Empty seats. 

I started crying today in church. Not during a song. Not during a sermon. But a video. In fact I write this as I sit in the back of the auditorium of the middle school my church is renting out. I started to get teary- eyed watching the video about our new building….our dream coming true.  I’ve only been going to my church here in TN for a year now. I’ve only been around these people for a year. But in a year I have seen something that is rare and authentic and true. 

Lives changed. 

Currently we are in a school because we simply could not fit in our building anymore. So many new families, couples, kids, singles, soldiers, and more. So many people who have been coming to this church not because it has good music (it does), not because it has a funny preacher with great sermons (it does), not because it has a community (it does). People have been coming here because Jesus has changed their lives through this church. 

It’s not a life-change forced by rules and doctrine. It’s not a life-change because you need to live a certain way. It’s life-change that has been brought on because people have found truth, life, redemption, restoration, and freedom in Jesus- his love and forgiveness. 

So why was I getting a bit emotional? As the video aired this morning showing a glimpse of the new sanctuary and the many more chairs, tears came to my eyes. Think of the people…the people that can come to know who Jesus is because we as a church are making room for them. Think of the people who might find freedom from addiction, help in their marriages, wholeness in healing, family in their loneliness, community in isolation, identity in their confusion. Jesus loves every single one of us so much that he died for you and for me. He died to bring forgiveness and restoration to anything could face. Your past doesn’t define you and your mistakes don’t disqualify you. Jesus loves you! Jesus loves the people who will fill those yet-to-be-built empty chairs. Jesus loves the struggling single, the suicidal soldier, the crumbling marriage of the couple who feels hopeless, the awkward and adorable children, the stripper from the local club, the police officer, the teacher, the homeless, the transgender, the gay, and the whoever else might find theirself in those seats. 

Those empty chairs, the dream coming to fruition, is God’s heart. Not to be a bigger church or have a larger building. Not to have a name or nortoriety. Not to have it all. But to be a place of small and humble beginnings that God used to bring people in wholeness, fullness, healing and hope in Jesus Christ. A place that reaches a city and an Army post because every single person in this city and on that post matter. Those empty seats aren’t an expense, they’re an opportunity for someone to have their life changed because of Jesus’ love. 

“Your past doesn’t define you and your mistakes don’t disqualify you”- Kelly F. 

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Pierce the darkness with light.

 

For a moment, or rather just a few moments, the world seemed to care about the moon and story it had to tell. In case you weren’t aware, this past Sunday was the super moon lunar eclipse. It was nicknamed “blood moon” as well, as it was allegedly a prophecy for the end times (I don’t buy that part of the story). Whether you’re a sciency sort of person, a religious person awaiting the coming of Christ in the appearance of the blood moon, or someone who just wanted to see what the fuss was about, a lot of the world, waited and watched the lunar eclipse. Here are a few of my pictures from the night…I missed a few phases of the eclipse, I missed most of the red reflections of light (hence the nickname of “blood moon”). Clouds were in the way. We’ve had rain off and on and I just didn’t think I would get to see any of the eclipse. Actually, I was disappointed because I love astronomy- constellations and the incredible depth of mystery around it all. Staring into the night sky is easily among my favorite things to do pretty much ever. After checking outside to see the moon, I decided to grab my camera, you know, just in case.

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The clouds blocked a lot of the moon. Even when I checked on the phases of it, often it was hindered by clouds and was pretty much a moon like any other night. Or at least, it wasn’t anything worth fussing about.

 

But I continued to watch it sporadically and see if anything changed.
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Still….so many clouds. I tried to capture the ending of the eclipse as best as I could. Between the clouds and my amateur photographer skills, it wasn’t the best shot. It was still so incredible to experience. I mean think about it, the world almost collectively watched the moon and regardless of location, the moon was present. It doesn’t mean that clouds, storms, buildings, or something else hindered its presence. The visibility was just blocked.  Not only were so many people watching the moon, people were going at it on social media posting pictures. If I may be honest for a minute…I get so sick of poor quality pictures. I know I am not professional photographer, but I know enough technique and have enough skill to spot good pictures or, in many cases of social media, bad or outright terrible ones. But nothing bothers me more than people posting either their own or someone else’s poorly or obviously photoshopped picture and claiming it to be either a masterpiece or declaration of truth. Its a fraud. I am all for using editing software and even photoshop, but please, for all that is good and beautiful, stop with the terrible photoshops being passed as fact. I saw people posting pictures of a bright red moon sitting on the horizon of the Mount of Olives essentially peering over the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem. Not only was the moon placement incorrect, the size and color were both terribly wrong, and quite obvious. But then there were other, less obvious, frauds that had so many people believing its validity. And though many were deceived by these frauds, we still will declare to the world, that we don’t like fake…

After my attempt of catching the eclipse mostly failed, I went inside my townhouse to read and watch some Netflix. I like evenings because I like the quiet and reflective nature of them. So after some binge watching, junk food, and Facebook, I unplugged a bit. At this point it was about 2 in the morning. Silence. Part of why I love the silence of the night is because I like to go outside on a porch, balcony, in a backyard, or wherever I am, and pray, reflect, then listen for what God has to say. When I stepped outside, I was taken aback for a moment. I thought there were new street lights or something because it was so unusually bright. I quickly realized something: I got to see the finale of something incredibly beautiful while the world slept (or in reality the Western Hemisphere). The moon was brighter than I had ever seen. It was big and bold and perfect. The clouds were gone. The sky was clear. And it was lovely.

I stood at the backside of my apartment building and fence just smiling in awe of such beauty. The darkness was gone. The night lit up like it was the day. And then something came to my mind, I believe, a whisper from God.

Pierce the darkness with light.

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Our world is filled with so much filth. Distraction. Hate. Evil. So much darkness engulfs this world. Just like the earlier part of my evening and watching of the eclipse. The clouds got in the way of the beauty and perfection. You see, when we allow for things to pollute us and fill us with filth, we aren’t in the light. We all have sin, innate darkness, within us. It is the very reason why our world is full of evil. Its why there is brokenness and pain. But with Jesus, light has come. I know this may make me sound like a crazy person, but that’s honestly fine by me. Jesus died to bring life. He died to redeem. He died and rose again for each of us.  As Christians, Jesus needs to be the most important thing in our lives. He must be the light within us, but it must also break forth from us. What good is it if the light in us remains hidden from the rest of the world stuck in darkness? What good is it if we have been forgiven much and redeemed, yet aren’t telling others about it? Remember when I was talking about the bad photoshops? Yeah…nobody likes a fake, and if you’re a fake Christian- a hypocrite- people will eventually catch on.  Some might buy it, but eventually frauds are uncovered and exposed. If Jesus is the light of the world, if he is “the way the truth and the life”, why are we not excited to live that out and let the world catch at least a glimpse of that light? What good is grace and mercy in our lives when we aren’t living differently or offering it to others? If we, Christians…if we, the Church, stepped up and lived as we say we believe, and let Jesus not only change us, but light up the world around us, this world would and could look very very differently. Pierce the darkness around you with the light of Jesus Christ.

 

A message signed in BLOOD to the nation of the cross…

Kidnapped. Beaten. Bruised. Broken. Carried to the shores after one to two months of captivity. Along the shoreline, marched like sheep to the slaughter. Wet, soft sand under feet. Trembling lips, quickening of hearts. Raw skin and flesh rubbed by rope on wrists. Cold metal of sword to neck. Orange jump suits and black masks. An image of such collision of good and evil…

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A message directed to the church of the 21 coptic Christians of Egypt taken prisoner in Libya by ISIS/ISIL. I nearly threw up tonight as I went on Google to pull up some more information of these atrocities. I saw, without intending, an image of one of the 21 beheaded men- Christians- who refused to recant and deny Jesus Christ. His head laid on his lifeless body. Their blood spilled out on the sand and coloring the water.

LET’S GET ONE THING VERY CLEAR:

The 21 men who died brutally and viciously on those shores were not men who devalued their lives. They were, in fact, men who recognized the value of the eternal life they had attained through Jesus Christ, a recognition so great that they knew they loved Him more than their own lives.  “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.” (Revelation 12:11) They knew that their lives had value because the God- the creator of everything- said so in the beginning. They knew that God loved us so much- despite our flaws, our failures, our imperfections, our evil- that he would send Jesus Christ to stand in our place for our wrongdoing. They understood that Jesus’ blood held much power that even the sword, the machete, the bullet, the knife couldn’t stop it from victory.

….the Blood sacrificed by Jesus Christ holds more power than blood shed by any man regardless of weapon. Though I’m not Egyptian, I am a Christian and you better believe that I hold firmly that the cross holds more power than sword, gun, or any other tactics. Whether in this life or eternity, Jesus will be honored by the sacrifice of those Christians who refused to recant the one True God. Those Christians lost their lives in such an evil, violent way. It saddens me to know that people chose to watch the video, look up pictures, and think that it doesn’t matter.

THIS DOES MATTER. This has to matter to you. It has to matter to me. This matters because people are being murdered. This matters because people are taking lives. This matters because that blood that soaked the shore was not spilled in vain. Christians, first, let’s stop pretending that this doesn’t affect us elsewhere in the world. These people dying- being martyred for their faith- share in the story of Jesus Christ. They are our brotherhood being killed. Christians, we need to stop being shocked by such evil. If we remain lazy and lethargic in the Bible- the Word God provided for us- we would be aware that He warned us that the Gospel would not be accepted, that people who serve Jesus Christ would be murdered, persecuted, and mistreated. He warned us that people would dislike us for our values, our convictions, and especially our speaking of the Gospel…the truth of salvation.  If we did indeed study the Word, we would know that Jesus Christ wants all people to know His love and redemption- that the Gospel is an inclusive message. We would know that He wants us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Does this make sense to you? Think about it….those 21 men beheaded knew that Jesus loved them, redeemed them and wanted to redeem their oppressors also. My hope is that as the deaths were imminent and near, they were praying for their captors. 

Non-Christians, this matters to you too. Whether you believe in the Jesus and God I serve… this most certainly still matters to you. People are being killed, others are committing the killing. Its a crime against humanity, at minimum. That is why you should care. But I also believe that this story is bigger. Whatever your reason for not believing in Jesus, that is your decision, but understand this: Jesus loves you and because of his great love, his was killed. His blood was poured out on the ground. His flesh was ripped open brutally. His body was beaten and almost broken. He was unrecognizable. Then he was brutally nailed to a cross. That cross represents to this day this one man standing in the gap for you and I, taking on the the punishment that is rightfully ours. We are imperfect, and at our core, have evil and sin. Without Christ, without his love and salvation from our evil and sin, we are no better than he who held the swords of those men on the beach. We are no more saved than them. It is only through the grace and mercy that is offered through Jesus that allows for us to have a clean slate and life in eternity with Him forever. It is only in Him that we may have hope in the midst of such trial, evil, and suffering. It is only in Him that even when the sword be on neck, we can stand tall knowing that no matter what would happen, we are His and will remain with an eternal life with Him.

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So, as ISIS said in their video, “a message signed in blood to the nation of the cross”. The blood that saved me, the blood that poured out, the blood that came from Jesus Christ is the most powerful blood their is or ever could be. His blood can heal. His blood redeems. His blood is the very thing that makes someone whole again, even if they die. The nation of the cross….I’ll take that, not as a warning, but a compliment for the men who died. They were recognized for bearing the image and imitation of Jesus Christ so much that these terrorists felt threatened and, dare I say, afraid of what that image and power could hold. Those men who were killed gave the greatest sacrifice any of us could ever give…life for that of Jesus Christ.

 

The blood of the Cross is everything. That is the power “the nation of the cross” holds.

For the One.

“As a prisoner”…I find myself intrigued, convicted, humbled, and moved by this phrase.

Paul, in many of the letters he wrote that can be found in the Bible, started with this phrase in some variation. Last night as I read through the letter [book] of Ephesians, my heart was so deeply moved. He was a prisoner. He was a religious prisoner because of his belief in who Jesus really was: not a story, not a man, but a savior that changes everything.

Paul’s life was completely changed in one encounter with Jesus- the resurrected Jesus- on the road to Damascus. At the time, he was called Saul, he was a Pharisee [Jewish leader], part of the Sanhedrin [Jewish elite], and on his way to imprison and even kill Christians, people that were of both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds, that decided that they believed in the man Jesus, as their savior. His life was changed when he met Jesus and he was the never same. Never.

In his letter to the church found in Ephesus, he urged for the unity of their church. He urged them to keep in focus what was truly important. Not legalism. Not opinion. Not self. But Jesus and how he had changed their lives, individually and collectively. He first reminded them they were redeemed. If they followed and believed in Jesus they were redeemed, forgiven, and new. They were made alive-new- in Jesus. It was for that reason that he challenged their church to be bold and embrace a deeper love for Jesus, one that could not have been questioned or doubted. It could not and would not be something that only ended with loving Jesus; actions had to follow.

This was the challenge.

“I, therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the called to which you have been called, will all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity in the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit- just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each of us….put on a new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness…walk in love….for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of Light…we are members of His body.” [sections of the book of Ephesians]

Paul completely understood the challenge of turning one’s life around. He understood the sacrifice, the difficulty, the cost, and also the joy. He understood that Jesus was worth it. But he also understood that with loving Jesus, his life could no longer look like it did before he had met Jesus- before he committed his life to Him. He knew the church in Ephesus, among the others he wrote to, struggled with this for one simple fact: we are human and completely fallible.

But it is in our humanity that we have a choice. If we have been given the option of something better and greater, why would we miss out on that? Why would we choose anything but that which is better and greater? I continue the challenge that Paul set forth 2,000 years ago, one that I know full well that I need to work on personally. I need to live my life in such a way that it shows the love that Jesus has for me, a love that has changed me, and a love that has freed me. I need to be humble, admit my own wrongdoings, be patient and gentle, especially with those that lack a love of Jesus. I need to work on keeping unity with other believers in Jesus, but also show deep, sincere love for those outside the faith, not because of trying to convert anyone, but because I want the love of Jesus to overflow, so that others, if they choose, might choose His love. Everything I do is for Him because He gave everything for me. He is why I am different. He is why I am no longer bound to my own shame, guilt, fears, sin, and selfishness. He is the very One who forgives me when I mess up, despite trying to love him. I was once living in darkness. My darkness looks different than yours. But I can guarantee, we all have darkness…and we are all offered a chance to be removed from that darkness and brought to life into the Light. Paul understood the concept of darkness to light. Persecutor, possible murderer, a man full of hatred, full redeemed and forgiven brought to restoration through Jesus Christ. He is the One. He is the Only One.

He is Jesus.

Learning through busyness…

If I have learned anything this past year…I have been way too busy.

Let’s rewind.

A year ago, this month, I resigned from my church position at my former church where my parents pastor. A year ago I felt lost looking for what I was made to do. A year ago I was desperate, had a bad attitude, disappointed, frustrated, and an array of other emotions.
A year ago, I was humbled.

You see, when September of last year rolled around, I was without a home church, without a career, I was only a barista, struggling to pay rent and barely able to pay bills. I had no direction. I had no idea what the next few months, or even year would look like. Part of the purpose of me resigning from a secure job was that I was certain I was about to hired at a job in FL, where they ended up hiring within the department, thus not hiring me. Before finding out that I did not get the job officially, I had already put in my resignation at my church. So two weeks after my resignation was in effect, I found out that the University went another direction. I was frustrated, saddened, and honestly mad. I couldn’t understand why God led me to resign from my position and not give me the job I wanted.

Yeah, because we always know best, right?

One of the most humbling experiences for me took place over the course of the 3 months to follow my resignation. I had to move out of my apartment which I loved. I had to move back in with my parents after having lived on my own for a few years. I was applying to jobs seemingly every free moment I had with hopes of, at least, an interview. Nothing. Nada. Zip. By the time December came, I had received nearly 100 job rejection letters, emails, or calls, not counting all the jobs I didn’t hear back from. To make it worse, I got into my first car accident [as the driver] when a 90 year old lady drove into me causing nearly $800 of damage. The crazy thing about the accident is that it happened on my way home from the church I was attending, only an hour or so after I had been convicted about my lack of faith in God’s direction for my life. I admit, my faith was still present, but most certainly was struggling. I finally decided, through conviction of my attitude and faith, that I was not trusting God and I desperately needed to let Him make things happen. That has become my anthem these past 8 or 9 months:

let him make things happen….

Within two weeks of my accident, a friend called me with an offer to work at his church during the transition of leadership. I knew God opened a door, despite my not necessarily wanting to walk through it. But I did anyway, and I have yet to regret that decision. During this whole year thus far, I have helped lead The Warehouse, a place for teens to come out, have community, have tons of fun, while learning about Jesus. Who knew that a prayer prayed long ago (that story is for another time) could be answered in a simple yes to fill in a role at a church. I have preached in services, done Sunday school, helped with events, connected with 50+ students and been able to learn from a youth leadership team unlike any I have ever seen. I have learned, not mastered, working with special needs students and with that my patience has grown exponentially. Aside from living almost an hour away from this church, I love it. The drives to and from church have become, most of the time, a time for prayer and thinking. But with the church and the busyness it added to my already busy schedule, has been a part of something to learn from about myself.
I like being busy. I know myself…If I have nothing to do, I’ll do nothing. So when I could work 40 hours a week as a barista and 20+ hours at the church not to mention side work with non-profit or other ministry commitments, my schedule has been packed. I have lacked a social life. I have (for a long time) lack a dating life. My sleep schedule is so completely thrown off. My workout schedule has become something that has dropped severely on my priority list. I can feel in my body the exhaustion of my life this past year. I can feel it physically, but also emotionally and spiritually. About a month and a half ago, I was told something by a guest pastor that has changed my thinking….I realized something that kind of broke my heart a little. I had become too busy for God and what he was wanting to do. I had allowed the blessing of working at this church become my focus, and not thinking that this church was one facet of my story. One chapter had become the whole. I was told by this pastor “Don’t be too busy that you miss what God is already doing” (paired with specifics on what’s been going on in my life). That felt like a knife to my heart because I knew it was true. I knew he spoke truth, despite not knowing me at all or understanding my situation. But he was completely right. Somewhere along the path this past 8 months, I had allowed my schedule and jobs to dictate my calling and direction for my life, rather than allowing my relationship with God and prayer life dictate and direct my life. I was missing something. I very easily could have missed what God was doing.

So here I am, almost one year from my resigning from my former church, about to embark on the next step of transition: back to square one. This time, my attitude is better. This time, I know that anything that happens, God gets the credit, not me. This time, I know to be true that God has not forgotten my desires or passions nor my talents. I am learning to take a step back and allow myself to rest. I am learning to not be so consumed with a busy schedule that I’m lacking in spending some time in peace and quiet reading the Bible, learning God’s heart for things, praying, and journaling. Heck, I have even written a blog in 3 months (that’d probably explain the length of this blog).

Though this past year has taught me so much, I know that it is not in vain. I can’t change my apathy or laziness physically or spiritually the past few months, but I can change everything now. Yes, I love the church I’ve been at and I genuinely love working at Starbucks. I love the non-profits I’m a part of and I love my young adult group. But there has to be balance, otherwise you’re just filling your life with chaos and noise and appointments, disguising the voice of God in the midst. My challenge to you, as speaking from someone who has been painfully humbled through this year, don’t get yourself so busy that you’re forgetting and missing out on what God is doing. Its not even about what He will do, but what is also doing currently. Don’t let your job, ministry, other commitments, even your family, hinder your time with God. Don’t let anything mess that up, because if you distract yourself from your relationship with God, everything else can and will be affected. Allow for time within your busyness to spend adequate time in prayer and reading the Bible, and listening for what God might be teaching or showing you now. Sometimes, we just need some silence. Sometimes we just need some peace. Sometimes, we just need to, in the midst of chaos, find the one constant that is always and will always be present.

I don’t know what the next part of my story holds, but I know one thing for certain: I want God to make it happen and bring me along.