A Collateral Condition

“Let God have your life; He can do more with it than you can.” – Dwight L. Moody

If you have seen the movie Collateral Beauty, you may have cried. It is understandable. It is a pretty emotional movie. When the movie opens you immediately meet a man named Howard who is the main character.  In the very first scene you hear Howard ask the central question in the movie; “what is your why? What is your reason for living? What gives your life meaning and value?” These are questions we love at Northstar. What is your answer to those questions? What gives your life meaning?  What gives your life value when difficult, unexpected things happen?

Howard has it all, but everything changes when his daughter dies. His marriage ends up in divorce, he checks out in life and his business is failing. So in the midst of his circumstances, Howard’s answer to that question is life is defined by three abstractions: time, love and death. These three abstractions connect every single human being on earth, everything that we covet, everything that we fear not having, everything that we ultimately end up buying, is because, at the end of the day, we long for love, we wish we had more time, and we fear death. The conclusion in the movie is that time is a gift, love is best and death is coming. Should you get knocked down in life, should you lose a loved one, find the collateral beauty in life. That is it. That is the answer.

Unfortunately, there is no comfort in that answer when life is hard. Even if life is pretty good right now, if all you do is pretend that your life has meaning, then all the meaning you have in life is pretend. As Christians we have a different worldview. Our answer is in Christ. Through Christ, God stepped into our everyday human lives and demonstrated a love that is beyond all measure. And while we don’t fear death we should maximize our limited time. David prayed in Psalm 39: ”Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered—how fleeting my life is. You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath.” But God responded to our limited time with the answer of His eternity; and He forever defeated death to give us life. In John 19:30, we read, “When Jesus had tasted it, he said, “It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and released his spirit.”

What is finished in death is replaced with eternity. What is paid in full is the price for humanity’s sins, our sins, that brought death to the world in the first place. All of this comes to us as a result of God’s eternal, unflinching, unshakeable love for us. We need no longer fear death or wish we had more time, for all of this is paid in full out of God’s love for us.

The movie is right in that uncertainty is certain. But as Christians, hope comes from the promises of God rooted in the work of Christ. The meaning of life isn’t pretend, it’s a loving God who is passionate about you.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is your why? 
  2. What do you think about the claim that we are motivated by love, time and death?   

Only Jesus Can Fill Us With A Sense Of Belonging

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” – I Peter 1:3

The movie Lion is an affecting, yet life-affirming human drama about a young Indian boy who finds himself thousands of miles from home. Separated from his family for more than 25 years, the boy eventually finds his way to his birthplace in India. Lion serves as a reminder that while the human experience may appear vastly different on the surface, we all universally have the need to belong. The need to belong was not our idea, it was God’s idea. God did not hard wire us to be isolated robots, but relational people with the need to belong. And when that need to belong is met, it can change our lives.

That is why we nag, cajole, and try to entice you to join a small group. After all, is that not what we all want. We want a place where we find love, encouragement, reassurance, acceptance, validation and the occasional dose of accountability. A place where we feel at home, included, affirmed and supported, a place where we just know that we fit, that we belong. But we can also never lose sight of the fact that we belong to God.

Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus ministered to people who never felt like they belonged—lepers, tax collectors, outcasts, notorious sinners—and he assured them that they belonged to God. On one occasion Jesus put it this way, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me,” (John 10:27-28).  Paul’s wrote in Romans 14: 7-8, “For we don’t live for ourselves or die for ourselves. If we live, it’s to honor the Lord. And if we die, it’s to honor the Lord. So whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” In other words, we belong to God. 

Just a few weeks before he was executed by the Nazis on April 9, 1945, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the following poem that talks about the something that matters much more than who you are: Whose you are:

“Who am I? They often tell me. I stepped from my cell’s confinement. Calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me I used to speak to my warders. Freely and friendly and clearly, as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me I bore the days of misfortune, equably, smilingly, proudly
Like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself? Restless, and longing, and sick, like a bird in a cage. Struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat. Yearning for colors, for flowers, for the voices of birds, thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness, tossing in expectation of great events, powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance. Weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the Other? Am I one person today and tomorrow another? Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others, and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? Or is something within me still like a beaten army, fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!” (from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prison Poems).

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does belonging mean to you?
  2. How does the fact that we belong to God change how we live our lives?

The Least Of These

“Come and talk with Me, O my people.” — Psalm 27:8 (TLB)

It is hard for most people living in America to imagine the hardships of children born into poverty in India. “Lion” solidifies just how difficult it can be.For five-year old Saroo and his teenaged brother Guddu, life in the small village of Ganesh Talia proves hard. They scavenge so they won’t go hungry.The two boys steal coal from atop a moving train to have something to sell for milk. Dangers lurk everywhere, but they have to do whatever they can to survive.

We don’t need to go to India, however. to find people in need, people who could use some help. God is calling for our help with people He calls “the least of these.”  (Matthew 25:40) This passage is primarily about how we treat those the world seems to think are the least, but whom Jesus loves. The least, the last, and the left out become the primary ones who come to Jesus and find life, love, and lasting hope. Jesus’ promise is that as we care for those in Jesus’ community, no matter their circumstance, we are caring for Him.  As Mother Teresa of Calcutta put it, “When we look into the face of one of them, we see the face of Jesus.”

During His earthly ministry, Jesus and His followers constantly pursued those who seemed far from God and forgotten by society. He invested a lot of His time into the “least of these:” the poor, the hungry, the broken, the weak and the people who had absolutely nothing to offer Him. As His followers, He calls us to do the same today. We can choose to ignore those people in the world around us and miss an amazing opportunity to experience Jesus. There is life, love and opportunities to become just a little bit more like Jesus today and serve the least of these.

To encounter a person who otherwise might be ignored or disregarded is truly to encounter the living presence of Christ. Jesus is entrusting the poor, the most vulnerable in society, to our care. Our task is simply to reach out and show Jesus’ love. My prayer is that the Lord will open your eyes to see His face in the faces of people who are down and out, disadvantaged, or challenged in other ways. And pray for a willingness to reach out and bring out the “lion” in all of us. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who are the least of these in your community?
  2. How do you personally respond to those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick, and imprisoned?

Sticking With It

“Remember those early days after you first saw the light? Those were the hard times! Kicked around in public, targets of every kind of abuse—some days it was you, other days your friends. If some friends went to prison, you stuck by them. If some enemies broke in and seized your goods, you let them go with a smile, knowing they couldn’t touch your real treasure. Nothing they did bothered you, nothing set you back. So don’t throw it all away now. You were sure of yourselves then. It’s still a sure thing! But you need to stick it out, staying with God’s plan so you’ll be there for the promised completion…But we’re not quitters who lose out. Oh, no! We’ll stay with it and survive, trusting all the way.” – Hebrews 10:36 (MSG) 

The movie Lion is about Saroo, a five-year-old boy growing up in rural India. Saroo and his brother Guddo would scrounge for coins and food on trains to help their impoverished mother and siblings. One day, Saroo fell asleep inside an empty train stationed a few stops away from their hometown while waiting for his brother to fetch him. When he awoke hours later, he was thousands of miles away in Calcutta. Saroo would spend several terrifying weeks surviving on the streets of Calcutta before eventually being placed in an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple. Saroo would go full circle, using Google earth and a pitfall like stick-to-itiveness to overcome discouragements and stay focused on the goal. Eventually his diligence enabled him to reunite with his mother. 

It reminds me of a story in Haggai 2. The Israelites had returned to Jerusalem after years of captivity to find the Temple lying in ruins. The Israelites had other priorities than the temple. Haggai exhorts them to get their priorities right: to put the house of God first. This is a story of discouragement. We all face discouragement and when we are discouraged it is hard to stay focused on God. God says through Haggai: “Be strong, all you people still left in the land. And now get to work, for I am with you, says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. 5 My Spirit remains among you, just as I promised when you came out of Egypt. So do not be afraid.” (Haggai 2:4-5)

When we are discouraged in our lives, we need to be reminded of God’s promise to us – “I am with you”. When we are feeling discouraged in life, we need to remember that God is with us. If you need convincing, look back through history. The history of the people of Israel proves God’s constant love. The history of the church proves God’s constant presence. But just as importantly, when we look back through our own lives, we gain a sense of God with us always – even when times have been tough, we can sense the hand of God in our lives. We simply need to stay the course to stick to His plan and purpose for our lives.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does spiritual stick-to-itiveness mean to you?
  2. What can we do this week to stick to it in our Christian walk? 

Doing Life Together

“Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.” — Galatians 6: 2-3.

One of the great realities of the Christian life is that it was meant to be shared together. Jesus knew that the life He was calling His disciples to do would be difficult, and that none of us could do this on our own. So He established His church and designed it to function in community. We are totally dependent upon Him, but also upon one another.

In Lion, we see the importance of family; having those key people to share life with in both ups and downs. Saroo finds out just how important his brother and mother were when he suddenly found himself separated from them.

God wants us to be there for each other. When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we should not have to face it alone. We’re urged to keep up with one another often. We need each other: the support, the encouragement, the help along the way. The Christian life is not easy and there are so many hills and valleys along the way. Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.”  

God gives us community as a way to become more like Him. God’s Word reminds us that we are put in relationships in order to encourage one another in our pursuit of God and His Kingdom. There is something real about the concept of power in numbers. When we are surrounded by other believers, we feel empowered in our faith and may even be more sensitive to God’s presence in our lives. There’s something powerful about believers joining together, making each other accountable and being a sort of witness of one another’s lives. We need people checking in on us, asking the hard questions, and challenging us to really live out our faith. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “A Christian fellowship lives and exists by the intercession of its members for one another, or it collapses. I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me. His face, that hitherto may have been strange and intolerable to me, is transformed in intercession into the countenance of a brother for whom Christ died, the face of a forgiven sinner.” (Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community)

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you have someone or a group of people that you can be authentic, be yourself with, without any facades or false fronts? 
  2. Small groups are about doing life together. A place where you can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to your purpose. Agree or disagree? If you are not a member of a small group, please consider joining one this semester.

Lion Hearted

“The bow of Jonathan was powerful, and the sword of Saul did its mighty work. They shed the blood of their enemies and pierced the bodies of mighty heroes. How beloved and gracious were Saul and Jonathan! They were together in life and in death. They were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions.” – 2 Samuel 1:22-23.

I hope you have seen the touching film Lion that tells the true story of a five-year-old boy from a desperately poor village in central India, who through a tragic series of mishaps, gets lost and separated from his family. Surviving life on the streets of Calcutta, many hundreds of miles away from home, he is eventually taken to an orphanage. Before long, the boy, who is called Saroo, is adopted by an Australian couple. Saroo adapts well to his new country and his new family.

The heart of the film is the story of Saroo’s search for his birth mother that he begins while attending college. Drawing on memories of his early childhood, and using Google Earth to try to identify the landscapes, landmarks, and location, he searches for his childhood village. The search took years. Eventually, after years of maddening Internet-driven searching, Saroo locates his childhood village through Google Earth.  And with the blessing of his Australian family, he travels to India to find his birth mother, who amazingly is there, has stayed put, and has not stopped hoping that her long-lost son would someday return.

Through this process, Saroo discovers that he was loved and wanted from both his birth family as well as his adopted family. In John 14, Jesus is talking to His disciples and in John 14:18 He reassures His followers: “No, I will not abandon you as orphans—I will come to you.” He is talking about the Holy Spirit and answering a question that the disciples probably had – what will become of us when you have gone?

I suppose that like Saroo, there have been times when we are lost, without any idea which way home is. But I hear Jesus speaking to His disciples, and I know that he is speaking to me and to you. “I will not abandon you as orphans.”  In the film, the couple who adopted Saroo told him, “We wanted the two of you (Saroo and his brother who was also adopted). That’s what we wanted. We wanted the two of you in our lives. That’s what we chose.”  We know God feels the same way. By dying on the cross for our sins, Jesus Christ proves that He wants us in His life.

We are the children God wanted, the children God always wanted, the chosen objects of His love and His sacrifice. And nothing will ever separate us from that love.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
  2. Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience or with the experience of others in a similar situation?

When The Impossible Is You

“For you who wonder if you’ve played too long to change, take courage from Jacob’s legacy. No man is too bad for God. To transform a riverboat gambler into a man of faith would be no easy task. But for God, it was all in a night’s work.”- Max Lucado

One of Hitler’s bodyguards was a man named Kurt Wagner. He adored Hitler, almost deifying him. At the end of the war, with Hitler dead in a Berlin bunker, Kurt’s faith was shattered and he planned a suicide. Going for a final cup of coffee, he picked up a discarded Gospel tract and read it—first carelessly and then with interest. As a result of reading this Gospel tract, he sought out someone who could talk to him about God. He found a pastor who led him to Christ. Kurt was transformed from a hardened man into a peace-loving man, and he became a new creation in Christ. Kurt became the pastor of two Methodist churches in the suburbs of Frankfurt. 

Have you ever felt like you put yourself in an impossible place? Have you ever felt that you have gone too far and done too much to be released from this impossible place.  While it can seem that way sometimes, we just need to remember who God is.  Impossibilities are the platforms upon which God does His best work. Have faith. With man it may be impossible. But with God, all things are possible. George Muller, an 18th century Christian evangelist said, “Faith does not operate in the realm of the possible. There is no glory for God in that which is humanly possible. Faith begins where man’s power ends.” We need to raise our view of Him and realize that He is able to do the impossible. He loves the impossible place in our lives, because it is here that He will show His power and love.

The book of Daniel has its fair share of impossible situations. One example is Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego and the fiery furnace. The three men could have bowed to temporarily satisfy the king. They could have bowed and thought “Yes, we are bowing, but God knows what is in our hearts.” But what about the next impossible situation? And the one after that? Impossible situations will always require more than you can give. So Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego made no excuses and stood strong, refusing to bow down to any god other than the one true God. 

You may be facing a seemingly impossible situation of your own doing. It does not have to be a golden image made by a king. It could be your career, a relationship, an addiction. And when we place ourselves in impossible situations, we work harder to get ourselves out of those situations rather than realizing that our God is able.  We need to have the courage to say what Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego said in their struggle: I know God can do it, I know that He is able and for that reason I honor Him even as I look into this fiery furnace. But if for some reason He does not do what I know He can, I will still worship Him, because my praise goes far beyond what God can do, it’s all about who He is.

You can overcome what you face. God is right beside you, and He wants to do something extraordinary in your future. We just need to remember that with God, anything is possible.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Does it ever seem that what is impossible in your life is you?
  2. What can we do this week to put God in charge of the impossible in our lives?

Impossible Boldness

“Come and talk with Me, O my people.” — Psalm 27:8 (TLB)

What? Are you sure? You know you are asking the impossible, don’t you?

Any one time in your life, you will be asked to do the impossible. So what do you do when you are faced with an impossible situation. When the word ”impossible” creeps into the conversation, most people relate to the situation as being contrary to reason and unattainable. We don’t need to spend much time on words like unworkable, impractical, unachievable when it comes to an assignment or project.  We relegate it to the back burner and move on. But what if we can’t simply move on? Then what?

Next time you are faced with a seemingly impossible situation, reflect a few moments on what makes it impossible. What typically makes it impossible is you. You have probably over-analyzed, critiqued, or belittled your ability to do the impossible all the while crowding out the unimaginable power of God. Because we don’t see any purpose in trying to do the impossible we never give God the opportunity to show His ability to do the impossible. Like Daniel, a good start when faced with the impossible is prayer.   

Prayer is our direct line with heaven. God wants us to communicate with Him, like a person-to-person phone call. God wants us to pray because prayer expresses our trust in God and is a means to increase our trust in Him. And God wants us to pray boldly. Praying for the vague or undefined is a kind of window shopping without knowing what we actually want to buy. It is easy to pray in generalities, using a shotgun approach to present God with several requests. When we pray vaguely we don’t give God the chance to really answer our prayers in a powerful way.  I heard somebody say that, “bold prayers honor God, God honors bold prayers.”

Would asking God for the impossible be a bold prayer? My answer would be yes. But I also have learned that we tend to dream small because we don’t want to ask God for too much. But the crazy thing is, God is not offended by our bold prayers. God is honored when we ask for something that is beyond our ability to accomplish. Why? Because there is no way we can take credit for it.

I challenge you to pray when faced with the impossible. Don’t be afraid to pray big and bold prayers, they honor God. And then when God answers, give Him all the glory. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes a prayer bold? Have you ever prayed a bold prayer? What was it?
  2. What can we do this week to be more bold in our prayer life?

Strange Dreams

“When Arioch, the commander of the king’s guard, came to kill them, Daniel handled the situation with wisdom and discretion. He asked Arioch, “Why has the king issued such a harsh decree?” So Arioch told him all that had happened. Daniel went at once to see the king and requested more time to tell the king what the dream meant.” – Daniel 2: 14-16.

The book of Daniel is designed to help the people of God living in a world that’s in opposition to them. The book of Daniel talks about perseverance. It gives us an example of living in a culture that is different from our own, a culture that holds values radically different from our own. Daniel is also a book about dreams.   

In chapter 2 Nebuchadnezzar had puzzling dreams that awakened him from his sleep (Daniel 2:1). At least one of them was so disturbing that the king called for his advisers to tell him his dream and to interpret it. If they didn’t do so, the king told them that they would be killed (verses 2-5). The king’s wise men—his magicians, astrologers and sorcerers—simply had no idea of the dream or its meaning. They told the king, “It is a difficult thing that the king requests, and there is no other who can tell it to the king except the gods, whose dwelling is not with flesh” (verse 11). In anger, the king gave the command to begin killing his wise men—including Daniel and his three friends, known by the Babylonian names Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego.

Nebuchadnezzar is a man who is restless and has no peace, Daniel is a man who is confident because he has found peace. Daniel is not self-confident. Daniel is confident in God. For in verses 14 through 30, we see the example of a grace-transformed life in the person of Daniel. It is amazing the calm with which he receives the news of his death sentence. The king has ordered that all the wise men be killed. What is the urgency with this command? Daniel seems in complete control throughout and he manifests the confidence of a heart that knows the peace of God.

Notice also the contrast between Daniel and the wise men. Daniel has a place to go for solutions to what seems an impossible problem. The wise men and the magicians of Nebuchadnezzarhave no place to go for their answer. They could not find their answer within. But Daniel has the Lord God of heaven and so do we.

Daniel demonstrates the confidence of a heart that knows the peace of God. In facing the impossible, even the improbable, do you have that kind of confidence? Do you have that kind of peace with God?

Discussion Questions:

  1. How would you have dealt with Nebuchadnezzar’s unreasonable demand? What can we learn from Daniel’s approach?
  2. What important message can we take away from this story?

Don’t Push The Panic Button

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you. Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10.

Ever feel trapped?  Like you can’t turn in one direction because it will be worse than where you are now. In fact, nor matter which way you turn, there is no escape. Time to reach for the panic button.

The Israelites often found themselves trapped in biblical times. Take the story of Moses and the people of Israel after being slaves in Egypt for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). We all know the story of Moses, the plagues and the hard heart of Pharaoh. It most have been a happy time when the Israelites left Egypt and captivity.  But that happiness was short lived, because soon after they left, Pharaoh’s army started chasing them with chariots and foot soldiers. They couldn’t go back and they couldn’t go forward unless they walked into the Red Sea. They seemed trapped and they started to panic.  “As Pharaoh approached, the people of Israel looked up and panicked when they saw the Egyptians overtaking them. They cried out to the Lord, and they said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Weren’t there enough graves for us in Egypt? What have you done to us? Why did you make us leave Egypt? Didn’t we tell you this would happen while we were still in Egypt? We said, ‘Leave us alone! Let us be slaves to the Egyptians. It’s better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness’” (Exodus 14:10-12)

These people who had just witnessed all the mighty plagues (blood, frogs, locust, darkness, etc) now reverted to normal human reactions of panic, complaining and fear. Couple that with the passage of scripture from Deuteronomy 4:32-34: “Now search all of history, from the time God created people on the earth until now, and search from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything as great as this ever been seen or heard before? Has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking from fire—as you did—and survived? Has any other god dared to take a nation for himself out of another nation by means of trials, miraculous signs, wonders, war, a strong hand, a powerful arm, and terrifying acts? Yet that is what the Lord your God did for you in Egypt, right before your eyes.”

Before we judge the Israelites too harshly, we need to examine our own lives. We are no strangers to panic. I wonder if God sometimes looks down on us navigating through life, getting worked up into a full blown panic over minor things and shakes His head. God is faithful. So no matter what happens or the seemingly impossible things you are asked to do, He is always there. He is right there in the middle of your crazy life, He is walking ahead of you, miraculously present there in your need, leading and guiding you.

Imagine if you only took a step after you were sure God had stepped out ahead of you? What if you really believed that nothing is impossible with God and you need to trust Him.   

Discussion Questions:

  1. What makes you panic? Why?
  2. How would life be different if you didn’t take a step until God had stepped ahead of you?