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One night recently, my wife Diana and I returned from a long trip and took the Flyaway bus from the LAX airport to our home in one of Los Angeles’ suburbs. The bus was about a third full when we boarded, but quickly filled up as additional passengers came on at other stops around the airport.

I soon became aware of the conversation between a man and a young woman in the seats across from ours. Since the aisle was very narrow and the man was less than three feet away from me, I could follow snatches of their conversation, even though they were speaking softly. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, with an East European accent, she in her late teens or early twenties.Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 7.26.03 PM

At first the conversation reflected that of two people meeting for the first time, he asking her questions about where she was from, her reason for coming to Los Angeles, her name, family life, likes and dislikes. She was from South America, visiting the USA for the first time, traveling alone, and contemplating attending college here.

He complemented her on her beauty, said that he was a photographer who had been responsible for giving many models and actresses their start in Hollywood, showed her his iPad photo portfolio of glamorous young women, and started pitching her on how he could do the same for her.

I glanced across at them and saw how smoothly and charmingly he was making his pitch, and how innocently and engrossed she was in what he was offering.

I suddenly became very concerned for her.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 8.11.37 PMOver the years there had been many criminal cases of girls and young women coming to Los Angeles to seek their fame and fortune, only to vanish, be murdered, drugged, enslaved, and forced into prostitution here or abroad by sex traffickers. Many of them were met and befriended at train and bus terminals or at airports by smooth-talking men who convincingly weaved their webs of promises and visions of glamor, only to entrap and ultimately destroy them.

Was he one of those men? Was she one of those gullible young women? Had he targeted her as a lone traveler outside the airport? Why had he chosen to sit down beside her when there were so many empty seats when he came on the bus? Were those photos on his iPad legitimate photos that he had taken of real women, or were they copied from websites and magazines and used as his own to ensnare women?

Were my questions and concerns baseless, just wild imaginings from my jet-lagged mind? Or were they promptings from the Holy Spirit who gives us the gift of discernment and leads us into all truth? (1 Cor. 12:8-11; John 16:13)

I shared my concern with Diana, and together we kept watch through the remainder of the bus ride. Our concern grew when we saw them exchange cell phone numbers.

When we were about five minutes from the bus terminal, the bus driver announced over the intercom that passengers needed to have their bus tickets ready in order to pick up their suitcases and exit the terminal. If they didn’t have a ticket, they could use their credit cards to buy one at the terminal. Cash would not be accepted.

The young woman exclaimed, “Oh no, I only have cash!”

He assured her, “That’s all right. I’ll pay for you.”

She thanked him, and he went on to offer to give her a ride to anywhere she wanted to go.

Their conversation tapered off soon after that, and I looked over at him and saw something that startled me and deepened my concern even more—his eyes were closed, his head was tilted back against the headrest of his chair, and he sighed deeply and smiled as he gently stroked his chest, as if congratulating himself.

The image was of a man who knew that he was about to reel in his catch, that his prey was undoubtedly about to be snared. He exuded total confidence that he had caught this one.

No longer was I unsure about this man. I believed that he meant to harm her. But what was I to do?

I did not want to leave the bus terminal and leave her with this man, and I didn’t relish the idea of confronting him when we got off the bus to reclaim our luggage, but if I had to, I would. But what would I say? How would he react? No doubt, it would create a scene in front of the other passengers, bus driver, and baggage attendant.

So I prayed. I asked God to surround the young woman with his protection and to keep her from being harmed by this man. I asked God to give me the boldness and the words to intervene when we got off the bus. And I asked God to protect me from harm in what I was about to do.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 9.51.10 PMWhen the bus arrived at the terminal, we all disembarked to wait for the attendant to unload our suitcases from the bus. I was about to approach the man when the young woman saw a friend waving to her from behind the railing. In the friend’s hand was a bus ticket!

The young woman ran to the friend, hugged her, took the ticket, and went back to get her luggage.

I quickly went over to the friend and said, “Excuse me, your friend met a man on the bus, and I couldn’t help overhearing what they were talking about. Please tell her that she should not trust him and should not go anywhere with him. If she does, her life could be in danger. She should have nothing to do with him!”

The friend’s expression was one of surprise when I suddenly approached her, but as my words and urgent tone sank in, her expression brightened and she thanked me profusely.

Just as quickly, I stepped back and returned to Diana who had been watching the man hover around the young woman as she waited for her suitcase. Our luggage was the last to be unloaded from the bus, and by the time Diana and I gave our tickets to the gate attendant and headed for the taxi stand, the young woman and her friend were gone.

The man, however, was frantically trying to get his credit card to work at the automatic teller machine, which seemingly wasn’t cooperating.

During the short taxi ride to our home, I silently praised and thanked God for how quickly he answered my prayer and averted the young traveler from having to go with the man into the night. And I prayed that she would heed the warnings I gave to her friend, especially when the man undoubtedly would try to reach her on her cell phone.

Since then, I’ve continued to pray for God’s protection over her and that she might come to know Jesus Christ as her savior. And I’ve prayed that the man, whatever his intentions that night, would also repent of his sins and follow Christ.

I might never know if her life was in danger that night, but over the years, as I have grown in my faith walk with Christ, I’ve learned to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for sometimes it really can mean the difference between life and death.

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Some years ago when my son, Chris, was around seven years old, I was preparing the charcoal barbecue grill in our backyard when a white-hot coal brisket fell off the grill and onto the ground. Chris was nearby and immediately bent down to pick up the lump of coal with his fingers.

“Stop!” I shouted, “Don’t pick it up!”

But he continued his downward movement and picked up the coal.

There was a one- or two-second delay before he dropped the searing coal and let out an ear-piercing scream as he flailed his hand in an effort to cool his fingers, followed by him sobbing and writhing in agony.

I quickly dipped his hand in the cool water of the swimming pool and had him keep it there until I got him some first aid out of the house and applied it to his palm. After his sobbing subsided, I told him how important it was to obey warning commands immediately, for ignoring those commands could lead to painful accidents or even death.

My words to him were not some simple platitude, for uppermost in my mind was an incident that I experienced when he was a toddler that could have robbed him of a father.

One morning in 1980 I was driving west on Riverside Drive in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley when I stopped for the red traffic light at the intersection with Cahuenga Boulevard. As the lights turned green, I was about to proceed through the intersection when I heard a clear, sharp voice in my head saying, “Stop!”

It was such a strong, startling command that I obeyed instantly and kept my foot on the brake.

Seconds later a car ignored the red light and zoomed through the intersection from my left and continued north, leaving me gasping with the realization that, had I moved into the intersection with the green light, the car would have plowed into the driver side of my little Datsun car and I could have been killed.

So clear and strong was the voice in my head, I was certain that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me in that instant! Had I ignored that voice and that warning, Chris might have
been orphaned that day.

Although I’ve never heard that voice again in that manner, I continue to be conscious of the different ways God speaks to us through his Scripture, through his people, and through our conscience.

And very often, God’s message to us through our conscience is, “Stop!”

Romans 1:18-20 tells us that all people have an inner sense of what God requires, for the truth about God is known to us instinctively.

Our conscience tells us to stop, back away, and even flee when we find ourselves being attracted to some temptation that we know would be enjoyable in the short term but destructive in the long term.

Sometimes we try to shut our ears to the “Stop!” messages of our conscience, and we struggle within ourselves between what we desire and what we know God wants for us.

Sometimes our “Stop!” messages involve our relationships with others, especially if we are considering a marriage or business partnership. 2 Corinthians 6:14 tells us, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” As Christians we should not team up with unbelievers in partnerships because it might weaken our Christian commitment, standards, and integrity, and it could prove disastrous.

And sometimes God uses our family, our friends, and our church brothers and sisters to tell us, “Stop!” Stop traveling the path we might be on…the drugs…the drinking…the pornography…the unhealthy eating habit…the violence…the overworking…the out-of-control spending…the idleness…the lying…the promiscuity…the cheating…the gossiping…the hate…the vindictiveness….

A “Stop!” from God is always for our good and in our best interest, and to ignore it is to put ourselves in danger of detrimental consequences. Sometimes the consequence is immediate, sometimes it is long range, and sometimes it is eternal.

Nowhere is this clearer than in our relationship with God. If we have been running away from him, he continues to call to us to stop, repent, and commit our lives to him. If we insist on closing our ears to his voice, eventually we’ll become deaf to his call and our separation from him will be eternal.

That is why the Scripture says of God,

Today you must listen to his voice.
Don’t harden your hearts against him
as Israel did when they rebelled,
when they tested God’s patience in the wilderness.
(Hebrew 3:7-8, New Living Translation)

Today is the day of salvation.
(2 Corinthians 6:2, NLT)

I’m thankful that I did listen to his voice that day in Toluca Lake, for Chris, who is about to turn 32, is a constant reminder of how different life could have been for us had I ignored that “Stop!”

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Chris, at age 8

Chris and me recently

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It was 5 a.m. and dark outside when I left home for my daily walk one morning. It was cold and windy, but I was clothed warmly for the five-mile trek along a route that included a steep stretch of road into the hills above our neighborhood of Granada Hills, one of the towns in the San Fernando Valley, just outside Los Angeles.

I was eager to walk that morning, for I was deeply troubled about my life and needed to work off a lot of pent-up frustration. But even more importantly, I needed the time of solitude and privacy along those deserted and darkened roads to pray and seek God’s help and direction.

As I walked I poured out my frustrations to God. I told him how burdened and beaten down I felt, and how I had lost the passion, dream, and direction for my life.

Then somewhere along the walk, amidst my tears, weariness, self-pity, and complaints, the Lord reminded me of some verses from Isaiah 40, the words seemingly rushing back into my consciousness with each step that I took:

Why do you say, O Jacob,
And speak, O Israel:
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
And my just claim is passed over by my God”?
Have you not known?
Have you not heard?
The everlasting God, the Lord,
The Creator of the ends of the earth,
Neither faints nor is weary.
His understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the weak,
And to those who have no might He increases strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall fall exhausted,
But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint.
(Isaiah 40:27-31, New King James Version—NKJV)

I mulled those words over in my mind, especially, “But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

A scene from the past flashed in my mind, one that I had seen many times from our church which sits atop one of the ridges of the Santa Monica Mountains, overlooking the San Fernando Valley.

It was a scene of a high-flying bird—sometimes an eagle, sometimes a hawk—hovering or slowly gliding majestically above the slopes. Its wings would always be spread wide, almost motionless, as it circled above unhurriedly under the California sun, as if waiting patiently for something. Inevitably it would connect with that something—an unseen thermal draft—its outstretched wings catching the full force of the swift-rising column of hot air that would send it soaring effortlessly to greater heights with hardly a flap of its wings and no wasted energy.

As I walked up the steep hill in the dark that morning, I closed my eyes, spread out my arms eagle-like, and tried to imagine what it would be like to wait for those thermal drafts and soar like an eagle. The cold wind blew steadily on my face, chest, and outstretched arms, and I began to feel as if I were being lifted gently off the ground and borne aloft by the wind.

Though my feet continued to pound the ground in a steady walk up the hill, my imagination took me to another realm where I seemingly experienced the sensation of flying like an eagle high above the San Fernando Valley, with the city lights shimmering and sparkling below and the dawn’s faint light gently washing the eastern sky. I felt as if I were hovering in the wind, gliding, waiting, and then soaring as a thermal draft swept me upwards and effortlessly to higher levels of flight above the valley.

The sensation of flight was wonderful and thrilling, sending shivers through my body. But an even deeper sensation followed—an overwhelming sense of God’s presence and a feeling of total well-being. This was God’s touch of grace, his moment of blessing for one who was poor in spirit, and one who mourned (Matthew 5:3-4).

Later that day and in the following days as I thought about that transcendent experience, God communicated clearly and profoundly through various scripture passages how to reinvigorate our lives as Christian believers:

· Never give up and quit.

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed or broken. We are perplexed, but we don’t give up and quit. We are hunted down, but God never abandons us. We get knocked down, but we get up again and keep going. (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, New Living Translation—NLT)

· Wait patiently for God and he will restore our flagging strength and spirit.

Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act. (Psalm 37:7, NLT)

I waited patiently for the Lord to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along. He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be astounded. They will put their trust in the Lord. (Psalm 40:1-3, NLT)

· Trust God completely to do what he promises in his Word.

…those who trust the Lord will possess the land. (Psalm 37:9b, NLT)

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those who are crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18, NLT)

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and in his good time he will honor you. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about what happens to you. (I Peter 5:6-7, NLT)

· Rest quietly in him.

The Sovereign Lord, the Holy One of Israel, says, “Only in returning to me and waiting for me will you be saved. In quietness and confidence is your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15, NLT)

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, NLT)

· The Holy Spirit’s presence and will are to us what the thermal air currents are to the eagle or hawk.

But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31, NKJV)

I take joy in doing your will, my God, for your law is written on my heart. (Psalm 40:8, NLT)

Always be joyful. Keep praying. No matter what happens, always be thankful, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. Do not stifle the Holy Spirit.
(1 Thessalonians 5:16-19, NLT)

I’ve never been able to recapture that sensation of flying, but the lessons learned through that experience and those scripture passages have stayed with me, especially whenever I see one of those majestic creatures soaring over the slopes of our San Fernando Valley.

****

Prayer: Dear heavenly Father, sometimes we find ourselves tired, discouraged, and utterly burnt out on life. Thank you for assuring us through your holy Word that if we wait patiently on you and seek your guidance, you will renew our strength, reinvigorate our flagging spirits, restore us to our rightful minds, and empower us to soar to greater heights of living and serving. Teach us to wait patiently, for it is in quiet waiting that we experience you in your fullness and transforming power. Amen.

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She dropped in midway through our church’s 12-week workshop, “EXPERIENCING GOD: Knowing and Doing the Will of God,” and sat beside me at our table.  She had never been to our church before and had been invited to the workshop by one of our members to learn about the will of God.

But we were not far into that evening’s session when our visitor became agitated and began to mutter in disagreement with what was being said about Terry, one of our congregation’s outstanding Bible teachers and leaders, who had died the week before at the age of 57, less than four months after doctors discovered that he had a brain tumor.

Terry had been very successful in business, including the founding and operating of a very profitable sportswear company.  He lived an affluent life and was a highly respected and effective Bible teacher and leader at our church.

But in the 1990s, Terry suffered financial setbacks and lost his business.  For several years he was unable to find work and eventually lost his beautiful home.  Throughout his years of financial setbacks and ordeals, Terry continued to witness and teach about God’s faithfulness, love, and amazing grace – even after his brain tumor was discovered in July 2000, and even after he knew that he was going to die.  Despite our fervent prayers for Terry’s healing, he died within months, leaving behind a wife and two young children.

This discussion disturbed our visitor.  She had become a Christian nearly two years before, with the expectation that not only would Christ save her soul but that he would bless her abundantly in all aspects of life – including her finances, love life, health, and with long life.

When we started to discuss the possibility that the premature death – and not the healing of Terry – might have been God’s will, she became so disturbed that she got up from the table and left the workshop.

As I watched her leave, I suddenly thought of the words and tune of a 1970s pop song by Joe South:

I beg your pardon,
I never promised you a rose garden,
Along with the sunshine
There’s gotta be a little rain sometime.

Our visitor expected her new faith in Jesus to be the key to life’s rose garden, but she was unwilling to accept the possibility that along with the beauty of roses could come thorns, storms, droughts, setbacks, failures, and things that kill.

She had apparently embraced the “prosperity gospel” brand of Christianity but couldn’t handle the reality that “s – – t happens” to even those who follow Christ.

And even more significant, she freaked out at the idea that God would allow such things to happen to his followers!

So she ran.

As we begin 2011 and look forward to the coming months, we naturally hope and pray that it will be a great year in which we’ll enjoy the good things of life – health, financial stability and success, happiness, pleasure, and loving relationships, all part of achieving the desires of our heart.

But what if bad things were to intrude into our carefully planned lives?  How do we, as Christians, deal with life in crisis?

There are several principles in Romans 8 that our brother Paul lays out to help us face life’s difficulties:

First, remember who we are and to whom we belong.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. For the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you through Christ Jesus from the power of sin that leads to death. (vv. 1, 2; these and the following verses quoted are from the New Living Translation)

The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you.  And just as he raised Christ from the dead, he will give life to your mortal body by the same Spirit living within you. (v. 11)

So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family – calling him “father, dear Father.” For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children. (vv. 15, 16)

Second, we share God’s glorious treasures – as well as his suffering.

And since we are his children, we will share his treasures – for everything God gives to his Son, Christ, is ours, too. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will give us later. (vv. 17, 18)

For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. And even we Christians, although we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, also groan to be released from pain and suffering. (vv. 22, 23a)

Third, the Holy Spirit sustains us and intercedes for us in the midst of our hardships and sufferings.

And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don’t even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. (vv. 26, 27)

Fourth, God works in every circumstance – even the bad ones – for our long-range good and to fulfill his purpose for us.

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. (v. 28)

Fifth, nothing can separate us from God’s love – so live with confidence and joy.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or are hungry or cold or in danger or threatened with death? (Even the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from his love. Death can’t and life can’t. The angels can’t, and the demons can’t. Our fears for today, our worries about tomorrow, and even the powers of hell can’t keep God’s love away. Whether we are high above the sky or in the deepest ocean, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 35-39)

I sometimes think about our visitor who walked away from our workshop that night, and I’ve prayed that she has since come to a deeper understanding of her relationship with God and Jesus Christ.

No, God did not promise her a rose garden, but something far better – himself, with all the richness and fullness of his indwelling presence that enables her to live life powerfully, confidently, and joyfully because of his gift of Jesus Christ.

And he promises that, too, to all of us who believe, trust, and follow Christ.

******

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