What over Who - Jordan Thurmond

We have all probably heard the phrase, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” If you haven’t heard it or don’t think that it is true, try getting a new job in a new industry. It’s frustrating, right? We think that we can know all about a subject or topic and that’s great. But when it comes to actually landing the new position or getting that promotion, sometimes What is just not enough. It takes knowing the right person at your dream job or getting a good word in with the boss.

I want to take that idea a step in another direction. When it comes to our faith, I have found a struggle between the Who and the What. Sometimes, we allow the What of our faith to be placed on a pedestal of sorts while we take away the power of Who. We all have the tendency to place more value on what we believe in over who we believe in, and that is a problem. When we do this, a few issues start to appear, and they can be very hard to rid our faith of.

1. The What has a strong propensity to polarize. If you’re not too sure about that, look around at how many denominations there are. You would have thought that God promised Abraham that there would be as many denominations and sects as there are stars. I have personally lost count of how many there are and how many minute details separate some of them. To me, this is a problem. In the early church world, Paul and other leaders continually discussed how Jesus was important and things like circumcision and what type of meat people ate weren’t so important. In fact, they were really unimportant in light of what had been done for the church less than 100 years before.

So, what happened? The church started senseless debates over circumcision that got them nowhere. In Romans 4, Paul specifically addresses how Abraham’s righteousness began before circumcision (the What). Does that sound familiar? Apparently, church people haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. Fill in the blank with any non-essential topic, and you have two camps with a heated debate leading to more division and less inclusion which ends up turning people away. That turns away the people who are curious and just want to know who God is. No wonder the Church has such a hard time hanging onto people these days. People don’t want the useless arguments and debates that force them into choosing a side. They want what everyone wants - a community, and community is not possible in the midst of chaos and shaming. We don’t have to align all of our beliefs with someone in order to show love, community, and grace.

2. We will find ourselves battling a stagnant faith. When we place What on the pedestal, it becomes an idol of sorts. Nothing should be placed above the Who. Growing up, What we believed was vital to being called a Christian and looking back now, it was probably a little too important. Don’t misunderstand. I do think that what you believe and why is very important. The issue comes in when it becomes too important and is treated as the “Sacred Cow”. At that point, it can start to be dangerous even. In Out of Sorts, Sarah Bessey says, “If our theology doesn’t shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we’re paying attention.” When I first read that, my reaction was an automatic opposition. Why? I think it’s because of my church experience. We were taught that we need to believe A, B and C. Any deviation was wrong and possibly heretical.

What I have come to find, on the other hand, is that I am happy that my beliefs and views on certain issues have changed, and that I have experienced growth in many areas by reading, praying, seeking and talking with people in my community. I want to pay attention, and I want God to reveal new and different aspects of who He is. When we elevate the What, Who is not given the proper power and placement in our lives. Who becomes a nice idea and What becomes a rigid religion. Unfortunately, when that happens we become like the Pharisees. They knew all the Whats for an empty cause without the Who.

3. It creates the quick cure vs. the lifelong healing. This past week, I had an opportunity to listen to a message from a professor I had in college. He brought up an idea that he first came across in a book by Rachel Held Evans. In Searching for Sundays, she talks about church being in the healing business as opposed to the curing business. This struck me as very true because the Who is more important than the What. To be in the curing business, we have to rely more on What. The message went on to say that looking for a cure is the result of a formulaic or if/then type of faith. The formulaic faith works perfectly if there is only the What. We can take a set of beliefs, doctrine, or principles and manipulate them enough to come up with a cure to almost anything. We can arrange them just right to make them work to our advantage.

The only problem with that is the Who. Who can’t be manipulated into some kind of formula. Who breaks molds and transcends our understanding of the What. Who brings purpose to the What. It is in the Who that we find healing; the long term and holistic healing. There is a thought among some Christian circles that if we just believe a doctrine, then we will be cured from whatever it is that ails us. Or they breathe a sigh of relief once you agree with their rules. It’s almost as if they need to hear you say you believe in this or that to be “in”. Again, this places the What in an awkward place of power while undermining the Who that gives grace to our doubt and unbelief. What loses its grip when doubt surfaces. Who becomes stronger in the weakness of our faith.

This Who brings us a sort of faith that is grounded and rooted. The What can only sustain so much when the formulas don’t add up and when the quick cure doesn’t provide a deeper healing. Who will bring together all of the Whats and unify with love, grace and humility. Who gives us a simplicity and wholeness. Who is the steady and unwavering power when the What changes over time and we start to doubt and contemplate our faith. I want to leave with an excerpt from a blog post I read by Brian Zahnd:

When we confuse faith with the correctness of our God-facts, we are a disaster waiting to happen. Certitude about God-facts is never how the Bible uses the word “faith.” Faith in God is trusting God. When we trust God we give control over to God, which is, as Peter Enns says, “a more secure place for faith to rest than on the whims and moods of our own thinking.”

Love: The Highest Calling - by Amber Feaster

Throughout the years as I have walked with God, yearning, growing, slipping, failing, gaining, falling and getting back up again, tripping, learning, unlearning...... you get the point... He's always showed me this one thing that has never changed. He always points me to love. It's my belief that if we, as a family understand, really understand the Love God has for us, we will abide in it, we will freely give it, and it WILL change our world. It will change our homes, our marriages, our schools, our city, our relationships with everyone, and even the heavens will be affected by it.

1 John 4:16

And we have come to know and believe the love that God has for us. God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him.

Let's break that down.

  1. Know     and believe the love God has for us.
  2. God is Love
  3. Whoever abides in Love, abides in God and God in him.

I think in order to understand how to apply this, we need to look deeper into the Greek word for abide.

menō 
remain, abide    

  1. in reference to place        
    1. to sojourn, tarry
    2. not to depart    
  2. to continue to be present
  3. to be held, kept, continually

If you are like me, you desire to be continually present with God, not to depart from his loving presence. The whole point here is to really understand God's love, stay in that understanding and God (Love) will stay with us.

Now that sounds pretty easy, until it comes to the part where we are to be imitators of Christ. Loving like He loves. I think unconditional love is the hardest thing to do. This is why.... In order to love like Christ, we must be willing to endure through brokenness. We must be willing to love the outcast as well as the “favorite”. We must be willing to love a deceiver. We must be willing to love a sinner when everyone around you has a stone in their hand. We must pursue when we may get hurt.... We must love like He loves us…… In our brokenness, on our worst day, with all of our shame. But that can only happen if we allow our brokenness to be met with his love.

My heart’s cry is for all of us to experience the overwhelming, surrounding, fierce love that God has for us. Every single one. God is enamored by you and all of the little quirky things He notices about you that no one else does. He is provoked by your heart’s desires. He hurts for your hurts. He notices every little thing about you. He is compelled to rearrange heaven and earth to bring you near. That's what it comes down to, He wants to be near you. He wants you to freely choose Him. No matter how long you have been walking with Him, there is always more. He is an ocean and we're like children playing in the sand on the shore of all that He is. There’s so much more. I challenge you to get in a quiet place and ask Him to help you understand and believe.

After that kind of understanding, and abiding in that love (staying present, enduring), we get the opportunity to love like never before. Then love is a well you draw from whenever you need to. The overflow will spill into the lives around you as you do the coffee dates and the dinner parties, PTA meetings, park visits, work meetings, and so forth. As you go about your normal life, the most powerful force on earth is present with you and you with it. God. Love. That changes people in all sorts of ways we can’t grasp.

This is an invitation to go deeper. I encourage you to take that heart of yours, open it up really, really wide and ask for the author of your soul to show you His love for you. Then stay present with Him, and present with those around you. You are loved with the greatest love!

I leave you with this. The Message version paints this picture so perfectly.

Ephesians 3:14-21 The Message (MSG)

14-19 My response is to get down on my knees before the Father, this magnificent Father who parcels out all heaven and earth. I ask him to strengthen you by his Spirit—not a brute strength but a glorious inner strength—that Christ will live in you as you open the door and invite him in. And I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

20-21 God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.

Glory to God in the church!

Glory to God in the Messiah, in Jesus!

Glory down all the generations!

Glory through all millennia! Oh, yes!

Thoughts About Love - by Mike Cooke

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So Melody was talking about the message she was working on for Sunday not too long ago, and mentioned that a big part of it was from her dad’s seminar teachings at Circle A Ranch. This particular teaching is from a session that has come to be called, “The Love Seminar”.

Having listened to this seminar from age 11 all the way to being a young adult, I have had lots of takeaways. One that may be the most profound is that, “I am loveable.  I don’t have to do anything for someone to love me.” I started thinking about this seminar and in particular this point and several thoughts came to me.

First, I thought back to the camp program. I thought about the timing of this seminar in relationship to the camper’s overall experience. At Circle A, this teaching usually occurred on Saturday, just preceding Sunday, where we talk about the Love of Christ. I have never thought about how critical the understanding that “I am loveable” is to any relationship. In our relationship with Christ, we don’t need to do anything for him to love us.

With our children, we will do anything because we love them. They are loveable. They don’t have to do anything for us to love them. And even when they do things that are not good, we still love them. We want to celebrate them in their talents and encourage them to become all that they can become. The Father wants the same for us, and we don’t need to do anything for that to be. It is unconditional, Agape. God is love.

I will write this for me but I’m sure you can add your own story to it. A year ago I lost my almost 4-year-old son, Joey, to liver failure. Thinking about him now, I realize more and more the depth of love that God must have for us. I relate God’s love to the great degree of love that I had for my son. Joey could make me crazy. I would tell him things and he wouldn’t listen. I still loved him. I still would do anything for him, even if he didn’t understand or it was hurting him at the time, but it needed to be done.

Just as you love your children or love on children, so God loves us.

I have also thought about this in relationship to the “vine”. With a plant, you give it nutrients and water to help it grow and bring forth fruit. If we are on the vine, our nutrients and water is God’s love. Taking it further… if we are to bear fruit, we have to let the love flow. But for us to really love others as we love ourselves and do this as God intended, we must first love us.

To buy into the pursuit of happiness or success without starting from the point that you are a loveable child of God, is to open the door wide to the enemy of our soul to come in and attempt to fill the cracks of our brokenness with things that will only lead to a slow and painful destruction.

 Guys, think about it. Our kids, or any kids in your life. You love on them. Not because they have done certain things or followed the rules but because they are inherently loveable. This is how God see us. We come into this world loveable. The enemy of our souls introduces all kind of things to make us think otherwise. There isn’t anything about you that God doesn’t love.

 As you can see, I believe this is very important. Now after going over and over it, I have to ask myself, “How are you doing with loving yourself?” The answer more often than not is that I do poorly in this area, which means I can be pretty hard on myself. Only I’ve used a great strategy to justify this: self-discipline. This is how I justify beating the tar out of myself in my head.

So after sharing this, I realize I need to not only be nicer to me, but I need to love me. It really goes further. I was hand-crafted by God. The same God who made the sun, the moon, the universe also hand crafted me. I am doing my best to love others when I am loving myself, and thereby letting God’s love flow through me.

Times and Seasons - by Melody Maybry

I am from a region of Georgia where the season changes are very distinctive. Spring, summer, fall, and winter all have their own characteristics and beauty.

Spring actually begins in mid to late February with some early arrivals of perennials. Each year growing up, I eagerly awaited the fresh green shoots of the daffodil stems from the ground. I would walk around the yard and daily measure their progress. I would inspect every spot of ground where I knew they were planted and I was so excited to see them. I knew by those fragile stems that winter was coming to an end and spring would soon be there. The trees would start leafing out and more and more buds would start forming. It wouldn’t be long before the cherry trees, the dogwoods, the azaleas, and the pear trees were covered in blooms. Yes, spring is incredibly beautiful in northern Georgia.

The days would then start getting longer and warmer. The new leaves became clean and green and summer was not far behind. One thing very clearly let me know summer had indeed arrived: the wonderful smells in the air. There is nothing quite as intoxicating as a nice warm breeze on your face and mussing up your hair while along with it comes the most delicious smell in the world...honeysuckle. Personally that smell lets me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that summer has come. The time for vacations and barbeques, for friends and family, for swimming and waterparks all begins with the undeniable fragrance of honeysuckle.

Fall is so subtle you almost miss its arrival. It begins with the days getting shorter and a small “nip” in the air. It is my favorite season and I expectantly await all year for its coming. The cooler nights, the comfortable days, “sweater weather”, football games and bonfires, these are all indications. However, I keep an eye out for the changing of the leaves – that is the hallmark of the fall season. Incredible hues of reds, purples, yellows, and oranges paint the hillsides and there is absolutely nothing more beautiful! Fall is God’s canvas and it is majestic to behold. He is an incredible painter.

Winter is marked by the cold, of course. You know it is official on that first morning you awaken to frost covering the ground and your car windshield. The dew has frozen on the grass and you have to crank your car about 15 minutes before you leave in order to defrost your windows so you can drive to work. Yes, it is time to settle in for the winter.

Each season brings its own beauty and everyone can partake of it. Each person has their favorite (and their not so favorite), but there is no denying that all the seasons show God’s handiwork.

I find that I am so accepting of these natural times and seasons as a given – they are supposed to happen, they are a part of our world and we normally don’t question “why” we have these changes of the seasons. They are just part of life.

So I began wondering… why do I question the times and seasons in my personal life, when the Bible so clearly states in Ecclesiastes 3:1-11 that for everything there is a season, a time, for every activity under heaven?

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8New Living Translation (NLT)

For everything there is a season, a time for every activity under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die.A time to plant and a time to harvest. A time to kill and a time to heal.A time to tear down and a time to build up. A time to cry and a time to laugh.A time to grieve and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones and a time to gather stones. A time to embrace and a time to turn away. A time to search and a time to quit searching. A time to keep and a time to throw away. A time to tear and a time to mend.A time to be quiet and a time to speak. A time to love and a time to hate.A time for war and a time for peace. What do people really get for all their hard work? I have seen the burden God has placed on us all. Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.

I have come to realize that certain times in my life I welcome and embrace with open arms. Other times I dread with a fear that can overwhelm and consume me. Is it the change itself that I fear, or just the “unknown” that I am uncertain of? Either way I know that instead of trusting God during the seasons, I am trying to head them off. Trying to control my time. I want to choose for myself when and where my “times and seasons” are.

Then I look closer, delve deeper into these verses and I re-read verse 11: “1Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”

 

WOW! Very deep. Since this verse follows immediately after the times and seasons verses I am inclined to believe that God intends for beauty to be found in the times of killing, of tearing down, of crying, of grieving, of scattering, of turning away, of not searching, of throwing away, of tearing up, of hating, of war.

But wait...these are things I dread. Things that I normally run away from with full force. Or things I am drug toward kicking and screaming and acting like a tantrum-throwing toddler. Some of these things appear negative, most are painful, all are life changing. None seem beautiful. Yet, without these times in my life how dull of a person would I be? How shallow? How self-consumed? How one-dimensional?

We all know people who seem to have the “perfect life”. Nothing bad ever happens to them, they always seem to get everything they ever wanted, life is always good. But once we get to know them we find there are no facets to their character, no complexities, no imperfections… in truth, no beauty. They have missed out on the times of their lives that would bring the healing, building up, laughing, dancing, gathering, embracing, searching, keeping, mending, speaking, loving, and peace.

My so-called intellectual self says, “How can the bad, the negative, the hurt, and the pain bring about beauty”? Mostly it is a mystery, but “even so people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.”

I know in my own life the former “times“ make the latter “times” more precious and the memory of the latter “times” make the former “times” bearable. But I am beginning to understand that it is not just about getting through these the negative times. It is about knowing that these times are just seasons, they have a beginning and an ending...and they also have a purpose.

Romans 8:18 says “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (NKJV)

God wants to do something glorious in us. He wants these times in our lives to bring out the best that He chooses. Yet, I find myself saying, “Yes Lord, do something glorious, do something beautiful, do something wonderful… but do it on my terms, in the conditions I choose, and by all means don’t make it painful!”. How arrogant, how foolish, how non-glorious.

God told Jeremiah to “go down to the potter’s shop and I will speak to you there. So I did as He told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.” Jer 18:2-4

So then, He is using these seasons to mold me and make me over and over again to be something beautiful, something useful. I don’t get to choose when these times, these seasons are, or how they happen, or how long they will last. However, I do get to choose whether or not I will submit to Him, to trust Him during these times. I get to choose to embrace the seasons of “bad” and “good” to become what He is making me into. All of these times, these seasons point toward “the eternity He has planted in every human heart”, where His work is complete and we realize just how beautiful His plan was from beginning to end.

Putting it all into perspective, we realize that even though there is beauty in all the natural seasons, beauty comes with a price as well.

Spring in Atlanta is indeed unforgettable and amazing, but one can barely make it through the astronomical pollen that is created by all the blooming flowers and trees. The people know that for at least a full month (usually longer) you are going to suffer through sneezing, watery eyes, losing your voice even, and inch thick yellow pine pollen that covers everything – cars, porches, hair, you name it. None escape it. There is no reason to do anything about it until the pines stop pollenating. One learns quickly it is a losing battle to even try. Everyone knows this is the price paid for the beauty shown.

The summer brings insufferable heat and mosquitos, gnats, fleas, and other blood-sucking insects. Yet, there is nothing more glorious than a beautiful summer night under the stars with a tall glass of sweet tea, inhaling the delightful scent of gardenias and jasmine.

The majesty of fall soon brings leaves falling to the ground so thick and so often one could rake and mulch every weekend for the entire season and still have some on the ground the first frost of winter.

Winter with its frozen beauty gets so cold at times that no matter how many pairs of socks you can put on and still manage to stuff your foot into your shoes your toes are in a constant state of frozen.

This reminds me that even nature with the beauty that can be found in all of its seasons has both “good” and “bad” that is accepted by one and all. Just a part of life, a part of God’s creation. In fact, I see clearly now that He uses them as a reflection of the times and seasons in my own life.

What then is the conclusion? Well, mine is to say “Lord, thank you for the times that are painful, that create uncertainty, that tear up, that make me evaluate what my priorities are. They make me so much more grateful, thankful, prepared for the beauty, the healing, the building, the laughing, the mending and the loving. And hopefully, just hopefully, they make me more of a reflection of who you are. Showing Your glory and your faithfulness is a world that so desperately needs to see You”. 

The Calling - by Kacy Oleson

        In the past – I have often thought of the calling of God to be the hard part. The leap of faith. The stepping out of your comfort zone.  Once you go forth in the calling of what He has for you, it all gets easier because you are walking where He wants you to, right?  Maybe for some.  But for us the last year following the call of God on our lives has been anything but easy.

        You see when we felt called to step out of our comfort and start taking in kids from hard places, we knew it would be difficult.  I felt God had revealed to me beforehand and reiterated to me that He didn’t call me to be comfortable and that this wouldn’t be easy.  But walking through it – well it’s been messier and harder than even the revealing could have prepared me for.

      I guess I had the idea – that there would be a clear purpose and plan in the hard places we were going to traverse.  Yes it would be hard – but God would ultimately be walking alongside us revealing to us WHY it had to be so hard.  Now as our first placement from Foster Care winds down I am finally starting to see WHY we had to go through what we went through, but as I walked along the dark places of the last months I felt I was screaming at the ceiling. I felt I was unheard, alone, and completely and utterly frightened at what I was finding.

     Being a foster parent has taught me more about my sin and selfishness in 8 months than I probably learned in almost 30 years of my entire life.  I have always been a “goody goody,” following the rules, terrified of getting in trouble.  So naturally I considered myself a “good person.”  I tried to love others, give to those in need, read my Bible, pray, and again I considered myself a “good Christian.”  I know that Christianity isn’t just a check list of our good vs. bad, but still I felt justified in the role I was playing as a good Christian.

   Enter a little girl who came in our lives and wrecked all our thoughts of being great parents, people, or Christians.  We were faced with confronting our selfishness for our comfort, our lack of patience with a child we didn’t understand and who couldn’t communicate, and our fear that we were just barely surviving everyday.  Worn, weary, and unable to handle an extra stress - we were then faced with some of the ugliest and hardest circumstances that we’ve walked through as a married couple.

    And all I could do is ask WHY. Why when we were trying to do the calling of God were we faced with such hardship. WHY were we faced with sin? WHY were we asked to leave a church we loved? WHY were we asked to endure a sickly child? WHY did we have the worst health problems we’ve ever had? WHY were our family members sick?  WHY did we face tragic family losses?

     I was feeling very broken and God DID  provide in many ways but it just didn’t feel like enough.  A friend insisting on bringing a meal. A devotional. A message from the pastor at the new church we were attending.  Small things, enough to help us keep going. But just that – enough, not more, not excess or abundance, enough to let us know He was there. He was providing. He was showing us love even though we felt unworthy.

     One of the hardest callings we received in the midst of all of this was the call to leave our church of 5 years, Element Church.   We knew the church was walking through some tough places and we didn’t want to be seen as “jumping ship.” We weren’t leaving because of the struggles at Element, instead through a hundred different ways and places – God asked us to leave and follow Him.  From the pain and hurt and struggles – He was beginning to stoke a passion in our hearts. A passion that He was calling us to go elsewhere to pursue.

      Tentative and unsure, we took one of the biggest things we had learned from our Element Church, and headed out to find where God was calling us.  We had learned from our Element Family over the years – that we are called to BE the church. Not to attend it, but to be the church to the lives we come in contact with through love and care.  God was stirring our hearts for a community of and for Foster Families and was doing this by telling us if we wanted to see this happen – we needed to BE it.

     We landed at Baylife Church, where we knew the “Modern Orphan,” ministry was starting to try and reach out to love on those people involved in foster care and/or adoption.  Baylife is a very large church in comparison to where we were at Element.  And for the longest time it felt large and lonely.  We were hurting, we were struggling, and we were no longer a part of an intimate loving community that knew us and could walk beside us.

     But we didn’t let that completely discourage our hearts.  As we purposefully pursued what we thought God was calling us to for Foster Families – we started to see a little more clearly through our fog.  God was starting to open doors at Baylife and the passion in us was growing.  Maybe the struggles and hurt still didn’t make sense but we were starting to have a purpose in them again.

     Now as we approach the end of our very first placement, God has started to burn the rest of the fog away. He has teamed us with likeminded people who are passionate about making sure foster families are cared for – so they can in turn care for the orphans in their lives.  And as we’ve moved forward into this ministry He placed in our path – He has been faithful. Suddenly, pieces that didn’t fit together are now seamlessly connected.  We can see literal answers to prayers that we and others have been praying for months and years.  He has shown Himself to be faithful.

    The Calling wasn’t the end point – He didn’t just want us to do something for Him. He didn’t want us to just start taking kids into our home and that be the end of it. He wanted us to minister to the hearts of those caring for kids. He wanted us to see our sin and selfishness. He wanted us to grow and rely more deeply on Him. He wanted this calling to change us.

   One thing we’ve learned is the Calling, or leap of faith isn’t the point.  Once you take that first step it might not take you onto a wide easy road. It might take you on to a tricky narrow path where you are unsure of the next step.  It might mean questions, and wrestling, and screaming at the ceiling some days.  But rest assured if He has called you, He will be faithful. He may not give you much more than enough to get that next step, but He will give you enough for that.

     When the fog has cleared what I see now is that if it had been easy, if we hadn’t struggled, we wouldn’t have the passion we do for caring for foster/adoptive families.  We might not always have the same circumstances as other foster/adoptive families but we can now understand where they are coming from when they feel broken and weary. We can look at them and say, “I’ve felt the weight of my own sin bearing down on me as I started this journey.”  We can pray for them in a more meaningful way, we can cook and clean from them, we can love them even knowing that they are struggling through a placement or even just the life circumstances they’ve been given.  We’ve walked that road of doubt and confusion – and now we have the ability and passion to BE the church to those that are also walking through it.

     As God has been faithful to start clearing our hearts and minds – I do not suffer the delusion it will be easy or perfect from here on out.  I know there are miles of struggles ahead that I most like won’t understand while I’m going through them. But I know when I get to the other side – He will be faithful to reveal His purpose.

     We had the chance to go back to our Element Family this past week and spend time worshipping with them. It felt surreal and yet so beautiful knowing what a huge role this loving church played in our journey.   As we sang “How He loves Us,” at Element – I couldn’t help but think that through the regrets and trials of the last months – that He loves us, and draws us to Him in ABUNDANT grace.

“We are His portion and He is our prize

Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes

If grace is an ocean, we're all sinking

So heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss

And my heart turns violently inside of my chest

I don't have time to maintain these regrets

when I think about the way

He loves us

Oh how He loves us”

– Jesus Culture

The Plan - by Benjamin NeSmith

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We’ve all heard those engagement stories, where a young man schemed for months to surprise his bride to be with an elaborate proposal. (I have one of these stories of my own, which may or may not involve an unsavory character pacing the beach we were sitting on and ruining my moment!) What makes these stories so romantic? I would say that it was the planning that happened before the moment of proposal. The effort and the arranging of time and circumstances to make the beginning of the marriage journey memorable is usually deeply appreciated. This type of intentionality is never more clear and meaningful than when we look deeply into the heart of God as he set in motion his plan for Redemption with the birth of his only Son. That act, when Jesus took on the form of a servant and put on flesh, is such a beautiful act of absolute love. Jesus was sent in love, he came for love, and he came to love. Indeed, our Jesus is love. But as lovely as it is to ponder the mysterious miracle in Bethlehem, we should consider this: what if that manger was not the beginning of the Father’s redemption plan? What if the incarnation was the realization, the coming to fruition, of the plan that had always been?

Consider Ephesians 1:4

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

and 1 Peter 1:18-20

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors,but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake.

Before the creation of the world. This means that before the Creator created anything, when Father, Son and Spirit were existing alone in perfection, God chose to create this universe and all of humanity. He chose knowing that we would fall, and that this Fall would cost him his Son. But he did it anyway. On purpose. It was always the plan. Are you getting this? This means that there has never been a time that we were not known, loved, and planned for. Can you see how God, the pursuer of human hearts, so loved the world that he gave his only Son that day in Bethlehem?

Imagine with me for a moment, if you will. Imagine that God existed within time as we know it. Can you imagine Jesus’ last day in heaven? What was that like? When the time came for Father and Son, who had never been apart, to say goodbye? I imagine them talking about how much they loved humanity. How much they loved us. How much they loved me. And then the moment came for Jesus to leave. I’m not sure if it happened this way or not, but we do know what happened next. Soon, he came kicking and screaming (literally, not figuratively) into this cold, dark world. This is the mystery of the incarnation that we revel in during the Christmas season - and we should! The coming of our Savior is cause for deep joy and genuine celebration. But as we rejoice about the baby in the manger, may our gratitude and adoration of the Christ Child deepen all the more when we ponder the fact that we were chosen in Him before we even existed. And that that holy night in Bethlehem was a huge leap forward in the redemption plan that had always been - before the creation of the world.

Jumping Into the Fire to Avoid the Flame - by Charlie Riel

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Guilt and self-condemnation are two of the biggest issues I battle with on a day-to-day basis. No matter how many math problems I do or how busy I keep myself I can never seem to hide from my own mind. The things that I have done in the past, or the things others have done to me, are to blame for the majority of my sleepless nights. Unfortunately most of my problems are results of perpetual sins in my own life. Oh! How frustrating it is whenever I slip up again…and again….and again. It seems as though I let my guard down too often and sin creeps up and gets the best of me and before I know it, its 2 AM and I am lying awake in bed and regretting everything.

So a couple weeks ago this happened again and this time it was really bad. Friends of mine were left confused, upset and frustrated. Of course I sincerely apologized and I begged for forgiveness from everyone in the situation. (Luckily I am blessed with awesome friends who are full of that stuff.) Overflowing with grace and mercy, they forgave me, but unfortunately for me the wells of my grace and mercy had run dry. I was so frustrated with myself and no matter how deep I buried my thoughts into homework I could hear myself screaming in frustration from that empty well. After a week or so of this nonsense I was reading and praying and reading and praying. I eventually came across this passage that really caught me off-guard. Now that I am writing this, the passages that come to mind are things like Romans 8:1 and the whole stinking book of 1 John… but I suppose I didn’t think of those because I was blinded by my own demons. The passage that I found was actually near the end of the book of Mathew. To be more exact the verses are Mathew 27:1-5.

“Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor. When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.

“I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.”

Yes. Believe it or not, this is the passage that led to my restoration and liberation from guilt, shame and everything else that’s tagged along with sin. Also for those of you who don’t really know me that well yet, I promise I am not a complete weirdo. Now please just let me explain. When I saw this passage I immediately turned to the Mathew-Henry Commentary to see why on earth this made it into the Bible… and to my surprise, my friend Matt had a valid point.

In this passage we read about the guilt and remorse felt by Judas after he realized what he had done. Now pause for a second, I have seen this same emotion before, I have battled with it from sundown to sunrise. I am not that much different from Judas and quite frankly I don’t think many of us are. I don’t think Judas’ betrayal was any worse than the multitudes of sin I have committed. See most people, including myself, would say that Judas committed a pretty terrible sin, after all he betrayed the King of Kings for 30 coins, but I no longer think this was his greatest sin. Matthew-Henry writes that Judas recognized his sin but had no apprehension of the Mercy of God and that Judas would have rather subjected himself to the mercy of the devil than of Gods. Thus he jumped into the fire to avoid the flame.

For a while every time I sinned it was getting easier and easier to think that God didn’t want to save me or even worse, He couldn’t. I don’t know if I am the only person who has thought that but if you are reading this and you find yourself in accordance with me, I urge you to take refuge in the Grace of God. Know that we are being matured and that we must trust God to be who He says he is. Judas’ sin was forgivable and our sin has been abolished, but we must recognize that the depth of God’s Grace delves so much deeper than any sin we could commit.

NOTE: I am definitely not saying that we should sin more so that grace may abound more. I am saying that we must pursue a walk in the Light, simply being mindful that if we stumble, God will pick us up, again and again. There isn’t a place we can go that it too far from His redemption, and there isn’t a line we can cross where we are no longer worth saving.

I really hope this helps someone and I love you Church!

Succeeding in “The Second Call” By Living In Hope - by Thomas Fernandez

Brennan Manning, in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel has a chapter called “The Second Call". Essentially it is when a Christian goes through an event that can leave them alone, confused and unsure of their faith. He calls it the second call, and he proposes that it's an invitation to reflect on our nature and quality of our faith and truly accept what being in God’s love brings us.

The past year, in my mind, has been my second call. I won’t bore you with the details but it started last March. I was going through something and when I joined Element last October, I really began my reflection of my second call and began to question everything in my life thus far. I hadn’t been to church in years and I was letting the grind of my (now unimportant) problems affect my behavior and relationships. I thrived in the misery and hopelessness of the situation and let it dictate everything. It was beginning to work its way into defining my whole being.

That’s when my second call started. God wasn’t just a deity that I accepted when I was a child. He forced himself through the murk and mire through so many different resources and unexpected places in my life. What He had been doing was forcing me to look full in the face of what it really means to be a Christian and more importantly to have a relationship with Him. These different resources, including Element, ultimately changed not only my daily life but also help me grow as a person, friend, son, brother and Christian. Praying to God wasn’t just an exercise—it became a conversation, which I think is critical in being a Christian. This by no means implies that I am done growing… it means that I have just started. But pausing on it brought me to another verse, one that in my naïveté and unseasoned Christian walk, I didn't really understand.  I am sure I don’t fully understand it even now, but I do  have a grasp of the concept—a fact that I was sorely lacking before.

Psalms 37:4 "Delight yourself in the Lord and He will grant the desires of your heart."

I used to quote that verse as a talisman or some sort of prayer and that if I did it, things would just magically fall into place. How wrong and naïve was I?  That’s all changed this past calendar year. This verse is how one succeeds after the “second call” has been made.

I believe that because after things happened and I began my "second call", all I could do and did was just delight myself in God. He kept putting people and resources in my way and before I knew it, things were picking up steam and my life had done a complete 180-degree turn. I just focused on that, things began to pick up, and He has answered my desires in ways that I couldn't imagine.

I had a plan on what I wanted and it was more like wish list than a five-year plan. But slowly over the course of a year, God has steadily provided an answer to each of those needs and set me on a path that is better than I could have picked to be quite honest.

The second call and hope go hand in hand together. Because the second call proves that hope is the key to succeed. When I came to Element, I felt hopeless about many things throughout my life. I didn't know what to do. I  "hoped and “prayed” but at the end of the day, it wasn't getting anywhere because it wasn’t done the right way. It was just lip service. I wanted my desires answered but I was unwilling to “delight” in Him, the One who would answer them.

The best way to hope is to delight in God. He unconditionally loves us so He will grant the desires of our heart, the true desires, and not just some wish list. At the end of it all, my true desires were to be changed, healthier, happier and not feel alone but I didn't put it in the list, I had specific things I wanted that I didn't know how to get. He already gave the directions, "delight in Him." I think that's how God wants us to hope. God answered the true desires of my heart and never faltered in loving me and guiding me. I think Manning got it right. The second call asks us to question our faith and really discover if we can hack it but it also transforms us if we are willing to answer it.

In hindsight, I am grateful that God put me through the things I went through and my “second call” because doing it the old way wasn’t as much fun.