Saturday, June 1, 2019

The Story of the Bible

by Andrew Cromwell

Most people know some Bible stories, but many don’t know the story of the Bible. Even if you grew up going to Sunday school, chances are you might have missed it. And if you didn’t grow up in church, then the few stories you do know often don’t make sense.

There are the stories we like to tell—like David and Goliath—and then there are some that don’t get mentioned very often—like Elisha calling down bears to maul belligerent teenagers. And without an understanding of how things fit, we can run into stories that don’t fit into our experience of reality. They seem so strange and outlandish that we can start to question the whole thing.

Some of us know people or have kids that have walked away from the faith because of something along these lines. You yourself might even be in that situation. The good news is that when you start to understand the larger story of the Bible and how the pieces fit together, then you just might discover that you don’t have to question everything just because one thing is strange.

What makes this more complicated is that the way we got our Bible is different from how we got THE Bible. Today when you buy a Bible, it is beautifully wrapped, has pretty maps in the back, is chaptered and versed, and it may even have red letters just so we don’t miss Jesus’ words. We can easily make the mistake and think that the Bible is a book where you start at the beginning and just read on through.

But the Bible is so much more than just a book. And it doesn’t actually start with Genesis. While Genesis may be at the beginning of the Bible, the truth is the story of the Bible actually begins closer to the middle with four accounts of the life of Jesus.

You see, the Bible would not even exist if it were not for something extraordinary that HAPPENED. This event was so shocking that it transformed a group of men and women who were cowering in fear, into men and women who couldn’t be shut up. It sparked a movement that produced the church and eventually the Bible. As a side note: the church didn’t have a Bible for the first three hundred plus years!

This incredible event is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Had Jesus not come back to life after being dead for three days, His followers would have probably stayed in hiding with their hearts broken. But when Jesus appeared to not just a few but to many (the Apostle Paul pegs the number at 500) over the next forty days, they were profoundly convinced that everything Jesus said was true. Because after all, you should listen to the person that predicts their own death and resurrection and then pulls it off!

And so Jesus’ followers began to write down what He had said and done while He was on the earth. Because they knew it was important. So important, that not just one person wrote it down but many. 

There’s so much more to the story! For now, it is enough to say that the real question for us all is not, “Do I have a problem with a story in the Bible?” Rather, the question we must all seriously wrestle with is, “Did Jesus really come back to life and prove everything He said was true?” That’s the REAL question!

Saturday, May 25, 2019

What Is A Savior And Why Do I Need One? (A Testimony With Lots Of Definitions)

by Sylvia Gaston

I am a “prove it to me” person. I will listen to anything you have to say but, most of the time, before I actually believe it, I will need proof.

In my young adult life, I had the same attitude about God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. I believed in God because I couldn’t fathom our existence just ‘evolved’ from nothingness. Yet, faith held no real meaning for me. I had no use for a savior to worship, and I questioned my need for religion.

By definition, a savior is a person who saves someone or something from danger. In Christianity, God or Jesus Christ is the redeemer of sin and saver of souls. I felt no danger and therefore, didn’t need to be saved from it.

Did I need a savior to redeem me from sin to save my soul? Since I didn’t have a clear definition of sin and how sin endangered my soul, I didn’t need a savior.

So, just what is sin and what is my soul?

Sin is an immoral act considered to be a transgression against divine law; a wrongdoing, act of evil/wickedness, crime, offense, or misdeed.

I knew that I sinned but did that really make me evil? That depends on your definition of goodness. We imagine ourselves to be relatively good but with no clear understanding of what true goodness is, we simply use our own gauge and definition. People all over the world and from all walks of life have their own self-defined scale of acceptable goodness. That’s frightening.

What is this divine law we are to live up to? Divine law is law that is from a transcendent source, such as the will of God or gods, in contrast to man-made lawDivine laws are typically regarded as superior to man-made laws, sometimes due to an understanding that their source is beyond human knowledge and human reason.

I was quite sure that I couldn’t live up to the goodness as defined by God.

And what about my soul? The dictionary defines that as: 1) the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as an entity separate from the body; 2) the spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect, believed to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come.

Following this train of thought, it seems that I DID need a savior to save me from myself. Who knew? 

You see, we were created on purpose and for a purpose. We ALL were created to worship the Creator - to worship Him here on Earth until we worship Him face to face in Heaven. Humans will always worship something.

Sin separates us from God, Who is the essence of goodness. God sent His son Jesus to us. In a plan that I don’t fully understand, Jesus sacrificed His life to make amends for my sins (and yours).

Here’s where faith, and God’s Spirit, finally got my attention. Faith, belief not based on proof, is contradictory to my personality. Yet, God continued to attract and amaze me with a series of ‘coincidences’ that piqued my curiosity about this Creator and what He wanted for me and from me.

I eventually took a step of faith and said, “OK, God, I’ll follow You and see if all of this ‘savior Jesus’ stuff is real.” (I know…my arrogance knows no bounds).

I have never looked back. Not all of my questions have been answered – there are some things that still don’t make sense to me or that my puny brain cannot yet comprehend. However, I choose to follow the God/Man who created everything, including me.

Over the years, He has proven to me in amazing, supernatural ways that He exists and is very much with me and for me. He has revealed to me that He knows me and knows my circumstances. He has guided me through good times and bad. He has called me to become something and to do some things that I did not plan for myself. He’s always there. And, oh, how He loves me!

Ironically, I still keep a mental list of questions to ask God when I see Him after my time here on earth is over. Some things never change – including my ridiculous personality.

Do you need a savior to redeem your soul? Yes – and I pray that your journey in pursuit of your savior, Jesus, begins and never ends! 

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. – Jeremiah 29:11

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Stand Your Ground

by Tim Howard

There is a flight-or-fight response that resides within all of us but it needs to be trained because fear might be based upon a ‘perceived threat’ rather than a ‘real threat.’ Yes, there is wisdom in running at appropriate times but at other times wisdom says we should stand our ground, and remain steadfast.

Discernment is a major key but knowing what to do in any given situation is not always as easy as it sounds!

Our staff took an ‘Active Shooter’ class presented by the wonderful Sheriff’s Department in Kings County which gave us wisdom and insight on knowing when to run and when to fight.

One key point we gleaned was: ‘To have this discernment, one must be governed by something higher than fear.’

When the army of Israel was running and hiding from Goliath because of fear – David, the soon to be King of Israel stood firm against insurmountable odds because of his faith in God. It was a time to stand firm and not run!

Faith in God is the antidote to fear. Jesus drew the connection between fear and faith when He said: “ Why are you afraid – oh you of little faith.” Simply put: If you are governed by great fear, you will have little faith but if you are governed by great faith you will have little fear.

Fear has to be broken – It must not be allowed to rule because it is shortsighted. Like our emotions – fears are valid but they don’t provide a good foundation for good decisions.

David said: “I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me. He freed me from all my fears.” Ps 34:4, David refused to allow his fears to trump his faith. If a person follows his example – he or she will not act upon what they want to do when fear comes but what God wants them to do.

Fear Not – is a phrase used upwards to 150 times in the Bible and it admonishes all of us to break the power of fear. The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus came to break fear’s hold on us so we could rise up in faith.

Here are a few questions I periodically ask myself to make sure fear doesn’t rule in my life.

Are there any ‘Pink Elephants’ in my life that I don’t focus on because I fear what might happen if I actually expose them for what they really are? Is it fear that causes me to procrastinate, ignore or even deny the reality of some aspect in my life? After reflecting on my past decisions, I frequently ask: What motivated that decision? If fear was not present, what would I do?

Don’t allow fear to be your guide throughout life – Unhealthy fear will too often cause you to run when you should stand your ground.

I encourage you to make the decision I made years ago.

I will rise up in faith today and in all my days and in all my ways I will seek the Lord. If you make that decision: Faith will supersede fear and you will have the discernment needed when fear knocks on your door.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Honoring Influence

by Candace Cortez

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day! I am always grateful for the fact that we set aside days of the year to specifically honor and celebrate valuable parts of our life, faith, and community. As I sit and prepare myself to honor my own mother and mother-in-law this weekend, I try to gather the words to describe my feelings for how they have influenced my life.

Influence is a powerful thing. I believe the desire and capacity to have influence is a part of our heritage as humans. There is something universal in recognizing the desire to help, do something worthwhile, or make a change for the better. The slippery slope is when we begin to equate the amount of influence we have as the amount of value we have: if we have more influence we are more valuable. I believe the Lord thinks differently. He values us as His children. After creating Adam and Eve, God said it is “very good.” We people are the only portion of creation to receive this additional emphasis. Everything else, light, water, sky, animals, the sun and stars, we all called “good.” The crazy thing is, God called us “very good” without Adam or Eve actually stepping into their calling to influence this world. He loved them and approved of them because He made them, not because they had a massive influence on the cultivation of the plants or the naming of the animals.

None of what you just read is the point of this writing effort, but I genuinely believe we cannot hear that enough. So there it is.

Influence is a powerful thing. It’s powerful because there are people whose actions and words have had a great influence on the way I think and behave and I can guarantee that they have no clue of that influence on me. The ability to have an effect on another person can be negative or positive, known or unknown. Proverbs 13:20 reads “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” I have done some pretty dumb things at the prompting of other immature people. Gratefully I’ve lived to tell about it! I hope to become one of the wise and not the fool in this proverb. The way to become one of the wise is to recognize, honor, and gather your influence from the right people.

Recognizing positive influencers, or wise influencers is a matter of fruit and character. You will know a person’s character by watching their reactions over time in different situations. You will see a person’s fruit as the results of their effort. Sometimes, we are fooled by shiny, temporary results that are actually unhealthy fruit that takes time to reveal itself as shallow or fabricated. Be careful to not be impressed primarily by things like wealth, physical appearances, or physical talents.

Honoring influence simply means dedicating importance to that person’s behavior or words. The examples set by those you recognize as your influence is worthy of study or replication. Another step could even be giving recognition and gratitude for that person being a wise or loving example in your life. (ie: mother’s day, recognizing mom’s; some of the greatest influencers out there!)

Gathering influence sounds a bit creepy. Like storing all these amazing wise examples of humanity in my backyard or something. But really it is a phrase of proximity. If I want to be positively influenced by people I’ve recognized within my world, I need to get in places where I can hear them, witness their example, and learn from them. This could be as simple as following a podcast, to as intimate as asking for a conversation over coffee.

Ask yourself: are you influenced by the wise or the fools? And then, those who hear and see you, are they being influenced by the wise? Or a fool? Say thank you to a mom, any mom this weekend. Honor an influencer you see loving well today.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

What Is A Relationship With Jesus?

by Sylvia Gaston

As an adult Christian, for many, many years I didn’t understand what people meant when they spoke about a relationship with Jesus. What does that even mean? How can you have a relationship with someone you cannot see, touch, and talk to?

We all know that we can talk to Jesus through prayer. Is it a one-way conversation, though? I’d been talking to Jesus for YEARS before I understood that I needed to listen to Him, too. That was the start of my two-way relationship with Jesus! Have I heard His voice audibly in my ears? No, although some say they have. Over time, I slowly began to hear Him speak to my brain, my heart, and my spirit. (By the way, God wasn’t slow to speak to me; I was slow in learning how to listen.)

How could I know that it wasn’t simply my thoughts and feelings I was hearing? It took me a long time to stop asking Him, “Is that you, Lord?” because, initially, I wasn’t that familiar with His voice. So I would wait. Guess what? Then I would receive verification from Him in other ways. It might be in a Bible verse that I came across or from another trusted person or even from a song, television program, or book I was reading.

For me, this began a process that I am now very familiar with – a process of God connecting the dots for me, confirming what He is trying to teach me or what He is guiding me towards…actually speaking to me!

Let me stop right here and say that this may not be the way God speaks to everyone. His relationship with everyone is unique. There are a number of ways to hear from God.

Over time, I have learned what His voice sounds like. Now I rarely ask, “Is that you, Lord?” What helped me develop my relationship with Jesus has been time spent talking to him (prayer), learning about His truths and desires for our lives (Bible) and listening for Him to speak to me in whatever way He chooses.

Eventually, I began to hear from Him through dreams, words or phrases that come to me before I am fully awake, or pictures in my mind while I am praying. It’s so exciting! It’s humbling to hear from God Almighty and learn how much He cares about my puny problems and life. It is even more humbling to hear Him ask me to care for, or minister to others whom He also cares so much about.

You see, we are ALL His sons and daughters. He wants only the best for us. He wants life for us as He originally intended before sin came into our world and lives. He desires to have a relationship with me and with you. Believe me, you want this, too! He is everywhere and He is for you.

John, a close friend and follower of Jesus, puts it this way – “This is love; it is not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His son as the sacrifice that deals with our sins.” 
(1 John 4:10 CEB)

What is your next, or maybe first step to embarking upon your own relationship with the living God?  Perhaps you need to take the first step of admitting you have sinned, believing that Jesus died and rose again for those sins, and choosing to follow Him. Simply pray that to Him and your new life begins! Maybe you need to up the amount of time you spend learning His voice through prayer or learning more about Him by reading His word, the Bible.

Paul, a man who had a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, explains it this way:
“God wanted people to look for Him, and perhaps in searching all around for Him, they would find Him. But He is not far from any of us. It is through Him that we are able to live, to do what we do, and to be who we are. As your own poets have said, ‘We all come from Him.’ (Acts 17:27 ERV) 

A relationship is a two-way process. It takes initiating and committing to one another. It takes investing time and bonding with one another. It may look a little different with Jesus than it does with your friends. Just know that He is waiting to hear from you, to move closer to you, to guide you and show you His love. He wants a relationship with you today and every day until you stand face-to-face with Him into eternity.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Jesus Came

by Tim Howard

Have you ever met someone who changed your life for the good? Someone, you can point to who made you a better person? Every individual I’ve had the privilege of knowing has impacted me on some level but there’s a handful of people who have influenced me greatly and are a part of my foundation. I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t met them.  My wife is one of them… Because of her I have changed for the good and am a better man. Jesus, however, has altered the course of my life and profoundly changed me in ways I find extremely difficult to convey. I would be nothing if He had not come!

Jesus came to change people and it’s not because He doesn’t like who we are! He’s not mad, uptight or dissatisfied with us. It’s not because He finds us unappealing or distasteful but because He loves us. After all, we are created in His image. He loves us enough to accept us on the basis of who we have become, but loves us too much to leave us in our current condition.

When God created the world, everything was good. You can read about in Genesis chapter 1 and 2. We were designed in His image with the objective of having open communion with Him on a personal basis. Mankind, however, decided to rebel. From the beginning of time to present, people have wanted what they want, when they want it and how they want it. They have tried to make God into their image rather than accepting the truth. We are created in His image.

That rebellious streak has played havoc in relationships and created a breach in our communion with God. You cannot be self-centered, self-willed and selfish without causing damage. Relationship of all sorts will suffer. We were designed for good but damaged by evil.

We are all broken! We are all damaged! There is not one of us who has it all together. That’s why Jesus came! He came to help and to return us to our original status. Under all the damage and debris, there is an original you, who Jesus wants to restore.

This weekend Christians all over the world are remembering the crucifixion and celebrating His resurrection.

 As we celebrate this Easter season, God wants to give all of us a divine perspective and help us see from His vantage point.  Those who are receptive will see more than a man dying on a cross and hear stories about His resurrection. They will see a Savior who lived among us, died for us and walks with us to help us live life to it’s fullest. 

The Apostle John puts it this way: “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. That’s Good News!

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Adjusting The Prescription

by Candace Cortez

Around 6 years ago, I finally dragged myself into my optometrist's office because I knew I needed glasses. My friends knew I needed glasses because of how often they would catch me squinting to read the score at the bottom of the television screen during a game, or to identify a person sitting across the room. I knew it when I started being nervous about driving my kids around after dark because I knew I couldn’t read street signs.  I still remember the drive home with my new pair of glasses and tearing up because I could see individual tree leaves as well as the texture of the tree bark! Who knew how beautiful these details and nuances of creation could be to one who had lived with blurred sight!

Recently I have transitioned into primarily wearing contact lenses instead of glasses. This is mostly because snuggling with my kids often meant smudges to my vision and active play that bumped my glasses into the bridge of my nose pressed me into anger territory. The challenge to contacts has been the cost. To save money on my disposable lenses, I purchased them in bulk. My new problem is, sitting here on my couch right now, I can no longer read the blue digital time on my oven clock. This is usually the first sign of needing an upgraded prescription. I know, because I don’t want to “waste money” I will most likely use the rest of my current batch of contacts before returning to my doctor for an updated batch. It’s not so bad that I’m unsafe or can’t enjoy life.

The goal is still the same: to clearly and effortlessly see the world around me. The method and prescription required to do that, is changing before my eyes. I am getting this same sense about the church and how we achieve our goals.
First off, what is the goal? We all have mini goals and gifts as church families. Some churches are talented at advocacy for social justice issues, while others are great at feeding the hungry. Some still are excellent at resourcing and training other churches and others are known to be creative arts specialists. These are specific goals, and I am glad for the freedom to be a different part of the Body of Christ. However, I believe the main goal is simple: to worship God and reach those who don’t serve Him yet. I also believe the way we go about doing this is shifting. Some individuals and some groups will not adjust and maybe losing clarity of vision. I have been and continue to find myself being one such individual.
Here’s an example. Recently I heard my tone (have you ever had that moment of perfect echo, hearing yourself potentially through the ears of the Holy Spirit?) turn negative towards primarily choosing to participate in church services online. It was just a passing comment, but it set up one behavior as less than another. I have loads of reasons why. And that load of reasons has kept me from encouraging people who may refuse to step foot in a Christian auditorium or sanctuary to tune in from their couch. This has kept me from potentially encouraging someone who doesn’t love Jesus, to hear His message of redemption and love through a device they are using already. All of a sudden, I realized, that my reasons for refusing to update my list of approved methods were limiting my ability to be used to build God’s Kingdom. 

This is a tiny thing, but I believe we make choices and judgments about the methods of spreading God’s love without actually asking why. I don’t want to update my contact prescription because I don’t want to waste what I currently own. This means I live a blurry life. When we refuse to adjust, we compromise clarity for the goal Christ has set before us: to make disciples. What are the things you may need to be adjusting today? The message is the same. The prescription for getting there will continue to need adjustments. Let us be humble, flexible, and good stewards of the call.