Wide Open Doors

The thing that has hindered the progress of the church is not so much our talk and our creeds; but it has been our walk, our conduct, our daily living. We need a revival of Christian example, and that can only come when professed followers of Christ begin to practice Christian discipline.” – Billy Graham.

You don’t hear it as much these days, but years ago, you heard it pretty often: “Don’t forget where you came from.” And if it was from a parent, they probably said it with some emphasis. And if you worked in a business with a long history, you probably heard “ don’t forget our history and our culture…don’t forget where we came from.”  We’ve seen tremendous changes and tremendous growth since we started Northstar some 20 years ago. One of the reasons we’ve grown is we’ve tried not to forget where the church came from.

God’s Church started as a radical, spiritually intimate gathering of believers that ultimately changed history. There were no observers or spectators. There were no people that walked away from the church when things were not going well. The early church was full of people who would risk anything and sacrifice everything to be the dynamic, world-changing church of Jesus Christ.

 In his letters to the first century church, the Apostle Paul commended each for excelling in the graces of God. Specifically, these first century churches were known for their faith, love, zeal, giving, knowledge, and intolerance for sin. The first century churc was a conduit for the power of God. The gospel spread like wildfire, at tremendous cost to the early followers of Christ. The first century church was beset with persecution, torture, and martyrdom. In spite of this, Christian churches were being established throughout the Mediterranean region, Asia Minor, and into Europe. 

The early church was devoted together to God, to one another and to all.  They were devoted together to the teaching of the apostles and first-century the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  They were devoted together to the needs of each other and first-centuryothers. They were engaged. They were all in. 

But God has created us for a great purpose. He has created us to be a kind of co-worker, a partner, somebody who will be here on earth to execute His plan. When a person is committed to God, they also become committed to the things of God. This does not mean that if a person is committed to a church, they are automatically committed to God, but the other way around is true.

If you appreciate God, and want to help make a great difference for His kingdom, decide to have a committed relationship with Him and then serve in the local church.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What is the major difference between the Acts 2 church and the church of today? 
  2. What are some different ways that you can take growth steps in your relationship with Jesus Christ and the church?   

Keep the Faith

“Faith is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted in spite of your changing moods.”  – C.S. Lewis. 

On a November night in 1873, a ship was struck by another and sunk within minutes. Some 232 people perished in that disaster. Among the dead were the four young daughters of Chicago lawyer Horatio Spafford. The crew managed to rescue a few fortunate souls, including a young woman draped over some floating wreckage, alive, but unconscious. When the crew finally succeeded in reviving her – Horatio Spafford’s wife, Anna – she cried out for her children–four girls, one just a baby, torn violently from her arms by the roiling sea.  Once ashore, Anna Spafford sent her husband a brief but poignant telegraph: “Saved alone.” It is a story that has been used over the years to illustrate a strong faith in God during difficult times.

There are many examples of such faith in the Bible. One of them is the Roman Centurion. The Roman Centurion had a servant that was gravely ill. Jesus is asked to heal the slave. “The servant is beloved. “ …they pleaded with Him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue.” (Luke 7:4-5 ) Jesus agrees and states that He will come to the Centurion’s home. 

Luke 7: 6-8 says, “When he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. Therefore I did not presume to come to you. But say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I too am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” Basically, he is saying that he is not worthy of the visit and Jesus has the capacity to heal the servant by His command. Jesus marvels at the faith of the Gentile Centurion and grants his request. The Centurion recognizes Jesus’ power and authority; he sees Jesus for who He is. The question is do we have the faith to see Jesus as who He is? 

My prayer this Easter season is that we will see Jesus more clearly. We will know Him more intimately. Sometimes this can make us nervous. We begin to wonder, “Do I have enough faith?”  Certainly, we can always improve. But if you look back over the last days, weeks, or even years of your life, you’ll likely see a time when you dared to live as if God is real instead of reacting to what seemed real at the moment. Maybe you followed God’s calling to a church or job when that choice seemed counterintuitive. Maybe you dared to love an unlovable person. Maybe you gave your all to a task that others did not want to do: half-heartedly, if at all. Maybe you stepped out in faith and invited people to church not knowing how they would react. These successes teach and remind you that God gave you the grace to act faithfully then, and He can help you live with deep and vibrant faith today. 

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is your faith built on if and how God answers your prayers or on who He is? 
  2. What steps can you take this week to reflect on who God is rather than what He does?

Grief and Grace

“He heals the brokenhearted and bandages their wounds.” – Psalm 147:3.  

There are many things in this world to celebrate, but there are also moments that cause us to pause and ask, “is this pain and grief really necessary Lord?”  One way or another, grief will take up temporary residence in our lives: A relationship gone awry. Abuse. Financial troubles. But none compare to losing a child. Horatio Spafford, the writer of It Is Well With My Soul lost five children. Five. Can you imagine?  There are people in our church that have experienced losing a child. One of them talks about the experience of losing a child. 

“I was born and raised in the church by strong Christian parents. So you would think that someone who has been a believer for as long as I have would never lose sight of the realness of God’s love and grace for us. Yet the tragedy of losing a child made me struggle to think straight, and the lies that Satan was feeding me made it worse. But it is times like this where you learn the value of the church body and small groups. People rallied around me and helped me to remember to cling to God and rest in the assurance of His love and grace.”

“The Bible was a source of hope. ‘Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? …No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.’ (Romans 8:35,37)”  

“It seems counterintuitive, but grief and grace co-mingle pretty well together. The impatience, anger and variety of struggles I faced dealing with the loss of a child did not cause God to throw up His hands and say, ‘I’m done with Him. Where is his faith?’  I imagine God saw me as His son who had lost a child, and said, ‘I love him.  I will not run out of grace for Him. Psalm 94:18-19 reminds us, ‘I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer.’”

This is speculation, but I think Horatio Spafford, like the person who lost a child in our church, found that the journey towards re-grounding himself in God’s grace was truly incredible. The lyrics in the song seem to indicate  that God’s grace encouraged him. It gave him reason to put pen to paper and provided healing for his grief. The reality is that God’s grace is there for each one of us, no matter what we are grieving about.  “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV)

In the midst of grief, it is critical for us to remember that God does not sit aloof in Heaven. He does not leave us to figure out how to handle grief on our own or how to cast about for resources to get through it. He walks every step of the journey with us.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How can you tell your grief is affecting you more than you thought it was? 
  2. Have other people suggested that you need “to get on it” and move on? Is this good advice? What do you need to say to them when they tell you this? 
  3. What does it mean to lean into God in your grief? How do we effectively do that?  

No Pain. No Gain.

“Jesus lost all his glory so that we could be clothed in it. He was shut out so we could get access. He was bound, nailed, so that we could be free. He was cast out so we could approach. And Jesus took away the only kind of suffering that can really destroy you: that is being cast away from God. He took that so that now all suffering that comes into your life will only make you great. A lump of coal under pressure becomes a diamond. And the suffering of a person in Christ only turns you into somebody gorgeous.” –  C.S. Lewis. 

J. Oswald Saunders said. “We are at this moment as close to God as we really choose to be. True, there are times when we would like to know a deeper intimacy, but when it comes to the point, we are not prepared to pay the price involved.” There is a price to pay for following Jesus. Sometimes that price is pain and trials in our lives. There is no way to escape that fact. 

The Bible is full of stories that illustrate that fact. There are numerous stories of people going through trials and how those experiences drew them closer to God. God could have kept Joseph out of jail, kept Daniel out of the lion’s den, kept Paul from being shipwrecked, and kept the three Hebrew young men from being thrown into the blazing furnace, but He didn’t. He let those problems happen. Not exactly what any of those people had in mind when they decided to follow God. But, each of those people were drawn closer to God as a result.

Trials and problems force us to look to God and depend on Him instead of ourselves. Paul testified to this benefit: “In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead.” (2 Corinthians 1:9). 

Does this mean it is God’s will for me as a Christian to suffer? At first glance, the answer seems simply . . . yes. But, there is more to it than that. God is not letting us suffer aimlessly, randomly, or mindlessly but that you suffer for the purpose of doing good and, more importantly, that you grow from that suffering.  To put it another way: there is always a bigger story encompassing the painful place in which we find ourselves. God is always up to something much bigger. And while we may not focus on or even be aware of the bigger God-story in the midst of our suffering, the God-story is still there.

Nothing testifies to the deep, authentic reality of God’s presence in the life of a believer like watching that believer keep their eyes on Jesus while enduring trials in this life; it is perhaps the greatest testimony for the Christian faith some people will ever see.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How can we see the benefits of pain in our lives?  
  2. Is it possible to be a better witness through trials of this life? 

Souled Out

“And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?”  – Matthew 16:26

In our culture, we place the greatest value on that which, for the most part, has no lasting value. Imagine that a giant scale has all the stuff you already have or are trying to gain. Tipping the scale would be all the possessions and activities you typically view as benefits: houses, cars, boats, vacations, swimming pools, stock portfolios, college degrees, electronics, and all those gymnastics lessons. On the other side of the balance is simply…your soul.

It would seem obvious that the side with all the stuff would weigh down the balance, right? Wrong. In God’s measuring system, stuff always loses to your soul. Yet, when was the last time you stopped long enough to even consider your soul? How goes it with your soul? What kind of answer would you like to have for that question? 

Your soul–that invisible and eternal part of you–is the part that connects you with God. Your soul is the real you. Jesus wanted us to understand that our souls are the most important part of who we are… our most valuable “possession.” That’s why Jesus asked, “Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Mark 8:37) This is why we need to value, feed and care for them.  

Valuing, feeding, and caring for the soul is a whole lot easier when things are going well; but more difficult when storms are overhead and God’s presence and peace seem currently available. So not only are we dealing with the circumstances of the story, but what seems to be the confusing silence of God as well. But God is never far away and we can always connect with Him. 

When we connect with God, we not only access the power and guidance we need for each day, we also invest in our eternity–our real home and final location, the place where the risen Christ is preparing for us to join Him. Connecting with God is also another way to prepare us for the time when we will be entrusted with “many things” for all eternity. By regular connection with God, we feed our souls–and at the same time, we store spiritual capital that will last forever.

Discussion Questions: 

1. How does your life reflect the truth that “your soul is your most valuable possession”?

2. What actions are you willing to take today in order to feed and care for your soul?

It Is Well With My Soul

“When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll. Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say. It is well, it is well, with my soul” – Lyrics to It Is Well With My Soul. 

Most people have trials in their life. They can be small, or large. Hymns often provide a sense of peace and encouragement to those grieving. “It Is Well With My Soul” certainly does. The second stanza sums it up: “Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blest assurance control, That Christ has regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.” The story behind the hymn is hard to believe and harder to accept. 

Horatio Spafford and his wife Anna were active in their church. They counted evangelist, Dwight L. Moody, among their friends. They were blest with five children, and considerable wealth. Horatio was a lawyer, and owned a great deal of property in Chicago. In 1871, the great Chicago fire destroyed all his downtown investment properties. But the tragedy surrounding the hymn didn’t end there. Horatio and Anna returned to Chicago and gave birth to Horatio Spafford who would die at three years old of scarlet fever.

In 1873, he and his family planned a vacation trip to Europe. While in Great Britain, he planned to help his good friend Dwight L. Moody and Ira Sankey, whom he had financially supported, with their evangelistic tour. Spafford sent his wife and four girls—ages 11, 9, 7 and 2—ahead while he finished up last-minute business in Chicago. Their ship struck another ship and sank within twelve minutes. Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband “Saved alone.”  

Spafford writes a poem, reportedly, when traveling past the spot where his daughters died, wrote on the back of a telegram, words that have become a hymn of hope for millions facing sorrow. It is so poignant, so healing, so peaceful.

Spafford’s faith did not rise and lower based on his circumstances or the blessings in his life. It was based on the assurance that God is in control and although trials buffeted has life, he knew his soul was secure in Jesus Christ.  Faith like that doesn’t just happen. It results from clinging to God in times of trials and grief.  

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you like best about the song It Is Well With My Soul? Which parts of the song do you especially identify with? Why? 

An Invitation To Eternity

“Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory.” – Colossians 3:1-4. 

I love the church. I grew up in the church. Many of my earliest memories are times spent worshipping with others in church. So for the life of me, I can’t understand why people don’t want to be part of it. Yes, the church has made some mistakes and has given people reasons to stay away. But if only each person would give it another try. Or maybe it would be their first experience attending church, I think they would be surprised. Which got me thinking. 

It prompted the question, why do we go to church? What benefit is there in attending church regularly, for me, for you, for others? The reasons are many, but one certainly rises to the top: there is a real place that has been created by God and prepared by Jesus for each of us, if we accept His invitation. An extraordinary place of astounding wonder. Greater than we can fully understand or imagine. A place called Heaven, where believers will spend eternity with God.

The word eternity, because it’s one of those words that captures the imagination. The mystery and power of the word haunts the mind. But it is not some abstract idea that is something I will worry about in the future. We don’t want to step into eternity until we are right with God. That is why the Easter services are so important. Attending that one service can shape their view of Christianity and their vision of the future. More than that it can give them eternal hope. 

Easter is a time where people are looking to try out a new church or returning to church after a hiatus. Research shows that when the holidays roll around, there’s an increase in searches online for churches, and this is especially true at Easter. In fact, the highest share of searches for “church” is on the week of Easter Sunday. This helps prove the great opportunity that Easter provides as an entry point into our church. Inviting someone to church can change where they spend eternity. 

Take some special time out each morning this week to partner with the Holy Spirit and pray for one person you would like to invite. Then make it your mission to invite that person. It could be an invitation to an eternity with the risen Savior. 

Imagine the day when a friend, or relative, or coworker, or neighbor is worshiping God with their hands in the air as they stand next to you. Can you see their face as they worship the one who saved them, gave them peace, joy, purpose and new life? That picture can be a reality, but it starts with a relationship and an invitation. Will you be the one God uses to take a stand?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Make a list of people you want to invite to church on Easter. Do you have a relationship with that individual(s)? Have you prayed for that individual(s)?
  2. Pray and ask God for the wisdom to invest in the lives of others in a way that draws them to Him.

Weathering The Storms Of Life

“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation,  and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.” – 1 Peter 1:3-4 

Hurricanes are a regular occurrence in Florida. But Hurricane Michael was more personal because of seeing first hand the devastation it caused to so many friends and loved ones. The reminders of Hurricane Michael are all around me in the form of buildings and homes that are so severely damaged that they cannot currently be occupied. Many more have been bulldozed because of wind, tree and water damage. Some six months later many people are taking on the long-term effort to rebuild battered lives and return to norrmalcy. 

I have always thought of hurricanes as something mankind could certainly do without. But the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says Tropical cyclones, even those as complex and destructive as Hurricane Michael, are the product of nature’s balance at work. No one wants them, but the reality is this: They’re completely natural and essential. NOAA says hurricanes, including weaker systems, help to regulate global temperatures and keep Earth as hospitable as possible. Hurricanes are also indirectly responsible for much of the rainfall in North and South America. Good really can come from bad.

The storms of life are much the same. Trials, pain, difficult circumstances, and hard times are all part of life. Things happen that are beyond our understanding and out of our control. If you are like me, I find myself turning to God with the question, “Why?” This is where faith and Heaven come in. 

We know that the reward in Heaven received by the faithful far outweighs the suffering they must endure to go there. But can we make the same promise to those who are losing their homes and facing years of financial recovery? The answer is yes. The whole tenor of Scripture indicates that God compensates for the present suffering of His people with a better future. Jesus assured those who are persecuted for His sake that “a great reward awaits you in heaven.” (Matthew 5:12)  The stories of Joseph and Daniel and others encourage us to trust today’s pain to God in expectation of His favor tomorrow.

That does not mean that if we suffer in this life we will be rewarded in this life. But what God does not repay in this life, he repays and more in the next: “And now the prize awaits me–the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How does faith change how you think of storms in this life?  
  2. A faith journey often gets worse before it gets better. Agree or disagree? What challenges have you experienced after taking a step of faith?

The Experience Of Heaven

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” – 1 Corinthians 2:9.  

In the opening chapter of Huckleberry Finn, Huckleberry talks about the perils of living with his guardian, Miss Watson. He tells us: Miss Watson would say, “Don’t put your feet up there, Huckleberry;” and “Don’t scrunch up like that, Huckleberry – set up straight.” “Why don’t you try to behave?” Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said I wished I was there. She got mad then, but I didn’t mean no harm. She said it was wicked to say what I said; said she wouldn’t say it for the whole world; she was going to live so as to go to the good place. She went on and told me all about the good place. She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there, and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.

Poor Huckleberry didn’t really understand about Heaven or hell, and dear Miss Watson wasn’t helping any. Even today there are a lot of misconceptions about Heaven out there. Some people we will be angels sitting on a cloud playing harps. Others think Heaven will be like a long, boring church service. But Heaven will be far from boring. It will be full of action and activity. Heaven is not just eternal life. It is eternal living. Think of your very best days here on earth, the ones you wish could go on and on forever. Heaven will be like that multiplied exponentially. You will live and breathe and worship and work and fellowship and enjoy all the good things of God’s new Heaven and new earth in your new resurrected body which will be specially designed to take advantage of all that the new Heaven and earth has to offer. 

Don’t forget, however, that one of the most important things the Bible tells us about Heaven is that it is far greater and more wonderful than anything we can possibly imagine. Don’t make the mistake either of thinking Heaven is boring. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Bible says God will have work for us to do—although we won’t grow bored or weary like we do in this life. It tells us that we will “stand in front of God’s throne and serve him day and night in his Temple…” (Revelation 7:15).

The greatest truth about Heaven, however, is that we will be with God and with Jesus forever. What experience can be better than that?  

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What do you think the experience of Heaven will be like?  
  2. What can we do this week to prepare ourselves for eternity while we are on earth? 

What is Heaven?

” … He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’” Revelation 21:4-5a (NASB)

There are some awe-inspiring and ridiculously beautiful places on earth: Waterfalls in Iceland, glaciers in Chile and the Amazon rain forest in Brazil are examples. People who have been there can describe it to the point where we are able to picture the details, the landscape, and the architecture as though they are actually there. Add to that the fact that today’s cameras take such vivid pictures that you can almost reach out and touch what is in the photo. I’ve never been to Heaven, so it’s difficult to picture exactly what it’s like or even begin to comprehend its splendor. Fortunately the Bible gives us looks into the place where those who have received Jesus Christ as their personal Savior will spend eternity. The Bible gives us a glimpse of Heaven, enough to thrill the soul.

For example Heaven is a huge place. Revelation 21:16 “When he measured it, he found it was a square, as wide as it was long. In fact, its length and width and height were each 1,400 miles.” Let that sink in. A metropolis of this size in the middle of the United States would stretch from Canada to Mexico and from the Appalachian Mountains to the California border. We don’t need to worry that Heaven will be crowded. The ground level of the city will be nearly two million square miles. But remember, that’s just the ground level.

And since the city is as long as it is high, and if the city consisted of different levels (we don’t know this), of say twelve feet high, the city could have over 600,000 stories. If they were on different levels, there is plenty of room for billions of “rooms” (John 14:2 ESV) in Heaven, with many square miles per person. (Math was not my best subject so these numbers could be off, but you get the idea).

Not only is Heaven a huge place, but a happy, joyous place as well. Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” No more aggravation, backache, bitterness, broken bones, broken homes, cancer, funerals, crime, car wrecks, disappointments, high blood pressure, kidney stones, or toothaches to name a few.  

Heaven is an extraordinary place of astounding wonder. Greater than we can fully understand or imagine. It is the home of the Lord of Lords and King of Kings; the home He delights in sharing with us.

To spend eternity in any other place than Heaven is the one goal we should keep in front of us in every decision and every situation life should bring our way, big or small. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. How do you picture Heaven? 
  2. How does the idea of Heaven affect how we live our lives?