More than 15 years ago, we were serving as the lead pastors at a church in Northeast Louisiana, and we scheduled a set of special services to encourage and challenge people spiritually. We invited Rev. Geary Phillips to be our speaker for those services, and I have not since forgotten one of the messages he preached. I remember it because it was such a different message, and the truth was so simple that it caught me off-guard.

As I recall, Geary told how that when his daughter (or maybe it was his granddaughter) was young, she would wake up some mornings, come find him, crawl up in his lap, giving him a big hug, smile sweetly, and say, “Good morning. I love you.” He contrasted it with some mornings which happened less frequently on which she would wake up in a less than pleasant mood… not smiling… no hug given… no sweet tone in her voice… no crawling up in his lap… no “I love you.” He talked about how he loved those mornings when she would wake up with a smile and an “I love you” so much more than the ones when she woke up with a fussy disposition. It wasn’t that he loved her any less. That remained the same regardless of her attitude. But on the days when she gave him a wake-up smile and expressed her love first thing, it caused him to want to do more for her that day. It opened the door for them to be close that day.

Then he told of how the Lord had challenged him to wake up every morning, and before he even got out of bed, to give the Lord a wake-up smile and tell the Lord he loved him. As he began to do this, he noticed that the days he practiced this, he felt closer to the Lord, and things just seemed to go better.

Something about it caught my heart’s attention. I didn’t have kids at the time, so I had to believe his experience in faith. But I determined that I would do my best to wake up that way each day… giving the Lord a wake-up smile and telling Him how much I love Him before ever throwing back the covers and putting my feet onto the floor. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve missed plenty of days over the past 15 or so years since that service, but I’ve tried to make sure that the days with a wake-up smile for the Lord outnumber those without.And you know what? Geary Phillips was right. The days I begin with the Lord by giving Him a wake-up smile, a sweet attitude & an “I love You” are much better than the others. Those days are not always miraculous, but there is something about them which just seems… better.I have my own kids now, and our boys are old enough to get up on their own, finding their way to wherever we are in the morning… usually, I’m in my La-Z-Boy sipping coffee and eating peanut butter. And sure enough, when they come in with a sweet attitude, smile, crawl up in my lap (even though Alex is getting big enough I may have to sit in his lap soon), and tell me that they love me… I smile back, give them a big ol’ hug and kiss, and our day goes better because it started off right.This isn’t deep. This isn’t difficult. But it does make a difference when genuinely applied to our lives daily. So why don’t you take “The Wake-Up Smile Challenge” yourself? Why not start each day by waking up, and before you ever move… maybe before you even open your eyes… just smile and tell God you love Him. See if that doesn’t begin to make a change in the way you view Him… in how close you feel to Him… in the way your day goes.And here’s one more challenge… why not practice this with the people you love and see every day? It just might make things go a little differently with them as well!

I love standing outside on a clear, cool night and looking up into the night sky full of stars. It’s even better to be out there, seeing the first star or two appear, and then watching as the sky populated almost miraculously with so many stars they cannot be counted.

On a night like that, it’s easy to begin to feel a slightly minuscule. The enormity of the universe with all those stars had the ability to put ourselves in perspective. And, if we’re not careful, we can begin to think we are so small that we are overlooked… losable… unknown. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

The prophet Isaiah wrote these words in the 26th verse of the 40th chapter of his self-titled book in Scripture…

“Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of His great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing.”

Think about that for a moment. Those stars are known. God… the One who created them… knows each one of their names and calls their names every 24 hours. They are personal to Him, unique enough to have their own name.

And not a single one of them ever goes missing. He always knows their location. They never escape His sight. He cares enough about them to know where they are at every moment… even when you and I don’t see them.

Here’s the thing… you are far more important to God than any of His other creations… like stars. So you can be sure that, since they are known to Him, you are even more so known to Him. Today… every day… He knows your name and calls your name. And you never get out of His sight. He always knows right where to find you.

You are known. And the next time you forget that, or are tempted to think it’s not true, I want you to walk outside, look up into the night sky… and remember that you are more known than any one of those beautiful stars you see. In that moment, open your heart and mind… listen closely… because He will come alongside you and whisper your name as well.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac email that PR31 received last week said it’s time to start planting veggies outside where we live. Now some would consider us “Coca-Cola Cowboy” type country folk, but we kind of feel like we’re farmers because live on four acres in a wooded… we are now raising chickens… and we have a garden plot that is about 25′ by 25′.

Now, you may think the almanac is a joke, and that there are more scientific methods, but if the almanac says it, that’s good enough for us. So, this week we got out the tiller, hoes and rakes, and we got dirty.

The ground had laid fallow since last year’s summer garden. Grass and weeds had crept in and hidden our beautiful soil. But the boys and I were determined to fix that. We did the initial tilling and pulling to get the ground turned over. Surprisingly, it was in great shape and didn’t require as much work as we expected. We will go back, pull more turned over grass and weeds out. Then we will till in some fertilizer to prep the ground. Rows will be mounded, pathways left to be able to navigate the future garden. Shortly thereafter, seeds will go in that beautiful black and brown plot. And we will wait.

That garden isn’t a whole lot different from our lives. Left alone for almost any length of time, weeds of stress… fear… doubt… and worry can creep across our hearts and minds, sucking the nutrients of joy and peace right out of us. If that has happened to you, it’s time to pull the weeds. Take some time for introspection… spend some time in God’s Word and talking with Him. See which priorities have gotten out of whack, or which disciplines have been allowed to slack. Put the guards back up. Keep a rake and hoe handy. Get a shovel if necessary. Just pull those weeds. You can’t grow the good stuff with them in the way.

Then plant seeds of faith in your heart and mind. Find some Scriptures that remind you of who God is and of all the good things He has in store for you. Find a great quote that builds you up. Write them down or print them out. Or do like we do and create a piece of home decor with them on it, then place it somewhere prominent so that you see it every day. Don’t just plant a few seeds either. Plant plenty of seeds of faith in the garden of your heart and mind. Nurture them, and soon they will grow.

As the seeds grow and spring up, the weeds may try to come back, but they will be much easier to spot and much easier to keep pulled. Soon, you will see blooming and productive plants, and memories of that weed-covered plot will fade away.

This is God’s spiritual almanac message to you today… It’s time to pull the weeds and plant the seeds!

I picked up an old journal this morning. The house was still quiet. The sun was just rising. It was just me… a great cup of coffee… and the Lord.

The great thing about keeping a journal… especially about spiritual things in your life… is that you can speak to your future self. Or maybe I should say that God can speak to you again with truth that transcends time. As I flipped through the pages, I came across so many moments in my life when the Lord spoke to my heart and mind so clearly. He spoke just what I needed at that moment. And the truths that fit some of those situations fit my current circumstances.

Although I feel at great peace in life at the moment, one of those entries in one of those journals seemed to be a great reminder. In fact, it seemed so good that I felt someone else might also need to be reminded today.

It was short… and simple… yet profound and steadying. It was the voice of my Heavenly Father whispering to my soul. And this is what I sensed Him saying…

I simply have two words for you today to answer all your questions and calm all of your fears/concerns– Trust Me.”

Whatever you’re facing today… whatever you’re going through… no matter how tough the situation may look… Trust God. You can count on Him. I wrote that entry in my journal about 15 years ago. It was true then, and it still is today. That’s because God never changes. He is completely trustworthy.

Got questions today? Trust God. He’s big enough to handle your questions, and He has all the answers.

Concerned about something in your life today? Trust God. He can fix any problem, and He has all the power and resources you might need.

Two words… Trust Me.

Each time I have visited Israel, I have been profoundly astonished at how seriously the Sabbath is observed. Our tour agency and guides must work strategically to arrange sites we visit to ensure that we do not end up at a strictly Jewish site between Friday at sundown till Saturday at sundown.

One of my favorite stops is always Kefar Kedem, a community of Jewish folks who show us what Jewish culture would have been like thousands of years ago to help us better understand what we read in Scripture. Once while we were there, our host Menachem was explaining how they rest and reflect on the Sabbath each week.

Someone asked him, “But what do you do if you have to work on the Sabbath?” He replied that they didn’t work on the Sabbath. The person re-phrased the question, “Yes, but what if the company you work for is not owned and run by someone who is Jewish, and they don’t observe the Sabbath? What if they require you to work on the Sabbath?” Menachem’s reply was priceless. He cocked his head somewhat puzzled and replied, “We would never work for someone who required that.”

Our group was stunned. They were further stunned to find out that, although this community which seems to live in the old ways, they have Internet service, wifi, satellite TV and more. But they were completely blown away when Menachem said they shut it all off for the Sabbath. No TV. No browsing or surfing. No social media. No cell phones.

Sabbath. A break from the normal. Rest. Ceasing from the stuff that fills the other six days of the week.

For the last twenty-four hours, I did something really rare… I did not access any social media, and I did not check this blog. Admittedly, I Googled a couple of inquiries, and I texted a couple of people. But other than that, no electronic communication with the rest of the world. I didn’t start off doing it on purpose. I just decided that I would put off checking anything till the afternoon. Then I realized I hadn’t missed it and decided to go a little longer. By early evening, I had made it that long and figured I could make it until this morning.

And you know what? It was nice. It felt good to take a break. We Americans check out phones on average about five times an hour… once every twelve minutes. If we sleep eight hours, that leaves sixteen hours in a day. That means we check our phones about 80 times per day during our waking hours.

What if we discovered what God told His people about the reason He commanded the Sabbath break? What if we could grasp that He gave that break to us as a gift? What if we would set aside just our social media for twenty-four hours each week? We might just discover that we don’t HAVE to check it 80 times a day. We might talk with our family and friends more… and actually be focused on those conversations. We might read a little more and thereby learn a little more. We might play a little more and have a little more fun. And we might find that that break really is a gift.

I don’t know how successful I’ll be at doing this every week, but I think I want to try. And I hope that you will try with me. I don’t care which twenty-four hours you pick. I don’t care if you start at sun-up or sun-down. But let’s receive this gift in the same way we just received all those at Christmas… believing that someone gives it in love and for our joy!

If you’re bold enough to take a break with me, let me know… but not on your Sabbath… or mine!

If you’ve ever watched one of those nature specials about animals in the African wild, you’ve probably seen a lion chase after a gazelle. And the way the lions work is to identify one of the gazelles in the herd which is older, younger or somehow weaker. Then they work to get that gazelle separated from the rest of the herd in order to have a better chance of killing it. That’s because the lion instinctively knows that if it attacks in the middle of the herd, the herd… which outnumbers it… may turn on them, rally, counter-attack & somehow defeat the lion. So they weed one off, causing it to move away from the herd out of fear or thinking it can find a better way to escape the attack. But once the gazelle is by itself, it is no match for the lion.

Most of those type nature shows end with a narrator saying something like, “Such is the way of life in this African wilderness.” I’d like to say that it’s about the same in our lives.

The enemy of our souls employs this technique of dividing to conquer. He works to create fear, worry, anxiety and despair in us. Then he uses that to cause us to push away from the very herd of people who love us and could help us. No matter what your issue today… infertility… pornography… a broken heart… lack of purpose… your enemy wants you to feel like you’re the only one… like no one else understands… as if no one has ever experienced what you’re going through in just the way you’re going through it. And the more you feel alone, the more you push away from the herd. And then the more hopeless your situation feels.

But you have a herd. Run toward them instead of away from them. Run for your life toward them. They are not going to chide you for struggling. They are going to welcome you back into the herd. They are going to surround you and defend you. And even if someone did say, “Well, that wasn’t the smartest thing you ever did,” at least you’d still be alive.

The way to defeat this fear the enemy tries to use against us and separate us from our herd is to expose the struggle. The very thing that causes you fear… someone else finding out that you feel weak or that you struggle… is the very thing that will vanquish the fear. That’s because, when you open up and share about it in a right and healthy environment, others will acknowledge that they, too, struggle or have struggled with that very thing. Your aloneness will evaporate as you realize you are normal… that you are more a part of the herd than you ever realized.

And just in case you don’t know what I mean by herd, I’ll clarify… family… church… emotionally and spiritually healthy friends at work. Your herd is made up of those people who surround you who are healthy enough to help you. Truth be told, there are other weak and struggling members of the herd, but at least together you stand a chance against the enemy.

Let the lion go hungry. Stay with the herd!

The people behind me in this picture really get what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote in Romans 12:1, “That’s the most sensible way to serve God.” I had the privilege of watching them serve their community with a free Christmas Market craft fair, complete with free food. Then they invited the community to come watch a Christmas movie at the local theater, which they had sponsored. At the end, they handed out small tokens as a reminder of the movie, and they thanked everyone who came for the privilege of getting to offer this for them.

There was no sucker punch. They are the staff and volunteers from a local church in the town where I’m visiting. Yet no one stood and preached a sermon. At least not a planned spiritual speech with an invitation to respond. Instead, they laughed… and loved… and served… and helped… and gave… and bought stuff for sale at vendors’ booths. I saw them help sweep up the theater with the employees after the movie. I saw them clean dishes and put away tables and chairs so the maintenance person at the church wouldn’t have to. And they smiled the whole time they were doing it.

They didn’t give to get something in return. They simply gave. They simply loved. They simply served. No wonder their community loves them and turns to them when they have a need. They hear the sermons being preached by these folks’ actions louder than any spoken from a pulpit.

I’m so glad I was here tonight. I go to bed inspired. Inspired to live my life like them when I wake up tomorrow. Inspired to truly give… truly love… truly help… truly serve. Inspired to make a difference that makes a lasting impact.

I traveled almost a couple hundred miles today to speak at a conference for teenagers and leaders.   I was expecting simply to give of myself, but my prayer was that God would speak to me as well.

I read in Psalms recently that the Lord bends down to listen to us, and the Psalm writer said that because God does that, he always prays… or talks with God.  God listens.  That’s a big deal.

He heard my prayer to both speak THROUGH me and TO me.  He bent down… paid attention… and listened to me.  He did help me as I spoke tonight, and then during a time of hanging out and grabbing a snack with others on the team for the event, He spoke to me… to my life… to my situation.

He will listen to you, too, you know.  Like a good parent, He gets down on our level… looks us in the eye… and gives us His full attention.  As He does, you’ll know that it’s safe to talk with Him… to open your heart… to spill your guts… to tell Him what’s on your mind.  And like the Psalmist, that conversation will probably lead to you wanting to have a lot more with Him.

So, thanks for bending down and listening to me, Lord!  Talk again tomorrow?

I want to be like my boys when I grow up.

Alex and Austin, nine and six, have faith.  In fact, their faith is stronger than mine oftentimes.  How do I know?

They have these prayer journals, and in them they write… or draw a picture of sometimes… things they are asking God to do for them.  To them, everything in that book is of utmost importance.  For example, they prayed we would  get a dog.  They have also prayed for things like video games they want.

Those are cute, but recently they added a close family friend who has been battling some serious health issues.  They love this person, and decided to add them to those things they are believing God to do for them.  It’s so great to hear their small whispered prayers under our out loud prayers each night.  Their faith inspires me.

Now, you might mock this, and say it is nothing more than a glorified Christmas wish list for Santa, but I beg to differ.  Here’s why… Their faith makes sense.  When a prayer in their book gets answered by God, they put a check mark on that page… showing them that God came through and did what they asked of Him.  When they come up against something they want or need, they suggest to us that they put it in their prayer book because every request in there has a check mark by it.  Every… last… one.  In their mind, they simply ask God to help them out, believe Him and wait for it to happen.

Imagine that.  And guess what… every time, God comes through for them.  When something isn’t happening in their desired time frame, they don’t quit believing just because it hasn’t happened yet.  Sure they wish it would.  Sure discouragement tries to deter them from believing.  But then they simply flip through the previous pages and see all the check marks, and they remember that God always comes through for them.

No wonder Jesus said the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children.  Scripture says it is impossible to please God without faith, and kids have faith… so that makes God smile.  He likes the way kids trust Him implicitly and don’t quit believing in Him just because it hasn’t happened yet.

My encouragement to us today is that we adults can have prayer books, too, in which we write down what we are asking God to do for us.  And we can trust God to come through for us.  Go back through your life, and look at all the check marks already placed beside so many things He has done for you.  Then don’t give up believing for those pages that haven’t gotten their check makes… YET.

I started to try to answer all the arguments for why this could be considered ridiculous or reckless, but then I decided to just do like my boys… and have faith.  You can call me names like naive… or misguided… or pie-in-the-sky… but I prefer childlike.  And you can be sure that when I check off some of the requests in my own prayer book, I’ll let you know.

For the record, this week we found out that the friend who had been given a very serious diagnosis had that diagnosis changed to a much less severe one.   It just so happens that an acquaintance of theirs is a medical professional who was able to get them into the right specialist in another city almost immediately.  Then another friend happens to be the specialist in our area for another part of the process, and for the first time in probably over a month, our friend had a terrific, full night’s sleep the night before last.

Coincidence?  Think again.  Two young boys dared to believe that the God who can give our family a dog, or the video game they wanted, can just as easily heal our friend.  I’m with them.

Why don’t you take a chance today and start your own prayer book?