4.16.17 Easter at Church on the Rock

4.16.17 Easter at Church on the Rock

After a weekend of events, we ended it all with a wonderful service celebrating Christ's resurrection! Friday we reflected on the cross at our Tenebrae: Service of Shadows, then Saturday the kids had a blast at the Annual Easter Egg Hunt. It was definitely one of the best weekends of the year!

4.9.17 Palm Sunday Celebration

4.9.17 Palm Sunday Celebration

Palm Sunday, the beginning of our Holy Week events, was kicked off with our kids parading around with palm branches as we sang "Blessed be the Name of the Lord!"  Ps. Bryan gave an awesome message about Jesus' entry into our world and what that means for us. You'll find the audio for that message below.

3.26.17 The Truth About Words

3.26.17 The Truth About Words

What a Sunday it was yesterday! After a powerful time of worship (with our kids amongst us!), Allison Dominguez led us in a wonderful prayer over our lives, reminding us that God's love never fails. Then, we sang a reflective song titled "Prayers of the People" before Ps. Bryan gave us great insight into the way our words affect others. 

Sermon Highlight Tweets:

  • Are you a person giving life or death with your words? You choose.
  • No one speaks "freely." Words cost something.

  • Words hurt - even if we say: "Just kidding!"

  • The lie: Words just evaporate, and disappear. The truth: Words last.

The Vine Abides

The Vine Abides

In so many homes, few times eclipse the feeling of Christmas morning.
Children and parents, maybe other family members or close friends, a dog or two with tails wagging, gathered round a trimmed tree, lights and eyes aglow, surrounded by the waking aroma of coffee, amid a blur of squeals and giggles and shredded wrapping paper, reflecting in so many ways the spirit of the season of good news and great joy.
But in many circumstances, a keen observer may see something else reflected:
A desire for more.
It, of course, is on display in the weeks leading up to Christmas, as people hunt for "great deals."
But when the time finally arrives to open those gifts, many children (or adults, as well) will move from package to package, quickly tossing aside what they've been given, in search of something they think may be bigger, newer, better.
It's a trait endemic to humanity, with us from our very beginning.
We see it in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree, kicking aside their paradise for the chance to "be like God."
Lot leaves Abraham to acquire more in Sodom.
The Israelites whine at Moses because they had grown sick of the heavenly bread God provided them for food in the desert.
And on, and on, and on.
And through it all, God calls His people to stop it.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus compares our relationship with Him as the branches to a grapevine.
As branches, we are not able to survive on our own. We need a source of life. And, Jesus says, that sorce of life is Him.
He is the Vine; we are the branches.
He invites us to abide in Him, to stay connected.
Yet time and again, we choose to cut ourselves off, to leave the wonderful, vibrant life in which our Lord sustains us, to chase the "newer, better, bigger, shinier" thing over there.
Yet, just as Adam and Eve, we discover that in the day we do that, we spiritually begin to wither and die.
Today, God invites you to reconnect, to take a moment, as might an observant parent on Christmas morning, to appreciatethe lifegiving and sustaining love and joy our Father has for us, and simply choose to abide in Him.
Connect with our Creator, our Father, our Lord, and discover just how vibrant life can be, ina place and lifestyle wherewe are Better Together.

Bread, For Today

Bread, For Today

 An elderly business owner was once asked when he was going to retire.

His response was, “Why? What would I do?”

Why? You could travel, see the world, lounge by the poolside, golf, whatever you want to do, was the answer. Don’t you ever think about all the other things you can do?

The business owner paused for a moment, and smiled.

“When I was younger,” he said, “travel was great: Seeing new things, going new places, having new experiences, so much fun. But now?
“My wife and I went on vacation last year. All we did was spend our mornings thinking about what we should eat for lunch, and our afternoons, what we should eat for dinner. After a couple days, we couldn’t wait to get back home.

“I wouldn’t want to do that every day,” he laughed.

All of us have more in common with the old business owner than we may imagine.

Every day, from the moment our feet hit the floor, we are rarely, if ever, in the moment, where we are.

While we move from place to place, from task to task, engagement to engagement, and meeting to interminable meeting, our minds are almost constantly somewhere else – and usually, on either some future place, task, engagement or meeting on our calendar.

Or perhaps our mind is stuck on where we’ve been, contemplating what we’ve done – or more precisely, what we did wrong or should have done or said instead.

But regardless, even in moments that should stir our souls, inspire us or fill us with joy, our minds and spiritual energy are focused elsewhere, robbing us of the replenishment and refreshment we tell ourselves we are seeking.

This approach to life also spills over into our spiritual life, and our journey with God.

As our brother, Braden Larive, shared with us, God in His Word has promised to supply all our needs. He instructs us to not worry, and to trust Him in everything. And He even explicitly instructs us to ask Him, when we pray, to supply those things we need.

As Jesus put it in His instructions, we are to ask Our Father for our Daily Bread.

This means we’re to seek not tomorrow’s bread, or ask Him to re-bake yesterday’s bread, but to give us this day the bread we need today.

Jesus is asking us to live in the moment – to experience life in all its fullness, now.

That may mean we can enjoy a day of fun or recreation, lounging by the poolside, a leisurely walk in the woods or a new experience in an exotic locale. Or it could mean we encounter a day of elation, as we celebrate a significant life-changing event, such as a wedding, graduation or the birth of a child or grandchild. Or it could mean a dull, unremarkable day of hard work, with or without a real payoff at the end.

Or it could mean a day of legitimate suffering, in which we grapple with the unimaginable.

But no matter what this day may bring, we can rest secure in the knowledge that God will give us exactly what we need.

While we may like to think focusing on what has been will help us improve, and focusing on the future will help us prepare for what’s next, God invites us to let those things go, to simply trust Him and know that, when we are with Him, then are we truly Better Together.

Better than real

Better than real

 It doesn’t take much skill or insight to recognize how much America has changed in the past few decades.

If you don’t believe it, just think about the smartphone on which you may be reading this (or the smartphone in your pocket as you’re reading this on your laptop.) Ten years ago, the device wasn’t even available for consumer use. Now? It’s hard for many of us to even remember a time when smartphones and the instant connectivity and bottomless depth of knowledge – and cat videos and other nonsense – they provide.

But the changes are far deeper than technological. Consider television. While the technical quality of our TV sets have undeniably drastically improved in the last 40 years (no more rabbit ears! HD picture quality!), we have witnessed a more debatable course in the programming.

In television’s first few decades, many programs sought to project a certain image of American life – an ideal, you might say – particularly when depicting the family. But in more recent days, a larger and larger chunk of that programming has veered as far from the ideal as possible, seeking to depict the dysfunction present in many families – and then some.

For many of us, the dysfunction, unfortunately, is readily recognizable, mirrored in many ways in families we know, or perhaps even in our own households.

But, while sad, this is nothing new.

For proof, we need look no further than the Bible.

We know God’s Word is jam-packed with instruction for healthy family living. In Ephesians, for instance, as Pastor Bryan shared, the Apostle Paul offers guidance for wives, husbands, children and parents to find domestic harmony – God’s “ideal,” if you will, wherein wives leverage their domestic power for the good of their husbands and families, husbands lay down their lives for their wives and families and children choose to obey and honor their parents, not because they always deserve it, but to obey and honor God.

But a study of the Bible will also reveal that the pages are not only rife with stories of dysfunctional families, but tales from the lives of some of the Good Book’s central characters that would probably make your dysfunctional family look like it’s plucked from central casting for a classic TV show.

Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, David – their lives and families were filled with adultery, murder, deception, betrayal, even rape,  or worse. Yet God in His Word calls them heroes, men after His own heart, whose faith was credited as righteousness and held up as examples for us to emulate.

And why? Because where their reality fell short, God’s grace abounded all the more to move them ever closer to God’s Ideal.

In the same way, God knows our reality will rarely, if ever, match the ideal He desires for us.

But we can know, that just as the heroes of faith whose lives displayed all the failings of fallen and sinful humanity, we, too, can find grace and power from the hand of our Lord, to deploy His Word in our lives and in our families, and dig deep to lay a strong foundation on which to build not only a better present, but a blessed future, in which all who loved the Lord can find healing and love in families, churches and communities that are Better Together.  

 

 

 

 

Reset. Required

Reset. Required

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves in need of a fresh start.

We go through life, attending to the needs of the day, or of the hour, or even of this very second, doing the things that need to be done -  and, somehow, we find ourselves askew.

It starts small, at least at first.

But over time, it worsens, until, one day, amid our busyness and running to-and-fro, like those who too long have neglected tidying up and now find themselves living amid intractable clutter, or a parent who wakes up one morning to realize their children are strangers, we feel our shoulders slump at the realization we have wandered quite far from where we intended to be.

At that moment, we know we are in desperate need of a reset.

The principle applies in many areas of life: In our careers, families, friendships, even marriages.

And the principle holds true in our spiritual lives, and our faith walk with God.

For some of us, the misalignment can be severe, as we fill our lives with things we know the Bible and the Holy Spirit within us bear witness to as sin: Greed, lust, violence, hate, deception, cheating and the like.

Others may clutter their lives with things that are more innocuous and not inherently wrong, in and of themselves: School, work, sports, music, friends, even family and kids.

And others may not feel askew, as their lives are filled with “godly” things, like church and ministry.

But yet, all of these things can serve to clutter our lives and come between us and The One who should be the center of our attention, The One on whom our eyes should be.

All of these things will leave us feeling tired, stretched thin and worn out – what Jesus in the Gospel of John described as “old wineskins.”

But this is not what God intends for any of us. While He certainly wishes for all of us to be responsible people, He desires more for us to take a moment now and again (and again) to refresh ourselves and renew ourselves spiritually, to make our spirits as “new wineskins,” supple and elastic, made ready to receive the better things He has for us and to receive the better assignments He has destined for us.

As Pastor Bryan shared this past Sunday, God, in His Word, tells us how to do this.

Certainly, moments of refreshing can be found in worship and in studying the Word. But for a true systemwide reboot, a bit more effort is required.

And that is where a season of prayer and fasting comes in.

In fasting, we willingly lay down something that is otherwise important to us. Perhaps that can be a day or more of not eating, or simply giving up for an extended period a particular kind of food or drink we enjoy or consume too much of ordinarily. Or it could be unplugging for an extended period of time from activities we enjoy or believe are somehow “essential,” like social media, sports, monitoring the news, or reading or watching anything other than God’s Word.

And in fasting, we tell our physical being – our “flesh,” as the Bible calls it – that we are not slaves to these things, to these desires, cravings and needs. Rather, fasting reminds us who we are: Free children of God in Christ. And it reminds us where our eyes should be focused: On The One who gives us all these good things, and in whom we find not only new life, but freedom.

Now, through the end of January, we as a church, have committed to a season of prayer and fasting, seeking God for the better things He has for us in 2017 and beyond, in our church, in our communities, in our homes, our marriages, our families, our careers – in every aspect of our lives.

We ask you to prayerfully consider what God would have you lay down during this time, and invite you to join us as we ask God to send His Awakening.

 

Grace Came: Prince of Peace

Grace Came: Prince of Peace

Some people may just not be cut out to sail.

Usually, they’re pretty easy to spot:

They’re the people clinging to the rail, or finding a spot as far away from the water as they can get, squirming (or worse) at any quiver or pitch in the boat. And should the wind rise or the water become even the slightest bit choppy? They have not yet begun to yowl.

Even if the boat should be populated by seasoned sailors or a reassuring crew, they struggle to find solace until their feet are planted on firm ground again, forgetting the whole time to keep their eyes on those who know the water best. Until they start panicking, it may be best to simply relax and, well, go with the flow.

In the Bible, we read of a night when even some of these seasoned sailors, those we would look to as the most seaworthy of folk – in this case, Jesus’ disciples, whose numbers included several professional fishermen – were unnerved and undone by stormy waters.

That evening, Jesus and the disciples went to sail across the Sea of Galilee, the large inland lake – roughly the size of Washington, D.C. - at the north end of what we know as the nation of Israel.

As they sailed, a storm arose and the seas quickly moved beyond choppy, as sheets of rain and monstrous waves threatened to swamp the boat and kill them all.

As the disciples panicked and feared for their lives, however, the Bible tells us Jesus simply slept in the back of the boat.

Finally, angered by the disciples’ fear and doubt, Jesus stands up and, at a word, the storm, which had raged so intensely a moment before, had disappeared, and the sea, made as still as glass. The disciples, the Bible tells us, were amazed.

But perhaps they should not have been.

As we sail on our life voyages, we, too, can encounter storms. On some days, and in some seasons, we can easily move from where we are to where we want to be, as the waters of life are smooth or, at worst, a bit choppy, maybe offering a flat tire here, a rough week at work or a silly fight with a spouse, a friend or one of our children.

But at other times, we know if can get much, much worse, as waves rise up, coming one after the other: Severe illness. Eviction. Job layoffs. Unexpected major debt. Divorce. Estrangement. Addiction. Children who reject God and their family. Death of loved ones. And still other unspeakable horrors.

In such times, we may tempted, as were the disciples, to wonder where Jesus went, and how He could not seem to care a wit for our fate.

Knowing the story of how Jesus calmed the waves and the winds, we, too, may look for Him to instantly end our suffering and restore our life’s waters to tranquility.

Yet in the Biblical story, we too often miss the central point: The disciples, who had seen Jesus do great and miraculous things at other times, seem to have forgotten who that was in the boat with them that night! They began looking at the waves, and listening to the wind, rather than focusing on The One who knew the situation best – The One who was so at peace, He could snooze contentedly in the back of the boat, even as the storm threatened to swamp it and seasoned sailors wailed in fear.

So it must not be with us. Just as God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, promising a Son who would be our Everlasting Father, our Mighty God and our Wonderful Counselor, He also promised a Son who we would call our Prince of Peace.

Today, no matter what is happening – even if you, as Pastor Bryan shared, are facing the “mother lode of storms” – know who it is that is in the boat with you. While He can calm the storm with a word – and He may – He also may simply ride with you through the storm, using these circumstances to show His Power in your life.

His name is Jesus. He is Lord. And He is your Prince of Peace, both now and for all time, The One promised us thousands of years ago, and whose coming was proclaimed by angels on a silent night hundreds of years later, when Grace Came.

 

 

  

 

Grace Came: Everlasting Father

Grace Came: Everlasting Father

There are many things that can define us.

Our jobs – what we do for a living – undoubtedly spring to mind for many. The question: “Soooo… what do you do?” is often one of the first questions we ask and answer within 10-15 minutes of meeting someone for the first time at parties or other gatherings.

Our pursuits also can be defining. It’s the reason millions of people gathered in Grant Park in Chicago on a chilly November morning to celebrate the 2016 World Champion Chicago Cubs, or gather in stadiums and smaller halls to cheer on their favorite performers, or regularly gather on muggy summer mornings or rainy fall days to tackle muddy obstacle courses or run 26 miles through the streets of one of America’s major cities.

But often, for many, their true defining characteristics – for better or for worse – are handed down with their heritage, from their family.

From our earliest moments to the end of our days, the places we have come from and the people with whom we share traditions and our formative and most intimate moments - they imprint upon us in ways we often cannot begin to truly see and comprehend and shape us into the people we become. For some, that may be measured in innumerable blessings, contrasted against some glaring flaws. For others, it  may mean a lifetime spent trying to overcome old wounds or obstacles laid out, perhaps before they were even born.

But no matter what shape they may take, our family remains our family.

However, God, in His Word, shares with us a great mystery and an even greater promise. For just as we have been given human families, with all their flaws, so, too, does our Creator promise us a different heritage.

And this heritage is free of flaws. How? Because it is handed down to us from God Himself.

In His Word, God, through the prophet Isaiah, foretells the arrival of His Son, Jesus. And among the descriptors He chooses to use to tell us about Jesus is this phrase: “Everlasting Father.”

As Pastor Bryan shared, this phrase does not so much describe Jesus Himself, as it points to one of His great purposes: To point us to The Father, God the Creator, who so loved the world – who so loved us, though we hated Him – that He sent his One and Only Son to pay the ultimate sacrifice, to suffer and die in agony on a cross of wood, to shed His Blood, that we may be delivered from sin and the agonizing death we deserved, to be reunited with our Father in Heaven, and become co-heirs with Christ to the wonderful future He has predestined for us with Him, forever.

Forever!

Hallelujah! Amen!

For before the arrival of Jesus, we had no idea of the parental love God had for us, and of His desire for all humanity to be united to Him, not as slaves, nor even as mere servants, but as His children!

Yet through Jesus, not only did we learn of this love, not only were we told, but a way was made – The Way was made! – for us to join with our Father, in His Family and in His Kingdom for all eternity.

Today, as you ponder this great mystery, remember: Through Jesus, we – you, us, all of us – have been given a new name, a new family, a new definition of what it means to be human.

We are no longer slaves to this world, slaves to what which we believe defines us. Rather, through Jesus, we have been called children of God, children of His Promise!

Today, as we continue to worship our God during this season of promise, remember who you are, through the actions of the life and death of that little baby born in Bethlehem on that silent night thousands of years ago in the hill country of Judea, when Grace Came.

 

 

Grace Came: Mighty God

Grace Came: Mighty God

It’s a scene with which we’re all familiar.

After all, for many of us, it’s standing somewhere in our homes throughout the month of December.

No, we’re not talking about the Christmas tree. It’s rather the small wood and plastic (or ceramic) diorama reminding us of the true Reason for the Season.

We speak, of course, about the Nativity scene: A small wooden stable, often with a thatched roof. Outside, to one side, a shepherd waits with sheep, and maybe a dog; to the other side, three men, each one wise, and all bowing in some fashion, approach while bearing gifts. Their camels crouch behind them. Above, an angel flutters. Inside the stable, Joseph, a shepherd’s crook in his hand, and Mary, kneeling, gaze down lovingly on the animal feed trough between them.

And inside the trough – the “manger” – lies the object of everyone’s attention: The Christ Child. Baby Jesus.

It’s the enduring image of Christmas, this little baby sent from Heaven to save us all. Emmanuel. God With Us.

But while our minds during this season may dwell on the helplessness of this Little One, we must not allow this image to distract us from an important truth of who this Baby actually is.

For in Isaiah 9, God, through the prophet for whom that book of the Bible is named, gives us great promises about this Son of His. And among other descriptors for Jesus, we are told He is called “Mighty God.”

Now dwell on that imagery for a while. Instead of the helpless babe, lying in a manger, picture instead a mighty warrior, a great King, above all Kings, a Lord above all Lords, before whom, one day, every knee will bow and every tongue confess His Lordship, to the glory of God.

Picture a towering Son of Man, at whose name all can be set free, and at whose name the dark spirits of Hell tremble and flee.

For just as each of us (no matter how cute we may at one time have been) were not born to remain an adorable, giggling, cooing bundle of helplessness, so too was Jesus sent to Earth with a purpose. And in His own words, He has told us what His purpose was: To seek and to save those who are lost, to proclaim freedom to the captives, to set the oppressed free and to help the blind to see.

So today, as you hear those words repeated every December, remember precisely what those Good Tidings of Great Joy actually mean:

In Jesus, we have a Savior, a Great Champion, who has never been defeated and can never be defeated, who fights for us, and through whom we have victory.

As Pastor Bryan shared, no matter where you are or what you’re going through, if you feel like you can never win, Jesus can break through – and He will. He has already won. And through Him, we, too, have the victory!

Who is He? He is Christ. The Lord. His name is Jesus, Emmanuel, our Mighty God, through whom God’s Grace Came.

 

 

 

 

Grace Came: Wonderful Counselor

Grace Came: Wonderful Counselor

Take a moment, and in your mind’s eye, picture Jesus.

What do you see? Most likely the beard, the hair, the robes, likely the eyes, as well.

But did you notice his arms? Maybe his hands? His feet?

If you had met him 2,000 years ago, those features would have definitely stood out.

Why? The Bible tells us a number of things about Jesus, and among them is this detail: He was considered “the son of a carpenter.” A woodworker. One who works with his hands.

And, of course, up until a few decades ago, with the advent of power tools, this was a craft accomplished almost entirely through the strength of one’s arms, hands, legs and back. Imagine chopping down trees, milling the lumber into boards, then cutting the wood to the proper dimensions with hand saws, chiseling it, hammering it together, and sanding it smooth, all without the use of a single modern tool. Yet that is what Jesus’ earthly stepfather, Joseph – and, by extension, Jesus and his brothers – likely did every day of their young lives.

Now, imagine what his arms would look like. How calloused and rough his hands and feet would be from years in the woods and in the shop.

And don’t stop there: Picture Jesus doing business. He would have. Taking orders from customers. Securing tools and other materials. Haggling over cost. Crunching numbers. Sweating as he sought to deliver the finished order on time, and under budget. Perhaps mollifying an unsatisfied or irate customer or two. Hiring help. Perhaps firing bad or lazy workers, or dealing with employees who may steal. As any businessman knows, this all comes with the territory.

Now, return to those eyes. Full of wisdom. Keen. Cutting. Quick to laugh. Yet, undoubtedly tinged with the same sadness, just behind the surface, that each person will know at some point in their life. How? Think again about Joseph. Where was he at the moment Jesus was crucified? Why was Mary alone at the foot of The Cross? While it is not stated, it is quite clear that Joseph had died at some point during the life of Jesus. And Jesus would have felt the same pain as anyone else who has ever had to bury a loved one, perhaps “before their time,” as it were.

And we haven’t begun to imagine how He suffered upon The Cross, feeling the sting of betrayal and mockery, the agony of the lashes and the crushing blows of the hammers, driving the nails into His hands and feet – and the torment of separation from God the Father, burdened with the sins of all humanity.

In the book of Isaiah, we are presented with one of the most beloved prophecies about the coming Messiah, about the coming of grace from the Throne of God. Among other descriptive terms, we are told that the Coming One will be known as the “Wonderful Counselor.”

And as we ponder the life of Jesus, we know how this can be true. While fully God, Jesus was undoubtedly also fully human. And that means He knows what it means to be human. He walked the streets. He worked until exhausted, collapsing in His bed at the end of a long day, perhaps disappointed and frustrated by a project or deal gone wrong. He dealt with the same kind of people, in the same kind of relationships, as has any other.

And he suffered pain – physical, emotional, spiritual pain.

So why, as Pastor Bryan asked, do we not trust Him to understand us, and what we are going through? Why is Jesus the last person we often think to share our problems with?

Rest assured: No matter what you may bring to Him, His response will most assuredly begin with: “I know.”

And Scripture assures us it will be followed at some point by: “I love you.”

For it is in the person of Jesus we know that, for us, A Child is Born, and to us, A Son is Given, that in Him, we will know that, to all who believe, Grace Came.

 

The Power in Discipleship

The Power in Discipleship

We in the church, just as those in the realms of business, government, athletics and many other fields, spend a lot of time talking about leadership.

This is particularly true of the amount of words, bytes and ink dedicated to the question of: What makes a good leader?

However, in the church, we read in the Bible that Jesus asks us to ponder a different question: What makes a good follower? Or, more to the point, what makes a good disciple?

While the world tells us we should strive to be No. 1, Jesus tells us that those who will be first in the Kingdom of God are actually those who those who put God’s desires first and those willing to be “the servant of all.”

God exalts the humble, the Bible tells us.

But while many claim to know and understand these godly concepts and Kingdom principles, when it comes time to actually execute, we – all of us – all too often fall short.

And this is a shame.

As Pastor Bryan has shared with us these past few weeks, God has equipped us – all of us – with great and powerful gifts. Through the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to achieve great feats and carry out great exploits.

And why has God so empowered us? Because He has given us – all of us – a great mission: To save the world.

While few of us will ever have the opportunity to actually reach an entire nation or even an entire city with the Good News of Jesus Christ - much less the entire world - each of us can make an impact in our own world, as we bring the light and love of Christ to our own network of family, friends, coworkers, classmates, acquaintances, clerks at the grocery store, baristas at our favorite coffee spots, and more.

But to actually achieve the objectives God has commissioned to us, we cannot rely on our own strength, intelligence and cunning. Rather, we must surrender those to our Lord and let His Holy Spirit work through us.

And that can only be achieved when we humble ourselves – when we recognize our real purpose in this life is not to build up ourselves and our lives, but to pursue love and build each other up.

Like elite soldiers on a mission, we must lay down our agendas and take up the agenda of our Great Commander, to save the world, marching together in perfect rhythm, as fully equipped and empowered members of God’s 300.

 

Using Spiritual Gifts

Using Spiritual Gifts

Everyone loves a good show.

Whether it be a moving concert, an illuminating art exhibit, an engrossing novel, a spectacular film, a thrilling athletic triumph or some other amazing achievement, such performances often inspire us to leap to our feet or step back in awe at the incredible spectacle of other human beings performing to the height of their abilities.

They also may leave us wondering, could we, too, attain something that great?

While natural ability, talent and proclivity can account for a good portion of such achievement, we also know that, in most cases, the seemingly spontaneous display of supposedly superhuman ability is also the result of incessant devotion to a craft, to a trade, to a technique.

The hands that seem to fly over the guitar strings or the piano keys, raising goosebumps in the listener? The words that seem to string effortlessly together, evoking empathy and connection to the characters on the page? The visual effects captured perfectly in the photograph, balancing shadow and light to perfectly expose the subject?

All those things did not come of themselves. While those who produced such achievements certainly began with gifts of talent, the work you now see, much as the tip of the iceberg bobbing on the ocean currents, is but the visible expression of often years, and perhaps decades, of practice, discipline and commitment.

In the same way, God, in His Word, tells us He gives gifts to His people. But unlike extraordinary physical or mental abilities, these gifts our Lord gives generously, and abundantly to all who follow Him and who ask or have need of them.

The Apostle Paul tells us these gifts include abilities that many would genuinely regard as “superhuman” – the ability to know specific things happening in the lives of others; the ability to know how to respond in pressure-packed or even impossible situations; the ability to stand firm when the world around us crumbles; and the ability to move in power, to bring healing and deliverance to the lives and souls of those around us.

And any who have seen it happen, or believe it can happen, can acknowledge how cool and awesome it can be when the Holy Spirit moves in such ways.

But, as Pastor Bryan shared with us this past Sunday, God does not want us to merely be spectators, marveling at the abilities others may use.

Our Lord desires each of us – Me. You. All. – to move in these gifts, to use them with power, to deploy them as spiritual weapons targeted for one purpose:

To draw all people to salvation through a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ.

But while the Holy Spirit can enable anyone at any time for this work, they are most effective – and we are most effective - when the gifts have been used and used, practiced and practiced, over and over, until deploying these gifts becomes second nature to us all.

This week, be encouraged to know that the gifts of the Spirit are given to you, for you, to use. Ask the Holy Spirit to prepare you for the tasks at hand, to empty you, so you may be filled with the Power of God. Then, get quiet. Listen for the Lord’s voice and His command. And be ready to step out, at a moment’s notice, in power, as one of God’s 300.  
 

You Can Change Your World

You Can Change Your World

In the fall, the thoughts of many Americans turn to certain things.

Yes, perhaps for some that may mean pumpkin spice-everything and falling leaves (and/or apple picking). But for a great many others, it means the heart of football season, the beginnings of the hockey and basketball seasons, and the arrival of October and the World Series, signaling the climax of the baseball season.

On those fields, courts and rinks, some of the greatest athletes in the world, boasting physical skills and abilities the majority of the world’s population can only dream of, take the stage in pursuit of a season capped off with a trophy.
For these gifted performers, however, the achievement only begins with the talents with which they have been blessed.

While those talents may have given them the opportunity to earn a spot on a roster, it is a demonstrated commitment to their craft – a willingness to work hard, to study, to practice, practice, practice, to sacrifice their bodies and their time, to do whatever it takes – that will get them to “the show” and, perhaps, ultimately, to a platform, hoisting a shiny trophy amid falling confetti and deafening cheers.

It is no coincidence that God would use such athletic achievement as an analogy, to tell us what He desires from us.


In his letter to his friend, Timothy, the Apostle Paul wrote that he had “fought the good fight” and had “finished the race,” and at that moment, he awaited the “crown of righteousness” – a heavenly trophy in recognition of his work on this Earth. And what was his work? In writing to Timothy and in other of his letters, Paul tells us his life had been “poured out” like an offering; literally, that he had done whatever was necessary to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with as many people as he could, up to and including dying a martyr’s death.

But that achievement was not left to Paul. Each of us have a race that needs to be run, a fight that needs to be fought.
Each of us have been given tasks appointed by God in our own worlds, to reach our world and share with them the life-changing Gospel of Christ. Your world is different from those even of your neighbor. Each of us have families, friends, coworkers, classmates and others in our social networks who are different.

And as, COTR Creative Director Braden Larive, shared this past Sunday, God is calling each of us to do whatever it takes, which can include sacrificing our time, money and energy, to pour ourselves out as offerings, to ensure everyone around us not only knows, but sees the Love of Jesus that is for them.

God wants to change your world. What are you willing to do to make it happen?

This week, let’s resolve, like athletes striving for a championship, we will do whatever it takes. Let us be poured out as offerings, one for the other, and stand together in the breach for our families, our friends, and all around us, as members of God’s 300.

Do you have what it takes?

Do you have what it takes?

Anyone who has ever taken a test knows the feeling.

Maybe you’ve studied. Maybe you haven’t. Maybe you’re brimming with confidence. Maybe you are a little gunshy.

No matter where you’re at, the moment just before the exam lands on your desk or it loads onto your screen, a thought will grip you:

Am I really prepared for this?

It’s no different, either, when we head out to the “real world." That moment before we plunge headlong into a new job or prepare to head out against a tough opponent, we also may question just how ready we are to tackle this new position or take on this champion, staring us down.

And, the Lord knows we humans will most definitely have much the same thoughts run through our minds when the moment arrives for us to step out on the mission our Lord has given us – or, perhaps more appropriately stated, the moment that mission finds us.

Perhaps it will come as you are on the side of the road, and someone stops to help. Or maybe you are the person who lends the aid. Or perhaps it will come at work. Or at school. Or a family gathering. Or any number of other scenarios the randomness of life can bring our way, whether routine or seemingly out of the blue.

Consider this tale: In the book of Acts, we find the story of a crippled beggar, healed miraculously by God through the apostles Peter and John. In the tale, they were on their way to the temple to pray, when they saw this man, seated by the side of the road leading into one of the temple gates. They had seen this man before, no doubt, but this time it was different: Empowered by the Holy Spirit for the first time, the apostles, who the Bible did not record having done anything like this, told the man in the name of Jesus, to rise up and walk – and he did! The act caused a major ruckus, and resulted in the apostles being summoned before the religious high council to explain themselves. When they did, explaining the power of the name of Jesus through the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures record the religious leaders were “amazed” at the apostles’ boldness, because they noticed they were not highly educated men.

They also noted the apostles had been with Jesus.

After receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter and John and the rest of the apostles continued to study and learn and grow. But they did not wait. Their time of waiting had been accomplished the moment the Holy Spirit came upon them and filled them. With the power of God, and the full endorsement of Heaven, and the love of Christ compelling them, these men – who most would have said were not remotely ready to change the world – began to act, moving to begin changing their worlds, and from there, to the ends of the Earth.

Today, that same Holy Spirit who filled the apostles, imparting to them boldness, faith and power straight from God’s Hand, stands ready to fill you, and empower each of us for the tasks at hand. Rest content, knowing He will be there for you when it matters, as we step out, willing to take on the missions He has given us as members of God's 300.

He's Got Your Back

He's Got Your Back

When we take on a job, very often what can make it or break it can be the quality of the people to whom we report.

Whether you call them “supervisors,” “commanders,” “managers,” “bosses” or any other of an assortment of terms for the people who call the shots, anyone who has held a job can tell you stories of the good ones and bad ones.

But what makes the difference between a good boss and a bad one? Very often, the distinction comes down to questions of support and empowerment.

Consider the scenario: Your boss comes to your workstation, or calls a meeting, and informs you and the rest of the staff of the next big project or changes in the roster of duties and responsibilities. In that moment, the question runs through your mind, and perhaps bursts from your lips:

What does this mean for me, and us? How are we going to attain the new thing demanded of us?

And in that moment, a good boss has already not only planned how to answer that question, but to actually lay out a credible vision for how the team will be equipped, trained, supported and empowered to achieve the vision.

As believers, entrusted with the Great Commission, we have all been given a mission by our Commander, our Boss, our King. Each of us has been called to the work of bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world.
As our Lord instructed us, His servants, in the Great Commission, that mission begins close to home, in our own little world: Our circle of friends, family and others with whom we meet and mingle every day.

As Pastor Bryan has shared since the beginning of this new message series, God has a plan to save the world. You are that plan. And He has no Plan B.

But in taking on this mission, we know that our Great King and our Good Father will not leave us to face the work alone.

Just as God sent the Holy Spirit to fill and empower Jesus when He walked the Earth, so, too, has the Holy Spirit come to fill and empower each of us for the work He has placed us here to complete. When we go forth, God in His Word promises us that we go with the full endorsement and power of Heaven!

And just as a good human boss will give us the tools we need to get the job done, so too does our great King give His workers the spiritual gifts needed to know what is happening, why it is happening and the power and wisdom to know what needs to be done.

This week, we encourage you to step out in faith, trusting that our Lord will have your back when you walk in His ways and strive for His purposes, as a part of God’s 300.

God's 300 - Emptied & Empowered

God's 300 - Emptied & Empowered

Throughout the history of Christianity and The Church (uppercase “C” for Church Universal), people have debated just who Jesus was and is.

However, in the Gospels that record the events of His life and ministry, Jesus left no doubt about the nature of His Being. And so, the Church crafted a phrase – which we can represent as “Fully God, Fully Man” – to help us wrap our limited minds around the truth of Jesus’ humanity, and yet His full divinity, as a member of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Yet the Bible tells us Jesus, while equal to The Father, sitting enthroned in glory, set aside all of that – “emptied Himself” of His equality with God, the Bible tells us – to come to Earth as a man, to dwell with us and among us as one of us, and perform the ultimate sacrifice, humbling Himself “to the point of death on a cross,” taking upon Himself the sins of the world and opening a way for us to return to fellowship with our Creator.

Hallelujah! And amen!

Yet the Bible tells us Jesus, while fully human, at no point wavered or turned away from the mission on which He was sent. Rather, He found the power and strength to complete His redeeming work and to draw humanity unto Himself. But how?

As Pastor Bryan shared with us this past Sunday, we find our answer in the account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. As He prepares to begin His ministry, our Lord went to John the Baptist and asked John to baptize Him. John reluctantly agreed, and when Jesus emerged from the water, the Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him, and God proclaimed, so all there could hear, that Jesus was His Son, in Whom God was well pleased.

From that moment, Jesus was empowered and equipped for the work ahead.

But the best news? The Bible tells us this same power that filled, empowered and equipped Jesus is available to all who believe. And that means us! And you!

God has a plan to save the world. God has a plan to save YOUR world. And YOU are that plan.

But don’t fear: The Holy Spirit stands ready to empower and equip you for whatever mission our Lord has given you.

And don’t doubt: There is a mission God has for you. The Holy Spirit wants to help you.

All you must do is say yes - then see what God will do in your life, as you step into the breach, as did the ancient 300 Spartan soldiers against the whole might of the Persian Empire, as we are called to take our place in the ranks of God’s 300.

Staying Strong in the Fight

Staying Strong in the Fight

In our modern culture, few people are as admired as the “self-made” person.

We know who they are: The entrepreneurs who started with nothing, or with just a little, and turned it into a fortune and, maybe, a business empire. The athletic champions who arose from humble means and through sheer talent, training and determination excelled to the highest levels of their sports. The artists who refused to compromise their integrity or their creativity, and reached the top of their craft. And the list could go on and on.

But what is less known are the parts of the story in which those apparently self-sufficient people received their “big break” – that moment in which they just happened to be in the right place, at the right time, to find a hand willing to help boost them to the place their talent and drive alone could not bring them.

In the Bible, we find these stories constantly, as God chooses time and again in His Word to tell us the tales of the ones who were in the right place at the right time for their “big break” – their miracle – to arrive.

In the Gospel of John, we see one such story, related to us as the story of the healing of the man born blind. You may know it also as the story in which Jesus spit on the ground to make mud, and then rubbed that mud on the eyes of the blind man.

Regardless of how you may know it, the tale is remarkable in so many different ways. But in so many ways, we all are very likely to find ourselves in a position similar to the blind man.

True, most of us will never lose our eyesight (though it may grow dim.)

But just as true, we will all reach a point in our lives in which we, who wish so desperately to be self-sufficient, simply can’t get to where we need to get on our own. Like the blind man, we will find ourselves huddled on the side of the metaphorical road, waiting for our miracle to enter, stage right.

Perhaps the miracle you seek is a healing for yourself or a loved one. Or perhaps it is for a financial miracle, in the form of a new job, a few bags of groceries in a lean month, forgiveness of a debt or any of a number of other potential heavenly windfalls. Or maybe you need a miracle in your home, for God to heal your marriage, save your children, or mend a broken relationship with a parent, sibling or child.

But whatever your miracle, know that opposition will come. As our brother, Pastor Gary Blanchard, shared this past Sunday, it will come from sources designed specifically to cause us to lose hope – from our friends, our family and even our fellow “church people” – who will attempt to remind you of who you are and what you have been, and who will try to keep you where you are.

But also know that, when you wait upon the Lord and put your trust in Him, He is on the way to heal, deliver, save and uphold.

Be encouraged this week to stay strong. Don’t allow the pain of your situation to pull you away from remaining where you need to be, or to cause you stop short of the place you need to go.

Grow in your faith, for as Pastor Gary said, the depth of our intimacy with God will determine the breadth and power of God in our lives.

In Christ, our future is not limited by our past or our present, for our God is fully able to do all that He has promised He will do, against all hope.

Stories Have Real Power

Stories Have Real Power

Throughout human history, from the earliest myths to the most modern novels or narratives for screen and stage, civilizations and systems have been upheld, and others, brought to heel or even toppled through the power of a well-told tale.

While humans love discussing ideas, what they love more is to have those ideas embedded in a much more digestible and relatable story.

In ancient times and pre-literate societies, history is handed down orally, requiring the use of stories, song and poetry to allow those entrusted with safeguarding that history to more easily commit it to memory and share it with the people.
In the Gospels, Jesus used parables to help convey the truths He wished to deliver to those following Him.
In more modern times, certain well-written novels, movies and stage plays have shaped people’s perceptions of the world around them, for good and ill, at levels mostly unattainable through other methods of delivering information, such as news reports or textbooks.

Even social media carries a bit of that power, as much of its lure arises from a desire among people to keep up with the unfolding stories of the lives of family members, friends and acquaintances.

Here there is truth, and power. Every one of us has a story to tell. Each of us have experiences that can inform, entertain and perhaps even alter the course of the lives of the eternal souls that surround us.

And for those of us who call Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, we all have a wonderful story to tell. Perhaps your story is of a radical transformation, from an existence filled with darkness, pain and bondage, to a life of freedom, life and light in Christ. Or perhaps your story involves a great miracle, as our Creator stepped into your situation to bring healing or remarkable provision in some fashion. Or perhaps your story highlights the faithfulness and grace of a God who has never abandoned you or forsaken you through the entirety of your life’s journey.

But no matter what your story, God has called you to share it with those around you.

This may involve talking with coworkers or classmates about what God has done for you. Or it may involve following the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and sharing your story with someone you’ve never met.

But for most of us, it will begin with sharing our stories with those closest to us, those who know us best: Our family and friends.

As Pastor Bryan shared this past Sunday, shortly after Jesus cast out a Legion of demons from a man, the man in gratitude asked Jesus if he might follow Him. Instead, Jesus have him a different command: Go home and tell those there how much God has done for you.

That same command has been passed through the ages to each of us. Have your children heard the story of what God has done for you? Have your parents? Your siblings? Cousins? Friends? Those are all great starting points.

This week, be encouraged: Your story is important. It is filled with power, pointing to Jesus, offering those around us a taste of what He can do, and inviting them to see for themselves.

Ask God to lead you to opportunities to share that story of grace and redemption with those He will move upon to listen – and then be willing to talk about it. Watch, then, if God does not move in power in the minds and hearts of those who hear, to draw them to Himself. And all you had to do was tell the tale of what God has done for you, as you follow after Him, in the God-First Life.

Finding Time for What's Important in Life

Finding Time for What's Important in Life

With summer in the rearview mirror and cooler air just around the corner, the thoughts of many turn to certain things.

And, if you are a homeowner living in the Chicago area and elsewhere in the northern U.S., those thoughts no doubt include the list of unfinished things you meant to get done around the house this summer.

In life, the To-Do List can seem never ending. With homes, children, cars, pets, jobs and, yes, even church functions, if we let it, life can appear to pass by in a blur, like rows of Illinois corn along a highway.

And often, those things on our earthly To-Do Lists can crowd out some of the most important things in life:

The people around us.

As Mike Serino, shared with us last week, God sees people as He made them – and He longs to know all, heal all and allow all to know His love and His grace.

Often, for this task of sharing His presence and His love, God will choose individuals from among His family.

And that means us – me and you, all of us who He has called and redeemed - no matter how qualified we may feel.

This week, Pastor Bryan expanded on this theme, noting that, at any given point in time, God may have something for each of us to do.

While they may feel like inconveniences at the time – distractions from the “important things” on our own To-Do List – they are, in fact, gifts from God, opportunities for us to share God’s love, to be used by Him to bring someone else healing, and, in the process, find refreshment ourselves.

As Pastor Bryan said, we find true life when we choose to give our own away. When we refresh others, we are then, ourselves, refreshed.

We know many of you reading this may already know this, and would love nothing more than to be of service to your Lord, in being used to meet the needs of those around you.

But, you may ask, how can we know the right time for these God-assisted encounters with grace?

There are two keys: First, to do those things God wishes for us to accomplish, He wishes for us to be available. Don’t let your lives consume you to the point you are like the White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, rushing about, constantly on the run to the next thing on your list.

Instead, ask God for eyes to see the opportunities, and then to be the one who will be where God asks you to be, when He asks you to be there, and to be the one with the courage to take the step forward into the breach, to save the life of a person near you in your family, your workplace, your neighborhoods and your community - a person who God loves.

Today, be encouraged to know that God has a plan for your family, for your workplaces, for your neighborhoods, for your community and even for our nation. And that plan is you.

This week, begin to look for those opportunities to help another encounter the God who loves them beyond words. Listen for His voice, and His direction. And trust that when He gives you the task to do, He will also equip you to be everything He needs you to be, as you live The God First Life.