Kick It Off: New Year With Purpose 

To Live is _________. How would you fill in the blank? How would you define what your life is if you had a single blank to fill? It has to be something. We all fill it and we make statements “The year 2017 is going to be the year of _______!” 

This is what we choose to fill the blanks with sometimes:

To live is money. (I need More!)

To live is love. (I need Someone!)

To live is pleasure. (I need to feel good!)

To live is…happiness (I need to not feel pain, and everything to go my way.) 

No matter what, we fill in the blanks with how we live. We desire to achieve goals so much but how often do we really live up to the goals we set before ourselves in the new year? Has any of those things been a bust? I read an article not long ago that said 80% of the new year resolution crowd drops off by the second week of February. We even joke about it with our friends and family “Ha well I’ll get it next year!” We brag about goals that we met and fret about the goals we couldn’t attain. 

I pray we don’t take our spiritual walks with Christ as just another “goal” or “resolution” to joke about and talk about in passing. Following Jesus isn’t about attaining a goal, but going a direction. A direction that Christ has already prepared beforehand. A direction that Christ won for us on the cross.

The Apostle Paul fills the blank with this: “For me to live is Christ…” Philippians 1:21

This was a man with not much money. A man who didn’t always feel love, rather torments and pain from the stones thrown at him. A man who at one time in his life took pleasure in destroying Christians and living self-righteously, and now takes pleasure in the name of Jesus. A man who realized happiness was not found in abundance, but in the resurrected Jesus. For Paul, Jesus opened his eyes to a life worth living.

Jesus gave Paul a few things worth emphasizing and inspiring a direction for his life.

  1. A Free Mind 
  2. A Saved Soul 
  3. A Renewed Heart 
  4. A Contained Spirit 

Paul also says  in Philippians 1:22, “But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ.” Paul knows his direction. When he says “To live IS CHRIST”, everything he does sets him a direction for spiritual growth and pursuit of what he can attain. 

What are your spiritual Your Directions to where you can do more fruitful work for Christ?

1. Think about the things above not on the earthly: You don’t need a better fit body, you need a spiritually healthy one. Don’t abandon physical training, but don’t allow vanity to overtake you “For while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” 1 Timothy 4:8 (emphasis mine). Don’t dwell on approval from others, God in the heavenlies already approves of you. Don’t fight for accolades on earth for your treasure is in heaven. 

2. Rest in God’s saving Grace: “I’ll rest when I’m dead” isn’t heroic, it’s sin. God wants you to be so secured in His love for you that you you can take a sabbath, and let His peace comfort you. Some of us are so exhausted that we have become numb to it. We won’t let God rule our little world because our strength is in ourselves. But we are frail, and when we actually take time to rest, our souls heal from the world’s demands. Listen, 2017 will be crazy. But hey, just go to bed. Put your electronic friend down (Your cell phone) and hang with your friends or your kids. Realize the world doesn’t need you, it needs a savior. To live is christ means you can rest.

3. Be Still to KNOW God: We struggle to get to Know God because of constant distraction. We think a sermon a week and four songs in a service is us getting to know Him. But you will never get to know Him as much as you can than when it’s you, the Word, the Holy Spirit, and quiet. To live is Christ is to know Him. But you cannot know him if you don’t make a lot of time for him. You read that? A LOT! 2017 doesn’t need to make room for Jesus, YOU DO! Don’t blame time or people or your job for not enough time. You make it happen. KNOW JESUS more than you do anyone this year. 

4. Remain Obedient making your body a slave to Christ: A contained spirit is one controlled by the Holy Spirit. Jesus sets your direction. He sets the way we live in His word. By the power of God’s Spirit within you, you can say no to sin! You can make disciples! You can love your wife more than hunting! You can do a devotional with your family when you make your body a shave to Crist! Teenager you can be the influencer rather than the influenced! REMAIN in Christ “For apart from Him you can do nothing” John 15:5. 

Quit setting goals and then giving up when you fail. Follow the direction Christ has already set for you and flourish from this year to eternity.

Shut It Down- Or Else!

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We are a perpetually forward looking people- and at no other time of the year is this more true than right now.

We look forward to Thanksgiving.
Then we look forward to Christmas.
And then on to New Year’s.
And then, at the rate we’re going in our culture, by around March we’ll be looking forward to Christmas again!

There is just something about the holiday season that brings us right back to our childhood and heightens our sense of anticipation to peak levels.

There’s nothing wrong with this, in and of itself; I do it as much as anyone else.  As a kid, I remember looking forward to countless holiday traditions, but one of the best in our family was our annual New Year’s Eve Bonfire.  We would spend the weeks leading up to it collecting fallen limbs and leaves from all over our property, then invite as many of our friends and family as we could to come over and light it up.  After all, what could go wrong when a bunch of Livingston Parish folks get together to set something on fire?

The night was always a blast.  We would roast hot dogs and marshmallows, play football and basketball, even shoot off a few fireworks if someone was in the mood to burn some money on it (pun absolutely intended).  But after the crowd dispersed and the cleanup was complete, there was one more essential task that had to be done before we could drift off into a much needed New Year’s nap.

We had to put out the fire.

Why?  Because if we didn’t, and we simply left it to burn unattended, chances are we would be ringing in the New Year with the local fire department, attempting to put out a raging flame spreading through our yard and our woods- or worse.  So in an effort to avoid this unfortunate scenario, each year Dad would take steps to cool the embers intentionally and properly.  It took time, sure…but it was totally worth it.

As we approach the end of 2016 and look forward to turning the page to 2017, I want to strongly encourage you to take on a similar process with your life.  Resist the urge to look forward in anticipation of everything that’s coming (good, bad, or in between), and instead take some time over the next week to intentionally and properly “shut down” the year that was.

Shut it down- or risk burning it up.

Allow me to explain.  Many of us live under the illusion that our past has no bearing, no impact on our present or on our future– but nothing could be further from the truth.  What happened in 2016, if it isn’t processed well, will carry right over into 2017 and beyond- and potentially thwart what God wants to do in and through your life.  We need to take the time to reflect on our wins and losses, our peaks and valleys, our celebrations and struggles, and most importantly, on what God has taught us in 2016 through each of them.

This is the equivalent of “putting out the fire” so that it doesn’t burn unrestrained into the new season to come.   Here are a few practical tips on how to “shut it down” right before turning the page to 2017…

1- Take time to say thank you.  James 1:17 tells us that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…”  In other words, anything good in your life this year is the result of God’s goodness graciously on display.  I’m sure God delivered many of these blessings through the hands of other people too.  So take time this week to practice giving thanks to Him- and to them.

2- Remember to repent.  1 John 1:9 is a tremendous promise from God’s Word- “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  But notice the conditional clause there- “If we confess…”  True repentance is the first step toward forgiveness, healing, and transformation.  If you want to leave behind the sinful patterns that have plagued your life in 2016, be purposeful about repenting– and receive God’s promise!

3- Live in reality, but not in regret.  All of us have things about 2016 that we wish we could go back and change- words we wish we could take back, actions we wish we could undo, circumstances we wish we could rearrange, or perhaps do away with altogether.  But that’s the thing about the past- we can’t erase it, we can only learn from it.  Life works in one direction- forward.  So let me encourage you- Whatever is behind you, be honest about it (denial doesn’t help anyone), but don’t allow it to cripple you from taking the forward steps that God has before you.  God specializes in making “all things new”- including you.

4- Resolve to freshly pursue Jesus.  The ultimate goal of taking these steps to “shut it down” isn’t simply so you can get a good night’s rest heading into 2017.  It is instead to lay the appropriate foundation necessary to go after Jesus Christ with fresh abandon in the year to come, to clear the “clutter” than sits in our souls and hinders us from running hard after the Savior.  I’m sure you, like me, have some goals for the new year, but let none of them stand over and above a steadfast commitment to live the life changing love of God and surrender every single day to His Person and purposes.

Thankfully, Dad’s annual efforts to calm the flames were always effective, and we never did burn the house down on New Year’s- or any other day, for that matter.  As you turn the page from 2016 to 2017, I pray you’ll undertake that little bit of “extra effort” necessary to consider your past and move well into your future.  I’m confident that if you will, God will meet you with grace and wisdom and enable you to do what you need to do to flourish in Him.

 

Are You Ready?

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You made a long list and checked it twice; well maybe five or six times.  You have presents to wrap, cookies to make and a Christmas meal too; then their are the projects to finish, and the stuff to pack for the trips you will take…Oh, and don’t forget those end of year bills to pay. Is it even possible to be ready for Christmas?

When we read the book of Luke, we find out Mary and Joseph got ready for Christmas like so many will this week…road trip!  Then their were the shepherds.

“And in the same region [where Jesus was born] there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night.” Luke 2:8

The shepherds were pulling an all-nighter keeping sheep from being gobbled up by wolves when the angels appeared.  They were doing exactly what they were responsible for when they encountered God at Christmas. Every one of us has responsibilities in this life.  Take heart, in the midst of those responsibilities, Christmas is near.  

Our readiness for receiving Jesus this Christmas is defined by our readiness to respond.  So, let me encourage you to stop reading this and make a list of all the important things you have to do between now and Christmas. 

Here is the list I made for myself:
  Make some decisions about a 2017 family budget
  Read the Advent devotional as a family each night
Prepare a meal for friends to encourage them in a difficult time
Read scripture regularly to feed the holy spirit within
Write a blog about being ready to receive Christ
Make progress on finding a children’s ministry director
Finalize plans for Christmas Eve services
Encourage, instruct and correct my children CONTINUOUSLY
Finish dad’s Christmas present

Now, there may be some things we need to take off our lists that aren’t actually important, but that is not my point.  The Shepherds were out doing important things and we should be no different.  Not many today have sheep to watch, but we all have a “flock” of something that needs our care.  The key to being ready for receiving Christ this season is Colossians 3:23-24.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

Is it possible to be ready for Christmas?  Yes!  Whatever you do between now and Christmas, do it with an expectation that you will encounter God.  When we have an encounter with God there are two choices.  We can either continue on with what we were already doing or we can stop and respond.  I encourage you to take a page out of the shepherds manual and go…

“When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us’…And when they saw it [Jesus], they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” Luke 2:15,17

When you go in faith, you will return having had a similar Christmas experience.

“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”  Luke 2:20

As you consider readiness for Christmas, I pray you are able to do the simple and the profound with a focus on the God who rules them both.  Here are a few questions I think are helpful in any  situation, but especially when preparing to celebrate Christ this Christmas.

  1. How can I make the things that I am already doing more meaningful?
  2. Is their anything that would keep me from responding to an encounter with the creator?

 

The Best Gift you will Ever Give

Behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  Luke 2:10-11

Throughout the Gospels we see people bring many things to Jesus.  The wise men bring Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  As the story of Jesus continues into his public ministry we see two of his disciples bring their brothers.  The woman at the well brings her entire town to see Jesus.  People bring Jesus the sick, the blind, and the lame.  Four friends are so committed to bringing one crippled man to Jesus that they dig through a roof and lower him down with ropes.  One young boy brings Jesus a sack lunch and Jesus feeds 1,000’s with it.

Bringing is an essential or core action of a Christ follower.  Fellowship Church expresses the mission given to us by the Lord in the Great Commission with these words, “We exist to BRING real life in Christ to Ascension Parish and beyond.”  The call to bring is not simply a commandment we must obey; it is our great privilege and joy.

God has given us both the calling and the privilege to bring people to Jesus and Jesus to peopleThis is the lifestyle of the New Testament believers.  Jesus sent them out into the highways and byways and they preached the good news of the Kingdom of God.  They brought the love, message, and hope of Jesus to people and they brought people to Jesus.

Will you be a bringer this Christmas?  This week is a great opportunity to speak to people about Jesus.  I am not asking you to get on the political bandwagon of shouting down all those who say, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  I am challenging you to go much further than that.  When you speak of Christmas, will you speak of Christ?  Bring the hope that you have found in the One who “became flesh and dwelt among us” with someone that does not have that hope this week.

Here are some actions you can take this week to truly “be a bringer” this Christmas.

1st – Bring yourself to Jesus. Are you reading Scripture and praying?  If you have not already begun a Scripture plan for Christmas, here is a good 5 day plan you can begin right now.  http://bible.com/r/n

2nd – Bring your family to Jesus this Christmas. Be a bringer includes inviting family to worship the Lord with you.  Bring your family with you for your church’s Christmas worship services.  It is a great opportunity to work together with other believers to share the Gospel with those you love.

Also, Stop every day and spend some time discussing the real meaning of Christmas with your children and family.  5 minutes of intentional conversation will go a long way.  You might also consider purchasing “What God wants for Christmas” if you have small children.  (It is a 7 day plan but it is well worth the investment.)  The telling of the Christmas story in the “Jesus Storybook Bible” is also worth a look.  It is sold electronically here.

3rd – Bring your friends to Jesus this Christmas. Invite your friends to church for Christmas.  Your friends who do not normally attend a church are interested in church and spiritual celebrations at Christmas and Easter.  They will not be offended because you offer for them an opportunity to join you for a spiritually significant moment in the Christmas season.  They will normally feel valued by you because you invited them into a moment they know is meaningful to you.  I challenge you, however, to share with them why that Christmas service is so meaningful to you.  Don’t simply say, “will you come,” tell them why this experience is so meaningful to you and then ask them to join you in it that meaningful experience this year. 

4th – Bring the world to Jesus and Jesus to the world. In any and every moment during the holiday season, we have opportunities to show the love of Christ.  I hope your church has taken opportunities to be generous and giving during this season.  I hope they provide opportunities for you to be a bringer. (Like Christmas Eve services)  I hope this is being encouraged in the body of believers you are a part of, but if it is and you do not participate, you are not being a bringer.  The church doing it is not the same as you doing it.  Invite people to come.  Be a bringer.  It can be as simple as sharing it on social media and typing a status to why the event means so much to you (Fellowship will be posting things to share) or keeping invites in your car and giving them to people at the store or at work.  You can invite your neighbors by bringing them an invitation to Christmas services with some cookies and treats.  Get out there and bring Jesus to world and the world to Jesus this Christmas.

Last – Bring Jesus with you as you are with family, friends, and the world. We bring people to Jesus but we must also bring Jesus to people.  We bring Jesus with us everywhere we go, most of us simply forget that how true that is.  Speak Jesus at your Christmas gatherings.  Volunteer to pray.  When you have conversations with people share a spiritually significant moment with them from this Christmas.  It could be a truth you learned or an opportunity you had to serve others with the love of Jesus.  You don’t have to get “preachy” just be honest.  Share something real from your life that speaks of Jesus’ love and work in your life. 

Find a way to bring Jesus to people in a practical way.  Buy gifts that help the homeless and needy and stop and give them out.  Take your family to find those in need and give blankets and food.  Seek out a family you know is struggling and show them love in a practical say.  Invite that widow or single mother or father (especially consider those who do not have the kids this Christmas Day) into your home for Christmas so they celebrate this season with others instead of alone.  Consider the “foreigner in our midst” this Christmas.  Especially if you live around a university.  Many international students are quite lonely over the Christmas break.  Invite them into your home this Christmas.  Bring Jesus to the world…it is why he came.

Bring Jesus to people and people to Jesus this Christmas.  He is the best gift you will ever give.

Finding Joy in the Chaotic Pace of Christmas

Image result for christmas stress
I need a nap. Seriously. Like many of you, my calendar is overloaded from Thanksgiving to Christmas.  I am busy and am certain you are. I actually narrowly fitted in the time to even write this blog.  It is as if we are just hanging by a thread to our sanity. The phrase I hear most often from people when I ask, “How are you doing?” is “I’m so busy.” And that’s the common answer before anyone even breaks out the Christmas decorations.

Busy-ness is not sin. However, it can reveal a lot of hidden mess in your life by bringing on stress. There is also a very dangerous addiction many people have to being busy. Here are a few red flags:

1-      You define your success by how busy you are and revel in its glory. Your favorite compliment is “Oh, you’re so busy.”

2-      You are more obsessed with gadgets than God. Many people would rather lose an appendage for a day before the dreaded horror of not having access to your phone or computer.

3-      You don’t have time for your loved ones. This is the worst sign of all. Never neglect people for the sake of your calendar.

Here is what you CAN do to find satisfaction and joy in the chaotic pace of Christmas.

1- Lower your expectation of others- Don’t set everyone else’s standards. Don’t expect everyone to operate at your pace. People, even the best of us, will disappoint us at some point- especially in the chaos.

2- Increase your investment in others- God does supernatural work through His people when they are generous. Our spiritual maturity is proven in caring for others above ourselves.

3- Fix your eyes on the prize- Jesus. Don’t make me get cheesy and say it…ok…I will. Jesus is THE reason for the season. Speak His name every day this month. Every. Day.

4- Never lose the wonder of what God did for us. This is my prayer through all of the chaos. Just like I was amazed every Christmas morning as a child- and my heart was filled with expectation and joy…that is what I want every day as we count down to Christmas morning. Never forget how amazing the Glorious Gospel is. God, sent His Son, who was fully God and fully man to come. For us. With all of our failures- He came.

May we never lose the wonder. Wide eyed and mystified may we be just like a child, staring at the wonder of our King.

Empty Your Cup

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“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering…”- 2 Timothy 4:6 (ESV)

I’ve always loved coffee.

As a kid, I relished visiting my grandparents’ homes for many reasons, one of which was the opportunity to trade in my usual milk-and-juice fare for their “kid-friendly” version of coffee (something more akin to “sugar milk,” with a bit of coffee splashed in).  As a college student with minimal income, I still somehow found the funds to buy embarrassingly overpriced drinks as often as I could.  To this day, one of the first things I do on arriving at the office each morning is grab my favorite mug and fill it to the brim with liquid energy.

All that said, my coffee habit has always remained under control- one to two cups a day, and I’m good- or rather, was good, until I spent a week in Honduras last month.  In eight days, I probably drank more coffee than some people do in eight months.  From the moment we woke up each morning until the moment we laid down to sleep each evening, there was coffee everywhere.  At every meal…in between every meal…in every building, and seemingly in every room.  What’s more, it was some of best coffee I’d ever had.

There was a seemingly endless supply; no matter how much we drank, there always seemed to be more, so much so that we joked that one of our biggest adjustments to life back home was getting back to a responsible level of coffee consumption.  Six to ten cups per day just isn’t a sustainable strategy (or expense) long term!

So what does all this have to do with anything, aside from extolling the virtues of fresh, delicious Central American coffee?  I believe there is a helpful- and much needed- lesson to be learned here about our approach to giving.  And when I say giving, I don’t just mean money (although that is certainly included); I mean everything, from our time to our service to our encouragement to our worship.

Both in my own life and in the lives of many others I’ve observed, I’ve become convinced that one of the greatest barriers to faithful and generous giving is a persistent sense that we don’t have “enough” to make a difference.  Many of us live with a preconceived notion of what “enough” is- what the “ideal” looks like- and when we feel that what we have to offer doesn’t measure up to that (arbitrary) standard, we become disheartened, and we disengage altogether.  Consider how this plays out practically…

We can’t serve like that– so we choose not to serve at all.
We can’t give that much– so we choose not to give anything.
We can’t invest in that many people– so we choose to invest our lives in no one.
We aren’t as gifted in speaking or teaching as them– so we choose to remain silent in the face of our opportunities and others’ need.

Do you see how this “scarcity mindset” can be so paralyzing?  When we lay down under the weight of discouragement, we get locked into a pattern of disobedience, which leads us into shame- and the cycle just keeps spiraling.

Imagine your life as a cup..  Now, consider that everyone around you has a cup too.  These cups come in different shapes and sizes- some bigger than yours, some smaller than yours, some just the same.  We all have different needs, and different capacities to meet those needs.  Finally, consider that God has His own cup- which, of course, is bottomless and never anything less than full.

Carrying this illustration forward, consider that every time you give in any way, you are “pouring out” some of what God has placed in your cup, transferring it to someone else’s cup, and ultimately to God Himself.  Every time you take time to serve, you are “pouring out.”  Every time you write a check (or give a few dollars, or text to give) to meet a need, you are “pouring out.”  Every time you open your mouth to speak a timely word of Gospel truth, you are “pouring out.”

The lie that your spiritual enemy- who is real and active, by the way- wants you to believe is that it is your responsibility to fill everyone else’s cup to the brim, and even more ridiculously, to fill God’s cup too.  This, of course, is impossible to do.  We could never give enough to meet every need of every person, and nothing we could ever do will be worthy of what God truly deserves (as if He needed anything anyway).  The problem is, as long as we live under the lie that if we just try hard enough, we can “fill every cup,” we will invariably remain trapped in a frenzy of frustration that leads us to crash and burn- and eventually give up altogether.

So let me free you up today, borrowing some wise phrasing from Andy Stanley- It is not your responsibility to fill someone else’s cup today.  It is your responsibility to empty yours.  Do you see what a massive difference this makes in our approach to giving?

You can only give God and others what you’ve actually got in your cup to give- not what you wish you had, or what you used to have, or what you one day hope to have, or what someone else has.  You can’t be a faithful steward of someone else’s life, or even of a “new and improved” version of yours.  You can and must be found faithful with what is in your hand and in your heart- in your cup, if you will- today.

Rest assured that God is completely self-sufficient.  He is pleased and honored when we offer what we have to Him, but He is not lacking due to any lack in us.  In the same way, He is completely sovereign in all the affairs of man.  In other words, if you are faithful to empty your cup in service toward someone else, He will ensure that whatever you can’t fill will be taken care of by someone else.  He desires that we would find in that truth the freedom to “pour out” generously in service of Him and others, in whatever ways He calls us and provides us with opportunity.

Oh, and one other thing too- I believe wholeheartedly that when we are faithful to give what we have- all of it– that God will always graciously and generously ensure that we have what we need to give when we need to give it.  Just as our Honduran hosts wouldn’t allow those coffee urns to “run dry,” but were always supplying more (and more, and more…), God has an unending supply of resources which He delights in “pouring out” on us to then “pour out” for multiplied impact.

So here’s the question for you today- Will you give what you have, however humble it may be?  God is pleased not by the raw value of our gift, but instead by the volume of our sacrifice.  Empty your cup today- in serving, in giving, in sharing, and in worship- and trust that He will use that offering, however meager it may seem, to make miracles that glorify His name.