Colossians Week 2: Do you know what you’re doing?

What are your priorities? Your passions? Do you know what your purpose is?

These are a few of the questions John put before us as he led us further into our study of Colossians. This weekend, we covered verses 9-14. This is how The Message translates this part of Paul’s prayer:

Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works. We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work. We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us. God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating.

“Juggling more than one priority is exhausting–and it’s actually impossible. We were never meant to have a divided heart.”

When John spoke these words, he was highlighting a truth that we don’t often acknowledge, a thought that is counter-cultural in a world that tells us to list our priorities in an attempt to better organize our lives. His point was simply that it doesn’t matter what occupies space #2, 3, 4, 5, etc… The only thing that matters is what sits in the #1 slot. Whatever is first in our lives is what drives our passion, what dictates our purpose. Everything else is wrapped up in priority #1.

What sits at #1 on your list? Ultimately, it comes down to one of two answers–it’s God or it’s ourselves. Friends, this is a huge deal. If God is first, if He is our priority, then our passion is wrapped up in Him. And if He is our priority and passion, we will know our purpose. If He’s first in our lives, we will be willing to do whatever He asks us to do–and we have the potential to change the world. The whole world can change from one undivided heart that is fully sold out to Jesus.

I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 11:19 NIV)

God wants us to have an undivided heart. He says He will give it to us. Are we willing to receive it? An undivided, surrendered heart in one individual is powerful. A group of these sold-out individuals can move a church and a community out of apathy and complacency (the kind of indifference and lack of momentum that causes 1,750 churches per month in the United States to close their doors!) and into a future marked by passion and momentum. And the body of Christ living this way, united under one name, the highest name, the name of Jesus Christ? This is what ushers in the Kingdom of God-this is what causes the world to believe!! In  John 17:21, Jesus says these words:

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me [this is us, friends] through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Paul’s letter encourages readers to walk well, be strong & endure and to be thankful. I want to share with you a couple of letters in closing. In case you have any doubt that one undivided heart can change the world…

Letter #1:

“I want to be remembered for how I enjoyed life and loved the Lord… The journey has not been easy… The Lord was with me every step. He held my hand through it all. As I surrendered my heart to Him, I was able to know Him in a way I always wanted. I never thought it would be possible to know Him so deeply. The Lord became everything to me during this time. Every day I chose to live for Him… To bring Him glory… I can actually say, ‘I would do it all again’, knowing how close I was able to get to my Father in Heaven. The intimacy I found cannot be obtained anywhere but with the Father. It is so beautiful. I pray that all of you would find the Lord in an intimate, deep way. I was able to thank God for my illnesses. I found a place in the pain to turn and surrender everything in my life to my Lord… I pray the Lord will bless you with showers of blessings… I hope the Holy Spirit will bring you joy and peace. I love you all so dearly. Keep fighting-and endure.”

Letter #2:

“You are a very special woman. You changed many people’s lives-including mine. You are so close to God and have taught me to be, too. I love you so much…You are so great… I will never forget you. I will endure on God always.”

The first letter was written by a woman on her death bed. She wrote it to be read at her memorial service. The second was written by the woman’s nine year old granddaughter the day before the woman went to be with the Lord.

My mom wrote the first one. My daughter wrote the second. Every day I see my mom’s influence in my girl. I watch in awe as the honest wrestling and the willing surrender plays out in the life of my now twelve year old. My mom didn’t know how far reaching her purpose would be. It outlived her. But make no mistake, one undivided heart–one life fully surrendered, a life whose one priority is God & His Kingdom–will impact other lives. One life has the potential to change the world.

Do you believe that? Are you willing to live a life like that?

–Laura

I love that Laura included the excerpt from her precious mother’s letter, and the response of her daughter.  One life lived “all in” for Christ has a ripple effect that can’t be measured. Laura’s mom is a perfect example of that.

John said, “We think gospel expansion happens because of super stars like Paul”, or we think it’s the pastor’s job, and then he reminded us of all the regular people  that Paul mentions in his letters–women, men, slaves, soldiers, fellow prisoners, free people–people like you, people like me–we are God’s plan for advancing the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  And then he shared this sobering thought, “The Kingdom of God either grows or doesn’t based on our passions and our priorities. What we do as individuals and as a church body either advances the Kingdom or hinders the Kingdom.” Even as I type those words, I feel the increase in the beat of my heart. I so desperately want to see every Christ follower fully sold out to God’s mission–it is the only way to experience the abundant life that Jesus promises. It’s the only way to experience intimacy with God. It’s the only way to experience true freedom. And it’s the only way to change the world.

How does it happen? We can’t be motivated by the “should”. That will never be sustainable. It has to be motivated by love and by gratitude. John pointed out that we talk about what we are grateful for. If a stranger buys our coffee, we tell people. If someone lets us get in front of them in line, we tell people. If we see something wonderful, we tell people. We talk about the gifts we receive, the kindnesses extended to us, the beauty all around that captures our attention–the things that we are grateful for.

Verses 12-14 of Colossians 1 say “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 

We all used to live in the dominion of darkness.  Pause and think about that for a second. The dominion of darkness was our home, and we had no way to escape it on our own. We were prisoners. But God the Father, who loves us so much, qualified us (made us sufficient, rendered us fit) to become citizens of the kingdom of light, the kingdom of His Son, Jesus. And how did God qualify us? He took all of our darkness, all of our personal failures, every moment of our lives that we have fallen short of living for God’s glory and put it all on Jesus–2 Corinthians 5:21 tells us that Jesus didn’t just carry our sin–He became our sin. I can’t even fathom the weight of that. Then our sin offering, Jesus, was sacrificed in brutal fashion, and when He died He cried out “tetelestai” (it is finished), which literally means PAID IN FULL.  Pause and think about that for a second.

And what we received out of that sacrifice is redemption (we can be restored to the full purpose for which we were created) and forgiveness for all of it–past, present, future.  We can live in glorious freedom. And because Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose again and then sent us the Holy Spirit, we can live powerful, godly, meaningful, abundant, kingdom advancing lives.   Who else loves us like that? Have we become so familiar with the story, with our own salvation,  that we’ve lost our awe, lost our gratitude, and lost the desire to help rescue others from the dominion of darkness? Pause and think about that for a second.

Backing up to verse 10, Paul writes, “We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” 

John said “Paul abandoned everything, gave up everything, and God did everything else.” Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 to “Seek FIRST the Kingdom of God” and assures us that God will take care of the rest.

We sang in our service “May the glory of Your name be the passion of the church”. (All To Us, Tomlin)  I am the church, you are the church. This is our call, our purpose, our life, why we are here.  Is it time to recalibrate? To reorder priorities? To surrender more fully? To go in more deeply?

-Luanne

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Who Are We? Colossians 1:1-8

I love the book of Colossians and am super excited that we will be in that book for the next 10 weeks. Paul lays out a beautiful picture of the supremacy of Jesus in this letter–one that I think if we truly “got” would change us to our core.

In the first message of this series, John highlighted verses 1-8 of chapter one—Paul’s greeting. It says this:

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,
To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father.
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people—the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace. You learned it from Epaphras, our dear fellow servant, who is a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf, and who also told us of your love in the Spirit. (NIV)

So many things stand out in this passage–
*Paul’s call “by the will of God”– Every person in Christ has a call by the will of God, including you and me.
*Paul’s acknowledgement of Timothy– Paul does not do ministry alone; neither should we.
*His acknowledgement of the believers in Colossae as “holy” or “saints”, not because of superior morality, but because of their position in Christ, they belong to, are set apart by the presence of Jesus in their lives. We too, are saints, holy–because of Jesus. Can those around us perceive that we are different? Not superior, but different.
*Paul encourages the Colossians, builds them up, acknowledges that he has heard about their faith, about their love for one another, about their hope in God’s big plan, about their acceptance of the gospel and the growth in their region because they are sharing it, about their understanding of the grace of God, and he lets them know that they are not alone–that the gospel is spreading throughout the whole world. And he mentions Epaphras, and says beautiful encouraging things about him. Building one another up, sharing life together, speaking life to one another, are indicators of the presence of Christ. Is that how we, the body of Christ, are living today? Are we known as life speakers? As encouragers?

John threw out some nuggets of his own in the sermon:

*Knowledge means nothing if it’s not connected to your heart.
*The ability to have faith and love comes from our hope–hope in all things becoming right, complete, because we know how it ends, we see the big picture and what God is doing in the big picture.
*Christianity was pushing into a world that didn’t necessarily want it.
*False teaching began to come in and Christianity was being twisted to meet the desire of the people, so Paul wrote to the Colossians encouraging them to keep Jesus Christ at the core of who they were, to shape their lives around him.
*We belong to Jesus, He does not belong to us.
*My identity, your identity is that we are followers of Jesus Christ. It’s all or nothing.

In the midst of all of these beautiful and profound things, my heart landed on Epaphras. Epaphras, the “fellow servant” of Paul and Timothy, the “faithful minister of Christ” to the Colossians, the man who presented the message of Christ so beautifully that the Colossians “truly understood God’s grace” and it changed their lives and their community forever.

We don’t know much about Epaphras. He is mentioned in one other book of the Bible– Philemon, and at that point he is a prisoner with Paul and is sending his greetings to Philemon who was a leader in the Colossian church. But what we do know about Epaphras is that he loved God, he understood God’s grace, he found his entire identity in Christ, he embraced the call of God–the will of God in his life, and he knew and presented Jesus in a very compelling way to a group of people in Colossae–it changed their lives and bore fruit.

Can that be said of us? Are we “fellow servants” with others in the ministry of sharing Jesus? Are we “faithful ministers of Christ”? Do we know and love Jesus enough that those around us can “truly understand God’s grace”? Are we in-all or nothing-as followers of Christ? Are we willing to push into a world that doesn’t necessarily want Jesus? Have we lost our hope? Do we feel alone?

John shared this video with us:  https://youtu.be/9h0zTWHQGP4

Isn’t that encouraging? While it’s true that Christianity is growing at a slower rate in the United States than our population growth, the annual world population growth is at a rate of 1.2%, and the annual evangelical growth rate is 2.6% (GMI.org) Just like Paul wrote: “the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world.” There is a permanency to the gospel. It is powerful, it will not be stopped, the gates of hell will not prevail against it! (Mt. 16:18)

So the question for us, who live in a part of the world where the gospel is not growing as fast…who live in a world resistant to the message of Christ (because, unfortunately, he has been so misrepresented here), are we each willing to be an Epaphras? Are we willing to fall in love with Jesus, recognize His beauty, His supremacy, ask Him to teach us to love the world, to connect our knowledge to our hearts–to His heart–embrace God’s will, God’s call in our lives,  and allow the Spirit to flow through us to those around us? May hope in the fulfillment of God’s big mission birth faith and love that leads to action in each of us.

–Luanne

I find myself a bit scattered as my fingers land on my keyboard… How can it be that there is so much packed into eight short verses? There are so many directions to go, points to expound on, thoughts to explore. As I read through Luanne’s words and re-read the verses a few times, one thought stuck in my mind.

All of the people mentioned in these verses were “all in”, fully committed to the work before them and fully committed to one another.

The letter is written from Paul-and he includes Timothy-to the church at Colossae. We know from all that is written by-and about-these two that they were committed to furthering the Gospel of Jesus. But what stood out to me about them in this short passage related to their commitment to the Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you… (vs. 3)

I think this short verse is so beautiful. The two words I highlighted above, “always” and “when” say so much about the hearts of Paul and Timothy toward their brothers and sisters in Christ. “When” we pray, let the church know that they were being faithfully prayed for. And when they prayed for them, it was always with thanksgiving. We aren’t privy to all of the other things Paul and Timothy may have prayed in regard to this church, but we know that they always thanked God for them. What if we prayed that way for each other? First, that we actually pray–that’s the “when”. And second, that we always begin by thanking God for whoever it is that we are praying for. Thanking Him for the work He is doing in the people we pray for, starting there. Not with the gripes and a critical spirit–with grateful hearts that can see the life of Jesus working in fellow believers. I have this feeling that if we changed just this one tiny thing in our prayers, we would find that our own hearts would be changed and our relationships would grow stronger.

And the people they were praying for, the Colossians, they were “all in”, too. John gave us a breakdown of their story. He laid it out this way:

They were once disconnected from God, dead in their sin–us too, right?

They heard the Gospel, and they accepted it. We have heard-have we accepted it?

Their sins were forgiven and they were baptized and began living a new life. Do we know our sins are forgiven? Have we been baptized and have our lives been made new?

Jesus was Lord of their life. They lived in a way that testified to His Lordship. Where are we in this step? Can people look at our lives and see us unashamedly living Jesus’s way?

John also said, and Luanne mentioned this earlier, that they were pushing into a world that didn’t want them there. We will come back to this point…

I think it’s safe to say that the church at Colossae was “all in”.

And then there is Epaphras. Luanne wrote about him so beautifully, so I will use her description again here:

“…what we do know about Epaphras is that he loved God, he understood God’s grace, he found his entire identity in Christ, he embraced the call of God–the will of God in his life, and he knew and presented Jesus in a very compelling way to a group of people in Colossae–it changed their lives and bore fruit.”

Again, he was “all in”. Paul & Timothy, the Colossians and Epaphras-all of them lived lives fully surrendered to Jesus and fully on mission. These eight verses tell us more than enough about them to come to the conclusion that they were committed. They were in. Period. No turning back. And that is why they were “pushing into a world that didn’t want them there”… and having success.

When John spoke those words, I couldn’t help but relate it to us today. As Luanne mentioned above, the United States is one of the few countries where Christianity is growing more slowly than the population of the nation. It is not at all a stretch to say that, in our present day and culture, the world around us doesn’t really want us here. I agree with Luanne that a major contributing factor is that we have so misrepresented who Jesus is and what our faith is all about, but regardless of the “why”, we are definitely unwanted in the nation we call home.

What are we doing about that? Could it be said of us that we are “pushing in” to a world that doesn’t want us, as the Colossians did? Or are we allowing the world around us to influence us more than we are influencing them? Are we being shaped by culture or are we shaping culture? As individuals and as the collective church?

I believe that the reason the Colossian church was successful at pushing into and changing the world around them was because they were all in. Their understanding of who they were-ambassadors who represented Jesus, brothers and sisters who all were important to the family of believers and saints because they belonged to Jesus-directed every facet of their lives. They got it. They accepted it. And they lived in a way that proved that they believed it.

What about us? Can we effectively push into a world that doesn’t (know) they want us? The answer, I believe, is yes. If we go all in. If we can follow this beautiful example and live fully committed lives, we can and will see the statistics in our nation and the world change for the better. I want to live an “all in” life. Will you join me?

We would love for you to enter into the conversation with us through the comments section!

-Laura

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Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here?

Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here? What powerful questions these are! Shane made so many excellent points in his sermon, one of which was when things get confusing, muddled, lost in details that don’t really matter–asking ourselves these two questions will cut through all the fluff and get us back on track.

The beautiful verse mash-up that he read makes it all so very clear:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light, all who received him those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, you are the body of Christ and each one of you is part of it.” (1 Peter 2:9, John 1:12, Eph 3:6b, 1st Corinthians 12:27)

Who are you church? Why are you here?

Church. No matter who you are, the word conjures up some sort of image, some sort of thought. To many, church is a building, a place to go. “I go to church at such and such a place.” To others it is a place to be avoided–”I could never go to church, I would never be accepted there.” To some church is the place that dictates the do’s and don’ts of life, and makes one feel guilty or self-righteous depending on the current behavioral score card. To some church is boring, irrelevant, not necessary. To others church is a habit, a social experience, an expectation. To some, church is the place to get the personal spiritual tank filled on a weekly basis. To others, church is an exercise in trying to pretend that life is perfect. But to those who seek, to those who pay attention to what Jesus teaches about this thing called church that the gates of hell will not prevail against (Mt. 16:18), church is a God-breathed, life transforming living organism, built on the foundation of Jesus,  infused with the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the greatest mission of all—-taking the love of and the Kingdom of God to every person, tribe, tongue and nation across the globe, and every new believer becomes part of this living, growing organism. Peter tells us in 1st Peter 2:5 that we are living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. Do you see yourself in that way?

I grew up in church, a great church, but it became routine and I was nominal in my relationship with God and His church, so I became dissatisfied and bored. In my young adulthood I took a few years off, which led me nowhere good. I had no idea how vital being part of a living church was to my emotional and spiritual health until I decided to step away for a few years. Once I made a total mess of things, and truly had nowhere else to turn, I timidly re-entered the community of Christ-followers, and was welcomed with grace and joy. I began to realize that the church is me. I am the church. So, if the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him, the question becomes am I doing those things? Once I figured out that the more I immersed myself in the true mission of Jesus and His church, the more fulfilling my life became. I was hooked.

Shane made the point that the strength of the church is defined by the connections we have– not by our programs, our budget, our building, but by our connections.
Connection number one is do we have a strong connection with the triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit? Connection number two, do we have strong connections with other people in the body? Are we making intentional time for one another, fellowshipping together, doing life together, encouraging one another, sharpening one another? And connection number three, are we bringing others in so that they can connect with God, connect with fellow believers, find freedom, discover their purpose and become part of bringing others in.  All three of these connections are vital to being a Kingdom church.

It is not possible to fulfill the mission of the church without going all in. That’s just what’s true. Jesus was very clear, and modeled very clearly that his Kingdom is all about relationships, and it requires denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him daily. (Luke 9:23). And you know what I’ve learned? It is not a heavy weight– it is a great joy. My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing greater than getting to be part of God’s saving and transforming work in someone else’s life. There is nothing more fulfilling than being part of God’s global work of bringing His Kingdom of justice and love to the world. There is nothing greater than watching God break strongholds, chains, do the impossible, and blow minds with how truly great He is.

So–who are you church? Why are you here? Do you see yourself as a “living stone” a vital piece in His church? We’d love to hear your answers…

–Luanne

Luanne reiterated in her beautiful writing the three reasons Shane laid out for why the church is here:

“…the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him…” 

Shane spent a lot of time on the second point, encouraging one another. He reminded us of the definition of the word encourage–and I’m so glad he did, because I think we sometimes forget its full implications and end up operating out of a watered down understanding of what it means. The initial meaning is “to take heart”. But when it is broken down further, it means “to strengthen, foster or advance something or someone”.

If you presented me with the three points Shane made about why the church is here before I heard the message and asked me which one I thought was the most important, encouraging one another would have been last on my list. Because, obviously, connecting with God and glorifying Him and sharing Christ are the more important pieces of this puzzle… right? Encouraging one another can feel too inward-focused, maybe a little selfish… right?

I wrestled these thoughts through as I listened. And have prayed through them ever since.  And this is where I’ve landed–

We cannot successfully connect with God or share Jesus with those who don’t know Him if we haven’t first been encouraged by other believers.

I know that is a fairly bold statement to make, but stay with me for a minute…

As I prayed and wrestled with my own thoughts, I was reminded of my own journey with God, with faith, with church. How did I get to where I am today?

By the encouragement of other believers.

I am not talking about flattery, praise, “atta girls”. I am referring to the kind of encouragement Shane defined for us. The kind of encouragement that builds off of the love Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

How did Jesus love his disciples? That list is too large to cover comprehensively here. But it absolutely included strengthening what was weak in them, fostering an environment of growth and advancing them into roles and positions they could never have imagined for themselves. Through Jesus’s encouragement and example, they learned how to connect with God and glorify Him and they also learned what they would need to know to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts records how essential encouragement, in it’s full definition, was to the early church:

 Acts 9:31: Paul was preaching and when he left, the church “was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit.”                                                                                                        

Acts 11:23: Barnabas (whose real name was Joseph, but he was so known for being an encourager that he was nicknamed “Barnabas”, meaning “son of encouragement”. How cool is that?? I love Barnabas!) encouraged early Christians in Antioch “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”                                                                                                            

Acts 13:15: “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak”                                                                                                                                               

Acts 14:22: Paul “strengthened the disciples and encouraged them to remain true to the faith”                                                                                                                                                

 Acts 15:31: People read the epistle and “were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.”                                                    

Acts 15:41: Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches”                  

Acts 16:5: Paul and Timothy visit “so the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”                                                                                                                        

Acts 16:40: Paul and Silas out of prison…”they met with the brothers and encouraged them.”                                                                                                                                                

Acts 18:23: Paul went throughout the region of Galatia “strengthening all the disciples”

 Acts 18:27:  the “brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.”  

 Acts 20:1: Paul in Ephesus, “after encouraging them, said good-by and went to Macedonia, “speaking many words of encouragement to the people”

These are a few verses from one book of the New Testament, but from this small glimpse, it is glaringly apparent how important encouragement was to the furtherance of the gospel in the early days of the Church. Jesus Himself had encouraged His disciples and Paul, and they were building His Church the very same way.

Earlier, I wrote that I have gotten to where I am today because of the encouragement of other believers. No matter what age we are when we meet Jesus, we all start out as babies in our faith. I won’t speak for anyone else here, but my personal experience was that I did not intuitively know how to connect with God or how to share Jesus with the world. I had to learn. And I am so grateful for those in my life who have been encouragers to me. Those who have strenthened, fostered and advanced me. Luanne wrote:

“My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church.”

“…the world can’t offer relationships like these.”

She’s right. It can’t. And it isn’t supposed to. We are to love one another and to encourage one another the same way Jesus loves us. And when we do that, we equip one another to reach the world around us and we learn how to better connect with God. All of which glorifies Him and shows the world around us what can happen when we encourage one another well.

So, which point is the most important? I have to say encouraging one another. Because it facilitates the other two points. Are the other two points more vital to Kingdom living? Probably. Definitely. But we cannot get there without first learning how. And that is taught the same way it was in the early church–through the encouragement we give one another.

How did you get to where you are? How has encouragement from other believers impacted your life and faith? We would love to continue this conversation with you!

–Laura

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Imagine If…So that…

The four pillars around which we build our church and around which I try to build my life are:

1. Know God

2. Find Freedom

3. Discover Purpose

4. Make a Difference

John used Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:16-19  to highlight each of these principals.

I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I KEEP ASKING that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation SO THAT you may KNOW him better. I pray also that the EYES of YOUR HEART may be ENLIGHTENED in order that  you may KNOW the hope to which HE HAS CALLED YOU, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and HIS INCOMPARABLY GREAT POWER  for us who believe. 

KNOWING: It’s interesting to think about these four pillars in my own life. I grew up in a family with parents who were deeply committed to Christ. I knew of God from an early age, and when I was nine years old I sensed him drawing me into a relationship with him. I ask him to be my savior and was baptized shortly after. I was different; something real but unexplainable happened in my inner being–truly, a new birth.  My dad used the phrase  that I was giving as much of myself as I could to as much of Jesus as I understood, and his phrase was accurate. My intent was to give all of me to all of Jesus, but I had limited understanding. Life got hard. My mother died when I was in the fifth grade, my dad married again when I was in the sixth grade and I acquired four new siblings, I struggled with anger, grief, crippling insecurity, and I did not know what to think about God. I pulled away and worked on self-destructing for 10 years. When God drew me back, I had a lot of work to do to get to know him. I got involved in a life-giving worshipping church. I attended a small group and began to learn from other people’s experiences. I was still not great at having a daily time with the Lord, but I was seeking Him. The years went by; I married, had two of my three children, and began attending another small group. We were working through Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God study. Week four of the study, I came to a crisis of faith. God revealed to me that I was trying to manage Him, I was trying to control Him by use of a barter system. “God, I’ll do this for you if you do this for me.” Things like: if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die when my children are young, if you promise me that my husband won’t die and leave me a widow with small children, if you promise me that I’ll always be okay and that life won’t be hard…etc. In His gentle but clear way, God told me that he doesn’t barter. Trusting Him means trusting Him no matter what life brings–that I live in a fallen world and that suffering is part of that world, but that He is with me through it all, and that He loves me through it all, and if I ever doubt that, I need to look at what He personally went through on the cross to prove His love. I didn’t like His answer, so I was stuck. I wrestled for days. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat. I confessed my wrestling match to my small group. They laid hands on me and prayed over me. A few days later, out of sheer exhaustion, I surrendered to God’s way. I was flooded with peace, I was flooded with joy, I was flooded with the assurance of His presence, and I went from my barter system to “I will serve you, I will follow you anywhere, even if it costs me my life.” That was 25 years ago and my passion to know Him continues, and my passion to want others to know Him has not changed. Knowing Him involves surrender, and it’s ongoing and it is totally worth it!! I am still striving to give as much of myself as I can to as much of Him as I understand–and I’ll never fully understand– so as long as I am on this side of heaven, this joyous pursuit continues…

FREEDOM: I found a great measure of freedom in that moment of surrender, but the eyes of my heart hadn’t been entirely enlightened. There were choices that I made during my self-destructive years that I had tremendous shame over. I tried to bury them deep within. John pointed out from Proverbs 4:23 that the issues of our lives flow out of our hearts. I was still withholding a portion of my heart, trying to keep it in the dark, which caused some things to flow out of my life that didn’t line up with Paul’s words “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free”. (Gal 5:1) I was afraid if people knew the secrets hidden in the dark that I would be totally rejected and banished from serving God ever again. God,  in His perfect timing, set the stage for me to share my deepest pain, my deepest regrets with two precious friends. They cried with me, they prayed for me, and they are still my friends. And, not only was my personal condemnation obliterated, God has used my story for His glory. Freedom…what a beautiful thing! When the chains fell off, I knew it, and by the grace of God, and the power of His Spirit on whom I have to rely every single day, I am not going back to prison! Whatever He reveals to me these days, I confess immediately, AND I know my own self well enough to know that when my thoughts begin to get critical I need to ask the Spirit to search my heart and show me what’s going on, where I am out of line.

PURPOSE: One of the prison cells that I carried for years was crippling insecurity. I began every ministry role that I’ve ever had with an “I can’t” mentality. I went into each one –Every. Single. One. kicking and screaming. Other people saw in me what I could not see in myself. They still do. What I have learned is that my main purpose in life is to follow Christ, to let Him lead. When He brings opportunities my way to pay attention, when others speak things into my life to pay attention–to pray it all through and if I sense God’s “yes” to step out in obedience despite my fears. Living by faith can be very uncomfortable, but the rewards– his “well done”–nothing compares. If I could do it in my own strength, I wouldn’t need Him. I want to need Him! It’s His work, His mission, His purpose that I want to complete.

MAKE A DIFFERENCE: I pray often, sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, “Lord, I want my life to make a difference for Your Kingdom.” I don’t know how many days I have on planet earth–what I do know is that I want the days I have to count for something much larger than me. I want my life to make an eternal difference. I want people to know that Jesus is near, that He loves them, that freedom in this life is possible, and that abundant life is one surrendered heart away.

John asked us to imagine what it would look like if we as individuals, and together as a body were committed to these four things in ourselves and for others; to imagine what it would look like if we were committed to this vision and filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:19; Eph 1:23); to imagine how our church, our community, and our world could be impacted– and he asked us over and over “are you in?” Are you? What do these four pillars look like in your life? What is your next step?

–Luanne

John said something yesterday that deeply impacted my heart. In reference to making a difference in the lives of others, he said,

“You can’t take people where you haven’t been before.”

As I read through Luanne’s story above, it’s apparent that she has been there. She has been to the place where knowledge turns into knowing. The place where prison doors swing open and the light of freedom floods the soul. The place where personal ideas of purpose surrender to God’s greater vision for a life. And now, because she has been there and experienced the extraordinary power of Jesus in that place, she is making a difference because she can take people there.

So, where is “there”?

While the physical location of each of us varies, this particular “there” is the same for everyone. It’s the place where we started at the very beginning of this series. The place where we grasp how high… wide… deep… long… the love of Jesus is. Where is that?

At the cross of Christ.

Louie Giglio spoke these words at this year’s Passion Conference,

“How do we know the love of God? When Paul described the love of God, he painted a cross.

It’s high enough to get you to a Holy God. [Know God]

It’s deep enough to go down in your mess, to the very bottom, and pull you up. [Finding Freedom]

It’s long enough that, no matter how far you’ve run from God, He’s still ahead of you, waiting for you. [to Find Your Purpose]

And it is wide enough that there is still an opportunity in this life for God to embrace you and envelop you in His love.”

In that last point is where we can connect our last point, making a difference. Do you see it? The height of the cross gets us to the knowing God piece. The depth of the cross in the ground gets to the depth of our mess, those things that bind us, and we find our freedom there. The length of its shadow shows us that God is always ahead of us, waiting for us to find our purpose in Him. But the width–that’s where we feel His enveloping embrace. The embrace of love that changes our lives forever when we get it-not in our heads-in our hearts. Because when we experience the love of God in a deep and real way, we are compelled to live out of that love and go make a difference in the lives of others. We do that by sharing the love we found when we found ourselves there, at the devastatingly beautiful cross of our Savior. And we will desire to lead others there, too. To the only place where we can truly know the height, depth, length and width of God’s love for us.

Have you been there?

–Laura

christiancrossclouds

Imagine if You Can-1/1/17

I needed today’s sermon. More than I even knew.

A new year always brings with it a sense of a fresh start, a new beginning. A chance to “be all you can be”, if you will. I always feel a certain excitement, anticipation in the air as the new year dawns. I always purpose certain things in my heart and set my mind on starting this… stopping that… being more consistent. And inevitably, even if the year starts well, the determination to see it through fades as the weeks go by.

John put before us today a verse that is very familiar-even outside of the church world.

“I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

Today, that verse sank a little deeper into my heart.

Do I live with an “I can” perspective on life? Sadly, I more often lean toward “I can’t”. I think, to some degree, we all do. We are living at a time when every headline is at our fingertips and a culture of fear saturates our thoughts. We live in a world where comparison has become the norm and we can easily spot the ways we don’t measure up.

And what about the rest of the  verse? I purpose to “do all things”-especially at the beginning of a new year-but, often, I leave out the “through Christ” part. When I try to do things on my own-when I write out long lists, plans and ambitions, but I don’t align them with Christ, I don’t get the strength to see things through. In fact, most of the time, many of my lists and ambitions don’t even line up with the purposes God has for me. Willpower and raw determination can carry us pretty far-but for how long? Can I sustain my life’s purpose on my own, without aligning myself with Jesus and leaning on the strength of His Spirit in me?

Nope. No one can. Not with any lasting success.

There are things I want to do in 2017. Things that I know God has been drawing me into. Some of them are the same things I was sure I would do in 2016. Why didn’t I?

I suppose, as John spoke about today, I let my imagination wander into that place where I asked,

“What if He doesn’t show up?”

I let fear and doubt hold me hostage and, at the same time, tried to chart my own course into unknown waters.

But God is the Maker of the waves. John said, “We ride the waves that He has created”.

I want to do that this year. I want to start-now, in this moment-realigning my perspective from “I can’t” to “I can”. Because I know our God can be trusted. I know He is Miracle Worker and Purpose Giver and through Christ, I CAN.

You can, too. You can face that thing that you’ve struggled to overcome. You can move toward that dream that God planted in your heart long ago. You can let go. You can taste freedom. You can say no to what needs to go. You can say yes to what you need to embrace. Whatever it is that God is calling us into or away from, no matter how big or how scary–we can.

This year, we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. Imagine if you can…

–Laura

Like Laura, Philippians 4:13 spoke to me in a new way through John’s sermon.

I can do ALL things THROUGH CHRIST who STRENGTHENS me.”

Knowing that Paul was in a prison cell when he penned that verse, gives even deeper meaning . The quote from holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl that John shared keeps flipping over in my mind. In its entirety it reads:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.   When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. Between stimulus and response there is a space. In  that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. 

Will I choose, in 2017, total dependence on God? Will I choose to let Him strengthen me? Will I choose to live in His “I can” because of Christ’s presence in my life? Will I choose to believe that all things are possible through Christ who strengthens me, no matter what 2017 holds? Will I choose to hang on to His promises and take responsibility to act based on what I do know? Will I continue to paddle in pursuit of Him while I wait on His divine waves so that I’m ready when they come? Will I choose to live by faith?

When John said that if we wait for everything to fall into place we will miss many divine moments, my immediate response was–I don’t want to do that! I want to be living by faith, making choices based on what I know God has already promised,  so that when the God-wave comes, I’m already in position to ride it. John highlighted that All Christ followers are called to ride waves, to make a difference.  “He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does. The good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.” (Eph 2:10- Msg) If we are not doing it, who is?

Jonathan and his armor bearer lived in the “I can through Him who strengthens”.

Daniel before the lion’s den was ever a thing , pursued God and lived in the “I can through Him who strengthens”.

The apostles, after the resurrection of Christ lived in the “I can through Christ who strengthens.” The early church lived in the “I can through Christ who strengthens.”

Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 4:17 …”the Lord stood at my side and gave me strength, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it…”

Living in the “I can through Christ who strengthens” is very personal and very purposeful simultaneously. It’s for me, AND it’s for the world. My “I can” is how His kingdom comes to earth THROUGH CHRIST who strengthens me. Your “I can” is how His kingdom comes to earth THROUGH CHRIST who strengthens you.

Will I choose to live in the “I can” with urgency, intentionality, and total dependence upon “Christ who strengthens me”?  Will you?  Will we let Him change the world through our “I can do all things THROUGH CHRIST who STRENGTHENS me?”  Thoughts?

–Luanne