doing so. In early December of 2003, we lost our eighteen-year-old son Brian in an accident. The funeral was held five days later. During those five days, we had dozens of Brian’s friends share their stories of what Brian’s life had meant to them. These stories, and the emotion behind them, brought us both joy and sadness.

During the middle of the night after the funeral which had been held in the afternoon, Cindy and I were awake in bed. I believe it was around 3:00 am. We were talking and there were many tears. Yet amazingly, we were feeling joy in the midst of our greatest sadness. We know this was God’s loving hand and His Holy Spirit giving us comfort. It was at that moment when the little story of “The Gift of the Magi” came to my mind.

After remembering the story, I explained to Cindy that I felt bittersweet joy and sadness at the very same time, mixed together and flooding through me. I reminded her of Kipling’s story. Then, I explained that there was a strong correlation between what I was feeling and what the young couple must have felt. “Imagine,’ I said, ‘when they saw the gift that the other had sacrificed so very much in order to give them!”

We would encourage you to read the story as it is quite short. We believe that Kipling was able to tell stories with such powerful emotion due to the intense highs and lows of his own life, some of which is explained below.

About Rudyard Kipling

Perhaps, in this day and age, Kipling is better known for having written children’s books such as “The Jungle Books”. As this is being written, “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle” is playing in movie theaters across America and it is based on his stories. He wrote the famous book “Kim” in 1901. He would win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907, at the age of 42. However, he also suffered great personal loss.

In 1899, on a trip to the United States, both he and his daughter Josephine developed pneumonia. It would take his daughter’s life. During World War I, his son John was killed at the age of 18. Kipling was devastated by both losses and felt personal guilt at having helped his son get accepted into the Irish Guard through personal connections.

Read “The Gift of the Magi” by Rudyard Kipling

Photograph by John J O’Leary