Strength in My Weakness – Numbers

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2 Corinthians 12:8-10 – New International Version (NIV)

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:8-10 – Contemporary English Version (CEV)

Three times I begged the Lord to make this suffering go away. But he replied, “My kindness is all you need. My power is strongest when you are weak.” So if Christ keeps giving me his power, I will gladly brag about how weak I am. Yes, I am glad to be weak or insulted or mistreated or to have troubles and sufferings, if it is for Christ. Because when I am weak, I am strong.

I own a thorn. For years, it’s been my secret shame. Honestly, until very recently, its official name was unknown to me. I only thought of it as a small issue unique to me, and pridefully decided to overcome it alone. I didn’t tell my wife or my closest friends. Never even considered addressing the deeper levels of the issue with God. And yet, no matter how hard I try, I can never climb over it. It’s beyond my ability to handle alone.

The apostle Paul knew a thing or two about relying on the Lord for strength, in times of weakness. In his second letter to the Corinthian church, he told the brethren how he continued to face suffering. But God—refusing to remove the source of that suffering from Paul—instead reminded him that His grace was enough to not only sustain Paul, but to give him strength through the suffering. Paul eventually grew to understand and even embrace his human weaknesses, recognizing God’s supernatural strength working through his own human weaknesses. God’s grace was strong enough to carry Paul through his personal obstacles; obstacles he could not conquer on his own.

Christians want to hope God removes every obstacle blocking our paths. But sometimes, God leaves that thing right where it is, giving us no other alternative but to lean on Him for strength in dealing with that thing. It is by His grace that we are able to keep moving forward through some of our most troubling trials. And though He may not remove all sufferings—remember, Jesus promised us we would face trials and sufferings—God walks through those times, carrying us when we cannot walk on our own.

Last week, I took a particular type of test and scored low on the scale. I’m kind of an over-achiever so, under any other circumstances, this would have been a real problem for me. But there was actual comfort in now knowing. In fact, I had peace in discovering it’s an actual thing—my own thorn—and I’ve secretly struggled with it my entire life.

Dyscalculia is akin to dyslexia and I’m pretty sure it’s with me. I have a hard time dealing with and processing numbers. In particular, 6s and 9s tend to flip on me pretty easily. Digits in large numbers sometimes switch places entirely, causing me to constantly double back to make sure they’re correct. Sometimes, I come up with different answers to the same problem, when using a calculator, because I’ve flipped a digit or two someplace, so I constantly have to recheck my math for even the smallest calculations. I can’t remember a time when I scored a perfect 100% on any math test…ever. I took collegiate pre-calculus three times while at Western Michigan University and finally passed with a low grade. Budgets terrify me. Numerical graphs are a nightmare. Number-only charts mock me, because I have a hard time visualizing what they mean. For a really-long time, I simply thought of myself as being numbers-dumb. With that type of shame, I hid my problem from those closest to me…including God, as if He didn’t already know.

But recently, my wife has been by my side to help me out, whether she knows it or not. See, she’s discovering its depths just like I am. And she’s been supportive and patient. For years, I let the enemy convince me that she would look at me differently, if she knew my struggle. But God’s grace is sufficient. And, I understand now that she’s going to be right by my side whenever I need help.

God may not remove this thing from me. Or, maybe He will if I ask him to specifically take it away, by name; now that I know what it is. Either way, I understand where Paul was coming from when he wrote those words in 2 Corinthians. I have comfort knowing my wife supports and believes in me. I have courage knowing that God will be with me when numbers challenge me. His grace is sufficient.

Friends, I’m 46 years old and finally coming to terms with an issue I’ve harbored my entire life. God, in His loving kindness, brought understanding and peace into my situation. Just as important, He made it okay for me to share with others. He turned my weakness into a source of His strength and I have a confidence like never before, because I know those who are most important to me are by my side. I don’t have to be ashamed of my personal struggle anymore. So, be encouraged if you’re facing something monumental. God is greater than anything you may face. You may not ever be able to fully defeat all of your struggles, but God’s grace will supply the strength to push through, when you do not have it on your own.

My Reason

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It’s that time of year again, when we focus on the true reason for the season. During December, arguments are always made by people focusing on the wrong aspects of the Christmas Holiday. I hear things like:

  • I’m not celebrating that Jew.
  • Christmas was really a pagan holiday, you know.
  • Jesus wasn’t even born in December.
  • Christmas is just a man-made holiday to celebrate western commercialism.
  • Easter is the holiday we should really celebrate.

The list can go on forever. I think folks lose sight of what the season is really about. Admittedly, even I am guilty of complaining about how much money my wife spends on presents every year. But then, I remember why we celebrate. When I do, the joy I see in my family on Christmas morning trumps all complaints. We celebrate Jesus, what He did and what He continues to do for us all.

One trait I love about Jesus, is His undying love for the sinful. That’s each and every one of us, by the way. We all sin; we are all sinful by nature. The Bible teaches me that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). It also teaches me the very wages of sin, is death (Romans 6:23). That means from the time I (personally) was born, I deserved death because I could never live up to God’s standard of what holy really means. In spite of my naturally doomed life, the bible teaches me “To all who receive Him, to those who believe in His name, He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). It also teaches me that, “If we confess ours sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Now, someone might ask why I’ve brought all this scripture into this one-sided conversation. Well, let me break down why these particular scriptures are important to me. Here is my reason for the season:

 I am a sinner

Romans 3:23 teaches me I was born to make mistakes worthy of death, in the eyes of my Holy God. I could never be a “Good Man” in His eyes. That’s just the way it is. Adam and Eve ushered sin into a perfect world, essentially damning everyone who would ever be born. I could never do any acts or behave a certain way that would clear my debt to God. It’s like this: I could never naturally change my skin color. I was born a black man. In like fashion, I was born into a sinful world. As such, I’m a sin-filled man by nature.

My sin should have killed me

Romans 6:23 further explains that my sinful nature is worthy of death. Whenever I ogle an attractive woman, who isn’t my wife, I’m committing adultery by God’s standard of perfection. Whenever I wish death on a mass murderer, I’m committing murder in my heart. By God’s standard, He’s the only one qualified to commit a man to death. Since God is extremely serious about His standards, my very life is worthy of death, because everything I do is in violation of His standards. Based on these two scriptures alone, God views me as an outsider, because He’s holy and I am not. Sure, He loves me but, by nature, I have no part of Him.

This is where Jesus comes into play, in my life.

God adopted me, through Jesus

John 1:12 explains to me, that when I received Jesus into my heart, and actually believed in the power of His name—there is actual power in the very name of Jesus, people—I was granted, by God Himself, the privilege of being adopted into His family, as one of His very own children. Think of adoption, as you know it, on a Spiritual scale.

When my close friends—the Estermyers; a white family—adopted tiny brothers Avery and Omari—brothers born of a black family—into their natural family, Avery and Omari, joined Haley, Noah, Wyatt and Mattie as children of Nik and Tosha. They receive the same love and attention because they are now Estermyers, and always will be. These boys will grow up knowing they belong to this loving family of five boys and one girl. On a personal level, I will live out the rest of my days knowing I have been adopted into the family of Jesus, Moses, and Adam! They are my people. Because they are my family, Gd gives me the same love He granted to each of them. I did nothing to deserve it. His love was a free gift, just as Avery and Omari received the free gift of Estermyer love simply by being who they are.

Jesus forgives my sin

1 John 1:19 further explains this to me: now that I’m in the family of Jesus and because I love and trust Him, I can freely confess all of my sins to Him—past and present—and He will not hold them against me. The death I deserved before ever knowing the Lord Jesus? He died in my place, simply because He loved me before I ever knew Him! Because He still loves me, He forgives my sinful nature even as I continue to walk through life. Since my sins are forgiven, I don’t have to live a life of regret and shame, wishing I had not committed some of the acts of my past. I’m not condemned by them anymore. They are forgiven; paid in full!

This is why I celebrate Christmas. I was—and still am—a sinner deserving death, by God’s holy standards. But, because He loved me so much, God sent His son—Jesus—to take the penalty of death in my place. Because Jesus loves me just as much as God does, He forgave all of my past sins, and even forgives the sins of my present. Does that mean I can go on doing the same things that dishonor the Lord? Certainly not! Because I love and respect Him, I try to live a life separate from the things I used to do; things I fully know dishonor the Lord. My walk with Christ isn’t about following a bunch of rules. It’s about loving and trusting in Him because I understand that He has a plan for my life that’s better than anything that I could ever imagine. Because He loved me before I knew Him, He paid the ultimate price—His own life—just to free me from the slavery of damnation. Sometimes I forget what that really means. But, it always comes back to me and the truth is overwhelming. I was made for something greater than I can imagine. And although I fear the physical pain that might be associated with death, I do look forward to spending eternity in the presence of the man responsible for my salvation.

Christmas isn’t just a happy holiday. Christmas is a celebration of Jesus Christ. Never forget that. He is the entire reason for the season. Despite what other faiths may believe, if not for Jesus, the human race might have faced an unimaginably different and terrifying fate. So, don’t lose sight of the holiday. The gifts are nice. The parties are fantastic. The family celebrations are wonderful. But, remember the true family you belong to, as a believer. And even if you’re not a believer, know that Jesus loves you and will battle hell for you.

 

Merry Christmas.

 

Stephen Was Not My Enemy

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Let me tell you a dirty little secret within the humanity of many Christians. The late Dr. Stephen Hawking infuriated scores of believers with his scientific views and theories. For many of us, we find comfort in our faith. Believing whole-heartedly in the one true God who created the universe, through the Lord Jesus Christ, is a blessing for the believer. But place a microphone into the hands (as it were) of a brilliant scientist, give him a platform and let him speak candidly on his mathematical discoveries of how the earth came to be, and you will soon find out just how many Christians still battle against the sin of judgment.

I know because for years, I was one of them. His theories angered me, because (in my mind) they seemed totally bent on proving the nonexistence of God. In hindsight, my problem was not with Dr. Hawking personally. No. My problem was in my own faith. Did I actually believe in the God of the Bible or not; because, if the scriptures were true—make no mistake, they are—then the LORD is eternal, omnipotent and omnipresent. He is the beginning and the end. No one or nothing will ever change or silence Him. If I can truly believe in that fact, then I would have nothing to fear from man who was created by God in the first place. Science will never disprove the existence of God.

Dr. Hawking was gifted with a brilliant mind. Despite his debilitating disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), he used that gift to study gravity and its affects within black holes, among many other things. His scientific discoveries paved the way and opened the door up for new possibilities within the scientific community. Perhaps someday, his theories will reshape the very ways we travel from point “A” to point “B”.

As daunting and sophisticated as his discoveries were, one fact remains: Dr. Hawking was just a man created by God. His brilliance was a gift from God. His theories and discoveries were postulated, calculated and argued through a mind that ultimately was knit together by Yahweh. In reality, he posed no real threat to Christianity. I believe at the core of his heart, Dr. Hawking wanted to better mankind, and used his mind to try to accomplish this.

We Christians need to pray for the family of the late Dr. Stephen Hawking. His children have lost a father. His disdain for religion and God (in particular) is widely known and will be the continued subject of great debate. I once heard a self-proclaimed Christian boisterously spout, “Stephen Hawking was stricken with that disease, because he spit in the face of God”. That’s not the attitude or heart of true believers, friends. Despite his beliefs against God, he was a man gifted with intelligence and a family. His family is now grieving. They could really use our prayers.

My prayer for Dr. Hawking is that, in his final moments, he found and came to be at peace with the Lord.

Yesterday, Now

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Every once in awhile, I get the chance to see a glimpse of my past through the eyes of someone else. Sometimes, I receive messages from longtime friends and past acquaintances who remind me of times gone by-some good; some bad. I tend to throw the bad memories into my mental box labeled, “Don’t Ever Open Again”. But the good memories give me hope. They let me know that I wasn’t a total schmuck before God saved me.

Today was one of those good-memory days.

When I was a freshman in college, at Western Michigan University, I developed some pretty awesome relationships with friends of different backgrounds. In fact, some of those relationships still remain today. Doug, Dante, Al, D-Pounce, Jeff and Reddick took me into their little group of King High School/ Flintstone bandits as if I had always belonged. A band of brothers. And then there was my crazy, naive and genuinely good-hearted suitemate: Andy.

Andy was hilarious. He was the kind of white guy who obviously came from a town where black folks were either absent or shunned, but Andy didn’t allow fear of the unknown to stunt his growth. No sir. This guy used his natural curiosity to befriend us and learn about our culture. I can remember our talks as if they happened yesterday.

Andy would ask questions with a look of childlike wonderment in his eyes. He never once offended me with his open and honest questions. Rather, I actually saw him as someone who wanted to learn who I was; not just Ennis Smith from Ecorse, Michigan, but Ennis Smith-the black man, from Ecorse, Michigan.

Andy asked about my background. He asked why the black race seemed to be portrayed in a negative light through the media of the day. He wanted to know thoughts on our choices in dating. He wanted to know what it was to be as close to “black” as he could possibly get.

Now, I remember a few of my friends blowing over his questions and curiosities as foolishness, maybe even stupidity. But, I saw what they didn’t see. He was just a guy who didn’t look like us, but who actually wanted to understand our culture. Andy was about as non-racist as you can get. He was my friend, and we had good laughs and great conversation.

I was 18 when we met. Somewhere between 19 and 21 – I honestly don’t remember, because the alcohol changed me – I lost touch with my friend. Today, I got an unexpected and pleasant surprise via Twitter. My old friend had tracked me down. Imagine my surprise in finding out that he was not only a fellow writer, but a writer who regularly takes on the subject of race and relationships as an anti-racism activist!

Andy wrote a post in which he referred back to one of our many conversations on race. It completely blew my mind that our talks would have such a lasting impact on someone! For some reason, he felt the need to apologize for any uncompassionate (my words, not his) things he made have said. But, in all honesty, I remember that one particular conversation being awesome.

And there it is folks: God’s work transcending time. Even before I was straight with the Lord, he was working on a friend,and I, refining us both; shaping us into the people we would someday become. I wonder if my friend would be proud of the man I’ve become today? I sure am proud of what he’s doing with his life, using his voice, spoken and written, to attack one of Satan’s greatest tools: racism. I am 42 today. And it would seem that my Lord saw fit to bring my old friend back into my life. My yesterday took a pause, and decided to pick up again, now.

Be kind to one another, friends. You never know when something you might say or do might change the course of another’s life. You can never tell if your actions might speak life into a relationship, or strife between two people.

Incoming!

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“I don’t want to leave. I happen to like it here. She’s so easy to manipulate. I barely have to lift a finger of suggestion because she’s so enamored with my promises. All I have to do is hint at the idea of self gratification, and her heart does the rest. It was so easy to bring her to this point.”
Sin peered through the transparent spiritual veil, as he gloatingly spoke at Grace. For years now, he maintained an unchallenged hold over Jordyn’s life. How delicious it was to see this woman time and again chase after the insignificant wants and desires of the world, only to fall deeper into Sin’s hands. Just thinking about the end result of Jordyn’s life, made Sin erupt in boisterous laughter. He composed himself long enough to glance a red eye toward Grace, sitting quietly beside him.
A content and quaint smile peaked at the corners of Grace’s lips. That subtle smile signified a knowing; the type of knowing Sin might not be too happy with. As the red demon considered this point, he turned toward the little angel and huffed. Tendrils of red smoke exhaled through the demon’s nostrils.
“By the way, little-Grace, what brings you to my neck of the ethereal plane anyway? You didn’t come over here to bask in my conquest of another lost soul, so what news do you bring from your father now? Other than informing me of my impending departure, which was quite hilarious I might add, what real message do you have for me?” Sin chided.
Grace seemed lost in his own thoughts as he stared through the spiritual veil. He watched as Jordyn rifled through the bathroom medicine cabinet, and settled her hand around a bottle of prescription pills. She wrestled the cap open then dumped the entire contents of the bottle into her free hand. Pills spilled across the floor.
“Not long now,” Grace whispered. “Almost time.  Sin…I want you to watch this carefully. See the fruits of your labor, savor the moment while you can.”
Sin sneered at the little angel. He huffed plumes of smoke defiantly at Grace, as they both watched Jordyn swallow one pill, and then another.
“HA! I’m watching alright, you little goody-two-shoes! You see that? She’s mine! The time has come for her to die. I plan on claiming her soul momentarily,” Sin pronounced as he glowered at Grace.
Grace simply turned a sympathetic look toward the demon. The knowing smile evolved into a broad grin across his angelic face.
“I’m here to celebrate your outgoing reign over Jordyn’s life, Sin. You see, the time has come; my father has granted me clemency rights over this woman. This is as far as you will take her.”
The angel’s warm smile infuriated the demon. As Sin screamed curses at the angel, tongues of red flame licked at Grace’s wing-tips.  Still, the little angel smiled.
“Goodbye, Sin.  We will cross paths again,” Grace said.
“I’m not going anywhere, you little–” Sin bellowed, but his tirade was cut short at the sound of Jordyn’s words.
As he turned his head disbelievingly toward the spiritual veil, Jordyn dropped to her knees, onto the cold bathroom floor. He watched the young woman clasp her hands together.
“No!” he screamed.
“Jesus…I can’t do this anymore,” Jordyn pleaded through streaming tears. “Please help me! I’m in trouble, and I don’t know where else to go. GOD please, save my life.”
Sin attacked the spiritual veil in a rage, but could not penetrate its boundaries. He watched helplessly, as Grace floated through the veil and gently wrapped his wings around the young woman.
As Grace settled over Jordyn, she felt a sudden warmth envelope her skin. Within her mind, she heard the words spoken as clearly as if someone were standing over her.
“I’m here Jordyn, and I will never leave you.”