Saturday, December 23, 2017

Gifts Gifts Gifts!

by Sylvia Gaston

What’s the best gift you’ve ever received? My favorite gifts always involve photos of my loved ones.

When our children were young, and we didn’t have a lot of money, my husband would secretly gather our children to make me a gift – a poster with photographs of each one with words of love written on it. These were often decorated with markers, sequins and chenille stems. I have 4 of them, given to me for Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. If our house was on fire, I would grab them first as I ran out the door. They are precious to me.

As they got older, my oldest son Bryan and his wife, Megan, would gather the other three and go out for a photo shoot. These pictures were then framed and wrapped and given to me for Christmas or Mother’s Day. Also, something I would grab as I ran out the door of our burning house.

What’s the best gift you’ve ever given? Some of my favorite memories are of a time when I have given a gift that I knew hit the target perfectly. It was thoughtful, personal and precious to the recipient. I remember anxiously waiting and watching for them to open it up.

One, in particular, comes to mind - a crinkle-edged pastel drawing that my husband drew when he was 8 years old. I sent that poinsettia drawing off to be printed onto a canvas that would last for years to come. He loved it and it hangs prominently in our home.

Other gifts that brought squeals of delight come to mind – toys, bikes, phones.

Now, in the midst of Christmas shopping for a lot of people, I know that some of the gifts I’m buying will hit the target and some of them are just practical things that I know will be appreciated but not necessarily make the recipient ‘freak out’.

And, in the midst of all of these holiday traditions, we are reminded to remember why we celebrate Christmas. And, I do.

I remember that God gives me great gifts. He has given me life, a body that works miraculously every day, a family, dear friends, a fantastic career. He has given me a beautiful planet to live on – with water, air, and indescribable beauty to behold.

God has given me free will. To take whatever path I choose – right or wrong, good or bad, smart or foolish. I’ve probably been a little of each over the years.

But, most importantly, the Bible says God sent Jesus to us as a gift. In Luke 1:32, it says, “He will be great and will be called the son of the Most High.” In Romans 6:23, we are told, “…the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”.
Jesus is our way of living forever with God. And, until that day, we have His Holy Spirit speaking to us, guiding us, comforting us, and showing us the perfect path for our lives.

WHAT?!! I get a gift of eternal life! In a heavenly place beyond my imagining?!

Put a bow on it. I’ll take that! I pray the same for you. That you, too, are the recipient of this, the best gift ever.

Merry Christmas to you and to those you hold dear! May God’s presence be felt and evident in your life and in your home.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Let’s Spend Less And Give More This Christmas

by Tim Howard 

As the 2017 Christmas season began, I gave some additional thought toward this time of celebration. I asked myself these questions: Does frantically running from store to store looking for the perfect gift – for that perfect someone add or detract from the joy of Christmas? Do I really want to buy things I cannot afford or don’t really need? How would our families respond if we focused more on our time together than the gifts we receive? Do material things provide what families really want and need  or is there a better way to celebrate the Christmas season?

After talking to myself and answering a few of those questions, I’ve decided to conspire with others and find a way to celebrate the Advent of Christ without yielding to the spirit of consumerism, which is very much alive in our culture.

I’m not implying we should spend nothing! It’s not about being stingy, miserly or acting like a scrooge.  Share nothing, have nothing or give nothing.  NO! It’s all about giving gifts but giving gifts that mean something and make a real difference in a person’s life.

Spend less and give more – That’s my mantra this year!  Sounds impossible unless you realize that the greatest gifts we can give people cost nothing at all in a monetary sense.

Three of the greatest gifts came to us through the birth of Jesus Christ and you can give these three gifts to others.  He came to reveal the Father’s love.  He came to give us joy and He came to offer forgiveness and freedom from our past.

A Doctor by the name of Luke makes mention of these three gifts by recording the announcement of Christ’s birth in the Bible.  He says in Luke 2:10 -11, “the angel of the Lord said to them, ‘…behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” Did you notice that Jesus came for everyone and not just a few?  The very fact that God decided to live among us reveals His great love toward us and when you add joy and forgiveness to the equation you have three pretty awesome gifts. That’s not only good news, that’s great news!

The spirit of consumerism can blind us from seeing the real message of Christmas. If we miss out on what’s truly important – the Christmas season can be a burden to endure rather than a blessing to be experienced.

Maybe we should consider returning to the true meaning of Christmas if we’ve missed it. A decision to celebrate God’s presence rather than focusing on getting presents might be the best thing you could do. Give more of yourself by serving rather than spending. You will have more money in your pockets and more life in your heart at the end of the season.  You will honor God by exalting His son Jesus Christ and that’s extremely important since it’s His birthday celebration.  He is the reason we say: Merry Christmas!

Many gifts can be purchased for people this Christmas but Love, Joy and forgiveness are among the best – and they won’t cost you one monetary cent!

Saturday, December 9, 2017

When The Math Doesn’t Add Up

by Candace Cortez

During one of the most expensive times of the year, I’d like to share a story with you.

I sat down tonight to “balance the books.” To make sure all our bills are paid, and our money is accounted for. After years of marriage, we are seeing the effects of faithful stewardship in our finances. We’re not rich, but we haven’t seen a zero balance in a while. We work hard not to spend more than we earn, even if it means no cable that month, my roots growing out an extra centimeter or two between hair appointments, eating meals at home instead of at restaurants, or whatever the sacrifices may need to be. It was not always this way.

Years ago, when my husband had to stop working to finish his education, this money planning process was not nearly as rewarding. No matter how much we sacrificed, we could not make ends meet. I simply did not make enough money to support us financially. This was difficult for my family on so many levels. Our comforts were hit, our entertainment took a dive, and so did our pride; especially my husband’s. Providing for our family is a part of his identity as the leader of our household. No matter how many things we cancelled, bringing our bills to the bare minimum, we couldn’t make the amount of money made, match the amount of money required to keep the lights on and house warm. The math didn’t add up.

As we balanced the books we would circle the final dollar amount by which we would be short that month. We prayed. We prayed a lot. Then we prayed some more. Those months were some of the most faith building months we have ever experienced. We watched as family, friends, and even random members of our community reached out and bridged the gap, bringing our balance to zero, if not just over it, giving us a few dollars to breathe with. One day, a check came in the mail for the exact amount of our circled gap amount. Other times, I had to do the hard ask. It’s not easy to ask for help. Some of my most vulnerable conversations have been requests for help because I could not do something on my own. For 10 months in a row, the math didn’t add up for us to live without help or adding debt. For 10 months in a row, somehow, our bills were always paid. God. Is. Good.

I smile writing this because God is a God who balances things differently than we do. When I see a gap between what is and what’s expected, I am filled with fear, worry, doubts, stress…you name it. God doesn’t bat an eye. He shines in those math gaps. When things don’t add up, it gives space for God to do miraculous things. Thousands of years ago, when the people were expecting a king, God sent a baby. That didn’t add up. When the boy only had two loaves and 5 fish, thousands left with full bellies. That didn’t add up. When we were sentenced to eternity away from God in suffering because of our sin, and the price for freedom was far beyond what we could pay, Jesus said “it is finished” and rose again three days later. That doesn’t add up!

Don’t fool yourself. There is nothing you can do to earn what God is doing for you and through you always. We can never donate enough money, take care of enough sick or rejected, plant enough trees, solve enough problems, to be able to bridge the gap between us and relationship with God. It will never add up without Jesus.

This really is the most wonderful time of the year, unless you’re trying to fill that gap with anything other than Jesus. Do not let the desire for stuff ruin your focus on the fact that when the math didn’t add up, God made a way by sending His Son. Do not let material things ruin the glow and joy we can find in being bought at a price beyond what we can pay back. When the math doesn’t add up for our souls, God makes it happen. Let’s celebrate THAT this Christmas.

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?

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

by Tim Howard
I was sitting on an airplane getting ready for a 5-hour trip. My seat is in the economy section and is located between two other passengers. As I’m sitting there I recall a song titled: ‘Stuck in the Middle with You”
If you’ve ever been confined to a very small place for a very long time you might be able to empathize – I was feeling a bit claustrophobic! When you’re confined, restricted, locked up or simply stuck between a rock and a hard place – freedom becomes a desired commodity.
It’s easy to get stuck in life and feel like there’s no way out and no where to go. Some people get stuck in an abusive relationship or a dead end job or stuck on themselves because of pride. But one thing is certain, freedom is preferable!

In John 8, Jesus made an incredibly profound statement.  He said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free.  And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  What was He talking about?  Here’s a couple of answers from the Bible.
Jesus came to free us from YESTERDAY’S PAIN. All of us have a history.
Our past is cluttered with baggage that isn’t pleasant to recall, remember or rehearse with others. Like mud that engulfs a vehicle and prohibits it from moving ahead, so our guilt, shame and condemnation can keep us from progress. You can also get stuck in your past sin and forfeit a bright tomorrow.
“The Lord says, ‘Forget about what has happened before.  Do not think about the past. Instead, look at the new thing I am going to do.’”  Isaiah 43:18-19 (NCV)
"… if you devote your heart to him and stretch out your hands to him, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent then, free of fault, you will lift up your face; you will stand firm and without fear. You will surely forget your trouble, recalling it only as waters gone by.  Life will be brighter than noonday, and darkness will become like morning. Job 11:13-17 (NIV)
Jesus came to free us from TODAY’S PRESSURES. Stress is all around us and there seems to be no escape! God, however, gives us these words.
“God never grows faint or weary…  He gives power to those who are tired and worn out.”  Isaiah 40:28-29 (NLT)
 Jesus:  “Are you tired?  Worn out?  Burned out on religion?  Come to Me for real rest… and you’ll recover your life... and you’ll learn to live… freely and lightly.”  Matthew 11:28-29 (MSG.)
Jesus came to free us from TOMORROW’S UNCERTAINTY.
“I know what I am planning for you,” says the Lord, “I have good plans for you, not plans to hurt you.  I will give you hope and a good future.”  Jeremiah 29:11 (NCV)
We all have ‘In-between’ times! Those moments when we leave one place for another but because we are in process, we haven’t arrived at the destination. You might be ‘between’ appointments or between jobs or possibly you are between a rock and a hard place.

Here’s the truth about Jesus. He came to free you and me from yesterday’s pain, today’s pressures and tomorrow’s uncertainty. 

If a person wants to experience this freedom, all he or she needs to do is put their faith IN God; their focus ON God and start walking WITH God. He will help you when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

I Declare

by Sylvia Gaston

To declare is to say something in a solemn and emphatic manner. In order words, say it forcibly and clearly.

When I think about the things that I typically say forcibly and clearly, it generally comes down to this…

·      stuff I declare to my kids

·      stuff I declare at work

·      stuff I am passionate about

Last year, I came across the concept of starting each day with a verbal declaration of what you know to be true and declare over your life. This caught my attention and I haven’t been able to let go of the concept.

I am a firm believer that our thoughts shape our words, and our words shape our actions. If I’m honest, I must admit that I tend to fall into the camp of pessimism – you know, the glass is half empty kind of person. I always pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.

I’ve always been jealous of the people who just ooze joy. They seem to have the brightest outlook on life and they seem genuinely happy. Hey, I want that! I know that God wants that for me, too! The Bible says it this way…”I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” –John 10:10

Many years ago, I read a book that summed it up nicely. “Battlefield of the Mind”, written by Joyce Meyer, is an excellent read and a powerful resource in winning the battle that takes place within our own brains. Joyce is a great speaker and author. She also loves Christ. But this book stands on its own merit – for Christians and non-Christians alike.

The book assumes that positive minds produce positive lives. Well, who doesn’t want that?  There are steps we can take, and obstacles we may have to overcome, to win these mental battles that take place daily.

In a nutshell, a couple of the steps include: realizing that change happens a little at a time so we can’t give up, and we need to regularly think about what we’re thinking.

Some of the obstacles to becoming a more positive person may be: a wandering mind, a confused mind, a doubtful mind, an anxious or worried mind.

Having admitted to myself that I can be a little negative by nature (or a lot), I’ve learned that my thoughts have a tremendous impact on how I walk through life. I can think myself into a funk that sets the tone for my day and my interaction with others. Not good. I also believe that the mind is where evil imaginations begin.

If that’s the case, it stands to reason that I should be able to do the opposite as well. If I think positive thoughts and declare things I know to be true, I should be able to set myself up for positive days and positive interactions with others, right?

So, for the last several months, I have been mentally honing my Personal Declaration. I am committed to finishing it this month and I’m very close.

At first, I didn’t know where to start. So I prayed about it and God revealed to me that I needed to begin with what I know to be true. I began to list the following:

1.     things I know to be true about God

2.     things I know to be true about myself

3.     things I know to be true about others (because I do life with “others”)

The list is long. I’m in the process now of making it manageable to state each day and I’m sure I’ll eventually memorize it. I also know that it will change and evolve as I change and evolve.

My vision is that I will declare truths on a daily basis and set the tone for a more positive and productive day -- a day that I enjoy and that positively impacts those around me. I think that’s a pretty awesome and worthwhile vision.

I challenge you to begin crafting a Personal Declaration for you and your life. I can already see the beginnings of change happening in me.

I want to have a positive life and that begins with positive thoughts. I remember what the apostle Paul says about the importance and responsibility of guarding our mind.

“We capture every thought and make it obedient to Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 10:5

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Wake Up!

by Candace Cortez

It amazes me how God has made so many people unique and different and the same all at the same time. I am also surprised that for many people, He has given them the gift of morning love. I do not have this gift. I loathe all mornings. I am productive in the morning because I have to be. I am awake in the morning literally only because I have children and a job. If I had total freedom to choose, my day would start at 10am (which is like the cool uncle version of mornings). For me, waking up is daily battle number one.

As I was struggling to claim my joy and my victory over this morning, I remembered Ephesians 5:14 which reads “Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, And Christ will shine on you."

There are many verses of scripture that liken being asleep to being dead. This is not a physical situation, it’s definitely a spiritual situation.

Pop culture has gotten hold of this concept and there is a word buzzing around which is used to identify someone who is socially aware and sensitive to what’s going on in the community. This word is “woke.” Like, “that person is woke, they volunteer in the neighborhood every week.” (Consider this the first edition of your friendly youth pastor slang training!)

Although it is not a word I use personally, I do believe some of us struggle to wake up more than others. Here are a few of the struggles. And they are real.

Waking up is hard because we are comfy where we are sleeping. Sometimes the idea of getting out of our cozy blankets and stepping into the cold seems so uninviting. The same can be said spiritually and socially. We are comfy where we are. We are not being challenged and we like that. Yes, we know there is more out there, but we don’t really care, because here right in front of us is so good. Do not let complacency be the death of you!

Waking up is hard because once I wake up, I have to do so much! Staying in my bed means I don’t have to worry about making lunches, going to work, or even picking out the outfit of the day! For some of us, we have this glimpse of what’s going on in the world: racism, poverty, corruption, injustice, natural disasters, and we think to ourselves, that’s just too much to try to figure out. There is too much to do. This is actually true. There is too much to do for one person. Luckily, you are not alone. We all need to wake up and work together to help each other get to a better place socially. And spiritually, sometimes we lose the joy of spiritual disciplines. Sometimes we are not carrying the natural desire to pray, and study, and share our faith, because the work is never done. But God is calling us to not put our faith to sleep! Be active in growing and sharing. The fruit of being alive in Christ is SO WORTH IT!

Waking up is hard because I didn’t set my alarm. Sometimes I am blessed with a morning to not need to set my alarm. I still wake up earlier than I would like, but I very rarely wake up as early as I would if I were to set my alarm. We need social and spiritual alarms in place in our life to wake us up when we fall asleep. I find the best alarms in honest friendships. People in my life who can let me know when I have grown too comfortable or too afraid to progress. We can also find alarms in exposure to new experiences. If we push ourselves out of our routines to see the world and to see God from a new perspective, we may have a greater chance of responding to the needs of our community and the call of God on our hearts. 

So, WAKE UP! Do not be dead to the one who made you and the planet He put you on! In the process, God will shine on you! Don’t miss out on the blessing of living your life totally awake.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Dealing with Doubt

by Andrew Cromwell

Almost everyone has doubts. Doubts are a part of life. We even have sayings about doubt. We say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”, and “Don’t believe everything you hear”, and “Trust, but verify.”  

And without a doubt, there is plenty of reason to doubt! Our world has disappointed us so many times we find it difficult to trust anything anymore. We have been disappointed by products we purchased that didn’t live up to their claims. We have been crushed by people who promised and didn’t follow through. And we have been devastated by friends who told us to trust them, when they never planned to be trustworthy at all.

There is very little in the world that is reliable and trustworthy, or so it seems.

And then we begin to think about God—an all-knowing, all-loving Creator—and we can’t seem to keep our negative experiences from bleeding over into our trust in Him. And this is natural. Everything we have seen and experienced in this world has led us to doubt. But God says that we are to have faith in Him.

Faith is the opposite of doubt. Faith requires us to believe and trust even when we can’t see the entire picture in this moment. Where doubt demands to see the hard evidence, faith is ok with waiting because it is confident the evidence will follow.

Doubt is a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you doubt someone and are convinced they are going to let you down, they always do. You can always find a reason to doubt! You can find plenty of reasons to doubt God too. Many people sabotage their faith in God by choosing to believe things about Him that are simply not true (for example, believe that if God is real and He loves me, then He won’t allow bad things to happen to me). When these false beliefs are verified (aka, bad things happen), then they become angry at God.

So what do we do with doubt?

The first thing we do is to choose the opposite of doubt. We choose faith. We choose to trust God even when we don’t understand. But choosing faith is only the first step.

Second, we feed our faith and starve our doubts. This is a decision to actively feed yourself the right “faith-food” and avoid feasting on doubt-filled thoughts. Instead of rehearsing all the things we are unsure about, we instead focus on the things we are sure about. We know God is good, we know He love us, and we know that He is with us even in the midst of difficult times (including times filled with doubt).

Finally, we push into the only One who is really trustworthy! We do whatever we must to get closer to God. We desperately pursue Him. We get around people that are excited about God. We read the Bible. We talk to God. We grow ourselves spiritually.

As you do this, you will find that your faith will grow stronger.

The next time you are filled with doubt, talk to someone about it. But don’t just talk to anyone, talk to someone who you know is filled with faith and can encourage you. Don’t talk to someone who is filled with doubt! You’ll always leave that conversation filled with even more doubt too.