Saturday, November 25, 2017

Thanks and Giving

by Sylvia Gaston

Most Americans’ favorite holiday is Christmas. A 2015 Harris poll revealed the top favorite holidays as:

1.    Christmas (46%)
2.    Thanksgiving (19%)
3.    Halloween (9%)
4.    Fourth of July (5%)
5.    Easter (3%)
6.    New Year’s (2%)
7.    Memorial Day (1%)
8.    Birthdays (1%)
9.    Labor Day (1%)
10. Valentine’s Day (1%)

However, my favorite holiday is THANKSGIVING. In fact, I often verbalize my disappointment over the fact that in retail and outdoor home d├ęcor, Halloween is followed immediately by Christmas – even the very next day! What about Thanksgiving, people?!?

It is my absolute favorite holiday of the year. Mostly because it is about 2 things I LOVE – family and food!

My husband and I have a friendly turkey cooking competition each year. His is on the grill and mine is brined and roasted. He claims to win every year but it’s usually a tie – both are delicious. And since I love to cook, it’s fun for me to find awesome new ways to use up all of those leftovers!

But the very best part of Thanksgiving is that this particular holiday is about hanging out with family and basking in thankfulness.

There seems to be a visible shift in people’s demeanor, kindness and appreciation during this season. These are the days when we look at our, often taken-for-granted, blessings. We take stock of the loved ones in our life and the relative comfort we enjoy.

Thanksgiving is also the season where we begin to share a portion of our overflow with those who need it. Whether inviting others to share in our turkey meal or donating groceries so families can prepare their own, we begin giving because we are thankful.

My co-worker, Justine, recently wrote a Sunday school lesson entitled “Thanks and Giving”. This phrase has really stuck with me. I can’t get it out of my head.

It seems to me that when we are TRULY thankful for all that God has blessed us with, there should be a response of giving. Not only to share what we have but also as an act of gratitude for what we have been given.

In the Bible, we read about Paul, a man who has a supernatural encounter with Jesus and goes on to build and encourage the young churches for the remainder of his life. In a letter to the people of the church in Corinth, he encourages their generosity in this way:

“I have been bragging about you to the people in Macedonia…And your desire to give has made most of the people here ready to give also…Remember this: The one who plants few seeds will have a small harvest. But the one who plants a lot will have a big harvest. Each one of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give. You should not give if it makes you unhappy or if you feel forced to give. God loves those who are happy to give. And God can give you more blessings than you need, and you will always have plenty of everything…The service you are offering helps God’s people with their needs, but that is not all it does. It is also bringing more and more thanks to God.” (from 1 Corinthians 9)

Read those last 2 sentences again. When we give, we are saying, “Thanks, God, for all You are doing for me. I’m so thankful, that I’m going to give.”

What are you thankful for? We should be asking and answering this question each day because out of our overflow of thanks, we begin to give. And with our giving, not only are we showing our appreciation, it can become the pebble in the water that ripples out in larger and larger rings of thanks and giving from others.

I hope this phrase gets stuck in your head and heart just as it has in mine – thanks and giving.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

It’s Not The End Of The World

by Candace Cortez

Is it just me, or does it feel like the series of devastating events have hit an all-time rapid succession point? I feel like every 8 days or so, I hear about something else that has happened in our world that is heartbreaking. Hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean left thousands in devastation, not to mention the lives lost. The mass shooting in Las Vegas left me stunned. Looking at the division in our world because of politics and the desire for power leaves me feeling a tad small, wondering if there is anything I can do, and fearful that the ones making decisions have atomic power at their disposal. After this past weekend, I began to wonder if church shootings will become the new trend in mass shootings. I have watched this brewing stew of racism in our nation and I often feel stuck, not knowing what to say to produce love and what moments allow hate by silence.  And that’s the macro stuff. On a more micro level, depression, suicide, bullying, poverty, divorce, illiteracy, and addictions are all still a thing in the lives of people within my reach.

If we ever sit back and see our world for what it is, it can be overwhelming. I’ve heard it said more often in the past few months than ever before, that the end of the world is near.

That’s when I start to become afraid. Not that the world will come to the end as predicted in scripture, I know that’s coming, and I look for Jesus to return every day. I am nervous, that we will throw our hands up in the air because we feel there is not enough time to make real change happen.

When I watch sports, it doesn’t always bother me if my team wins or loses. What bothers me, is when I can tell a team has given up before the last whistle blows. They begin to slow down just before the finish line. Those who are running to win, push harder just before the end of the race. If we really believe what it says in scripture, that we don’t know the day or hour that Jesus is coming back, we must run like it’s tomorrow…or today. The call is to make as many disciples as we can before the end of the time given.

So, when we watch the news or see another scary post on our social media, guard your hearts. Do not be discouraged. Yes, our world is broken and it is proving that daily. Do not let the pressure of everything that is wrong squeeze away your hope. Jesus said that the harvest is plentiful! That means there is work to do, and there always will be.

Have hope. God IS with us and believe it or not, right now is not the end of the world. We still have time! This is the hour to push harder toward the goal. If you have been given a vision, and inspiration on how to love people, either in a big or small way, GO FOR IT! Do not wait until tomorrow. Make that call. Write that letter to your politician. Help the one you know is in need. Make the list of things you need to do to obey the call of God on your heart. Do not wait for someone else to make it happen. We are a part of God’s plan to bring hope and life to a broken generation. I am praying for us all today to be a light. Because where there is light, there cannot be darkness.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Guidelines Please

by Andrew Cromwell

I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. After all, I did take literature and philosophy classes in college. In them, I learned pretty much all I had taken for granted about the world was just wrong. All my life I had been told that there was such a thing as good and evil and right and wrong, but my professors told me that these concepts were just social constructs and nothing more than agreed upon norms society had chosen.

I learned there was really no such thing as “right” and “wrong”, only opinions about them. I learned you could pretty much believe whatever you wanted and that was just fine. What mattered was how strongly you felt about these things. Just as long as you didn’t make the mistake of telling someone else what they should think.

And that is why I shouldn’t have been surprised. Because now I see that this way of thinking is trickling down into nearly every area of our lives.

This is the reason parents are no longer giving guidelines to their kids. But let me come back to that in just a moment.

A teacher’s job is to guide and develop students, not just expose them to every thought on the subject. If we wanted only theories, we would buy a book or visit Wikipedia. But we seek teachers because we assume they have learned enough about the subject that they can guide our thoughts. No one is saying they have a corner on the market of truth, but we would hope that they have some experience and understanding that are helpful.

But a frequent strategy of teaching today (at least in college in the “soft sciences”) seems to be to expose the students to all the theories and let them make their own conclusions. This often leaves students confused and frustrated. When they ask “but which one is right?”, professors just shrug their shoulders.

Now, back to parenting. It seems parents have bought into this “neutral” stance when it comes to teaching their kids. The strategy seems to be to allow the kids to experience life and leave it to the child to pick their preferred path (or truth). The most important job in parenting seems to be safety — to keep the kid from injuring themselves on this journey of self-discovery.

Here’s the problem. Kids are dumb. Not in the “intelligence” sense but in the “experience” sense. This is why we put covers on electrical sockets and yell at them to keep them from running into the street. They just don’t know enough to know what is right and what is wrong. And half the time they don’t know if what they are feeling inside is an indication of what they should do next or the result of being tired or eating too much sugar or just being selfish.

And when parents don’t step in and actively teach and guide their kids but simply leave it up to the child, then they have failed. The number one job of a parent is not safety, but to teach and train their child in a way they should go.

Parents, you’re the experts (at least in your kids’ world)! Don’t let someone else be the expert for your child until the time is right for them to be handed off to another. Your children desperately need you to tell them what is right and what is wrong in this world that is confused about seemingly everything. 

Send your kids to bed early. Don’t let them watch, eat, play anything they want. Don’t just be their best friend, be their teacher and their guide. They will thank you for it later on!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Take A Good Look

by Sylvia Gaston

I asked the following question of several job candidates this past week: What is your greatest strength and greatest weakness?

Most of them easily recalled their strengths but had to think long and hard about their weaknesses. I found this fascinating because it is REALLY EASY for me to list my weaknesses. One could assume that is because I’m overly critical of myself, and I may be, but I can just as easily recite my strengths.

How aware should we be of ourselves – where we excel and where we fall short?

Go too far to one side and we can easily become narcissistic (too obsessed with ourselves). Go too far in the other direction and we can become oblivious to the areas of our life needing improvement.

What’s the appropriate balance?

I believe what the Bible states in the Book of James (4:14) that our life is but a vapor that is here for a little while and then vanishes away.  So, if my time here is so short, what am I to do with it? That’s probably where the real examination should begin.

I’ve asked myself that question at least a hundred times. Here’s what I know so far…
I know that I was meant to love and influence the five great humans that are my children. I know that I am to love my husband the best that I can. I know that I am called to my position at Koinonia Church. But, most importantly, Jesus Himself said that I am to love God with all my heart and all my soul and all my mind and all my strength. He also said to love others as myself. (Mark 12:30-31) That’s a lot!!

IF I don’t take a look at how strongly or weakly I am doing the things I was created for, how will I know if I’m getting it right?

IF I don’t reflect on my days, how will I learn from my mistakes?

IF I don’t take a look back, how will I enjoy and be encouraged by the small successes of life?

According to the Center for the Healing Arts and Sciences, self reflection
·      Builds emotional self-awareness
·      Increases integrity as you reflect on core values
·      Allows for new ideas to emerge

The Bible puts it this way - “Let us examine our ways and test them and let us return to the Lord.” (Lamentations 3:40)

Personal growth occurs in silence as often as it does from experience.

Do you have a habit of intentionally setting aside time to sit in silence and reflect? How often should you do so to make it beneficial to your life?

In the busyness of doing, producing, accomplishing, living – we often find ourselves with no margins in our life for grace, rest, enjoyment…let alone, reflection. I’m so guilty of this! And as I type these words, I smile at the thought of those things – being gracious to those around me, resting in the company of the ones I love, enjoying life.

That alone makes it worth the effort of making time to take a look.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

God’s Vision And Dream For You

by Tim Howard

Even though I don’t like glasses, I do appreciate them and wear them! Some years ago, things that were once crystal clear became blurred, distorted and difficult to see.  It didn’t occur to me that I should visit an optometrist until my two boys said, “You’re getting old dad and need glasses!”  They were right!

God’s Word tells us that without vision, (Dream) people get lost. They amble around in a sea of busyness but make no real progress.  Always doing something but accomplishing very little. They live for the present but have no vision or dream for their future. 

God has a vision and a plan for you and may I say with great confidence – it is very good! Jeremiah the prophet puts it this way: “For I know the plans (Vision or Dream) I have for you,” declares the LORD, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jer. 29:11

His vision for you refers to something more than mere physical sight. It refers to foresight. It’s the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination, creativity and wisdom. It’s the ability to catch a view from heaven’s vantage point and see the future that God has in mind for you. 

At times, our dreams don’t materialize! If you’ve ever driven down a road, you may have seen one of those trucks carrying a truckload of smashed cars. The cars usually end up at some ‘Vehicle Cemetery’ and if you’ve ever visited one of these places you probably noticed row after row of crushed vehicles piled up like pancakes. We call this a ‘Junk Yard’ because we conclude that the vehicles there are "Junk," It’s true but there was a day when that hunk of steel was someone's dream come true. They saved for it, they planned and hoped for it and at some point they were able to obtain it. Now, however, their prized possession is flattened.

I share that because I think all of us have had visions and dreams about our future that didn’t turn out as we thought they should. Possibly the dream job turned into a nightmare – That dream house cost more than you anticipated and the financial institution had to foreclose on it or that dream person you fell in love with filed for divorce.

Just because yesterday’s dreams didn’t turn out as you expected – I encourage you to keep dreaming. In fact, I encourage you to dream beyond the temporal and practical and seek God’s dream for you. You may have a dream for yourself but He as a dream for you as well. It’s a vision and dream that will bring more than pleasure to you but a sense of purpose.

Paul the Apostle described his response to God’s vision for him in Phil 3:12-16 “…I've got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus.  I'm off and running, and I'm not turning back.  So let's keep focused on that goal, those of us who want everything God has for us.  If any of you have something else in mind, something less than total commitment, God will clear your blurred vision—you'll see it yet!  Now that we're on the right track, let's stay on it.” MSG

Everybody needs a dream! Everybody needs a vision!

If you want to discover Gods vision and dream for you – check out Isaiah 55:1-3 and follow the prophets directives. You will discover a bright future if you do.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Pause. Reset. Live Well.

by Candace Cortez

Thank the Lord we have finally hit sweater season. At least in the mornings. By afternoon I typically regret my clothing choice, but it’s worth it! I’m team autumn for life! I know this season is short and soon it will be a weird fight to keep my nose from being red everywhere I go. But this is life. God has created the very planet we live on to operate in seasons and phases. When I step into the waters at one of our beaches along the California coast, there is a roar as the wave crashes to shore, and then a rustle as it heads towards my feet, and a sizzle as it pulls back out to the sea only to start all over again.

I’ve experienced moments when I was caught in that period of retreat. This can come after a huge transition or a tragedy in your life. Getting back into the rhythm of crashing and moving and THEN resting is very difficult when your life is saying go, but your mind or heart is feeling stuck. How do we move on? How do we take steps forward when our feet feel like they are made of the very floor we stand on?

Recently, I have found myself in a very busy season. The start of school for my kids, along with music and sports practices and performances took our life into high gear. I found myself running around getting it all done every single day. This high pace is like the crash. You don’t stay there forever, but it always happens in certain seasons or situations.

Most of what makes people look the most successful however, looks like the moment of crash, and so we are tempted to stay there. This may come from a place of insecurity, needing to validate our existence, or prove our worth through doing things. This may come from a place of comparison: everyone else seems really busy, so I must be doing it wrong if I’m not living at maxed out levels as well. Or maybe it comes from fear: if I stop doing one of these things, my world will fall apart, I’ll let someone down, or not be as happy. This push towards the everyday crash can come from many places, but it for sure doesn’t come from Jesus.

From the beginning of time, God revealed His plan for a season of rest to always be coupled with a season of work.

Watching a DVD with my kids the other night, there was a moment when the DVD got stuck and then paused on the poor character’s face, leaving him looking more than silly, and causing lots of laughter from my kids. For a second you just wait and hope it starts right back up and keeps playing the way it was designed to perform. But this time it didn’t. I had to press pause, back it up a bit, and then press play again. For whatever reason, this time, it just played through. Sometimes you have to skip ahead a scene or take the DVD out to clean it and begin again. 

Sometimes we need a pause. Sometimes we need a restart. It’s ok to need some help in the process, but if you’re feeling stuck at one specific rhythm, whether stuck on retreat or on crash, you may need to pause, reset, and get back into a better flow of life. This may mean taking a day to rest and allowing some things on your list to go undone. This may mean saying, today I will go out and accomplish this one thing, facing the world for all it’s worth. This may mean taking serious stock of everything on your plate and reprioritizing and potentially eliminating. This may mean asking God for what to put back on your plate. Life is a challenge because our world is broken. But do not allow your choice of rhythm to steal your joy. God wants us to not just live, but to live well.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Does It Hurt Much?

by Andrew Cromwell

Over the years I have both given and received lots of "junk gifts". These are the ones often given out of obligation. We feel we must give something because of a birthday or because it is Christmas and the giving of gifts, no matter how lame, is the rule. And although the best intentions are used in the giving of these "wonderful" gifts (after all, who doesn't need another Christmas mug, flamboyant tie or novelty gag gift), most often these gifts are given out of obligation, and not from the heart.

A gift that is given from the heart is always more meaningful, both to the giver and the recipient. There is a certain cost that is exacted from the giver, not necessarily a cost in terms of dollars (although sometimes many dollars are required), but in time, attention and thought. Something is expended by the giver that actually adds value to the gift itself. The most meaningful gifts are those that have taken the most time or are given with the most love.

When the giver does not expend these things, then something important is missing from the gift. We all know what it is like to receive gifts that have little or no monetary value and yet are incredibly meaningful. On the other hand, we know (if not by experience then certainly by imagination) that it is possible to receive a very expensive gift that really has little value to the receiver because it was given with so little thought.

I was reminded of the importance of the "cost" of our gifts while reading the story of David in 1 Chronicles recently. David is at a place in his life when he wants to make an offering to the Lord and he says the following:

"I will not...sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing."

David understood that to give the Lord a "token" or "junk" gift was unacceptable. You don't give the Lord something that doesn't cost you anything—it's an insult. God is the King of the universe, the Maker of everything and the Giver of the very life we enjoy. To give God a gift that cost David no sweat, no effort, no thought—in short, no heart—was unthinkable.

Which begs the question, how often do I give God "worthless" gifts? It is so easy to accept God's love, His grace, His forgiveness and His great plan for my life and repay Him with what is easy. It is easy to tell Him "thank you" with my lips. It is easy to drop a few dollars into the plate now and then. It is easy to act like a nice guy to the right people because I know I should "act like a Christian".

But that costs me nothing. And it's worthless. I've decided it really is. So much of what we do for God and others is just window dressing. We do it to make us feel better. We do it to make us look good. We do it because its easy.

But I think God wants something more. I know He deserves something more. He deserves my whole life. My most valued possessions, my deepest secrets, my greatest fears, my faithfulness and my obedience—He deserves all of them because they cost me to give them to Him. But I find that I don't like giving things that hurt to give. I will do almost anything to wiggle out of doing what I know I should. I excuse myself and my lack of commitment. But then I remember, it cost Him everything, how can I give something that costs me nothing?

The question for all of us is just that—are we willing to give what hurts the most? Because what hurts the most is what is most valuable. I've decided I'm only giving God gifts that cost me something—that hurt me a little to give, have you?