Sunday, December 6, 2009

Vision, Part 1

This weekend we attended a retreat for church planters in the Chicagoland area. In a word, it was AWESOME. I want to share with you some of the things we discussed, because I feel like it will give you a better idea of what God is leading us to do here.

One of the most profound ideas we discussed is that Jesus did not command us to plant churches. If you think about it, the term "church planting" itself is almost an anomaly. Because what is the church anyway? The word "church" is only used in the gospels 3 times (and 2 of those times are within the same sentence). It is used more often as the rest of the New Testament unfolds, but is mainly used to describe the body of Christ . . . the PEOPLE. Not a place. Not a building.

What our Lord did command us to do is make disciples. A disciple is a basically a follower. Someone who believes Jesus' doctrine/teachings and infiltrates those teachings into his/her life by imitating Jesus' example. Jesus even exemplified how to make disciples. There's no question that Jesus taught in the temple at times, preached to large crowds, and ministered to people in various ways. He loved everyone, and He truly is the Good Shepherd. But let's think about what set the disciples apart. In the gospels there are many references to the small group of 12 men that Jesus chose to be His disciples. He spent time with them . . . significant, intimate time. He poured His life into them. He served them. He taught them very specific and intentional truths. And He equipped them to teach others how to be Christ followers (disciples). This is what we are to do.

Unfortunately, in today's American "church culture" there isn't much disciple-making going on. When most people think about starting a new church, they begin by finding a building to meet in and focus most of their planning around the Sunday morning service. They set a “launch date” and then seek to attract a large number of people to attend. Of course the hopes are that most of the people who come will keep on coming, and then small groups or Sunday School classes can begin forming, as well as other ministries (like “discipleship training”). This is how most churches have been started. But many people are realizing that this approach is actually backwards, perhaps. The focus should be on making disciples first, and the other, larger things can come afterwards. And if you’ll notice, most churches’ strategies to reach people revolve around getting those people to come to them. To borrow our retreat speaker’s illustration, it’s almost as if the salt of the earth has formed itself into a big salt block, and just sits still in one place, waiting for someone to come and take a taste. However, this is not the spirit of a “sent” or “on mission” church that wants to fulfill the Great Commission. Jesus told us to GO and make disciples. And this is the spirit in which we desire to be “church planters.”

If we go out into the world around us and truly make disciples, then we believe that “church” will just happen. I realize that to some people that might sound a bit flaky, or even crazy. And I’m not saying that we’ll never have any kind of organized Bible study or worship service. But that’s not necessarily how we’re going to START. We want to start by following Jesus’ example of disciple-making. We are seeking people to build relationships with, with the goal of discipling them, so that they in turn can disciple others. We want to pour our lives into serving others in the name of Jesus and for the sake of His Kingdom.

So what will that look like? What does the nitty gritty of disciple-making look like? For us, we hope it will happen through several different forums. First and foremost, we hope to reach out and develop relationships with the people in our immediate neighborhood. We must look around and ask ourselves, “What would it look like if God moved into the neighborhood? If we are His hands and feet, what can we do to touch others’ lives?” If we seek God’s guidance, the Holy Spirit will show us where the needs are. He will lead us to the people who need Him. Perhaps even to people with whom He’s already dealing. The Lord may lead us to meet someone’s physical needs, or to be a friend to someone. And that is where it can begin. We must get our saltiness off the salt block and sprinkle it around!

In future blogs I will share some of our other ideas for making disciples. For now, I will leave you with this thought . . . as “church planters” and ambassadors for Christ in this world, we must crucify our tendency to obsess about perfecting a Bible study or church service, strengthening our leadership skills, and attracting large numbers of people. Rather, we must renew our obsession with Christ, our first love. We must be obsessed with the things that Christ exemplified: servantship and love.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ignorance and Prejudice

Recently I have had the honor of getting to know some teenagers whose families are refugees from Burma and some of the surrounding areas. They are a part of the Karen people group. In their home land, they have experienced years of violent and deadly persecution. All of the kids speak Karen as their primary language, and have been learning English since moving to the United States. But they attend public schools right alongside the Americans. It's hard to imagine how hard it must be for them to fit in. Not only do they look different than many of the students, but they also talk differently, and have many other cultural differences to deal with.

But they are resilient and strong. It was amazing to watch a group of about 8 of them last night, learning the sign language to the song "Jesus Loves Me." Not only could they sing the entire song in English (not to mention Karen), but they quickly learned all of the signs and could perform both tasks simultaneously within 20 minutes. It was beautiful. And I think I have awakened something good within them... they were all so excited to learn it, and many of them were even asking me how to sign other words.

Afterwards, I stayed to listen to their weekly Bible study. They are going through Genesis and were discussing the fall of man. One young teenage girl, who I'll call "M," shared with the group that she struggles with anger a lot of the time. Digging deeper, we discovered that she is angry because she and some of her family members are being bullied by the American kids at school. Some of the Americans make fun of them because they are still learning English, and call them stupid. She said that some kids would even use profanity. "M" didn't want to talk to her parents or teachers about it, because she didn't see how it would help. It broke my heart to hear her talk. But I was so glad that she was opening up about it, amidst a group of believers. Please pray for "M," her cousin "S," and the other Karen kids who are unfortunately enduring another form of persecution in their new home. But praise the Lord that these kids have a safe, nurturing place where they can talk and be encouraged.

The kids last night sang "Jesus Loves Me," but I mention now another childhood song that we all need to be reminded of:

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white
They are precious in His sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

Monday, November 30, 2009

Kids Say the Darndest Things

Our kids had a blast over the Thanksgiving holiday playing with their cousins, aunt (my sister-in-law), and their crazy uncle (my brother). It was so nice to have some family with us for our first Thanksgiving in our new home. And it was fun to visit the city on Friday, too. I think the highlight for them was just riding the train and the bus. Who needs tourist attractions?

I think the only disappointment from the weekend was that my 2 1/2 year old niece still doesn't know who I am. She constantly calls me by my sister's name. We were all wondering what she would do if my sister and I were both in the room...

So, here's my quick funny story. Today R came home from school telling me about a paper cut she'd gotten on her finger. "It hurt so bad, Momma." I could see the red cut, but somehow we both forgot to do anything about it after we got back to the house. So tonight after our devotion and prayer time, R said, "Momma, guess what?! Remember I had that cut on my finger? Well I prayed, and Jesus put His hands on me and He healed me! Look!" She then proceeded to very proudly display her healed middle finger, holding it up in a most offensive way. Thank You, Lord, for childlike innocence. :) I've been laughing all night long.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Church Undercover

Today I'm sharing something my husband wrote for a blog that he's participating in. This tells the story of when our son was born, which proved to be a huge spiritual milestone in our lives....

"The other day I took my 4 yr old son, Eli to get a hair cut. While he was sitting in the chair we kept looking at each other in the mirror. He was being his typical self while enduring the scissors and clippers. He was being quiet, a little shy. As his eyes caught mine in the mirror he would give me this shy little smile that I have seen 100 times now. It was like this unspoken heart language we have saying “I love you dad, I love you son”. Being a dad is an amazing thing. In fact a regular thanksgiving prayer of mine is “Lord thank you for letting me be Reagan and Eli’s dad, help me to…..” I think that one the most important things any parent will ever do for his child is pray and intercede for them constantly. If there is any hope of me preparing my children for life, I cannot do it without prayer. In fact prayer was the very foundation of my son’s life.

I never will forget what I learned about prayer the day he was born. The night before, my wife and I were resting at home. We had just put our daughter to bed and were just enjoying some quiet time alone. It was late. Then it happened. My wife started bleeding very badly. We would come to find out later that her placenta had detached, and this caused her water to break. The only problem was that it was 10 weeks early. I admit that I was scared, but under God’s grace I was able to remain focused enough to call 911. Once the paramedics came, my immediate reaction then was to call a couple of people who I knew would absolutely drop everything they were doing and start praying for us immediately. We would come to find out later that my wife lost so much blood that she was just a fraction away from a transfusion. That was almost 5 years ago. My wife and Eli are fine now and I am grateful for it. However, the first 24 hrs of Eli’s life were uncertain, and the doctors could not give us 100% guarantee that he would live. Several things were wrong; the most crucial one was that his lungs had not had time to fully develop. They were giving him all kinds of medicine, asking my permission, explaining things to me but it was all numbing. Within 24 hrs things changed so much and kept changing. Perhaps the hardest decision I had to make was when we found out that the hospital we were at, their NICU was not able to give Eli the care he needed, and he needed to be transported to Children’s Hospital in Colorado Springs. Now, on top of everything else, my wife was going to be in one hospital and my son in another across town. How could I be there for both of them? How could I leave my wife behind? But at the same time, we did not want Eli to be alone his first night, especially given all the circumstances and uncertainty. So I painfully left my wife in the hands of the nurses and we both agreed that it was best for me to be with Eli. I can’t imagine what Jess went through that night. But it did not seem right for Eli to be all alone. We both wanted him to know we were there for him. My wife was allowed to hold Eli for about 60 seconds before they took him away in an ambulance to the other hospital. It would be days before I or anyone else would be able to hold him. I was barely allowed to touch him. I will never forget going to the hospital and walking in the unit after they had transported him and got him settled in. There was so much pain and discomfort in his face. There were so many tubes and IV’s in him. If he could have made any noise you could not have heard it.

There I was, sick babies all around me. All born too early, all struggling to grow and survive. However, in my own selfishness of the moment all I could see or think about was my son. I stood there quietly praying over my son, trying to be respectful of the noise limits in the room. When Eli’s nurse walked up she interrupted me and said, “you don’t have to pray so quietly.” And then she led us both in this intercession for my son, you would have had to have been completely deaf not to hear her. Even the next nurse on night shift turned out to be a fellow sister in Christ. She also prayed with me and for me and Eli. I would come to find out later her story and how she and the other nurses would daily walk over and pray for every child there. It was their mission, their calling.

There is a lot I remember about that time. But I want to point out a couple of specific things. First, I found out that the church exists in the NICU at Children’s Hospital in Colorado Springs, not because it was in a building. It was not even in a building as our culture defines church. The church existed because 2 or more of followers of Christ were present. Prayers and thanksgivings were being made to God, in Jesus’ name. There was fellowship among us and I was greatly encouraged and lifted up in my time of need. Ministry and service for God’s Kingdom was happening. It did not happen in some building decorated by pews, pulpits and steeples. It happened right where the need and opportunities were. Second, it is important to see that there was a group of nurses and other staff there, probably from different denominational backgrounds, but united. United and focused on one common purpose. To pray, in Jesus’ name, for the children and families of those in need. I can almost bet that most of the children and families probably will never know about this. Although I am sure that some do. But I wonder how God will reward their obedience. I wonder how many have been so touched or moved that their hearts are changed by our loving God forever, because of the love these ladies showed to them and their child. I wonder what the answered prayers look like. I also am aware that there are instances, unlike my own with Eli, where the child never leaves the hospital alive. I wonder how much pain has been healed in a grieving parent’s heart, because of the unseen things done by some faithful followers of Christ.

God’s word instructs us to pray for all people, to intercede on their behalf. I am grateful for those that prayed for my son that night. I am grateful for the people in my life that pray for me. I honored to pray for others. I hope you are too. I hope you have some people close to you that intercede for you on a regular basis. Prayer is a powerful tool we have in kingdom work, in being missionaries. It connects us to God. It helps us to grow close to Jesus and be able to follow His commands. It connects our hearts closer to others. It can happen any time, anywhere."

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. 1 Tim. 2:1 (NLT)

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. Col. 4:2 (NLT)

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. Eph. 6:18 (NLT)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Better Than Life

I'm going to get a little personal today. There is something I struggle with that never seems to go away. Fear. Not like being afraid of spiders or heights. But the fear of bad things happening. The fear of losing my loved ones. The fear of my kids losing their parents. It's the kind of fear that really lends to the imagination. I've wasted many a night thinking about how awful it would be if these kinds of things happened. Crying and mourning over tragedies that have not come to pass. Begging God to not take me yet, because I have so much more I want to do and experience. And every time it happens, I know that I shouldn't dwell on those thoughts. I have at least learned in the last few years to immediately go before the Lord when I start down that mental path of fear and clinging to this world. And I have come to recognize that my fears are born out of love -- I love my family so much that I can't stand the thought of us being apart. But then the Holy Spirit reminds me that "perfect love CASTS OUT FEAR." (1 John 4:18) So I know that what I'm doing is completely unnecessary and really not healthy. Yet it continues to be a problem for me every once in a while.

Now, I know that I can't possibly be the only person who struggles with this viscious roller-coaster cycle. So I'd like to share with you what the Lord spoke to me last night.

Last night my husband and I went to a Christian concert to see Point of Grace and Mark Schultz. As a part of the tour, the artists were promoting the ministry World Vision. It is a ministry similar to Compassion International, where you can sign up to financially sponsor a child for a monthly amount, and that child is provided with education, physical needs, etc. Mark Schultz shared a very touching story about a recent visit he had made to another country with World Vision. He told of a group of children he had visited who were all HIV positive or had AIDS. During their time together, one of the young girls in the group wanted to get up and sing a song in her language for Mark and the other visitors. Mark was blown away by her heartfelt song, and when he asked what she was singing about, he was told that she was singing a chorus that told God "Your love is better than life."

God's love is BETTER THAN LIFE.

This really hit home with me. Especially coming from the mouth of a child who is doomed to die from a horrible illness that will not allow her to grow very old. Our life here on earth can be good, really good, at times. God has blessed me with two beautiful children who amaze me every day. And an awesome, godly husband. God is definitely the giver of ALL good things. He is the Creator of love, the Creator of happiness! But, we are not home yet. We live in a fallen world. Bad things will happen. We will be separated from loved ones by death. Of course, that separation is not forever. Death is not the end when you are a child of God. But what's even more amazing to think about is . . . as much happiness and joy that we can experience here in this life on earth, it is nothing compared to the love of God and all that it entails.

And He is a trustworthy God. I can trust Him to take care of my needs if I'm the one left behind. I can trust Him to take care of my family if I'm the first one to go Home. I can trust that being with Him is going to be way better than anything I could ever imagine. God implores us to trust Him throughout the Scriptures. And He PROVES His trustworthiness throughout the Scriptures. I can even testify to His trustworthiness from my own life experiences.

So from now on, I will choose to meditate on these truths every time my fears rise up in me. It will be a battle in my mind, to be sure. But the Truth is victorious in every battle.

David was right on when he told the Lord that "Your love is better than life." (Psalm 63:3)

I'll close with the following lyrics from a song by Trevor Morgan:

Your love is better than life
Your love is deeper than the sea
More beautiful than any of the things surrounding me
You are everything I need
More than I desire
Your love is better than life
Your love is better than life
Better than a smile
Better than a kiss
Better than any of the things I think I'll miss

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Singin' in the Rain

In Matthew 6 Jesus tells us that, "Each day has enough trouble of its own." Boy, was He right! Why am I surprised? Sheesh. My mother even often says that bad things seem to come in three's. In other words, as some would put it, "when it rains it pours." Sometimes we'll get hit with one huge awful thing that happens... but most of the time, it's just a load of little things. Things that are out of our control. Things that trip us up and cause us to lose focus. Things that cause us to fret and worry.

So what's happened to us? I know I have you all on the edge of your seat now. :)

Well, just to name a few . . . my SUV had to be put in the shop for some pretty significant repairs. (Enough said.) Then we find out that even though our daughter had already started kindergarten back in our old home, in order to fully register here she has to (again) go see a doctor, a dentist, an eye doctor, and she even has to have a blood test for lead exposure. (And as some of you may already know, she is deathly afraid of needles/shots.) Also, our heater can't seem to decide whether it's going to work or not. We sometimes have spotty Internet connections. And now today, Jeromy has a job interview (which is a good thing!), but he's feeling terrible. He'll be stopping by a MinuteClinic on his way home, to see whether he has strep throat or not.

So before you think I'm just complaining . . . let me point you to the hope that I am clinging to. After Jesus alluded to all the troubles we will most definitely encounter, He also said, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me." (John 14:1) He assured us, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5) I am telling myself over and over that Jesus is with us through everything. I am hearing His voice remind me over and over, "do not let your heart be troubled, Jessica."

What an awesome Savior. He cares about even the little things we go through in life. He cares enough to reach down from His throne on high and speak to me. To encourage me. And not only that, but to give me supernatural strength through His Holy Spirit so that I can actually deal with all these things.

My Jesus, I love Thee, I know Thou art mine;
For Thee all the follies of sin I resign.
My gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou;
If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

Friday, October 23, 2009

A New Beginning

So my family just moved from the Bible belt South to the big city life in Chicagoland. Several people suggested that I start journaling, so here goes!

What in the world are we doing here, you may ask. When we told people where we were moving to, most people looked at us like we were crazy. And maybe we are. But if we're crazy for following Jesus then that's okay with me! God has called us here to serve because there is a huge need for new church plants in this extremely populous area. There are over 9 million people in the Chicago metro area, and the majority of them don't have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.

We'll start by forming a Bible study in our home. God has brought us to what my mother-in-law called a "Leave it to Beaver" neighborhood. But don't let the quiet street and plentious sidewalks fool you -- we're smack dab in the middle of a community with over half a million people within a radius of just a few miles!

So what I mainly want to use this blog for is to journal about some of our experiences and share any spiritual insights that the Lord may graciously choose to teach me. I'll start off by sharing how God immediately led us to a "person of peace" . . . Before we even got here, we decided that maybe a home would be a better avenue for us to start a church in, as opposed to an apartment. So we started searching online to see what was available to rent. I saw a townhome online that looked appealing, so I shot a quick email to the realtor who was listing it. We talked on the phone soon afterward, and only a mere 2 minutes into our conversation we discovered that we were both Believers. She was SO excited when I told her why we were moving here. And she turned out to be a gigantic blessing. Once we got here, she was with us every step of the way until we found the house we're now renting. She even prayed with us stopped in the car on the side of the road after we looked at it for the first time.

Now you can't tell me that experience was anything other than awesome! We really felt like it was even further confirmation that we are doing the right thing by coming here to serve. We've been praying that the Lord's favor would rest upon us (Ps. 90:17). Our realtor had no way of knowing our specific prayers, but every time we were around her, the Lord's favor was all she could talk about!

Count your blessings, name them one by one
Count your blessings, see what God has done